27 July 2010
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Was Rasputin such a bad guy?

Reading about Rasputin, the peasant mystic who wormed his way into the good graces of the last Russian Tsar and his family, cut a swathe through the half-fascinated, half-disgusted female aristocracy of St Petersburg, and ended up dead in the river, comes as a bit of a shock. At least it does if you’re expecting out-and-out evil.

Rasputin turns out to have been not just the only man who could relieve the sufferings of the Tsar’s haemophiliac son, Alexei, which can’t be all bad, but also to have been against violent anti-Semitism (unlike most Russians of his time), and against the outbreak of the First World War (which can’t be all bad either), and quite a good father to a daughter, Maria, who adored him throughout a life spent trying to clear his reputation.

I expect he did have sex with at least some of the jaded ladies – fresh from the ouija boards and table-tappings and seances of that sensation-seeking time – who flocked to see him in St Petersburg, to shiver over his piercing eyes and smelly beard and peasant clothes and rough hands, and generally get a bit of a frisson from the pleasurable danger of the wild Siberian peasant mystic’s presence. Holy man or not, he made no bones about being less than perfectly pure – his rather convenient belief was that the path to salvation lay through repentance, and you couldn’t repent unless you’d sinned, so QED, he had to sin a little to get closer to God. But many of the more lurid stories about him – including that he was sleeping with the Tsarina, and/or her royal daughters – were gathered by the (viciously anti-Semitic) minister Peter Stolypin as part of a police plan to run the uppity peasant out of town. And Russian police investigators have, over the years, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Much of the provable case against Rasputin reads like nothing more than slightly ludicrous Edwardian snobbery – what, a peasant, daring to talk familiarly to the Tsar! what, a jumped-up nobody getting invited to places the greatest in the land don’t get a sniff at! well, what’s the world coming to? All the story boils down to, stripped of the froth, is the piercing-eyes thing. Rasputin, above his bad-hair-day religious-man beard, had the kind of long lean body and pale glowing eyes that would mean any old piercing-pale-eyed actor, from Ralph Fiennes to Daniel Day Lewis (if given suitable facial hair), could have fun playing him (if he wasn’t such a famously evil bad guy).

In the end, in 1916, a year or so after he was stabbed by the female follower of a jealous rival monk called Iliodor, but survived, Rasputin was murdered by a group of noblemen led by Prince Felix Youssoupoff. He was lured to Youssoupoff’s palace on the Moika canal in St Petersburg under the pretence that Youssoupoff’s wife had invited him there. The Prince’s guest was fed poisoned cakes and wine. When they had no effect, he was shot. When he got up, lunged at Youssoupoff, and snarled, “Naughty boy,” the terrified Youssoupoff and his friends tied the peasant up and dumped him in the river. When his body was found, he was dead, but not drowned – he’d died of exposure, but not before he’d somehow found the strength to get partly out of his bindings in the freezing water. The rakishly bisexual Youssoupoff’s various accounts of the night have never quite fitted together, but there are stories that Rasputin’s body was also castrated during the killing. Youssoupoff lay low for a while, going to his country estate, but despite the fury of the Tsar’s wife was never punished (although he is said to have had bad dreams about the killing for the rest of his days). Youssoupoff was, after all, the Tsar’s nephew by marriage. Raputin’s penis ended up in a jar, and is gawked over in jokey internet pictures to this day. All this seems verging on the sadistic to me. Whatever he did, or didn’t, do, the man ended up being horribly murdered: why not let him rest in peace?

There was a lot of quiet sympathy for Youssoupoff at the time, for a killing that was seen as standing up against Rasputin’s greatest admirer, the German Tsarina. Alexandra’s popularity, never high, was at particularly low ebb as Russia struggled against Germany on the battlefield. Did Youssoupoff do the right thing by bumping off the peasant seer who’d besmirched her reputation, and saving Russia’s posh class from contamination by the scum? I can’t say for sure that I think he did. Since Rasputin wasn’t really the problem, doing away with him didn’t solve any of imperial Russia’s woes. A year later, the Revolution swept the whole aristocracy away. Youssoupoff ended his days in France and America, scraping round for money, in exile. The Tsar and his family were shot. The only clear winners were Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who took over Russia, and Boney M, who had a hit with that chirpy 1970s disco song about Rasputin.

Not that I’m setting up the Rasputin fan club, exactly, but I am definitely having a revisionist moment. Perhaps we’ve been telling the story the wrong way up all these years. Or perhaps his story just is one of those wrong-time, wrong-place ones. If he’d had had the luck to have been born a generation later, and in America, say, with those piercing pale eyes and that smouldering hold on the ladies that did him so little good in Tsarist Russia, not to mention his bleeding-heart liberal political views, well, who can say? He might have been just the type to have made his way to Hollywood and become a screen idol, glitzed-up blue-silk imitation-peasant blouses, real fan club, autographed photos, happy endings and all.

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