Friday, June 8, 2012

Second and Third Acts for One Russian Girl

Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (Random House, 2012) 311 pages

This is an intriguing piece of historical fiction about the fate of Rasputin's daughter Maria Rasputina (renamed Masha in this novel). Rasputin has been, of course, variously described as a holy man, a charlatan, the lover of the Tsarina Alexandra, and instigator of the Russian Revolution.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that "There are no second acts in American lives." But for some, like Maria Rasputin, there are second, even third acts. Would it amaze you to learn that Maria, having escaped the Bolsheviks and the excesses of the revolution, would eventually end up spending her last days in America, specifically in that most modern of cities Los Angeles? It amazed me. 

The novel starts on January 1, 1917 with the discovery of the drowned body of Rasputin who had been bound, then thrown into the ice packed Neva River. Neither the cyanide he ingested nor bullets he took at a "party" he was invited to by a friend did the trick. When he is fished out from beneath the ice, Russians rush to the river with bottles to gather the water that touched this infamous man. Still perceived as a holy man by some, they clamored for a piece of him.

Maria Rasputina, as a child, with her parents
His daughters, the eldest Masha, and the younger Varya, are brought to the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, an opulent imperial residence, under the protection of the Tsarina Alexandra. Her motive is not merely charitable. In the Mauve Room of the palace, where everything including the Tsarina's lips are mauve, the Tsarina reveals that she believes Masha has inherited the healing powers of her father and will save the life of Aloysha, the Tsarevitch, the youngest child of the Tsar and the heir to the Russian dynasty who is also a hemophiliac. Here, Harrison describes the tragic legacy of inter-marrying amongst royals in Europe:
Some misfortune, or the sum of her misfortunes: whatever it was reached inside [Queen] Victoria and twisted the stalks of her ovaries, poked at the clabbered pink jelly of her still-sleeping eggs, pinched and popped and did the rest grave damage... 
But note the date, the Romanovs are on the cusp of devastation. Tsar Nicholas is forced to abdicate. The Romanovs are under house arrest by the Red Guards who terrorize them and destroy the palace, stealing items, leaving obscene drawings on the walls for the four daughters to see. Even royal family abroad in England, specifically George V who was said to be a dead ringer for Nicholas, refuse assistance lest they be perceived by their own struggling populace as abetting and offering aid to a foreign tyrant. The fate of Masha and Varya is precarious. Masha's only friend is Aloysha, the spoiled, hemophiliac boy who has lead a pampered life and whose very existence is now in jeopardy.

Maria Rasputina
Masha entertains the captive boy with tales of another Aloysha, named "Handsome Aloysha", who lives in an alternate world: valiant, brave, forging wars and winning them, siring many sons and grandsons and living to a grand old age, a futile hope for the fatally ill boy.

Some of the stories are fantastic; others are salacious. Certainly the level of dialogue is quite elevated, precocious, actually quite unbelievable, considering Aloysha is 14 and Masha is 19. Aloysha uses the word "totalitarian" to describe Bolshevik Russia in his diary, a term I believe that did not come into usage before the advent of Italian fascism in the 1920s.

Of course this is not only Masha's and the Romanovs' story but her father's. One day she explains to Aloysha how Rasputin gained the special powers attributed to him. The death of Rasputin's brother Misha, after a near drowning, triggers fevers and spells of incoherence in Rasputin but then he appears to gain special powers of divination:
... one day he woke up with voices in his ears. Sometimes they told of him that had yet to come to pass; other times they revealed secrets or thoughts people hadn't voiced. He identified a man who had stolen a horse from a neighbor; he predicted the day, even the hour, of an uncle's death. The grass began talking to him., and the trees told him their secrets. When raindrops pocked the surface of still water, he could read the marks they made just as other men read newspapers.
With his new powers of divination and healing, Rasputin travels the countryside "healing" the sick. When they can't pay him, he graciously accepts a romp with the mother/ wife/patient in payment.
The troubling Rasputin .

But, oddly, these stories of Rasputin's exploits do not interest me so much as the courtship of Nicholas and Alexandra. Harrison is a talented writer of erotic scenes even when it ventures into dangerous terrain (as in her memoir The Kiss). She fleshes out the frozen in time images of the Tsar and Tsarina during their courtship when Nicholas, a full grown man, falls in love with the teenage Alexandra. Alexandra, pretty, cerebral, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was considered a disaster in the Russian court - too introverted, intellectual and troublingly uninterested in jewels, clothes and small talk or gossip.

The Dowager Empress Marie, Nicholas' mother, is portrayed as a particularly malignant force as are the "Meddlesome Four", Nicholas' four brothers. Yet the doomed pair forge a happy if oblivious life together. When they realize the seriousness of Aloysha's illness they tuck themselves away in removed pockets of the empire to hide this fact, which is inevitably perceived as indifference to the fate of the Russian people.

Not surprisingly, most of the story is devoted to the Romanovs and in particular Aloysha. Harrison imagines his life after the family is removed from Tsarskoe Selo and placed for their "protection" in Yekaterinburg. Their safety and temporary "happiness" is short lived. Under heavy guard, they grow vegetables that they will never eat. The Tsarina organizes their daily schedule of meals. The Tsar cuts wood and rides his bicycle when permitted. Aloysha experiments sexually with a local girl, knowing he will die but hoping that he won't before he experiences this particular pleasure (the details he provides in a fictitious diary that comes into Masha's hands many years after his death). 

By July of 1918, the Romanovs are murdered, shot and then some bayoneted to ensure that they will never rise again, the four girls - Olga, Tatania, Maria, Anatasia - with precious jewels sewn into the undergarments in the hope that they will one day be rescued and can buy their freedom out of Russia. Unfortunately the jewels only prolong what might have been a quick death. Other Romanovs, Nicholas' brothers and his in-laws, are similarly, and gruesomely, dispatched by bullet or being thrown into mine shafts and smothered to death.

The Romanov princesses
Before the devastation, Masha is sent away and marries one of her father's acolytes, Boris Soloviev, whom she despises, in Paris. He is cruel and certainly mad, believing that the Romanovs are not dead long after everyone knows that they are. She eventually leaves him and ... joins a circus in Paris. Yes, this is explained by her great love of horses and expertise as a equestrian rider as a girl. Eventually Boris dies before he turns 30 as her father prophesied when he arranged this unwanted marriage. Masha joins the Barnum circus in America and is advertised as the "daughter of the Mad Monk Rasputin" who has allegedly inherited her father's powers of hypnotism and subdues wild beasts. As she cannot escape this description she chooses to embrace it.

Still, despite the ugliness of the demise of the Romanovs, which Harrison does not dwell on extensively, there are amazingly beautiful images here ... Tsar Nicholas and his five children sliding down a snowy hill on tea trays after he has asked the imperial train to stop for an hour during a journey; the drawing of the Virgin Mary by Rasputin whom he sees in the woods and that Masha describes; the image of the Tsar chopping down tree after tree (which he had sown with his brothers forty years before) while Aloysha suffers from the uncontrollable bleeding that plagues him during the turmoil of the revolution as if he is presaging the destruction of the Romanov legacy; Masha, her sister and Rasputin's mistress Anna washing the body of Rasputin before his burial; tender scenes of intimacy between Masha and Aloysha.

Rasputina in her new reincarnation
as circus performer
In the book, Masha's story ends with her mauling and near death by a bear during one of her circus routines. The Romanovs' story ends ... well, we all know how it ends. Perhaps it is best, as readers, that we do not learn of the rest of Maria Rasputina's life. There sometimes appears to be a kind of inevitable degradation when a notable figure makes the transfer from the old world to the new. Once coddled by princesses and having escaped the Bolsheviks with the sale of the jewels smuggled out of the old regime, the real Maria Rasputina ends her days as a dancer, circus performer, a riveter in the defense industry in California during WWII, retirement in the 1950s and her peaceful death in 1977. Harrison must have divined that reading of a life that began in such extremes, the reader would likely not find fulfillment if Rasputina's life ended so mildly, so stoically in fiction.

Luckily, for this one Russian born in Imperial Russia, it ends with a whimper, not a bang.

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