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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Infamous Last Word




Academic historians in Russia tend to go pale and express themselves in highly non-academic Russian on hearing the name of Edvard Radzinsky or seeing him on TV. This erstwhile author of now forgotten Soviet-era comedies has for years been feeding the public his soap-opera versions of history, notably the story, or rather the "life," of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. His latest is Rasputin. The Last Word (published in the United States as "The Rasputin File"), soon to be unleashed on the Russian public as well, along with a fresh TV series. No professional historian in his senses would use that sort of subtitle about any historical subject, so it has to be taken in a Pickwickian sense - as the last word in soap-opera history.


Radzinsky recaps the biographical facts long known to any dabbler in Russia's past: that Grigory Rasputin was a Siberian ne'er-do-well peasant of the darkest antecedents; a servant in thieves' dens; a horse-thief; a member of the outlawed, bestial sect of khlysty who specialized in crazed, dervish-like whirling and frenzied group sex; an alcoholic and charlatan who, through his powers of sexual hypnotism, wormed his way, with some help from Black Hundred-minded Orthodox priests, into depraved St. Petersburg high society and eventually into the imperial family.


Wielding enormous power over the tsar's paranoiac wife, German-born Alexandra, who in turn had the weak-willed, infantile Nicholas under her thumb, the illiterate Rasputin became Russia's real ruler, along with the empress, in the last decade or so of the empire's existence. The man had the power to make or break ministers, premiers, heads of the Synod, governors and metropolitans, not to mention holders of lesser offices. On his say-so millions of Russian soldiers attacked or retreated, died or lived in World War I. He used, and was used by, the filthiest, sleaziest perpetrators of financial scams to rob the imperial treasury of countless millions, thus destroying the life-blood of the Russian defense and other industries and bringing about the defeat of Russia in the war and the consequent revolutions in February and October 1917. His death at the hands of inept high society assassins was cause for universal celebration in Russia - in vain, as it turned out, for by that time the country was doomed.


This picture of Nicholas' infamous reign does not quite tally with Radzinsky's angelic TV portraits of the last tsar and his spouse, so he was ready to grab at a chance to correct this picture or "explain" Rasputin and his relations with the imperial family and high society ladies. Such a chance presented itself in 1995, when the world-famous cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich bought at a Sotheby's auction some files pertaining to the inquiry into Rasputin's role in Russian state affairs which was held by the Provisional Government after the February 1917 revolution. Unlike those that remained in the Soviet archives after all the revolutionary upheavals, these newly discovered files contained depositions of Rasputin's friends and devotees rather than his enemies, and were thus a godsend to Radzinsky. Rostropovich, who in his own words delights in Radzinsky's TV performances, passed the precious bundle of papers to Radzinsky, who used them for all they were worth.


Not much - if only because those "friends and devotees," called before a revolutionary tribunal, either lied to save their skins or recounted silly legends of the conduct and "teachings" of the "man of God" in whom they were gullible enough to believe. As far as the facts in the Rasputin case were concerned, there was virtually nothing new to me, nothing of great relevance or substance, at least. So, rather than the last word, Radzinsky's book might be an introduction to the subject, recounting all sorts of well-known facts. It might, but it isn't, because of a fatal flaw in it: Radzinsky keeps fluctuating between two extremely different genres - a historical narrative of the more gossipy sort and pure hagiography.


Consider the following episode. There were persistent rumors at court that Rasputin, whose whole life was built around playing a yurodivy or "God's fool" and ecstatic whoring, undressed the emperor's daughters and "touched" them. Empress Alexandra, who firmly believed that anything Rasputin did was holy, fired the nurse who tried to bar Rasputin's entry to the little girls' room. Radzinsky's comment: "Rasputin had in fact come to see the royal children ... and had on occasion touched them. When he was healing them. And that is all." Proof? Who wants proof - Radzinsky tells us so, period.


As for Rasputin-s greatest "miracle" - saving the life of the hemophiliac tsarevich in 1912 - Radzinsky puts it all down to long-distance prayer. And if you find this kind of explanation hard to swallow, you'd better leave Radzinsky's book alone. It brims with spiritualistic comments. Words like "mystery," "mysterious," "secret," appear on average a couple of times per page about things that are as plain as a pikestaff to anyone not bent on decking out a whoremonger and charlatan's life in the cheap rags of "mystery."


After keeping us in suspense for some two hundred pages plus, Radzinsky finally decides to reveal the riddle of Rasputin's "mysterious teaching." It turns out to be a very convenient one for the old Adam in any of us, too. Point one: The sin of lechery is from God, and it therefore can't be bad. Point two: Rasputin's own mission was to take women's sin upon himself - through very natural means, namely, high-quality sex. The rituals to suit Rasputin's doctrine were mostly borrowed from radeniya or "rejoicings," as practiced by the khlysty self-flagellators and involved dancing, hypnotic passes and mumblings, feeling women up, making them pray while having sex, and so on. All this often took place in bath-houses, where Rasputin would take his devotees. Naturally, the bulk of these were sexually repressed women of all ranks, as well as sated high society dames out for fresh thrills. This is all that Radzinsky offers as the last word on Rasputin.


Of all the depositions quoted by Radzinsky, the one by ex-premier Vladimir Kokovtsev illumines Rasputin's character more graphically than any other: "I served 11 years in the Central Prison Administration and saw ... among the Siberian vagrants ... as many Rasputins as you like. Men who, while making the sign of the cross, could take you by the throat and strangle you with the same smile on their faces." A society that could permit such an individual to trample on its highest institutions was doomed. And Radzinsky's tatters of "mystery" thrown over his life are nothing more than a silly attempt to prettify the filthiest blot on Russia's history.


"Rasputin. The Last Word," by Edvard Radzinsky. Translated by Judson, Rosengrant, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. 524 pp. pounds 20. Published in the United States by Doubleday as "The Rasputin File." $29.95.


Sergei Roy is a freelance writer and journalist based in Moscow.