Douglas Smith seeks not only to pen a comprehensive biography of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, but also to dispel many of the myths associated with the man throughout his life. While history has developed many apocryphal tales, there were those at the time just as eager to spin stories to ruin the reputation of this gentleman. It would appear that Smith’s overarching thesis in this massive work is to separate the myths from the concrete facts, substantiated not simply by newspaper accounts or journal entries by a peppering of Russians, but to delve deeper to see what could be supported from a variety of viewpoints, always difficult due to the span of time and likely poor record keeping after an ideological purge in 1917.
Smith opens the tome with a significant admission; there was very little documented evidence of of Grigori Rasputin for the first thirty years of his life. Cobbling together what little was known, Smith shares that Rasputin grew up in a rural Siberian community to a peasant family. Rasputin’s father was well-known in his community, but not for the best reasons. It would seem that the elder Rasputin was quite a sexual deviant, spreading his form of ‘love’ with whomever he could get close to him. Smith posits that this may be where some of the fodder for future stories originated, as would become apparent later in the biography. The entire family was without formal education at a time when the Russian average was quite low as well, though it would seem Grigori was able to piece together his own form of Russian, enough that historians (and those who received his letters) could comprehend the gist of his writing. Rasputin married and bore three children, two daughters and a son, while still living as a Siberian peasant. This family unit, while they did not follow Rasputin to his life in the limelight, appeared to support him throughout, baffling to the reader who reflects on this later during the biography’s more sensational tales.
When he left home, Rasputin used what some called his ‘hypnotic eyes’ and persuasive nature to pull people into his inner circle, where he would sometimes heal by laying hands on them. It was only later that Rasputin added a degree of faith to his persona, utilising the power of the Orthodox Church to have people feel that his powers came from a connection to God. As Smith explores throughout, Rasputin was often able to convince people that the power of prayer flowed through him and that many of his divinations came from this connection to God. Rasputin caught the eye of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, both of whom were in need of help to cure their son of haemophilia. Rasputin convinced them that he could help by laying hands on the young Tsesarevich Alexei. Praying over the young boy, Rasputin appeared able to lessen the pains Alexei felt, thereby convincing the Romanov rulers that he was a good person. However, for reasons not entirely clear, Rasputin began having his name sullied in the Russian press, much as his father did back in Siberia. Newspapers would mock Rasputin’s prayers as part of a scam and highlight the man’s sexual appetite. Woven throughout the text are tales that Smith has been able to extract regarding Rasputin’s penchant for bedding numerous prostitutes a night or to find himself in sexually compromising situations with many of the Russian hierarchy. Still, as the press churned out these stories, the Tsar and Tsarina refused to believe them, going so far as to find scientific explanations for Rasputin’s sexual nature as being tied to strong religious devotion. While Rasputin remained on hand to offer his insights when they were sought, his outward appearance was anything but alluring. Smith cites numerous journals and memoirs that depict Rasputin as dirty and unkept in appearance, which only fuels some of the ongoing stories about his Siberian peasant background and how he ought not be mixing with the upper class.
While all this continued, Europe was soon pulled apart by war, with Russia in the middle of it. Rasputin begged Tsar Nicholas to stay out of the fray, but Russian troops prepared and departed to defend their allies, something Rasputin predicted might bring down the Romanovs and change Russia forever. Little did anyone know just how right he was. With the Tsar away on numerous political and business trips, Rasputin agreed to protect the Tsarina and her family for long periods of time. This also led to his advising how to handle military maneuvers and quell the ongoing distress amongst the common Russian. Smith does draw some interesting arguments around Rasputin’s leanings during the Great War, tying together the Tsarina’s closeness to the holy man and her Germanic ancestry. This was another issue the press used to pain Rasputin as a less than admirable fellow. During the part of the biography, Smith exemplifies how Russia was at Rasputin’s whim, with both the Tsar and Tsarina turning to him for advice and taking his opinions as gospel (if you will pardon the loose pun).
With all this hatred, both in print and by people in general, there were numerous plots to extinguish Rasputin’s life, including a stabbing by a woman eventually deemed not of sound mind. Smith offers some excellent details around the major plot to kill Grigori Rasputin once and for all, including an elaborate plan to poison him. When that failed to work—stunning everyone who witnessed the event—Rasputin was shot until he was assuredly dead, then tossed into the river. Smith offers up a few detailed accounts from memoirs, citing that there were certainly some extrapolations to better ‘sell’ it after the fact, including the Grigori Rasputin was “the reincarnation of Satan”. Additionally, while many may know nothing about the man, the sequence of Rasputin’s murder seems etched into the minds of many, as it has become part of global folklore over the past century. Interesting to some readers will be Smith’s exploration of some of the international flavouring of the murder of Rasputin, including the use of British agents or influence by some Europeans governments to use Russians to extinguish the proselytising of Rasputin, which stirred up the populace, at least those who were still willing to listen. Either way, a significant part of the population seemed exuberant when hearing of Rasputin’s death. This was soon followed by the exile of the Romanovs and their eventual execution when Lenin’s Bolsheviks took the reins of power, a narrative that Smith presents effectively to end the tome.
Can Rasputin be blamed for the fall of the Romanovs and the shape of the military campaign Russia undertook during the Great War? It would seem so, as Smith depicts a man who was never questioned and rarely contradicted by those in highest authority, even as many who surrounded the royals begged them to heed other advice. While it is not entirely clear just how close Rasputin was with Tsarina Alexandra, Smith makes it perfectly clear that she was entirely taken with his every word, dismissing anything others had to say. If Rasputin were not running the country, he certainly had a front row seat to whisper things into the ears of those in power, eventually dooming them for their fidelity.
Douglas Smith does a stellar job presenting an encompassing view of the life and times of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. The vast amount of information offered gives the reader much on which to feast as they come to a final conclusion about the man and the role he played in bringing down the Romanovs. While there are a number of myths propagated through history, stories, and a Euro-pop song by Boney M, Smith does not completely erase their possibility, but wants to substantiate them with research and reliable documentation. This is surely a great asset for Smith and adds validity to this biography. Pulling on as much information as possible, Smith seeks to offer a chronological view of Rasputin’s life, working with both the Julian and Gregorian calendars to offer important dates (see the introductory chapter for a full explanation) that give history some additional strength. Culling through scores of documents and synthesising them, as well as trying to get the proper translation to ensure the true flavour of the delivery, is surely of utmost importance when dealing with so many falsehoods and such a significant smear campaign. Page after page of the biography is full of information that supports the many theses that Smith puts forward. The only downside that I have come to discover is the supersaturation of information, which left me feeling overloaded. While I understand Smith wants to make the point clearly, it would seem that there was just too much to try to comprehend. Rasputin is so very misunderstood, if we are to believe Smith, as well as being extremely polarising. Truth be told, the lay reader may find the amount of supporting documentation exceeds what they can digest. Then again, others may bask in it (as I usually do), and seek more to fill in the minute gaps left out of Smith’s final publication. Overall, I was stunned with all the information I gleaned from this single volume biography and can only hope that I can find more of Smith’s writing to allow me to learn even more about the region and its complex history.
Kudos, Mr. Smith, as you have surely helped me to see just how much there is to know about Rasputin to better understand this most maligned man.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons