10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 22 February 2014
"If there had been no Rasputin there would have been no Lenin" Whether or not that's true -- and it almost certainly isn't -- that's the reason that one reads about this deeply unattractive character. I'm not sure I could have born to spend sufficient time with Rasputin and his acolytes to have written this biography but Frances Welch has and I'm grateful to her. The book is nicely structured and the writing sings along from one grubby sexual encounter to the next. The beauty of Welch's writing (and I speak as a particular fan of her Mr Gibbs and the more recent, The Russian Court at Sea) is that she's observant, humorous and un-salacious, which is an especial relief when reading this book. Her years of research into the family and household of the last Romanov Tsar has given her comfortably wide knowledge of the many grand dukes, grand duchesses and their hangers on. One of the things that I learned from Rasputin: a short life was how many mad monks, holy fools, charlatans and suckers there were both in the great households and in the churches. Rasputin was merely the most successful. If he had not existed, there would have been no shortage of alternatives to play upon the gullible -- and the frightened. Of course one feels sympathy with the Tsarina, desperate for her haemophiliac son's survival but the political stakes were too high. Welch's portrayal of the Tsarina's infatuation and her meddling is neatly managed, and damning. I only wished that the assassins had been a more principled and attractive bunch. The naive involvement of the four Romanov daughters in Rasputinophilia was sickening -- but again never over played. The portrayal of Maria Rasputin was unexpectedly fascinating. "Rasputin: a short life" retains its focus throughout. "Rasputin: a LONG life" would have been almost unbearable!
17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
This is a short book by an author who has written several about the Russian Court. It is engaging and enjoyable but by no means a complete account of Rasputin.
Frances Welch attempts in her book to disentangle the rumours and myths from the facts that surround Grigory Rasputin who was murdered in 1916 because of his scandalous behaviour and rumours that he was a German spy. Depending on which book you read-and there are many-he was a fake, a Holy Man, a lecher or a bit of all three. A man of God or a crafty manipulator? Lover of Alexandra, German spy? These are only some of the questions asked about the 'mad monk'-which he certainly was not. It has even been asked if British Intelligence was involved in his death. Whatever the truth, a mountain of books have chronicled his life. Musicals and films, cartoons and operas have taken him as their subject. Few of these are in English. One of the finest is by Sergei Trufanov entitled: 'Rasputin : the Mad Monk', and published in 1918. The author was a friend and an ex-monk who came to hate Rasputin. Nevertheless, it is a well researched and balanced account. Sadly, during the Cold War the Soviets refused access to archives that provide essential information. The result was a spate of books after 1975 that are based on salacious gossip and many errors of fact. Only after the 1990's was access permitted.
Rasputin was born in 1869 or 1872 ( even this is conjecture) in a poor remote Siberian village some 250 miles east of the Urals where winter temperature often fell below 40 degrees Celsius. More mystics and more 'holy men' came out of the region than any other part of Russia. He soon acquired a reputation in the area for being a. horse thief, lecher and drunkard. He was called 'rusputnik' meaning dissolute.
The author tells us that he was too poorly educated to become a priest, instead he followed the practices of an outlawed sect who believed that sin was essential if one wished to be redeemed (a useful belief followed by others since). Hence, group sex and general nakedness were obligatory behaviour. He was known to have many homosexual friends, many of whom were scoundrels.
Like many others of his kind, Rasputin deserted his family and became a pilgrim wandering throughout Russia. He acquired a reputation as a healer and a 'miracle man' alongside one as a sexual predator. His claims as a Holy Man were ridiculed by some but accepted by many without question. Some peasants believed he had been sent by God. Some sewed his nail clippings into hemlines despite their filthy state. He received a great deal of money in the form of offerings. Much of this was then redistributed at random. He enjoyed frequent visits to local bath-houses where the 'little ladies' soaped his genitals. His drunken bouts increased as he got older.
By 1916 his name was known throughout Russia. He was referred to as the Siberian Holy Man who had inveigled his way into the Russian Court. It was widely rumoured that he had the 'ears of the Tsar and Tsarina'. The latter referred to him as 'our Friend' or 'Gr'. She believed in his healing powers and came to see him as the only one who could cure her beloved son's hemophilia. Any success he had in this respect is believed by the author and other writers to have been due to his hypnotic powers. Understandably, each time he stopped the bleeding, once even by telegram, the Tsarina believed he was a genuine holy man who had been sent by God in answer to her prayers. She told the Tsar that 'all my trust lies in our Friend who only thinks of you, Baby and Russia'( note the capital F. Baby refers to their only son and heir Alexis).
Rasputin was prone to apocalyptic visions. He also claimed he could tell the sex of unborn children. Welch could, for example, have told readers, that in July 1914 he wrote a letter to Nicholas 11 that is worth quoting at length. In it he predicted with uncanny accuracy: 'the terrible storm cloud that hangs over Russia. Disaster, grief, murky darkness and no light. A whole ocean of tears, there is no counting them, and so much blood....We all drown in blood. The disaster is great, the misery infinite'. A very few weeks later he was proved correct.
Even Rasputin's murder by a group led by Oxford-educated Prince Felix Yusupov, son of the richest woman in Russia and husband of the Tsar's niece, is surrounded by bizarre stories. Although not mentioned in the book, Rasputin was at a musical soiree organised by the Prince ( who wrote his account of what happened in 1927). The evening began to the tune of a gramophone playing 'Yankee Doodle'. It is said Rasputin was fed cyanide-filled cakes which failed to work, then shot in the side and twice more in the head, tied in chains and thrown into the River Neva. After his body was washed up on the river's banks we are told by the author that women filled bottles to collect the holy water that was the result of contact with his dead body. There is however considerable doubt about this story because several other accounts record the river being frozen that day. There is also a great deal of doubt as to how he met his death. For example, a former Scotland Yard detective has argued there are many discrepancies in the accounts of his murder.
As for the Tsar, he regarded Rasputin as a 'simple peasant' who had a calming influence on his 'neurotic German wife'.'Better one Rasputin', he said 'than 100 hysterics'. His relationship with Nicholas was again quite extraordinary. On one occasion during the war he stroked the head of the Tsar, who he called 'Papa', while at the Tsar's summer residence, asking him why he looked glum and so sad. Nicholas said because he was surrounded by 'scoundrels', adding there were 'no boots, no guns'. The story is related by the Minister of the Interior, Alexei Khvostov in a 1927 book by Golder.
Of course, as it became increasingly clear that the war against Germany was being lost, rumours about Rasputin's loyalty grew apace. More and more the largely peasant population believed the war was being lost because of treason at court, particularly after the Tsar decided to take over the running of the war from the front line. Rumours abounded that Rasputin and the Tsarina had become lovers. Neither Welch or any other writer has thus far proved this was the case. Of course, as had happened before in history, what mattered was not the truth but the perception it was true. Beliefs frequently outgun facts. Hence, the perception galvanised the peasantry against the Court resulting in a gift for Lenin and his followers some ten months later. It was one more resentment that that eventually felled the glittering shell of tsarism like a pack of cards.
The Tsarina was without doubt extremely naive. She said on one occasion to the Tsar that stories about Rasputin kissing women were ridiculous. She said:'he kisses only as a form of greeting', adding so did the apostles. She adamantly refused to believe stories of his debauchery.
Welch tells us that today Rasputin's face appears on beer and vodka bottles, on Russian dolls and other tourist items. The Yusupov Palace where he was murdered is a tourist attraction. We are even told about the 'mad monk's' penis that was rumoured to be some 13 inches in length. In 2009 such a penis was a key exhibit at an exhibition in St.Petersburg! Yet again, the facts sadly dispute this. Medical investigations after his murder state it was in fact abnormally tiny.
A very entertaining book and recommended despite the fact that the author has not been able to use the invaluable documents in Russian and Siberian archives.
I have only one very small caveat. It would have helped readers to better understand why such a fake got into a position of power at court if Welch had reminded us of the appalling illiteracy level of the Russian peasant at the time in question. This and the isolation of millions of peasants made them extraordinarily susceptible to fraudsters-Rasputin was by no means an isolated case. The Tsarina (of poor education) was taken in because she saw in Rasputin the only hope for her ailing son. She clutched at straws at a time when the medical profession was unable to heip her.Many of us would probably have done the same in the 1900's.