I have heard very often that the critical event of the 20th century was World War I, and to find out the consequences of that, I read Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. And while that does an excellent job of describing the aftermath of World War I, I found myself wanting more with respect to how the Russian tsars fell. So when I saw Rasputin’s face staring me down at the local Borders, I knew I had to pick it up and see what was really going on and the role the enigmatic Rasputin played in it.
This book, The Rasputin File, summarizes and gives insight into Rasputin through a file that was put together after his death, only recently recovered. Although the File is named “Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry for the Investigation of Illegal Acts by Ministers and Other Responsible Persons of the Tsarist Regime. Investigative Section”, the file specifically pertains to finding out the true influence the semi-literate peasant Rasputin had on those around him. For those not familiar with Rasputin, he was essentially an advisor to the tsar and tsarina who was suspected of pulling their strings and manipulating the government to his will. He also is famous for the myths surrounding his death. This book aims to shed light on both of these questions, using the newly recovered evidence in the File.
The author, Edvard Radzinsky, truly writes a unique book here. As the best-selling author of The Last Tsar, he has pretty much devoted his life to this small but extremely important period of time, and as such is the definitive author for this work. He is basically playing a detective who riffs through the evidence the File puts forth. The File is a compilation of interrogations with almost everyone who knew Rasputin at any time in his life, Radzinsky takes this and turns it into Rasputin’s biography. Yet he doesn’t take the File verbatim as true, and cross-references many other sources to find out who was lying when and how to resolve it (if possible).
The reason the book is unique is its greatest strength and greatest weakness: its grammar. The grammar is surprisingly informal, so as a result, the book is plagued by run-on sentences. Sentences often start with ‘and’, which makes it initially come off as being very sloppy or something you would expect from taking the original Russian and throwing it into Google Translate; it’s writing that definitely is ok as English, but gives a very non-native feel to it. Yet this weakness is it’s greatest strength. The incredibly informality of the sentences makes it feel as if the author is actually talking to you directly, which provides a powerful sense of atmosphere. But that’s not why you’re reading this: you’re interested in the two big questions surrounding Rasputin that I mentioned earlier, so let’s get to the good stuff.
The first question deals with understanding how much influence Rasputin had over those around him. Rasputin’s “magnetic personality” didn’t give him total influence over the royal family, but was pretty close and is much greater than you would be inclined to think. He enters the picture as a healer for the tsar’s son, who was constantly sick. The story goes that Rasputin showed up, looked at the child, told him everything would be fine, and all of a sudden the child was feeling better. The tsar and tsarina are pretty much sold on him after this point and he begins to infrequently advise them on matters (although the frequency does grow over time). He immediately stands out as an odd character due to his associations with the Khlysty, a Christian cult whose main teaching was that the way to remove sin was through sin. He isn’t really accepted at the royal court since he’s a peasant with these weird religious views, but since they’re all Christian it’s all good (it certainly wouldn’t have gone good if he was a Jew due to the growing anti-Semitism of the time).
So with the doctrine of “removing sin through sin” he becomes a healer for those around him and starts gaining a small family. It is suggested that he was sleeping with the tsarina herself, but the truth behind that doesn’t really show up (it heavily leans towards ‘Yes, he was’, however). The idea was basically that he would take the sinful and through sin, would remove their sin and put it in him. This idea would expand as his influence over the tsarina grew and he was able to influence politics greatly, so he would frequently find people at his house needing some favor. As he deemed them “sinful” for what it was they were willing to do to get it, he thus saw himself as their savior since he could rid them of their sin. He thus would take a “down payment” from them (typically money, and if they were female, sex also) and take it every night until he got them the favor they were asking for. At that point, they got what they wanted and he was able to remove some sin from their soul, thus accomplishing his goal as well.
But after a while Rasputin realizes that the sinful simply keep coming back to him and asking for more favors. Thus he becomes deeply depressed that he isn’t really helping them since they just go and sin again and come back to him. This marks the midpoint of the story and is where Rasputin starts drinking. He goes from no drinking at all because he knows he’s a bad drunk to being constantly drunk every day except when he has to go visit the tsar and tsarina. A little after this point, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and World War I begins. This pulls away the tsar off to deal with the war and leaving the tsarina virtually in charge of stately matters. Since she relies on Rasputin and one other close friend, Anna Vyrubova, the three of them informally become a “shadow cabinet” and run the country. Yet Rasputin’s nature constantly draws him into the media and the populace quickly suspects that he is really running the show. But Radzinsky boils it down to this: On all things where the tsarina had no opinion, Rasputin dominated, and when she had an opinion, Rasputin reinforced it (and couldn’t change her mind on it). The book puts these situations as equally probable, so Rasputin effectively has control of half of Russia (not bad at all for a lowly peasant during the times of kings and queens!). The book gives the evidence and lays out the drama much better than I, but that will at least serve to answer one of our two questions and pique your interest in this book.
I will effectively do the same with the second question: how did Rasputin die? The myth of it goes like this: Prince Felix Yusupov invites Rasputin to his palace and poisons his wine and pastries. Rasputin continues to talk with Felix and is completely unaffected by the poison, so Felix returns with a pistol and shoots him at nearly point blank range. Rasputin loses his pulse and Felix and Co. assume he’s dead. They thus celebrate but after a while Rasputin gets up and runs for the door. He gets out to the snowy backyard to try to make a run for it but he ends up being shot twice (once in the back, once in the head). Now they notice that he has a pulse so they tie him up and throw him in a lake to finish off the job.
Radzinsky does an excellent job of taking the extremely unreliable evidence from Felix and Co. with the new evidence from the File and piecing together a much more realistic (but less amazing) story. What appears to be the case is that the poison they used on the wine was too diluted so it had no effect on him, he didn’t eat the poisoned pastries (he avoided pastries like the plague), and so Felix shot him. Felix hit him in a non-vital location (Felix had no training with guns so he was an extremely poor shooter) and since Rasputin passed out, they assumed he was dead and went to celebrate. Only hours later when Rasputin awoke and found that he was shot did Felix and Co. decide to finish the job. The rest then occurs as was in the myth with some minor changes to the particulars.
Yet it really is the particulars that make the Rasputin story so exciting, and I am butchering the book by not being able to transport that here. Hopefully I have given you some of the intrigue behind the book and motivated you to at least look into it, because seeing the man behind the scenes try to save the world through these very odd methods and how that gets rationalized (and how Radzinsky masterfully portrays it) really makes this book a must-read. It portrays the time as truly a telenovella, with everyone involved in drama with someone else and everyone needing Rasputin for something. Some people want to eliminate Rasputin, some want to save him, others want to replace him, and it goes on and on. But in the end only Felix was able to pull it off, and only at the specific point in time when he did (police surveillance was too tight on Rasputin beforehand). And with the fall of Rasputin came the fall of the tsar and tsarina, and with that, our world changed forever.