Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith

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A powerful exploration of the class tensions in Russia and how Rasputin, probably undeservedly, became the lightning rod for the growing rift between the aristocracy and the working class.

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith is a massive, well researched and satisfying book that chronicles the rise, fall and extravagant, gruesome death of Rasputin. Along with deconstructing the legends swirling around the mad monk through painstaking historical research, Smith uses the history of the man to simultaneously explore the turbulent currents sweeping through Russia at the time, driving the country ever closer to the bloody and violent revolution that would change the world.

The myths and legend of Rasputin are familiar — a sexually insatiable Svengali/charlatan/holy man with dark, hypnotic powers and a miraculous (or possibly fake) healing touch who became a confidant of, and pseudo adviser to, the tsar and tsarina. Smith does a good job of separating the myths from the man, humanizing Rasputin and arriving at something closer to the actual historical figure — a deeply religious and deeply flawed person from the roughest edges of the peasant class who, despite his coarse ways, was embraced by and drawn up into the highest circles of the Russian court by a noble class entranced by esoteric and occult spirituality.

His disproportionate influence at the royal court was due at first to Tsarina Alexandra’s fascination with metaphysical types, compounded by the stubborn isolation Tsar Nicholas adopted in the face of a restless nation and was cemented by the fact Rasputin’s prayers did actually seem to help Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia — an all but terminal disease in those days — survive several brushes with death. Ultimately, the Romanovs came to value his friendship, spiritual counsel and ultimately political insights. That infuriated the political class, including the church, and deepened the growing distrust by the peasant class, laborers and the military who believed the gossip that Rasputin enjoyed some psychosexual hold over he Tsarina. As his influence at the court increased, so did the intrigues against Rasputin until he was murdered and dumped through a hole in the frozen river.

Russia would devolve into revolution and chaos a short year or so later, and the Romanovs, though Nicholas abdicated, met a similarly gruesome end — the entire family was assassinated in a rural village.

The book is a powerful exploration of the class tensions in Russia and how Rasputin, probably undeservedly, became the lightning rod for the growing rift between the aristocracy and the working class.

That said, Rasputin does not deserves a pass in terms of his own behavior which likely helped seed the chaos surrounding him. At best, he was gloriously misguided and short sighted and worst, he was schemer. The truth, as is often the case, according to Smith, is somewhere between those two poles, though Smith is careful not tip the scales. The historical evidence suggests Rasputin clearly used his position to his advantage, and to advance the careers of advocates and allies while diminishing his enemies, of which he had many. And he certainly had a healthy sex drive. He was surrounded by scads of female acolytes, spent a great deal of time “caressing and petting” them, hanging out in the bathhouses with them, and he was caught up in one scandalous affair after another. And his enemies used this behavior to make up stories in the press about his sexual exploits. Again, the reality was somewhere in between “sex demon” and “passionate.”

I found Smith’s writing a little on the dense side, which didn’t detract from the topic and served the balanced, objective approach and exhaustive research well. The amount of source material he must have sorted through to anchor this narrative is truly inspiring. And just trying to keep track of the cast of characters with their, at least to me, impenetrable Russian names was a struggle. An actual list of characters might help, allowing readers to refresh the who’s who of Russian aristocracy, politicians and clergy. I appreciated the epilogue, which shared what became of most these characters. Spoiler alert: dead at the hands of the communists or dead of tuberculosis seemed to be the big two, although Rasputin’s daughter Maria because a circus performer, was mauled by a bear, and lived a good, long life in Los Angeles.

All in all, it’s a fascinating exploration of a man who had already become a myth in his own lifetime, while illuminating the precarious state of Russia, the fragile egos of the rulers and clergy leaders and the surprising underpinning of occult interests as twilight stretched across the Russian empire.

(PS. File this in the bonus category -- the book turned me on to Ra-Ra-Rasputin, a 1978 disco hit by Boney M., which is worth checking out.)