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|An introduction to
In St. Petersburg, Russia, in mid-December, the
sun does not rise until ten, and it sets barely five hours later. In the
waning days of 1916, all of Russia finds itself on the brink of a still more
appalling darkness. The casualties of a disastrous war line the streets. As
the wealthy savor their pastries and wines, the narod—the ordinary
people—face starvation. In the palace of Tsar Nicholas, Aleksei, the
hemophiliac heir to the throne, lies helpless as internal bleeding threatens
his life. The once-mighty Romanov dynasty that has ruled Russia for three
hundred years labors to stave off collapse.
In their struggle to save their son and their empire, the Tsar and Tsaritsa
turn to an improbable savior, an illiterate monk with insatiable appetites
for women and alcohol—and preternatural powers of prophecy and healing. The
monk, Grigori Effimovich Rasputin, survives today as one of history’s
strangest figures; his deeds and violent death have entered the realm of
legend. Now, in a gripping novel of suspense, mysticism, and forbidden
romance, Robert Alexander tells the story of an almost forgotten woman,
Maria Rasputina, a willful, compassionate eighteen-year-old girl. To her,
Rasputin is more than a baffling mixture of holiness and hedonism, more than
the man who holds the fate of the Romanovs in his rough, unwashed hands. He
is her father.
Alexander’s novel tells of the last week of Rasputin’s life, a time when,
Maria says, she learned everything she knows about her father. Through
Maria’s recollections, history’s mad monk emerges in a deftly drawn
portrait, one in which saintliness and debauchery become almost impossible
to distinguish. With sorrow and amazement, Maria recalls her father’s
astonishing inner contradictions. She describes not only her father’s
mysterious wisdom and uncanny clairvoyance, but also his naïve inability to
comprehend the venomous political intrigues that surround him.
Yet Alexander’s most sensitive portrayal is of Maria herself. A girl on the
threshold of womanhood, Maria discovers that the structures on which she
most depends—her family, the Tsarist regime, her own spiritual sense of
self—are rapidly giving way. In the midst of mounting chaos, she finds she
must not only learn to understand her father but also to act decisively if
she is to save his life. At the same time, she has to try to decipher the
true intentions of a striking young man named Sasha whose behavior is either
that of a love-struck admirer or a murderous stalker. Is he Maria’s only
friend or her father’s most implacable enemy?
Finally and most bewildering, Maria must come to terms with the supernatural
gift she has inherited from her father and resolve within herself the same
dark struggle between good and evil that rages within her father’s soul.
Just one outcome is certain: The events that will end this strife will be
written in the blood of families and kings.
A Conversation with Robert Alexander
1. St. Petersburg, the setting of RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER, is a city
you know quite well. In your work, as in the work of many great Russian
writers, it comes across as a curiously unreal place—a city that came
into existence by a powerful act of will and still retains an aura of
unnaturalness. What does St. Petersburg mean to you, both as an author
and as someone who has walked its streets and known its people?
In 1703, Peter the Great commanded that an imperial city should rise out
of the northern swamps, and it did indeed rise to become not simply his
“little window” on Europe but one of the most majestic capitals of the
world. With the Russian Revolution, that great city of the tsars sank
like Atlantis, only to be replaced by another metropolis and another
country—Leningrad, USSR. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union itself collapsed
and sank, and the old city and country reemerged from the depths of
history. So, yes, St. Petersburg is quite an unnatural place with quite
a turbulent history. On the one hand it’s not very Russian at all, for
it is a forced city of long, straight boulevards, while on the other
it’s exceedingly Russian, for it was not only planned from the top down
by an autocrat, but it is also a city of grandeur and excess—and
Russians always take things to extremes.
I first went to Russia in 1976 as a student, and to me Leningrad/St.
Petersburg represents that country’s long-held conflict with the West,
for while it wants to be a great city on a par with any of the grand
capitals of Europe, it is also determined to remain Russian in outlook
and thought. Since the days of Peter the Great so many have hoped that
St. Petersburg would finally provide a connection with the West and lead
Russia to the well-being, prosperity, and peace she has been in search
of and in need of for so very long. In its decay, I also see St.
Petersburg as a tragic paradigm for loss. Thousands upon thousands of
serfs perished in the construction of the capital, millions upon
millions more during the revolution, Stalin, and the Siege of Leningrad
(World War II), a combined loss that is nearly impossible to comprehend.
2. You present Maria Rasputina’s story in the form of testimony given
to a poet who has become an inquisitor in the Provisional Government.
Why did you choose to present a poet as the instrument of revolutionary
In actuality, many instigators of the revolution were the intelligentsia
of Russia—her painters, authors, great thinkers, conductors, actors, and
dancers—who hoped for a just government of and by the people. Russia was
a great country in a great transition, moving from autocracy toward real
democracy. So taken from my own writer’s point of view, who better to
seek out the truth than a poet?
I should add, however, that the structure of the book developed from my
research, which is quite common, for these things do take time to
evolve. To begin with, I knew I wanted to write about Rasputin and use
fiction to get to some kind of real truth of the man. And who knew him
better than his eldest daughter, who loved him and lived with him right
up until the end? However, the revolution happened for some very real
and specific reasons, many of which swirled around Rasputin, so I knew I
needed a foil for Maria. When I learned that Russia’s greatest poet of
the time, Aleksander Blok, participated in the Thirteenth Section (the
special commission set up to interrogate all those who knew Rasputin), I
knew that was how I would tell the story, a loving daughter and a poet
of the revolution searching for the truth of the man who had served as
the revolution’s lightning rod.
3. We expect the taking of testimony as a means of getting at truth.
Taken as a whole, however, RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER, like your previous novel
about revolutionary Russia, The Kitchen Boy, raises questions about the
accessibility and even the desirability of truth. Why do you suppose
this theme has become recurrent in your writing?
Truth is always much more complicated than facts alone, and I’ve
always been fascinated by the profound difference between spoken and
unspoken truths. In terms of writing I believe that the structure of any
good book plays upon this, the slow release of information as we inch
toward the ultimate truth, or climax.
In terms of Russia, this theme is extraordinarily relevant, for Russia’s
is a culture where its leaders—from the Romanov tsars to the red
tsars—have always, always questioned the desirability of truth and found
it necessary to control the accessibility to the truth in order to stay
in power. Specifically, during tsarist days government censors
controlled information to maintain the tsar’s godlike image (and
therefore his autocratic, God-given power), and during Communist days
the censors tightly controlled information to justify their political
ideology and autocratic-like authority. When you think about it, both of
these opposing types of government were eventually rendered bankrupt and
overthrown by any number of simple truths.
For example, I was followed regularly by the KGB in 1978 when I was
working for the U.S. government in the USSR One day, not knowing that I
was tailed, I met with some friends and passed them several forbidden
documents. These friends were picked up and taken in for questioning,
and the regional authorities threatened to kick me out of the country
for spreading propaganda. In a very real way the authorities were
correct in their fear of what I had given my friends—a copy of Time
magazine and an L. L. Bean catalogue—because in those simple pages were
many little truths of what life was really like in the West.
And with that I should add that it’s my very strong belief that the
Soviet Union collapsed not because we outspent them militarily or any
such thing. Rather, the Soviets parted the iron curtain, and through
this opening flowed ballet troupes, art exhibits, blue jeans, rock ’n’
roll, television programs, business exchanges, and so on, each of them
carrying little truths that eventually grew into a great truth that no
one could deny: The Soviet government was morally bankrupt and life was
better in the West.
4. The taking of testimony also typically leads to the rendering of a
judgment. On one level, RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER seems to invite us to pass
judgment, but in another sense it challenges the capacity of anyone to
judge another. Any thoughts?
If only the world could truly be divided into black and white, or good
and evil, which would make everything so easy to understand. But that’s
just not possible, there are so many shades of reality. When the
Provisional Government formed the Thirteenth Section and interrogated
everyone who knew Rasputin, they were hoping for definitive proof of
many things—that Alexandra was a German spy, that Rasputin was sleeping
with her, and so on—in order to render a definitive judgment on the
reign of Nicholas and Alexandra. What they found, however, was that the
royal couple had no end of good intentions (sadly, most of which were
pathetically executed) and that the political system (autocracy) had
outlived itself. Unable to come to a judgment that would both support
and validate the revolution, which is what they were confident they
would conclude, the findings of the Thirteenth Section were kept from
the public. When the Bolsheviks seized power in the October putsch, the
findings of the Thirteenth Section—some five hundred pages—essentially
became a state secret because the truth of Nicholas and Alexandra by no
means justified the violence that ensued. As such, the report of the
Thirteenth Section was kept secret until it turned up at Sotheby’s
auction house in 1995. Author Edvard Radzinsky, who was eventually given
the report, has written an excellent book on this, The File on Rasputin.
5. One more question relating to this issue of judgment. We think of
legal judgments as determining guilt and innocence. However, RASPUTIN'S
DAUGHTER declines to present guilt and innocence as easily understood
categories. Although Rasputin zealously debauches himself in your novel,
you also suggest that he is a rare kind of innocent. He is, it seems, a
victim of modernity, destroyed not so much by his own licentiousness as
by his failure to fathom the evil that surrounds him. It sometimes seems
as if the cynicism and perfidy of Rasputin’s environment have turned his
trusting nature into a capital offense. In your view, is innocence
absolute or relative? Does it even make sense to talk about innocence in
the modern world?
More often than not I think innocence is relative and yet it absolutely
makes sense to talk about it in terms of the modern world. Again, we’d
all like the world to be defined in terms of good or evil and guilty or
innocent so that we can more easily comprehend the world around us, but
the reality of humankind is ever so much more complex.
In terms of Rasputin, I think politically he was definitely guilty of
only one thing: his own pathetic judgment. Yes, he drank way too much,
particularly toward the end. Yes, he was licentious and abused his great
power, which he had accrued from his proximity to the throne. And, yes,
he meddled where he shouldn’t have—can you imagine an uneducated peasant
making cabinet post appointments based on his “visions”? But he wasn’t a
traitor to the Germans, he didn’t sleep with the empress, and he truly
believed that his actions, however inappropriate, were in the best
interest of his beloved motherland.
Why, then, is Rasputin remembered as so dark and evil a figure? Because
he was used by the enemies of Russia who sought to topple the monarchy.
Lenin quite correctly said that without Rasputin there would have been
no revolution. To that, however, I would add that there would have been
no revolution had Russia not been in the midst of World War I as well.
The revolutionaries, seeking to overthrow the tsar, and the Germans,
seeking to win the war, used Rasputin—often exaggerating his exploits—to
demystify and de-deify the tsar. And once the tsar’s image was darkened
and he was no longer seen as God’s representative on earth, revolution
was all but inevitable. The spark that lit everything afire came when
the Russian masses faced food shortages (caused by the war) and,
politically speaking, there’s nothing more dangerous than a hungry
6. Many of us who grew up during the Cold War have often found it
easy to assume that the principal tension between Russia and the West
was a matter of political theory: communism vs. capitalism. However,
your novel reminds us that Russia’s uneasiness about Western influence
has a much longer, more complicated history. Would you care to comment?
I think one of the greatest mistakes we make is trying to understand
Russia in Occidental terms, whereas it is essentially an Oriental
country. For example, my Russian friends insist that our lives are based
on materialism, while theirs is based on spiritualism (when I pressed
the issue, saying I’d never seen such voracious shoppers as Russians, my
friends said they could simply walk away from their possessions, whereas
they were sure an American could not). Political systems tend to take
root in countries where the culture is able to accept it. I think
capitalism took such rapid root in the United States because we were
founded by independent immigrants seeking to better themselves
individually. In Russia, it’s almost the reverse. Until 1861, 80 percent
of the Russian population lived as serfs, the majority of whom lived in
communes with their lives controlled from above by their masters. In
other words, we in the United States value the capabilities of the
individual for what he or she is able to contribute to society, whereas
Russians value the sanctity of the collective (their “society”), which
has historically taken care of the individual.
7. We also tend to assume that the Romanovs were felled by the
Bolshevik revolution. Some of your readers might be surprised to find
that references to Bolshevism are essentially absent from your novel,
that there was a post-tsarist government before Lenin, and that the
ruling aristocracy in 1916 was deteriorating from within almost faster
than any outside force could bring it down. What popular misconceptions
about this period would you most like to dispel?
You know, Russia almost made it. The country almost transformed itself
into an open, democratic society without dissolving into revolution and
civil war. Had Nicholas II not been so rigid in his autocratic beliefs
(which he enforced not for his own benefit, but because he truly
believed that it was the best form of government for his beloved
country), or had Kerensky been, oddly, more autocratic in those first
few democratic months after the February Revolution, I think Russia
would have made it safely through those tumultuous waters. But
navigating a country through changing political times is an
extraordinarily difficult thing to accomplish. Let’s not forget the
Reign of Terror and the seventy-five years of instability that overcame
France after her revolution.
There is no doubt that by 1916 Russia was a country long overdue for
reform on many political and social fronts. While the Duma, the national
assembly, had been established in 1905, its powers were limited; indeed,
Nicholas II could have likely avoided the revolution had he simply
granted the Duma the right to appoint cabinet positions. Dissatisfaction
with both the Tsar and the war had taken a heavy toll on Russia, and
when food riots broke out in February 1917, everything quickly fell
apart. The Tsar, hoping to avoid bloodshed for his subjects, abdicated,
and the Provisional Government, an alliance of liberals and socialists,
quickly took power with the hope of creating a democratically elected
government. But the problems facing Russia were too great, Lenin and his
Bolsheviks too aggressive, and the Provisional Government was forcibly
replaced by Lenin’s October Revolution, the first Communist revolution.
So, of course, in 1917 Russia saw two revolutions, one that ousted the
Tsar; the second that ousted any hopes of a democratic country.
8. Rasputin’s reported healing powers raise uncomfortable questions
for some people. If people believe that such powers exist, they are
likely to associate them with some unique moral superiority on the part
of the healer. People who want to reserve such abilities for saints and
messiahs either have to reject Rasputin or seriously rethink their
definition of sainthood. Do you find the stories of Rasputin’s healings
believable, and how do you feel about the seemingly contradictory idea
of the holy sinner?
This, of course, is one of the main issues of the end of the Romanov
dynasty. The tsarevich (the heir to the throne) suffered from
hemophilia; all the best doctors from around the world were called in,
but none could help. Finally, and at last, one and only one person was
found who could comfort the young boy and stem his attacks of bleeding.
And that person was none other than Grigori Effimovich Rasputin. When
the boy seemed doomed for death, Rasputin, time and again, in
well-documented episodes, saved the boy. Understandably, Nicholas and
Alexandra, who adored their son and who would do anything to save him,
viewed Rasputin as a gift sent directly from God. But how did Rasputin
When discussing the issue of Rasputin’s powers, I prefer to look at this
question first: How do people heal? Our primary method of healing in the
West is via modern medicine. But there are, of course, many other ways
to positively affect one’s health, perhaps none greater, in my opinion,
than the relationship of the mind and body. In recent years much has
been written about this—I’ve seen any number of articles on the way
chronic stress can harm our hearts and even damage our immune system—but
that’s only the beginning.
For example, take the story of George, who was known to be very
nonjudgmental and very loving and also, most important, known for his
healing abilities. One day he walked into a nursing home where he had an
almost miraculous affect on many people. One woman, who hadn’t spoken in
two weeks, beckoned him to her side and spoke in complete sentences.
Another, who hadn’t gotten out of her wheelchair, rose to her feet and
crossed the room just to meet him. Still another healed his partially
paralyzed hand just by attempting to touch George. Indeed, one of the
nurses noted that whenever George entered a room, everyone’s blood
pressure dropped. And that came as no surprise, for George was a therapy
dog that regularly visited children’s hospitals and nursing homes,
bringing smiles and good health to all who met him.
So if a dog can have such a positive healing effect, why not Rasputin?
Personally, I don’t view Rasputin as either a saint or a devil by any
means. I do think, however, that he had healing abilities if for no
other reason than many people ferociously believed he did—and this
belief in his powers in turn had a positive effect on their own
ailments. Essentially, I view Rasputin as a man who drew strongly from
the ancient shamanic traditions of his native Siberia (the word shaman
is of Siberian origin) and who in turn combined them with his strong
Christian beliefs. Through gentle touch, compassion, biting insight—even
the rumor and innuendo spread by others—Rasputin was able to convince
thousands that he could navigate between the physical and spiritual
realms and heal where spiritless (and therefore morally bankrupt)
Western medicine could not. He was, in essence, the placebo that was
able to cure simply because the patient trusted him so strongly. Empress
Alexandra believed in him so wholeheartedly that when Rasputin stated
that the boy would survive a bleeding attack, she took his word as
absolute. This, of course, calmed her tremendously, which in turn
certainly calmed the ailing boy, thereby ridding the scene of mortal
doom and panic. And there’s no question about what a positive effect
that would have and did have on the boy’s blood pressure.
I don’t find any of this hard to believe, for I’m equally suggestible.
Not long ago I went to the doctor with a horrible, horrible cough,
certain I had come down with some exotic and dooming ailment. The
doctor, whom I’ve long trusted, quickly told me that I’d be fine in a
few days, all I needed was rest. Well, I left his office already feeling
better, for he’d eliminated one of the greatest symptoms of my illness,
my own anxiety.
When you think about it, Rasputin is another good example or even
metaphor for Russia’s conflict between East and West, past and present.
9. In contrast to her sexually athletic father, Maria has only one
object of romantic indiscretion. However, this one attraction, seemingly
so much less damning than her father’s promiscuity, triggers a
catastrophe. Why does she suffer so profoundly for her love?
Maria is young and just waking to the complexities of passion, so of
course she suffers for Sasha, the first person outside her family to
touch her heart. I clearly remember my first love and how pure and true
and amazing it felt; when that relationship collapsed I was sure I would
never love again. Such is both the naïveté of youth and the beautiful
purity of it. Intertwine a youthful love story with the complexities of
an aged society’s collapsing into chaos and you get not simply the
dramatic power to move a story, but, one hopes, the dramatization of
just how conflicted people were at the time and how incredibly much they
I’m crazy about using fiction to tell history because while we all need
to know the facts of exactly what happened, fiction allows us to enter
the hearts and minds of the people of that period, which in turn allows
us to explore the emotions that, by and large, determined the facts. And
actually, the irony of Maria—that everything she does to help her father
only serves to quicken his destruction—is metaphoric of the revolution
itself, for in trying to liberate its people from autocracy, those
seeking a better country drove their beloved Russia into communism, one
of the worst and most authoritative regimes the world has ever seen.
10. In narrating your story from Maria’s perspective, you take on a
formidable challenge: thinking your way into the mind of an
eighteen-year-old girl from a different time and culture. What was the
greatest challenge for you in crafting Maria’s voice?
In writing this story from Maria’s point of view I broke my own cardinal
rule—never create a main character as someone from a different country.
To do that is very risky, I’ve always felt, because there are so many
layers to capturing and understanding a different culture. While I’ve
written a number of novels set in foreign countries, I’ve always used an
American as the main character, as the “vehicle” or device, for looking
into that country and trying to understand it. I’ve always felt it was
presumptuous to do otherwise—to assume that I could capture the spirit
of a different country. Indeed, I know European authors who have lived
in the United States for fifteen years or more who still make small but
exceedingly fundamental errors in writing about America.
And while I skirted this issue in The Kitchen Boy by writing it from a
Russian/American’s point of view (Misha is in many ways based on the
many immigrants I’ve known), I certainly didn’t in my new book. But who
else was closer to Rasputin, who else knew him better, who else loved
him more than his own daughter? In the end, of course, all this is why I
succumbed to writing the story of Rasputin’s last days through Maria’s
eyes. And that was, then, the most challenging aspect of writing her
character, writing accurately from a young Russian’s point of view
during such a tumultuous period of history.
11. One aspect of Maria I found especially intriguing is her
uncertain level of self-awareness. Although she is dealing with
questions that are too large for an entire nation, let alone the
daughter of a half-mad peasant, she has moments of brilliant insight.
Yet we as readers see that there are troubled aspects of her own
consciousness she has yet to confront. She is smart and endearing, but
also horrifyingly troubled. How did you come to your understanding of
what makes Maria tick?
The purpose of any main character is to carry the story by engaging the
reader, inviting him into the book, and making him see and care about
the events. In that sense, I made Maria a likable character and used her
to turn the spotlight or camera on her father so that the reader could
see Rasputin from Maria’s human (and not political) point of view.
My main goal in writing both The Kitchen Boy and RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER was
to write them with all the authority of an eyewitness, so I relied not
only on the innumerable history books but also on the diaries and
memoirs of the time for their level of detail. Of course gathering all
these personal observations and intimate experiences is extraordinarily
time consuming, but there’s no better way to create a sense of
verisimilitude than by dropping in a particular type of shoe or that
this character uses jam to sweeten her tea or even something like the
color of wallpaper.
Wanting to capture this sense, I found three books that Maria wrote, My
Father (which appeared in the 1930s), Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth
(which she co-authored with Patte Barham), and finally Peasant to
Palace, Rasputin’s Cookbook (written by Patte Barham from interviews
with Maria). Of course, Maria’s personality and observations shone
through all of these books, and to augment them and capture as much
about the revolution as possible I used the many diaries and letters
others wrote during those times. On top of that I used the advice and
thoughts of my many Russian friends to try to create a thoroughly
Russian voice. I also had the manuscript proofed in Russia to catch any
Americanisms that I might have slipped in by mistake.
So while my main goal was to use the character of Maria as a way to
understand her mythical father, Rasputin, I knew I wouldn’t succeed
unless, of course, I created a realistic Maria.
12. Your novel asserts that one of the “facts” that most of us
thought we knew about Rasputin, namely, his supernatural resistance to
being killed, was largely a myth concocted by his assassins. What, as
far as can be determined, is the real story of Rasputin’s death, and why
are the misconceptions, if any, so durable?
I’m fascinated by the way stories are concocted and myths created to
promote a political agenda, and there’s no more expedient a way to
accomplish this than to focus on a single egregious soul. On top of
that, there’s no quicker way to topple a king than to blacken his
consort. Rasputin, of course, served that function, his often outrageous
behavior used to soil the image of the Tsaritsa and the entire royal
family, as well as to point out the inequities of the autocratic system,
of which there were so many.
So in 1916 you had, on the one hand, the revolutionaries who were quite
effective in using Rasputin as “agit-prop” (the contraction of the
Russian words agitatsiya and propaganda, meaning the way to stir up
emotion and influence opinion), while on the other there was the vast
majority of the aristocracy who clearly saw Rasputin as a threat to
their very privileged lives. Ironically, it served both opposing sides
to portray Rasputin as a holy devil. For the revolutionaries the image
of a meddling deviant was reason enough for toppling the Tsar, while the
aristocracy knew full well that the only way they could justify the
murder of a peasant in cold blood was to portray him as an evildoer
doing great damage to Holy Mother Russia.
So the story that Rasputin was supernatural and nearly impossible to
kill is nothing less than a bunch of bunk, created for purely political
reasons. It amazes me, too, how the myths just go on and on. Many still
claim Rasputin was a giant of a man, yet if you examine historical
photographs you will see he is not a big man at all, shorter even than
the Tsaritsa herself. Yet another recent newspaper story claims that
Rasputin’s supposed thirty-centimeter penis just went on display in St.
Petersburg—which is impossible because Rasputin’s autopsy report, only
recently found, makes no mention (as it certainly would) that he was
No, Rasputin was quite human and quite mortal. After all, in 1914
Rasputin was very nearly killed by a small, ill woman who succeeded in
stabbing him only once. Yet up until his death in the 1960s, Prince
Yusupov maintained that first they had to poison Rasputin, then stab and
shoot him, but Rasputin died only when they threw him in a river,
whereupon he drowned. That last piece is very important, because at the
time the Russian masses strongly believed that a person could not become
a saint if he died by taking water into his lungs. So you see, by
playing up the Rasputin-as-a-devil myth, Yusupov and the others were not
only trying to justify the murder, but also making sure he would never
be worshipped or canonized by the common people. That none of this
information was revealed until recently is because Rasputin’s autopsy
report and the transcripts of those who knew him all vanished.
Essentially, I believe Rasputin was murdered in cold blood by nobles
very close to the throne, nobles who created the outrageous story of
what it took to kill a so-called devil in order to prevent the masses
from rebelling against the privileged aristocracy and the tsarist
13. The names of various Russian literary icons—Pushkin, Lermontov,
Gogol, Tolstoy—surface periodically in RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER. Maria lives
her life with a deep consciousness of literature. How do you think this
consciousness affects both her character and your own mode of
Because of the censorship that has permeated their lives for so many
centuries, Russians have long turned to the literary arts to explore
ideas and thoughts suppressed by both the tsars and Communists alike. In
fact, the four writers you mentioned are still renowned for their
progressive thinking—Russia’s greatest poet, Pushkin, was committed to
social reform; Lermontov claimed his poetry was “iron verse steeped in
bitterness and hatred”; Gogol used satire to affect social criticism in
Dead Souls; and of course Leo Tolstoy, called an anarchist by some, was
both a vegetarian and a pacifist who saw the aristocracy as a burden to
So Maria is attracted to literature for two separate reasons. First,
Maria is just stepping into her womanhood, and poetry is like a
flashlight to her, illuminating and making clear all that her newly
awakened heart is searching for. Second, literature is feeding her
consciousness, or informing it, with all the rights and wrongs not only
of her father, but her country as well. And I used both of these things
in my storytelling—literature to give Maria heart, and literature to
give her soul.
Questions for Discussions
1. In Chapter Eight, Rasputin foresees that the River Neva will run red
with blood. In what other ways does blood act as a dominant metaphor in
2. Rasputin’s lack of personal morality repels even his own daughter,
yet he gives comfort to the royal family and saves the Tsarevich from
dying. Is it fair or proper to demand good moral behavior from someone
who uses his power to perform great good for others?
3. Maria is also sometimes disgusted when she observes that her father
has the mannerisms and perceptions of a peasant. At the same time,
however, the opinion is expressed in the novel that the narod, or the
common people, must finally be the saviors of Russia. How do ideas of
social class influence Alexander’s storytelling, Maria’s viewpoint, and,
finally, Rasputin’s fate?
4. Maria suffers terrible anguish at the hands of Sasha, who repeatedly
betrays her. But is Maria any less of a betrayer? How do her failures of
loyalty contribute to the tragedies of the novel?
5. Given the largeness of her father’s character and influence, it seems
inevitable that Maria should define herself in comparison with him. Are
Maria and her father fundamentally alike or essentially different? What
are their most significant points of similarity and difference?
6. Scandal breaks over the Romanovs because of the Tsaritsa’s decision
to bring in Rasputin to help Aleksei. Yet the public does not know of
Rasputin’s duties at the palace, let alone that the heir to the throne
is suffering from hemophilia. Did the Tsaritsa make the correct decision
in keeping this information essentially a state secret, and in doing so
did she encourage or lessen gossip against her?
7. Although there is nothing ordinary about Maria’s father, many of the
issues that arise between them are questions that might come up in any
father-daughter relationship. How do the struggles between them reflect
typical family tensions? In what ways do their quarrels differ from the
8. As Rasputin gives aid to the apparently dying Tsarevich, Maria
asserts that she has never seen such a blatant fight between good and
evil. To what extent is the entire novel a dramatization of the battle
between good and evil? How does Maria perceive the difference between
the two? Is she always correct, and, if not, what accounts for her
failures of perception?
9. In Alexander’s novel, how does Maria’s character seem to have been
influenced by her heredity? What traits appear to be more the result of
her upbringing? Does she have the kind of personality that one would
expect from RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER?
10. Food and eating are often mentioned in RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER. Do these
subjects have more than literal significance? How do we come to know
Rasputin from what he eats and how he eats?
11. On one level, RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER is about a young woman learning to
understand and relate to her father. On another level, it is about
Maria’s anxiety-ridden discovery of her sexuality. How do these two
themes intertwine, and what are the results of their interaction?
12. How trustworthy do you find Maria as a narrator? How well does she
understand the events that she recounts? Perhaps most significant, how
fully conscious is she of her own wishes regarding her father?
13. What are the natures of guilt and innocence in RASPUTIN'S DAUGHTER?
What feelings of guilt does Maria experience? How does she respond to
them? Does she regard her father as ultimately guilty or innocent? Do
you share her judgment?
About the Author
Robert Alexander is the pen name of R. D. Zimmerman. A graduate of
Michigan State University, Mr. Alexander has also studied at Leningrad
State University and has lived and traveled extensively in the former
Soviet Union. His previous novel of revolutionary Russia, The Kitchen
Boy, was a New York Times bestseller and received strong praise from
critics and readers alike. Under his own name, Mr. Alexander has written
numerous mystery novels, including Hostage, Outburst, and Innuendo: A
Todd Mills Mystery. Robert Alexander currently makes his home in