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