Local historian Douglas Smith looks for truth in the story of the most famous name in Russian history.
‘Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs’
by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 832 pp., $35 (publication date Nov. 22)
Rasputin may be the most recognized name in Russian history, says author Douglas Smith, but there would be “no Rasputin without the stories about Rasputin.”
In the 832 pages of “Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs,” Smith meticulously examines those stories for veracity.
Was Rasputin, a confidante of Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, a sex maniac? Smith writes that Rasputin collected a religious following of mostly women, took lovers and, according to police files, frequented prostitutes.
A lech? Women were “subjected to his creepy petting … Rasputin never learned to keep his hands to himself.”
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A rapist? Smith cites testimony that casts doubts on that.
The cause of the downfall of the Romanov family, who had ruled over Russia for 300 years? To a large extent, yes.
Smith, a Seattle author, historian and translator, worked for the U.S. Department of State in the former Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He’ll speak about the book (at booksellers Nov. 22) at Town Hall on Nov. 10.
For “Rasputin,” Smith relied heavily on primary sources: personal letters, government documents and police and press reports. The result is detailed and engaging.
Rasputin was introduced to Nicholas and Alexandra in 1905. He had been a Siberian peasant until he set off on religious pilgrimages. Then his knowledge of the Scriptures grew, as did his understanding of people — so much so that many believed he had healing powers, used hypnotism and was clairvoyant.
In St. Petersburg, he found favor with some church leaders and members of the nobility, ultimately resulting in the royal introduction.
At the start of the 20th century, modernization had society in upheaval, and Russians turned from the old ways to the supernatural and mystical. So did Alexandra, who sought a spiritual adviser to guide her life, including the influence she exerted over the czar and how he ruled.
It didn’t take long for unsettling questions to surface about Rasputin: an unkempt peasant tucking the royal children in at night? Meeting with the Empress alone? An outlier from the official church offering opinions on who should serve in the church and government?
Much of what was written about him in the press was damning, much untrue, says Smith. But Rasputin became regarded as the man behind the throne.
Romanov family members, nobles, government ministers, church and military leaders had tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade the rulers that Rasputin’s presence was harmful. Inevitably, someone decided on murder.
He was lured to a nobleman’s cellar on Dec. 17, 1916, probably on the promise of meeting that man’s beautiful wife. He may have been poisoned (probably not, says Smith) but he most certainly was shot three times and dumped into a branch of the Neva River.
His murder did not save the czar, who abdicated on March 2, 1917, victim of the February Revolution, soon followed by the takeover of the Bolsheviks, who murdered the czar and his family on July 17, 1918.
The right had portrayed Rasputin as a vile figure in hopes the czar would save himself by turning away from him; the left did the same to show the rot in the tsarist system, hoping for its reform or end.
All united against Rasputin, and in the end, Smith says, against the regime itself.