Tuesday 24 January 2017

Truth behind Russia's greatest love machine

Biography: Rasputin, Douglas Smith, Macmillan, hdbk, 670 pages, €34.95

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

Revelry: Drink, dance and God went hand in hand for Rasputin
Revelry: Drink, dance and God went hand in hand for Rasputin
Rasputin by Douglas Smith

For his mysterious hold over the tsar and his wife, Rasputin was murdered - then damned as a rapist and a quack. Helen Rappaport on the most comprehensive memoir on 'the mad monk' to date

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Taking on Rasputin is something of a poisoned chalice for any historian. The epithet "the mad monk" and the words to that dreadful disco song by Boney M, "Ra- Ra- Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen", are the most enduring of the tags that have been attached to him, but there are many others: dipsomaniac, orgiast, "servant of the Antichrist", charlatan, quack, rogue, rapist, false prophet, and even German spy.

By the time he was brutally murdered in 1916, his name had become luridly synonymous with every possible vice and depravity. Over the last 100 years, slander upon slander has continued to pile up against him, leaving Rasputin one of the most vilified, gossiped-about and misrepresented figures in Russian history.

Although there have been numerous books on Rasputin, many are sensationalist, and some utterly worthless. Hedged around by so much negative commentary, Rasputin's actual personality - extraordinarily charismatic but elusive - feels dauntingly inaccessible. To make sense of the vast folklore surrounding him requires considerable forensic skills. Douglas Smith, prize-winning author of Former People: the Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy, has certainly invested great scholarly energy in his dogged five-year quest, marshalling material from archives across the world.

Faced with mountains of conflicting evidence, Smith ably debunks the claims that Rasputin was a horse thief; that he was a secret member of the notorious Khlysts, a persecuted sect that had split from the Orthodox Church and practised ecstatic rites; and that he was a quack (his hypnotic or auto-suggestive healing gifts remain unexplained). It is good to see Smith also briskly dismiss the claims that Rasputin had sexual power over Tsaritsa Alexandra and even raped her daughters, the latter being the most degrading slur against him in a long history of character assassination.

Rasputin's roots lay deep in Siberian peasant culture; it is what the tsar and tsaritsa, Nicholas and Alexandra, so admired about him. He seemed to have a mystical connection with real people, with peasant Russia. A free spirit and a wanderer, he was a man of God in the traditional Russian sense of the strannik or pilgrim; he was also an earthy, sensual man who believed in the beauty of the natural world, and despaired at human rapacity. As Smith argues, in many ways Rasputin was "something of a Russian Rousseau with his praise of nature and the common man, his awe at the innocent purity of childhood, his distrust of the educated classes and the aristocracy, and his call for simplicity and the return to some original purity".

True, he often drank himself into a stupor and had a considerable sexual appetite - he certainly visited prostitutes. But it was his conviction that sin was a necessary stage on the path to God, an idea also embraced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - through sin lay repentance, through repentance salvation. "Drink, dance and God went hand in hand for Rasputin," argues Smith, and the monk saw no harm in touching, hugging and kissing his followers, which fuelled accusations of sexual predation.

The Russian press was full of talk of orgiastic rites. An incident at the Yar restaurant in Moscow in 1910, where Rasputin threw a wild party and allegedly bragged about his sexual relationship with Alexandra, became one of the most notorious of many entirely unauthenticated tales that were absorbed into Russian folklore. Smith concludes it was wildly exaggerated in an attempt to destroy him.

Rasputin undoubtedly inspired unhealthy, slavish adoration in many vulnerable women, who traipsed across Russia to hear his words, and waited on him. It is also clear that the tsaritsa was one of his most devoted acolytes. When she and Nicholas first met Rasputin in November 1905, they immediately warmed to him as a man of the people and rapidly put their trust in "Our Friend", as they called him.

It wasn't just his homilies that comforted them. Rasputin was the last of a succession of mystics and healers whose help they solicited in a desperate quest to keep their haemophiliac son Alexey alive. Although Rasputin's powers will never adequately be explained, it seems he possessed the skill, long known to Russian peasants, of "speaking the blood", an ability to stop bleeding in animals, a knack he had probably learnt from his horse-dealer father.

Alexandra came to rely on him heavily. "My beloved and unforgettable teacher, saviour and mentor," she wrote to him in 1909, "how tiring it is for me without you… I can rest only when you, my teacher, are seated next to me, and I kiss your hands and lay my head on your blessed shoulders."

Nicholas's attitude to Rasputin was far more ambivalent. He often ignored his political advice, but he was deeply reluctant to rein in the highly neurotic Alexandra's relationship with her guru and ignored warnings of the dangers of their friendship. "Better 10 Rasputins than one of the empress's hysterical fits," he said.

In 1914, in an apocalyptic gloom, Rasputin begged the tsar not to mobilise: "Dear friend, I'll say again a menacing cloud is over Russia, lots of sorrow and grief, it's dark and there's not a ray of hope… Great will be the ruin, grief without end." His heartfelt words demonstrate the childlike sincerity that so appealed to the Romanov couple, but by then Rasputin and Alexandra had been damned as "Dark Forces", the scapegoats for everything that was corrupt in Russia and that had taken her to the brink of destruction. "My hour will soon strike," Rasputin warned.

In the face of mounting public anger, Alexandra clung to Rasputin while the extended Romanov family openly damned their tsar and tsaritsa as dupes who were wilfully endangering the throne. Soon two close relatives - Prince Felix Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich - began plotting.

Yusupov, who denounced Rasputin as "a lascivious, malicious satyr", later wrote a much-touted account of the murder, but it was not as he claimed. There were no cakes laced with cyanide; there was no superhuman "epochal struggle of good versus evil", as Smith convincingly argues. Three bullets killed him. Rasputin's death was inept and squalid but the plotters were celebrated as national heroes, Yusupov "inundated by congratulatory letters from well-wishers across Russia".

At 670 pages, Smith's book is not for the faint-hearted. At times, the narrative sags under the weight of information, and it could do with a glossary of names for readers less familiar with the period. But it is by far the most comprehensive account of Rasputin to date, brimming with complexities and fascinating detail, and stands as an enlightening re-evaluation of this crucial figure in Russian history.

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