Perhaps no character stands out in pre-Revolution Russia as much as that of Grigory Rasputin. He was influential, enigmatic, charismatic, secretive, held no office, yet had enormous influence on the events and people of the era. How could a barely literate peasant affect the destiny of an empire?
In many ways, Rasputin was the icon of the changing times, in others he represents the end of the old era, the last gasp of the autocratic, superstitious Russia. Mythologies grew up about and around him during his life, and even more so in death. No matter how you view him, he remains a subject of popular interest and his death continues to generate conspiracy theories, almost a century later.
The period from 1881* to 1921 is one of (for me) the most fascinating periods in Russian history.** While the rest of Europe was hell-bent on progress, development and industrialization (as well as colonialism), Russia was a bulwark of almost medieval attitudes and economics against the tide of progress. The fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Soviets is intriguing.
The same period that saw some of the most brilliant Russian writers and composers also saw brutal anti-semitism, pogroms, and a recalcitrant autocracy digging in to preserve its perceived rights to absolute power.
From a global perspective, given the situation, the Russian Revolution was inevitable, although the resulting Soviet state was not. What it began as, and what it became, are two very different things. But that’s material for another post.
Nicholas Romanov, the last Tsar is one of those great, tragic characters of history; weak and unsuited for the mantle of power in turbulent times that changed the face of the nation and the West. His wife, Alexandra, while stronger, shares much of the blame for his fall from power, in part for her religious interference in secular political issues. And that’s where Rasputin comes into the story.
The history of the fall of the Romanovs was murky before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Paranoid, secretive, pathologically defensive, the Soviets kept much of their history locked in archives that only a select few could access (Western scholars and non-party historians were generally not among them). In those files were the answers to many questions about what really happened to Rasputin and the Romanovs in the dying years of their empire.***
Then, of course, the uber-conservative Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, giving rise to a new, allegedly democratic Russian Republic in 1992.**** The archives were opened (not quite flung open, but access to outsiders was granted in increasing doses). Historians flocked to learn what was hidden therein. But Rasputin wasn’t there.
The file on Rasputin had vanished. The secret police interviews, autopsies, photographs, were all gone. Biographies of Nicholas and Alexandra were written from new material, but none contained the necessary material on the life, influence and death of Grigory Rasputin, who played such a pivotal role in the life and downfall of the royal family. Until 2000, that is.
Historian Edvard Radzinsky recovered the paperwork (which had left Russia and ended up mysteriously being sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1995) and used it to write his remarkable book, The Rasputin File (Doubleday, New York, 2000). I read that book shortly after its release and was delighted by the newly revealed information. I also liked Radzinsky’s style and approach. He seems so engaged in his topics.
But not everyone did. Radzinsky takes sides and delights in doing so; he isn’t a bland, neutral observer of dry facts. Reading his books is part history, part entertainment, part opinion columnist. Of course his statements and conclusions drew the ire of fellow historians. They also attracted some sniping from the uber-nationalist, anti-Semitic factions arising in modern Russia who see Rasputin as a saintly presence, who blame the British, the Masons and the Jews for their past and present ills, and who blithely ignore Rasputin’s vices in order to place him on a nationalist pedestal for worship.
Radzinsky ventures into waters many nationalists would like to overlook: Rasputin’s sexuality, drunkenness and his relationship with the heretical Khlysty sect (that believed in, among other things, redemption through sex and alcohol). But he skirts questions that continue to bedevil Russia and outsiders alike, such as the involvement of the British government and secret service (the BSIS, later renamed MI6) in Rasputin’s death.
For Westerners, Radzinsky’s work was the best, most authoritative biography on Rasputin available for more than a decade. It was certainly an eye opener for many readers.
Along comes Joseph Fuhrmann, whose book, Rasputin: The Untold Story was released earlier this year (John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2013). It promised to be the “definitive biography… with revelations about his life, death, and involvement with the Romanovs.” And, to a point, it does contain heretofore unpublished material – or at least unpublished conjecture (in the West, anyway). But it’s not quite the revelation promised.
Fuhrmann is more of the academic writer than Radzinsky: drier, not given to overt bias (although still willing to conjecture). Where Radzinsky almost sensationalizes Rasputin, Fuhrmann tries to humanize, and in some cases distance, him. Rasputin becomes more of a flawed Shakespearean tragedy in Fuhrmann’s book. We get to see him as a sincerely religious believer who ultimately gets corrupted by the glitter of the attention and falls – hard – from grace.
Reading the two books in parallel (as I am currently doing) provides conflicting but yet often oddly similar perspectives on Rasputin, as each author focuses on different events and issues as crucial to the staret’s development. Fuhrmann seems the more sympathetic of the two, although Radzinsky clearly shows respect and admiration for the man in many chapters. Fuhrmann is less critical of Rasputin’s claims to be a prophet and seer (which Radzinsky views with more skepticism; as a non-believer, those claims strike me as outrageous codswallop).
Where the two differ most is in Rasputin’s murder. They identify different assassins, different causes. Fuhrmann benefits from some later information (not as much new material Radzinsky received), and, as I read it, makes a better, and more impersonal, judgment in his analysis.
I’ll let the reader decide without spoiling the ending. I side with Fuhrmann’s conclusions, but don’t entirely discount Radzinsky’s. Perhaps the “final” word on Rasputin’s murder is still to be written and more information will clarify what happened.
For lay historians, like myself, both books offer a wealth of information about Rasputin, the end of the Romanovs, and Russian society pre-Revolution. I would recommend anyone with an interest in the era read both books.
* 1881 was when revolutionaries assassinated Tsar Alexander – rather pointlessly because Alexander was responsible for the most radical reforms Russian had seen since Ivan, and would likely have continued his reforms had he lived. He freed the serfs, reformed the judicial system, created elected local government – but to the revolutionaries, he didn’t do enough, didn’t move fast enough. The ironic result was that his assassination set back reform in Russia by a century and guaranteed a monarchy hostile to both reform and democratic government.
** I am equally fascinated by the history of religion and cults. Rasputin’s influence on his followers echoes many of the modern day cults and sects, such as the Branch Davidians, Westboro Baptists, Scientologists and Jim Jones’ “People’s Temple.” The mesmerizing effect Rasputin had is similar to the effect we see in the leaders of these and similar cults. Rasputin’s story intersects with my interest in Soviet history.
*** Between 1926 and 27 the Soviets published seven hefty books of interviews that resulted from their lengthy “Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry for the Investigation of Illegal Acts by Ministers and Other Responsible Persons of the Czarist Regime.” These books included considerable, but not all, information about the last years of the royal family. A final part of the inquiry, focused on Rasputin, was published in 1964. When Radzinsky was allowed into the commission’s archives in the 1980s, he found the transcripts of these interrogations – with their considerable unpublished material – missing.
**** Rather coincidentally, the once powerful, but much maligned, Conservative government in Canada collapsed into a two-person party after their tsar, Brian Mulroney, resigned from politics, in 1992. Canadians, however, dispose of their autocrats peacefully at the polling booth. We also allow them to resign with as much dignity as they can muster as they scuttle out of the picture with tail between their legs. Mulroney’s reputation in retirement has somewhat recovered thanks to the favourable comparison he has received to the much-reviled and even more hated current Conservative Prime Minister, Steven Harper.