As we immerse ourselves in this year’s commemoration of 1917, we should not forget the recently passed centenary of the man who was more responsible than any other for bringing down the Romanovs. Such a grand claim for Grigory Rasputin’s significance may invite scepticism, but Douglas Smith’s engrossing and deeply researched biography shows that it is sustainable, as long as “Rasputin” is securely encased within inverted commas. This Siberian holy man was important less for what he was and did than for what he was taken to do and be.
His story remains astonishing, even after all the previous tellings. In 1897, Rasputin was in his late twenties, middle-aged in peasant terms, and living with his parents, wife and son in a typical rural household in Western Siberia. He suddenly broke with family routine by embarking on several years of pilgrimage, returning home only intermittently. This period of spiritual quest and adventure honed his gifts of psychological insight and persuasion: as he wandered from one set of strangers to another, he learned to assess them rapidly, speak to their fears and concerns, and exude rough-hewn sanctity. Within a few years he had established himself as a local holy man with his own set of followers.
In 1904 or 1905, after making his way to Kazan and impressing prominent local clergymen, Rasputin gained an introduction to the St Petersburg Theological Academy. In the capital, he quickly found important patrons in the mystically inclined aristocratic and court elite. These connections led him soon enough to the imperial couple. He met the emperor for the first time in November 1905, and in due course became Nicholas and Alexandra’s most trusted and valued confidant. He would retain this status in the face of extraordinary pressures. For years he was hounded by Russia’s unruly press and subjected to close surveillance by the security police, usually at the instigation of officials deeply hostile to him; the voluminous police files are a large part of the reason that we know so much about Rasputin, and that Smith’s book can stretch to 700 pages without strain.
The Church was another powerful antagonist: Rasputin was investigated at length by the ecclesiastical authorities in his native Tobolsk on suspicion of engaging in a particularly nefarious form of sectarianism, and later on he would earn the undying enmity of much of the empire’s clerical establishment. Rasputin achieved the striking feat of uniting Russian society, if only in the conviction that he was responsible for corrupting the country’s autocracy and, in 1915–16, for leading Russia towards disaster in the war. A long succession of ministers, courtiers and family members warned Nicholas and Alexandra that Rasputin was undermining their authority and ruining the country, each time presenting them with apparently incontrovertible evidence of his depravity. Some of Rasputin’s opponents went even further: a deranged follower of the renegade monk Iliodor knifed him outside his house in June 1914, no less a figure than the Minister of Internal Affairs tried to arrange his murder, and Rasputin received death threats even on the day before the assassins finally got to him. In the early hours of December 17, 1916, he was shot dead, probably while fleeing his assailants in the yard of an aristocratic Petersburg residence.
We are left pondering several related questions: how did Rasputin survive as long as 1916; what was it about him that made the imperial couple shut their eyes to his ostensible turpitude; and what did his influence on them amount to? The reasons for Rasputin’s longevity lie partly within the imperial couple themselves. Nicholas was reserved and diffident, Alexandra was mystically inclined and pathologically private, but they both believed absolutely in the prerogatives of autocracy. They craved emotional support from someone who was not part of or beholden to the court elite around them. As Smith points out, Rasputin was not the first “Our Friend” at the imperial residence of Tsarskoe Selo: in the early 1900s Nicholas and Alexandra had been intimate with a renowned occultist named Monsieur Philippe, parting with him only after being told repeatedly of the damage he was doing to their reputation. It was only a matter of time before the Frenchman was replaced by someone closer to home. Rasputin was the right candidate at the right moment: as an authentic Russian peasant, a native of Siberia, that bastion of fearless and uncorrupted national values, he offered the imperial couple a direct line to “the people” and indulged their belief that they ruled in the interests of common folk and in defiance of treacherous urban elites. Perhaps Nicholas and Alexandra were not entirely misguided: the elites of court and high officialdom were hardly the most reliable source of disinterested information or intelligent insight, as Smith shows us at many turns.
But the causes of Rasputin’s success also lie within the man himself. He may not have possessed supernatural powers, but he did have a compelling aura of sympathy, insight, vitality and inner strength. His “miraculous” healing of the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei can readily be explained as the power of calming words delivered at just the right moment in just the right tone. At the same time, Smith shows, Rasputin’s broader influence on tsarist decision-making was hugely exaggerated. It is true that he offered a great deal of advice to Nicholas and Alexandra on matters of state; in his very first letter to Nicholas, just four days after their meeting, he told the Emperor how he should conduct himself in the face of the “terrible argument” (namely, revolutionary unrest) that was convulsing Russia at the time. But it is hard to demonstrate that this advice was ever decisive on any matter of great import. Rasputin’s main role was to tell the unconfident but deeply stubborn Emperor what he wanted to hear, and when he failed to do so, he was not notably more successful than anyone else in persuading Nicholas to change his mind. Although the international press speculated that Rasputin lent a hand in Russia’s slide to war in 1914, in fact he argued strongly against joining hostilities, and pacifism was an admirable constant in his world view. Here, as when he urged the Tsar in 1916 to make popular well-being his highest priority, Rasputin was quite often ignored when he gave good advice. He also tended to be ignored when he gave thoroughly useless advice on matters far beyond his competence. Where he was often successful was in securing more limited interventions – to put right cases of perceived injustice, to further careers, or to push through pet projects. Like any court favourite, Rasputin had considerable powers of patronage, which he dispensed in relatively equitable fashion, keeping open house to the endless flow of petitioners at his apartment on Gorokhovaya St. It was hard and dangerous work being a Svengali, and by late 1916 the compensations – drinking, dancing, women – probably did not seem adequate.
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