"The Ceremony of innocence Is Drowned": The Story of Rasputin
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"The Ceremony of innocence Is Drowned": The Story of Rasputin

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | July 11, 2013 | Comments ()


Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

We’ve all heard of him, even if just in half stories and labels. Those insane Charles Manson eyes burning holes through photographs from a century ago. Black robes and a mane of tangled hair and beard. And of course the stories of his death, the legends that are impossible but ring with just enough truth to suggest that we once caught a glimpse of the devil walking this earth.

Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk with the ear of the tsar’s wife, dancing on the graves while the world burned down around him.

The truth, as is usually the case, is far richer and deeper, a gorgeous and dark story that says as much in the things we choose to forget as it does in the embellishments and exaggerations that pile on over the years.

Rasputin was born on the endless Russian plains on the edge of Siberian wastelands a decade after the serfs were finally freed. Little is known about his childhood, though the rumors persist that people believed he had magic powers even as a child. As a teenager, he lived in a monastery for some months, made connection with an old hermit, and even had a proper vision of the Virgin Mary. But he did not become the mad priest just yet.

He tried for a normal life, marrying, fathering three children. But then Rasputin was called out into the wild. He abandoned his wife when his oldest child was thirteen. America might have been the land of the wandering preacher, but Russia was the land of the wandering monk, seeking out the desolate outposts and forgotten villages a thousand miles from nowhere. Equal parts lunatics, faith healers, preachers, and teachers, these stranniki were an old tradition, embedded in the bones of this cold land. Legend was that such men were immune to all the laws of men, that even the tsar would not harm these gods-touched wanderers, no matters what lies or truths they spoke to his face. Rasputin was the latest of these men, the last really. And after only a scant few years of his legend building, he was called upon by the wife of the tsar, a desperate last attempt to save her dying boy.

And the mad monk descended upon the capital, sent away the boy’s doctors and stopped all his medicines. Against every rational expectation, the boy’s disease receded, saved from ministrations of the new wonder drug aspirin, which for all its benefits would murder a hemophiliac with its anti-coagulant sure as a knife.

The legend built from there. He advised the tsar and his wife on affairs of state, and opened up the world of the Russian nobility to the religious revelations he had found in the wilderness. Grace through sin was his precept, the principle that one could only master the sinful impulses of the body by indulging in them. That to deny the impulses was to give them power over you. And so the orgy became Mass, the gluttonous feast the body and blood.

Is it any wonder that in Europe’s poorest relation, in the waning days of the last empires, half the nobility would find such a man irresistible, while the rest raged at their ravished daughters and saw in him the coming of the anti-Christ?

So they poisoned him, shot him, beat him, stabbed him, drowned him under the river ice for three days. And months later they dug up his corpse to burn it, just to be sure, and it sat up in the middle of the pyre and tried to walk again.

But of all the legends, we have at least learned this, ransacking old forgotten bits of evidence with new forensics. His body sat up in his pyre because in old desiccated corpses, intense heat will cause the tendons to contract. Rasputin died with no poison in his system, and although shot four times, a single bullet through his forehead was instantly fatal. That bullet was a different caliber than the other three, a .455 British Webley to be exact. And the story snaps into focus of a man betrayed by friends, who let foreign agents do the dirty work for them. Foreign agents who both despised the man for his influence on the granddaughter of their dead queen and for the terrifying force from beneath that he represented.

It reminds me of the old thing Kennan said about World War I, that one of the great ironies of history was that the British spent so much effort convincing themselves and the Americans that the Kaiser was the anti-Christ, the destroyer of civilizations, that once such a man did arrive a generation later, no one believed. And here they killed this upstart Russian peasant, whose mad gaze and raw charisma threatened to rip down the old world of privilege, only a year before the red tide rose to drown a continent.

But there’s another side to this too, the one that is less covered because it’s so easy to be forgotten through the lens of time. Place yourself in a country only a generation removed from the population being chained to the land. Serf sounds so much nicer than slave, but the difference is more a legal nicety than a reality. A nation of illiterate slaves, mounted by a few thousands born into every luxury in the world. Those living between those extremes, between the mountain and the dark chasm, that fabled middle class that Americans love so, it was miniscule, a remainder of a remainder.

And a smart boy comes along, too dark for his own good, too introspective and deep thinking to be a farmer or a soldier. The priesthood is all that remains to him, in that shadowed northern land where priests are still mystics of ancient and arcane orders.

Rasputin was hardly a saint, but neither was he the devil incarnate. And the legends to that effect are fascinating in their own right. This man, born from the lowest stock on Earth, rose to have the ear of the crown. Yet, he avoids sugar because of a weak stomach. He’s a vegetarian because he has seen too much suffering already. He’s a pacifist who tries again and again to dissuade the Russians from the annihilation that the Germans unleash upon them.

That such a man is struck down is perhaps not a surprise in our cynical world. That his enemies felt the need to create in him a demon though is most informative. The totems we worship tell us little about who we are, but our demons, they sing.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • VohaulsRevenge

    Though I don't consider Rasputin guiltless, I think two factors contributed to his downfall, one directly, another indirectly:

    Directly: Alexandra's unswerving devotion to him, which gave him at a seat at the helm in St. Petersburg by proxy. This would have been bad for any queen, but more so for Alexandra, who was already unloved by the commoners and the Russian aristocracy.

    Indirectly: Of course, everything that happened might have gone differently if Nicholas had never left St. Petersburg to station himself near the Eastern Front, against the vehement advice of his own counselors. His motive was admirable, but it left a power vacuum in the capital Alexandra and Rasputin were ready to fill, and additionally tied any failures at the front more directly to Nicholas himself just by being there, instead of to his commanders.

  • Delin Colón

    Actually, Nicholas' motives for taking command at the front were not as admirable as one might think. He got wind of a rumor that Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevitch (the Tsar's uncle and Supreme Commander of Russian Armies) was plotting to overthrow him. Apparently there had been open discussions in "the Old Court" of his mother and other relatives on the subject. He felt that taking command and sending his uncle away to the Caucasus would prevent a coup.

    In addition, the Grand Duke was rabidly anti-Semitic and was known for not only blaming Jews for his defeats (it was common belief that all Jews were spying for the Germans) but for torturing and slaughtering entire villages of Jews during his retreats. It wasn't as if Russia was doing well against the Germans at the time.

    It should be noted as well that the candidates for office whom Rasputin wanted appointed were people whom he felt would end war and accord the Jews equal rights. Both of these efforts were viewed as treasonous by the nobility, with WW I in progress and anti-Semitism as government policy. He also wanted the people to have a say in government, which was threatening to the nobility for the obvious reason that their power would be vastly reduced.

  • Delin Colón

    Having published two books about Rasputin, although much of your information is correct, there are a number of known facts about him:

    He never abandoned his family, and his spiritual wanderings (he was never a monk or priest) occurred primarily in the years of his children's births (Dmitri being the oldest). The family was not poor. The had a farm and quite a large home. When Rasputin started spending months at a time in Petersburg, his two daughters came with him so he could send them to the best schools (hardly abandonment).

    He was not a member of the Khlysty sect which had the 'sinning for salvation' credo and held secret meetings - and didn't believe in marriage. He was accused of being a member by jealous priests who were upset that Rasputin's public sermons (not in secret) garnered more followers than their own. He was found, by the government and clergy, to follow Russian Orthodoxy and was declared innocent of the charge.

    However, the most important point is why Rasputin was so hated by the aristocracy. It was not because he was evil or promiscuous. In fact, the aristocracy fabricated this evil image because they considered him a traitor: for being anti-war (during WW I); for his progressive and egalitarian ideas for economic and social reform (which would have lessened the disparity between social classes - a threat to the nobility); and for advocating equal rights for the severely oppressed Jewish population who were deprived of any rights (often including the right to live).

    Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement, generally not permitted to travel, denied education and many occupations - by law. Anti-Semitism was government policy and many Russian soldiers were told that they could do as they liked with Jews, as long as they didn't leave them alive (as per a letter from a soldier to his father).

    The aristocracy's charges against Rasputin of drunkenness and promiscuity were more than a tad hypocritical considering that they themselves consumed large quantities of alcohol, and their own rampant promiscuity resulted in such a wave of venereal disease that the newspapers were filled with ads for cures. It's documented that many aristocrats and bureaucrats were 'taking the cure.' One historian even noted that if Rasputin had been born a nobleman, no one would have commented on his drinking or womanizing (he did not rape) - it would have been normal. The nobles just felt it was presumptuous for a peasant to enjoy 'upper class benefits.'

    There is much more information at http://therealrasputin.wordpre...

    Read "Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary" by Aron Simanovitch
    and "Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History" by Delin Colón

  • Mrs.P

    "Russia's greatest love machine!"


  • Morgan_LaFai

    Thanks Mrs.P. I was wondering where this post was?

  • MissAmynae

    Rasputeriffic! greatly enjoyed this one. Imperial Russia is a pet subject.

  • eag46

    I did my senior high school thesis on Rasputin. Interesting man to say the least.

  • DarthCorleone

    Nice. This indeed deserves a good treatment. And I love your last sentence.

  • misslucyjane

    SLW, you write like an angel.

  • emmalita

    I read Alex De Jonge's Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin when I was 14. I saw the picture of him on the cover and had to know who he was. I couldn't put the book down. I'd love to see a well done movie about him. There are a bunch of actors who could do him justice. I just saw A Royal Affair, so Mads Mickkelsen comes to mind.

  • basse buus

    Actually the roles of Struense and Rasputin is interesting compared to each other. Struense was de facto king( he is to blame for the removal of many catholic holidays and combining them into Great Prayer Day!). Though Struense is much earlier in history(1737-1772) and some years after they started to abolish serfs.

  • emmalita

    That occurred to me. On the surface at least, there are a lot of similarities. I don't know enough about Struensee and I've forgotten too much about Rasputin to say anything intelligent about it.

  • psemophile

    What happened to Rasputin's three children is what I really want to know.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    I believe he has a granddaughter in LA.

  • BWeaves

    One daughter claimed his castrated penis (allegedly) and she sold it to someone (allegedly). There are about 3 Rasputin penises in jars floating around various museums.

  • jaimejoshi

    "The totems we worship tell us little about who we are, but our demons, they sing."

    This is one of the best lines I've read in months.

    I've been reading Pajiba voraciously for years and never once thought to comment (how can a girl compete with the Eloquents?) but I just had to comment on how much I love this teeny little sentence.

    There's a novel buried in this line, Wilson. A damn fine one.

    Oh and I fully agree that a dark and thoughtful movie about the Mad Monk would be quite well received.

  • wojtek

    You have such a flair for the dramatic :) Beautifully written.

  • sanity fair

    Or MAYBE Rasputin was actually a vampire. (Don't judge me--Buffy thought so too!)

  • Fredo

    Awesome write-up.

    Daniel Day-Lewis as Rasputin?

  • MachineGunJeanMaurice

    It would be worth it just to hear the tales of him "method-acting" the hell out of this. Would he set himself on fire, y'think? Always a great read Mr. Wilson!

  • tamatha_uhmelmahaye

    This is really interesting. I don't think I've ever thought about Rasputin as being anything other than an evil svengali, goading the Russian royal family to ruin. I like your analysis, SLW. This is exactly why I love the Storytellers pieces so much. They're informative and fascinating.

  • TheOriginalMRod

    He's got Charlie Manson eyes. And I'll bet he smelled pretty bad too.

    Excellent post! I've always thought Rasputin was a really fascinating character in history. It is what the history books tell us that we tend to remember, but they are generally full of half truths at best and biased by the author.

    I really hope Drunk History does a Rasputin story. That would be awesome.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    i love stories that deconstruct the myths and reputations surrounding real people, and Rasputin's story has everything. i wonder if there's something Pajiba can do similar to Cannonball Read, where like, the staff as well as interested members collaborate on either a script or short story or outline or whatever for each of these storyteller pieces or similar ideas. i feel there's a fair enough amount of creative people on here to do it.

    until then, there's always Mastodon's Crack the Skye album, where after his death he helps the soul of a paraplegic child lost in the astral plane back to its body. because Mastodon is awesome

  • ,
  • BWeaves

    His eyes are the most intense things I have ever seen. Most old photographs show people staring blankly, because they had to sit still for so long. His are piercing right through the photo. Plus the hand coming forward. It gives me chills.

    My first experience with Rasputin was when I was 11 or 12 and my aunt took me to see Nicolas and Alexandra. I had no idea what it was about, but Tom Baker's Rasputin was scary. Years later I fell in love with Baker as the Doctor. Now I cannot watch Nicolas and Alexandra because the Doctor's voice is coming out of Rasputin's mouth and it's just WEIRD.

  • Cassie

    Great post!

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    Actually the roles of Struense
    and Rasputin is interesting compared to each other. Struense was de
    facto king( he is to blame for the removal of many catholic holidays and
    combining them into Great Prayer Day!). Though Struense is much earlier
    in history(1737-1772) and some years after they started to abolish

  • Is anyone else disturbed that the spammers are trying to make points in their spam?

  • SottoVoce

    They're cutting and pasting genuine comments and then tacking on the spam. The one above copied a comment made by Basse Buus in response to Emmalita.

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