Rasputin still refuses to die

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.

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