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The Black Sheep of Pokrovskoe

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 animals and was later to ease so wonderfully the sufferings of the boy tsarevich Alexis, screaming in the agonies of his hemophiliac condition), must have been present in this black sheep of Pokrovskoe, magnified by the invincible self-assurance of the complete solipsist, the man who sees the world and everything and everybody in it exclusively in relation to himself.

Some were immune to his pretensions and his magic. After being beaten up by a neighbor and then summoned for stealing fence posts and conspiring with others to steal horses, he found it expedient to bolt, leaving his wife behind him, and hid in the celebrated monastery of Verkhoturye. This was the beginning of his wandering life as a bogus starets which brought him in due course to Tsarskoe Selo and national notoriety.

Alex de Jonge tells this story very well, more fully than it has ever been told, I think, and with exemplary honesty—his narrative style occasionally flawed by rather disconcerting lapses into misplaced colloquialisms. To the familiar outline he brings much unfamiliar detail, exhibiting a sure and wide command of Russian sources. He re-creates with skill and economy and deep understanding the Russian conditions which made the career of a Rasputin possible, at least as far as that first meeting with the imperial couple: the uneasy disorientation of the times sharply exaggerating the age-old Russian craving for absolutes, for a revealed truth more personal than the high remoteness of the Orthodox liturgy, and also the stubborn conviction that God speaks most directly through the most simple soul, whether a village idiot or a peasant pilgrim. The simple-minded responded to the demand and Russia was full of wandering pilgrims and holy men, battening on the gentry (often, indeed, exercising a sort of spiritual blackmail), like those who flocked to Tolstoy’s Aunt Alexandra, nearly driving the family out of house and home. Some were genuinely devout; most were not.

The young Rasputin, who underwent some sort of spiritual experience in his monastery and at the same time saw dimly that the exploitation of it could bring him useful rewards, fitted well enough into this category. For years he wandered, begging his way, always returning (as he was to do later from Tsarskoe Selo) to refresh himself at Pokrovskoe. He visited Mount Athos, which lent him moral capital. And all the time, while walking and talking with God, he womanized voraciously. In his early days he had relied upon his natural parts to bed any girl he fancied, which was pretty well all of them. But now he was bringing God into the act. Straightforward rape or seduction still served very well on occasion, but a new formula was to prove increasingly helpful as his sexual adventures carried him ever higher in the social scale. According to his mood or his estimate of the character of the proposed conquest of the moment, he would invite the lady to sleep with him without making love, to test the power of will over the lust of the flesh; or, alternatively, to join him in sin in order to achieve the sort of redemption that only the sinner can earn: the greater the sin the better. Or, in yet another mood, he would insist that by giving herself to him, the lady would not be sinning at all but, rather, communicating directly with God.

So there was something for everybody. And all the time his holiness increased. Before very long his magnetism, the comforting sound of his religious platitudes, were winning him patrons and supporters among the Orthodox hierarchy, many of whose luminaries were unsettled by the times and looking for new answers. Even if some of these were soon disillusioned by Rasputin, who still carried his name, meaning the dissolute one, like a badge of defiance, they served their purpose by introducing him to privileged circles in which, notably at Kazan, then in St. Petersburg itself, he found himself being feted by ladies of gentle birth and surrounded by luxuries undreamed of at Pokrovskoe. He developed a taste for silks and velvets and soft leather while still getting himself up as a peasant. He drenched himself in cheap scent. But he still smelled like a goat and shoveled his food into his mouth with his hands.

This was his condition when he found himself face to face with the autocrat of all Russia and his consort. Mr. de Jonge has given us by far the best and fullest account of Rasputin’s life until he broke into the big time. My only criticism is that he seems to me to credit him with rather too much spirituality and too little charlatanry.

The introduction to Nicholas and Alexandra came from the “Montenegrin sisters,” princesses married to the grand duke Nicholas and the duke of Leuchtenberg, bored, idle, given to dealing in the occult, determinedly ambitious. Their silliness coincided with certain aspects of the silliness of the imperial couple. They believed in tableturning and dabbled in other supernatural pastimes. Because the grand duke was the only member of her unfortunate husband’s family that Alexandra could bear to meet, the Montenegrins for a time held privileged positions in her household.

But desperately as Alexandra needed a spiritual guide, and eager as Nicholas was to find anyone who, speaking for God, could tell him to pay no attention to importunate politicians and reformers and rule as autocrat with His’ (God’s) grace, Rasputin seems not to have made a strong impression on them, and another year and a half went by before he turned up again, this time under the aegis of the tsarina’s only true confidante, the ineffably foolish and sentimental maid of honor, Anna Vyroubova, who made herself into his slave—a virginal slave in spite of all assumptions to the contrary, as was proved during the course of the grand state inquest into the Rasputin affair after the revolution. He was never to let go, and very soon we are embarked on the now familiar story of his growing ascendancy over Alexandra and her husband, an ascendancy based above all on his proved ability to relieve the agonies of the young tsarevich, which were bringing Alexandra, whose mind, or what passed for it, had been precariously poised since the first days of her marriage, close to despair.

At this stage, I think, Mr. de Jonge starts getting his picture out of focus. He is unequivocal about the object of this book. It is to demystify the man. “The part Rasputin played in Russian history,” he writes, “has little to do with the facts; it derives from the tangled mass of hearsay and innunedo in which he was wrapped. It was not so much what Rasputin did but what he was rumoured to do that mattered…. The man is hidden by his legend. It is out of this accumulation of legend and rumour…that we must watch the real, the historical Rasputin gradually emerge.”

When Mr. de Jonge’s life of Peter the Great (Fire and Water) appeared some years ago I felt that he was an unassuming, self-effacing biographer embarking on a personal voyage of discovery and ready to follow the trail wherever it might lead. The result was an extremely honest account of a man of great complexity and a career full of action. But this approach is less successful with Rasputin. The trouble is that once the man has been extracted from his legend there is very little in his later years to add to the careful portrait built up by Mr. de Jonge of his “prehistorical” life and career. His reputation as a historical figure was based in his own lifetime on his own legend; and those who regarded him as the devil incarnate conducting orgies at Tsarskoe Selo with Alexandra and her daughters, or plotting with her for a German victory, were no farther from reality than Alexandra herself, who regarded him as God on earth.

All efforts to present Rasputin by the standards of normal human experience seem to me to be foredoomed. He was a pathological case whose character and condition can be analyzed, if at all, only in strictly clinical terms. It is surely a hopeless task even to try to determine to what extent this monster believed what he said and to what extent he was a cynical opportunist. No doubt he thought he saw God; but he would also boast that he had been the tsarina’s lover and dismiss as poor fools those who surrendered to him their souls or their bodies or both. He presented himself to his imperial victims as the soul of modest peasant goodness but roared about St. Petersburg in ways calculated to attract the maximum of scandal, relying on his power over Alexandra to convince her that all the tales against him were gross libels—and to stifle the incipient doubts of Nicholas himself, who, in any case, was made only the more haughty when his judgment was questioned, however diffidently, by his most faithful ministers. He pursued his enemies relentlessly and raised up toadies.

It was not until 1912 with the “miracle” healing of Alexis, given up for dead at Spala, the old hunting lodge of Polish kings, when Rasputin was thousands of miles away in Pokrovskoe that Alexandra surrendered herself to him absolutely and never again thought of taking any action without seeking his advice. At the same time, and for the first time, Rasputin himself started taking an interest in political appointments.

Then Peter Stolypin, the prime minister and the empire’s only hope since the dismissal of Witte, was doomed. Only his assassination saved him from inevitable dismissal: he had dared to warn his emperor about Rasputin. Vladimir Kokovtsov, his successor, also an able and courageous but much underrated man, could not hope to last. When war came and the tsar soon fatally took over command at the front from his brother, who was hated by Alexandra and Rasputin, there was no hope for any minister of virtue. Rasputin in St. Petersburg was effectively ruling the country through Alexandra, if ruling is the word, breaking minister after minister, installing incompetents and time-servers in their place, and breathing down the tsarina’s neck as she bombarded poor “hubby,” poor “lovey,” at the front with messages inspired by “Our Friend” urging this or that tactical or strategic move, this or that dismissal or promotion, and always admonishing the poor tsar to pull himself together and be a man.

Mr. de Jonge’s mistake, it seems to me, has been to concentrate so hard on making Rasputin a credible human being (which cannot be done) that he has lost sight of the critical importance of Alexandra. “My much loved never to be forgotten teacher, saviour and instructor, I am so wretched without you,” this dire woman once wrote to Rasputin. “My soul is only rested and at ease when you, my teacher, are near me, I kiss your hands and lay my head against your blessed shoulders. I feel so joyful then. Then all I want is to sleep, sleep for ever on your shoulder, in your embrace. It is such happiness to feel your presence close to me. Where are you, where have you run off to?… Your eternally loving Mama.”

No matter how innocent, this is not the sort of letter to be written by an empress to a subject of her husband. But then Alexandra should never have been an empress. She was a hysteric. All her utterances, from the moment she arrived in Russia to marry Nicholas and found her prospective father-in-law dying, prove it. She never got over the failure of the court and her future mother-in-law and brothers-in-law to make her the center of attention at that frantic death scene. She hated, resented everyone, from the dowager empress downward. She made no friends. She could not bear to appear in public. At the same time she drove her husband, whom she smothered with a claustrophobic half sexual, half mystical, wholly sentimental love, quite unmercifully. She was nagging him even before they were married, even before his father’s body was in the grave, commanding him to assert himself against his family (who, insultingly but rightly, treated him as a nincompoop).

Without Alexandra, Rasputin would never have been more than a sort of joke figure. The frivolity and corruption of St. Petersburg gave him his chance. But it was not he who brought about disaster; it was the conjunction of an empress for all practical purposes insane and an amiable emperor of a weakness and narrowness almost past belief. Certainly Rasputin was able to base his career on what Mr. de Jonge with admirable briskness characterizes as “the preposterous belief…of generations of educated Russians who ought to have known better…that true wisdom, goodness, spirituality was to be found in the bosom of the great, good and simple Russian people….”

But Alexandra was not a Russian; she was a German straight from Darmstadt, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and brought up in a strongly Anglophile atmosphere with Windsor almost as her second home. Nicholas, who almost certainly had not a drop of Russian blood in his veins, at least had a deep Russian tradition behind him. And he was not Russian as, for example, Stolypin and Kokovstov were Russian. They, like many others, saw Rasputin for what he was. I think Mr. de Jonge should have made more of what they had to say.

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