A review of Catastroika by Charles Rammelkamp

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

by Charles Rammelkamp
Apprentice House
ISBN-13 : 978-1627202985, Paperback, 146 pages, May 2020

If you, my reader, like history and poetry you will love Catastroika, a fascinating book in which the poet, in narrative form, covers a century on Russian history from the point of view of two characters: Maria Rasputin, the daughter of the much maligned Russian spiritualist Rasputin and Alexander Federmesser, a Jewish man who goes by the name of Sasha. 

Charles Rammelkam is a widely published author and editor, who in Catastroika, has been able to create characters which are not carton cut outs, the characters appear real and true to life, not only this, he also tells believable stories with vivid images and with cinematic qualities.

We read about Maria Rasputin, from her childhood to her later years, from her life in Russia and later as a migrant/refugee in the United States. Through her eyes we find out about Rasputin, the mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Emperor Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia.  For those who do not know the history of Russia they will get a glimpse of the last royals, the politics of the time, the persecution of the Jewish people and much more, all these embellished by fantasy and drama.

I imagine that Rammelkam has done a thorough research, the stories in the book are very convincing, not only that of Rasputin, but also of Maria, and the Romanovs, all who were real people.

The stories told in this engrossing book tells not only personal stories but also about life and politics in Russia from the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II, the Russian Revolution to the murder of all the Romanov.

The narration in Catastroika flows sometimes at a measured pace other in a crescendo of word.  The poet has included many dialogues but these do not disrupt the narrative, the following poem titled “Milochka” is a good example:

This is how my parents met:
this is the story they told me.
A restless young man,
Papa spent his evenings
at the local kabachok
drinking vodka and dancing.
Then he met mama at a festival:
they both loved to dance.
They introduced themselves to each other –
Gregori Elimovich Rasputin, Praskovia Federovna
“Praskovia Federovna,” Papa sighed.
“What a beautiful name, almost
as beautiful as its owner.”
Mama blushed, demurred, denied
she was beautiful.
“Ah, milochka,” Papa disagreed, calling Mama
his pet name, “my dear,”
as he would all his life:
“You do yourself an injustice.”

Maria is a captivating character, she was able to escape Russia after the 1917 revolution, she migrated to the United States where she danced in a cabaret, later she became a lion tamer and a writer, My Father being her most known book.

Through Maria we learn about Rasputin’s life, how he, inspired by dreams of the Virgin of Kazan became a mystic and spiritualist. In the poem “Strannik” (Which it means pilgrim in Russian) tells us what motivated his father to follow the spiritual path:

Papa settled down, built a house
on the family farm
for his growing family,
Praskovia giving birth to four
in rapid succession
though the first, a boy,
only lived a few months,
reminding Papa
of his on brother, Misha
making him wonder
if he were being punished
for not obeying the Virgin.
Then even Papa’s dreams
like blunt objects beat his head,
dreams of the Virgin of Kazan,
the mother of Jesus,
compelling him to seek his own soul.
Mama feared his restlessness
was her fault, some inadequacy
she couldn’t even fathom.
Was she standing in the way
of her husband’s fulfillment?
One night she awoke to find him
kneeling before the icon of the Virgin,
his face wet with tears,
and she too wept.
“You must do what is right,”
She told Papa.
“There is no time to waste.
If God wants you to find your soul,
You must go.”

… And in 1905 Rasputin leaves Siberia and goes to St Petersburg where he meets the Tsars and Princess Alexandra fell under his spell. What a character, this man was supposedly some sort of saint, but he was also a sinner. He loved to drink and have fun, here in the third stanza of the poem “The Yar Scandal”, is a snippet of his not so saintly performances:

In any case, at the Yar,
the famous Moscow restaurant
where Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gorky
used to go years before,
Papa got stinking drunk, started grabbing the girls in the Sokolovsky gypsy choir.
He danced like a wild man, they said,
bragged about his relations with the empress,
explicit, obscene,
then pulled out his penis, waved it around,
bosting of his conquests.
The Police came, dragged him
cursing and snarling to jail
though he was free next day
by imperial order,
then headed straight home to Petrograd.

In the first poem in the book, titled “Prologue: Sightseeing in St Petersburg” the author makes a fascinating comment regarding Rasputin, he tells us what he found in the Mus Eros:

The Mus Eros has Rasputin’s footlong dong
preserved in a glass jar,
severed from the mystic when he was murdered
hundred years ago in 1016.
They say just seeing it
Can cure a man impotence.

Through Maria we also learn about the disgusting cruelty of the persecution of the Jewish people is this country. This is explained very clearly in the poem “May Laws”:

Talk about a tyrant.
Alexander III really had it for the Jews,
blaming us for his father’s death,
all because a single Jew, Gesya Gelfman,
knew the “People’s Will” assassins.
No sooner was Alexander III installed
than his minister of internal affairs,
Nikolai Ignatyev, enacted the May Laws
restrictions on the freedom of Jews.
We were forbidden from settling
outside the Pale of Settlement,
denied the right to own mortgages,
restricted from having powers of attorney
to manage real property; crippled financially.
Of course, we could not conduct business on Sundays.
Quotas limited the number of Jewish children
admitted to high school or university,
ten percent within the Pale, five outside,
only then in 1891 all Jews deported from Moscow anyway.
And then there were the pogroms,
more than two hundred
the first two years of the bastard’s reign.
The Kiev pogrom of 1881 went on
for three days, my father told me,
leaflets from the workers union stirring them up:
“Do not beat the Jew because he is a Jew
but because he is robbing the people
sucking the blood of the working man.”

I love the inclusion of some Russian words in the narrative because these give more credence to the stories and the poet has included a glossary, which is a very good idea; although I had a bit of difficulty remembering the Russian names and who was who, particularly characters who were tangential to the story. I would have liked something like a dramatis personae with an explanation of who were they.

The stories and dramas in Catastroika that started in Russia continue in the United States, these are no less enthralling; sit down, relax reading this book and I suggest why not a glass with vodka by your side, or perhaps a bottle. Great time ahead!

About the Reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, she writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Flowering Roots, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish).  Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.