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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