Magnetic and repellent

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

When he first came to public notice, Rasputin was described in a Russian newspaper as ‘a symbol. He is not a real person. He is a characteristic product of our strange times.’ With his hypnotic eyes, long hair and peasant simplicity, Rasputin was as mesmerisingly attractive to upper-class and royal women in his 47 years of life, as, in afterlife he would be for biographers.

Who can resist the story of the Siberian peasant, leaving his wife and nippers to wander the roads of Russia, imbibing, and then dispensing, a mixture of spiritual truths and claptrap, and worming his way first into the salons of gullible St Petersburg ladies and finally to the court itself? As Russia sleepwalked towards disaster, however, Rasputin — sometimes held to be a symptom, sometimes a cause of its sickness — was not to blame. Indeed, according to his latest biographer, the distinguished historian Douglas Smith, there was actually a moment when Rasputin might have saved Russia from itself.

This was on the eve of the first world war, when the wild-eyed charlatan of Pokrovskoye appealed directly to Nicholas II: ‘You are the Tsar Father of the People; don’t allow the madmen to triumph and destroy themselves and the people. Yes, they’ll conquer Germany, but what of Russia?’ Had Nicholas listened to Rasputin, Smith says, there would have been no revolution, and the Romanovs would have died in their beds. As it was, they all — including poor little Alexis, the haemophiliac Romanov heir — were shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg. When they were stripped and hurled into a mass grave, the only thing they had on them were the little amulets they wore round their necks, each bearing Rasputin’s image.

Life at the top is lonely — which is how and why world leaders often find themselves with surprising companions. Queen Victoria had John Brown and
Abdul Karim, and not everyone understood why. She was a fundmentally sensible person, however, whereas Nicholas and Alicky (as her grandmother Victoria called her) were heartbreakingly thick.

Two years ago, Short Books published a truly excellent life of Rasputin by Frances Welch. It contained all that you could possibly want to know about this fascinatingly unsavoury character; it was extremely funny; and it also spoke volumes about Russia. The present book is a very different matter. Addicts of the Rasputin story will certainly be glad of it, but it is pompous and verbose.

The author of a biography needs to ask how long a reasonable reader might wish to spend in the subject’s company. Rasputin was a grotesque phenomenon. He was, however, a skein of repellent simplicities which, stretching over nearly 700 pages, becomes simply tedious. To read a book of this length at a sensible pace would take you a week. Who wants to spend a week with Rasputin, with his ponderous mumbo-jumbo, his easy seduction of nursery maids and religiously inclined Grand Duchesses? It does not seem, even from this exhaustive study, as if he ever said anything remotely interesting.

He was genuinely pious, leaving his life as a Siberian peasant to become a pilgrim, traipsing from place to place in search of spiritual wisdom. Many found him plausible, which was how he managed to persuade the comparatively reasonable cleric Feofan, rector of the theological seminary, to accept him into his house in St Petersburg, and how Rasputin came to meet gullible salonnières, and eventually, the empress herself. There is no reason to doubt that his ministrations to her son Alexis did have some efficacy. Whereas Welch sensibly points out that Rasputin calmed the little boy, and that by reducing tension and blood pressure he probably did some good, Smith gives us several pages of statistics about the numbers of American scientists and doctors who believe that prayer can actually cure disease.

Some readers will grow very tired — I did — of being told that previous biographers have got Rasputin wrong, or missed some vital piece of evidence. Smith says that Rasputin’s first letter written to Nicholas II ‘has eluded previous biographers’, but it is in print; Smith did not discover it, nor is it especially interesting or significant. Another letter, ‘overlooked by previous biographers’, has been discovered by Smith in the St Petersburg state archive — about an investigation by the secret police into Rasputin’s bizarre ritual practices. Was he a ‘Khlyst’, a heretic sectary who practised mutilation and possibly sexually deviant activity? Probably not. The letter is actually totally unrevealing on the subject, which is probably why previous biographers ignored it.

There is slightly more mileage in the chapter on the incident at the Yar restaurant in Moscow in 1915, but even here, Smith is heavy-handed. That evening, as Rasputin fans will remember, was a convivial one, until Rasputin drank too much and began some Trump-style sexual bragging, and name-dropping about his intimacy with the empress. As he got carried away, not merely names but his trousers were also dropped, and Rasputin is said to have done a bit of flashing. One of the witnesses was the British diplomat Robert Bruce-Lockhart. Smith is quite good at demolishing the myth of the Yar restaurant. Bruce-Lockhart, he shows, was not even there. In the police report on the evening, there is no mention of Rasputin being drunk, let alone making an exhibition of himself. The priapic show-off is the Rasputin in whom we want to believe — and so the myth was born.

Smith spreads the last two years of Rasputin’s life over a very leisurely 300 pages. Yusupov’s decision to murder Rasputin is handled in a much earlier chapter of the book. By the time of the murder, we are on page 591. The emperor has gone to the front. The poor demented empress is in sole charge of the government and relies more and more on Rasputin for advice. Something had to be done to get rid of him. Even if he had been a saint, rather than the mixed bag Smith depicts, and even if all of what his detractors said of him was false, the reader would now pay to have him put down. Elizabeth David’s repeated instruction with sauce — ‘reduce’ — is one which windy biographers, who can easily rattle off 5,000 words a day on the laptop, should take to heart.

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