Added June14 2004


Brian Moynihan: Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned

When all other figures of pre-Revolutionary Russia between 1905 and 1917 are dim or forgotten, the notorious name of Rasputin lives on: in literature, film and popular music. Most treatment of him in the West at least has been of a cavalier nature, beginning with him popping up out of somewhere in Siberia to corrupt the royal family before being assassinated by patriots or sexual deviants. Brian Moynihan's book is an attempt at a serious treatment of a man who proclaimed no revolutionary philosophy nor religion yet to whom the downfall of the Romanovs has often been attributed.

Moynihan takes us back to the beginning, to Grigorii Rasputin's birth, childhood and youth, being careful to note which accounts are by observers with an interest to declare (his daughter, for example). Thus, while some parties claimed that healing and finding powers were evident in the boy from an early age, others from his villages remembered him less kindly as a drunkard, thief and general n'er-do-well. One villager claims he gave Rasputin a beating when he found him stealing his fence poles, and even his father apparently thought Grigorii an idler or at least absent son, taking off to monasteries when it suited him. Readers may also be surprised to find that he married as a young man and had three children by his wife with whom he seems to have a good relationship, if not a faithful one on his side.

In Rasputin's early years his religious feelings seem to have been sincere, if of the antinomian, or lawless, variety, expressed primarily in platitudes about love and getting closer to God through nature while scarcely touching scripture or the traditional teachings of the Orthodox Church. For this reason he was often suspected of being a khlyst, a leader or member of a heretic sect who practised free sex in the woods as part of their worship. Although he certainly practised free sex, both then and more often later, no evidence was ever found to convict him of such membership. Early on when he went to St Petersburg as a very young starets, or elder (he was never in fact a monk), he made a positive impression on many church leaders of the time, although later most were to turn against him. Moynihan asserts that there came a point, however, when he consciously gave in to his venal or animal side, and that thereafter spirituality became just a form of actor's greasepaint to him.

This is also a book about Russia between 1900 and 1917, as Moynihan paints the movements of Rasputin against a backdrop of the life and events of that country as it fatally tried to straddle autocracy and revolution. Thus we get a guide to Father Gapon and the 1905 Revolution, to Witte and Stolypin, and especially Nicholas II and Alexandra. The latter is of special interest to the author as in his view neither the starets nor the empress could have had a meaningful separate existence without the other - she would have just been a hysterical woman of the vapours and he an obscure provincial curiosity. Tragically, the influence of the one on the other meant that Rasputin quickly achieved the status of a pop star among the decadent elites (and also the workers and peasants), and like many a pop star seemed unable to handle the reputation or worldly riches that went with the territory. Thus we find the holy man shamelessly peddling influence with the Tsarina in return for favours fiscal or sexual, and exposing himself in a public restaurant when drunk. As minders, of course, he had several members of the okhrana or secret police of the day, whom Moynihan portrays in an interesting and often human light. The real damage was not his carousing behaviour, though deplorable enough, but the fact that he succeeded in foisting a series of corrupt and useless ministers and clerics - Stürmer, Protopov, Khvostov, the Metropolitan Piturim - on the country at a time when it was in military and domestic crisis. It was this, together with the persistent rumours that his relationship with Alexandra was a sexual one, that was to lead to his murder. The killers themselves were an odd group, their leaders an extreme Right-wing deputy with venereal disease and a penchant for satire, and a cross-dressing Prince who involved one of Alexandra's nephews. A sign of the chaotic state of Russia is that none of the killers was ever punished, despite their known guilt and Alexandra's hatred for them. Most of the Romanovs, in fact, were utterly relieved.

Moynihan is never less than fair to his subjects, and mentions Rasputin's generosity, his liberal political ideas on everything except the Tsar's right to autocratic rule, and the fact that he did not make a personal fortune but ended up enriching rogues instead. Nevertheless for a man who modelled himself on the noble Russian idea of the starets his behaviour was reprehensible, particular in sexual matters. In some ways he remains a mystery, especially in his powers of healing which on some occasions at least do seem to have been genuine, and in his occasionally accurate prophecies, particularly as to the war and the fate of Russia.

Moynihan concludes the book with a brief account of the fates of the rest of the players in the drama, which in cases is scarcely less interesting than that of Rasputin, notably the former anti-Semite clerical demagogue Isiodor, who ended up in the US and became a Baptist. Many others, of course, died violently, and the author does not hide the fact that despite the brutal incompetence of Nicholas II's regime, Lenin simply applied the knout more efficiently. There is a good note on sources and bibliography. Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned is both scholarly and a lively read, and will hold the reader who might not otherwise be interested in Russian history.

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