THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIGORII RASPUTIN by Alex de Jonge

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIGORII RASPUTIN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

De Jonge (Fire and Water: A Life of Peter the Great) labors hard to separate the Rasputin legends from the facts here--in a decent, garrulously inconclusive pop-biography which is constantly, conscientiously seeing all sides of the paradoxical Rasputin personality. Strongest on Russian socio-historical backgrounds, de Jonge solidly sketches in the Siberian context that gave rise to this sensual, mystical ""holy man"": native peasant sectarianism, endemic drunkenness, traditional sex/religion interplay. He sees Rasputin as an intuitive, confused ""snapper-up of holy trifles"" who did experience some genuine conversion as a married youth: after years of wandering, he ""turned from a simple God-seeking peasant with healthy appetites"" into the figure of spiritual/ sexual authority whose holy-man reputation spread as far as St. Petersburg--where ""unbalanced spiritual craving and sensation-seeking"" were already rife in upper-class salons when Rasputin arrived in 1903. Likewise, de Jonge fills in the Nicholas/Alexandra context to explain their susceptibility: mysticism, weakness, obstinacy--and the tsarevitch's illness, which the holy man was able to control. (""A special instance of folk medicine,"" says de Jonge, though elsewhere he goes even further, suggesting that ""he did indeed possess a healing power""--as well as a little clairvoyance.) So we then follow the ups and downs of Rasputin's imperial power--his intimacy with the Romanovs (though not the Empress' lover); his temporary fall from grace when his ""mysto-erotic"" practices came to embarrassing light; his influence over appointments (""a courtier, not a politician""); the ""negligible"" effect of his military advice to the tsar; the activities of the many Rasputin enemies. And inevitably there's a long look at the legend-encrusted murder: de Jonge shrewdly analyzes the testimony of assassin Felix Yusupov (""not always a reliable witness""); he suggests/plausible technical reasons for Rasputin's apparent super-resistance. Finally, however, de Jonge's back-and-forth approach to the mad monk--""an inextricable mixture of opportunism and a sense of destiny, charlatanry and genuine understanding, sensuality and spirituality""--is unsatisfying, especially since it is repeated on page after page. And this remains a modestly readable but less-than-persuasive portrait, stronger on the surroundings than the title character.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1982
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan