A Cold Country Called Russia

I reach into my trench coat pocket and pull out a guitar pick. I start to pick out a quick pattern on the worn-down strings of the old acoustic poised in my lap. Play it over and over. I shake my head along to the song. The abyss beyond the balcony yawns on one side of me as I teeter on the railing. My tailbone finds me a precarious balance to rely on so I can just keep playing, staring at the sunrise. I think about Rasputin.

Y'know, Grigori Rasputin. The holy madman. The freak came down to the Romanovs out of Siberia, like a gift from God, they thought. He could cure the little prince's haemophilia by praying at his side. I shift my fingers down the fretboard. Same rhythm, different position, different sound. With the new notes I make the song a kind of soundtrack to my thoughts. Shiver incessantly; the Russian people did not like Grigori Rasputin. Wasn't long before he held the Romanovs in the palms of his hands and was able to twist and manipulate them. The little princesses were told to love him. The Tsarina loved him, and as more than a saviour to her son.

Grigori Rasputin foretold his own death. He wrote it in a letter to the Tsar three weeks prior. Said if it was a common man who murdered him, the Romanovs would rule for another three hundred years. Said if it was a noble man who assassinated him, no Romanov, man, woman, or child, would live another two years.

The sun's coming up, piercing my eyes. Fingers start to cramp but I tell them to keep playing the same wicked melody.

Guess what happened?

A prince killed Grigori Rasputin. Poisoned him first, poisoned the cakes he served him with cyanide. Enough to kill five men, they say, along with the poison in the wine, too. Grigori Rasputin did not die of the poison. The Prince grew afraid, they say, so to make sure of his success, the Prince shot Grigori Rasputin four times with a pistol. Grigori Rasputin did not die of the bullet wounds. He continued to writhe on the floor, screaming curses and bloody murder. The Prince beat him until he lay bruised and broken. Grigori Rasputin did not die of these breaks and punctures. The Prince tied the Holy Madman up in a burlap sack. Threw him in the river Neva. The water was cold and frozen with ice. Grigori Rasputin did not die of drowning. Autopsies showed he had water in his lungs at the time of death. He was alive when he went under the waters of the Neva.

My fingertips ache. Got to keep playing, playing, playing the same thing.

Do you know what killed Grigori Rasputin, in the end?

Grigori Rasputin died of hypothermia.

Do you know what the assassination meant to Russia?

No Romanov, man, woman, or child, lived another two years.

First exiles in the wake of revolution, to palaces that got smaller and smaller, then strict house-arrest, then a bloody execution in a basement made of concrete. The Bolshevik soldiers shot them all, signifying the end of Tsars in Russia. They shot them all. Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Tsarvich Alexei, and the princesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Shot them and their favourite dogs, too.

Because only five bodies were recovered in following years, a myth was born that Princess Anastasia had somehow survived.

My fingers finally seize up and the tune stops. I massage them thoughtfully.

Anastasia could not have survived that brutal massacre of the royals. Even if she had she could not have also escaped Bolshevik Russia under Lenin, Communist Russia under Stalin. Even if she had escaped the initial bullet, so many more would have been waiting out in the world, in revolutionist guns.

Grigori Rasputin is dead.

But before he froze to death, he endured litres of poison, four gun wounds, a beating, a drowning. Could Anastasia too have survived as much before her death?

No. She was just a girl. Grigori Rasputin was evil, a poison as wicked as cyanide himself. He had the evil in him to defy death. Anastasia did not. Grigori Rasputin was a poison to Russia. Anastasia Romanov was a gift.

I play one happy chord and give myself a sad smile. The truth? They're both dead. Now it's just a sad story to frighten yourself with.

The sun rises, shines on me, in a cold country called Russia.