The Myth of the Mad Monk

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The Russian peasant-mystic Grigori Rasputin was killed 100 years ago this week, his murder on December 30, 1916 fulfilling one of history’s most famous and fateful New Year’s predictions;

If I am killed by common assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, the Tsar of Russia, will have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years. But if I am murdered by boyars, nobles, and if they shed my blood, their hands will remain soiled with my blood for twenty-five years and they will leave Russia. Brothers will kill brothers, and they will kill each other and hate each other, and for twenty-five years there will be no peace in the country . . .

This foretelling of the Russian Revolution — it began to sweep the nation just two months later — is a “foundational text in the Rasputin mythology,” says Douglas Smith in his new biography, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs. It is also, says Smith, a complete fabrication, as was so much else in Rasputin’s uncertain and unreliable life. A crystal-ball letter was indeed found among the mystic’s effects, one predicting national disaster — “Men without number will perish. Many martyrs will die. Brothers will be slain by their brothers. The earth will tremble . . . ” — but Smith points out that by December 1916 it would be hard to find anyone who couldn’t read the revolutionary writing on the wall. Yet Rasputin’s remarkable life story, taking him from the Siberian steppes to the corridors of Winter Palace power, is itself telling, “and in his bloody, violent end,” says Smith, “we can discern the story of Russia itself in the early twentieth century.”

The Romanovs, and the national weakness for mystical-messianic visions, may be important to the story of Russia in the early twenty-first century also. In The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, Steven Lee Myers describes the evolution of the Russian president’s imperial swagger — invading Crimea, for example, and daring the world to gainsay his actions or his lies — and the appeal of his “Make Russia Great Again” politics. Myers also notes in passing an interesting moment in Putin family history when his grandfather, a chef, once served Rasputin at St. Petersburg’s Astoria Hotel. The grandfather also served Stalin; if, as Myers says, this began “a family tradition of servitude to the political elite,” the tsar-minded grandson has broken that tradition in spectacular fashion.

Among the new generation of dissidents who have fled Putin’s Russia is the chess master turned political activist Garry Kasparov. His Winter Is Coming warns that Russia’s recent international maneuverings are pawn-move tactics, and that by naively offering economic and political engagement to the oligarchy the West is abetting rather than contesting its endgame:

Decades of trade have created tremendous wealth that dictatorships like Russia and China have used to build sophisticated authoritarian infrastructures inside the country and to apply pressure in foreign policy. The naïve idea was that the free world would use economic and social ties to gradually liberalize authoritarian states. In practice, the authoritarian states have abused this access and economic interdependency to spread their corruption and fuel repression at home.

Given the recent concurrence expressed by the CIA and FBI, Malcolm Nance may soon be issuing a revised version of The Plot to Hack America. A former navy intelligence expert, Nance describes cyber-espionage as a game of multidimensional code chess, played for the highest stakes:

Russia has perfected political warfare by using cyber assets to personally attack and neutralize political opponents. They call it Kompromat. They hack into computers or phones to gather intelligence, expose this intelligence (or false data they manufacture out of whole cloth) through the media to create scandal, and thereby knock an opponent or nation out of the game. Russia has attacked Estonia, the Ukraine, and Western nations using just these cyber warfare methods. At some point Russia apparently decided to apply these tactics against the United States and so American democracy itself was hacked.