You may know him as Russia’s greatest love machine. But award-winning historian and translator Douglas Smith believed there was far more to Rasputin than the mythical caricature of yore. His heavily researched book, Rasputin, is a massive tome debunking so many of the stories we believed we knew about the peasant who rose to the highest levels of the Russian monarchy—one that tumbled down soon after. Read our review of his book here.
The Rasputin in the popular imagination is the one in the Boney M. song. Can you describe that?
Rasputin of popular culture is this lurid, grasping sexual beast with an insatiable appetite for women—an orgiastic lover. People talk about a member of incredible length and power and virility, and that sort of thing. I think that is what is supposed to come through with the classic Boney M. disco hit.
Before you started your research into this book, what was your impression, as a historian, of Rasputin?
I never was really drawn to him, to be honest. Obviously, I’ve heard about him, and seen references and seen the photographs and heard the story of the crazy way it was impossible to murder him. He seemed too popular, too cartoonish, too much a figure beyond what a normal-thinking historian would want to delve into, that I resisted even going there.
It was only through my work on Former People, where I had to do all this reading about the last decade or so of czarist Russia that I kinda got hooked, because he was on everyone’s minds. I didn’t realize the extent to which he was this figment, this spectre in everybody’s minds at the time and no one could stop talking about him, and no one could think of anything but Rasputin and his influence.
I said, “Well, this is much bigger than I realized. It isn’t this cartoonish pop history subject, it’s vital to understanding the last years of the Romanovs.”
Why is it so vital?
The reason Rasputin is so central to the story of the revolution and the downfall of the reign of Nicholas, and the entire Romanov house, is that he’s right at the centre of chipping away any respect and authority for the throne. There was already a sense that Nicholas was weak, that Alexandra was distant and difficult and domineering over her husband. But Rasputin becomes the black mud that gets smeared all over the throne in a way through his closeness to Nicholas and Alexandra. And he becomes the ultimate symbol for the decadence, and sense of foreboding and death that used to hang over the Romanovs.
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What do you think of him now?
My opinion of him has changed radically. He was a much more benevolent figure and had a much more, in a way, or at least he tried, to have a more positive influence on Nicholas and Alexandra and even on the course of Russian history. One of the little known facts about him is the degree to which he pleaded with Nicholas in summer of 1914 not to go to war. If you just take that one moment, had Nicholas listened, he would have changed the course of history.
Also, I came away realizing that while he’s far from a loveable character—he has a lot of reprehensible sides to him, as he was an adulterer, a drunk, he did grope freely and things like that—but he did care very much for his kids, made sure they got an education, made sure there was a steady home with help for his wife. He always came back to her.
I took away from researching and writing, the degree to which the world around him was as corrupt, or more corrupt than him. And that corrupt world made him a scapegoat for Russia’s problems. Instead of looking at the difficulties facing the country, which were staggering and monumental, especially as the war progressed, it was easy to pin it on all on one person and believe that “if we just somehow got rid of Rasputin and his nefarious influence, all our problems would be gone.”
It has parallels to modern day situations where there is a sense that there are one or two figure who are the root of all the problems. If we can somehow get rid of them, things can be better. It overlooks all these deep, deep social-economic problems that are much more difficult to solve.
Your biography reveals the extent of his religiosity, too.
I think past biographers have not taken his religious sentiment, his Orthodox faith, sincerely. They believed it was a cover, a ruse to dupe Nicholas and Alexandra. It wasn’t. He truly was a believer, he was committed to the teachings of Christ, and this influenced how he thought about war and bloodshed. Not only in the summer of 1914, but earlier in the Balkan wars, he had again come out against Russia fighting in the Balkans, which was to go against Christ’s message. And for this he was vilified by conservative, right-wing Russians as a traitor.
That happened even before the First World War, and then, once the war gets going, and spy mania rips through Russian society, he and Alexandra become the two main targets.
Was he really the spy that many believe he was?
I thought, “If he was a German spy, there would be papers on that in the German archive.” No one had bothered to look. So I spent a week in Berlin in the political archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They had tons of stuff on Rasputin from their agents scattered across Europe during the war. What they show is that they were fascinated by Rasputin, but they had no idea whose side he was on. Was he on the English side? On the German side, and willing to cooperate? Was he a loyal subject of the czar? There was talk of trying to bribe him. It shows beyond any doubt that he wasn’t a spy. There was no link between him, the Kaiser and Berlin.
Why such fascination with him, back in the time when he was alive and still now, 100 years later?
Much of the fascination has to lie in the sheer unbelievability of his own personal story. Here is a peasant born in a tiny village in a remote part of Siberia, who, by all sorts of strange ways, manages to make it into the imperial palace in St. Petersburg, and be presented to Nicholas and Alexandra. And for him to charm them so utterly that they quickly begin to refer to him as “our friend” and talk of spending hours with him as the best parts of their life.
It’s like it comes out of a bad novel. That’s part of the attraction.
It has a fairy-tale quality to it, but a dark fairy tale, because it doesn’t all end happily ever after. The fate of Rasputin, in this very interesting provocative way, foreshadows the fate of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, all of them killed in a basement in the middle of the night. The bodies hurriedly done away with, only to be discovered later.
And then it’s the collapse of the Romanovs, the revolution. There is an epic quality to the whole story. Part of the fascination, especially then, was that people were trying to figure out who was this guy. Who was he? How did he get to the throne? How did he come to wield this authority? And what was this authority he had? That led people to think of him as the devil. There was no other way for them to account for it.
What readers also discover in your biography is how open and salacious the Russian press was at the time and how it goes after Rasputin.
I wanted to write the story of Rasputin that put him in the place and time in which he lived. Some people have this mistaken notion that the czar was so strong that no one could write about Rasputin and then only dared to speak of him in a faint whisper, and even then, carefully looking around their shoulder. But it was just the opposite. After the revolution of 1905, there is a granting of civil freedoms, political freedoms—and one of those is a free press.
So the press now becomes a weapon to be used against the crown, and they pick up Rasputin as the perfect tool to bludgeon Nicholas with. And Nicholas is screaming at his ministers, “Why can’t you shut down these publishers? Why are these newspapers and magazines printing all this stuff about me, my private life and Rasputin?” and they say, “There’s not much we can do, because you’ve granted these freedoms.”
It also shows how dangerous it was when an autocratic regime like Nicholas’s starts to reform, how that then gives rise to all these underground forces that are discontented with the regime and helps to bring it down.
So just how much influence did Rasputin have on the imperial couple and family?
That was one of the tricky things to figure out. You will often read or hear that he was the de facto head of state, that Nicholas and Alexandra were often following his every order. And I found that that was not at all the case. He was definitely involving himself, often in things he knew nothing about. He even advised during the First World War about what should be done about the fledgling Russian air force. He got in way over his head.
Generally Alexandra would listen to Rasputin, and repeat back to Nicholas Rasputin’s advice, whether it was appointing ministers down to grain shipments, free rides on city transport for soldiers. And Nicholas was the personification of passive-aggressive, I would say. His response was typically to ignore it. It was very rare, almost never, that he would listen to their advice.
The intrigue is bizarre and so interesting. I wanted to give you a feel of how morally bankrupt the entire regime was by then.
Members of the royal family, advisers and politicians all asked the imperial couple to send him away from their presence, but they refused. Why?
I think the answer to that question is to be found in an early part of their lives, once Nicholas comes to the throne. It’s an interlude with the French charlatan named Mr. Philippe. You see in their story with him, Rasputin in embryonic form. Alexandra knew that Nicholas was weak. She knew he lacked a will of his own, a spine. She really thought that they needed somebody who was strong, who could guide Nicholas as he led the country.
Nicholas was open to advice and there was this desire to feel that there was some sort of connection between the throne and the masses of society. So Rasputin came to personify the vast peasantry, the enormous body of the country. If he respected them, if he loved them, if he served them, then clearly, so too must all Russians. There was this psychic need, this emotional need, a political element to it.
And Alexandra by nature was a very mystical, religious person. She was always in search for these sorts of figures, these charismatic holy men, and after Philippe left, he told her, “Another one will come. A new friend will come.” And Rasputin appears and she thinks it’s the fulfillment of a prophecy.
There are so many tales and stories about Rasputin. How difficult was it to separate fact from fiction, given it’s been 100 years?
Extremely difficult. It’s part of the reason it took me so long to write and it’s part of the reason it’s not a short book. It is a long book.
Even when I knew the truth about something, if every other biographer before me had said the exact opposite, I knew that I couldn’t just write the truth without reference to what everyone had been told for the last century. So I had to give an idea of what we thought we knew, not everywhere, but in certain points in the book, then say, “We think it was this way based on these sources, but actually, if you look at more reliable things, it’s just the opposite or it happened in a slightly different way.”
One of the best examples, one of the chapters I’m most proud of in the book is called “The Incident at the Yar.” It’s an iconic moment in the biography of Rasputin. It’s March 1915. He goes to Moscow, goes out to dine at an establishment called the Yar. While there, he gets drunk, drops his pants, waves his privates around, and brags about how “This is the tool that rules Russia, before which the empress prays” and what have you. It’s a huge scandal. It proves just how out of control he was. And how brazen, and how much power he has.
This is repeated in every biography. What I was able to do, is in Moscow, at the state archive of the Russian Federation, was to finally get a hold of the police files on Rasputin, which are voluminous, massive. And by going back and looking at the daily reports of what had happened, I was able to see very clearly that the whole story was invented by police higher-ups in an attempt to frame Rasputin, and then present this information to Nicholas in the the hope that Nicholas would get rid of him.
The Russians have a word that means “compromising material,” a practice that is still used today in Putin’s Russia. This is a classic example of that. No one had looked at the documents that I did. So it’s fun to kick the legs out from under one of these long-held beliefs about him which are simply not true.
There are legends even about how he was killed, aren’t there?
People were lying right from the very beginning. One of the things I find so strange about the Rasputin story is that, if people know one thing about him, it’s that he was impossible to kill. That he had these satanic powers, that he was the devil incarnate. The reason they know that is because Prince Felix Yusupov wrote that in his memoir. Now Yusupov was his murderer, and since when do we take the word of a murderer to describe a murder case? But people have. People have just read Yusupov for almost 100 years now and assume he’s telling the truth, when it’s clearly a work meant to self-justify killing a man in cold blood.
But it’s clear generally what happened. The autopsy photographs of Rasputin’s body are held in a museum in St. Petersburg. He was shot three times. Once in the front, once in the back and the third and final time, right in the middle of the forehead. The idea that he withstood all these tortures, poisons and beatings is simply a way for Yusupov to aggrandize himself and his awful crime.
How much documentation is out there about Rasputin?
The police files are massive. They had thousands of agents following him and following up every story about him, every person connected with him. They had a huge operation tailing him. It’s a combination of following and tailing him and also supposedly protecting him from assassins. There were several attempts to kill him before Yusupov. They show the degree to which this huge bureaucratic apparatus was chasing down one man. It’s unbelievable.
Who else has looked at those police files?
I’m aware of a Russian historian who first had a look at them in the early 1990s, right when the Soviet Union collapsed. Until then, they had been off limits. Another Russian playwright, who wrote a biography of Rasputin, also had access to them. As far as I know, I’m only the third person to look at them.
For months, I was trying to get access to these files. Every time I was told at the archives that they were in the director’s office, and he’s not letting anyone see them. This went on for months and months and months. I just happened to be at a literary festival in England talking about Former People and a woman came up to me. She was Russian. She introduced herself, said she liked my book and asked what I was working on now. I told her Rasputin, and happened to mention how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get access to the police archives, and the archive of the Russian Federation.
She looked at me, and said, “Oh, the director is my godfather.” I said, “Oh really.” She emailed her godfather, and told him about me and my quest. I went back to Moscow, was shown into the office of the director, and we had a nice chat. And he let me go at it.
I only had two days with the police files, but it was enough to get a lot out. I could have spent months. I sat myself at a desk from the beginning of the day to the end. I don’t think I took breaks. I had to read it and type it down.
In the end, did you like Rasputin?
I don’t like him. But I feel like I do understand him better. And I do see that he was not the maligned influence that he has been so long considered. He was made an easy scapegoat for insurmountable problems in Russia.