The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin, by Alex de Jonge

The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin

I saw the movie Nicholas and Alexandra in the theater when I was a teenager. I remember experiencing it as one of the first “grown-up” movies I’d ever gone to see. I’m sure I had been to plenty of movies that were for both adults and kids, and even mostly for adults, but they were comedies or action movies or science fiction or something like that, not a mostly talky period drama with a lot of scenes in drawing rooms and such.

I liked it more than not, but at the time it didn’t feel like it had had an unusually big impact on me for a movie. For much of my life if you had asked me what movies from childhood were my favorites, or were the most powerful to see, or were the most memorable, etc., that isn’t one I would have ever mentioned. If I had been explicitly asked about it, I suppose I would have said something like, “Oh yeah, I saw that. It was pretty good.”

What’s funny though is that when I think about it now, I remember far more about that movie than almost any movie from that long ago. And this isn’t a movie I saw multiple times, or have read about since, or have ever talked with people about since, or even have thought about very much at all since. But given how much stayed with me, it must have reached me a lot more deeply than I realized.

I remember the Tsar’s little hemophiliac son (the Tsarevich), and how they showed a close up of his bruise that was bleeding internally and could easily kill him, and how he took a sled to the top of the stairs near the end of the movie and rode it down in a suicidal effort to injure himself and cause bleeding that wouldn’t stop.

I remember when the Tsar and his top people were debating whether to enter (what would later be called) World War I, and I remember the look of despair on the face of the fellow who had argued vigorously against entering the war and lost the argument.

I remember the Tsar looking perpetually befuddled by events he couldn’t understand, and yet retaining a stoicism and an odd dignity. I remember when he realized he’d lost the country to revolution, and how that finally broke his stoicism and he collapsed in apologetic tears before his wife (the Tsarina).

I remember when one of the revolutionaries slapped him across the face, and an observer remarked in disbelief and horror “You struck the Tsar!” and you realized what an unthinkable act that was to many people back then, akin to if Jesus came down from Heaven and someone walked up to him and spit in his face.

I remember the Tsar’s family at the end, sitting together as if for a portrait, waiting to be executed.

And more—I could actually mention several more scenes I somehow still remember.

As much as anything I remember Rasputin. I remember his eyes. I remember when the Tsarevich was on the brink of death, and Alexandra implored Nicholas to summon “our friend” (Rasputin) to save him. I remember the scene where he is assassinated. And I just remember in general what a bizarre and dominating figure he was throughout the movie.

I’ve had an interest in Rasputin, and to some extent that whole period of Russian history, ever since, though it’s not something I’ve particularly pursued. For instance, this is the only book I’ve read specifically about Rasputin.

I found The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin to be mostly well written and engaging. It lives up to its title in that it gives a thorough account of Rasputin’s life, but also has much to say about the historical context in which that life occurred—the “times.”

One small complaint is that the author is disappointingly credulous about the supernatural. He presents his credulity as a matter of being open-minded, stating in the beginning that he’ll go where the evidence takes him on the question of whether Rasputin had supernatural powers, rather than rule it out a priori. On the surface that all sounds quite reasonable, but to me it’s like a historian saying he’s going to keep an open mind about whether John Wilkes Booth was really a person from the 21st century who used a time machine to travel back and shoot Lincoln.

You’re not refusing to consider the evidence when you ignore such hypotheses; you’re implicitly using the extraordinarily strong evidence that the woo-woo stuff doesn’t happen, and then not bothering to reconsider the matter as it applies to every specific case. Which I would say is almost always a justified approach.

But it’s not like he goes overboard in favor of the supernatural. Indeed, in the end maybe his stance isn’t even really as objectionable as I thought it was going to be when he first announced it.

He certainly does not conclude that Rasputin had supernatural powers. I take his conclusion to be more like: There are a few mysterious things from Rasputin’s life that are eyebrow-raising and you can’t be sure they weren’t indeed an indication of some kind of supernatural power (of healing, of clairvoyance, etc.), but really so much is a matter of hearsay or only having a small part of the picture that it’s also entirely possible there was no supernaturalism involved.

Furthermore, he indicates that whether such anomalies stemmed from something supernatural or not, there really aren’t nearly as many of them as probably most people who are aware of Rasputin’s reputation think.

As far as clairvoyance, for instance, Rasputin didn’t make a habit of purporting to predict the future. He said a few things along those lines from time to time, but it wasn’t a “specialty” of his.

Most of his prophetic statements that people can point to as having come true were really just vague pronouncements about upcoming doom and gloom for Russia and its ruling class—things that just about anyone back then could have predicted without any supernatural assistance. A couple of things he said were maybe a little more specific and a little less easily dismissed, but just a little. Certainly there’s nothing that blows your socks off, like “The Mets will win the World Series in 1969.”

His faith healing is probably what he’s best known for, but besides with the Tsarevich, again it was quite infrequent that he manifested this purported power. Like with the clairvoyance there were a small number of intriguing incidents, but nothing that stands out as being impossible to explain without a supernatural hypothesis.

But it’s also worth noting that an explanation doesn’t have to be supernatural to be interesting or impressive. Maybe, indeed almost certainly, there’s a mundane explanation for how the Tsarevich recovered from life-threatening conditions whenever he was under the influence of Rasputin, but there’s mundane and there’s mundane.

For instance, if the explanation is at least in part that Rasputin instilled such confidence in the Tsarevich and his caregivers that this somehow enabled the Tsarevich to psychologically cure himself in effect, that hardly establishes that Rasputin was a charlatan or was nothing special. If you have a strong enough will, and are skillful enough in using it, to induce major psychological changes in people that lead to dramatic changes in their health, that’s pretty impressive. Something doesn’t have to be magic to be cool.

The author suggests as a possibility in one or more of these cases with the Tsarevich that maybe a doctor attempted some kind of treatment but kept quiet about it (willing to forego the credit if the boy lived, in order to avoid the blame if he died), and that’s what enabled him to recover.

I’d add that it’s possible neither Rasputin nor anyone else did anything in particular that brought about the recoveries. I mean, how much did they really know about hemophilia back then? Were they really in a position to know that “Given this kind of injury, barring a miracle, there is a one hundred percent chance the patient will die”? I doubt it. It was probably more like in their limited experience they expected most hemophiliacs in a certain state to die, but they really weren’t at all sure about that and certainly couldn’t be sure about a specific case. Perhaps in reality 30% of such patients die, and the Tsarevich happened to be in the 70%. But even if it were 98% and he happened to be in the 2%, that doesn’t necessitate a supernatural hypothesis, nor even a hypothesis involving a surreptitious non-supernatural treatment.

Then there’s the matter of Rasputin’s assassination. Reportedly he consumed a large quantity of poison that would have been enough to kill several men, and was unaffected. As the author points out, though, it’s not like these were savvy assassins who had experience with the effects of all different quantities of poison. They were just taking educated guesses as to how much was needed to kill a person, not to mention since they cooked the poison into cakes and then the cakes sat out for a while, it’s possible that something in the cooking process or the passage of time altered the chemical composition of the poison which in turn altered its strength.

Next Rasputin was shot at point blank range and collapsed dead. Or maybe not dead, since some minutes later one of the assassins was alone with the body and had the nightmarish experience of seeing Rasputin slowly open one eye and then the other, paralyzing the assassin with terror, and then jump up to seize him and condemn him by name while attempting to strangle him.

The problem with this, again as the author points out, is that the only witness to this supposed event was the one assassin to whom it allegedly happened, and he was a fantasy-prone believer in the supernatural.

The degree to which Rasputin really defied death is not at all clear. There’s a decent chance it was a high enough degree to indicate an unusually strong constitution, and an unusually strong will to live, but it’s not as if the evidence compels the conclusion that it was to such a high degree as to only be explainable supernaturally.

So like I say, when you get right down to it, maybe the author isn’t implausibly credulous about the supernatural, since about as far as he’ll go in Rasputin’s case is the position that a supernatural explanation for some of his feats cannot be ruled out but is not particularly likely.

(But then just as I’m thinking he’s sane after all, he contrasts the Rasputin case with the case of some Bulgarian woman he mentions in passing who really has proven to have supernatural powers like those attributed to Rasputin. Sure.)

But anyway, there’s much to learn from this book. Rasputin, the author says, was in many ways not at all atypical of the Russian peasant of his time. He may seem exotic and bizarre to us, but most of his traits, his values, his lifestyle, etc. were pretty much what you’d expect from a peasant, in the unlikely event a peasant were plopped down in the lofty circles in which Rasputin eventually traveled.

More specifically, zany holy men were quite common in Russia at that time. Luck and unlikely circumstances propelled Rasputin to the palace of the Tsar, but there were plenty of other Rasputins knocking about in varying degrees of obscurity.

For that matter there were even a few who became involved with Russia’s first family or others quite high up in Russian society, most notably a French one who was an intimate of the royals well before Rasputin came along. The royal family, especially the Tsarina, were religious believers and believers in other forms of woo woo, like Nancy Reagan with her astrologer, so they were easily taken in by those claiming superhuman powers.

The author paints an unflattering picture of peasant life in Russia (which was almost all of Russia, since Russia was very much an agricultural, pre-industrial society). He laughs off the romantic notions of so many Russian writers and intellectuals from Gogol to Tolstoy about the noble Russian peasant and his extraordinary potential. In fact, as he describes them, the peasants were crude, superstitious, uneducated thugs, prone to violence and drunkenness. Whenever they rose up, including the ultimate occasion when they overthrew the Tsarist regime, it was an irrational, monstrous bloodbath.

Think of the rapists in Deliverance, and then imagine the largest nation on Earth full of them.

The religious movements of the time were varied and eccentric, to put it charitably. There was the official Orthodox Church, but then there were innumerable sects and pseudo-Christian contrivances, suppressed to varying degrees.

There were some groups, for instance, that featured demagogic, David Koresh-style leaders, and practiced extreme debauchery, on the grounds that Christian forgiveness and redemption required first sinking as deeply as possible into sin. It was kind of like provoking a fight because you’re so much looking forward to the make-up sex. They would engage in all kinds of orgies and violence and such, and then manifest breast beating, maybe flagellating, remorse. (The influence on Rasputin is obvious.)

Nicholas and Alexandra come across in the book more sympathetically than not, especially Nicholas. Nicholas doesn’t seem to have been a particularly bad guy, just in over his head, like George W. Bush trying to be president.

It sounds like their most consequential flaw may well have been social awkwardness. They were completely tone deaf when it came to performing at social functions, schmoozing, maneuvering around palace intrigue, etc. The Tsarina was highly unpopular from early on, probably partly unjustly, or in any case she was certainly convinced it was unjust, and it embittered her and made her all the more difficult and unpleasant to deal with, which of course made her more hated and so on.

The Tsar seemingly just didn’t have the stomach for all the social and political games. In many ways he was a surprisingly, maybe admirably, simple man and his was a simple family. The few times he seemed happiest were when he had the opportunity to be least Tsar-like, for instance when he received his military training as a youth as a cavalry officer.

Indeed, after the revolution, when the former royal family was imprisoned out in the middle of nowhere and forced to do peasantlike work, in some ways Nicholas was in his element. On the one hand, the circumstances were very stressful, not knowing how long his family would be allowed to live and such, but he loved the work itself. It was obviously intended as humiliation to put those supposedly anointed by God to work in the fields and chopping down trees for firewood, but it was the kind of thing Nicholas much preferred over trying to figure out what did or did not constitute some subtle slight to this or that dowager at yet another insufferable ball.

He doesn’t even come across as particularly power-hungry. It sounds like he would have happily abdicated early if he hadn’t felt an obligation to his heirs. Alexandra regularly advised him to remain firm in opposition to any loosening up of absolute monarchy, not because he or they were enjoying it in the slightest, but in order to pass it on to their hemophiliac son, whom Alexandra routinely referred to as “Baby.”

Baby, it seems, was a spoiled brat. His life was a combination of being barred from doing the vast majority of things a boy would want to do (due to his hemophilia) and in compensation being catered to and given his way in every other area of life. His parents concluded that he’d be psychologically utterly unable to function as anything other than an absolute monarch, assuming he somehow even lived to adulthood. Whenever Nicholas would show any weakness, any inclination to give in to demands for a constitution or some lessening of the royal power, Alexandra would remind him that “We’re doing this for Baby.”

But overall they come off as a couple that was very much in love for the duration of their marriage, and very devoted to family. Those are terrific virtues to have, but they are not enough to enable one to successfully exercise and retain absolute authority over one-sixth of the Earth’s land mass, and indeed can be counterproductive to doing so.

I also suspect, though, that the author overstates the importance of the Tsar’s failings as a factor leading to his overthrow, just as I suspect he overstates how significant a factor was Rasputin’s influence over the royal family and the ridicule it brought down upon them from the press and public.

I think factors like that helped shape the details of how and when the regime fell, but it’s not like Tsars were going to last very long into the 20th century regardless. Their time was past. Had there been no Rasputin and had Nicholas had different strengths and weaknesses, maybe the monarchy would have ended a few years earlier or a few years later. Or maybe it would have devolved into a constitutional monarchy and then into the kind of purely symbolic monarchy that Britain retains today. Or maybe it would have resulted in some group other than the Bolsheviks coming to power. But I doubt there’s any plausible scenario under which Russia would have been ruled by the Romanovs as absolute monarchs for another fifty years or more.

In the end, I come away from The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin thinking Rasputin is a little less mysterious, a little less unique, a little less “larger than life” than he felt to me before. I suppose that’s a little disappointing. I don’t think I was secretly rooting for him to have some supernatural powers—as I’ve indicated I don’t have much use for such claims—but I enjoy the fascination of truly extraordinary people.

Not that this book purports to totally debunk the legend of Rasputin. But he feels maybe 75% as extraordinary to me now as he did before I read it.

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