Mythbusting Rasputin’s Life and Legend

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
Douglas Smith
published November 22, 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Amazon / Book Depository

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?


25 thoughts on “Mythbusting Rasputin’s Life and Legend

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  1. I love how well-written and in-depth this review is. The character of Rasputin has always been intriguing to me, even more so when I visited Russia and heard even more legends related to him and to Alexandra. I wish you had liked this more, but I think I’ll still give it a shot, unless I find a more interesting biography os his to read first!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I felt like I was going on a little long but I’m obsessed with Russia and talking about it so I can’t really control myself around this topic 😂 I wasn’t in love with the book but it does have spectacular aspects to recommend it. If anything, the first approx. quarter of the book, which is written somewhat livelier, is worth the read alone!! And I’m glad to hear you had the same experience – I’ve always loved reading and learning about Russia but visiting made me even more intensely intrigued. I think you’d still get a lot from this one even if it’s not totally stellar.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m not sure if there’s one solely about his death, besides Yusupov’s own account of it, which we learn here is mighty suspect. What the author describes of it is still fascinating, just nowhere near as dramatic or complex as it’s usually told.

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  2. Rasputin is such an enigmatic character. I’m intrigued enough about the myth busting aspect of the book but it drives me to madness when a story takes too many detours. Excellent summary! You’ve confirmed a lot of what I already know and I suspect that that there’s not much out there to provide more texture to the reality of this man.

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    1. Thanks so much! It also drives me nuts when a book segues too much and it was a mixed bag here – sometimes I ended up loving the stories (to be fair, some are just expanded details from elements of his story, so not too far off track) and other times I just found them dull. I guess it depends on what other interests you have, like in the religious climate of the times, the war, etc. You put it so well – there’s just not a lot else available to add texture to the picture we have of him, but it’s good to have material dismantling the falsehoods, finally, even if there’s nothing so compelling to replace them.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. This one is for sure reliable – it’s backed up with extensive research and proof of why previous narratives are wrong – but in terms of interesting reading the telling of the truth pales in comparison to the legend, unfortunately.


  3. Your feelings almost exactly match my own about this book. I could understand that it’s difficult to get at the truth, but I got very tired of the debunking of the myths, especially since I’d never heard of a lot of the myths till he debunked them! I also rated it as 3 in the end, and overall was more impressed by what it told me about the Romanovs than about Rasputin, who was just as hazy to me at the end as at the beginning.

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    1. Oh I’m glad to hear we had a similar experience with this one! Have you read anything else about him that’s worthwhile? I guess most of the myths were familiar to me from other Russia reading or documentaries, and even if I’d absorbed them with the caveat that they may or may not be true, they’ve been repeated so much that they feel weightier. It felt like the information about the truth was so much less substantial that even after reading this it’s hard for me to replace the myth with reality when reality isn’t as tangible. It was just disappointing. I’m glad to know the narrative and details aren’t what we thought, but as you said, as a biographical subject he still feels just as hazy to me and I’m not sure I’ve ever had that happen with a biography before!

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      1. No, that’s the only one I’ve read about Rasputin, unfortunately. I’d like to read another sometime, but I couldn’t find any that looked as if they’d give a clearer picture. I’ve a feeling he might be one of those figures who always remains hazy.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I had the same impression in looking for another, like they might be entertaining but not necessarily accurate…hoped you’d had better luck! I think you’re right, at some point it’s just going to stay murky.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. no fans of Russian history especially modern history can escape the myth of Rasputin the mad monk whose myth outlasted anyone of his contemporaries even his murder story is filled with myths.
    this was great review Ren and i really enjoyed it although i wonder sometimes myths look more beautiful than truth like Rasputin

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Ina! It’s all very complex around his story, and why myths outlast the this case it seemed more because they were the sensational, horrible stories that people WANT to believe. He had a lot of enemies because of the issues of politics and power and they made their stories stick, whereas the truth was just a little more average and boring. But absolutely, I think he’s a crucial element of contemporary Russian history and thought it strange and surprising that the author mentions he’s not always taken seriously as a subject in the field…I wonder if that’s why so much concrete information about him has been lost over the years?

      Liked by 1 person

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