Wherever there is a puppet master, an eminence grise, a Svengali, a manipulator, a secret controller – that is a Rasputin.
Author Amos Barshad, fascinated by the shadowy and powerful, started noticing manipulative figures everywhere, from pop culture to politics. He developed a seven-point system to identify the qualities that Rasputin figures meet. They include exhibiting controversial control; having enemies and a personal agenda; working behind the scenes; exercising limited control, meaning over one prominent figure instead of a congregation, for example; and lacking the abilities to act themselves.
Barshad says for him, it became a Baader-Meinhof situation, where once he began looking for Rasputins, even just noticing them, he started seeing them everywhere. It’s an inarguably interesting topic. Most of these are well-known stories for those following politics or pop culture, but seeing how the manipulative figures fit the Rasputin points didn’t do much for me. It’s a promising idea, but I didn’t learn much new.
It’s not particularly in-depth, and rhetorically asks more questions than it answers. Where it succeeds most is in making you consider how many of these types there may potentially be, and noticing where you can identify them yourself.
The author has a Jon Ronson-esque style, using comical observations to pad out interviews reproduced in too much detail. But unlike with Ronson I didn’t get on with the writing or tone, which may not bother others, and I don’t want to criticize too heavily as I read an advance that may have been edited before publication.
As for the catchy title, Kanye West’s “Power,” the song stuck in my head for the duration of reading this, it might lead you to wonder about Kanye’s significance, if any. He has two brief mentions, in the Scooter Braun chapter (he of Justin Bieber management) but otherwise he’s neither subject nor referenced in any form. The title’s source never gets a nod, nor is it particularly apt. Sure, it’s about men (and the occasional woman, to be fair) acting as shadow manipulators in the modern era (Rasputin is the only historical example), but it makes no strong argument that they shouldn’t be doing it.
Rasputin himself is handled most deftly, maybe because out of all the figures covered, he’s the oldest and has a century’s worth of scholarly research to place him in historical and sociopolitical context. I got bored, having recently read Douglas Smith’s Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, which was a primary source here, but otherwise it’s a great chapter for the Rasputin-curious. We’ve had countless thinkpieces and books on Steve Bannon, and to a lesser extent Jared Kushner, and in the entertainment realm Stanley Kubrick, among others here; but Rasputin is the most documented and analyzable. Barshad follows up with the people in charge of his apartment in St. Petersburg and it was a nice look at the legacy of the legend.
A few manipulators were interesting choices, like Gordon Lish, editor of Raymond Carver’s short stories; the singer Kesha and her ex-manager, Dr. Luke; and the scandal of the former South Korean president and her top aide.
I was iffy on the research from some points like this: “Rasputinesque – a term that, yes, I made up – is, frankly, one we do not use often enough.” Did he though? Where’s the proof on that odd claim?
Trump’s former advisor Sam Nunberg is covered, and there was some thoughtful analysis of the administration, like that he identifies Trump as being “immune” to Rasputins. But the argument isn’t entirely convincing, like when he quotes Fire and Fury as noting that the last person to speak with Trump is the one with “enormous influence”, likening it to Rasputin and Tsar Nicholas: “They used to say that the most powerful people in Russia were Tsar Nicholas and whoever the tsar had spoken to last. As one observer commented, ‘Tsar Nicholas is like a feather pillow. He bore the impression of the last person to sit on him.”
The coverage on Jared Kushner was somewhat disappointing, but I was especially annoyed by the inclusion of a quote from a former New York Observer reporter on Kushner: “Superficially, there’s a lot to be jealous of. He has a lot of money. He’s a good-looking dude. He has a pretty wife and ostensibly really sweet and charming kids.” Seriously? This is what people are jealous of? What a mess of surfacey cliches that ends up showing that everyone is as shallow as the people they’re criticizing. Blergh.
“Even when the pop star’s rallying cry is individualism above all else, we know there has been a process.”
“Kesha’s case brought a wave of discourse about the ugly things that happen in the back corridors of power.”
“Let a bunch of Rasputins loose in the world’s greatest halls of power, and let them go to town on each other. As Trump’s scandal-riddled former advisor Roger Stone has said, “The administration is like the French Revolution. You never know who will be beheaded next.”
This could’ve benefited from tighter editing, or maybe I wasn’t the right audience for it, having already read a lot about the politics and being less interested in some of the pop culture.
Where does the person end, and the Rasputin begin? And if the end product is worth our time, does it matter?
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.