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The Possessed

The Rasputin File

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

1.

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 castrate himself, as some did, but he got drunk in erotically charged rites, and came to believe that a religious man must be a good dancer, like King David, and must dance for hours without a break. He became a Khlyst. The Khlysts are the living contradiction of the Russian Orthodox: they seek Christ in themselves through self-flagellation, and so become Christ; they are ready to deny marital sex, but to give themselves over to fornication, escaping sin through sin. Secretly, Rasputin would always remain a Khlyst. A holy fool, hardly able to read and write, he would insinuate himself into the very core of Petersburg: he would arouse the aristocratic ladies, comfort the melancholy tsar, and appeal to the most tender motherly instincts of the empress, Alexandra Fyodorovna.

He entered the rooms of the “tsars” (his name for the imperial couple) as he would his own house. After the Empress gave birth to four daughters (later Rasputin would watch them undressing in the nursery), there finally appeared an heir, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia, the genetic disease of the Empress’s family. Rasputin would cast a spell to cure his sick blood and he seemed successful. However, the question is not whether Rasputin was truly a faith healer or a vampire. It is whether he who loves less, wins.

The countless books dedicated to Grigory Rasputin have overlooked one of the most important things about him: he loved no one in his life, neither his wife nor his mistresses. No woman ever became valuable to him in and of herself. Radzinsky quotes Rasputin’s words, “Only love is holy,” but he seems to miss the point—that in fact Rasputin substituted icy, physical curiosity for love. It is not irrelevant that he ate everything with his hands, even fish. He took over women with his hands. Rasputin loved to touch, fondle, watch, and humiliate. He was not interested in easy conquests, however. Rasputin’s erotic secret, to judge by Radzinsky’s book, was not to exact submission, but to entice the female to resist him to the point of derangement. The woman was supposed to yield in utter delirium.

Rasputin was obviously aroused by a fusion of the sinful and the holy. He combined seduction and prayer in a single experience. This union produced the particular kind of ecstasy that gave him his unique energy and power. Rasputin’s interpretation of the sanctity of love held that a woman who didn’t love her husband but still slept with him was a sinner. She had to pass through Rasputin’s bed, had to be raped and wallow in shame, so that she would then repent. And he liked to beat women. His publisher Filippov by accident saw Rasputin in his bedroom ferociously beating the wife of a Petersburg general, the salon lioness Olga Lokhtina. She was holding Rasputin by his member and crying out: “You are God!”

Legend has it that Rasputin had a huge penis, but here Radzinsky turns out to be a precise biographer: he shortens the legend. At least some part of Grigory Rasputin’s success was not because of his prick but because of his name. The name Grishka has frequently been associated with Russian impostors since the seventeenth century’s Time of Troubles. “Rasputin” can be understood not as a surname, but as a diagnosis of the country. In this name you can hear rasput’e (crossroads), or rasputitsa (the season when roads are made impassable by thaw); but more telling is the word raspushchennost (dissoluteness or licentiousness and laxity)—the main condition of my wonderful motherland. To become debauched is to lower oneself to the depths, to let oneself go—raspustit’sia—and do so recklessly, with grunts, with snot running from the nose, spittle on the lips, so as to fall apart (raspast’sia), to forget to think. To relieve yourself of all responsibility. For many Russians this is the sweetest of conditions.

A mere fifteen months older than Lenin, Rasputin was born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoe, to a family of illiterate peasants. His father was a drunkard, his mother a long-suffering, hard-working woman with enormous capacity for patience and five children, all of whom had died before he was born. It was the ideal family for the people’s chosen representative. Rasputin himself remained semiliterate to the end of his life, writing in incomprehensible curlicue letters with fantastical spelling, a mockery of dictionaries. It’s not clear where and how he studied. Most likely he was an autodidact. And this was also in Rasputin’s favor. If there is such a thing as the popular Russian mentality, it doesn’t like education or diligence, or people with much book-learning. The bookish are often portrayed as Pharisees who have strayed from the sources of life. Tolstoy dreamed of adopting the “simple life.” Rasputin was simple from the start. I remember how in childhood my classmates hated people who wore hats on the street even in the spring. They shouted after them, “Professor!” To this day the words “doctor of philosophy” and “professor” are frequently pronounced in Russian with a jeer: such people are seen as having false knowledge, as being smooth talkers.

Far closer to Russians is the Taoist idea of the superiority of muteness to words. Inarticulateness is considered a sign of genuineness. Russian simplicity is coupled with cunning—the primary mental weapon of the commoner. At the foundation of Russian cunning lies a theory of survival which, when coupled with ambition, yields a philosophy of boundless cynicism. Radzinsky’s book, however, is written in the sacred tradition of the intelligentsia, according to which the Russian people remain the real victim of Russian history.

2.

Radzinsky is a fortunate fellow. He has written more than a few plays that are popular in Russia, become a famous writer and TV personality, and flourishes in his middle age. We have neighboring dachas near Moscow and sometimes on Sundays in the summer I run into him near the river. He walks along a dirt road at the edge of a field of clover, wearing a straw hat, a bor-zoi trotting alongside him; he smiles. When I stop to chat with him, he instantly becomes transformed into a co-conspirator who knows all the secrets of the Kremlin, which, in his view, may bring about a global apocalypse any day soon, if not tomorrow. The next weekend he doesn’t mention his predictions, but offers up a new version of the apocalypse. He is a teller of tales, a man of the Sixties, which is to say, someone who desperately wants all to be well in Russia while recognizing that the chances of this are small. He is an amiable, successful enemy of communism.

The author of a well-known book on Nicholas II, The Last Tsar, Radzinsky was presented by his friend Mstislav Rostropovich with a gift literally fit for a king: the lost dossier of Rasputin, the special file of an Extraordinary Commission of Russia’s provisional government, which investigated the crimes of tsarism between March and October 1917. Then with the Bolshevik Revolution, investigation was replaced by less fastidious physical punishment.

A few years ago, Rasputin’s dossier suddenly turned up at a Sotheby’s auction, where it was acquired by Rostropovich, a collector of Russian antiques. How it had come to the West remains unclear, but Radzinsky is so certain of its authenticity that he is able to convince the reader of it. Indeed, there is no reason not to accept his word. It would be far more difficult to fabricate such a dossier—forging five hundred pages of protocols and dozens of signatures—than to write a new book about Rasputin. The dossier’s particular value lies in evidence about the “elder” given by people who were for the most part his acquaintances and friends. Many positive things are said in its pages about Rasputin, who in the Russia of 1917 was referred to as “the Anti-Christ.” The dossier itself provides sufficient grounds for writing a book.

  1. *

    All quotations in this review are translated from the Russian edition: Rasputin: Zhisn i Smert (“Life and Death”).

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