Biog­ra­phy Rasputin

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

Dou­glas Smith (Macmil­lan, £25)

There have been many bi­ogra­phies of the rus­sian peas­ant, who was var­i­ously viewed as saint or Satan, but this 700–page nar­ra­tive must surely be the de­fin­i­tive life story. Dou­glas Smith—an es­tab­lished his­to­rian—not only draws on mul­ti­ple ar­chives and long-for­got­ten doc­u­ments, but he also ex­plores ev­ery ver­sion of each in­ci­dent and ev­ery the­ory about its truth or false­hood.

The au­thor main­tains that the myths sur­round­ing rasputin’s life are of­ten more ac­cepted than the facts. he spells out the facts and dis­putes the myths, al­low­ing the reader to make his own judge­ment.

For in­stance, although not a gen­uine monk, rasputin was a gen­uine pil­grim with a claim to be a starets (or elder), who made long and ar­du­ous jour­neys vol­un­tar­ily wear­ing fet­ters; his no­to­ri­ous li­cen­tious­ness was of­ten thought in­com­pat­i­ble with this im­age.

There seems to be lit­tle doubt that rasputin re­ally did have a steady­ing in­flu­ence on the lifethreat­en­ing haemophilia of the young heir to the Tsar. Whether this was a re­sult of his hyp­notic pow­ers or of his spir­i­tu­ally calm­ing ef­fect on the Tsare­vich and his mother is an open ques­tion.

The po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of rasputin on the Tsar and his fam­ily was widely as­sumed to be to­tally per­ni­cious. In fact, the ad­vice he gave to the fal­ter­ing monarch— on the need to avoid in­volve­ment in a euro­pean war—was wholly pos­i­tive and might even have saved the house of ro­manov.

Just as dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions could be put on the facts, so the facts them­selves could be chal­lenged on al­most ev­ery ma­jor event. The oft-re­counted in­ci­dent in which rasputin drunk­enly claimed to be the lover of the Tsa­rina and low­ered his trousers in what would now be de­scribed as ‘flash­ing’ was at­tested to by wit­nesses, yet brought into ques­tion by the fact that some of these wit­nesses were ap­par­ently never there.

equally, the au­thor sug­gests that the gen­er­ally ac­cepted ver­sion of rasputin’s mur­der by Prince Felix Yusupov (re­counted in his book Lost Splen­dour) may well have been largely an ex­er­cise in self-drama­ti­sa­tion by the exiled and im­pov­er­ished prince.

Noth­ing is quite what it seems in the story of rasputin. The reader who is pre­pared to in­vest the time re­quired in read­ing this ex­haus­tive study will come away still con­fused, but much bet­ter in­formed about the whole drama of the end of the ro­manovs. and what a drama it was! John Ure

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