Book review: Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith (Amazon / Book Depository)
The life of Rasputin is one of the most remarkable in modern history. It reads like a dark fairy tale. An obscure, uneducated peasant from the wilds of Siberia receives a calling from God and sets out in search of the true faith, a journey that leads him across the vast expanses of Russia for many years before finally bringing him to the palace of the tsar.
Russian history is a fascinating thing, isn’t it?
Any discussion around it is bound to eventually include Grigori Rasputin, the notorious mystic and “starets” (Russian Orthodox spiritual leader) inextricably linked to Russia’s last tsar Nicholas II, particularly his wife Alexandra. Depending on the account you read, Rasputin’s mistrusted public persona and perceived influence on Alexandra, and thus on politics, is directly responsible for the fall of the monarchy and the Russian Revolution.
Rasputin’s life is undeniably compelling (though Douglas Smith points out he’s not traditionally considered a “worthy subject” among Russia historians), not only for the intensity and perseverance of its mythology, which has outlasted truth, but for its place in history. This was Russia on the verge of revolution, a country where religion and the primary religious institution were at constant odds with the government and progressive ideas. It was a time when, despite dynamic developments in science and medicine around the world, Russians still clung desperately to faith to solve problems that scientific and medical advancements were solving elsewhere. Concepts of faith-healers, holy men, talismans and all things mystical held powerful sway.
At this historical crossroads Rasputin entered the Romanov court, during the last stretch of the dynasty before it crumbled, plunging Russia into revolution. A peasant from the village of Pokrovskoe in Siberia, Rasputin married and began a family. Amidst early stirrings of rumored sexual impropriety, he then set off on a walking pilgrimage across Russia, a not-uncommon pastime of religious devotees of the era.
From here, the narrative becomes more shrouded in myth and mystery, as his involvement with fanatic, mystical religious groups begins. A major question is whether Rasputin was a khlysty, a fringey, extreme religious sect that practiced flagellation (“khlyst” meaning whip). This path of pilgrimage tinged with the mystical eventually culminated in his introduction to the Tsar and Tsarina via a pair of Balkan sisters, Grand Duchesses (eerily nicknamed the Black Crows or Black Princesses) who married into the Russian court and were heavily involved in the occult.
Interestingly, Rasputin wasn’t the first mystic the royals had consulted. The Black Princesses had first introduced them to a French charlatan and occultist, also dubbed “our friend” by the couple like Rasputin was, making for one of many intriguing side stories, some having implications of how history could’ve taken different courses.
Rasputin needs to be seen as one more in the long line of Russian royal favorites. But the changing nature of the institution, and Rasputin’s own personality, made for important differences. Rasputin truly did come from the mud, but unlike his predecessors he never left it.
As we know now, but Russia didn’t then, Nicholas and Alexandra’s only son and heir to the throne was a hemophiliac. This was the weak spot Rasputin exploited, and plying his religious preachings and seemingly inexplicable healing abilities, he made himself indispensable. Trust amplified until he was advising widely, although as Smith emphasizes, he wasn’t as powerful as believed – Nicholas didn’t heed one very important caution. Rasputin attempted to dissuade him from going to war in 1914, in a letter warning of the bloody horror to come. By Smith’s reckoning, this is a powerful “what if?” moment in history, that could’ve not only avoided revolution and the fall of the Russian empire, but even averted course from the Nazis’ rise.
Smith’s style is to tell a historically known, “accepted” anecdote, then break down why it’s incorrect, or couldn’t have happened as claimed and is more rumor or exaggeration than fact. It’s a sometimes confusing structure, with more detail in the false anecdotes than the truth. This is important, obviously – to debunk long-accepted versions of events, particularly when they’ve become larger than life, but the problem is that there’s comparatively little that’s unobjectionable fact about Rasputin. We’re left with a hazy, incomplete picture, filled in by a lot of what was going on around him plus popular perceptions.
It cannot be stressed enough that the image of Rasputin that developed in the years before the Great War, an image which remains to this day, was created less by Rasputin the man—by the true nature of his character and the actual record of his actions—than by Russia’s diseased zeitgeist of the early 1900s.
There are many reasons for this, “diseased zeitgeist” among them. Others include jostling for power, jealousy, outrage over sexual indiscretions, competition between religious figures and conflict between church (or the Holy Synod, a council of church authorities) and state. He was hated inside and beyond Russia, on all sides of the political spectrum: “Both right and left shared in the creation of the corrosive Rasputin myth. What Rasputin managed to do, without actually trying, was to unite all of Russia against him and so, in the end, against the regime itself.”
Rasputin’s frenemy and later all-out nemesis, a priest nicknamed Iliodor, published a popular 1918 book called The Mad Monk, which is traced as the source of many tall tales. It was meant as an attempt to discredit Rasputin and the Romanovs, but entered historical record more forcefully than truth did. (Iliodor’s story is another compelling segue that makes you realize how close this history is to the present – in exile, Iliodor was a janitor at the Met Life building in New York until the early 1950s.) He’s also the subject of some amusingly colorful outbursts of Rasputin’s ire.
One story that remains compelling even in Smith’s thorough debunking, and perhaps the most infamous within the Rasputin mythos, is that of his murder. But even elements of this can be explained away, traced to Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the plotters, and his dire financial state following the revolution. Aside from repeated descriptions of Rasputin’s mysterious, haunting eyes, there’s little that can’t be reasoned using the circumstances of the times and the stories’ sources. Take his purported prophetic abilities:
Terrible will be the wrath. And whither shall we flee? It is written: Watch, for ye know neither the day nor the hour. This day has come for our country. There will be cries and blood. In the great darkness of these griefs I can now distinguish nothing. My hour will soon strike. I am not afraid, but I know it will be bitter.
Smith explains there’s nothing unusually prescient in Rasputin’s 1916 prophecies of disaster: most considered revolution inevitable by this point. What can’t be explained away is his seeming intuition about his own demise. But that seems attributable to the broken clock being right twice a day theory, applicable to enough psychic phenomena.
There are many things this book does extraordinarily well, like spinning off into the peripheral stories mentioned, and much of the framework of Rasputin’s life is indeed fascinating, albeit not as salacious as myths would have it. (My biggest takeaway was that Rasputin’s primary activity was holding pseudo-mystical/religious salons with married housewives in St. Petersburg and innuendo abounding.) The cultural aspects and insight into the era are excellent, and Smith’s myth-busting is admirable.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but there’s heavy focus on the subtitle topics – concepts of faith, power, and the Romanovs’ decline. Though providing important context, these occupy a lot of space beyond Rasputin’s life and felt tedious, particularly the Russian Orthodoxy aspect. It’s a trade-off since elsewhere the segues are unbelievably intriguing. Descriptive chapter titles like “Orgies, Gay Love, and the Secret Hand of the British” make it easy to keep reading despite interest waning at times.
Most frustrating is that after Smith has cleared up the falsehoods that’ve stubbornly stuck throughout history, the truth is either too flimsy to feel meaningful or memorable, or too obfuscated by the reasons a lie existed in the first place to make much sense. Sometimes there’s only a shoulder-shrugging “no clear answer.” Worthwhile reading, but for dedicated Russophiles. 3/5
During his own lifetime, Rasputin stopped being a man and became the haunting personification of a terrifying era. The New Sunday Evening Newspaper captured the phenomenon: Rasputin is a symbol. He is not a real person. He is the characteristic product of our strange times, when we must endure exhaustion without end, when you feel around you a poisonous miasma, rising up out of the swamp, when the twilight descends all around, and in the half-light strange figures come crawling out from their cramped lairs—ghouls, bats, the undead, and every kind of evil spirit.
Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
by Douglas Smith
published November 22, 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Is there another Rasputin biography you recommend? I have The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky, whose surrealistic and dreamy The Last Tsar I loved, but Smith throws shade at him and in the bibliography warns the book should be “approached with caution”. Any others worth reading?