Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch

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Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A concise biography of Grigori Rasputin, the 'mad monk' of popular legend during the last years of the Russian empire.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 205 Date: February 2015
Publisher: Short Books
ISBN: 9781780722320

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Was Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian peasant turned mystic and the time bomb who almost single-handedly precipitated the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, a genuine holy man or an evil-minded reprobate and total disaster?

It’s difficult to avoid the latter conclusion. Alexander Kerensky, leader of the moderate provisional government that followed the end of empire but was swept aside by the Bolsheviks, once said that ‘without Rasputin there would have been no Lenin’. But the picture is rather more complex than that. Frances Welch has written extensively about the Russian court, and in this concise life she offers a balanced portrait of this larger-than-life, almost legendary figure.

Sometimes it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. At any rate, his early years are poorly documented and nobody knew for certain his age or the precise year of his birth. All that is known for certain is that he came from a poor Siberian village, and that as a young man he was notorious for his lack of morals, his horse thieving activities and drunkenness. Too poorly educated to follow his original intention to become a priest, he followed the convenient principle that if one wished to be redeemed by God, first one had to sin – something he exploited to the full.

Deserting his family and wandering throughout Russia, he also acquired a reputation as a healer. Claiming to be a Holy Man, he was introduced to Nicholas, Alexandra and their family, with their four lively, healthy daughters and their sickly son and heir Alexei, a victim of the hereditary bleeding disease of haemophilia and several times at death’s door.

Here comes the question that was never answered. Did Rasputin really have the power to stop the haemorrhages which almost killed the boy; was it just coincidence; or was it simply his calming presence, or hypnotic powers, the role he played in reassuring the almost hysterical mother, that ‘the little one will not die’, that saved his life on several occasions? While we are left in no doubt that his private life was little more virtuous than that of, shall we say, two or three recent British entertainment personalities, one deceased, who have spectacularly fallen from grace after the discovery of their crimes, it is difficult to avoid the impression that his presence was in some ways for the good.

Unfortunately, for everyone concerned, it did not stop at the role of miracle worker. Several of Rasputin’s champions at court later turned against him, more often than not after he tried to take advantage of any personal favours he hoped they might offer. The Tsarina’s blind worship of ‘our friend’ and her dismissal of any Russian ministers, almost without exception the most able, who dared to speak against him, proved fatal for the dynasty. As for the Tsar, a kindly but weak man always too ready to give in to pressure, seems to have played a rather ambivalent role, sometimes exasperated by the meddling peasant, but prepared to tolerate his presence on the grounds that one Rasputin was better than ‘a hundred hysterics’ from his wife. The theories that he was the Tsarina’s lover, or that he had his wicked way with her daughters, are almost certainly false, but in the scandal-ridden world of late imperial Russia, it was too often a case of ‘throw enough mud and some will stick’.

The narrative proceeds inevitably to its climax. As Russia’s military standing in the First World War deteriorated and the unpopularity of the hapless ruler and his wife, ‘the German woman’, escalated, almost everybody, except for the Tsar and his immediate family, became increasingly convinced that Rasputin had to be eliminated. Like several biographers before her, Ms Welch’s narration of the facts has the element of a true crime story, as the conspirators hatched their plans for an assassination which would not be easy to carry out but had to be successful and leave as few traces as possible. The nightmarish detail of what went on at the carefully faked party to which he was lured on that fatal night in December 1916 reads almost with the immediacy of a novel.

The book does not stop there, but surveys the immediate aftermath, the legend about Rasputin and his power as a tourist attraction, and what became of his family afterwards. As the title makes clear, this book does not attempt to cover the man’s life and times in great depth, and it lacks an index, but it tells the basic facts in around 200 crisp pages and provides a useful bibliography for further study. As a background read and a general introduction to the last days of the doomed empire, it makes a very entertaining and well-researched read.

For further reading about the end of imperial Russia and the characters at the centre of it, may we also recommend Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters:The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport; or for a historical rather than biographical approach, Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith.

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Buy Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Rasputin: A Short Life by Frances Welch at Amazon.com.


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