Thursday 24 May 2018

Rasputin: untangling fable from fact

Rasputin: A Short Life, Frances Welch, Short Books, £12.99 stg

Rasputin gained the most intimate access to Russia's last Imperial Court
Rasputin gained the most intimate access to Russia's last Imperial Court
Alan Rickman in the 1997 movie, Rasputin.

Rosita Sweetman

In this slim but richly packed biography, Frances Welch, no stranger to life in Imperial Russia, attempts to untangle fervid fable from fact and re-constitute the life of Rasputin, the 'Holy Man' who gained the most intimate access to Russia's last Imperial Court.

What a story.

So let's get this straight: did snakes fall from the sky the day Rasputin was born? Were babies born with iron teeth and dogs with six legs? Could he blow on a pile of earth and a full-blown rosebush emerge?

Is it true one of his favourite pastimes was sitting in the 'bathhouse' having his genitals washed by his most ardent followers, his 'little ladies'? Were his genitals the reputed 13 inches, or very small, old and shriveled? Did he survive horrendous murder attempts, rising into a sitting position even six days later as soldiers attempted to burn his bludgeoned body by the roadside? Was he a mystic, or a wily, peasant conman? Most of all, did he sleep with the Tsarina?

Frances Welch sets about trying to set the record to rights.

Born in Siberia, where winter temperatures dropped to minus 50 Centigrade and life had a savage chaotic edge, Rasputin, or Grigory as he then was, had a timorous mother and angry, drunken father, and turned into a strapping, teenage terror, fighting, brawling, drinking and leching. Beatings and imprisonments had no effect; if anything, they added to the already combustible mix.

Their repertoire exhausted, the authorities decided banishment to a monastery was their last hope. There, Rasputin met a Holy Man who slept on an earth floor, spoke with his chickens and wore chains for 'self-mortification'. He returned home, months later, well on the way to holy manhood himself.

He developed a devoted following. Orgies were arranged in the forest. Bonfires were lit, dancing encouraged, trance-like states followed by lots and lots of sex (conducted to lusty cries of 'Sin for Salvation!').

A vision of the Virgin Mary telling him to wander further sent him first to Kiev and, later, to St Petersburg. Next thing you know, this peasant ('si banal et si odieux') was taking tea with the Tsar and the Tsarina in the unimaginable luxury and splendor of the Imperial Palace.

His cosy position, between 'Papa' and 'Mama' was cemented when he staunched the life threatening bleeding of the adored heir to the throne, little Alexis. The Tsarina – the beautiful, haughty, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, apparently alone in what she considered a savage land – was snared in one.

The Tsar's position was so politically precarious, publicly admitting the heir to the throne was haemophiliac was not an option; this enforced secrecy lent Rasputin further power.

Cut off from the world, the vacillating Tsar, his highly strung Tsarina, their four beautiful daughters and delicate son, all dressed in snowy white, posed for photographs with 'the peasant from Pokrovskoye', who smelt like a goat, offered his followers lumps of stew fished straight from the pot, off his blackened fingers, and who was now apparently the most important man at Court.

Physical peasant fearlessness, honed in the wilds of Eastern Siberia in his raucous youth, gave Rasputin the edge in this febrile atmosphere. He shouted at Duchesses, accepted gifts of flowers, fish and hundreds of thousands of rubles, cut billionaire Princes down to size , drank 12 bottles of his favourite Madeira in a day, had masses of sex with women and girls, cursing out the older ladies as 'old goats', or nicer still, 'old carcasses'.

Things started respectfully enough, with many of the Orthodox Bishops approving the Siberian holy man, but, the more powerful Rasputin became inside Court the more unstable were the politics outside.

When the Tsar joined Russia to the War, departing to the Front himself, things unraveled irrevocably.

The Duma, or Russian parliament, came as a concession 'too little, too late'; mostly it gave Court politics a larger sphere in which to machinate. The Tsarina and her 'Friend' had their fingers in every pie. Enemies against him, and the Tsarina, ('that German whore') multiplied. Unaware, the Tsarina wrote daily to her beloved Nicky at the front, advising, 'Listen to your staunch wifey (sic) and dear Friend'.

Attempts to kill the Holy Man multiplied, ending in Rasputin's chaotic, brutal assassination in the tricked out basement of the Tsar's cousin, the hysterical homosexual Prince Yusoupov, who lured Rasputin with the promise of meeting his beautiful wife, the Princess Irina.

Pink and brown petit fours, chosen to match the decor and laced with arsenic, failed to do the trick. Rasputin shot and left for dead, revived, 'bellowing and snorting like a wild animal' to wrestle with a now terrified Yusupov, falling apart with a 'Crise de nerfs'.

The four assassins got him in the end. Or did they? Was it in fact the bullet from a British agent that dealt the coup de grace? Bashed, battered, poisoned and shot, Rasputin's body was finally turfed into the frozen Neva, emerging the next day, arms in the air.

Not that he didn't have the last word: 'If any of the Romanovs are involved in my killing, none of you will remain alive for more than two years after my death.'

Within 18 months the Tsar, Tsarina and their five children had been savagely butchered in a basement in Ekaterinburg; the walls outside the house daubed with lewd graffiti of the Tsarina and her Holy Man having sex.

Blaming Rasputin for the collapse of the 800-year-old rule of the Romanovs seems a stretch though. That they presided over a set up that ensured vast riches for the aristocracy and brutal hardship and slavery for the peasants and workers, presumably had rather more to do with it.

Rasputin's uneasy ghost hasn't quite been laid to rest, but a highly intriguing, cunning figure emerges, who, according to the French Ambassador of the time, 'was a man of the people; he let the Tsar hear the voice of the people; he defended the people against the Court folk, the pridavorny. So the pridavorny killed him'.

And did he sleep with the Tsarina? Who can say. Rasputin himself always maintained, nobody fouls their own nest. The author leaves it to the reader to decide. Hats off to Frances Welch for an absolutely crackling biography.

Rosita Sweetman

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