A little history lesson: Gregory Rasputin was a Siberian peasant who, after being introduced to the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century, somehow appears to have had a positive impact on the haemophilia of their son and heir. There were all sorts of rumours going around about him and his relationship to the Romanovs and the way he behaved in St Petersburg, and he was eventually assassinated. This book is more than a hundred pages of his daughter reminiscing about her father, and about 30 – which I didn’t read – of Rasputin’s own reflections on holy places he’s visited.
I recently helped my sister to move house, and one of my jobs was unpacking her books. In doing so I discovered that she had appropriated a number of books that belonged to me but that I’d left at home… anyway. I also discovered this book on her shelf, and I was astounded for a few reasons: that the book exists at all; that she had bothered to nab it (I was reminded that she had studied the Russian Revolution at school)… and that it had belonged to our paternal grandfather. This is somewhat surprising because although not a Communist, our Grandpa was definitely an old-school union man, voted Labor all this life, detested the Vietnam War (wasn’t it awkward when Dad enlisted and went over?)…
etc. So why he had a book aimed at salvaging Gregory Rasputin’s reputation is beyond my ken.
This book is part vindication of Rasputin as a largely good man, part protest at his treatment while alive and his reputation after death, and part somewhat dubious insight into life in Petersburg in the lead up to, and early part of, World War 1. Did I learn anything that I am willing to treat with little scepticism? Yes: Maria Rasputin’s explanation of the fact that her father was not a monk, but was rather a Starets has no need to be distorted and was genuinely helpful in my thinking about him. So too is the fact that Maria and her sister lived with Rasputin for most of the time he was in Petersburg! – this is not something that I have ever seen discussed, and although obviously a father is perfectly capable of being evil and not showing it to his daughters, it’s still an interesting addition to his character. Like I said, Maria (and I’ll keep referring to her by her first name because ‘Rasputin’ would be just too confusing) is clearly aiming to redeem her father’s name, so she stresses that their living room/reception area door was very rarely closed – thus clearly refuting the idea that, at home at least, Rasputin was up to no good and holding orgies (one of the big accusations against him). She doesn’t pretend he was a saint – in fact, she protests against that idea vigorously – and admits that he took up drinking… but blames that on the experience of Petersburg itself, and bad influences, and the need to get just a little bit of downtime.
There’s a whole lot that is pure propaganda. And I can understand that; it can’t have been a comfortable position to be in, as the daughter of such a notorious man. Especially if he had been a loving father, and all the calumny just felt so alien and unlike the man you knew. I was fascinated to read that Maria accepted – or at least wrote that she accepted – the supernatural elements of Rasputin’s story: that he was clairvoyant, enabled by a special connection to God that also enabled him to have special healing powers… I hadn’t expected that aspect.
One problem, for me: I couldn’t help but here Tom Baker’s voice every time Rasputin spoke. That was distracting.