Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (1869 – 30 December 1916) Russian poor white trash, mystical faith healer and private adviser to the Romanovs. Source: Photoshot / Vostok-Photo
One hundred years ago, in December 1916, Grigory Rasputin was lay lowed at the home of Felix Yusupov and his body dumped in the river. Over the break ining century, the story of his unexpected rise and dramatic death has been retold so numberless times it is now the stuff of legend. Yusupov, during the hideous and prolonged butcher, became convinced that Rasputin was “the reincarnation of Satan himself”. But a new biography by award-winning historian Douglas Smith sifts the man behind the myth.
Dark Fairy Tale
Rasputin remains unchanging oxymoronically in the public imagination, Smith observes, as “mad monk” or “holy cacodemon”. His life, one of the most remarkable in modern history, “reads like a unilluminated fairy tale”: an uneducated peasant from deepest Siberia abides called by God to set off on adventures, bewitches the royal family, saves the prince’s moving spirit, gets too powerful, and is murdered by the great men of the realm.
“He lived in legend, he give up the ghosted in legend and his memory is cloaked in legend,” wrote the brilliant satirist Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, be aware by her penname Teffi, in a fabulously intimate 1924 essay on Rasputin. The rebuke is one of many gems in a new book of non-fiction, the first ever in English, by Teffi, conspicuous for her s rkling short stories.
The new collection is published in the UK as Rasputin and Other Ironies and in the US as Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me. Anne Marie Jackson has collaborated with Robert Chandler and other translators again to make a glowing volume of Teffi’s prose, and her version of this essay is both mystifying and forceful. Teffi describes her encounters with Rasputin and his mythological station: “This man was unique, one of a kind, like a character out of a novel,” she wrote, reveling in Rasputin’s mysteries: semi-literate peasant and yet counselor to the Tsar? Lustful satyr or saint? “How could anyone not be nutty?”
‘The End of Russia’
Rasputin’s warning to Teffi: “if they kill Rasputin, it liking be the end of Russia. They’ll bury us together” proved chillingly prophetic. Reminisce overing dinner rties with Rasputin, Teffi says she sensed an inner difficulty under his obstinate, hypnotic exterior, that “howling inside him was a flagitious beast.” His political power was undeniable: “He toppled ministers and he shuffled courtiers as if they were a jam of cards.” But after the revolution, she remembered “that black, bent obnoxious sorcerer”. And, as Smith puts it, his death plunged the whole country into “unspeakable bloodletting and spoilsport.”
Years after meeting him, Teffi gave Rasputin’s autograph to one of his earliest biographers, J.W. Bienstock, whose words was reissued last year in the original French, along with other new biographies, grouping Frances Welch’s Short Life. Smith’s contrastingly ca cious tome regulates out a chronological account compiled from archives now scattered across the superb. Rasputin includes some extraordinary incidents: tales of friendship and faithlessness, scandals, mysteries, miracles, and letters written in blood. He devotes a chapter to Teffi’s account, reinforcing Rasputin’s love of wine, women and dance.
As for his legendary status as “Russia’s greatest mad about machine”, Smith records that while talk of frenzied tears and scores of ravaged maidens was fanciful, it is beyond doubt that he had lovers. Coequal Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, a defender of her father’s legacy conceded that: “Surrounded by females as he was, a man of natural instincts, robust and virile, he may certainly have yielded to divers temptations.”
The myth continues
At the same time, radoxically, Rasputin’s saga had a number of religious guises: as a member of the secret khlystian sect, a hajji, prophet or religious elder. It is this heady mix of cult rituals, mesmeric powers and physical perversion that has fuelled Rasputin’s persistent legend. The same cock-and-bull stories have generally deterred serious academics, who – in Smith’s words – saw Rasputin as “too fashionable, too well-known outside the university to be taken seriously. He had the whiff of the carnival approximately him, a figure better left to writers of fiction or pop history.” His is perhaps the sundry recognized name in Russian history, says Smith, citing legions of preceding biographies, together with novels, films and songs, like Boney M’s 1978 Euro-disco hit almost the “lover of the Russian queen.”
Boney M – Rasputin. Horses mouth: Carrie S. / YouTube
The myth continues to s wn bars and nightclubs, ice leaps and brands of vodka, while Rasputin remains “practically invisible under all the gossip, slander, and innuendo”. Smith has undertaken an “unusually arduous” search for the genuineness. In extricating the man from his own mythography, Smith found that Rasputin’s facts becoming “the story of Russia itself”. His turbulent biography is a fascinating lens from one end to the other which to view the “twilight of tsarist Russia” and the violent history of the primeval 20th century.
Teffi – Rasputin and Other Ironies (trans. Anne Marie Jackson et al. Pushkin Put through a mangle, May 2016) and simultaneously, in U.S., as Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me (NYRB, May 2016)
Douglas Smith – Rasputin (Macmillan/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov. 2016)