Rasputin: A Review and Reflection of Douglas Smith’s “Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs”
I come from a long line of obsessers: ranging from sports and work fanatics to actual addicts. I myself am a fangirl. I’ve always obsessed with something: From 4th grade me who was obsessed with knowing everything there is to know about the Sinking of the Titanic to Adult Me who recently got a Screamapillar tattooed on her leg to solidify my 20 yearlong love affair with the Simpsons. The list ranges on: From the IRA, Alan Rickman, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Biggie Smalls, Emilie Autumn, the Columbian telenovela Las Mucheñas de la Mafia, the Hunchback of Norte Dame soundtrack (played all day every day the entire summer of 2015) and, my earliest and deadliest fixation, writing.
Of course none of those compare to my most bewildering preoccupation which is, my boy, notorious mad monk extraordinaire, Grigory Yefimovich Ra-Ra-Rasputin.
I honestly can’t give you one solid explanation for this fixation like I could with the others (even fourth grade me got a huge kick out of éclat of Irony that is the “Unsinkable Ship” Sinking). I can’t even remember when it all started but for whatever reason my nerd idiosyncrasies has always held a soft spot for both Russian History so when, at whatever age, I found out about Rasputin I was hooked.
And why wouldn’t I be? Douglas Smith, author of Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanov Dynasty, said it best: “The Life of Rasputin is one of the most remarkable in modern history. It reads like a dark fairy tale.” Out of all the biographies, documentaries, historical narratives and that one movie Rasputin: the Dark Servant of Destiny that I watched half of (not gonna lie I lost respect for the movie’s historical credibility once Snape started dicking the Tsarist) pertaining to Rasputin, this is the only one that felt like it was giving him a fair and balanced rendering of his life. Personally speaking, almost everything I’ve ever read of the guy gave off two clear and present biases: Either he was a pussy-obsessed peasant or a dirty-ass villain. That’s it.
Smith, on the other hand, does something most Rasputin historians haven’t bother to do and that was make him human. It’s easy to forget that at one point Rasputin Mad Monk began as Rasputin, Family Man but Smith does. In fact his approach is both shocking and charming: He went to archives and pulled out unrefuted documents about the guy. He brings up letters, diaries, correspondences, police reports. Hell, he even uses some of Rasputin’s own writings, something I have never seen in a biography about him before since everyone loves to dismiss him as an illiterate. One of the recurring themes I was damn-well shocked to discover from his writings was the overall message of love:
“Love does not allow you to see people’s weaknesses.” “Love is great suffering, it won’t let you eat, it doesn’t let you sleep. It is mixed with sin. Still is better to love.”
Who would’ve thought? Not me. I only knew what I read about him from Wikipedia or that one documentary that tried telling me he was going around sexing up prostitutes in his home village at the age of 9 (linked here if you wanna watch historian say with a straight face “Rasputin was promiscuous by the age of 10”).
That is not to say his life isn’t shrouded in mystery or that his actions were always scrupulous. The biography delves in his straight forward lechery. He used his influence to his advantages. He drank a lot, partied too much and made a fool out of himself. He loved other women even with his wife, Praskovia, back home taking care of his many female followers that wouldn’t leave his home. He loved prostitutes too. He even loved his Tsarist and her family, who returned his affections but of course in an un-fleshly manner. What really intrigued me about the book was how Smith described Rasputin and Tsarist Alexandra’s bond, something history liked to blur or fabricate with raunchy tales of adultery, sex-slavery, mind-control and/ or religious manipulation.
It turns out he, lowly Serbian generational farmer, and she, classy maiden of English and German royalty, had some things in common. Religious, family-orientated, stricken repeatedly with tragedy and surrounded by enemies, they were, as it seemed at times, of like mind: “She [Alexandra] viewed the world much as he did and one can see how Rasputin’s worlds would have been welcomed by her and how they helped create a bond between them.”
I won’t spoil the ending for you (that was a joke. Seriously if you don’t know what happens to Rasputin and the Romanovs, go Google it or forever be ignorant). I’m just going to end with Smith’s choice of proem a poem written by random German Heinrich Heine:
“It is also said that these fools/ Upon reaching the ocean-shore/ And having seen how the sky/ Was reflected in the blue tide below/ Believed that the sea/ Must be Heaven, and in they plunged/ With Faith in God/ And all were drowned.”
The book is 600+ pages long, it’s got way too many names to remember and there’s a lot of parts where you’re going to have to decide for yourself what to believe but that’s the best part about history: In the end, it’s all just about story-telling.