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Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

by Douglas Smith

See All Formats & Editions

On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure

A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to


On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure

A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra's confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.

But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin's life and death has remained shrouded in myth. A major new work that combines probing scholarship and powerful storytelling, Rasputin separates fact from fiction to reveal the real life of one of history's most alluring figures. Drawing on a wealth of forgotten documents from archives in seven countries, Smith presents Rasputin in all his complexity--man of God, voice of peace, loyal subject, adulterer, drunkard. Rasputin is not just a definitive biography of an extraordinary and legendary man but a fascinating portrait of the twilight of imperial Russia as it lurched toward catastrophe.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Steven Lee Myers
From the opening pages of his colossal biography of Grigory Rasputin, the historian Douglas Smith dismantles many of the myths enshrouding the monk who exerted inordinate influence over Nicholas II and Alexandra, emperor and empress of Russia, during the twilight of the Romanov dynasty a century ago…It is to Mr. Smith's credit that even in debunking so many of the most colorful myths—and at Tolstoyan length—he has not written a dull book…In Mr. Smith's telling, Rasputin was neither a sinner nor a saint, and very much a product of his time.
Publishers Weekly
★ 09/26/2016
In this monumental and soul-shaking biography, historian and translator Smith (Former People) demystifies the figure of Grigory Rasputin a century after his gruesome murder in 1916 at age 47. He portrays the Siberian peasant and Romanov family confidante as earthy, complex, and innocent of the worst claims against him: that he was a German spy, royal seducer, and de facto head of state. Smith relies on diaries, letters, police files, and memoirs to dispel long-held rumors about Rasputin’s relationship with Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. With a Dostoyevskian flair for noir and obsession, Smith exposes the base motivations behind Rasputin’s enemies—including Duma members, church fathers, noble families, government ministers, and heads of secret police—while being frank about his subject’s love of Madeira and women. Smith expertly handles the intricacies of the salacious scandals that enveloped the empire in anti-Rasputin hysteria and that eerily presaged the fall of the Romanovs in 1917. Displaying commendable detective work and a firm understanding of the Russian silver age and the synod, Smith articulates even the most obscure cultural nuances with fluidity, sometimes slowing the pace but never losing his focus on his worthy and mesmerizing subject. Smith’s depravity-laden history of turn-of-the-20th-century Russia hinges on his insightful readings of myth and motive, and their tragic consequences. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

“[The] definitive biography of this most mysterious and controversial figure . . . Under Smith’s probing eye, archives yield up impressive detail and previously unknown accounts that place Rasputin’s life in a new, more realistic context.” —Greg King, The Washington Post

"[Douglas Smith's] scrupulous, insightful and thorough study will surely be the definitive account of one of the most controversial personalities of Russian (and European) history . . . Mr. Smith's research busts various Rasputin myths through a careful analysis of contemporary sources and a meticulous attention to the archives . . . All of this Mr. Smith presents lucidly, vividly and sympathetically . . . Rasputin is sharply drawn and unmistakable." —Edward Lucas, The Wall Street Journal

“Douglas Smith has delivered the definitive biography [of Rasputin] that is brilliantly gripping, as hypnotic, wild and erotic in its revelations as the Mad Monk himself, sensitive in its human portrait, astute in its political analysis, superbly researched with rich new material gathered in faraway archives, and populated with the zaniest cast of the deranged Romanovs, depraved bishops, whores, mountebanks, adventuresses, mystics and murderers.” —Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard (UK)

“From the opening pages of his colossal biography of Grigory Rasputin, the historian Douglas Smith dismantles many of the myths enshrouding the monk who exerted inordinate influence over Nicholas II and Alexandra, emperor and empress of Russia, during the twilight of the Romanov dynasty a century ago . . . In Mr. Smith’s telling, Rasputin was neither a sinner nor a saint, and very much a product of his time.” —Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times

“Magisterial . . . This balanced, impeccably researched book is a revelation, as richly detailed and engrossing as any novel.” —Boris Dralyuk, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Definitive.” —Anne Applebaum, Harper's Magazine

“Powerful . . . [Douglas Smith] scoured diaries, letters, police files and archives to create the definitive portrait of a man whose deeply held religious beliefs were often overshadowed by such debauchery and drunkenness that he’s fixed in the popular imagination as the ‘mad monk.’ It is a masterful display of storytelling.” —Patricia Treble, Maclean's (Canada)

“Substantial, meticulously researched, and fluently written.” —Rodric Braithwaite, The Observer (UK)

“Superb and authoritative.” —Donald Rayfield, Literary Review (UK)

“[Rasputin] is by far the most comprehensive account of Rasputin to date, brimming with complexities and fascinating detail, and stands as an enlightening re-evaluation of this crucial figure in Russian history.” —Helen Rappaport, The Telegraph (UK)

“How much does the mythology misrepresent [Rasputin]? Was everything he did bad for Russia? These are the two central questions Douglas Smith sets out to answer in this astounding biography. And he succeeds, eschewing the gossip and innuendo that have long surrounded his subject to produce a well-rounded portrait of a complex individual.” —J.P. O'Malley, The Mail on Sunday (UK)

“The definitive account of Grigory Rasputin's life and times . . . Smith not only reinterprets the work of his predecessors but also provides a wealth of new information about Rasputin . . . Far from uncovering banal reality behind Rasputin's supposed mystical talents, Smith instead explains how the man's forceful personality came to have such an impact on intelligent, learned people such as the Tsar and Tsarina . . . Smith's book reads like a revelatory work of revisionist history, unearthing a flesh-and-blood person from a century's worth of lies and exaggerations.” —Hank Stephenson, Shelf Awareness

“Gripping . . . a fascinating, often entertaining biography.” —Gerard DeGroot, The Times (Saturday Review) (UK)

“Utterly fascinating and forensically detailed … There are plenty of Rasputin biographies, but its superlative scholarship and attention to detail place this one in a class of its own.” —Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times (UK)

“[Smith] renders in great detail the ten years that Rasputin spent on the national stage, from 1906 until his murder in 1916. Sorting through the Rasputin mythology, Smith discards the apocryphal and weighs the plausible, balancing the extraordinary mix of mysticism and debauchery that made the peasant monk notorious. Digging through countless and often conflicting firsthand accounts and impressions, Smith gives Rasputin’s mystique a depth and a fine edge missing from prior histories.” —Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

“In this monumental and soul-shaking biography, historian and translator Douglas Smith demystifies the figure of Grigory Rasputin . . . With a Dostoyevskian flair for noir and obsession, Smith exposes the base motivations behind Rasputin’s enemies . . . [and] expertly handles the intricacies of the salacious scandals that enveloped the empire in anti-Rasputin hysteria and that eerily presaged the fall of the Romanovs in 1917 . . . Smith’s depravity-laden history of turn-of-the-20th-century Russia hinges on his insightful readings of myth and motive, and their tragic consequences.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[Smith] stuns with a scrupulously exhaustive biography of the monk's role in the Russian empire's fall and the rise of Bolshevism . . . His dedication to extricating Rasputin's experience from newly available Soviet Union primary sources and international archives surpasses all previous academic works in breadth and scope . . . Smith's study will surely be considered the seminal scholarly work on Rasputin, an essential read for students of Imperial Russia's downfall." —Jessica Bushore,Library Journal (starred review)

“[An] amazingly detailed, deeply researched biography. [Douglas Smith] carefully lifts the myths away from the real story, which nevertheless is presented here as a greatly compelling picture of a figure who at the zenith of his influence was known all over Russia.” —Booklist (starred review)

“This brilliantly written, meticulously researched account of the life of Rasputin is the best, most complete and accurate I have ever read. Step by step, day by day, week by week, Douglas Smith tells the story from its humble beginnings, through its obscene sexual chapters, to its violent end. He describes how a peasant became ‘our Friend’ to the last emperor and empress of Russia. He explains why this dependency came at a terrible cost for the imperial couple, for their children, for Russia, and for the twentieth-century world. Readers will begin by saying that this is an impossible story to believe. They will read on because, in Douglas Smith’s mesmerizing telling, it must be believed. And because it did happen.” —Robert K. Massie, author of Catherine the Great

“In his research, comprehensive to the nth degree, Douglas Smith has dug up previously unseen archives, followed previously unexplored leads, and connected the dots across the Russian landscape. They’re dots of blood. Rasputin reveals the true character of the man without minimizing his malign hold on the feckless Romanovs.” —Ken Kalfus, author of The Commissariat of Enlightenment

“It is hard to imagine a historical figure more barnacled with myth than Rasputin. Douglas Smith unravels Rasputin’s complex narrative in unprecedented detail, showing how he was a kind of chimera onto which could be hung all the ills of a disintegrating Russia. In the process, Smith vividly exposes the astonishing blindness of the ruling class that made its tragic end inevitable. A brilliant achievement.” —Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

“In his magisterial, exhaustively researched work on Rasputin, Douglas Smith paints a rich, detailed portrait of one of history’s most fascinating individuals while also chronicling the dramatic last days of the tsar. It’s a wondrous read.” —Neal Bascomb, author of The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb

“A big book about a big figure in the demise of tsarism. Douglas Smith supplies chapter and verse on the extraordinary life of Grigory Rasputin, the eminence grise behind the Romanov throne. Without denying the salacious and corrupt ways of the ‘holy man,’ the book brilliantly and thoughtfully defends Rasputin against the worst of the myths that swirled around him. A tour de force.” —Robert Service, author of The End of the Cold War: 1985–1991 and Lenin: A Biography

“The most complete and masterful study of Rasputin that I’ve read. Douglas Smith’s work is not only extraordinarily readable, but rich in detail.” —Robert Alexander, author of The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

“Some years ago, when working on a historical novel, I had to read all the existing Rasputin biographies—and they do abound, in all literary styles and in many languages. What a pity that Douglas Smith’s Rasputin had not yet been published; it would have saved me a lot of time. If you are interested in the story of the Romanovs’ pet prophet, this is the book to read.” —Boris Akunin, author of The Coronation

“A prodigious piece of scholarship. Douglas Smith’s exhaustive and forensic examination of a wealth of new and previously unseen evidence finally lays to rest the tired old myth of ‘the mad monk’ and rightly positions Rasputin as a crucial figure in late Imperial Russian history.” —Helen Rappaport, author of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra

Library Journal
This account of the intertwined fates of Rasputin, the Romanovs, and Russia as revealed by contemporary primary sources will be a true challenge for nonacademics, yet it will surely be judged the seminal scholarly work on Rasputin and an essential read for students of Imperial Russia's downfall. (LJ 10/1/16)
Kirkus Review
Sept. 8, 2016
On the centenary of his death, a vigorous attempt to penetrate the monstrous myths surrounding Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin (1869-1916).A historian and translator concentrating on Russian history, Smith (Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, 2012, etc.) grapples with the legend that grew around Rasputin during his life and after his death. In this massive, winding journey, the author essentially concedes that Rasputin’s mythmaking after his gruesome murder in December 1916 by political intimates has become more important that the actual events—and most are disputed. The public excoriation of this “simple” devout Christian peasant from Siberia, who nonetheless had the ear of the Romanov dynasty, became the key to undermining the indecisive, rudderless leadership of Czar Nicholas himself. Rasputin was illiterate until his adulthood, facing a life as a hardscrabble farmer, fond of the bottle, married at age 18 to Praskovya, a woman devoted to him and the mother of his children. He was like most Russian souls at the time, “keeping the eternal rhythm of peasant life in motion.” Yet he was restless and touched by a religious vision; he set off on pilgrimages in his late 20s to become a “holy seeker,” a spiritual awakening that the author describes as certainly sincere. Further along in this overly long narrative, Smith shows how Rasputin’s fame as a “starets” (a kind of captivating pious elder) spread and the circles of his acquaintances grew ever wider, encompassing the aristocracy and the court of Nicholas and Alexandra. The royal couple desperately needed him to direct the tumultuous country and heal their hemophiliac son. Smith demonstrates how gradually the mystic lost his way in the flashy capital of St. Petersburg and was corrupted by the rapture he inspired. At the same time, he preached the importance of disdaining wealth and status to his numerous devotees, especially wives and widows. A tour de force of research from the Russian archives, the book is a deeply detailed, occasionally plodding biography of one of history’s most malleable characters.

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Faith, Power, And The Twilight of the Romanovs

By Douglas Smith

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Douglas Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71123-8



Bordered on the north by the Arctic Ocean and on the south by the vast Central Asian steppe, Siberia stretches nearly three thousand miles from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The train from Moscow to the Urals travels roughly a day and a night and another five days from there to reach the Pacific. Were one to place the entire contiguous United States at the center of Siberia there would still be nearly 2 million square miles of extra space. It is a land of pine and birch forests, of lakes and marshes, drained by a series of powerful rivers flowing north to the Arctic. It is a land of extremes: temperatures can swing a staggering 188 degrees, from lows of –95 Fahrenheit (–71 Celsius) in the winter to 93 degrees (34 Celsius) in the summer. It is a severe, unforgiving place.

From earliest times, this vast, isolated land has conjured up fantastical images in the minds of outsiders. Parents were said to slaughter and eat their children. There were tales of Siberians dying when water trickling from their noses ran down their bodies and froze them to the ground. Some claimed the people of Siberia had no heads; their eyes were located on their chests, their mouths between their shoulders. Even as late as the eighteenth century, the manners and morals of Siberia were held in disregard by many. After his visit in 1761 to Tobolsk, Siberia's historic capital not far from the village of Rasputin's birth, the French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche wrote that, "Among the common people, men, women, and children lie together promiscuously, without any sense of shame. Hence their passions being excited by the objects they see, the two sexes give themselves up early to debauchery." Siberia has long been synonymous with suffering owing to the untold thousands of prisoners sent there by the tsars and later commissars, whether into exile — ssylka — or he much harsher regime of katorga — penal servitude. For centuries ommon criminals, revolutionaries, and other subversives arched along the so-called "road of chains" that led from Russia over the Urals.

But not everyone who left Russia for Siberia went unwillingly. For many, Siberia meant a chance at a better life. Russian expansion into Siberia, begun in the sixteenth century, was driven by economic reasons, and by the hunger for "soft gold," animal furs, and particularly sable, which seemed as inexhaustible as it was profitable. The fur trade made many men fabulously wealthy and was the economic engine that drove expansion. Siberia, paradoxical though it might seem, also meant freedom, for there was no serfdom east of the Urals and the hand of the state was light, if not to say just. As the burdens on Russia's serfs increased during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, escaping to Siberia attracted ever increasing numbers of peasants. Between 1678 and 1710, the number of peasant households in Siberia grew by almost 50 percent, at the same time it dropped by over 25 percent in Russia. On the far side of the Urals, there were no lords to whom one owed the fruits of his labors. With freedom also came a wild, lawless nature to life on the Russian frontier. For centuries Siberia was the Russian empire's Wild East. The tsars' military governors were venal, corrupt, and violent, as were many of the traders and trappers. Not only was fur traded, so, too, were women and liquor. Violence was a common fact of life.

The Russians who dared to escape to Siberia were among the country's most industrious subjects. Observing the local peasants, an English traveler crossing Siberia in 1861 on his way to China commented on an unmistakable "independence in their bearing." It was not like what he had seen in Russia, with its "poverty, negligence, and misery." He added that "The condition of their families evinces a certain amount of self-respect." Their villages had a "rude comfort," and one sensed these were people willing to take a risk in the hope of some better life. They possessed a certain pride and dignity and a sense of responsibility for their lives lacking among the Russian peasant serfs west of the Urals.

* * *

Izosim, son of Fyodor, was one of the Russian pioneers who ventured into Siberia in the seventeenth century. A poor, landless peasant from the village of Palevitsy on the River Vychegda, a tributary of the Northern Dvina River, roughly eight hundred miles northeast of Moscow, Izosim, together with his wife and three sons — Semyon, Nason, and Yevsey — crossed the Urals and settled in the frontier outpost of Pokrovskoe around 1643.

Pokrovskoe had been founded a year earlier by order of the local archbishop, and by the time Izosim arrived it was home to some twenty peasant families. Pokrovskoe lay along the west bank of the undulating Tura River on the post road connecting the towns of Tobolsk and Tyumen and was used as a halting place where the coachmen could rest and change horses. The town took its name from the church of the Virgin Mary — consecrated on the holy day of the Pokrov Presviatoi Bogoroditsy — the villagers built there. The local peasants lived by hunting fox, bear, wolf, and badger in the surrounding woods and fishing the Tura and the area's many lakes for sterlet, pike, and sturgeon. They also farmed, raised livestock, and tanned leather. The people in this part of Siberia lived relatively well, in comfortable wooden homes — many of two stories. By 1860, around the time Rasputin was born, Pokrovskoe had roughly a thousand inhabitants living in some two hundred houses. It boasted a few dairies and stables, bakeries, taverns, inns, and markets, timber mills, a smithy and a small schoolhouse.

The old village records do not list any surname for Izosim, but his son Nason had adopted "Rosputin" by 1650. The reason why he chose the name is not clear. Perhaps he had a second name or nickname of Rasputa (Rosputa) that gave way to Rasputin (as it came to be spelled in the nineteenth century), then a common surname in Siberia. Regardless, only some of Nason's descendants adopted and held the name Rasputin down through the generations. It was from this Nason Rosputin that Grigory would descend, eight generations later.

Rasputin's name has been the subject of endless discussion, most of it ill-informed and incorrect. Many have tried to link it to the Russian word rasputnik, a reprobate, or rasputnichat' — to behave with wanton debauchery — as if Rasputin's name either derived from his moral depravity or was later given to him due to his wicked fame. The spurious assertions dogged him during his lifetime. The Evening Times, for example, published a story in December 1911 stating he had been given the nickname of "Rasputin" due to his immorality as a youth and it was then made official when it was written down in his passport. And even now, some historians continue to assert that Rasputin's name was meant to reflect the age-old depravity of his family.

The origins of the name are obscure. If it indeed started with an ancestor who was a rasputnik, then Rasputin's family was far from unusual, given how many people in Siberia bore the name. But there are other more likely sources. Rasputa or rasput'e mean crossroads and long ago these places were seen as the haunt of evil spirits and, perhaps, the name was given to persons believed to be in contact with such forces. There is also the old Russian saying about the fool who was let go at the crossroads, meant to refer to an indecisive person. And then there is the untranslatable Russian word rasputitsa that refers to the wet, muddy, spring season when Russia's roads became unusable. It is possible a child born during this period might have been called Rasputa. Whatever its origins, Rasputin was the surname Grigory, and the rest of his family, was born with, and it was never given as a signifier of his character.

Yefim Rasputin, Grigory's father, was born in Pokrovskoe in 1842. Sources describe him as "a thick, typical Siberian peasant", "chunky, unkempt and stooped," while a political exile who met Yefim around 1910 called him "a healthy, hardworking and sprightly old man." He scraped by working at a number of things — fishing, farming, cutting hay. For a time he labored as a stevedore on the boats plying the Tura and Tobol rivers, and then he landed a job for the state conveying people and goods between Tobolsk and Tyumen. Money was usually tight; once Yefim was jailed for not paying his taxes. Sources as to his character are somewhat contradictory. He served as an elder in the village church, and one local spoke of Yefim's "learned conversations and wisdom," while others noted his fondness for "strong vodka." Regardless of his drinking, Yefim slowly managed to rise up in the village. He acquired a plot of land and a dozen or so cows and almost twenty horses, not great wealth, but prosperous by the standards of the Russian peasantry.

Church records state Yefim married Anna Parshukova, from the village of Usalka, on 21 January 1862. She was two years his senior. The coming years saw several births and just as many deaths. Between 1863 and 1867, Anna bore four children — three girls and one boy — none of whom lived more than a few months. The first child to survive was a boy born on 9 January 1869, almost seven years to the day after their wedding. He was christened Grigory on the tenth in honor of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century Christian mystic, whose feast was celebrated that day in the Russian Orthodox Church. At the church with Yefim and Anna and their baby boy were his godparents — Yefim's older brother Matvei and a woman by the name of Agafya Alemasova.

Two or three more children followed. In 1874, Anna gave birth to twins, both of whom died within days of their birth, and then there was possibly a ninth child, a girl named Feodosiya, born in 1875, who did survive to adulthood. While the extant records are not clear whether she and Grigory were siblings, or more distant relations, they were, however, close. He acted as a witness at her wedding in 1895 and then later became the godfather to Feodosiya's two children. The oft-repeated story that Rasputin had a brother, or cousin, named Dmitry who drowned, and in whose death Rasputin foresaw his own demise is pure fabrication.

Rasputin's entire youth, indeed the first thirty years or so of his life, is a black hole about which we know almost nothing, a fact that helped to make possible the invention of all sorts of tall tales. In 1910, at the height of one of the early scandals surrounding Rasputin, the newspaper Morning of Russia published a story claiming that researchers had uncovered shocking details about the life of Rasputin's parents. Yefim, so the article asserted, was a "very lecherous voluptuary" who insisted on having sex with his wife during her pregnancies. Once when Anna tried to resist, he screamed at her, "Push it out, hurry up and push it out!" And so the villagers came to call the little boy Pushed-Out Grishka. Another story was told that toward the end of her pregnancy with Grigory when Anna's belly became quite enlarged, Yefim insisted she allow him to have anal sex with her, something purportedly witnessed by a man working in the home who told the story around the village. Stories like these were fabricated to suggest sexual perversion was something that ran in the Rasputin family.

We do know Rasputin was never formally educated and remained illiterate into his early adulthood. This was not unusual. Most peasants who worked the land rarely attended school, and the literacy rate was about 4 percent in Siberia in 1900, and a mere 20 percent nationally. Nor had Rasputin's parents been schooled either. According to the 1897 census, no one in the Rasputin household was literate. Little Grigory, like other boys in Pokrovskoe, helped his father as soon as he was able. He learned to fish, to care for the livestock, to work the fields. On Sundays, he attended church with his family. This was the life of the average peasant, and it does not seem that there was anything in his youth, from what the original sources tell us, to suggest Rasputin was bound for any other life than that of his forefathers.

It is in large part because so little is known about this period that others have been free to create their own versions of life in the Rasputin home. Typical is this description from the Petrograd Leaflet from December 1916:

The holy man's village was poor and forsaken. Its inhabitants had a particularly bad reputation, even by Siberian standards. Do- nothings, crooks, horse-thieves. And the Rasputins were just like all the rest, and he would be the same once he grew up a bit.

In his youth Rasputin was uncommonly hapless. With a foul mouth, inarticulate speech, driveling, dirty as can be, a thief and blasphemer, he was the fright of his native village.

The Petrograd Leaflet called him a ne'er-do-well whose laziness provoked beatings at the hands of his father. The most serious charge, however, was that young Rasputin had been a thief and that the records of the local administration held the proof that he had been tried on charges of horse thieving and bearing false witness.

Pavel Raspopov of Pokrovskoe told the Commission in 1917 something similar about Rasputin's person and habits. They had fished together in their youth, he said, and none of the other young men wanted to even be close to Rasputin. Snot was forever running down his nose at meal time, and when he smoked his pipe, saliva dribbled from his mouth. Rasputin was eventually kicked out of the artel, so Raspopov stated, after he was caught stealing the group's vodka. There are also reports of Rasputin's stealing hay and firewood, although most widespread was the claim of his stealing horses, a particularly grave offense in prerevolutionary Russia. Like so much about Rasputin, the story grew with each retelling. If at first mention was made of Rasputin's stealing horses on one or two occasions, it later was said he came from a long line of horse rustlers. The Swedish composer Wilhelm Harteveld, who met Rasputin more than once, said after Rasputin's death that he had been born into a family of horse thieves. Yefim supposedly taught him the family business, as it were, and took great pride in his son when he became known by the age of sixteen as one of the best rustlers in the area. Prince Felix Yusupov made a similar comment in his influential memoirs. Had any of these stories been true, they would have left some trace in the archives in Tobolsk or Tyumen, but despite historians' best efforts not a single reference to Rasputin having been brought up on any charges has ever been found.

But there is evidence that proves Rasputin was an unruly youth. Details gathered from Pokrovskoe locals for a Tyumen gendarmes' report in 1909 confirm that Rasputin had "various vices," namely that he "liked to get drunk" and committed a number of "small thefts" before disappearing and returning a changed man. The date of the document is important, for it comes well before Rasputin's notoriety took off and so is more likely to reflect the truth — or some aspect of it — and not villagers simply giving the gendarmes what they assumed the officials hoped to hear.

And then there is a series of documents that have languished unnoticed in the archives in Tobolsk until now. According to an official investigation, in late June 1914 a journalist and his secretary arrived from the capital at the district administration (volostnoe pravlenie) in Pokrovskoe claiming to be agents of the St. Petersburg governor-general sent to collect official proof of Rasputin's youthful horse thieving. The clerk, a man named Nalobin, too frightened to ask for proof of their identity, checked the village's "Book of Previous Convictions" and told them that Rasputin had never been caught or punished for any such crime. He did mention, however, that he had documents showing that in 1884 the district head (volostnoy starshina) had sentenced fifteen-year-old Rasputin to two days in jail for his "rude attitude" to him. This, he told them, was the only mention of Rasputin's criminal past. Nalobin asked the men to sign the log for receipt of the information, but they refused and hurried off. When Rasputin learned of what Nalobin had done he was furious and insisted the governor of Tobolsk look into the matter. The investigation revealed that Nalobin had indeed shown the two men the village book with the incriminating details. For his failure to demand valid proof of the men's identities, Nalobin was fined five rubles.

It is a remarkable discovery, for it puts to rest the stories of Rasputin's horse thieving once and for all, as well as reports of other crimes. If there were "small thefts," as the villagers and Raspopov claimed, then they truly were "small," so small as not to warrant the attention of the village authorities. It is also remarkable for it offers the most irrefutable proof ever of the rebellious, and perhaps even wild, nature of Rasputin's youth, something that has long been surmised, and even vaguely hinted at by Rasputin himself, but never reliably documented. Of course, such youthful indiscretions are quite common, even among Christian holy men such as St. Augustine. Yet whereas Augustine stole and fornicated as a youth, he changed his ways for good after his conversion to Christianity. The same could not be said of Rasputin, who would struggle with his vices for the rest of his life, frequently failing and giving way to sin, something he himself, it ought to be noted, never denied.


Excerpted from Rasputin by Douglas Smith. Copyright © 2016 Douglas Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of Former People, Rasputin, and other books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U. S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.

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