Rasputin’s Daughter is a cleverly-written blending of fact and fiction attempting to recreate the mystique of the controversial monk from the perspective of his daughter, Matryona Grigorevna Rasputina, known as Maria. For the purposes of this story, Maria has returned to the Winter Palace, now ransacked and overrun by the people, where she is captured and interrogated by Aleksander Aleksandrovich Blok (once her favourite poet), who has been drafted and mandated by the “Exraordinary Commission to transcribe the Thirteenth Section’s interrogation of those who knew Rasputin.”
The story begins with the record of an interrogation of one of the murderers — a man who remains a mystery until almost the end of the novel. His confession (in italics) about what he knows of the plot to assassinate Rasputin, and the events as they unfolded the evening of the 16th December, 1916, is told in pieces between the story Maria tells of the weeks leading up to the murder as she is discovering the many contradictory facets of her famous (or infamous) father’s character. The juxtaposition of the two stories is carefully planned and provides some suspense to a story that is, by now, well-documented and universally known.
Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) is a city of great contrast and Alexander paints them all in a compelling way. There is the aristocracy — extremely wealthy, well-fed, living in amazingly lush palaces, dressed in elegant fur coats to brave the harsh Russian winter — contrasted with the workers, the destitute, the wounded soldiers, and the deserters — who, often dressed with only a ragged blanket over their shoulders, and with only the alleys to sleep in, create a seamier, dangerous side to the back streets and narrow passageways behind the shops and palaces. We meet the pompous and the pathetic who line up on a daily basis to meet Rasputin in his study, to have a cup of tea from the steaming samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water in and around Russia), and beg for healing, favours, or influence from the starets. Then there is Tsarskoye Selo, the sumptuous palace of Tsar Nicholas II and the Tsarina, and their family of 4 daughters, the grand duchesses, and the heir to the Romanov throne, Aleksei Nikolaevich, a hemophiliac whose sufferings are only alleviated by Rasputin.
Unlike the great cities of Europe, the capital of unruly Russia was, ironically, a planned metropolis, conceived of and built by Peter the Great according to his strict vision. Not only had the swamps been drained and the rivers contained, our roads were straight and methodical, lined with brick buildings covered with decorative, colorful stucco. Behind the endless, orderly façades, however, it was a different matter. Archways led to alleys, alleys split into passages, and passages dissolved into nooks and crannies, the lost corners that the lost characters of Dostoyevsky loved to inhabit and wallow in, festering in a dirty stew of anxiety and poverty. And it was through just such a filthy maze that I now followed the agent.
Maria struggles as she increasingly has no idea who she can trust in the deteriorating political scene in Petrograd. She knows her father is hated by many of the aristocracy but also by members of the clergy, and even influential politicians in the Duma. She mistrusts Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich who is known to have a “dark. . . lascivious” relationship with Prince Felix, and who she finds waiting for her father, naked in his bed. Hateful letters are left under their door which she tries to read to her father to alert him to the danger. A speech in the Duma by Vladimir Purishkevich blames the waning fortunes of war on an evil “[springing] from the Dark Forces, from those who push into high places people who are not worthy or capable of handling them. And these influences are headed by Grishka Rasputin.” In an attempt to obtain information, Maria finds herself in the dangerous underworld of the “filthy maze” where desperate people lurk with evil intent.
Not only is the writing exquisite, but the story rings true and is quite compelling despite our foreknowledge of the final outcome. The final chapter tells what happened to all of the main characters of the story, and there is a timeline of events, as well as a glossary of all the Russian terms used by the author throughout the book. Alexander seems to have included every rumoured characteristic of Rasputin to help present Maria as a young woman confused about who her father really is, and how he fits into the political scene: is he a debauched and corrupt social climber or a gifted healer who struggles against his own temptations? is he a catalyst for revolution or simply a scapegoat for a disintegrating social condition? I’m a bit puzzled by the placid setting of the cover for such a tale of turmoil, and there was, perhaps, a bit too much of unsub-stantiated rumours thrown into the mix to create a sensational story, but overall, I felt it was a plausible rendition of the life and times of Maria Rasputin who became the sole survivor of the Rasputin family. A very enjoyable read. * * * *