Book Review: Rasputin
Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016
Douglas Smith opens his long, scrupulously-detailed new biography of Grigori Rasputin, the so-called “mad monk” of Imperial Russia, with just the kind of breathless summary that’s so depressingly common in biographies of this man:
The life of Rasputin is one of the most remarkable in modern history. It reads like a dark fairy tale. An obscure, uneducated peasant from the wilds of Siberia receives a calling from God and sets out in search of the truth faith, a journey that leads him across the vast expanses of Russian for many years before finally bringing him to the palace of the tsar. The royal family takes him in and is bewitched by his piety, his unerring insights into the human soul, and his simple peasant ways.
“To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realize, was to completely misunderstand him,” Smith goes on, as the reader’s spirits sink lower and lower. “There is no Rasputin without the stories about Rasputin.”
This is all a prime example of what a polite Russian might call fignya, and it’s always made Rasputin biographies fairly tough going for even the most indulgent reader. The stories of this charlatan’s influence – his debauchery, his tawdry little miracles, the magnetic force of his personality and its Svengali-like sway over Tsar Nicholas and especially his wife – were already being exaggerated to preposterous extents long before the man himself died, and the manner of his death itself, first poisoned then shot then shot some more then drowned, was immediately given the status of myth. So a new biographer roundly declaring that it’s a mistake to separate the man from the mythology doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Fortunately, Smith has a more rigorous approach to that mythology in mind, and a great and satisfying proportion of his book is devoted not so much to mad-monking as to glad-debunking; story after story, incident after incident, everything is sifted and studied right down to its primary sources, from Rasputin’s boyhood in the frozen wastes at the end of the world to his death and the hauling of his frozen stiff corpse out of the River Neva in 1916. It turns out that Smith’s throat-clearing nods to the oversized mythology of Rasputin isn’t so much program as prelude: he upends that mythology all throughout his book, and every chapter is full of bigger-picture insights about the phenomenon of Rasputin, which he finds rooted in Russian tradition:
Rasputin needs to be seen as one more in a long line of Russian royal favorites. But the changing nature of the institution, and Rasputin’s own personality, made for important differences. Rasputin truly did come from the mud, but unlike his predecessors he never left it. He did not become a permanent creature of court, nervously trying to wash himself clean of his past and assimilate, with a bit too much eagerness, into the ranks of the aristocracy, grabbing at titles, orders, estates, and money. Just the opposite.
Saying that Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is the final word in English on the subject is both an accolade and an aspiration; this account far exceeds all previous ones, and maybe that means we need never hear about this jumped-up bogey man again? That would be a very nice fairy tale indeed.