When I was eleven my mother gave me Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra. It was the first “grownup” book I read, and I loved it. But without having studied European history I focused on the individuals involved in the Russian Revolution rather than the sweeping social changes that precipitated it. Earlier in my childhood, a car accident had left me fascinated by blood—an eager reader of vampire stories, accounts of Catholic martyrdoms, novels with consumptive heroines hemorrhaging through their chapters—and I understood the rise of the Bolsheviks in terms of the hidden tragedy of the Romanovs: the sole heir to the empire was a boy whose life was always in danger, a hemophiliac who could, a hundred years ago, have died as the result of a nosebleed or a bump on the knee.
Into this engrossing scenario stepped the infamous and sinister Grigory Rasputin, the sole person with the power to stop Prince Alexei from bleeding to death. At eleven and struggling, as I would for many more years, with the disappearance of my father when I was a baby, I found the idea of a dark, mysterious priest whose presence granted life and whose absence left a child vulnerable to annihilation irresistible. For me, the prince’s disease—and the faith healer who could control it—was the key to the Romanovs’ ruin. Their execution in a basement in Siberia seemed a redundancy; after Rasputin was assassinated I knew they were doomed.
I reread Nicholas and Alexandra in my early twenties, and I never forgot the story. Rasputin in particular continued to haunt me, and when I discovered his elder daughter had escaped Russia and eventually became a successful lion-tamer, I was drawn back into what had been familiar territory. Too, my understanding of the collapse of the Russian Empire changed once I learned Rasputin had had children of his own, the eldest of whom toured the United States as the “Daughter of the Mad Monk Whose Feats in Europe Astonished the World.” Not only was I was seduced by the story all over again, now I had a way of entering the Romanov’s world: through a passionate young woman who loved a father whose flaws she accepted, and who had her own vantage from which to view the Romanovs and the Revolution.
Of course, once I’d followed my heroine into the Alexander Palace, it was only a matter of time before she fell in love. Though Masha couldn’t fulfill the tsarina’s hope that the daughter of Rasputin could do as her father had done and protect Alexei from injury, she could provide him the solace of her company. Finding magic and romance in the least likely of places, Masha transforms the prince’s bleak vision of the world crumbling around him. Their time together is short—only a few months—but her gift for story-telling transports the two of them to an imagined realm of endless possibility, a world in which they live out the fairytale endings the real world cannot promise.
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