Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2,213: Rasputin - A Short Life by Frances Welch

Despite (or maybe because of!) the awful '70s ear worm by Boney M, I, like millions of others have a fascination with the story of Rasputin, the hairy and insanitary but, apparently, sexually irresistible monk who came out of Siberia to wield extraordinary influence over the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia.

There's something almost Grand Guignol-esque about Rasputin's story, retold vividly by Frances Welch in this short and highly enjoyable biography.  It's the story of a peasant from a village in the depths of Siberia who, one day, abandons his wife and children to go and stay in a monastery, from which he emerges as a religious mystic.  Traveling to Kazan and then to Kiev, he attracts the attention of high-ranking Russian Orthodox clerics, including the splendidly monikered Theophanes of Poltava, occasional confessor of the Tsar and Tsarina.  Theophanes then introduces him to the Grand Duchesses Milica and Anastasia who, buying in to his reputation  as having healing powers, recommend him to the Tsarina as being able to help the Tsarevich, Alexei, a haemophiliac.

Although there is no evidence that he really was possessed of healing powers, Rasputin did actually appear to be able to help with Alexei's illness and he rapidly becomes a favourite of both the Tsar and Tsarina.  Taking full advantage of this, Rasputin becomes notorious in St Petersburg for drunkenness and depravity, selling his influence with the royal couple for money and sexual favours from his "little ladies" and is thought to have Svengali-like influence over the Tsar and, especially, the Tsarina, whose lover he is rumoured to be.

Finally, having made enemies everywhere, he survives several assassination attempts until, on the night of 29 December 1916 (modern calendar), Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri, two former friends and associates of Rasputin, lure him to Prince Yusupov's palace where, having got him drunk, they poison him and then, when the poison seems not to be having any effect, Yusupov and another conspirator shoot him several times before the body is dumped in the river Neva.

Rasputin's story has all the ingredients of a good, schlocky melodrama - weird mystical villain, sex, violence, aristocrats and royals and it even has its own spooky sting in the tail as, shortly before his death, he wrote Tsar Nicholas a letter, in which he predicted:

“If my death will be staged by your relatives, then none of your family members, none of your children or relatives will remain alive for more than two years. All will be killed by the Russian people. And I will be killed too. I’m not among the living anymore. Please, I beg you, be strong! Think of your blessed family.” 

His death did, indeed, come at the hands of junior members of the Romanov family and, as we all know, on 17 July 1918, less than two years after Rasputin's murder, the Tsar, Tsarina and their five children were murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries at the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg.

Of course, it is also this that turns Rasputin's story from melodrama into tragedy for, although blame for the October Revolution can hardly be laid at his door, his perceived influence over the royal family and, in particular, the lurid rumours of a sexual relationship with the Tsarina (and even one particularly virulent story that he had raped the Tsarina's children in their beds) became a kind of avatar for the alleged rottenness at the heart of the monarchy and helped the likes of Lenin portray revolution as a cleansing act for Russia, clearing out the corrupt aristocracy to give birth to a new order and, ultimately, the mythical ascetic New Soviet Man.  The impact of Rasputin was seen as so great at the time that Kerensky, head of the provisional government formed after the Tsar's abdication, said:

"Without Rasputin, there could have been no Lenin."

Part of the mystique that surrounds Rasputin is that there are so many stories and rumours about his life that it is difficult to know what is truth and what is fiction.  This has allowed Frances Welch the freedom to take a judicious, and at times even humorous, view of his escapades whilst writing a vivid and highly readable biography.  She interweaves the narrative with the wider story of the political struggles faced by the Tsar during the First World War, which puts the story into perspective and allows the reader to understand the corrosive effect Rasputin had upon the monarchy and, by extension, Russia.

She finishes the book with a wonderful excursion through Rasputin's cultural afterlife and finishes with a lovely bit of trivia - far from being the massively-endowed sex machine of legend, a medical examination of Rasputin in 1914 after another failed assassination attempt revealed that his genitals were so small that his doctor believed that it was unlikely he could ever, to put it crudely, "get it up".

So, there you go.  To paraphrase the great Boney M, although he probably wasn't actually Russia's greatest love machine, he was indeed a cat that really was gone and it really was a shame how he carried on.  And I recommend you read France Welch's biography to find out exactly how he did carry on.