At just over 650 pages this offers a comprehensive account of Grigory Efimovich Rasputin’s life and deaths. Deaths—plural. Most of us are familiar with the legend that Rasputin was poisoned, shot and finally drowned. His bound hands still clawing underneath the ice. Radzinsky takes the reader through different versions, but with the same outcome. Rasputin was murdered. The question of why he was murdered in much the same way that the tsar, tsarina and the Romanov children were murdered, he leaves to the last paragraph of his account.
Rasputin is the key to understanding both the soul and brutality of the Russia that came after him. He was a precursor of the millions of peasants who, with religious consciousness on their souls, would nevertheless tear down churches, and who, with a dream of the reign of Love and Justice, would murder, rape, and flood the country with blood, in the end destroying themselves.
There is an Afterword, in Putin’s Russia the name St Petersburg had been restored (formerly Petrograd and Leningrad) and the coffin of the tsars (like Rasputin’s body their bodies were burned to ash, so it would be an empty coffin) was returned from Ekaterinburg and laid to rest in the great cathedral. Putin said he wouldn’t attend, but did. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra (Alix) and their children Olga, Tatyana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexi were feted as living saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a black and white, cartoonish, world it was Rasputin that led they astray, and while he lingers in infamy their goodness vindicated shines anew.
When you look for miracles, often you find them, especially if you are one of the last autocratic rulers on one of the biggest and richest, but technologically backward countries on earth. The 1905 war against Japan had ended in Russia’s humiliation. I’m no fan of Shakespeare but Richard II and the appeal for treason is perhaps a good place to start if you want to understand autocracy.
‘The unreal world of miracles and prophecies was increasingly becoming Alix’s real world. In Sarov they spent whole evenings by the spring and the rock where Serafim had lifted his voice in prayer. At night she and Nicky would bathe in the waters of the spring, putting their trust in the saint’s help and praying for an heir.’
The tsarina Alexi resented that Alexander II who was appointed by God to rule over the Russian people could no longer do so directly be decree. He had to pay more than lip service to the Duma. And she feared her son Alexi would inherit the wind. His powers would be curbed and he would be little more than a token head of state like her grandmother, Queen Victoria. But the blood of the Romanov’s was tainted. Alexi was born with haemophilia. There was no cure, but Rasputin.
As a peasant he was a direct link to the Rus, the real Russian people that provided the bread that they all ate. He called the tsarina, ‘Mamma,’ and tsar, ‘Pappa,’ mother and father of all Russia. God’s anointed. And he prophesised that their paths and that of all Russia, were inextricably linked.
Radzinsky allows Rasputin to be both miraculous and diabolic. The spirit the peasant channels he suggests, however, is Alix’s. Semi-literate, he could read her easier than he could any book. Her wishes, where his wishes. ‘Pappa,’ needed to be sure that God was watching over him. Rasputin gave him evidence of this. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a useful tool.
Sex plays a big part in the legend of Rasputin. Radzinsky links it to secret sect of Christianity that didn’t come from the West of Europe and was purely Russian in origin, but were more universal in their ideas of chastising and subjugating the body for Christ’s glory. The Skoptsy (Castrators) cut off their penis. The Kylysty (Flagellants) was another heretic sect with a belief in the second coming of a Russian redeemer to liberate the oppressed and dating back to the seventeen century to the time of the first Romanov’s. A mixture of paganism and Russian Othordoxy. It taught that every man should become Christ and the Holy Ghost would descend upon him. Self-scourging, Christ-like flagellation and ascetic practices were one part of their belief. But during radenic (rejoicing) at communal gatherings, when the Holy Ghost descended an orgy took place. Svalnyi grekh (group sinning) promiscuous sex between men and women took place in order to conceive as many new ‘Christs’ and ‘Mothers of God’ as possible.
Rasputin when having sex with many women followers was healing them and himself of the sin of lechery by having sex. Tautological reasoning, but for Rasputin it was a living creed. He wore out many couches he kept in the houses in which he lodged and his sexual appetite was overwhelming. ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa,’ believe none of these government reports, believing him, Christ-like, to be unjustly accused and vilified.
With a direct link to the highest of the high, the tsar and tsarina, Rasputin pedalled public offices and millions of roubles passed through his hands. Much of it stolen by his ‘secretaries’.
The plot to kill Rasputin came from the highest reals of Russian society, member of the Yacht club. The war with Germany was a debacle mirroring that of Japan. While condemning the tsar would be an act of treason, criticising his Germanic bride was not, and demonising her proxy Rasputin was aligned with a malignant hatred of a peasant interfering in matters of state. An act of righteousness would wipe out Rasputin. Peasants could be quietly flayed and beaten to death. But there was a note of caution. Rasputin’s supernatural powers, his guards, and ‘Mamma’ and ‘Pappa’ watching over him, yet the plan to kill him was quite straightforward.
‘At Midnight A Friend Will Come To See Him.’ (16th / 17th December 1916)
The Friend is Prince Felix Yusopov, a bisexual, who dressed in girl’s clothes as a little boy and had sex with other men and women. Radzinsky hints he may have been treated for his homosexuality by Rasputin, in what ways is not made clear. Yusopov had millions of roubles and thousands of hectares of land, he was friends and neighbours with the Romanovs. Yusopov’s wife, Irna, a society beauty was the—missing—bait in the trap. The hypocrisy of the widespread acceptance of Yusopov’s sexuality and the condemnation of Rasputin’s was based on class. Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich who was briefly engaged to one of tsar’s daughters, before it was called after a behind-the-scenes scandal about his love affair with Felix, was said to have fired the final shots at Rasputin and left him for dead (although water in his lung suggested to pathologists he’d finally drowned). Felix shot him too. And tried to poison him. Radzinsky explains these failures were not supernatural, but amateurish attempts to take his life.
The police account of hearing three or four shots and having seen Prince Yusopov and his butler crossing the courtyard of his palace was significant in that office was a public servant, little more than a jumped-up peasant, the other a Prince. One’s testimony could be believed, the other ignored. Class matters. And it never mattered more in the cover-ups then and after the 1916 revolution. Rasputin was said to have prophesised his own death and the Bolshevik revolution in the name of natural justice that would end with the Romanov’s deaths mirroring Rasputin’s. He created his own hell and he paid the price of being an upstart peasant. The Romanov’s are in heaven looking down on us. Aye, right. Believe that and you’ll believe anything. Read on.