NOVEMBER 23, 2016
IN A SMALL CEMETERY in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, some five miles from the humble two-story Craftsman home in Silver Lake where she had spent the last years of her life, an obscure Russian émigré rests in eternal peace. She had fled Soviet Russia in 1920, at the age of 22, and for the next six decades led the peripatetic, unhappily exotic life of the exile. Her winding road to Los Angeles included stints as a performer in Parisian cabarets, a lion tamer with a traveling circus, and a riveter in a Miami shipyard. At the time of her death in 1977, one could still hear Russian spoken in the streets of Silver Lake on any day of the week — not just on Sunday mornings near the Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral on Micheltorena.
She knew royalty. Few if any of the other Russian retirees in 1970s L.A. had ever glimpsed the Romanovs, much less set foot in their palaces. Those who could claim some connection to the throne, like the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, had died long ago. Even the great pretender Michael Romanoff, a Brooklyn textile worker turned Beverly Hills restaurateur, was gone from the scene. But the woman who lies at Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery had not only met the emperor and empress, she had grown up alongside their girls. Maria Rasputin was the daughter of the Rasputin. She was the flesh-and-blood offspring of a creature more myth than man.
Everyone knows the “Mad Monk” Rasputin. But how many know that the man left behind a devoted wife and three children — an odd legacy for any monk, mad or otherwise? For me, the very sight of Maria Rasputin’s grave restored some semblance of humanity to her father’s mythic story.
Douglas Smith’s magisterial new biography does that same work on a far grander scale. This balanced, impeccably researched book is a revelation, as richly detailed and engrossing as any novel, but not particularly “novelistic,” in the crudest sense of the term. Unlike most of his predecessors — and they are legion — Smith never stoops to the tricks of fiction, the commonplaces of the potboiler. To have done so would have undermined his mission. There are no breathless accounts of wild orgies, magnetic seductions, or miraculous healings. Secondhand reports of Rasputin’s nefarious exploits abound, but each is scrupulously fact-checked, and, more often than not, dismissed. Smith brings forth an image of the human Rasputin — still uncertain, still inconclusive, but free of obvious falsehoods — slowly, as if freeing a sculpture from a block of stone.
That stony myth around Rasputin is well-established: a priapic, depraved Svengali heals a young prince and gains control over the boy’s desperate parents — seducing the mother, befuddling her feckless spouse. His manipulation brings a mighty empire to its knees; he is ambushed and killed, after putting up a superhuman struggle, by a camarilla of patriotic Russian aristocrats; and his death appears to foretoken, if not precipitate, a revolution. The story lends itself all too easily to the Hollywood treatment. In fact, as Smith reports, it took its first turn on the silver screen before Hollywood had gotten on its feet. One of the more fascinating peripheral characters in the book is Sergei Trufanov (1880–1952), an extravagantly psychopathic former Hieromonk (under the name Iliodor), who first befriended Rasputin, then set out to destroy him, along with the Romanov dynasty and the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1917, Iliodor found himself in the States, “blinded by the bright lights of Fort Lee, New Jersey, America’s original Hollywood.” He spent his days drumming up publicity for his memoir and “consulting for, and even acting in, Herbert Brenon’s film The Fall of the Romanoffs, which debuted at New York’s Broadway Theatre in late September 1917 for a two-week engagement, and also in Maurice B. Blumenthal’s The Tyranny of the Romanoffs.”
One of the many ironies in Rasputin’s story is that his lingering epithet, the “Mad Monk,” was originally the title of his sworn enemy’s autobiography:
The Mad Monk of Russia, Iliodor. Life, Memoirs, and Confessions of Sergei Michailovich Trufanoff was finally published in New York in 1918. […] Iliodor dedicated the book to “my good friend” Herbert Brenon, his new patron in the entertainment business. For many years The Mad Monk was the source for the story of Rasputin and his life. Along with the memoirs of Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s killer, it has done more to shape the public perception of Rasputin than any other work. Yet Iliodor’s book, to quote [the poet] Alexander Blok, no apologist for Rasputin, was nothing but “loathsome.” Reading it left him feeling ill. […] For Maria Rasputina, Iliodor’s book amounted to “a tissue of the most outrageous slanders that have ever been conceived.” A fair assessment.
Fair indeed — and just as fitting when it comes to The End of Rasputin, which the far more sophisticated but no less psychopathic Prince Felix Yusupov published in Paris in 1927. The chapters Smith devotes to Yusupov and his murderous plot turn one’s stomach. There is no romance, no splendor in his act, only bloodlust and self-delusion. Smith gives us by far the most accurate account of Rasputin’s gruesome end, down to the last detail. And the most telling detail, to my mind, concerns the backgrounds of the conspirators:
At a meeting with [the virulently anti-Semitic] Purishkevich on the twenty-first [of November 1916], Yusupov recruited the fifth member of the plot. After hearing his speech, Yusupov felt certain Purishkevich would join them, and he wanted to include a politician among their members. He wrote in his memoirs that he felt it “important that members of all classes should participate in this momentous event.” Dmitry was a member of the ruling family; he and his mother were nobles; Sukhotin, an officer, and so Purishkevich as a politician, Yusupov reasoned, completed the picture. Amazingly, neither the vast peasant class — the largest social group in Russia — nor the smaller, but growing middle and working classes even registered in Yusupov’s mind as part of the equation.
For all the talk of seduction, depravity, and treason, Rasputin’s greatest crime was, it seems, to have been born a peasant with ambitions. The speed with which he had clambered up the social ladder, all the way into the throne room, left the country baffled. How did this happen? It had to have been his sexual prowess, or the work of “dark forces.” His growing philosemitism didn’t help matters. Here is another — and far profounder — irony in Rasputin’s story: superstition and mystical thinking, which had secured him the royal couple’s confidence, also fueled the frenzied reaction to his rise. The crumbling Russian Empire that emerges in Smith’s pages is distinctly pre-secular. It is also — in the parlance of today’s political analysts — distinctly post-factual.
From about 1908 until his death, Rasputin was the subject of near-constant surveillance. His code name in the Okhrana (secret police) files was first “The Russian,” then “The Dark One.” An agent’s report from 1912 reads: “‘The Russian’ […], when he is walking alone, particularly in the evening, talks to himself, waves his arms around, and slaps himself about the torso, which attracts the attention of passers-by.” Smith comments:
If these details are indeed accurate it should not be too surprising, for the pressure on Rasputin continued to mount and the scandals continued to grow […]. Throughout it all the press and the police had never left him alone. Rasputin was being hunted like an animal.
The countless investigations into Rasputin’s behavior were indeed witch hunts; so-called “reports” were biased allegations, either trumped-up or pulled out of thin air. As Smith writes in connection with the case of Rasputin’s friend Yevgenia Terekhova:
The police called [her] a “courtesan,” yet it stretches credibility to imagine a Petersburg prostitute was also responsible for establishing and then managing her own hospital for wounded soldiers in Moscow. Clearly, the Okhrana agents were too quick to affix labels to the women around Rasputin, although the fault lay less with them and more with their superiors intent on digging up as much dirt on Rasputin as possible, generally with little regard for the truth.
Smith, on the other hand, settles for nothing short of the truth. His portrait of a spectacularly incompetent royal couple, crippled by the weight of responsibility and the agony of watching their only son succumb to haemophilia, inspires both sympathy and frustration. The explanation he gives for Rasputin’s mysterious power to stop the boy’s bleeding stands to reason: unlike the doctors, who exacerbated Alexei’s condition with their poking and prodding, Rasputin simply left the prince alone, and also “calmed the anxious, fretful mother [who] transferred this confidence to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health.”
Smith’s portrait of Rasputin himself is even more nuanced. He was a strong-willed, self-taught peasant, endowed with tremendous ambition and susceptible to temptation. A mystic and seeker by nature, he maintained a faith that was as sincere as it was idiosyncratic. He was charismatic and, in general, a good “reader” of those around him. Clearly proud of his (far from infallible) ability to divine people’s thoughts, he used it to gain influence — but also to provide relief. One anecdote crystalizes the blend of faith and ambition, talent and machination that determined his trajectory:
[W]hile drinking tea with [father superior of the Seven Lakes Monastery outside Kazan] Gavriil and a group of theology students, Rasputin mentioned his intention to travel to St. Petersburg. Gavriil disapproved of the idea, thinking to himself: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg, the city will ruin you.” All of a sudden, Rasputin leaned in to Gavriil: “And God? What about God?” For Gavriil it was proof Rasputin could read people’s minds.
If Rasputin was a mind-reader, then Gavriil must have been something of a seer. Surely the most frightening presence in the book is ruinous, corrupt, unstable St. Petersburg itself. A moribund parliament, a politicized security apparatus, a disastrous war, the meddling of foreign agents, intensifying class tensions, scandals, conspiracy theories, misinformation … well, at least it can’t happen here.