One of the problems us humans have with 20th-century history in general, and with the world wars in particular, concerns the power of pictures. There’s something intrinsically convincing about photographs and film from the age before Photoshop, probably because we’re instinctively trained to trust the image seen with our own eyes over any of the, often far more comprehensive pictures conjured up in speech or writing. During and since the Second World War, for instance, propaganda or entertainment priorities have required film-makers and photographers to focus on the machines it spawned, and so most people consider that war the epitome of mechanisation, despite the fact that it is often and accurately described by historians as largely horse-drawn.
Film has meanwhile defined the First World War as a battle of machine guns, artillery, biplanes and heavy industry. Up to a point, even allowing for the exaggerations of propaganda, it was – but only in those few places at the forefront of global socioeconomic and technological development. What all those sepia photographs of trenches, tanks and Sopwith Camels fail to get across is that most of the world at war was living in much less sophisticated times.
This was obviously the case in what we now think of as the Third World – everywhere except Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, with Japan coming up fast on the rails – and the difference defined much wartime imperial interference in Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Less obviously, big chunks of Europe were also way off the pace set by the most developed nations. Small, independent countries like Serbia, Romania or Portugal, as well as large swathes of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, lived in conditions closer to feudalism than to the social norms in Germany, Britain or France.
Nowhere was the clash of modern warfare and mediaeval mysticism more pronounced or more important to the future than inside Russia, and nothing illustrates that more than the life and death of Grigor Rasputin, the Mad Monk to end all mad monks, who was murdered in St. Petersburg a century ago today.
Rasputin has made a couple of previous appearances in this prolonged folly, as the eccentric and massively influential personal advisor to the Tsarina, Alexandra. His road to power and how he behaved when he got it provide a snapshot of contemporary life that should dispel any lingering sense that pre-revolutionary Russia was living in the twentieth century.
Best estimates, largely based on his own claims and those of unreliable associates, have Rasputin born in 1869 to a modestly prosperous peasant family in the rural semi-wilderness of western Siberia. He grew into a young man possessed of strange (if unspecified) gifts, without schooling or social ties but with a village reputation for drunken violence and lechery. He appears to have married at 19 and sired three children, before undergoing an intense religious conversion about a decade later and leaving his family for the life of an ascetic religious wanderer in about 1900. Sources suggest his religious commitment was part-time at this point, and that he returned home to help with the harvest each year.
If this all sounds a little vague, that’s the way things were in the Dark Ages, and plenty of equally uncertain tales surround Rasputin’s transformation from village weirdo to imperial influence. Sometime after the turn of the century he seems to have walked 3,000 kilometres to visit a monastery in Kiev, where his intense, undoubtedly compelling preaching and personality attracted attention from senior clergy. Armed with introductions to religious leaders in St. Petersburg, he probably arrived in the capital during 1904, and is said to have made contact with the royal family through Princess Milica of Montenegro, the spiritually inclined wife of the Tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Peter, himself a dabbler in the occult and at the time a major influence at court.
First presented to the Tsar and his family in November 1905, Rasputin clearly made a strong impression. Amid the civil unrest and political turmoil that followed that year’s parliamentary revolution in Russia, and that accompanied the Tsar’s subsequent efforts to ignore it, he was invited back to provide the Romanovs with prayers and spiritual consultation in 1906 – but his magic moment came in April 1907, when he was called in to pray for the Tsar’s heir and only son, two year-old Tsarevich Alexei. Once Rasputin’s presence (or maybe his prayers, or his healing superpower, or even a decision to stop giving him aspirin) had calmed the boy and stopped his painful bleeding – later diagnosed as a rare form of haemophilia – Alexandra decided he was her son’s indispensable saviour.
It was a faith she never lost, though as one of a wide range of spiritual or religious gurus consulted by superstitious courtiers Rasputin did fall out of immediate favour from 1910, when a press campaign against him coincided with widespread distaste among elite courtiers for his loud and libidinous ways. Alexandra got her man back after October 1912, when legend has it Rasputin brought the injured Alexei back from his deathbed by sending her a reassuring telegram. A constant stream of theories and arguments surround this legend, most of them aiming to show that Rasputin was either a charlatan, very lucky or both, but for the next three years Alexandra defied repeated attempts by politicians, church leaders, the press and (at times) the Tsar to remove the mad monk from the centre of power.
Quite what Rasputin got up to in his pomp is hard to pin down. Scandal and rumour had him living the full sex, drugs and rock’n’roll fantasy, with plenty of conspiracy, murder and devil-worship thrown in, but all that can be said for certain is that he was often drunk, had a lecherous side and exerted a baleful influence over the career of any courtier or politician that attracted his mystically induced displeasure.
So far, and give or take a telegram, Rasputin’s rise might easily have been set sometime before 1066, yet this was a time when modern industry and mass politics were well established as fundamental to life in other European empires. The same influences were well on the way to shaping the socio-politics of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, the three enclaves of industrial and technological modernity within the Tsar’s fiefdoms, but the tiny aristocratic elite that made all the Empire’s big decisions was still living in the same, pre-scientific age as Rasputin’s home village.
Once this bizarre perspective is taken as fact, all the useless, dithering, illogical and emotional decisions taken by the wartime Tsarist regime – at home, diplomatically and in the field – look less like the work of morons than the blundering of confused time-travellers, reduced to superstition and internal bickering in the face of dynamics they couldn’t possibly understand.
That wasn’t really a good excuse. The Tsarist regime had time and again chosen to live in the past when offered pathways towards modernity, and it steadfastly refused to abandon mediaeval government during the War years. When the Tsar, behaving just like a nervous Plantagenet, took personal command of the armies on the Eastern Front in September 1915, he left his wife in effective command of the home front. The rigidly ultra-conservative policy pursued by Alexandra was divisive, unproductive, dangerous and carried out amid constant consultations with Rasputin, and though history has no way of knowing quite how and to what extent he directed events – self-consciously or unwittingly – his power over the Tsarina became the nation’s favourite scandal.
As had once been the case in most mediaeval European countries, discontent under a royal regime was directed against the ruler’s closest advisors, and during the months that followed Rasputin was accused of every conceivable sin, including spying for the Germans, by the press, the church, the police and his enemies at court. He was of course no kind of innocent victim, but most of the accusations were false, and he was meanwhile fulfilling the time-honoured role of barrier between the monarchy and its critics.
In that context, Rasputin’s assassination on the night of 29/30 December (17/18 December by the Russian calendar of the day) was an unconscious act of class betrayal by the distinctly motley collection of minor aristocrats and courtiers responsible. It was also an almost unbelievably clumsy and incompetent act, involving almost as many myths as the victim’s life. The murder may or may not have involved Rasputin surviving poison and a number of major gunshot wounds before his (probably dead) corpse was dumped in the Moika, one of St Petersburg’s central rivers, where it was found two days later.
Though hailed by almost everyone except Alexandra as a blow against bad government, Rasputin’s death made absolutely no difference to the political situation in Russia, but merely stripped away one of the Tsar’s protective barriers at a time when the opposition to the regime was coming to the boil. Royal embarrassment was avoided, and future myths guaranteed, by sending the only two conspirators punished for the murder into permanent exile, and the Tsar ignored all pressure to restrict Alexandra’s control over government until the following March, when revolution did the job for him.
My point here is that Rasputin’s life and death were compelling copy, then as now, but that he was a symptom rather than the cause of the royal family’s wilful anachronism. Choosing to live in the past with the peasantry, rather than with the modern world exploding around them, was the fatal error that doomed the Russian imperial elite to destruction, informing every false step along the way. A hundred years on, when our ruling elites are clinging to the wrong century and conjuring up political demons all over the place, remembering Rasputin’s wild contribution to the Tsar’s downfall feels like a good idea.