Saint or sinner…
🙂 🙂 🙂
Douglas Smith starts his biography of Rasputin by laying out the two competing claims about him that were current during his life and still rumble on today: that he was the ‘mad monk’, the ‘holy devil’, debauched and wicked, practising profane religious rites, and with an unhealthy grip on the Tsar; or, that he was a true holy man and visionary, so much so that some groups within the Orthodox church are attempting to have him made a saint.
He begins by telling us what little is known of Rasputin’s early years in a peasant village in Siberia. Smith shows how difficult it is to sift through the layers of later accounts to get to the truth, especially about someone who lived in a largely illiterate milieu. Some accounts describe him as dirty and uncouth, a thief and a horse-thief, but Smith says the original records don’t support these claims. What is true is that he married and had several children, of whom many died. In his late twenties, he took to going off on pilgrimages, apparently a common occurrence in the Russia of that time. However, he looked after his family in financial terms and continued to return to his home village throughout his life. He gradually acquired a reputation as a starets, a kind of religious elder sought out for spiritual guidance.
At this early stage, the book is very well written. Notes are kept out of the way at the back, so that the main text maintains a good flow without too many digressions into the minutiae of sources.
Smith then takes the tale to the Romanov court, giving the background to the marriage and relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra. He gives a fascinating picture of the various strange religious sects that grew up in late 19th century Russia, and how susceptible the Romanovs and high society in general were to the latest ‘holy man’ to come along. Rasputin was not the first visionary to be taken up by the Royal couple. But because of the timing, when the state was already cracking, war was on its way and revolutionary fervour was building, he became a focus of much of what people despised about the ruling class.
Unfortunately, once these excellent introductory chapters are out of the way, the rest of the book gets bogged down in a morass of rather repetitive detail. It tends to take the format of Smith telling us about reports of some unsavoury episode in Rasputin’s life, and then going back over it to show that either it couldn’t be true or that it can’t be proven. As is always a problem with this period of Russian history, there’s a constantly changing cast of characters near the throne, so that names came and went without me feeling I was getting to know much about them. When the book concentrates specifically on the Romanovs it feels focused, and I did get a good impression of how detached they were from the Russian people’s opinion of them, especially Alexandra. But Rasputin himself felt ever vaguer as every story about him was shown to be at best misleading and at worst untrue. I felt I learned far more about who Rasputin wasn’t than about who he was. Maybe that was the point, but it made for unsatisfactory reading from my perspective.
There is a lot of information about the various efforts to persuade the Romanovs to give Rasputin up. For years he was under investigation and being tracked by the authorities, while the newspapers were printing ever more salacious details about his alleged debauchery. Again Smith goes into far too much detail; for example, on one occasion actually listing the names of the eight secret service men who were detailed to monitor him – information that surely should have been relegated to the notes if it is indeed required at all. And again, far more time is spent debunking false newspaper stories than detailing the true facts.
I found this a frustrating read. Smith’s research is obviously immense and the book does create a real impression of the strange, brittle society at the top of Russia and its desperate search for some kind of spiritual meaning or revelation. But the same clarity doesn’t apply to Rasputin – I felt no nearer knowing the true character of the man at the end as at the beginning; if anything, I felt he had become even more obscure. Smith often seems like something of an apologist for him, although he never openly says so. But when, for example, he treats seriously the question of whether Rasputin was actually a genuine faith healer, then I fear the book began to lose credibility with me. The question of whether Rasputin was a debauched lecher living off his rich patrons or a holy man sent by God to save Russia seemed relatively easy to answer, and I found the book tended to overcomplicate the issue in an attempt to portray both sides equally. A bit like giving equal prominence to climate change deniers as to the 97% of scientists who know it to be true.
The book has won awards, so clearly other people have been more impressed by it than I was. I do think it’s an interesting if over-long read, but more for what it tells us about the last days of the Romanovs than for what it reveals about Rasputin. For me, the definitive biography of this uniquely intriguing life remains to be written.