Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
By Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
787 pages, $35.00
This book gets rid of the many myths about Rasputin. Secondarily it explains Rasputin’s small but important role in the Russian Revolution. Douglas Smith retells each myth, not revealing at first that it is a myth, then he tells the facts that came to light after the fall of the USSR. This strategy keeps a vast amount of material moving along.
The reason so many myths exist about Rasputin is that the fall of the Romanovs happened so soon afterwards. The murderers had to explain their actions to an ever changing parade of political flunkies that flowed into the power vacuum caused by the Revolution. Boasts, lies, and rationalizations took the place of the truth as Russia fell slowly but surely into the hands of the people who could damage her the most.
None of the legends about Rasputin are borne out by the facts. It didn’t take poison and several bullets to kill him. He didn’t sleep with the Tsarina or her daughters, though he did touch and kiss women when meeting them. He claimed it negated ulterior motives. He liked to drink and dance wildly and sleep with compliant groupies like rock stars today. But “Rasputin was an enormous nothing, and [when he was dead] dark forces remained just as before.”
In another book, “Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,” Smith explains how things were before the Revolution. A small percentage of the population in essence owned everything. People not of their class were called (in French of course) “the not born.” After the Revolution these aristocrats were called “former people” by the party apparatchiks. They ceased to exist. That’s the scope of the drama Rasputin was at the center of.
Actually the focus should be on the German princess who became Tsarina Alexandra. As tensions grew between Russia and the German states, she was an enemy within the gates. Another myth was born that Rasputin was working for her as a German spy.
When his father died, Tsar Nicholas II said, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.” And that held true until the day he and his family were shot. But “wifey” as she called herself in her letters to him had a very clear vision of what he should do. Strong of will but weak in experience, she got her personal and political opinions from Rasputin, who played her like a fiddle.
Since the church was not providing the religious insights the aristocrats needed, they went elsewhere. Mendicants, mostly harmless, wandered on endless pilgrimages to sacred places all over Russia. Some of these “starets” were recruited by the church to provide the mystical services church leaders were not allowed or able to do. There was a wild branch of the starets called the “khlysts.” They were evil. But it was hard to distinguish between them. To keep going up the religious ladder Rasputin only had to convince people that he wasn’t a khlyst. One thing a fool knows how to do is play dumb.
The Tsarina’s son’s hemophilia was untreatable so one of the Tsarina’s ladies in waiting, a disciple of Rasputin’s, suggested they ask for his blessing. Rasputin had a healing influence on the boy. That began Rasputin’s influence on the family that included good luck charms that the women were still wearing, sewn into the garments of their dresses to protect them, when they were executed. They helped for a while till the murderers gave up their knives and used pistols instead.
High ranking, conservative officials warned the Tsar that his relationship with Rasputin was hurting his relationship with his people but he ignored them. More desperate measures were needed.
The intelligentsia, the middle class liberals, hated Rasputin for a very different reason than the conservatives did. They were jealous. He’d managed to do in his unsavory, peasant-like way exactly what they wanted to do. Their goal was for the perfect peasant to meet the perfect Tsar to form a bridge between the peasantry and the Tsar. In the same spirit Tolstoy gave up literature to teach his serfs. But there was nothing perfect about this peasant or this tsar. So the intelligentsia joined with the conservatives to get rid of Rasputin.
Rasputin’s killers — aristocrats who wanted to save the monarchy from Rasputin’s influence — “hoped to free Nicholas from the influence of Rasputin and Alexandra and so save the monarchy.” Destroying Rasputin would surely destroy her, but she was made of sterner stuff. She became even more determined to follow the course set by Rasputin. Her spineless husband went along.
Rasputin’s killers were hailed as heroes and set free. But they had “not only failed to save the democracy but helped to hasten its demise.” When articles about Rasputin’s unsavory escapades appeared in the press, the Tsar, who had been forced to allow freedom of the press after the Revolution of 1905, retreated with his family to their palace in the country. World War I was a disaster for Russia and her commander in chief was in hiding.
While the middle class professionals trying to tap into Russia’s huge potential as a modern economy had nowhere to turn, the sleeping giant, the peasantry, woke up. Famine and war had decimated their ranks. “For them Rasputin had become the symbol of an omnipotent and irresponsible government that had led Russia to ruin.” Their “centuries-old faith in the tsar, in the god-given nature of his authority, was collapsing.”
The intelligentsia pressured the Tsar to abdicate hoping it would free the generals to focus on World War I. The Tsar finally agreed because his soldiers were rebelling and he didn’t want the rebellion to spread to the front. But it was too late. The peasants started taking things that didn’t belong to them. Soldiers returning home from the war took part in the pillage. From there to total chaos was one small step.
How can a modern state — and Russia was quickly becoming one — unravel so quickly? How could it go from a small number of people, the “one percent,” owning everything to having to escape their country with their jewels sewn to the linings of their coats?
Rasputin was just one scene in a five act tragedy. As long as the Tsar refused to give an inch to his liberal supporters his generals’ hands were tied and Russia’s fate was sealed. But the peasants understood that faith in a lecherous, almost illiterate, cunning madman was a clear signal that something was seriously wrong with their country.
As noted historian Richard Pipes says, “Nicholas II fell not because he was hated but because he was held in contempt.”
In 1981 the Russian church canonized the Tsar and his family and reburied them on sacred ground. Rasputin was a candidate for this honor too but too much evidence of bad behavior surfaced.
William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a long-time teacher of Russian Literature in secondary schools.