Monks with bad habits

April 17, 1998

Exotic Mother Russia has endured so much more than her fair share of lurid literature published in the West that it would be hard to devise a scale upon which to evaluate it. I confess that not since reviewing Peter Ustinov's grandiosely titled My Russia 15 years ago have I encountered so dire a specimen of the genre as this, the latest of a long line of penny-dreadful biographies of Rasputin.

From the first page it is apparent that the value ascribed by the author to those sparse and random sources he chose to consult bears a direct correlation to their sensationalism and implausibility alike. Indeed, the more improbable the claim the more eager he appears to swallow it. Thus we are informed in the absence of any evidence that Plehve organised the pogroms which erupted in provincial Russia at the outset of the Japanese war; that Nicholas II was a physical coward; that he may have arranged the murder of Stolypin; that his empress could have had an affair with Rasputin; that Tsar Paul I's fundamental laws "replaced primogeniture with Salic law"; and that haemophilia is "sex-linked''.

The author's patent enthusiasm for all things outre draws him at every page into advancing claims whose eccentricity is as remarkable as their unwavering inaccuracy. It appears that the tsar was visited by a "margarine delegation'' following the bloody repression of Father Gapon's march on the Winter Palace; and that the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand resulted from his having rashly worn Austrian military uniform in Sarajevo; while snow astonishingly descends on Russia in December. We are further tantalisingly informed that Rasputin's reaction ("if any") to the marriage of Tsar Nicholas remains unknown.

In marked contrast many of the most significant historical elements necessary to a proper understanding of the (marginal) role played by Rasputin in the downfall of the Romanovs are altogether omitted, such as the influence ascribable to Prince Yusupov's mother on his decision to murder the squalid Staretz.

Very engaging, however, is the account of a plot devised by the ascetic monk Iliodor. Imbued with a public-spirited plan to arrange the assassination of 60 lieutenant governors and 40 bishops, he failed to recruit sufficient personnel prepared to execute the pious deed. In no way dismayed, he promptly settled upon persuading a group of women to castrate Rasputin. At least it cannot be said that Russians lack resource or imagination.

Though the author appears to be English, he expresses himself excitably in a bizarre pastiche of United Staes jargon. A Russian priest is quoted as lamenting the fact that "Grigory gets young girls, and he lays them, he lays themI Now he has these airheads from PetersburgI" While it is instructive to learn that the vernacular pluperfect for defecation is "had shat'', this and similar obscenities splattering the text bring into question the author's motive in composing such a work. On the one hand he indulges throughout in near-hysterical denunciation of the real or supposed sexual excesses of pre-revolutionary Russian society. But equally, the more titillating and salacious an anecdote, the more eager is our author to parade it as an embellishment to his narrative.

It is hard to envisage the readership for whom the book is intended. The need to explain that Disraeli was "the British prime minister'' is suggestive, and one might suppose that Rasputin was cleverly timed to coincide with the cartoon film Anastasia. However, there may be a simpler explanation. I challenge anyone to explain the meaning of the paragraph spanning pages 119 to 120. Could it be that editors and proof-readers abandoned the thankless task at an early stage, leaving their unhappy sales force to market the ware as they saw fit?

Nikolai Tolstoy is the author of The Tolstoys: Twenty-Four Generations of Russian History.

Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned

Author - Brian Moynahan
ISBN - 1 85410 540 X
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £16.95
Pages - 400

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