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Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
by douglas smith
farrar, straus and giroux, 848 pages, $35

The Okhrana, the czar’s secret police, gave him the code name “the Dark One”—not only because he was mysterious, but also because his influence on Russia was so baleful. Except for Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra themselves, no one did more to discredit the Romanov dynasty than Grigory Rasputin.

Consequently, it was the monarchists—not the radicals and not the outraged husbands of the countless women he seduced—who organized the sensational murder that has fascinated readers ever since. Rasputin insisted that if he died, the monarchy would soon perish, and less than three months after his assassination, Nicholas abdicated. Within another year, the royal family would be murdered in circumstances eerily similar to those in which their “Friend,” as they called Rasputin, had met his end.

Who was Rasputin, and what exactly did he do? When Douglas Smith began his thrilling biography, based on documents newly available since the fall of the Soviet Union, he first tried to ascertain the real story, apart from the countless myths accumulated in Rasputin’s lifetime and after. Smith soon realized that what people believed was, if anything, more important than the facts. So he does his best to give us both fact and fiction, insofar as it is possible to tell the difference.

Certainly Nicholas and Alexandra revered and loved Rasputin. A Siberian peasant who abandoned his home for religious pilgrimages, he impressed many with his charisma and holiness, eventually finding his way to Petersburg. There nobility and royalty lived in a pseudo-religious ferment, enchanted in turn by necromancy, Dionysianism, theosophy, spiritualism, and countless other profound or crackpot movements. The “black sisters,” Montenegrin princesses who married into the Romanov family, introduced Rasputin to the czar and czaritsa. They still missed an earlier “friend,” the French adventurer called Monsieur Philippe, who purported to cure people with “psychic fluids and astral forces.” Philippe had predicted that someday another “friend” would provide spiritual comfort, and Rasputin fit the bill.

From the start, Rasputin advised the emperor on domestic and foreign policy. If you wanted to become a minister, or have one dismissed, you went through Rasputin. During one period of “ministerial leapfrog,” between June and November 1915, eight ministers, as well as key figures in the Church and army, were replaced, and even that pace was surpassed in the regime’s final months.

The press attributed every decision to Rasputin. Whatever you thought evil was, Rasputin embodied it. Russians have a mania for conspiracy theories, and so Rasputin was described as a German spy, a British agent, and a witting or unwitting tool of Jews intent on destroying Holy Russia and, indeed, Christianity itself. It was said (of course) that Rasputin was the empress’s lover and the real father of Alexei, the hemophiliac heir to the throne.

His enemies were right that Rasputin was some sort of sex maniac, and much was made of the fact that the name Rasputin sounds as if it were derived from the verb rasputnichat’, to engage in debauchery. His hypnotic gaze was said to drive women, especially noble women, into hysterics and deprive them of their will. At salons he would pick out women, take them into a back room, and make noisy love. His long-suffering wife never protested, explaining that “he can do what he wants, he’s got enough in him for everyone.” The most lurid tales were told of Rasputin’s mystically priapic penis, which is supposedly preserved somewhere in formaldehyde. Some noble women literally worshipped him, even keeping his dirty undergarments as relics. At least one regarded him as God incarnate. “You are God!” she screamed at him, as he beat her and replied, “And you’re a b——!”

His enemies claimed he belonged to the sect called khlysty (whips). Peasant Russia was rife with heretical sects. There were beguny (runners), who renounced money, books, family, the state, and their own names, as well as “jumpers,” “spirit-wrestlers,” and the famous “skoptsy,” or castrators, who not only castrated men but also cut off women’s breasts. In sheer numbers, the khlysty dwarfed all others. Whirling themselves until they experienced hallucinations, they supposedly practiced group sex, self-mutilation, flagellation, and cannibalism. One khlyst prophet insisted that it was not he, but God acting through him, that committed sexual improprieties. Another sectarian voiced the credo later attributed to Rasputin: “Without sin, there is no repentance, without repentance no salvation. There will be many sinners in heaven.”

Several official investigations found no credible evidence linking Rasputin to the khlysty. His religious beliefs appear to have been “ecumenical,” borrowing from the sane and insane alike, as the spirit (and the flesh) moved him. The prominent writer Vasily Rozanov—who not only wrote an important book on Dostoevsky but also married Dostoevsky’s former mistress for what one critic has called “complex psycho-sexual reasons”—discovered in Rasputin’s debauchery the seeds of a new gospel rehabilitating the flesh.

To get a sense of Russian religious life, consider the story of the “imiaslavtsy” (Name-Glorifiers), a group of monks and theologians who accepted the discovery of the starets (elder) Ilarion that “in the Name of God, God Himself is present.” Since the center of the movement was Mt. Athos, Nicholas dispatched a military unit, which compelled Russian monks to declare at gunpoint either for the Orthodox Church or the new heresy. Call it dialogue Russian-style. The soldiers arrested a few dozen whose fate, as Smith reports, was pitiful. Humiliated and handled roughly, some were imprisoned, others sent to distant monasteries, still others denied last rites. Rasputin interceded for them.

Many have attributed Rasputin’s power to the crazed religious atmosphere of the epoch, but, as one scholar has pointed out, Russian religiosity had long been less than rational. In the early nineteenth century, the skopets Kondraty Selivanov, who proclaimed himself God incarnate, as well as Catherine the Great’s dead husband Peter III, enjoyed a wide following among the elite. In 1819, when the governor-general of Petersburg learned that officers of the imperial guards were castrating themselves, he exiled Selivanov to a monastery for life.

Smith makes it appear that such extremism was not confined to the religious. If anything, the atheist intelligentsia was even more fanatic, as any student of Russian intellectual history, or any reader of Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed, can testify. The radical intelligentsia, whose “materialism” was itself almost mystical, attributed transcendental significance to terrorism, which became a sort of atheist sacrament. They also embraced revolutionism, a belief in revolution not just as a means to an end but for its own sake. In her classic memoirs of life under Stalin, Nadezhda Mandelstam observes that “the decisive part in the subjugation of the intelligentsia was played not by terror and bribery (though, God knows, there was enough of both), but by the word ‘Revolution,’ which none of them could bear to give up. It is a word to which whole nations have succumbed, and its force was such that one wonders why our rulers still needed prisons and capital punishment.”

One reason it is so hard to separate myth from reality regarding Rasputin is that common sense is little help. Rasputin was one of the saner people in his milieu, saner, surely, than his would-be murderers. There were at least three attempts to kill him, two centering on a mad monk Iliodor, who “had the face of an angel and the soul of a thug.” Iliodor was a protégé of Archbishop Germogen, who, before being tonsured as a monk, had castrated himself to achieve moral perfection. Both Germogen and Iliodor preached extreme nationalism and favored the Black Hundreds, who conducted pogroms. Even among Russian anti-Semites, Iliodor stood out for hatred of the Jews. In one brochure, he also denounced the Russian legal system for its “criminal humaneness,” which is something like denouncing Putin for excessive liberalism. Russian courts, he said, should be “the shortest path to the gallows, the axe, and the bullet,” and he claimed to represent not just the Black Hundreds but “Black Millions.” He chose to call his autobiography The Mad Monk of Russia. Later, he showed up in America, where he acted in two films, The Fall of the Romanoffs and The Tyranny of the Romanoffs. Rapidly acclimating to American life, he started filing lawsuits, one for defamation (he lost) and another for breach of contract (he won).

After meeting with Iliodor, a woman named Khionya Guseva, who had a large gash instead of a nose, and who hoped to imitate Elijah by killing 450 false prophets, stalked Rasputin, whom she considered the Antichrist, and stabbed him. A local doctor, who had to operate on a filthy table in weak candlelight, barely saved him. Investigators discovered that Guseva believed that the icon before which she prayed sent her secret messages. They concluded that she committed the crime “in a state of insanity influenced by her growing nervous excitement of a religious-political nature.” It’s not a bad description of Russia at the best of times.

Iliodor escaped arrest by sneaking abroad dressed as a woman. Believe it or not, the radical novelist Maxim Gorky supplied him with money and put him in touch with his publisher. When Minister of the Interior Khvostov (the name means “tail”) decided to do away with Rasputin, he found he could not trust his own subordinates, and so contacted Iliodor in Sweden to recruit his followers as assassins. When details of the failed plot came out, one Scandinavian newspaper observed that “the entire business appears much too insane to be possible, even in Russia.”

The attempt that did succeed beggars belief. Even though many Romanovs, including Nicholas’s mother, the Dowager Empress Marya Fyodorovna, hated Rasputin, it is still shocking that Nicholas’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, would participate in the sordid conspiracy. He was joined by the nationalist anti-Semite Vladimir Purishkevich, who served in the Duma even though he opposed parliaments on principle. There he did his best to disrupt proceedings, making faces at his opponents and once showing up with a carnation in his fly.

The leader was the very opposite of a hardened conspirator or secret agent. Prince Felix Yusupov belonged to one of Russia’s wealthiest and most prominent families, which claimed descent from the prophet Muhammad, not to mention the rulers of ancient Egypt. Like one of Dostoevsky’s bored nihilists, he lived for intense experiences and weird beliefs to fill the void in his soul. Educated at Oxford, he took opium, attended séances, and experienced premonitions. He once bought his wife a mountain for her birthday. True to his spiritualistic beliefs, he made a pact with his brother that whoever died first would appear to the other, and he was sure that his dead brother had kept his word. One Parisian clairvoyant supposedly told him that “in a few years you will take part in a political assassination,” which raises the question whether she predicted the future or he killed Rasputin to vindicate her prediction. Others say he did it to please the real love of his life, his mother.

Yusupov claimed that his first sexual encounter, at age twelve, was in a ménage à trois where “I failed to discriminate between the sexes.” As adolescents, he and a cousin loved to dress up as women and try to catch the eye of men looking for courtesans. “I began to lead a double life,” he explains. “By day I was a schoolboy and by night an elegant woman.” He even landed a job as a cabaret singer at a prominent café, whose manager took him for a woman rather than a man from one of Russia’s most illustrious families.

Rasputin knew that countless people wanted him dead, and so it is surprising that he accepted Yusupov’s late-night invitation, even if Yusupov used his beautiful wife as bait. Yusupov fed Rasputin cakes and wine laced with cyanide, but to his utter amazement, they had no discernible effect. “Now, see, you’re wasting your time, you can’t do anything to me,” Rasputin supposedly remarked. Excusing himself, Yusupov went upstairs to get the other conspirators’ advice. Returning with the grand duke’s revolver, he told Rasputin to “look at the crucifix and say a prayer” and then shot him in the chest. One of the conspirators, a doctor, pronounced Rasputin dead. Three others, one dressed in Rasputin’s coat and cap, returned to his apartment to make it look as if he had returned safely.

Meanwhile, Yusupov had a strange feeling, and went down to check if Rasputin was really dead. He detected no pulse, but soon noticed Rasputin’s eye quivering, then his face twitching, and suddenly “the green eyes of a viper . . . staring at me with diabolical hatred.” Rasputin leaped up, foaming at the mouth, and grabbed Yusupov by the throat. “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.” Suddenly Yusupov understood who Rasputin really was: “the reincarnation of Satan himself.” Yusupov never regarded Rasputin as a charlatan. When someone pointed out that if Rasputin were killed, the empress would just find another such figure, he replied that no one else could have Rasputin’s inexplicable powers.

The conspirators had planned to weigh down Rasputin’s body and dump him in the river in a hole in the ice, but in their incompetence they forgot to attach the weights. They also left a boot visible on the surface. The whole procedure, as Trotsky observed, showed singular “bad taste.” When Rasputin’s daughter Maria viewed the body, she identified “the strangest thing”: the position of his right arm and hand indicated that Rasputin had succeeded in untying the bonds holding his arms and had died making the sign of the cross!

Some Russian nationalists today have demanded that Rasputin be canonized, and one branch of the Orthodox Church has actually done so. Historians have portrayed him as the object of history’s greatest calumnies. He was simply a devoted husband and father, a sincere believer, a humble man who put his gifts at the service of the royal family out of love of God and Russia. One influential Orthodox priest, persecuted under the Soviets and now revered, proclaimed that “in the person of Rasputin I see the entire Russian people—beaten and executed, yet still preserving their faith, even when it means death. And with this faith they shall be victorious.” Today, a new legend is in the making. The reason Yusupov had so much trouble killing Rasputin is not that he was Satan, but that Yusupov, a bisexual, effete, secularized Westernizer, was confronting a true Orthodox believer protected by God. By the same token, the evil things said of Rasputin are lies invented by Westerners, Russian liberals, and, above all, Jews. Take it as a rule: Whenever it is necessary to handle embarrassing but well-founded facts, some Russians are sure to call them a fabrication invented by a conspiracy of Westerners and Jews. The stronger the apparent evidence, the more insidious their conspiracy must have been.

Smith, of course, is no Russian nationalist, but he does his best to present a favorable portrait of Rasputin. Smith’s Rasputin was a sincere believer in God. He was not greedy. If he was debauched, he admitted it, and, in any case, the simple Siberian was corrupted against his will by the decadent elite of the capital. As for Rasputin’s apparent ability to stop Alexei’s bleeding, Smith explains at length how modern science accepts the influence of mind over body. What’s more, Rasputin never pointed to the homosexuality of corrupt priests out to destroy him, which proves he was a voice of tolerance “for what might be called outsiders—homosexuals, Jews, prostitutes, dissenters, sectarians—that was rare for Russia at the time.” Prostitutes, certainly. To be sure, Smith concedes, Rasputin was once, like his erstwhile friends Germogen and Iliodor, a fervent anti-Semite, but he later came to regard all people, even Jews, as God’s children.

For Smith, the world would have been a lot better off if Nicholas had taken more, not less, of Rasputin’s advice, especially regarding international affairs. “Rasputin was a man of peace, a man with an innate antipathy to bloodshed whose devout Christian faith taught him that war was a sin.” This is the first description of Rasputin I have ever read that made him sound like Martin Luther King Jr. Rasputin, it seems, pleaded with the czar not to go to war, but Nicholas, alas, ignored him. Smith speculates that if only “Nicholas had followed Rasputin’s advice, the course not only of Russian history, but indeed world history would have been radically different.” There would have been no Russian Revolution, and without that, no Nazi Germany. “But Nicholas ignored Rasputin’s words, words that would have saved his reign . . . words that more than compensated for the harm Rasputin had caused, and would later cause, the prestige of the throne.” Just as anthropologists often go native, even the best biographers sometimes turn into defense attorneys. All the same, this is the best biography of Rasputin and a splendid piece of work.

The story of Rasputin may almost be read as another Russian novel, written not by any single author but by the culture as a whole. It emerged, and continues to emerge, from what Russian thinkers like to call “the Russian soul,” with its attraction to conspiracies, mysticism, and apocalyptic fantasies, its love of suffering and its Dostoevskian fascination with perversity and evil. G. K. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown observes that the trouble with atheists is not that they believe in nothing but that they are ready to believe anything. In Russia, that is true of atheists and believers alike.

Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.