He was an itinerant, a pious figure of faith who swayed in prayer, a lusty man who liked being washed by girls in the bath houses of czarist Russia. He considered himself a holy man but was very likely no more than a wild-eyed, semi-literate weirdo with a penchant for visions.
He was, of course, Gregory Rasputin, and history holds few characters as manipulative and mendacious as he was during the time of the czar Nicholas II and Alexandra at the beginning of the last century.
It is true that the world may not be yearning for a new look at Rasputin, but it is also true that the world cannot bring itself to look away from him either, and so Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s “Rasputin: The Untold Story’’ scratches a persistent itch among the reading public.
Fuhrmann, professor emeritus of history at Murray State University in Kentucky, has examined records buried in Soviet archives that until recently were closed to scholars. The result is a vivid if not lurid portrayal of a man known at court as a charlatan and a hapless, hopeless lecher but who played on the royal couple’s fears and toyed with their hopes.
“Craving power, he realized that the way for him to get it would be by exploiting the fears and weaknesses of those who held life’s advantages,’’ Fuhr-mann writes. He was a masterly practitioner of this cynical art, perhaps the best ever.
Fuhrmann’s portrayal of Rasputin is rooted in his past, in Siberia, which he argues explains Rasputin’s lack of pretension, his earthiness, his recklessness, his enormous capacity for suspicion, and his fierce sense of independence borne of growing up in a severe and wild land.
Like most peasants, Rasputin was uneducated. At a young age he was drawn, physically and emotionally, to women. But there was to him also a strain of romanticism and mysticism. He wandered for weeks on end in search of salvation, a world-weary pilgrim in pursuit of redemption. His personality, Fuhrmann says, “embodied divergent and contrasting strains — the religious seeker and the debauched hell-raiser.’’
Eventually our scoundrel, said to possess spiritual healing powers, was interjected into the unhappy household of Nicholas and Alexandra, the latter a worry wart in the best of times, a frantic mother in the face of her son Alexis’s hemophilia. “And so,’’ Fuhrmann posits, “a young boy’s misfortune set the stage for a miracle worker.’’
The miracle is that he transformed himself into a kind of Zelig in black robes, hatching and repulsing plots, always at the center of controversy, advancing by sex and salvation, worming his way deeper into the Roma-novs’ good graces as a spiritual and political adviser.
Though mysticism was flourishing in Russia, Rasputin never won wide appeal. It was one of the many contradictions in this strange saga of a strange era. He drank heavily — and denounced vodka. He disavowed dreams of wealth — but worried constantly about his finances. He portrayed himself as the servant of the Romanovs — but in some ways was their master.
In a kingdom of plots, it is not surprising that Rasputin’s fall came because of one of them. Many myths attended to his murder allegedly at the hands of Russian aristocrats, with Fuhrmann believing that the British government may have had some role. We may never know, though he suggests it is “not likely . . . that the British initiated or controlled the operation.’’
Much of the mystery surrounding Rasputin endures. But unlike so many historical figures, this one has enjoyed no refreshing revisionism. On the contrary. “[T]he world,’’ Fuhr-mann suggests, “would have been a better place if Rasputin had never been born.’’ It’s not every day that a biographer says that about his subject, but then again, Rasputin is not an everyday subject.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-
Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.