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Rasputin -- When Truth Really Is Stranger than Fiction

I have heard many of the same legendary tales about the Russian mystic, Grigory Rasputin, you may have heard. 

Rasputin had unexplained healing powers.  He could seduce (and apparently did) virtually any woman he wanted.  His inexplicable ties to the Romanov family (especially whispers about his relationship to the Czarina) helped lead to the downfall of the Russian royals in Lenin's brutal revolution.

But the most bizarre of these legends have to do with Rasputin's death--and how he was nearly impossible to kill, adding a "Frankenstein" quality enhancing all the other legends.  Rasputin, we are told, was poisoned, then shot several times, tied-up, and pushed off a bridge into a frozen river.  But somehow he managed to sit up (apparently still alive), when his corpse arrived at the mortician.

Much of the proceeding is true, although much less bizarre, and actually far more consequential when seen in light of the historical narrative spelled out in Douglas Smith's new book, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.

Lets start with the death legends.  Rasputin actually didn't ingest the poison intended for him.  He died from several gunshots--one as he was running away after being shot previously.  Those who plotted his death did indeed throw his corpse into the river, to hide their handiwork.  And when his remains were being cremated, his body bent in two from heat.  All the elements of the legend are there--just far less macabre.

In Smith's well-written narrative, the historical realities reveal the legends to be, in many cases, exaggerations and fabrications.  But sometimes there is enough smoke that there must be fire--and fire there is.  Rasputin was a lecherous man, who sinned to prove his own depravity and then seek forgiveness for it--a sort of mystic antinomian.  The grim reality of the havoc Rasputin brought upon the royal family was also painfully real--nothing less than disastrous for the royals and the Russian people. 

As Smith tells the Rasputin tale, a number of haunting questions arise.  How was this man--a peasant laborer in his early life--able to transform himself into a religious mystic who simultaneously was, and was not, in the good graces of the orthodox church? 

How did this peasant (with a loyal wife and children) become a mass-seducer, including many of the "ladies" in the leading circles of St. Petersburg?  How did he gain the Czarina's ear, if not her bed? 

Although Nicholas II had little use for Rasputin's political advice, or tips on military strategy, why did he allow this evil man access to his family?  Why did the Czar listen to this man's spiritual counsel?

One answer to these question is found in Rasputin's amazing power to "heal" the young Czar-apparent, Alexi, who suffered from hemophilia.  When Rasputin visited Alexi and prayed with him, the lad got better.  Repeatedly.  Because he could heal their son, the Romanovs welcomed him. 

The other answer is that the Romanovs, while loyal to their church, were also mystics who saw in Rasputin spiritual powers they could not explain, except as coming from the hand of God.  Even when the Great War become a national debacle, and even while insurrection was fomenting in the streets--which would lead to eventual regicide by the Leninists--the Romanovs did little to distance themselves from the very man who raised so many questions.  Rumors were everywhere about Rasputin's relationship to Alexandria while Nicholas was away fighting the war.  And why was the Czar--as rumor had it--listening to the "Holy" man who supposedly seduced his wife and much of her inner circle.

Douglas Smith tackles all of these questions.  Grigory Rasputin did not bring about the Russian Revolution.  But he gave many a Russian good reason to question to Czar's judgment and his royal authority--which did lead to their downfall.  The Czar seemed indifferent to the people's plight, and Rasputin's presence among the royals magnified that perception.

When it comes to Rasputin, truth is much stranger than fiction.  Smith's book is a good summer read, if you are looking for one.   

Too bad Daniel Day Lewis has retired from acting--Rasputin would make a great subject for a film, and Lewis would be the perfect actor to play him.

Reader Comments (1)

Daniel Day Lewis? No. I think maybe Christian Bale. Bale looks like him. D.D. Lewis was excellent in "There Will Be Blood" though. Thanks for the recommendation for a summer read.
July 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLouis Bacio

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