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.
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.
Radzinsky doesn’t pretend to be a meticulous, academic historian; he takes the reader by the hand and enthralls him. You can’t tear yourself away from his book. It is not simply an elaborate historical mystery designed for a mass readership, but also an instructive guide to Russia, and to why it has not yet learned to make use of freedom. When the totalitarian bosses leave the stage and fear recedes along with them, a power vacuum emerges, a field of irrational activity. Radzin-sky has written a book of warning which compares the beginning of the twentieth century with contemporary times. The implicit lesson is that Russian reforms are capable of giving birth to a monster who could, as in Rasputin’s case, become a world-renowned celebrity.
Rasputin is probably one of a dozen Russian names that Western people know, even if they don’t know much about Russia. He belongs somewhere with Lenin, Stalin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. But he may be the only famous Russian who has been discovered by global mass culture. Rasputin might be most accurately portrayed in a comic book for adults and perhaps he is already: he is grotesquely visual. It’s no accident that many of the caricatures of him in the pre-revolutionary press drew on Russian lubok prints—the ancestors of the comics. The West, for its part, turned Rasputin into a myth of dissipation—alcoholic, erotic, given to gypsy-dancing. A man who never slept and threw his money around. He is also a “love machine” and an enigma.
This is why he’s valuable to mass culture—he seems impossible to figure out without resort to mysticism. On the surface, Rasputin is a Russian mixture of Don Juan, Gargantua, and Machiavelli. The closest analogy to him in Western culture is to be found in the career of the Marquis de Sade, but the analogy is merely formal. If Sade represents the will to defy convention with impunity and an intoxication in doing so, then Rasputin represents the trinity of sin, repentance, and holiness, in which any state of holiness is soon followed by sin and then repentance—a sort of Ferris wheel of the Russian spirit.
No book can overturn the Western myth of Rasputin, Radzinsky’s voluminous work included. In Western minds, Rasputin is destined to remain a mad hedonist in an imaginary monk’s cowl. We dwell in a world of victorious stereotypes—possibly a new, if temporary, source of stability.
There are other, more local myths about Rasputin as well. The revival of Rasputin’s political image in Russia today comes in nationalistic wrappings. Radzinsky writes that if before the revolution the nationalists tried to present Rasputin as the puppet of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy, then Rasputin is now seen by some as sustaining the pillars of eternal Russia, defending it from Western filth, a symbol of the union of Orthodoxy and the monarchy. The neo-nationalists declare his murder to be the work of the very same Jewish Masons—it was “ritualistic.” But this is a marginal view, and if Rasputin actually returns to Russia, then it will more likely be in a roundabout way through the West.
What actual damage did Rasputin cause Russia? Of what is he guilty? Why was he “the servant of the Anti-Christ?” How did it happen that at the end of his life this peasant could say, “I hold all of Russia in the palm of my hand”?
His ascent began in clerical circles of Petersburg in 1903. There he became known not only for his shrewdness but for his prophesies. Radzinsky documents the fact that Rasputin predicted the defeat of the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Later he said that he was afraid not for himself, but “for the people and the imperial family. Because when I am murdered, things will go badly for the people, and there will no longer be a tsar.” Once, on seeing a portrait of Karl Marx, he became agitated and prophesied that the people would follow this bearded man to the barricades. But the most striking thing about him, of course, was his ability to heal the heir. The child had been suffering from insomnia after yet another attack of illness when Rasputin entered his room for the first time. Rasputin began to pray. Before the parents’ very eyes the tsarevich calmed down and fell asleep, awaking healthy the next morning. And thus it happened time after time.
Moreover, from far-off Siberia, Rasputin could also stop, or seem to stop, Alexei’s hemorrhaging. “God has seen and heeded your tears,” he telegraphed Alexei’s parents. “Your son will live.” What parents wouldn’t have trusted Rasputin after this experience? He proved what the “tsars” wanted to believe: that a man of the people was capable of saving the heir and defending the throne. He became indispensible. What did the child’s mother care if, as gossip had it, Rasputin boasted of his friendship with the imperial family or whether he took women to the bathhouse? (The Russian press wrote about this last for many years. Rasputin sometimes admitted it, sometimes denied it—he made fools of everyone.) If he could cure the tsarevich, who cared whether he drank or publicly showed his member to gypsy dancers in the Moscow restaurant Yar? Radzinsky in some perplexity asks whether Rasputin was truly possessed of mystical understanding.
In Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, it would seem, there was no hint that someone like Rasputin was about to appear. Capitalism was developing apace. The ruble was one of the hardest currencies in the world. The bloody revolution of 1905 wrested long-sought freedoms from the tsar. How could someone like Rasputin rise so high? He can be seen as a vicious mockery of Russia’s efforts to escape the abyss. “Oh, so you wanted to be like the others; you now have philosophers like Berdiaev and independent politicians like Miliukov; you think you’re a growing democracy, with avant-garde painters, poets composing hard-to-read, decadent verse. Well—fuck you! None of this is going to last!” Who is saying this? Why do I hear this voice so clearly? And it says the same thing to every Russian. “You want to be reasonable, predictable, you want clearly defined powers and responsibilities? You won’t get them. Instead you’ll torment yourselves, toss and turn, humiliate yourself before someone who is unworthy of you; you will love the one who drags you into the grave.”
This, in one Russian view, is the voice of a witch and she-devil who tempts and seduces, transforming herself first into the empress of all Russia, then into a crude, loud woman, then into a revolutionary priestess, then a prostitute. It’s the she-devil who inflicted Rasputin on Russia. Demoniacal, like the Indian goddess Kali. In Russian lands she is nameless but far from exorcised, even if in the twenty-first century such thoughts seem out of place.
There is another explanation of Rasputin, closer to my own thinking, and to which Radzinsky cautiously inclines: that he was created by Russian literature. It was Russian literature that cultivated a dangerous illusion and infected the intelligentsia with it: the Russian people are wiser than the government and everyone else put together. Unaware of it himself, Ras-putin became an emanation of a literary fantasy. There is nothing more appealing to Russian writers than the idea that truth belongs to “the people.” This idea surfaces in Pushkin’s Captain’s Daughter. All of Dostoevsky’s writing after his imprisonment is imbued with the idea, and Tolstoy drums it into the readers of War and Peace. Radicals and conservatives, revolutionaries and obscurantists alike—all swore by “the people” and believed in them as in a sacred cow. But, as Radzinsky accurately observes, the idea reached the Russian throne itself for the very first time during the reign of the last tsar. Nicholas II is not likely to have drawn the idea from books; the Russian atmosphere was soaked in it.
Everything turned out quite badly for the Tsar. At a time of political reconstruction, Nicholas, both unsure of himself and yet stubborn, shy and dwarfish, was oppressed by the gigantic image of his dead father, Alexander III. He felt equally awkward at balls and with his ministers. He needed support. On the one hand, he received it from Alexandra Fyodorovna. On the other it was provided by Rasputin. The barbaric vox populi returned the mandate of God’s authority to the tottering Tsar, an act which, in the final analysis, provoked the revolution that killed him and his heir.
Rasputin was not only a creation of classical literature. He was also a product of Russian decadence. At the beginning of the century, part of the intelligentsia underwent a radical ideological crisis, a disillusionment with progress. In place of infatuation with Marxism came a complex of ideas tied to the emancipation of the psyche, the destruction of old morals, personal quests for God. Dmitry Merezhkovsky, one of the initiators of this movement, propagated a third doctrine—deification of the flesh, which stimulated eroticism, mysticism, and occultism. The Khlysts came into vogue; members of the literary and philosophical elite attended their gatherings, among them Alexander Blok, Fedor Sologub, Mikhail Remizov, and Vasily Rozanov. Andrei Bely dedicated his novel The Silver Dove to the Khlysts. Merezhkovsky, Radzinsky writes, saw a “bridge to the people” in the sects, and the early Bolsheviks claimed that they had revolutionary meaning.
Society seemed ready for the appearance of Rasputin. But when he first appeared, practically everyone shunned him, except for a handful of hysterical and fanatical women. This is another Russian phenomenon: to be belatedly horrified at the embodiment of one’s own dream.
Rasputin accurately sensed that in the balance of power within the imperial family, the Empress had immense authority, and he began to play up to her. The Tsar and the Empress became dependent on Rasputin not only because of their son’s illness. Radzinsky emphasizes the contrast between the hothouse atmosphere of aristocratic palace intrigues and Rasputin, who told the imperial couple about his wanderings, homelessness, nights under the open skies—everything that Nicholas II, a lover of the simple life, could only dream about. The Tsar should have been born a gardener and not a monarch.
How far did the Empress go in her boundless faith in Rasputin? Did she do the same as Olga Lokhtina? It’s a tempting possibility, of course. It would make for a shocking film: The Empress and the Muzhik. There was a time when all Russia was talking about her secret letters to Rasputin. Now published in Radzinsky’s book, they go to the limit of dry adoration, but somehow one doesn’t believe that this Russian queen of German blood committed adultery with Rasputin. Until Rasputin’s death she never permitted anyone to say anything bad about him, and the Tsar followed her example, even when he obviously didn’t want to. Sensing general dislike of Rasputin, the “tsars” kept their relationship with him secret, which was all the more explosive.
Here lies the main enigma of Radzinsky’s book: Rasputin and the revolution. One of the catalysts of a profound hatred of the “tsars” and their close relatives, by many well-placed Russians, Rasputin did much to drag Russia into the revolution. On the other hand, he ferociously resisted the “party of war,” and kept Russia out of a European war in 1913, declaring to the Tsar that the Balkan question wasn’t worth the spilling of Russian blood; he no less ferociously opposed Russia’s entry into war in 1914. On the eve of military action there was an attempt on his life in Siberia by a woman who thought he was the Antichrist. Later he said that if not for the knife that cut his insides, there would have been no war. He would have been able to prevent it.
A historical paradox arises. In 1916, Rasputin and the Empress tried to persuade the Tsar to conclude a separate peace with Germany. All of Rasputin’s enlightened opponents supported the war right to the end and cried treason when information about the secret negotiations with the enemy leaked out. In other words, enlightened Russia turned out to be a dark force, and the “dark powers,” as the Empress and Rasputin were called, were the only strong advocates of the salvation of the country from the revolution provoked by a disastrous war. “Hold on to the center, Mama,” Rasputin taught the Empress, meaning the centrist factions of the Duma. In this there was also a certain antirevolutionary wisdom. The Tsar disagreed. He was the one who didn’t listen to Rasputin in 1914, and who didn’t want a separate peace with Germany on honorable terms in 1916.
Who, then, is to blame for the revolution? The dark forces or the enlightened ones? In any event, Rasputin’s actions don’t allow for an unequivocal interpretation. When he acquired enormous power, the muzhik couldn’t handle the burden. Maxim Gorky was partly correct when he called the period before and during the war the “shameful decade.” Rasputin became the behind-the-scenes master of the situation, the adviser, virtually the only friend of the Tsar, but not influential enough to change his mind about pursuing the war. Still, he kept the members of the government and the Church hierarchy in fear. The ministers of the interior paid obeisance to him. These were the absurd death throes of a state that had not yet reached democratic maturity, but was already rotten.
After the declaration of war, Rasputin became the Rasputin who is known around the world. As though finally realizing that he could do no more, he began to drink heavily and held brazen orgies at his house, dragging one woman after another onto the broken couch in his bedroom. In complete drunkenness and debauch, it seems he finally lost his supernatural qualities, becoming a caricature of lust, a double of father Karamazov.
Prophets are bad at predicting their own death. Rasputin’s vigilance failed him, his famed intuition became dimmed. The murder of a great sinner is often a lurid event. It illuminates the almost infantile trust of someone hostage to his own vices. A particularly powerful part of Radzinsky’s book is devoted to a detailed reconstruction of Rasputin’s murder, carried out as it was simultaneously in the traditions of medieval Italy and novels about decadence and debauchery. The aristocratic killers tried poisoning Rasputin with wine and sweets before shooting him; then there was a “resurrection” of the gun-shot corpse, the “corpse”‘s escape through the snowy courtyard of a palace, a second shot and final death when he was pushed through a hole in the ice of the Neva. Walking into a trap, Rasputin took the “Karamazovian” bait: the young, beautiful, bisexual Prince Felix Yusupov offered him his beautiful wife—she wasn’t even in Petersburg at the time. A princely gift, worthy of Rasputin’s vanity. Moreover, Radzinsky suggests that on the night of the murder, Yusupov had sexual relations with Rasputin. Here we are at the far reach of Russian possibilities, if not Russian reality. Rasputin’s death, in my view, has turned into such a historical fantasy that even Humbert Humbert’s murder of his rival reads like a parody of the multi-part drama of Rasputin’s death.
Grand Prince Dmitry Pavlovich, Rasputin’s main executioner according to Radzinsky, was sent into exile in Iran by Nicholas II, thanks to which he survived the revolution. He subsequently became Coco Chanel’s lover. The “tsars” remained devoted to Rasputin after his death as well: when Commissar Yurovsky executed them a year and a half later, they were wearing crosses Rasputin had given them.
Though he has written a book about Rasputin, Radzinsky still fears him. I see a certain consistency in this; the author sums up his investigation with the conclusion that Rasputin was “a deeply religious man,” but that Christ had long since forsaken him, that he “served the Antichrist” (hello again to this century-old stereotype) and this gave him the opportunity to destroy the legend of Holy Russia, to dishonor the Church and the authority of the Tsar. In short, Rasputin “is a key to understanding both the soul and the cruelty of the Russia that followed.” However, the strength of the investigating commission’s dossier, which Radzinsky sometimes quotes a bit too voluminously, is that its material can be interpreted in different ways.
Rasputin stands not so much for Russia’s past or future, as for its pattern of eternal repetition, its tears, and its uncouth, proud identity. Having become an unpredictable force in Russian politics on the eve of the revolution, Rasputin’s story shows how shaky and loose all the fundamental Russian values were. Some still see his teeth as pearly white, others as rotten, and the same could be said for Russia’s past. It is not at all surprising that Rasputin would have been the chosen companion of the Russian autocrat who, yearning for absolute power, dreams of merging with the people over the heads of corrupt bureaucrats. He is not simply the nightmare of liberals like Radzinsky, but the embodiment of the Russian myth of the incompleteness of life, which still remains to be mythically fulfilled. Otherwise life has no reason to overflow its banks. Rasputin will corrode Russians’ hearts—and they will joyfully drink to his health. For their part, the writers and scholars of the West will decide one day that the time has come to see Rasputin differently. And they will be right.
—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
March 29, 2001