by Nathaniel Salvini ’21
The true story of Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic, peasant, and man of God, is a mysterious one. Douglas Smith came to LMU on September 19 to talk about the Russian peasant, who gained elite access to the Romanovs and figures so prominently in Russian imagination and lore, in his book Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Romanovs.
Smith noticed the inconsistencies and myths that surrounded the story of Rasputin, so he turned to existing primary sources to find the truth. Smith detailed his journeys through the archives of Berlin, Moscow, Yale, and Siberia (Rasputin’s home), among others. The archives in Moscow were especially difficult because he needed access to the reports of secret Russian police under the Tsar, until he came across a stranger in Seattle who just happened to be the goddaughter of the director.
Smith discovered that the myths about Rasputin came from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, with peasants thinking he was disloyal to them by spending his time with the Tsar, while nobles and those loyal to the Tsar were jealous of his influence. Rasputin was often used a scapegoat for the chaos that was happening in Russia at that time, from World War I to the ongoing political tensions of the Bolshevik Revolution, and their accompanying hardships.
In truth, Rasputin was more of a commoner than his myths suggest. Sources show that while the Tsar may have allowed his presence at court, he rarely if ever acted on Rasputin’s advice, and Rasputin was only let into the palace because he had “healed” Alexei Romanov, who had hemophilia. Another legend was that Rasputin was a German spy who infiltrated the palace – Smith’s examination of the documents housed in German archives prove that while Germany did take an interest in him, he never sent intelligence. Rasputin even had a wife, and though he did womanize, drink, and have angry fits every so often, these traits were often exaggerated by others for political purposes. In fact, the complexity of Rasputin is often lost, such as his selflessness and lack of greed, his devotion to his Russian Orthodox faith, his religious tolerance, especially towards Muslims and Jews, and his devotion to his children. In the end, a commoner was murdered in cold blood on December 30, 1916, by three Russian nobles, who at first tried to poison his dinner, later shot him three times, then drowned him in the Malaya Nevka River.
Rasputin was a living, breathing, three-dimensional person, and while the truth may be more lackluster than the myths, it is the job of the historian to find what the truth is. Hopefully one day, we can see Rasputin as the multifaceted man he really was.