Myths upon myths upon myths. How to separate them from reality? In the case of Grigory Rasputin, the legend has transcended the man in size and weight, and has become so intertwined with “fact” that objective separation is surely impossible.
Like dead Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal cancer cells are said to survive still in labs around the world, 60 years on, and in greater combined mass than in her living body; so Rasputin’s story perseveres, balloons even with new “truths”, as time pushes his mortal span further back into shadow. Could I add anything to help redefine the edges? Frankly, I doubt it. Rasputin is someone for historians and myth-seekers to revisit fondly at intervals. To wheel out into the light once more and leisurely push around, before abandoning him inconclusively, back at his twilight rest home. Never fully illuminated, never totally obscured.
No need for another potted history then. Just a nod towards the influence over the Tsarevich, the miracles and debaucheries of the “Mad Monk”, the man who proved almost – though not completely – impossible to murder.
And questions… How does an unwashed, illiterate peasant rise to a position of influence in the Russian Court? What truth is there behind the miracles and healings, the protracted murder and the unholy marriage of debauchery and religious devotion? Sadly, where the latter is concerned at least, recent exposés of Catholic priests has shown that diametrically opposed behaviour can coexist indefinitely under the same skin.
Perhaps a combination of showmanship, opportunism and favourable chance produced the “winning” formula. Paradoxically, though, this formula was to lead ultimately to his demise, and arguably to contribute in part to the downfall of the last Tsar in an unstable country heading for revolution, in a court riddled with plots and intrigues, fiddling whilst its Rome burned.
Now for a section of the history that I was loath to repeat, but it seems crucial: In 1887, at the age of 18, Rasputin spent 3 months in an Orthodox monastery in Verkhoture. Whether this was punishment, penance or an attempt to turn his life around can only be conjecture. Whatever the case, he left without ordination, finding himself a mentor in Makariy: a local holy man who would even influence Rasputin’s own “presentation” and persona – I assume unintentionally… As to what Makariy would have made, later on, at the twisted reflection of himself exhibited by his mentee, we can only speculate.
This appears to be the turning point in Rasputin’s life. Rather than sinking back into his unruly peasant existence, he gained a wife, and a reputation as a travelling mystic, healer and psychic, demonstrating his powers as far afield as Europe and the Holy lands. All of this coincides with fashionable Russia’s burgeoning, Western-imported preoccupation with the mystical in the early years of the 20th Century. His reputation as a spiritual healer reached the Tzarina, who in desperation called upon his services to aid her ailing son, Alexi.
The pressing question at this point is: just what was Rasputin capable of then? Must he not have possessed at least some measure of gifts, to be able to make a vocation out of it in this way? Surely even the most charismatic orator must at some point deliver-the-goods? Especially with such high-stake claims as healing and miracles, right? Arguably so, but then today’s sceptics (not to mention outright nay-sayers) would argue that “psychic” fakers have created whole careers out of style, charismatic oratory and parlour tricks without ever delivering real substance. The subject of hypnosis arises time and again when looking into the history of Rasputin: apparent claims that people around him felt compelled to perform a specific action, that the colour of his eyes would shift… True or false?
Hypnosis is real, and embraced by professionals and proletariat alike. “Suggestion” is a reality too, hypnotic or otherwise. And as far as colour-changing eyes are concerned…* Whatever the truth behind his abilities, Rasputin was obviously capable enough to convince a great many people from peasants to nobility, and persuasive enough to ingratiate himself into the heart of the Russian court, to the point of being considered a dangerous threat to the security of the Motherland.
*Curiously, I’ve heard of this eye-colour-changing business before, and in the context of hypnosis too. I remember a UK TV news report 20 or more years ago about a boxer who complained that his opponent was trying to hypnotise him in the ring, and that this was “cheating”. The intended victim reported that when he stared into his opponent’s eyes he felt disoriented, and that the eyes changed colour. Probably an hallucination in the mind of the “victim”, but as to whether the opponent was affecting the boxer by some form of hypnosis or suggestion…? Unknown. And the truth behind this report: Unknown. I can’t even be sure what station it was on. A curious coincidence then.
Next time: Shadow Man in Circumspect (Part 2)
Mad Lust: Sin your way to Salvation. Creating a Monster, Bad publicity: choose your truth. Surfacing: new slants on an old killing.