Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

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.

Rasputin with Tsarina Alexandra and children

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.

Rasputin with his (mostly female) aristocratic acolytes

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.

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32 thoughts on “Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

  1. I’d be more interested in reading historical fiction about the Romanovs and imperial Russia than about Rasputin who, in spite of his proximity to the dynasty, doesn’t really appeal to me. It’s unfortunate that this book did not meet your expectations.

    • I wasn’t interested in him till I started reading about the Revolution and realised his name comes up all the time, so felt I should find out more than just the scandalous stories about him. But unfortunately this book didn’t quite do what I hoped – oh, well!

  2. Rasputin has always fascinated me but I’ve never read anything about him and I’m not sure this is the place to start. I felt your frustration in your review, which was excellent and detailed as always. I might need to look at other options (if I ever get to that point!).

    • I suspect there are so many legends and so much original source material has disappeared that it might be impossible to ever really know the truth about him, but I did feel this book got too bogged down in disproving some of the more salacious stories rather than actually revealing the man. But he is a fascinating character – I too will be keeping an eye open for other books about him… 🙂

  3. It’s such an interesting time in history, FictionFan, and there’s such a lot there. Sorry to hear that the book got a bit bogged down with it all. I know what you mean, too, about the attempt to present all sides of a topic. That’s all well and good – in fact, I like it when the topic is truly controversial – but sometimes it does go a bit far. Still, it sounds as though there’s some interesting information here.

    • It wasn’t a complete bust because it did give a good picture of the upper levels of society just before the revolution, but unfortunately Rasputin himself didn’t really emerge from the pages, I felt. And I do think Smith was trying too hard to be “fair” – sometimes fairness doesn’t mean giving equal weight to different sides, when one side is clearly true and the other clearly false…

    • Yes, all of these Russian history books are massive, but sometimes it’s because they’re full of relevant information, while other times, like this one, they just feel in need of a strong editor. But parts of it were certainly interesting, so not a complete bust…

  4. I’ve always been fascinated by the Romanov Family and Rasputin. I’ve stuck to historical fiction with the occasional Google search. Based on your review, I think I’ll stick to that for now at least.

    • I thought this was much better on the Romanovs than it was on Rasputin so am quite glad I read it for that reason. But Rasputin himself never really came to life for me. I still can’t understand why so many women apparently found him fascinating…

  5. It’s a shame this book didn’t give you what you were hoping for. While I enjoyed your review and am interested in the Romanovs and Rasputin (to a point), I’m more likely to read a book (with pictures) about the Romanov’s Faberge Egg collection…

    • It was a pity, since I’d heard lots of praise for it – oh, well! Ooh, I’d read that too – I’m surprised nobody did a book on that aspect as part of the centenary. Or not one I spotted anyway – I must check. It’s the kind of book the British Library tends to do well…

  6. Hmm, doesn’t sound like something I need to read, thanks to your most excellent review, FF. Gee, it seems like very few of these Russian Revolution novels are piquing my interest. Oh, well, chin up — it’s another weekend. Make it a happy one!

    • All the Russian history books are definitely only for people who are really interested – they’re so huge! But some of the fiction I’ve read has been more enjoyable, and I still have a couple to go which look good. I may be able to tempt you yet… 😉

  7. A couple of weeks ago I was trying to read this article in the Smithsonian Magazine that was all about Russia so that I could talk to you about it later, but it was so long and had so many different names and dates that I was lost. It sounds like this book is doing much of the same thing, but I’m not surprised. Weirdly enough, I remember the first time I ever talked or learned about Russia in a class, probably around sixth-grade. We talked about how the country was so big there was no way that one ruler could actually have any idea about what was going on in the various parts of the country that were nothing alike. That’s stuck with me and shaped the way I think about large countries.

    • Obviously I’ve got a better idea about the main players now than I had before I started this challenge, but there are still so many of them that I end up in a state of constant confusion unless the author is good at reminding me of who they are and what faction they’re from. And in this one, I didn’t feel that was really happening. Yes, it’s true that Russia, never mind the Soviet Union, seems to be more like a collection of small countries rather than one big one, all with different customs and religious traditions. Especially difficult back in the days when communication and travel took so long…

  8. I was looking forward to seeing what you thought of this after glimpsing it on your ‘currently reading’. Always interesting to read a view dissenting somewhat from the mainstream one! I like your comparison with climate change denial, that whole even-handed historian thing can occasionally be a bit eyebrow-raising when it comes to certain topics.

    • It’s a pity because I was really looking forward to this one. I suspect there might not be enough hard evidence to really pin down Rasputin’s character – so much propaganda written about him from both sides. But I hate coming out of a biography feeling as if I still don’t really know the subject. Yes, I prefer a historian to take a side, on the whole, so long as they don’t let their bias get in the way of truth. But if someone who’s studied a person in depth over years still hasn’t made up his mind, what chance is there for the rest of us!

  9. The only thing I know about Rasputin is the song about him, which is admittedly, quite catchy. It sounds like this is the worst kind of ‘long’ book: here’s a story, now i”m going to tell you why you shouldn’t believe it. Ughhh so frustrating!

    • Haha – that pesky song has been going round in my head all the time it took me to read the book. Aargh! Yeah, if I read 800 pages about somebody, I like to feel I know him by the end of it…

    • I don’t skip with non-fiction very often, though I do quite often with a fiction book that’s not grabbing me. But I have to discipline myself to read non-fiction at all and I fear if I started skimming, it would be the start of a slippery slope… 😉

  10. I think Candace Fleming would dispute the part about Rasputin being a clean person. In her heavily endnoted book, The Family Romanovs, she describes him as being fairly dirty. The Romanovs were tied to him because of their son, who suffered from hemophilia. They believed that Rasputin had some sort of healing power, and Alexandra would do anything to save her son. This book sounds frustrating, so I think I’ll stick with the small amount I know about his from Fleming’s book. Cheers!

    • There seem to be two schools of thought on his grubbiness. Apparently one of his ways of ‘communing’ with his acolytes was to take baths with them. (I still feel somewhat queasy at that thought.) Yes, I got the impression that Nicholas wasn’t so convinced, but wasn’t able to say no to Alexandra. For every fact that ‘proves’ anything about him, there seems to be another fact ‘proving’ the opposite – frustrating!

    • He is and he does! Frankly I think one learns just as much from Boney M and I’m kinda wishing now I’d saved myself the time and just memorised all the lyrics of that… 😉

  11. Fantastic review. I’m wondering if I want to read this next and have heard such mixed things, as you said, that it’s more about debunking the popular myths than about what actually happened. Kind of an odd way of telling the story if the truth isn’t known.

    • Thank you! 😀 Now that some time has past since I read it, I don’t know how worth it it was for the stuff about Rasputin himself, but I do think he gave a great picture of those last days of the Romanovs and how detached the aristocracy had become from the people they ruled. So I’d probably recommend it for that…

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