The Holy Devil

Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs

by Colin Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pp., $5.50

Grigorii Rasputin
Grigorii Rasputin; drawing by David Levine

To the average, semi-informed citizen of the Western world the “holy devil,” Grigory Rasputin, is certainly one of the most familiar figures in Russian history, ranking perhaps behind only Peter the Great, Lenin, and Stalin in general notoriety, and behind only Ivan the Terrible in the morbid fascination his memory evokes. Virtually everyone old enough to read—or simply to go to the movies—has some notion of the melodrama of his destiny; his beginnings as a wandering peasant holy man from Siberia; his almost superhuman sexual prowess and capacity for alcohol; his rise to favor at the court of the last Tsar because of his (apparent) ability to cure the heir to the throne of attacks of hemophilia; his exploitation of the influence he thus enjoyed with the Tsarina to interfere in affairs of state during the First World War; his murder on the eve of the Revolution by conservatives, fearful that his power would bring the monarchy to ruin; his uncanny vitality to the last, enabling him to survive his assassins’ poisoned cakes and wines, and even their pistol shots, thereby obliging them to finish the job by shoving their still-living victim beneath the ice of the Neva. To the Western imagination Rasputin almost inevitably appears as an illustration à rebours of the themes of Dostoevsky or Berdiaev, or as some north-woods Priapus crossed with a Father Zossima; he is a type, clearly, that could have been spawned only by the wild conditions of Russian life and the bizarre historical processes of the empire of the tsars. Like the average, semi-informed citizen, Mr. Colin Wilson, too, has been struck by the melodrama of Rasputin, as well as intrigued by the vagaries of the “Russian soul” unlike other averagely informed persons, however, he has chosen to rehearse his random readings on these two subjects for the length of an entire volume.

It is difficult to know how to approach the resulting book. If one takes it as a serious historical study—as one seems invited to do by the title’s reference to “the fall of the Romanovs,” presumably to be explained in the body of the work, as well as by the author’s numerous footnotes and his solemn efforts to ferret out contradictions between various memoirists so as to establish in scholarly fashion the record of Rasputin’s career—the result must be written off as a total disaster. Mr. Wilson’s foray into history suffers from all the failings which beset the autodidact (as has been frequently pointed out in reviews of his previous works, beginning with The Outsider), with the notable difference that in the present instance these failings are compounded many times over by his radical lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. It is one thing to “work up” on one’s own a dozen or two classics of literature and philosophy in order to produce such an essay as The Outsider, whose…

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