The Possessed

The Rasputin File

Edvard Radzinsky, translated by Judson Rosengrant
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday524 pp., $29.95

Rasputin slumbers in the heart of every Russian. But sometimes he doesn’t slumber. If you awaken the Rasputin in yourself, life suddenly overflows its banks: you begin to experience a fierce, incomparable joy from being in a state of outrageousness, dissipation, restlessness, suffering, and desecration. “Violence is the soul’s joy,” Rasputin taught. I may defame him, hate his blissful face; I may dream of putting out those piercing, infernal, heavenly eyes, cutting him into little pieces, drowning him in the acid of obscenities—but he is my man. Blood kin. Rasputin wears the ancient mask of the shaman.

I have no doubt that Rasputin slumbered in the heart of Edvard Radzinsky as well. Radzinsky, a well-known Russian playwright and biographer, awakened him by writing a book about him. He admits that he used to be afraid to write about Rasputin because he didn’t understand him, and here anyone who has tried to consider the subject will sympathize. Moreover, having read his book, which is based on previously unknown documentary testimony, I think that Radzinsky still doesn’t understand him. He doesn’t want to. Because to really understand Rasputin is too frightening. It’s better not to understand him at all. Otherwise you are faced with the great abyss that separates Russia from normal, civilized countries—and what can you do about it? At any rate, the very existence of Rasputin gives some grounds for saying that deep down Russia has nothing in common with the West.

Radzinsky has accomplished the biographer’s primary task: he has brought his character to life in the reader’s imagination; he has breathed life into Rasputin and left him alone with the reader—now work it out for yourselves. Rasputin always acted in ways that seemed self-destructive and defiant of any possible success—and he would attain everything he wanted: power, immeasurable bestiality, holiness. In northern Siberia, where he was born into a poor peasant family, he quickly grew into a muzhik with a fluctuating geometry of body parts: at times lanky, at times gnarled; with pearly white teeth, with rotten teeth; everyone saw him in his own way.

His soul proved just as fluctuating. He never said a bad word about anyone, but everyone had to pay for his anger. He loved stealing. Pugnacious, he got his kicks from bloody fights; he would beat his own father as well as anyone else’s. Yet his nerves were frail. By his own admission, every spring from the age of fifteen to thirty-eight he couldn’t sleep for a period of forty days. Rasputin sought help from holy men. Barefoot, he would walk from monastery to monastery, not changing his underclothes for up to six months at a time.

The theological poverty of Russian Orthodoxy, which overcame neither popular paganism nor government authority, gave rise to unruly sects that wanted to speak to God directly and openly. Rasputin wormed his way into one of the most dissident communities; he didn’t …

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