Reviews — From the December 2016 issue

Destruction Myth

The rise and fall of the Romanovs

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Discussed in this essay:

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, by Douglas Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 848 pages. $35.

The Romanovs: 1613–1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf. 784 pages. $35.

He is the mad monk, the holy fool, the man whose mystical powers enthralled the tsarina and cured the tsarevitch. It is said that he was a hypnotist, a rapist, a cultist, a charlatan, a seer. Allegedly, he was immune to poison; when his murderers tried to drown him, his body floated to the surface. In the century since his death, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, the Siberian priest whose relationship with Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, helped bring down the entire Romanov dynasty, has been the subject of countless myths — so much so that it has become nearly impossible to disentangle the man from the legend.

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin © Mary Evans/Iberfoto

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin © Mary Evans/Iberfoto

The myths were no less pervasive when he was alive. During the final years of the Russian Empire, the holy man was at the height of his power and influence. Alexandra was convinced that he could cure her son’s hemophilia and gave him unprecedented access to the royal family. Nicholas saw in Rasputin an embodiment of the peasantry, the real Russia, in whom he had so much faith. (Right up to the moment of his abdication, he expected the people’s love and adoration to save him.)

But Nicholas’s subjects hated Rasputin and resented his influence over the imperial family. The press published extraordinary accounts of his sexual escapades and his supposed corruption, of his political machinations and his sway over the tsar; and the public — the peasants, the workers, the aristocrats, and the intellectuals alike — lapped them up. In a diary entry from 1916, Lev Tikhomirov, a Russian intellectual and recovering revolutionary, grappled with the problem of Rasputin:

People say the Emperor has been warned to his face that Rasputin is destroying the dynasty. He replies: “Oh, that’s silly nonsense; his importance is greatly exaggerated.” An utterly incomprehensible point of view. For this is in fact where the destruction comes from, the wild exaggerations. What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka has on the Emperor, but what sort of influence people think he has. This is precisely what is undermining the authority of the Tsar and the Dynasty.

Douglas Smith, the author of the definitive new biography Rasputin, takes this comment to heart. Writing that “there is no Rasputin without the stories about Rasputin,” he devotes more than 700 pages to unraveling each yarn. He looks at letters and memoirs, including the many fake memoirs, in addition to short stories and plays that were written about Rasputin and his entourage. He consults the voluminous archives of the Okhrana, the tsar’s secret police, which was carefully watching Rasputin, as well as his family, associates, and friends. He has used new documents and reread familiar ones, comparing sources in order to establish what actually happened during Rasputin’s lifetime.

The outlines of his early years are mostly agreed on. He was born in 1869 in the western Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, the son of relatively well-to-do peasants. He was the fifth of nine children, and never attended school. He married at eighteen, had seven children of his own, then drifted away to a monastery, where he became a fanatical believer and a wandering preacher, joining a long Russian tradition, and soon developed a reputation for spiritual healing. He traveled, rendering his services from Kiev to Kazan, and around 1905 wound up in St. Petersburg, at a time when the monarchy and the empire were experiencing a series of crises: a failed war with Japan, a popular revolution, economic turmoil.

Friends recommended him as a spiritual counselor to other friends, and eventually to the emperor. Nicholas recorded their first meeting in November of that year: “We made the acquaintance of a man of God — Grigory, from Tobolsk province.” The imperial couple had recently broken ties with another spiritual huckster, a Frenchman named Philippe. Rasputin took his place. Within months, he had become an intimate of the family. After Nicholas and Alexandra became convinced that he could help cure Alexei, their hemophiliac son and heir, he became impossible to remove. And the closer he grew to the family, the more outrageous the rumors about him became.

Smith concludes that some of the most damaging stories were accurate. During his time as a Romanov insider, Rasputin saw prostitutes, slept with some of the aristocratic ladies in the imperial court, and frequently got drunk. He also tried to guide some of the tsar’s personnel appointments, especially after the outbreak of the First World War; he opposed Russian involvement. In the spring of 1915, he held a long meeting with the minister of finance, whom he was hoping to have replaced with a candidate of his own preference.

But it also becomes clear that his political role was exaggerated by the climate of hysteria and suspicion. Early-twentieth-century St. Petersburg was a breeding ground for odd cults and mystical groups, theosophists and seers who claimed they could speak to the dead. After the Japanese debacle, the Russian elite was pessimistic about the future of the empire. Rapid modernization and industrialization had shaken the social structure entrenched over centuries, leaving both the peasantry and the new working class cut off from their religious and spiritual roots. As casualties mounted in the First World War and the economy suffered, many Russians began to believe that they were the victims of a secret conspiracy, as Smith explains:

Shadowy actors, hidden from view, were the ones truly in charge of the situation. Tyomnye sily, they were called, “Dark Forces.” They could be different things to different people — Jews, Germans, Freemasons, Alexandra, Rasputin and the court camarilla — but it was taken on faith that they were the true masters of Russia.

In this atmosphere, plenty of people in St. Petersburg had an interest in feeding the exaggerations about Rasputin. That becomes clear when Smith dissects one of the most scandalous tales: the incident at the Yar restaurant in Moscow. According to the rumors, Rasputin showed up at the restaurant with his friends late on the evening of March 26, 1915. He got drunk, danced, and lunged at the Gypsy girls who were there to provide entertainment. He bragged about his clout over the royal family and said obscene things about the empress. At one point, he took off his trousers and exposed himself, “as if to prove the source of his hold over the empress and society women.” What started as a rumor evolved into a series of newspaper stories before finally achieving the status of historical fact.

Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat and spy who wrote a memoir of the period, claimed to have seen the police arrive and drag Rasputin away. Except that he didn’t: Lockhart wasn’t in Moscow at the time, didn’t mention the incident in his diaries, and probably boasted about it later only to add to his own renown. Nor is there evidence that the Okhrana observed the scandalous events that evening, despite having multiple agents following Rasputin around the clock. Smith writes that these agents shadowed him across the city. They recorded each of his meetings, investigated his contacts, and telephoned his movements back to headquarters. They even noted that on March 27, he was led “in an intoxicated state” out of an apartment and driven around in a cab, possibly in order to get sober. On March 26, they did spot him entering the Yar restaurant, but noted no alcohol, Gypsy girls, or lewd boasting.

Two months later, however, Smith says that under orders from Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, an official in the interior ministry and a political enemy of Rasputin’s, the Okhrana concocted a new account. Their report included the names of people who had not been previously mentioned, as well as the sordid anecdotes that were doing the rounds in society. It alleged not just sexual misconduct and drunkenness but political intrigue: Rasputin was quoted offering to use his connections to “High Personages” to set up a corrupt deal.

Dzhunkovsky took a copy of the report to the tsar, adding that Rasputin was the “weapon of some secret society,” probably the Freemasons, “bent on the destruction of Russia.” Nicholas showed it to Alexandra, who called Dzhunkovsky a liar and a traitor. The tsar dismissed him. But the legend lived on, much longer than the monarch himself.

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is a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and runs the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute. Her most recent book is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956.

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