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Book review: Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

Douglas Smith’s magisterial Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs (New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016) is a story of mass hysteria that resulted in a murder most foul. The object of the hysteria was Grigori Rasputin, hypnotically spiritual, if increasingly debauched, Siberian peasant, who weaseled his way into the confidence of the imperial family and made himself indispensable to them.

Lacking sufficient spiritual fulfillment in the rigidly formalized Russian Orthodox Church, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra chose Rasputin as their own confidante and favorite. As they saw it, he was their direct link to God and the Russian people.

The starets wielded enormous influence via Alexandra, and, by 1916, he felt free to pontificate about anything from minor court issues through governmental appointments to war strategy.   This, after all, was a traditional role of a favorite. And Russia’s antiquated autocratic system afforded the man of the people a venue to suggest myriad solutions.  The mechanism was rather conventional:  Alexandra brainstormed, Rasputin chimed in (although he is known to have initiated the process sometimes), and then the Empress would nag the Emperor.

Nicholas, to his credit, sometimes ignored the duo; at other times, he obediently caved in. Meanwhile, the elite and popular perception was that the “mad monk” was running Russia’s government. In extremis, he was perceived as Satan himself, or at least in satanic service of “Jews” and “Freemasons,” who were in cahoots with the Germans, leading Russia to perdition.

As the black legend of Rasputin grew, the revolutionaries and liberals took advantage of it to undermine the monarchy. Lenin went so far as to praise a leading ideologue of the anti-Jewish reactionary Black Hundreds for attacking Rasputin. Meanwhile, falling for the worst canards about the peasant, most Russian monarchists became utterly alienated from their sovereign. It was they who plotted the assassination and carried it out ultimately in December 1916. They thought they were saving Russia and the Tsar, but they most likely merely expedited the demise of the system.

Douglas Smith painted a superbly realistic portrait of the times as an indispensable backdrop for an extremely detailed biography of the Siberian peasant, finally doing him justice. The author had to break through a cacophony of disinformation and mendacious layers of accretion that not just obscured the protagonist, but simply buried him under an avalanche of mud-slinging.

One admires, in particular, the way the historian intrepidly delves into tainted sources: from a self-serving memoir of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the assassins, and a Rufmord job by erstwhile monk Ilidor, a would-be assassin through a gargantuan heap of punditry and scholarship, mostly of dubious value, all the way to 24 archives (including 11 in Russia alone) and one hundred fifty-four contemporary newspapers and journals. This is a masterpiece of truly Rankean proportions.

Smith has commanded my eternal gratitude since his masterful Former People. With Rasputin, he has established the iridium-platinum standard for a biography of a person most of us thought required no further explication. By the way, it is now definite that Rasputin was not a khlyst. He was an Orthodox believer, but with his own cult following and sectarian mannerisms. That’s just one example of Smith’s yeoman’s work. Highly recommended.

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