The Body and the Blood: Kathryn Harrison on the Romanovs

Published March 7, 2012

ABOVE: KATHRYN HARRISON. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOYCE RAVID

Love blossoms in revolution. In Kathryn Harrison’s Enchantments (Random House), the author takes us to revolutionary Russia in 1917. Rasputin, the mad monk and adviser to the Romanovs, the tsar and tsarina, has been murdered, and more blood is in the air. His two young daughters are brought outside St. Petersburg to live in the royal palace, sharing the secret of the young prince’s hemophilia. His blood and dangerous hereditary disease are another hidden aspect crippling the Romanov family and giving rise to the Bolshevik movement.

Placed under house arrest, Masha, the older Romanov girl begins an unlikely friendship with the ailing prince Alyosha; and as she tells him fantastic stories of apparitions, angels, wild stretches of Siberia, and the streets of St. Petersburg glittering under ice, they begin to fall in love. In a country rioting, under doomed circumstances, they comfort each other—and though Alyosha and his family will meet a tragic end, Masha escapes Russia, moves to Paris, and eventually becomes a world famous lion tamer. Harrison’s poetic prose and vivid visuals bring to life a beautiful world on the verge of collapse, of stagecoaches, Faberge eggs, castles, and magic. We sat down with Harrison to talk about Mother Russia, blood, the limits of living a public life, visionaries, and whether loss makes us love more fiercely.

ROYAL YOUNG: Where did your own fascination with Russia come from?

KATHRYN HARRISON: It began with my reading Robert Massie’s book Nicholas and Alexandra when I was pretty young. My mom gave me the paperback when I was around 11. I was excited by the book, because it was a grown-up book and that was quite thrilling. At that time in my life, I didn’t understand so well that history was just human beings, all these interesting human stories. Not just tests.

YOUNG: Dates, battles.

HARRISON: Essays. This was just fun and interesting, and I was particularly interested in the tsarevitch’s hemophilia and Rasputin’s ability to relieve it. I like vampires, tuberculosis, anything to do with blood. Then I read a biography of Rasputin and found out he’d had this daughter who had become a famous lion tamer and been billed as the daughter of the mad monk who was able to hypnotize animals with her eyes. It gave me a vision.

YOUNG: How do positions of royalty or power trap a person? How do they limit their freedom and the way they can experience the world?

HARRISON: Lives that are so conspicuous have a claustrophobic feeling. Once you’re in charge of running a country, you’re under scrutiny all the time. That’s a trap. For somebody like the tsar, he was just hoping the crown wouldn’t be passed to him. He was hoping to be excused from all that unfolded. He just didn’t want to rule.

YOUNG: My impression was that he was more a symbol than an acting, willful force.

HARRISON: Yes and I think at that point in Russia, when the Romanov dynasty was about to collapse, they really were figureheads.

YOUNG: I was really interested in how that affected their son, the tsarevitch and how he life was limited not only by his hemophilia, but that he couldn’t have a childhood.

HARRISON: I know. I always found him a sad figure. He was this secret at the heart of the family. It’s hard for me not to have a great deal of compassion for the last Romanov family, because really I don’t know if a politically savvy ruler would have been able to make the situation turn out much differently.

YOUNG: There was also such a difference between public life and private persona.

HARRISON: Right, which hadn’t always been true. Catherine the Great used to walk in the park in sort of regular clothes and talk to her populace. The ruling family had traditionally been more available to the citizens than this iteration of the Romanovs, because they had something to hide.

YOUNG: How does living like that, being a public figure, shape a person?

HARRISON: There’s a sense of scrutiny that’s always on you, self-consciousness about how you are or aren’t allowed to behave. What is within your reach and what is denied to you by your station. Looking at the Obamas, they have a lot to manage with their children and having Michelle go out and have everybody comment on what she was wearing, what it means. I think you have to create a pretty large private world to live in.

YOUNG: And if she goes out or doesn’t go out, you lose either way. If she didn’t go out, we’d talk about that.

HARRISON: I remember with Britney Spears when she went out of her mind, I thought, well you know she’s almost like an experiment. Every time she went out of her driveway, there’d be people waiting to take pictures of her. It must make you crazy. Well, clearly it did. [laughs]

YOUNG: [laughs] Oh, it did.

HARRISON: But I felt like she kind of deserved to crack up.

YOUNG: I agree. Living in the spotlight, you start reacting to it. If someone’s following you around everyday waiting for you to do something crazy, eventually you’re gonna be like, “Fuck it! I’m going to do something insane!” What’s interesting with the Romanovs, is I got the sense there was never any crack in the veneer.

HARRISON: Well, given the climate, there wasn’t room for even a crack. They were also oblivious on some level. Their remoteness cost them. A different ruler would have been able to see more clearly what was going to come down and get out of the country.

YOUNG: It kind of shocked me that their denial was so deep and there was no sense of impending doom or danger.

HARRISON: Well, there was the tsarina’s intense religiosity, which I think often allows people to dismiss or deny their earthly reality. If you really believe you’re going somewhere else after for eternity, and life is just a temporary testing ground, it becomes easier to stop paying attention to what’s happening in the world. I just don’t think they believed that something like their whole family being taken out and shot could possibly have happened.

YOUNG: What does it take to make a visionary?

HARRISON: It takes a vision. Rasputin had visionary experiences, and they were so ecstatic and powerful that they rewrote the terms of his life.

YOUNG: Does loss make us love more fiercely?

HARRISON: By the time Masha and Alyosha meet, they’ve both suffered a great deal of loss and there’s more to come. They’re trapped in this palace. She’s closer to this fabulous view of the world. Where she comes from, visions of the virgin are not uncommon and people walk into the woods and never come out. She’s able to transform what the tsarevitch sees into something else. He’s the most realistic of his family; he’s the only one who always suspects it will end the way that it does. They need each other. They can believe in each other. They can be distracted from their own misfortunes by the spell she casts.

ENCHANTMENTS IS OUT NOW.