Rasputinby Brian Moynahan
Grigory Efimovich Rasputindrinker, thief, womanizerarrived in St. Petersburg in 1903 as if from the medieval past . . . tattered, black-clad, muttering. By the time of his sensational murder thirteen years later, the peasant was the ”beloved Friend” of Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, with a seemingly supernatural power to stop the
Grigory Efimovich Rasputindrinker, thief, womanizerarrived in St. Petersburg in 1903 as if from the medieval past . . . tattered, black-clad, muttering. By the time of his sensational murder thirteen years later, the peasant was the ”beloved Friend” of Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, with a seemingly supernatural power to stop the bleeding attacks of their hemophiliac son, Alexis. How could it have happened? As on society lady of the time asked, “How could so pitiful a wretch throw so vast a shadow?”Drawing on confidential police reports, cabinet meeting memos, and many documents only now available, Moynahan sheds new light on Rasputin's life and disputes some of the widely held details of his death. The Washington Post Book World called the book “balanced and well-researched” hailed its “shrewd analysis of the ways in which Rasputin's manipulative abilities meshed with the emotional needs of isolated, superstitious members of czarist aristocracy. It is an unforgettable portrait of an age as well as of a man.
Moynahan, former European editor of the Sunday Times of London (The Russian Century, 1994, etc.) uses mostly secondary sources to arrive at a more persuasive judgment, though the details are scarcely less bizarre. Rasputin was born in Siberia probably around 1870, and from an early age showed unusual powers. These came to the attention of the empress, whose son, the heir apparent, was a hemophiliac.The evidence seems inescapable that on a number of occasions Rasputin was able to relieve Alexis of his pain and help him to recover when his other doctors despaired. The deep bond this created with the empress was based on her perception of his goodness, but in the wake of Russia's terrible defeats during the WW I, it gave rise to the widespread belief that the empress and Rasputin were part of a German conspiracy, and that their relationship was scandalous. It was, but not in any sexual sense. The empress used her influence over her husband ("Your poor, weak-willed little hubby," as he called himself) to promote policies and ministers that appealed to Rasputin and herself. Traffic near the front was reduced to chaos after Rasputin had a vision that only food wagons were to be allowed to pass. Ministers remained in office so short a time that they hardly bothered to move in. In all this, Rasputin's motives were more self-protective than venal, but his carousing and licentiousness aroused increasing scandal, and led to his assassination by Prince Yusupov, the heir to the greatest fortune in Russia, early in 1917.
Moynahan calls Rasputin a "curiously modern" figure, and even if the emphasis falls on the curiousness rather than the modernity, he enables the reader to understand a society that by the end gave the impression, as the French ambassador reported, of being run by lunatics.
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Read an Excerpt
It snowed hard in Petrograd in the hours before the murder. The fall of 1916 matched the war, bleak and endless, gray skies robbing the city of its energy in the brief hours of daylight. Foul winds drove down the quays by the Neva River, pungent with chemical fumes from munitions factories. Families from territories lost to the Germans huddled in sheds near the railroad stations. Their lamentations hovered in the air; they died of typhus and simple exhaustion, "blown away like gossamer." Two in three streetlamps were unlit. The sidewalks were no longer swept. They filled with rubbish and slush and, from four each morning, with long lines of ill-clad men and garrulous women, waiting for bread.
The city's buildings, in faultless lines of pink granite and yellow- and green-washed stucco, had risen from bogs and marshes on piles driven by gangs of forced laborers two centuries before. When onshore winds raised the level of the Neva, alarm bells warned people to flee to higher stories before the floods poured into basement rooms. Now the city was drowning in its own ill humor.
"Rasputin, Rasputin, Rasputin"; one name pounded like surf on a crumbling shore, in the food lines, salons, rooming houses--universally. "It was like a refrain," a Petrograd lady wrote. "It became a dusk enveloping all our world, eclipsing the sun. How could so pitiful a wretch throw so vast a shadow? It was inexplicable, maddening, almost incredible."
Grigory Rasputin was a muzhik, a dark peasant from a distant Siberian bog, a creature who had shat in the open like an animal when he was a boy, who still sucked soup from the bowl and ate fish with his fingers, whose body gave off a powerful and acrid odor, who could scarcely scrawl his name, but (what a but!) who it was rumored had the ear--enjoyed the body--of the empress; who, with her, appointed the mightiest officials of state: who treated fawning "duchesses, countesses, famous actresses, and high-ranking persons" worse than servants and maids; who was plotting a separate peace with Germany; who could see the future. Inexplicable, indeed! Incredible, except that he was visible, a shaggy figure with a sable coat thrown over peasant boots and blouse, seen about town, catching cabs, dining at Donon's, reeling out of the Gypsy houses in Novaya Derevnya blind drunk in the early hours. His very eyes betrayed his identity to strangers. The ballerina Tamara Karsavina, the most beautiful dancer of her generation, who had not seen him before, recognized him instantly in the street through their "strange lightness, inconceivable in a peasant face, the eyes of a maniac."
The censors did their best to hide him. They daubed ink over newspaper columns with stories that referred to him; the black blotches were called caviar. Readers knew whom the caviar was protecting, and they invented stories of their own. A society hostess, irritated that her guests talked of nothing else, put up a printed sign in her dining room: "We do not discuss Rasputin here." But they did; nothing would stop them. The talk was at the top. "Dark Powers behind the Throne! German influence at Court! The power of Rasputin! Infamous stories about the empress!" the British ambassador's daughter, Meriel Buchanan, noted of drawing room conversation in her diary. It ran unbroken to the city's lower depths. "The filthy gossip about the tsar's family has now become the property of the street," wrote an agent of the Okhrana secret police.
Crude cartoons passed hands of Rasputin emerging from the naked empress's nipples to tower over Russia, his wild eyes staring from a black cloud of hair and beard. Gambling dens used playing cards in which his head replaced the tsar's on the king of spades. A caricature icon showed him with a vodka bottle in one hand and the naked tsar cradled like the Christ child in the other, while the flames of hell licked at his boots and nude women with angels' wings and black silk stockings flew about his head. A photograph of him with a collection of society women was reproduced by the thousand. Mikhail Rodzianko, a leading politician, said he was horrified to find that "I recognized many of these worshipers from high society"; he himself had "a huge mass of letters from mothers whose daughters had been disgraced by the impudent profligate."
The country could no longer tell the real from the false because, the red-haired poet Zinaida Gippius thought, it had become a large lunatic asylum. It looked normal enough, like an asylum on open house day, but in fact the inmates were all mad. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the capital. Its name had been changed from St. Petersburg to the non-Germanic Petrograd at the start of the war. Gippius rechristened it Chertograd, "Devil-town."
For the rich, the young poet Boris Pasternak wrote, city life was "gay with the brilliance of a florist's window in winter." The Americans had yet to join the First War. Though they were doing well enough against the Austrians, the Russians were bleeding against the Germans, more even than their French and British allies. People shut the fighting out of their minds, "dancing a 'last tango' on the rim of trenches filled with forgotten corpses." The heartrending sensuality of the tango, the novelist Alexis Tolstoy thought, had become a death march for a city "tormented by sleepless nights, stupefied and deadened by wine, wealth, and lovemaking without love." Morphine stolen from military hospitals was openly for sale in cabarets. Prohibition had been declared with the onset of war. Underpaid officials were easily bribed to ignore it, and even the pretense of pouring vodka from a teapot had disappeared. Officers overstaying their leave drank cocktails in the American bar of the Hotel de l'Europe with the teenage prostitutes who teemed in the lobbies.
Nightclubs were full of "heroes of the rear, legal deserters." No stigma attached to the "gray ticket men" who had bought exemption from the front, some of them through Rasputin, for a few hundred rubles. A British secret agent, Robert Bruce Lockhart, found his own conduct "puerile and reprehensible." He drank too much, with men for whom he felt contempt. He was ashamed and unhappy, adrift with a senseless ennui. "There is a sort of sickness in the soul," wrote the poet Alexander Blok. Above Russia's deathbed hovered "crows, a raucous, swirling scum."
The suicide rate tripled, when in other countries at war it was falling. Two out of three victims were under twenty-eight. Marriages collapsed as elderly men "discard[ed] their wives and flaunt[ed] their successors in the eyes of society." The grand mistress of the court, Madame Narishkina, calculated that half her circle were divorced. "Have you observed that no one understands the story of Anna Karenina nowadays?" she said of Tolstoy's great novel. "Today, Anna would immediately have divorced her husband and married Vronsky and there the story would have ended." Movies of robbery and murder were blamed for a crime wave. The bishop of Vyatka sought out Empress Alexandra to show her photographs of looted shops and bloated bodies. Men back from the front boasted openly that they had become atheists. The bishop blamed this on their contact with "intellectuals and Jews." Others thought that the church was daily losing its hold because of its servility to the despised autocracy that ruled Russia.
The poor of Petrograd were stacked like cordwood in rooming houses. In the Vyborgsky factory district, the living had less space than the dead in the municipal cemetery "Complete darkness," an observer wrote. "The ceiling is so low a tall man cannot stand upright. A specific smell. Legions of cockroaches and bugs. No double window frame and it is piercingly cold." Work accidents were commonplace. "I, for one, never enter the factory without first making the sign of the cross," said the manager of an explosives plant. Workers were prey to intestinal and lung disease, and to speculators. Flour had doubled in price since the start of the war, sugar had risen four times, aspirin fifty times. "It is said in all directions that merchants and shopkeepers are building up huge profits at the expense of the people," the secret police reported.
Spy fever was endemic. It was the easiest explanation for defeat. The head of the Okhrana was told by a government minister, in all earnest, that two aides-de-camp of the German kaiser had been seen strolling past the shops of the Nevsky Prospect without a care in the world, "dressed as civilians with their coat collars turned up." Not a day passed in the zone of armies, the French ambassador complained, "when a Jew isn't hanged on a trumped-up charge of spying." Jews were deported in scores of thousands from the areas behind the front, "wandering over the snows, driven like cattle by platoons of Cossacks, abandoned at the stations, camping in the open around the towns and dying of hunger, weariness, and cold." In the Baltic provinces German barons were accused of signaling to the German fleet from the towers of their castles. A baron was said to have treated the crew of a German aircraft to a feast before waving them off with one of his cows aboard as a present.
A "devastating chaos and elemental anarchy" was approaching, the Okhrana warned. In two years the government had had four prime ministers, four war ministers, and six ministers of the interior. Rasputin's hand was seen behind each appointment. His minion Boris Sturmer was prime minister in the fall of 1916. Sturmer, a "shallow and dishonest creature who emits an intolerable odor of falseness," excited disgust. He maddened the genial American ambassador, David Francis, by gazing at himself in a mirror during appointments with enraptured admiration, twirling the waxed ends of his mustaches. "Absolutely unprincipled, double faced," his fellow conservatives said, "a complete nullity, finished at fifty." Rasputin was held to have gifted the second most powerful position of state, that of interior minister, to Alexander Dmitrievich Protopopov. He strutted in high boots and an operatic uniform he had designed himself. "A small, gray-haired man, with restless nervous movements and bright wild eyes that shifted all the time," a contemporary wrote, adding that he was possibly syphilitic--he suffered from hallucinations, leg ulcers, and paresis, a partial form of paralysis characteristic of syphilitics--and "certainly not quite sane."
The autocrat of all the Russias, Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov, was 490 miles to the south in the provincial town of Mogilev. It was a pleasant place, with views across a wooded valley to the Dnieper River. Its Jews had been deported, however, and replaced by a transient population of staff officers, and the town had acquired a melancholy that suited the word from which its name was derived, mogila, "a grave." The Bristol, a four-ruble-a-night hotel on an avenue of leafless chestnuts, had been commandeered for the Stavka, the supreme army headquarters. The tsar took daily walks by the river with his English setters. In the evenings he watched movies. His favorite was a twenty-two-reel detective serial called The Secrets of New York.
He had appointed himself commander in chief the year before. Despite five million casualties, and the loss of Warsaw and his Polish territories, the tsar was confident that the army remained loyal. He followed its movements on maps hung in the hotel's cafe chantant. He was happy--"my brain is resting here," he wrote--for he was far from the intrigues of Petrograd. His army was, in reality, in such psychosis that fresh troops arriving in the line seemed demented. "It was not that they screamed or did anything violent," an officer remarked. "They simply marched into camp, shoulders hunched, heads down, and if they looked up as they passed, their faces wore a vacant expression that is the beginning of insanity."
In the fall offensive of 1916, at Kovel on the central front, a Guards army of the Semyonovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments attacked across open, marshy country seventeen times in three months. The Preobrazhenskys, the British military attache Gen. Alfred Knox wrote, were "physically the finest human animals in Europe." Since Peter the Great first dressed them in bottle green uniforms and insisted that each man stand over six feet tall, every tsar had been honorary colonel of the regiment. The commander of the assault, Gen. Alexander Bezobrazov, was thought by his peers to be "of limited intelligence and unbelievably stubborn." One of his corps commanders, the tsar's uncle Grand Duke Paul, was a fine dancer, a skilled philanderer, a dashing figure in close-fitting strawberry britches and short hussar riding boots; alone of four brothers, he would soon prove loyal to his nephew. Unfortunately, however, he "knew absolutely nothing about military affairs." The commander of the other corps suffered from a defect, too; whenever in danger he "lost all presence of mind and was unable to conduct operations because his nerves could not stand the sound of rifle fire."
The guardsmen were sent into a swamp. German aircraft strafed them as they struggled in the mud, then refueled and rearmed, and returned to feast on the bottle green mass. "The wounded sank slowly in the marsh, and it was impossible to send them help," Knox wrote. "The Russian Command for some unknown reason seems always to choose a bog to drown in." In less than a fortnight four out of five of the empire's finest troops were lost. Half-trained reinforcements were ordered to continue the assault. They advanced in long, thin lines, dressing to the left, officers at the head, sergeant majors behind to shoot deserters. They made no attempt to maneuver; their officers did not think them capable of it. So many corpses lay in no-man's-land that the Germans refused a truce to bury them. Despite a terrible stench of putrefaction, the heaps were a physical obstacle to fresh Russian assaults. By the time the offensive was called off in November, the Russians were bombarding their own jump-off trenches to force their men into the attack. The bodies were swallowed slowly in the quicksands. Months later an officer posted there, Prince Obolensky, found that "still above the sand one could see the tops of their bayonets."
As the casualty reports from the "Kovel pit" flooded back to the Stavka, Nicholas was obliged to dismiss Bezobrazov. He did so unwillingly 'What an honest and well-bred man he is!" he wrote to Empress Alexandra. "I have given him leave for two months.... I have promised that if some vacancies occur in the Guards Corps to appoint him there!"
The tsar's troops no longer thought of themselves as Russian soldiers; "they were just men who were going to die." They told each other that the government had been paid a billion rubles by Berlin to ensure that as few of them as possible survived the war. Their most special hatred was reserved for the German-born empress; they thought that she was in league with the enemy, that she talked to Germany on a radio concealed under the eaves of her palace, that she passed secrets to her sister, Princess Irene of Prussia, that to accept a decoration from her meant certain death. They were sure that she was sleeping with Grigory Rasputin. When Nicholas attended medal ceremonies to award the Cross of St. George, they laughed and called it the "Georgiy cross": "Tsar with Georgiy, tsarina with Grigory." They called her Nemka, "the German woman."
Through the fall Alexandra rarely left the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the "tsar's village" a half-hour train ride from the capital. Her nerves troubled her: she lay for much of the day on a chaise longue in her mauve boudoir, its carpets, curtains, and pillows of that color, its furniture mauve and white, a Scottish terrier at her feet. She despised Petrograd and its scandalmongers. To her Russia was the countryside, uncomplaining, loyal, eternal; stands of birch on the plain, a stream, a village, a windmill and white and gilt church, log huts along a road of mud or snow. Rasputin, the honest peasant in blouse and boots, simple and holy, her Friend, was its personification. Her mail from the villages, she told a rare visitor, reassured her that "the real Russia, poor, humble, peasant Russia, is with me. If I showed you the telegrams and letters I receive every day from all parts of the empire, you'd see it yourself."
The missives were suspiciously similar. "Oh our beloved sovereign, mother and guardian of our adored tsarevich," many began, "save us from our enemies, save Russia!" They were forged by the secret police on the orders of Protopopov, Rasputin's friend. Genuine letters intercepted by the Okhrana told a different tale. The muzhik was naturally meek and fatalistic, the court grand master had warned; he would accept an injustice but continue to ponder it. At some point he would demand an accounting; "and, when the muzhik ceases to be meek, he becomes terrifying." That point was being reached. "Perhaps the landowners are getting rich, various rogues are getting richer, but the people, the common people, are being beggared," a writer from Irkutsk complained. The peasants were growing "more furious every day." In the sweet-scented wilderness of rural Russia, Alexander Blok wrote, were "twisted, unhappy, and browbeaten people with ideas and beliefs from before the Flood."
The mood on the streets became "violent, unprecedented" in October. The Okhrana said that it was no longer possible to prosecute all who made "overt and brazen insults" against the tsar and his empress. The numbers were too great for the courts to cope. Sending a letter by diplomatic bag to avoid the censors, Robert Wilton, the London Times man in Petrograd, warned that the dynasty was in danger: "I hear that banners inscribed 'Down with the Romanovs' have been found in workmen's houses." Strikers murdered a foreman in a French-owned vehicle plant. Troops from the 181st Infantry Regiment who were called in opened fire on the police instead of the strikers. At the front shell-shocked men were shot for cowardice; in the capital the authorities were too frightened of their own garrison to impose the death sentence on mutineers. Every day the police arrested soldiers for picking pockets at streetcar stops. The military dared not punish them, the Okhrana chief complained, and the thieves were back on the streets within hours.
On October 26 a French spiritualist and magician called Papus died. Years before he had conducted seances with Nicholas and Alexandra at which he had conjured up the spirit of Alexander III, the tsar's dead father. Alexander had warned--so Papus claimed--that revolution would one day strike Russia with unparalleled violence. Papus said that he could avert the prophecy, but only as long as he lived. Now he was gone, and shortly before his death he had written about Rasputin. "Cabalistically speaking," he said, "Rasputin is a vessel like Pandora's box, which contains all the vices, crimes, and filth of the Russian people. Should the vessel be broken, we will see its dreadful contents spill themselves across Russia."
At the start of November, Vladimir Purishkevich, an arch reactionary, the self-styled "most extreme of the Rights," dined with Nicholas in Mogilev. He had gone there to warn the tsar that Rasputin was savaging the reputation of the monarchy. He hoped the tsar's aides would back him up but found their "self-love" was too great for them to risk their careers by speaking out. Disgusted, he returned to Petrograd to attack Rasputin openly in the state Duma, Russia's parliament. He compared him to False Dmitri, a horror figure in Russian history, a pretender to the throne, with facial warts and malformed arms. Purishkevich railed at the "filthy, depraved, corrupt peasant" to whose advice "Russia's empress listens above all others."
"It cannot be that Rasputin's recommendation is enough for the most infamous persons to be nominated to the highest posts," he went on. "Ministers! If you are true patriots, go over there, to the tsar's Stavka, fall at the tsar's feet and ask that Russia be redeemed from Rasputin and all his followers, great and small." A young aristocrat, Prince Felix Yusupov, a onetime transvestite married to the tsar's niece, listened to the speech. He was much impressed and arranged to meet Purishkevich.
With "disquieting news coming to us from all sides," the Okhrana chief worked on a plan to use police and Cossacks armed with machine guns to put down an uprising in the city. He suspected that Duma members and the army high command were plotting to overthrow the tsar and murder Rasputin. He intercepted mail sent by suspects and was alarmed to find that they were beginning to use special confidential messengers. Gray skies devoured the outlines of buildings, and bitter winds muttered in the streets.
Nicholas reviewed the Guards Brigade at the Stavka in early December. One officer had accidentally cut off the ear of his Irish hunter with his saber. He fastened it back on with a little screw, like an earring. It fell off in front of the tsar. It was thought a bad omen.
On December 8 the Union of Towns, an important municipal body, went into secret session. It passed a resolution: "The government, now become an instrument of the dark forces, is driving Russia to her ruin and is shattering the imperial throne. In this grave hour the country requires a government worthy of a great people. There is not a day to lose!" Secrets were no longer kept. The resolution was circulated in roneoscript in thousands of copies. "Dark forces" was simple code for Grigory Rasputin and those about him. A pamphlet, written in poetic, old-style Russian, made the rounds. It was addressed to "Father Grigory, new saint of the devil, reviler of Christ's teachings, ruiner of the Russian land, defiler of wives and maidens." Its refrain urged Rasputin to rejoice: "Rejoice at the tsar's dulled mind, rejoice at the tsarina's delectation ... at their daughters' seduction ... at Protopopov's promotion ... at voluptuousness, at the wagging spine and shaking hips ... at the propagation of dark forces ... at the German stronghold. Rejoice, foul receptacle of Satan!"
"Oh, how terrible an autocracy is without an autocrat!" a leading monarchist, Vasily Shulgin, loyal, patrician, wrote in his diary. "The tsar offends the nation by what he allows to go on in the palace ... while the country offends the tsar by its terrible suspicions." The empress was sleeping badly; she had a dream in which she lay on an operating table while a surgeon cut off her arm.
Frantic debauchery--he liked the word frantic enough to be using it as a nickname for a young woman he was trying to seduce--had turned Rasputin's sturdy frame "gaunt and cadaverous." The increasing malevolence of the anecdotes circulating about him kept his bodyguards on edge in December. He was said to be a German spy; he used a radio to talk to Berlin; he was fucking the tsar's beautiful daughters as well as the tsar's wife. His underpants flew over the royal palaces in place of the double-headed imperial eagle. At night he drove in a black car across the Palace Bridge and fired shots at random, killing and wounding for pleasure; he was the first drive-by killer.
He was at risk himself, and he knew it. "Do you know that I shall soon die in terrible pain?" he said, or so the French ambassador reported. "But what can I do? God has sent me to save our dear sovereign and Holy Russia. Despite my terrible sins I am a Christ in miniature." His name was becoming a byword for evil, Meriel Buchanan wrote, "though many people, held in a kind of superstitious dread, dared not pronounce it, believing that by doing so they brought down ill luck on their heads. 'The Unmentionable,' 'the Nameless One'--so they would whisper."
Then came the snow.
It fell all morning on Friday, December 16, in thick, spinning disks, throwing a blanket over the dirt and topping the yellow- and green-washed buildings with a brilliant white crust. Rasputin went to a bathhouse with a guard of Okhrana men. He drank heavily at lunch and went to sleep in his apartment. In the late afternoon the skies cleared and the temperature fell. The sun glowed and the empress noted the "wee pink clouds" that reflected it. The scummy floes drifting on the Neva became a solid, luminescent sheet beneath the untainted air. The curse of the ghastly autumn was broken, Meriel Buchanan wrote, "and the golden spires and snow-covered roofs shone beneath a cold, clear sky."
The night was windless; the stars were out and sound carried. Maria Rasputin heard a car driving down Gorokhovaya ulitsa. It braked outside Number 64, a five-story brick apartment house a block away from the Fontanka Canal, one of the three main canals that bisected the heart of the city, their frozen waters colored by the pastel stucco and classical lines of the buildings that fronted them. Maria lived in a comfortable third-floor apartment with her younger sister, Varya, and her father, Grigory. She was seventeen.
She pulled back the curtain and looked down through the double window. A lone figure got out of the backseat; his greatcoat collar was turned up, and the flaps of his fur cap were down, so she could not make out his face.
The man slammed the door of the black limousine. Footsteps ringing on the hard snow, he passed to the yard and the back of the house. It was 11:00 P.M. Visitors who came late to see Maria's father often used the back stairs; a couple of Okhrana agents were always stationed at the front. The rear doorbell of the apartment sounded. Maria climbed buck into bed beside her sister and fell asleep. She was used to her father's odd hours.
She woke when she heard Rasputin call to the maid for his boots. She slipped out of bed into the hallway. It was dark, and she almost bumped into her father.
"Oh, Maria!" he said. "Did we awaken you?"
"Yes, Papa, but no matter. Are you going out?"
"I must go, Marochka," he said, using the affectionate pet name.
"You should not. You know what Minister Protopopov said?" She referred to the interior minister. The Okhrana agents cooling their heels downstairs were Protopopov's; the minister had put them on particular alert, because his men had gotten wind from informers in a gambling house of a plot being mounted against his benefactor. Protopopov had called earlier--he visited Rasputin most evenings--and had made the Siberian promise not to go out.
"Yes, I know," Rasputin said. "But it's an important matter."
Maria was frightened for her father. She had seen him stabbed in the stomach by a woman two years before. She knew, from girls at school, from glances in the street and allusions in the newspapers, that others wished him ill. Her unease increased when she caught a glimpse of her father's visitor. He was in Rasputin's study, lounging against a desk strewn with papers and bowls of fruit and bottles given by admirers. He was a young man, tall and slender--"rather prettier than handsome," she thought--and he had unbuttoned his greatcoat to show his finely cut evening clothes. He still wore his fur cap, as though to prove that a prince had no need to uncover his head in front of a muzhik.
"I am very tired," Rasputin said to the young man. "Also, I have been quite ill. Must it be tonight? Can it not wait?"
"No, Otyets Grigory, it cannot wait."
Rasputin sighed. "Very well, moy malenki, give me a moment to change into a fresh blouse." Otyets is "father"; moy malenki is "my little one." The intimacy between the older man and his visitor was confirmed when Rasputin went into his room and Maria saw him root through his chest of drawers and pull out his favorite blouse. Its blue satin was embroidered with gold sunflowers; Empress Alexandra had stitched it for him herself.
When he had been a wanderer in the boggy vastness of western Siberia, Rasputin had told Maria, he had spent a whole year searching for God without once changing his clothes. He had given up women, and alcohol, too, at various times. Now he was back on them--Maria was used to the womanizing, but his heavy drinking worried her because it combined with the lingering effects of the knife attack to undermine his health--but he had become fastidious.
This was his third change of clothes on Friday. He put on his finest pair of breeches, the blue velvet ones. Maria and the maid Katya helped him on with them, Maria with her finger to her lips so that her sleeping sister would not be wakened. He tied a golden sash around his blouse. Maria watched him splash his favorite cologne on his ears and neck and comb it through his beard: the young man would later say that Rasputin smelled of cheap soap.
Katya brought his boots. She smiled when he struck a pose for her, and his tiredness lifted. He put on a beaver overcoat, a present from a wealthy Petrograd banker and speculator, Ignati Porfiryevich Manus, whose niece had been moribund with fever until Rasputin's healing intercession had revived her. He made to leave.
"Papa, Papa." Maria flew to him and clutched his arm, with a premonition of evil. Words would not come, but she thought he understood. He kissed her and wiped away her tears with his fingers.
"Do not fear, Marochka," he said. "Nothing can happen to me unless it is God's will." He helped her into bed and kissed the sleeping Varya on the cheek. He made the sign of the cross over his children, right to left, in the Russian style. Then he went.
Maria cleared the window of frost. Footsteps snapped in the snow. The young man gripped Rasputin by the arm and half-helped, half-pushed him into the limousine. The door slammed, and the wheels spun briefly on the ice as the car sped away. Maria fell into disturbed slumber, waking herself at some point to cry aloud, "Proshchaitye, Papa." Farewell, Papa.
Meet the Author
Brian Moynahan was a foreign correspondent and European editor with the London Sunday Times. He has traveled frequently to Russia and is the author of three previous books on Russian history: Claws of the Bear, Comrades, and The Russian Century.
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