As so often happens, it all started with something I found at the library sale. It was a movie from the sixties English horror schlockmeisters Hammer Studios called Rasputin: The Mad Monk. Of course, its historical accuracy can be gauged by the fact that Rasputin was neither a monk nor mad, but the frequent Dracula and fine actor Christopher Lee made a very compelling lead character. Shot using the sets and cast of the just completed Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the film basically uses the idea of Rasputin as Dracula minus only the blood sucking. There’s plenty of Lugosi like close ups of hypnotic eyes as Rasputin uses his power over women to further his ambitions for power and to have a little fun. It’s a pretty dumb but enjoyable flick, and it made me wonder what the straight scoop is about the guy.
Of course at a previous library sale I’d picked up a bio of him, The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin by Alex De Jonge and I was even able to find it amongst my piles of printed matter. It’s a good book, absorbing and well written, done with even handedness and an open mind, and the whole time I was reading it I thought what a great movie the real story would make, preferably starring Daniel Day Lewis. At first I felt a little guilty from straying from my present reading path, which is an exploration of Decadent/Symbolist/Modernist fiction writers who are influenced by the occult and esoteric, but after a few pages I realized that Rasputin fit right in, particularly with the Russian Symbolists I’d been reading.
I have a past entry about Valerie Briusov’s bitchin’ The Fiery Angel and learning more about its context made me realize once again that historical novels are usually more about when they are written than when they are set. The Russia of the early twentieth century was somewhat like America in the sixties, a seething mass of broken orthodoxy, of sexual, religious and social experimentation, of revolution, repression and violence. In fact, the figure that Rasputin brought to my mind was Charles Manson, not just in the Jesus gone wrong appearance, but in the confused manner of speaking, the babbling of semi-profound phrases, the sexual magnetism to his primarily female followers, the will to power and the lower class origins which were seen as more “authentic” to the upper classes.
There are differences too, and all of them in Rasputin’s favor. Manson was basically a crook and a con man, and the bodies he buried are still being uncovered. His followers, their reliability undermined by all the acid being eaten, report a few extraordinary feats by him, but his main talent seemed to be in controlling others. Although “evil” is a word often used in describing Rasputin, the most heinous thing he did was apparently forcing himself on women. Otherwise, his sordidness was in his drinking and womanizing, more of a public relations problem for the Czar’s administration than anything else. There is a certainly an element of the power hungry con man in him, but there are also feats of healing and clairvoyance that are conceded by even his harshest critics. To me he seems like a faith healer, a man coming out of the pre-Christian folk tradition, a peasant tradition running back to Shamanic days, Siberia, of course being one of the hotbeds of the old ways. His beliefs, such as they were, seem to be grounded in the Russian “sectarian” movement, which, although nominally Christian, trafficked in pantheistic, ancient mysto-erotic ideas about fertility and the spiritual power of intoxication, sex, dance and ecstacy.
When criticized for offending orthodox concepts of purity and probity, Rasputin would say that one had to sin to be forgiven. Told that his love of dancing was un-Christian he replied “But one prays to God as well in dancing as in a monastery. One praises Him in the joy that, in His goodness, He has created. David danced before the Ark of the Lord.” And of course, many aristocrats were doing far worse things behind closed doors, including Rasputin’s assassin, Prince Felix Yusupov, a bisexual cross dresser who darkly hinted of committing indecencies on Rasputin’s corpse. Much of Rasputin’s “sin” seems to consist of being a peasant who didn’t know his place. He certainly had healing talent and at the very least eased Tsarevich Alexi’s pain many times, not really by hypnotism, as is often claimed, but more by the use of laying on of hands, as is still used by psychic healers today. His influence on the Czar via the Czarina was mostly self-serving but not really malign, and in fact much of his advice, particularly that about World War One, showed a peasant horse sense absent from more refined counselors.
I’m certainly not nominating Rasputin for sainthood, but he is certainly far from the “mad monk” of popular conception, not to mention the baleful figure of the animated movie Anastasia who, to quote a Christian reviewer, “…is a Satan-worshipping, hateful, undead dweller of hell filled with a lust for death and a minion of vaporous green demons at his bidding!” (Actually I have to admit he was my son’s favorite character in the film, and he cried when he was killed. A lady behind us said It’s O.K. dear, the bad man is gone now but she didn’t know he was upset because the bad man was gone. I don’t know what it is about little boys and villain – my friend’s son’s favorite stuffed animal was the evil Scar from Lion King and I sure loved my Frankenstein and Dracula.) It’s also easy for us to think that no occult figure could get close to America’s ruling family, but remember all the advice Czarina Nancy Reagan’s took from her astrologer and Bush’s anti-rational beliefs about evolution.
Here’s some excerpts from De Jonge’s book that I found memorable:
Although the religious circles of St. Petersburg may not have been engaged in the pursuit of strange gods, they were certainly not adverse to the cultivation of strange saints.
Nevertheless sexuality is an element in certain forms of Russian sectarianism to which Rasputin had been exposed. It also seems to have played an essential part in the way he addressed himself to his followers, one reason perhaps why he behaved so outrageously with potential adherents.
He clearly managed to persuade his lovers that they could achieve grace and purification through orgasm, an arrangement that appears to have been satisfactory to all parties.
Yet once again Rasputin proved incapable of self-restraint. When he called on Iliodor’s disciples he could not resist kissing the younger and prettier girls with remarkable enthusiasm, while thrusting older women impatiently away. He never seems to have had much time for older women, and would frequently observe to them, “Mother, your love is pleasing, but the spirit of the Lord does not come down to me,” implying that the spirit descended via his sexual organs.