How the myth of Rasputin was created, by whom, and why


Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US $35.00, PP 848, November 2016, ISBN 978-0374240844

The life of Rasputin is one of the most remarkable in modern history. It reads like a dark fairy tale. An obscure, uneducated peasant from the wilds of Siberia receives a calling from God and sets out in search of the true faith, a journey that leads him across the vast expanses of Russia for many years before finally bringing him to the palace of the tsar. The royal family takes him in and is bewitched by his piety, his unerring insights into the human soul and his simple peasant ways. Miraculously, he saves the life of the heir to the throne, but the presence of this outsider, and the influence he wields with the tsar and the tsartsa angers the great men of the realm and they lure him into a trap and kill him. Many believed that the holy peasant had foreseen his death and prophesied that should anything happen to him, the tsar would lose his throne. And so he does, and the kingdom he once ruled is plunged into unspeakable bloodletting and misery for years.

In Rasputin, Douglas Smith says Rasputin’s story is tragic, and not just that of one man but of an entire nation, for in his life – with its complicated struggles about faith and morality, about pleasure and sin, about tradition and change, about duty and power, and their limits – and in his bloody, violent end, we can discern the story of Russia itself in the early twentieth century. Rasputin was neither a devil nor a saint, but this made him no less remarkable and his life no less important to the twilight of tsarist Russia.

A century after his death Rasputin remains shrouded in myth, practically invisible underneath all the gossip, slander, and innuendo heaped upon him. Smith says that part of the problem lay in the fact that for most of the twentieth century Rasputin’s archives in the Soviet Union were closed to researchers, and this led to a situation in which the same limited number of published sources, with the same anecdotes and stories, were repeated again and again. This situation has changed only in recent years: Russia’s archives have finally begun to give up their secrets.

Smith says it is a mistake to separate Rasputin from his mythology. There is no Rasputin without the stories about Rasputin. Smith writes, “I have been diligent in searching out all these stories, be it those whispered among the courtiers in the Romanovs’ palaces, the salacious chatter wafting through the aristocratic salons of St. Petersburg, the titillating reports from the boulevard press, or the pornographic jokes exchanged among Russian merchants and soldiers. By following the talk about Rasputin I have been able to reconstruct how the myth of Rasputin was created, by whom, and why.”

Rasputin is the first comprehensive and meticulously researched biography of a man who played a big role albeit from behind the scenes in running Russia under Romanovs. The book is as fascinating as the life of its subject. Rasputin is not just the biography of a man but also the history of Russian empire.  It is a must read to understand Russia and its history. Reviewed by Jonathan T. Rich