Zoe Paleologos, The Woman Who Changed Russia

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Above: The Despot Thomas of Morea, Zoe Paleologos’ father

Zoe (Sophia) Paleologos (though there are countless variations of the surname) was Ivan III’s wife, and she is one of the main characters of my new book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel. Her birthday has always been contentious: some say she was born in 1440, others a decade later, and even some as late as 1455. Whatever her age (I put her for argument’s sake in her mid-twenties in 1470 in my novel), she goes down in history as one of the most dynamic and charismatic female leaders ever. Although in no way more powerful and influential as say, Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia, she had a massive impact on Russia in the middle ages and greatly influenced her husband on governmental and diplomatic issues.  Princess Sophia’s marriage to the Grand Duke of Muscovy took place in 1472, one year after the alternate historical events in my book. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, which produced eleven siblings (poor woman!).

Below an image of Emperor Constantine IX, Princess Zoe’s uncle, the last Byzantine Emperor, killed by the Turks at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453

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Princess Zoe in my story, however, is very different to the person of history. Far from Rome in this cold and inhospitable land, where she had been under the watchful eye of Cardinal Bessarion, she comes to Muscovy against her own will with a few servants and Brother Sergei of Pskov, who is there to instruct her in the Russian language and her new-old religion (she had been an Orthodox Christian during her time in Morea, Byzantium, before converting to Catholicism in Rome).

If I go on any more, I know I’ll spoil it for all those who are going to read the book – but let one thing be known: Princess Zoe’s time is in no way pleasurable. We see her drift in and out of doubt about why she is there and what part she is to play as a partner and confidant to the Grand Duke. We also see into her mind about her thoughts of love and affection in marriage. Her ideals on this subject are pure. The Grand Duke’s, meanwhile, a purely dynastic in consideration, which wholly disappoint her. What will come of the relationship? Will they make it up the aisle or not?

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel for 99c/77p, just refer to my previous two posts for links to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, the Apple IBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo plus a few more platforms.

The image below shows Ivan Vasilyevich III looking at a portrait of his future wife, Zoe Paleologos. It was common in the medieval times for kings, princes and other personages of blue-blooded provenance to look at portraits of their future spouses-to-be as an insurance policy of sorts. Zoe, by all accounts, was an overweight and somewhat unattractive woman – I wonder if the Grand Duke really believed  the woman he was looking at in the picture was the same in real life? Talk about being cheated! 

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Novgorod the Great!

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An icon painted in Novgorod in the 1300s of Saint George and the Dragon.

 

I’m just about ready to release my alternate history novel, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, which I have been working on sporadically for the last ten years or so. The story’s set in the city-state of Novgorod, Russia, in the early 1470s. Now, when I say Russia, this is not exactly true – Russia only came into existence in 1547, when Ivan Vasilyevich (The Terrible), was crowned Tsar of all the Russias, becoming Tsar Ivan IV, or Grozny (The Terrible). Before this time, the land was in fact made up of many city-states and principalities, the Republic of Novgorod and Muscovy being two of the most powerful.

My interest in Russia, particularly medieval Rus, circa 1000-1500, has its roots in my childhood. The definitive reasons for it are still a mystery to me, though this passion was solidified when I moved to Poland from the USA in 1998. As a neighbour to Ukraine and Russia, its geographical proximity stoked my interest even more. Polish history is intricately connected to that of Russia (A section of Poland was part of Russia for nearly 150 years, ending only in 1918), even though many Poles despise this. After reading countless books on the subject of medieval eastern Europe – especially the works of British historian Norman Davies – I set out in my own mind to recreate those times in a story. I didn’t fancy writing about something that had already happened and I knew alternate history was a genre that had always piqued my interest. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Tower and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are two books in the genre that I really enjoyed. Now, in no way do I believe my own story will outshine those in literary merit, but if readers think it’s at least half as good as them, I’ll be happy.

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The novel is about Novgorod’s war with Muscovy. In 1471 Muscovy defeated Novogord at the battle of Shelon River, ending the republic’s independence. For centuries before Novogord had been an independent, democratic (if that word can be used) state full of free-thinkers. It was known for its trade and commercial connections with the West, and in particular the Hanseatic League in northern Germany. The Grand Duchy of Muscovy, in contrast, had a barbarian Asiatic mindset. Two-hundred years of Tatar rule had done nothing for it in the way of democracy.

In my version of Russian events, Novgorod defeats Ivan III’s Muscovy and brings about a turn in the history books. Professor Norman Davies once said – and I am quoting him loosely here from his Europe, A History: ‘What if Russia had been led by Novgorod instead of Muscovy, what now would Russia be like? I don’t need to guess what he’s getting at: all Russia’s woes, violent history and suffering are down to Muscovy. Maybe this is not wholly true, though I believe had Novgorod gained hegemony in medieval Rus, the country today would be far less totalitarian in outlook and be more akin to countries like Poland or Hungary, and with no room for a man like Vladimir Putin.

Love, intrigue and war course through the book, so too are the characters: from thieves to battle-hardened warriors, kings, grand dukes, mayoresses, tinkers, philosophers, religious quacks, lotharios, and psychopaths. If you like historical fiction, and fancy learning something about the Russia of more than 600 hundred years ago, maybe you should give Red Corner, An Alternate History, A Novel a go.

I am releasing the book in the next two weeks at an introductory price of 99c/77p till I raise it to its normal price of $4.99 and the UK equivalent.

It will be available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scrib, and the Apple iBookstore as well as other ebook stores in ebook format, and later as a paperback.

Map below shows Rus at the time Red Corner is set.

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