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The Rasputin File

by Edward Radzinsky
479 pages,
ISBN: I58648043X


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The Religion of Rasputin
by Hugh Graham

"Without Rasputin", said Alexander Kerensky, "there would have been no Lenin." And ipso facto no twentieth century as we know it. History, of course is inscrutable. Even the driest account of this Siberian peasant's ascent to power over the Russian throne, his grisly murder and its prompting of the revolution of 1917 amounts to a medieval horror tale which culminated within living memory.

But then Rasputin is explained more easily by the late Russian middle ages than by the twentieth century. He was the product of the weird pagan-Christian sectarianism that survived everywhere in the Russian backwoods from the Ukraine to Siberia and beyond. As Edward Radzinsky shows in his heavily researched and surely definitive book, The Rasputin File, it is no longer speculation that he was a secret member of the Khlysty¨a group that indulged communal sexual freedom with ascetic self-denial, believing that each man and woman was redeemed through sin and repentance, that each was, literally, "a little Christ."

So the peasant Rasputin was as much the issue of Russian history as were Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra who followed an old tradition of resorting to Seers and Shamans. For three centuries at least the wisdom of all of Russia was seen to be preserved in its common people and especially in their essence¨'the Holy Fools.' Taking a verse from St. Paul to arcane extremes, certain elect in medieval Russia behaved as madmen wandering about in winter in nothing but chains and a loincloth, revered and fed by the people. As Radzinsky tells us, it was with a simple reprimand that a Holy Fool known as Nikolai stopped Ivan the Terrible from torturing and exterminating the people of Pskov. Four centuries later, Nicholas and Alexandra, mediocre minds and gentle hearts, quailed before a combination of social discontent and bad omens. The aborted Revolution of 1905 had exposed rage in the people; the Russo-Japanese War of 1905-1907 had ended in humiliation. The 'Tsars' wanted advice from heaven. Why else would Tsar Nicholas II, after his redoubtable Prime Minister Stolypin presented reports on the Holy Fool Rasputin's drunkenness and debauchery, effectively tell his Minister to mind his own business?

Rasputin's remarkable alleviation of the Tsarevich's haemophilia had gained the monk control over the boy's mother the Tsarina. She already dominated her husband, Nicholas, and through her Rasputin had come to exert profound influence on the Tsar and Russian policy. Rasputin's extraordinary charisma, intuition and canny intelligence are the stuff of fact, not myth. Time and again he is credited by eye-witnesses with divining their preoccupations at a glance. He understood and predicted political events inscrutable to those in the thick of them. Rasputin alone foresaw the assassination of Stolypin and that made people afraid of him. Simple advice he casually gave about the war, such as shifting troops to cover a vulnerable point in the Russian rear in Rumania contributed to the belief that he was a German spy. But he knew, like the Bolsheviks who came after him, that the heavy cost of the war, whether won or lost would bring on revolution. Of course no one listened. The politicians, capitalists and aristocrats still lived in the nineteenth century; while this medieval monk already had the instincts of the mass age.

If he remains an enigma, part of the reason is that a guileless sincerity coexisted with his cunning and contempt for politics. And in fact, Radzinsky's account provides a sort of rehabilitation. The book's raison d'Otre is the discovery of a crucial file missing from a series of interrogations carried out by the Bolsheviks in 1917. In the Extraordinary Commission all those who were questioned had been associated with the monk, and were part of the corruption at the heart of the regime and its collapse two months after his murder. One file apparently went missing because it contained all the testimony which put Rasputin in a more favourable light. Radzinsky obtained access to the document after it was auctioned anonymously at Sotheby's.

Rasputin, from the author's private collection

The Rasputin that emerges was cold sober, if still lusty until 1915. He practiced what he preached, hating formality and preaching simplicity with a childish naivetT that thrived alongside common sense. He is accused again and again of being greedy for power but evidence shows that he was too careless, too confident of his favour by the throne to grub for position and influence, and had little capacity for vengeance. Interrogated by the Church and beaten with a crucifix for his debauchery by the reactionary monk Illiodor and his superior Hermogen, he was humble and self-abasing.

From the beginning, he was a sexual libertine, but Radzinsky shows that his sexual practices followed Khlysty doctrine and repentance. The early scandal of his visits to bath-houses where he sat naked with women were found to be part of peasant practice in Siberia, the resistance to arousal being proof of godly virility. The police spies who meticulously recorded his every move reported numerous sessions with prostitutes; but on these sallies he muttered, beating his sides with his arms; more often than not he only had the girls strip naked, paid them and left. There is, in other words, the painful attempt to resist sin at every turn; the inner battle that is part of Khlysty ritual and paradox. The ranking of his female devotees bears it out: those who rejected his advances outright, or resisted him most he revered as part of his inner circle. Those who offered themselves were quickly taken, then cursed and sent packing.

The daily regime by which he lived began to fray not with hubris, greed or power, but with suffering and depression brought on by an overpowering sense of doom. Together with the danger and hatred that began to hem him in, events caused him to succumb to alcohol and wild conduct that showed little care for power or image. The onset of the First World War, to which he was opposed for its slaughter of his brother peasants; his attempted murder in 1915 through a deep stab-wound inflicted by an agent of Illiodor and the drafting of his own son into the ranks all drove him to the precipice. At his least dignified he boasted, showed off, handled women, but it was tragic and self-destructive rather than malign. A friend reports him crying after a bender with a sense of helplessness, self-loathing and doom.

His frequent repentance suggests that he did believe he was working on behalf of Heaven to make a Russia that combined God and Tsar with the people for the good of the peasant majority; and at the expense of the nobility, parliament and bourgeoisie, both left and right. Aware of the forces that worked to destroy him he used imperial favour to promote his own ministers. When they worked to exploit him, bring him down and sometimes even to murder him, he arranged for their dismissal. Thus it was that he held power until he was murdered in an aristocratic conspiracy led by Prince Yussupov.

That Rasputin's only interest was the acquisition of wealth and power seems, on the evidence, to be pure myth. His politics were unabashedly populist¨even, by some measures, a "socialism from above". Hating the right of money and aristocracy as much as the revolutionary left, he cleaved to a centre of throne and peasantry. "Both our rightists and leftists are fools," he said to the Tsarina, "You Mother, hold to the centre..."(p. 415). Repeatedly and to no avail he urged the Czar to avert famine by an ingenious reform of food distribution. History would prove him right. In the end, his vision amounts to Lenin with a sceptre and indeed when the Bolshevik Bronch-Breuvich showed him a portrait of Marx, Rasputin, ignorant of the subject's identity but overwhelmed with its presence said, "That's somebody the people should follow in regiments"(p. 313).

If his poisoning, like his enormous sexual endowment appear, according to Radzinsky, to be myths, the answer to his mysterious power and his understanding of Russia have gone to the winds with his ashes. Police photos of Rasputin's frozen corpse never before seen in the West, show that he, after being shot in the head and chest and thrown bound into the frozen Malaya Nevka river, had the superhuman strength to undo the ropes under water: the frozen corpse with burst ropes and petrified arms reaches horrifically up to the sky¨as if beseeching and warning. For indeed today's Russia is not that different from the Russia Rasputin came to mourn, a Russia of the plotters and visionless schemers who surrounded him. As Radzinsky tells us, "They all practiced the art of mutual extermination. Although without realising that it was rocking the common boat, the very one they were in themselves¨one which was barely afloat. . . As is clear today in Russia at the beginning of a new millennium" (p. 410).

Like his subject, Radzinsky's style is dramatic and a little fevered, but it provides a fine balance to his scholarship. One only wishes his simple conclusion that Rasputin embodied Russia's self-destructiveness had been tempered with more reflection on Rasputin's better side and the Tsar's failure to follow it ˛

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