The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin
by Alex de Jonge
Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 368 pp., $17.95
Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov is writing about that familiar figure of the old Russia, the starets, or holy man: “A starets takes your soul, your will, into his soul and will. In choosing a starets you renounce your own will and surrender it to him in perfect submission, absolute self-abnegation.” This was evidently a good thing: it was an exercise in self-conquest, sustained by the hope of attaining through a life of total obedience that “perfect freedom that is freedom from self.” Dostoevsky insists that the institution of the starets in imperial Russia came from the East, “the practice of a thousand years.”
The business of surrendering your soul, your will, to a person you yourself have “chosen” can produce very strange effects, particularly if your judgment is in any way faulty—as it might be expected to be: none more disastrously strange than the surrender of the last empress of Russia, the tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna, and through her of her husband, Nicholas II, to Grigorii Rasputin, the subject of Alex de Jonge’s book.
The story opened almost unnoticeably with an entry in Nicholas’s diary on November 1, 1905: “We have made the acquaintance of a man of God named Grigorii from the government of Tobolsk.” It ended on the seventeenth day of December eleven years later with the muddled, bloody, nightmarish murder of the man of God by the oddest assortment of highly placed conspirators it is possible to imagine in the basement of the Yusupov palace in St. Petersburg. By then this uncouth Siberian peasant had become the most powerful man in a country falling to pieces under the strains of war and bad government, and on the verge of revolution. Rasputin had often declared that if anything happened to him it would be the end of the dynasty, and he was just about right.
No more unpromising a mentor can ever have been presented to a Lord’s Anointed. Rasputin, when he first appeared to Nicholas and Alexandra, was about forty years old and he had a rough life behind him. In his native village of Pokrovskoe in Siberia, the son of a drunken carter, he soon had a reputation as a layabout, a thief, a drunk, an unquenchable womanizer. He was almost defiantly filthy in his habits and he went on smelling like a goat all his life. He married, nevertheless, had children, and won the enduring loyalty of a wife of character who seems to have taken a kind of sardonic pride in his excesses (“Grisha has enough for all,” she would say), as indeed most of his fellow villagers were inclined to do.
There must have been more behind this than the characteristic Russian leaning toward immoderation. In the light of subsequent events one does not have to believe all the stories of the young Rasputin’s esoteric powers before recognizing that the hypnotic quality of his extraordinary pale eyes, the calming quality of his hands (the quality that soothed frightened …