Kathryn Harrison on Rasputin in New Novel 'Enchantments'

The mad, bloody end of the Romanovs is the focus of Kathryn Harrison’s new novel, Enchantments. She spoke with Jane Ciabattari about playing with Russian history and the Rasputin myth.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

“The Russian revolution is one of history’s car wrecks,” Kathryn Harrison told me over tea on a mild winter afternoon. “We do know the ending, but we continue to watch. It expresses aspects of human nature we find unacceptable. There’s a lot of paradox: Cold blooded murder and brutality in the cause of good.”

Harrison’s evocative seventh novel, Enchantments, engages the enduring fascination readers have with the end days of Russia’s Romanov Empire.

Her own fascination with the downfall of tsarist Russia began early. “I was raised by maternal grandparents who were born in 1890 and 1899 respectively,” she said. “They were British subjects; George V was the cousin of the tsar. The Romanovs were very real in their household.” She recalls photographs of her grandmother dressed in the same style as the Romanov daughters.

When she was eleven, her mother gave her the first “grown up” book she ever read, Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra (she calls Massie “a biographer with the instincts of a novelist”). “I was fascinated with the hemophilia in the tsar’s youngest son. I had a strange fascination with blood. Soon after my mother moved out, when I was six, I was driving with my grandfather to school. We were in an accident. I hurt my jaw and had a gash with a lot of blood. At that very moment, my mother passed by on Sunset Boulevard. The power of summoning, to summon with blood, stayed with me.”

The figure of the “mad monk” Rasputin also drew her attention. ”The Rasputin figure is central; he heals, or can stop the bleeding of the young tsarevich,“ she said. Rasputin became indispensible to the royal family, leaving his family—a wife and two daughters (a son died earlier)—behind in Siberia. “In my own life, there is an absent father who also had mysteries and sinister aspects,” Harrison said. “The story drew me emotionally in ways I don’t understand.”

She toyed with the idea of writing a novel about the era, but couldn’t find the way until discovering, decades after she had first read Massie, that Rasputin’s older daughter Maria escaped the revolution. She became a lion tamer, was mauled by a bear in 1935 in Peru, Indiana, and nearly bled to death. At last she had her narrator, Maria, known in the novel as Masha.

“It was irresistible subject matter,” Harrison said. Who better to write from the perspective of the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, the sexually voracious, predatory, charismatic religious figure who was the scandal of the court of Russia’s last tsar, than Harrison, whose 1997 memoir The Kiss describes the challenges of dealing as a young adult with a sexually voracious, predatory, charismatic “man of God,” her own father?

And Masha’s point of view gave her the right perspective on the action. “Rasputin’s daughter understands the revolution. She would have been an outsider, a spectator in the royal family and to the revolution.”

But, Harrison added, “the novel didn’t work until I allowed myself to use magical realism, stories linked together that didn’t have to be realistic. I could be playful. I thought of Gogol, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.”

Harrison kept the basic facts straight—Rasputin’s murder (December 1916), the date the tsar abdicated (in March 1917), the execution of the royal family (July 1918). And yes, Rasputin transported his two daughters from their native Siberia to St. Petersburg when they were teenagers so they could gain the education and polish.

“I got history solidly under my belt, reading Russian history and biographies,” Harrison said. “I couldn’t’ change the facts. I could only play with how the people might have responded to the facts of their lives.”

Rasputin is a complex mythologized figure, she added. Many considered him corrupt. “That’s because the royal family kept the tsarevich’s hemophilia secret. Part of what Rasputin did for the royal family was healing their youngest. Because the tsarevich’s condition was a secret, the people couldn’t know. The people might have sympathized. Part of what Rasputin did may have been his ability to create calm and optimism.”

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In Enchantments, Masha and her sister become wards of Tsar Nicholas after their father’s death and live with the royal family in Tsarskoe Selo, sixteen miles south of St. Petersburg. The tsar and tsarina hope Masha has inherited Rasputin’s healing abilities; she becomes their teenage son’s daily companion, making her an intimate witness to the last weeks of the doomed royal family’s lives before they are sent into exile in Siberia.

Harrison’s narrative is structured primarily as a series of stories Masha tells Alyosha in his bedroom as he is recuperating from an accident. Masha finds herself fending off his roving hands. Harrison posits that she is concerned about his condition, and also that she not be seen as inheriting her father’s sexual appetites.

“Rasputin was seen as a libidinous monster,” Harrison said, “part of a secret community of religious aesthetics who would meet in Dionysian rites. The gossip of the time speculated that Rasputin was having sex with the tsarina and her daughters. Masha would have known of this gossip. This could be sexually inhibiting for her, especially in a repressive time when all young women were supposed to be virgins. This would cause her to worry that people would think, ‘She is like her father.’ ”

Harrison’s version of the relationship between Rasputin and Masha is tender; he is a protective father, she a devoted daughter who prepares his body for burial and accepts his choice of a husband, a man she can’t bear, but who is able to get her out of Russia.

Late in the novel, Harrison fictionalizes a sexual initiation for Alyosha, in the arms of a local girl named Katya. “What are you going to give him before he dies? A ready sexual partner. I wanted the tsarevich to have a sexual encounter with a girl who didn’t know about his illness.”

Enchantments is as much about storytelling as it is about the Romanovs and Rasputin’s daughter.

“I didn’t sit down to write a book about storytelling and the power it has to explain the world, to console,” said Harrison, a master storyteller herself. “It’s a reflex; it’s one of the ways we make sense of things.”