Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin" by Alex de Jonge

Rasputin (1869-1916) is someone who has always drawn my curiosity, just like the Borgia family, the Nephilim, and the Bermuda Triangle. Since I've been reading Anna Karenina (yes, I'm STILL reading it) and realizing my knowledge of Russian history is sadly lacking, my mind has drifted back to this biography of Rasputin which I read several years ago.

For my taste, this book was too much about The Times and not enough about The Life. Back when I read it, I was more compelled to find out about the myths surrounding Rasputin than about the truths or underlying reasons for the existence of those myths. (In retrospect, however, the myth-busting aspect of it seems more interesting). I must admit I found it rather dull and dry reading, though it nearly became a page-turner in the last 40 pages as the plot to murder Rasputin got underway. (That's not really a spoiler, is it? I mean, you knew he died, right?)

Anastasia Nicolaievna
I was also disappointed that the execution of the Tsar and his family received barely any mention, but as those killings occurred approximately 18 months after Rasputin’s death, it makes sense that this book would not encompass that event. But now I want to read about “the rest of the story,” including the royal family’s execution, and I want to read about the stories of their daughter Anastasia possibly surviving with amnesia (another topic I've always wondered about). The author of this book briefly made it clear that he believed the real Anastasia died with the rest of her family.

To quickly sum up the author’s take on Rasputin: He was a Siberian peasant who set out on the path to infamy by taking to the road as a pilgrim in search of salvation. It seems he found a “religion” which was one-of-a-kind, cobbled together from an assortment of practices (both accepted and unacceptable) found in Russia at the time. Various disciples followed him, beginning with those in the clergy and progressing up to Tsar Nicholas and his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. Rasputin’s control over the royal family was not absolute (although it came closer to complete domination in regard to the tsarina), but his influence was quite potent, especially in contrast with his humble beginnings.

It seems people generally had one of three reactions to Rasputin. Some (few, mostly men) could see through Rasputin from the moment they met him, and had no respect for him. Others (especially women) were instantly and completely enthralled by him as a holy man, but later their eyes were opened by all the damning evidence proving his righteousness a sham. Very few had the third reaction, which was to be captivated by him from beginning to end, ignoring all evidence of immorality, no matter how clear-cut it was. There were only two people (possibly three) who had this latter sort of reaction: the tsarina, her friend and confidante Anna Vyroubova, and (the possible third) the tsar.

Would you want to have sex with this man?
When people saw Rasputin for what he was, what did they see? He was a drunk and a lecher. He used sexuality in his “religion,” either challenging himself to resist temptation by standing in its path, or with the laughable notion that God wants us to sin so that he has something for which to forgive us. It seems Rasputin was very badly behaved, becoming increasingly depraved throughout his life, and usually not doing much to hide that fact.

This book somewhat dispelled the myth that Rasputin was a puppeteer controlling the tsar and tsarina. He was able to get many government appointments passed, usually by directing the tsarina to suggest appointments to the tsar, but he did not always succeed at this. What was clear to me through this book was that Rasputin really didn’t seem to have a Big Plan. He was not following an agenda. Though he did frequently stress the desire to avoid needless shedding of blood (in war), he seemed to have no more cohesive goal than to enjoy his power as a generous benefactor (meaning it didn’t seem that he pushed any government appointment for political reasons; he did it just because he could--almost as if he was merely doing it to impress people), and to live the good life, doing whatever pleased him.

The author writes that Rasputin was capable of mild foresight, giving some successful predictions that were vague enough to merely be guesses guided by common sense. The author also mentions that his foresight must not have been anything great if he could not foresee his own murder. However, in the way the author describes the night of the murder, there was an inkling of the possibility that Rasputin did know but was resigned to his fate.

It appears indisputable, although the book left the mechanism unexplained, that Rasputin was capable of healing, namely with the tsarevich Alexander Nicolaevich who suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin was always able to stop Aleksey’s episodes of bleeding, even (at least once) from afar. The author says perhaps Rasputin would put off his arrival until after the crisis was over, making the supposed "healing" merely a matter of timing; or perhaps he knew of some sort of peasant remedy. If not one of these two explanations, then perhaps his ability might have been truly supernatural.

I have not yet decided if my curiosity about Rasputin was sated by this book. I do think that de Jonge covered all available information. His book was very well-researched and had so many sources that I find it impossible to believe that he left out any information that might be found elsewhere. In other words, although there may have been more to the life of Rasputin, any other information has been irretrievably buried in the sands of time. I find myself coming to the conclusion that there would be no point in reading a different book about him in hopes of finding new information. However, I bet I would enjoy reading fiction about him.

Have you read any good books about Rasputin, or about the execution of the Russian royals in 1918?
The Romanovs       


Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

I'm intriqued by the same things-- especially the Nephilim. I've read some about the execution of the royals but it has been too long ago for me to remember the source.

When I saw Rasputin, I thought: eeeeyew! Then I read your caption and laughed myself silly!

Isn't it curious that some of the ickiest men are charismatic-- what is the appeal? especially for women. Why would women fall under the spell of a Rasputin or Charles Manson?

About to go comment on your shutter island post...

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Never mind, I didn't comment on Shutter Island-- for some reason I had it in my head that you were wondering about the ending-- after rereading your post, I saw that wasn't the case. I didn't watch it yet but I was going to pass along Jim's thoughts about the ending. He really liked the film and said he'll even watch it again with me sometime.

Trisha said...

Like you, I'm more about The Life than The Times - which is a great way to describe it by the way.

Jessica said...

I love all this history and he sounds like a fasinating character.

Kathy said...

Oh noes, Lesa, did Jim tell you the ending of Shutter Island? I'm afraid that, if you go into it knowing the ending, you'll lose half of the potential enjoyment of your first watching! On the other hand, I think I would still enjoy it if I watched it again, so maybe knowing the ending won't ruin it for you. Anyway--I totally agree about the inexplicable attraction to ickiness. It makes no sense to me. Grizzly Adams facial hair is just not one of my turn-ons. It doesn't even look good on Brad Pitt. You just have to wonder what kind of compelling intensity was displayed in their personalities!

Trisha--I feel like I can't take credit for that description, since "The Life and TImes" was right there in the title. :) But, yeah, I'd rather hear about the people than the politics. I wonder if that's a girl thing.

Jess--so would you say your Rasputin Reaction is in category two or category three? ;) Just kidding--I'll cut you a break and tell you I know just what you mean--there is something very intriguing about his story, even though I would never have followed his "religion" or jumped into bed with that nastiness. Just look at his beard. I bet things lived in it.

Lesa said...

hahahaahhah--Confession time--- I had a mad crush on Grizzly Adams!! I do have a thing for whiskers but not the hillbilly rasputin or zztop kind.

No, he didn't tell me the end of the movie...

Kathy said...

Haha Lesa! The truth comes out!! Does Jim know? I bet he could grow you a fancy little beard like that.

Now you've got me curious--if he didn't tell you the end of the movie, what were his thoughts about the ending? Do tell!

Lesa said...

yeah, he has had beards over the years. ;o)

He said everything pivoted on one critical statement near the end-- and that one statement explains all. He said some people reported not getting it or thought they knew what the film meant but were wrong. Since you said the ending was not ambiguous, I don't know what that means.

Brenna said...

What an intriguing subject, Rasputin. So interesting yet so creepy!

Kathy said...

OK, Lesa, your mission is to watch Shutter Island and then tell me what the one critical statement was, because I am having trouble remembering what it must have been, and now I am wondering if I'm one of the people who got it wrong! I think I got it right, but you never know.

Brenna--I think that is Rasputin in a nutshell! Interesting/intriguing and creepy!!