Q. The research necessary in preparing this novel must have been immense. Could you walk us through the process from inspiration to finished work?
Whenever a person sits down to write a book, he uses so much more than the bits and pieces of words and research to create a novel. Namely, he reaches inside himself and draws upon all the interesting life experiences, issues, and crises to inform character, plot, and story. All of which is to say that I’ve been studying Russian language, history, and culture for so long, not to mention my thirty-plus years of traveling to Russia, that without knowing it, I began preparing to write my Russian historical novels even before I began to write! And that begs the question, Why didn’t I try to get college credit for all those times I spent drinking vodka and talking of life with my Russian friends in Leningrad?
I’m really happy and fortunate to say that I’m writing about a period of time that truly and deeply fascinates me. I’m also an experienced enough writer to know that when you get one book that is popular, like The Kitchen Boy, readers, bookstores, and editors start asking for another book just like the previous one. In other words: a series. That was how I came upon writing Rasputin’s Daughter as a second book in my quasi-series of Russian historicals, because I needed a second book and I do think Rasputin was such an incredibly interesting and controversial figure. And though it may sound crass, that was how I found Grand Duchess Elisavyeta, simply by casting about for an idea for a third book. I was looking about, and there she was, Grand Duchess Elisavyeta, the sister of the Empress. Upon first look Elisavyeta seemed interesting and tragic and heroic enough to be able to carry the weight, per se, of a novel; and then before I knew it I fell in love with her. And what I fell in love with was not so much her striking beauty and glorious life, but her compassion and inner search for the spiritual meaning of life and particularly the way she made these qualities the focus of her life. Of all the people I’ve researched, Grand Duchess Elisavyeta was the most inspiring, and in this inspiration I found fuel aplenty to keep me writing. For me personally, this book was a true pleasure and honor to work on, and I only hope that shows.
Of course, then there was a lot of research to do, but actually that was fun, reading diaries and letters and so on. I was greatly aided, too, by a number of interesting factors. First and perhaps most of all, most of Elisavyeta’s letters, diaries, and other writings have survived the Revolution. Second, although she was born a German princess, she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and so she actually had two primary languages, German and English, and all of her letters back and forth to her brother-in-law and sister (Nicholas and Alexandra) were written in English. I do speak and read Russian, but having my primary source material in a style of English that was unique to that time and, especially, that class, made it possible to capture the mannerisms of her true voice.
Then after absorbing her life as best I could it was simply a matter of wrapping or laying a story upon the dramatic days her life. Needless to say, her tragic circumstances and events provided, really, the plot points of my book.
Q. You’re obviously very knowledgeable about Russian history, but when did you first encounter the story of Grand Duchess Elisavyeta? What prompted you to turn it into a novel?
I first encountered Grand Duchess Elisavyeta years and years ago when I was first reading about the fall of the Romanovs. She both was and was not a key figure in the Russian Revolution, for while she had the ear of “Dear Alicky” (her younger sister, the Tsaritsa) and “Dearest Nicky” (the Tsar), she had no real power. Yet she was most definitely a prominent part of that Ruling House, not, as was said, “the rose thereof,” but her sister nonetheless. But that’s the way the Romanovs ruled, as a non-elected governing body—a House, a Dynasty, with all the family members truly believing that God had charged them with the care and welfare of Russia. It went beyond any kind of cavalier “noblesse oblige,” beyond a simple sense that with all the wealth came some kind of social responsibility, to an obligation of duty to Motherland and Tsar.
What fascinates as much as saddens me is that Russia nearly made it. Not only did it nearly emerge from its centuries of horrible inequity into, at the very least, a constitutional monarchy, its slumbering economy was on the very cusp of bursting into an economic powerhouse. The arts were thriving, industries booming, and her agriculture output surging. And then came World War I, which brought so many sacrifices and highlighted, really, the great weaknesses of an autocracy—so much power in one pair of hands!—that it was the last straw that drove Russia right to the brink, and then beyond.
In all of this, no one better than Grand Duchess Elisavyeta illustrates the dedication and sense of obligation that the House of Romanov felt toward its people. Indeed, she was the only Romanov and one of the few royals ever (one other being her ancestress and namesake, St. Elizabeth of Hungary) to follow the Christly command: “Go, sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor.” And with the brutal assassination of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, Elisavyeta did exactly that, disposing of her immense worldly riches and dedicating the remainder of her life to the poor and needy. That, of course, is the stuff of great stories.
Q. The historical period you discuss in The Romanov Bride is fascinating in part because of its stark class divide and the repercussions of that stratified society. What is Russian society like today? Do similar class structures still exist?
Yes, Russian society during the tsarist era was horribly stratified. Of the roughly 150 million Russian subjects in 1900, the nobility, who held the vast, vast amount of wealth, represented only one to two percent of the population, and the merchant class about twenty percent. The rest, nearly eighty percent, were peasants, and the majority of this population had been serfs, meaning that upwards of sixty million people had lived little better than slaves until the Liberation of 1861.
Further dividing and emphasizing the classes was the Table of Ranks, or the Chin, which divided the nobility into fourteen ranks. It was a complicated but very specific system of ranking that reinforced the belief that nobles were of superior birth and therefore superior leaders. What this meant of course was that the higher rank one had, the closer one was to the throne and the source of power; therefore everyone of every class was acutely conscious of rank and placement in society, and there was considerable jockeying for a higher rank. Unfortunately, as author Lindsey Hughes has written, even with the fall of the tsarist system “consciousness of rank and striving for promotion and honors left a deep imprint on Russian society and culture.”
Of course there is no formal class structure today in Russia, yet everyone is still very much aware that the Kremlin is the source of power, and that the higher up one is, well, the better. It’s quite common, for example, for business people to spend all their money on new cars and new clothes so that they are perceived as successful even if they’re not, and I’ve heard more than one person say, “If I don’t dress in expensive clothes people will not take me seriously.”