An exploration of infamous, controversial figures and how they exert control. Amos Barshad has long been fascinated by the powerful. But not by elected officials or natural leaders—he’s interested in their scheming advisors, the dark figures who wield power in the shadows. And, as Barshad shows in No One Man Should Have All That Power, the natural habitat of these manipulators is not only political backrooms. It’s anywhere power dynamics exist—from Hollywood to drug cartels, from recording studios to the NFL. In this wildly entertaining, wide-ranging, and insightful exploration of the phenomenon, Barshad takes readers into the lives of more than a dozen of these notorious figures, starting with Grigori Rasputin. An almost mythical Russian mystic, Rasputin drank, danced, and healed his way into a position of power behind the last of the tsars. But not every one of these figures rose to power through lechery or magical cures. Barshad explores how they got there, how they wielded control, what led to their downfall or staved it off, and what lessons we can take from them, including how to spot Rasputins in the wild. Based on interviews with well-known personalities like Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber’s manager), Alex Guerrero (Tom Brady’s trainer), and Sam Nunberg (Trump’s former aide) and original reporting on figures like Nicaragua’s powerful first lady Rosario Murillo and the Tijuana cartel boss known as “Narcomami,” No One Man Should Have All That Poweris an eye-opening book from an exciting new voice.
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About the Author
AMOS BARSHAD was raised in Israel, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts. He’s a former staff writer at The FADER and Grantland and has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Arkansas Times. This is his first book.
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The Real Rasputin
AND HOW DID THE ORIGINAL RASPUTIN come to be? The details of young Rasputin's nineteenth-century life in the tiny Siberian village of Pokrovskoye aren't particularly interesting. There was, it's fair to say, a lot of farming. Later on, his enemies would self-servingly recast him as a reckless youth, one displaying all the signs of his future degeneracy. In this way, fortunately for us, they injected his tale with much more juice. He was said not only to be a horse thief — in Siberia, the lowest of the low — but the son of a horse thief, too. Allegedly, the townspeople would often catch Grigori red-handed, and punish him with vigor.
"Another man would not have survived such thrashings," Prince Yusupof, his murderer, would write, "but it was as if a blacksmith's hammer were beating on an anvil. Rasputin bore everything, and only grew stronger from such treatment." A priest and Rasputin critic named Father Alexander Yurevsky was even more specific: He described an incident in which Rasputin was repeatedly picked up and slammed on the ground, at one point "nearly crush[ing] his genitals." Like the bite of a radioactive spider, the drop gave him great powers and great responsibility.
"He could now keep an erection for as long as he liked," Father Yurevsky frankly explained. "Once he realized this, Rasputin used it as his ticket to win over the bored, sexually starved society ladies. Rasputin told them that none of this gave him pleasure, for what he was really doing was driving the Devil from them." According to Yurevsky, as Rasputin thrust, he would exclaim, "You demon of the flesh, be gone!"
He married at eighteen and had three children. Then, in his late twenties, he had his religious awakening. In one version of the story, the Orthodox Saint Simeon of Verkhoturye came to him in a dream. In another, a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a field, pointing to the horizon. Biographer Douglas Smith wrote, "perhaps it was a form of mid-life crisis": Rasputin knew that if he stayed put, all that lay ahead was hard farm work. The awakening would change his life and the fate of Russia. He began wandering the countryside in the then-common manner of the stranniki — "holy pilgrims."
Russia at the time was rich with religious sects, many of them peculiar and secretive offshoots of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Well known were the troubling skoptzy, who practiced devoutness through self-castration. Most feared were the khlysty; they held mass rituals of ecstatic whirling that led to hallucinations and physical fits. They whirled around a vat of water, thereby granting it alleged intoxicative powers; they called it "spiritual beer." Rumors that Rasputin himself was a khlyst circulated for years.
In this atmosphere, Rasputin set off on penniless trips throughout the Russian Empire, learning and praying. He would come and go from his family and into strange worlds. Stories of his personal magnetism spread, and by 1905 he came to the attention of Militsa and Anastasia, a pair of strategically minded nobles known collectively as the Black Princesses. They, in turn, introduced him to very top of the royal family — Nicholas and Alexandra. Ironically, the Black Princesses did so hoping to use Rasputin as their own imperial-family inside man. They wanted to Rasputin Rasputin. But it was not to be.
The royal couple was predisposed to fall for him. St. Petersburg in the early 1900s was awash with belief in men and women with extraordinary abilities. "'Boulevard' mysticism" like "tarot, phrenology, mesmerism, astrology" were constantly discussed and practiced, the historian Maria Carlson has written. A given night out might include "public and private séances," "demonstrations of hypnotism," or "fortune-telling and dream interpretation." The occult was everywhere.
As a spiritualist court favorite, Rasputin had immediate predecessors. Before him came Vasia the Strannik and Matyrona the Barefooted and Mitya "The Nasal Voice" Kozelsky. The latter man, no one could actually understand. His incomprehensible speech would be "translated" by his personal vassal, Elpidifor, and then largely received as prophecy.
None of them lasted. But none of them could heal Alexei.
FOLLOWING THE DEATH of his father, Alexander III, in 1894, Tsar Nicholas ascended to the throne. He was the scion of the Romanov family dynasty, which had lasted three centuries. He was a few months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday.
Alexandra's first four children had all been girls. The Romanov dynasty needed a male heir. Alexei's birth had thus been joyously heralded. In turn, the discovery of his hemophilia early in life was a tragedy — even the most minor incidents could lead to fatal bleeding.
Naturally, unjustly, Alexandra bore the brunt of blame. It was her responsibility to produce a son. And the tsarina understood that Alexei's disease imperiled the dynasty. But more than anything, she loved her boy. Even without the imperial implications, it's not difficult to imagine a mother doing anything to make her sick child feel better.
Enter the fugitive farmer from Pokrovskoye.
Official Russia could not accept that a peasant — motivations, unknown — could get so close to the seat of power. But they understood how it came to be. "The empress is ill, seriously ill," a high-ranking Rasputin opponent once said. "She believes that Rasputin is the only person in the whole world who can help the heir and it is beyond human capacity to dissuade her about it."
A pattern would repeat itself over and over: An incident would trigger Alexei's hemophilic bleeding; Alexei would be bedridden, with the Tsarina hovering over him in despair; Rasputin would come and offer blessings — and they would work.
According to one of his more fanciful biographers, Rasputin was out partying with Romani the first time he was fetched. "A messenger told him to take his horse and go to a 'certain residence'" — it was the Royal Family's home. Eventually he relented, but not before "Rasputin drunkenly refused and shouted 'More dancing!'"
In her own memoirs, Rasputin's daughter Maria would recall tagging along during these healing visits. "Open your eyes, my son," she quoted her father saying to Alexei. "Open your eyes and look at me — your pain is going away. You will soon be well. You must thank God for healing you."
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the Tsar's sister, recounted her observations of the aftermath of one incident. "The little boy was not just alive — but well," she wrote. "He was sitting up in bed, the fever gone, the eyes clear and bright, not a sign of any swelling in his leg. The horror of the evening before became an incredibly distant nightmare. Later I learned ... that Rasputin had not even touched the child but merely stood at the foot of the bed and prayed."
The pattern had its greatest realization in an incident in the wooded Polish town of Spala. While riding in a carriage over a rough path, eight-year-old Alexei started expressing his symptoms again. Back at the Romanovs' villa, he was diagnosed with a rapidly forming hematoma. Day after day Alexei would lie there screaming in pain; he was so badly off that last rites were read. He is said to have turned to Alexandra in his sickbed and asked, "When I am dying it will not hurt anymore, will it, Mama?"
Rasputin was back home in Pokrovskoye with his family, Maria Rasputin recalled, when a message about Alexei's dire condition arrived from the tsarina. It was dinnertime. As Rasputin prayed, the family was "frozen like statues." Finally, "his face streaked with perspiration," Rasputin looked up, made the sign of the cross, and walked down to the village to send a telegram back: "Have no fear. God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve; your son will live."
For one day, Alexei's condition stayed exactly the same. Then, suddenly, he snapped back to life. A perfect, full recovery. It was remembered as "the Miracle at Spala."
But Alexei's health was only part of the story. Faith healing aside, there was an undeniable magnetism to Rasputin. In St. Petersburg, his uncouth ways would prove to have an effect far outside the royal family.
Tales of his abilities varied wildly. He cured a sick dog; he turned a clump of dirt into a rose; he granted a paralyzed woman the ability to walk by telling her to get up and do so. He developed something like a harem of true believers. They would collect and cherish sunf lower husks he'd cracked or hair from his beard or trimmings from his fingernails. Locally, they spread the gospel of Rasputin — his very own evangelists.
What was it that they found so attractive? Most agreed the key to his appeal for St. Petersburg high society was his simplicity. From his table manners to his nearly illegible scribblings, he was through and through a true Russian peasant. When he preached the lessons of the Bible, he did so in his blunt, rough ways. And his speaking was all the more potent for it.
Then there were his eyes.
In his memoirs, Prince Yusupof would tell a highfalutin tale about being voluntarily hypnotized by Rasputin. It happened one afternoon during the sham friendship that preceded the assassination. "My body seemed paralyzed. I tried to speak, but my tongue would not obey me, and I seemed to be falling asleep, as if under the influence of a strong narcotic. Yet Rasputin's eyes shone before me with a kind of phosphorescent light. From them came two rays which flowed into each other and merged into one glowing circle."
Eventually, the prince explains, he summoned the great internal power necessary to break free of the evil man's hypnosis.
Did Rasputin really shoot laser beams from his pupils? Probably not! But Yusupof was just one of many to obsess over Rasputin's eyes. They were "irresistible," according to a first-hand account. They "radiated a suggestion of some profound mystery," according to another. From a third witness: "I can't, I can't handle those eyes. They see everything." People said he could freely expand and contract his pupils; people said he could look right into your mind.
Yusupof would describe the eyes as "amazingly repulsive." They gave off "a feeling that a needle was piercing you through"; they "convey[ed] a feeling of some hidden, supernatural force."
It was a common theme, even for his detractors, to ascribe to Rasputin a singular presence. "He seldom washed and he smelt vilely; at the table he plunged his greedy hands into his favorite fish soup," wrote one critic. "His lechery had a barbaric quality that made him more like a beast than a human being."
It's meant to be dismissive, but it's illuminating. Because that particular underlying current would repeat itself over and over. He had an animal-like force. He had pure energy.
Writing in 1964, the British author Colin Wilson imagined a day where we'd understand Rasputin's magic as true. "His real significance may not be recognized for at least another century," Wilson wrote, "by which time, one hopes, telepathy, second sight, and pre-vision will be accepted as simply another form of psychology." (This is neither here nor there, but in an another aside from this passage Wilson mentions having done, over the course of his life, a massive amount of mescaline.) Wilson also offered a more prosaic approximation of Grigori's control, and a very compelling one. Of those who fell under the sway of Rasputin, he said, "They believed again in man's power to control his own destiny. It was impossible to be a fatalist in the presence of this power."
Everybody wants to believe.
THE RUMOR ABOUNDED far and wide that Rasputin was sleeping with the tsarina. One colorful poem charted the rise of Rasputin's dick through society. First the dick was pleasuring peasant women, then the "ladies in waiting," and finally "the Tsarina most of all" — "thus the Holy Man's cock gained so much power it might well have been made Field Marshall." The rumor even went international. During World War I, the Germans air-dropped copies of a cartoon over the front lines. It featured Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany measuring a long artillery shell next to Tsar Nicholas doing the same with Rasputin's large, erect penis.
In reality the relationship between Rasputin and the tsarina seems to have been of an altogether different sort. In his letters, Rasputin would refer to the tsar and the tsarina as Mama and Papa.
Alexandra was born into the royal family of the then-extant German Empire. She became the tsarina through marriage, and while her love for Nicholas was very real, she'd never adapted to her position in Russia. Rasputin, then, was uniquely positioned to offer her solace. "The pathologically shy woman felt herself to be a stranger in a hostile country," Wilson wrote. "Then Rasputin appeared, a personification of the Russian peasantry, and assured her that she was loved by all simple Russians."
Nicholas, for his part, was known as a weak-willed ruler. He loved his family. He believed wholeheartedly in the legitimacy of Russian imperial autocracy. But he had no known convictions. Some called him "a man without insides."
Yusupof quoted Rasputin describing a total control over the royal couple. "I don't beat about the bush with them," he claimed Rasputin said. "If they don't do what I tell them I just bang on the table with my fist and get up and go, and then they chase after me and start begging 'don't go away Grigori Efimovich, we'll obey you in everything if you will only stay with us.'"
That's a weirdly comic rendering, in line with Yusupof's self-interested exaggerations. But by the time World War I broke out, Rasputin was offering unsolicited opinions on troop movements and strategy. He suggested that low-level criminal offenders be conscripted and sent to the front lines, a policy that was duly carried out. He was also made privy to the tsar's classified locations so that he could offer special blessings for his safety.
In their private conversations, Rasputin often tried to buck up the tsar — to remind him to wield his great power. Rasputin believed that the tsar's sovereignty was divine fiat. He wanted Nicholas to remember it, too.
Among his interventions was weighing in on the hirings and firings of various influential governmental officials. Sometimes these were protective measures; Rasputin knew he had enemies everywhere. Other interventions were attempts to help those he considered legitimately downtrodden. He opposed hikes in train fares and pleaded with the tsar to handle food shortages: "Little Father, we must transport more corn and less soldiers and guns." Over and over, he advocated on behalf of minority groups, from the Tatars to the Jews to a renegade band of monks known as the Name-Glorifiers. If there was a through line to Rasputin's ideology — if he had an easily definable agenda — it was this: a defense of the poor and oppressed.
Rasputin's status got him paid, but in a roundabout way. Followers would bring him gifts of velvet pants and embroidered shirts; influential friends would lend him money. At his Gorokhovaya Street apartment in St. Petersburg there was a constant stream of the "politically ambitious," Maria wrote: "Mothers with sons seeking positions in the civil service, businessmen looking for government contracts, people seeking introductions to cabinet ministers, they all f locked to see my father."
With some of the stuffier officials, he'd offer preposterously strong country vodka. Then he'd watch them gag it down. He called it Rasputin's Revenge. For the most part he loved the nonstop circus. Accruing personal wealth was not his motivation, though. Whether with his home or his money or his booze, he was a gushingly generous fellow. And what he really, truly loved was to party.
His vice of choice was Madeira, the fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name. He was a happy drunk, pushed by wine into passionate soliloquies about his God or into wild fits of dance to Romani music. As his daughter Maria wrote of the Romani, using the ten-popular term for these peoples, "These were people after his own heart. There was always a fiddler to play the wild, sometimes sad, sometimes gay music, and this, in itself, was intoxicating. And like himself the gypsies never tired of dancing and could go on until the small hours of the morning." Prince Yusupof's memoir is full of rebuffed entreaties from Rasputin that he and his future murderer go party with the Romani at Norovya Derevnya, their regular settlement in St. Petersburg.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No One Man Should Have All that Power"
Copyright © 2019 Amos Barshad.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Real Rasputin 1
Chapter 2 The Pop Rasputins 15
Chapter 3 The Anti-Rasputin 26
Chapter 4 The Literary Rasputin 39
Chapter 5 The Cinematic Rasputin 55
Chapter 6 The Pro Ball Rasputin 72
Chapter 7 The Cartel Rasputin 89
Chapter 8 The Radical Rasputins 100
Chapter 9 The Shakespearean Rasputin 115
Chapter 10 The Korean Rasputin 126
Chapter 11 All the President's Rasputins 137
Chapter 12 The Ivy League Rasputin 149
Chapter 13 The Alt-Right Rasputin 160
Chapter 14 Obama's Rasputins 173
Chapter 15 The Russian Rasputin 181
Chapter 16 The Real Rasputin Redux 196
Notes on Sources 216
Additional Sources 218