RASPUTIN AND REALITY
The larger-than-life story of Rasputin, the peasant holy man who got into the last Empress of Russia’s good books and earned the wrath of the Russian elite as a result, before being murdered by a group of noblemen trying to prevent revolution, has always struck me as being part of the canon of wildly exaggerated tall tales that make up a lot of history, everywhere, probably, but nowhere more than in Russia.
One of the great joys of working as a journalist in the former Soviet Union, I quickly realised, was the enthusiasm of everyone in the political class for energetic dirty trickery, gleeful mud-slinging and enjoyable slander. There was never anything mealy-mouthed or half-hearted about the things politicians said to and about each other, or did. No outrage was out of bounds. There were fisticuffs in parliament, criminals hoping for immunity from prosecution running for parliament or sitting as MPs, and tank battles centred on parliaments. There were leaked recordings of presidents plotting to do away with journalists, or of dissidents plotting uprisings back home. Poisonings of presidential candidatesand dissidents. Drunk presidents, disgraced dissidents. Allegations (photographed) of ministerial orgies in steamy saunas and (unphotographed) of bribe-taking on a colossal scale. One billionaire was said to be taking a profit from a wave of kidnappings in Chechnya. One peace negotiator was suddenly labeled a terrorist with whom no talks could be held. One Chechen leader was reported dead until he popped up, a day or two later, saying, “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Sometimes there was a good bit of truth in the headlines. But the stories were so extreme you always gasped and stretched your eyes and couldn’t quite, quite, believe they hadn’t been exaggerated, just a bit. And, all too often, behind these entertainingly lurid tales, there lurked some quieter and quite different truth.
Rasputin seems part of this tradition for several reasons. At first I felt a bit sceptical when I kept running across pictures of Rasputin with his lady followers at what were usually billed as orgies. But the ladies in the picture were the twee, feather-hatted, buttoned-up kind you find at vicarage tea parties. And they were drinking tea. Look though I might, I couldn’t see any sign of any impropriety. I did another double-take while researching him when I came across a picture that looked like a very different side of the story – a saintly, iconic version of him with the haemophiliac Tsarevich Alexis.
Mostly, though, it’s simply the sheer amount of grisly detail we all grew up knowing about the night of the killing that made me smell a rat. How could anyone, however possessed with demonic energy, possibly have eaten enough poison to fell an ox, and survived being shot several times, including once at point-blank range in the forehead, and being tied and bagged and thrown in a hole in the ice of the frozen River Neva, and yet have managed to get his arms free of the ropes and started swimming before he drowned? It was just too many kinds of death to be plausible.
That story is now seen as likely to be at least partly legend, the product of the imagination of the most talkative of the conspirators, who wasn’t perhaps the most truthful. But I’ve been interested to look back over Rasputin’s life, as well as his death, while I was reading for this book, and ask whether he can really have been quite so dark and odious a figure as his enemies have painted him?