In an endeavor similar to his debut novel, The Kitchen Boy, Alexander couples extensive research and poetic license, this time turning his enthusiasm toward perhaps the most intriguing player in the collapse of the Russian dynasty: Rasputin. This eyebrow-raising account of the final week of the notorious mystic's life is set in Petrograd in December 1916 and narrated by Rasputin's fiery teenage daughter, Maria. The air in the newly renamed capital is thick with dangerous rumors, many concerning Maria's father, whose close relationship with the monarchy-he alone can stop the bleeding of the hemophiliac heir to the throne-invokes murderous rage among members of the royal family. Maria is determined to protect her father's life, but the further she delves into his affairs, the more she wonders: who, exactly, is Rasputin? Is he the holy man whose genuine ability to heal inspires a cult of awed penitents, or the libidinous drunkard who consumes 12 bottles of Madeira in a single night, the unrestrained animal she spies "[eagerly] holding [the] housekeeper by her soft parts"? Does this unruly behavior link him to an outlawed sect that believes sin overcomes sin? The combination of Alexander's research and his rich characterizations produces an engaging historical fiction that offers a Rasputin who is neither beast nor saint, but merely, compellingly human.
FOR MARLY RUSOFF
All dates in the book are Old Style, as the Julian calendar was in use until 1918, when the Gregorian calendar was instituted. The original Russian spellings of proper names have also been maintained. And for purposes of clarification, a chronology of events and a complete glossary are located at the end of the book.
In the beginning of the twentieth century
Russia found itself at a rasputiye,
When all of a sudden there appeared a rasputnik
And Russia became mired in a rasputitsa.
– M. Tarlova
| crossroad | debauched person | season of horribly muddy roads
Believe me, I’d tell you if I knew. But I really have no idea how Rasputin was introduced to the former imperial family, and I will swear to my death that I took no part in it. I’ve heard rumors that he was eager to penetrate the palace, that he did so via dubious means, and that he was assisted by one of the former grand duchesses-I think the one from Montenegro. It seems quite possible, but of all that I have no firsthand knowledge.
No, I didn’t become involved in the plot to murder Rasputin until much, much later.PROLOGUE
It wasn’t clear who had betrayed me.
As I was dragged through the ransacked halls of the Winter Palace, a silent armed soldier on either side, I wondered who had been spying on me, who had leaked word of my return to the capital. How had these two young militants known to come searching for me at our apartment on Goroxhovaya? Who had ordered them to break down my door, chase me through our rooms, and carry me off?
“Let me loose!” I screamed, after they’d caught up with me in the kitchen. “You can’t do this!”
Only one of the soldiers spoke, the tall one, who was at best only a year or two older than me. He waved a signed and stamped piece of paper right before my face and barked the darkest words that could be said in Russia.
“By order of the Thirteenth Section!”
I fell silent, not simply out of fear but because now it was perfectly clear. There was no escaping the all-powerful Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry for the Investigation of Illegal Acts by Ministers and Other Responsible Persons of the Tsarist Regime. Of course I had nothing to do with politics. But I knew very well why I was of interest to the Thirteenth, which had been charged with the gravest of revolutionary duties, “investigating the activity of the Dark Forces.”
Sandwiched between the two guards, I was led through the palace, which was no longer glowing and regal but filthy, littered with broken furniture, muddy carpets, shredded curtains, and torn portraits. I started crying. Where had all this hatred come from? What poison had killed our love of tsar and country and, far worse, of one another? Were the newspapers right? Could one person have ruined so much? Had Papa really been that almighty?
My eyes darted about for hope-a familiar face, a sympathetic smile, an easy escape. Instead I saw only a whirl of chaos, room after room destroyed by a landslide of rage. As I was dragged into a gallery with dark red walls, I gazed up and saw scores upon scores of portraits of war heroes staring down on me. Finally, the soldiers kicked open a pair of regal doors and shoved me into St. George’s Hall, the main throne room of the tsars, including that of our very last, Nikolai II.
But the silver throne no longer sat upon the dais.
Instead it had been smashed, hacked to pieces and thrown aside, and the royal canopy above it ripped away. Likewise, a red velvet panel with the enormous double-headed eagle had been cut from the wall. At that moment I knew, despite the chaos of these days, that this revolution had been a stunning success: There was no going back, not now or even in the decades or centuries to come. The monarchy was gone from Russia forever.
Without slowing, the two young soldiers pulled me through the vast room with its columns of white marble. There at the far end, just to the side of the ravaged dais, sat a man reading something-a report, I assumed. As we approached, he looked up and rose to his feet. He was dressed in military garb, though I couldn’t tell his rank. The closer we came, the more certain I was that I knew this man with the wavy hair, the narrow puffy eyes, the thin lips. But where had I seen him before?
“Matryona Grigorevna Rasputina?” he asked, his eyes all over me like a painter’s.
I could tell he was searching for family resemblances. And of course he found them, he couldn’t miss, for I had my father’s long dark hair and his sharp blue eyes, broad forehead, and small chin. The man before me made no attempt to cloak his shock and revulsion, and under his disapproving eyes I started to shake.
Though I was on the verge of crying again, I tried to hold myself proudly. Here in the capital I was known by a far less provincial name.
“You may call me Maria.”
He dabbed a pen in an inkpot, wrote something down, and then waved the pen like a scepter at the soldiers. “Leave us.”
Their tight grasp on my upper arms had been like tourniquets; now, released, I felt a sudden rush of pleasure. The boy soldiers turned, not in unison, and sauntered away, leaving me with this strange man. He alone couldn’t represent the much-feared Thirteenth Section, could he?
As I watched, he carefully placed the sheaf of papers he’d been reading in a folder. With a bold stroke of his pen, he made a notation on the cover.
“What’s that?” I inquired.
“A report on what?”
“On someone I just interviewed.”
“Are you going to throw them back in prison, or are you-”
“I will ask the questions and you will answer them,” he snapped. “To start, tell me why you’ve returned to the capital.”
Just then I heard a strange noise. Looking toward the dais, I saw a large fancy grate in the wall. Were looters having their way in the next room?
Carefully measuring my words, I said, “I’ve returned to Petrograd to find a friend.”
I wanted to say, Someone I desperately need to see, someone I once loved. But I had to be strong. I dared not let my interrogator see how much I hurt inside, let alone betray the information I was carrying. There was not a doubt in my mind that if the Thirteenth Section knew what I did, I’d be tossed directly into the Peter and Paul Fortress. Perhaps I’d even be shot. It was for these very reasons that my mother back in Siberia had begged me to stay home.
“For whom are you searching?” he demanded.
“A friend who…who has been imprisoned.”
“I see,” he replied, as if he’d already heard that story a hundred times, which I was sure he had. “And do you know why you are here?”
Desperate to move on, I said, “There are many things I don’t understand, especially why two young xhama”-rogues-“would break down my door and drag me from my home.”
That long mouth with the thin lips drew itself into a tight pinch of…amusement? No, of course I wasn’t what he expected.
Containing his humor, he said, “Be seated. My name is Aleksander Aleksandrovich, and I mean to ask you about your father.”
That was all it took, just his first name and patronymic. There was not a girl with any brains in the capital who was not in love with this man. Yes, of course I knew who he was, and my entire body trembled. For years I had cherished his beautiful words as much as his beautiful photograph.
As forcefully as a priest, I chanted:
“To sin shamelessly, endlessly,
To lose count of the nights and days,
And with a head unruly from drunkenness
To pass sideways into the temple of God.”
My would-be interrogator was suddenly blushing. “I wrote that.”
“Of course you did.” It simply sprang from my mouth. “You’re Aleksander Aleksandrovich Blok, and that was my father’s favorite poem. I recited it to him the very night he was killed… In fact, your words were practically the last I spoke to him.”
The color rushed from his face and he turned as pale as snow on a moonlit night. His own heavenly images of sinful Russia had touched the heart of the devil incarnate? His motifs of heartache and remorse were the last blessing the evil one had heard before meeting…death?
I’d never hated a man so much before. Sitting before me was not only Russia ’s most romantic poet in more than a century, not only our greatest gift since Aleksander Pushkin, but the person who’d once been both my savior and my inspiration. When I, a peasant girl from the distant countryside, had landed in the Steblin-Kamensky Institute, a school for daughters of good home and breeding, I was like a reeba bez vodii-a fish without water-lacking in friends, stylish clothing, courtly manners, a fancy home, personal maid, or anything else that a girl of good society took for granted. But I did have this poet’s images and words, and they had helped transform me from a clumsy derevenschina into a worldly young woman.
My voice quivering as if I were hurling hate on a deceitful lover, I gasped, “Why in the name of God did you bring me here? What do you of all people want from me?”
Blok stared straight at me. “I need to know what happened the night of December sixteenth, the night your father was killed.” He paused. “Allow me to explain, Maria Grigorevna. I was drafted into the army and now serve the Provisional Government. As secretary of the Extraordinary Commission, I have been present at most of the interviews with former ministers and those closest to the former imperial family.”
“Oh, really?” I said, mocking him. “I’ve wondered where you were and what you were doing. I haven’t seen any new poems from you in quite some time. Is that why?”
He glared at me. By the depth of the furrows creasing his forehead, I knew I’d hit not only a sore point but probably a sore truth. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Pressing on, I said, “So you’ve found something more interesting to do…such as gathering gossip?”
“Maria Grigorevna,” he said, as sternly as a commandant, “it’s my job to take the stenographs from the interviews and edit them into readable form. As I’ve been going through the endless pages on your father, however, I find that not only is Rasputin more a mystery than ever but the truth of his murder is more and more unclear.”
“Of course it is. After all, both monarchists and revolutionaries have proved equally adept at twisting both my father’s life and his death into political legend.”
“They say that first your father was poisoned, next shot, then stabbed. But still he lived, and frantic to kill him, they finally threw him through a hole in the ice and-”