It’s the twilight world of Tsarist Russia on the eve of WWI and the Russian Revolution. It’s a society that oddly mixes the very old and the very new. A land where everyone seems caught up in their own fairy tale.
Russian history, especially when it comes to Nicholas and Alexandra, and the whole WWI/Russian Revolution era is absolutely loaded with high quality history books, I’m thinking primarily Robert K Massie here, but there are so many others as well. I have no idea why the quality of Russian history is so high (compare to Chinese history for example). My only guess is in that particular time and place, a variety of factors compels a certain fascination and lends itself to high narrative. It is also possible that after a million academic books on the Russian Revolution came out, everyone became exhausted with academic books on the Russian Revolution and decided to switch over to a more narrative-based history experience. However, there are many periods in history that easily lend themselves to great narrative histories, and so that brings us back to where we started. Yeah, really, no idea.
Grigory Rasputin was born in far Siberia; a peasant, yet he came to captivate the Russian royal family, who saw Rasputin as a essentially an individual sent by god to save the Romanovs. The reason for this is that Alexi – the tsarevich or heir to the throne – had haemophilia, and apparently, Rasputin was the only person who could calm and restore the boy to health. Nicholas and Alexandra where simply, religious to the point of being desperately mystical and rather mediocre people. It is their personalities and their great secret weakness (the tsarevich’s illness) which allowed Rasputin to become this oddly powerful figure in the late Romanov world.
What makes Edvard Radzinsky’s book on Rasputin stand out from all the others is a large amount of new historical evidence and testimony. Thus, this book is more than a simple and dramatic retelling of the “Rasputin story/myth”, it is a valid contribution to historical knowledge. Here’s what happened: after the 1917 February Revolution brought Kerensky’s Provisional Government to power, that government launched a huge investigation in Rasputin and his influence over Nicholas and Alexandra. Testimony was collected from a huge number of people, but most importantly, many voices that have been completely lost: those of Rasputin’s friends and confidants. This huge report, lost from Russian official archives, only surfaced at an auction after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The result is that a far more nuanced, detailed, and balanced picture of Rasputin has emerged.
That being said, the Rasputin that emerges does, for the most part confirm our mental picture of him. That of a fraud; a cult-leader preying upon weak and anxious people by using a mixture of genuinely religious talk and mysticism, psychological manipulation and possibly a parlour trick or two. Rasputin was clearly an extremely emotionally intelligent person was an absolute master at reading people and manipulating them. I don’t think he was a hypnotist; I think he was unafraid of being dramatic and theatrical and was able to read people and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.
Something else: Rasputin emerges as one of the most intelligent individuals that you meet in this period. The vast majority of people, ranging from simple peasants, to bishops to government ministers to the Tsar himself come across as massively mediocre. Rasputin is one of maybe three figures in the book where you sit back and think to yourself “okay, that shows some brains”. Rasputin also emerges as a sex deviant, but perhaps as much from his mystical religious past in the still somewhat pagan Siberia. Rasputin at a certain point was actually a valid religious figure. It didn’t last long, but to give the man his due, at one point he was not complete fraud.
Radzinsky is a great writer; his tone is one of investigatory journalism rather than history proper. It’s like having the story told to you by a knowledgable friend over espresso at the local cafe. This book is light and reads pretty fast. It’s very enjoyable. But here’s my criticism: Radzinsky never goes deep. He tells you everything you need to know to follow the story. But this is a minimum. He will tell you enough about Russian religious history to “get the gist of it” before moving on. We are introduced to the Khyst cult/heresy (which Rasputin was undoubtably a member at some point in time), but at no point are the factors that would produce such a heresy investigated. The weakness of the Romanov dynasty and the turbulent history of Russia is ignored. The Russian Revolution is, for the most part, depicted as the result of Rasputin’s shadowy role at the heart of the empire. The damage done by say, losing badly in WWI, is not treated as a factor.
Also, Radzinsky is not afraid to insinuate, and then hide behind the reasoning of “we shall never know for sure”. He is great and quoting you a passage from testimony and then explaining why that witness is lying (and this is great stuff), but he does manage to mention that Rasputin might have had bisexual proclivities, even though there is very little evidence of this. This is merely an example, but it does show how Radzinsky is a bit eager to gossip about these things.
This a very good book. It’s informative and theatrical.