On the centenary of his death, a vigorous attempt to penetrate the monstrous myths surrounding Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin (1869-1916).
A historian and translator concentrating on Russian history, Smith (Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, 2012, etc.) grapples with the legend that grew around Rasputin during his life and after his death. In this massive, winding journey, the author essentially concedes that Rasputin’s mythmaking after his gruesome murder in December 1916 by political intimates has become more important that the actual events—and most are disputed. The public excoriation of this “simple” devout Christian peasant from Siberia, who nonetheless had the ear of the Romanov dynasty, became the key to undermining the indecisive, rudderless leadership of Czar Nicholas himself. Rasputin was illiterate until his adulthood, facing a life as a hardscrabble farmer, fond of the bottle, married at age 18 to Praskovya, a woman devoted to him and the mother of his children. He was like most Russian souls at the time, “keeping the eternal rhythm of peasant life in motion.” Yet he was restless and touched by a religious vision; he set off on pilgrimages in his late 20s to become a “holy seeker,” a spiritual awakening that the author describes as certainly sincere. Further along in this overly long narrative, Smith shows how Rasputin’s fame as a “starets” (a kind of captivating pious elder) spread and the circles of his acquaintances grew ever wider, encompassing the aristocracy and the court of Nicholas and Alexandra. The royal couple desperately needed him to direct the tumultuous country and heal their hemophiliac son. Smith demonstrates how gradually the mystic lost his way in the flashy capital of St. Petersburg and was corrupted by the rapture he inspired. At the same time, he preached the importance of disdaining wealth and status to his numerous devotees, especially wives and widows.
A tour de force of research from the Russian archives, the book is a deeply detailed, occasionally plodding biography of one of history’s most malleable characters.