Wherever writers linger for more than a line or two over the physical attributes of Nicholas II, his eyes always figure prominently. In describing those famously pale lapis orbs, the final Tsar’s chroniclers and memoirists invariably choose their words to express an inexpressible sadness, conveying as best as words can what his eyes reveal of the last in a 300-year string of emperors peering over the brink of oblivion. In photographs, too, the eyes of Nicholas II seem prescient of a looming apocalypse. However out of touch with the revolutionary climate of Russia he may have been, it’s as though his eyes alone are already looking gloomily ahead to the marshy forest where the half-incinerated remains of the Tsar and his family would rest for nearly 75 years.
For the eyes of Grigory Rasputin, the Romanov intimate who has since entered history and legend as holy man, charlatan, drunken peasant, seducer, prophet, heretic, savior and antichrist, the same chroniclers must labor after new descriptions to bridge the gap between those eyes and the hypnotic effect they exercised over Russia’s last royal family. Deep-set and limpid gray, peering out from beneath a heavy brow that also sprouted a horn-like growth that Rasputin was always careful to comb over, his eyes seem to glow with all the ancient fire of the vanishing Holy Rus. They cut through even the murkiest photos, smoldering with some unspeakable ancestral memory. But where the sad light of the Tsar’s gaze is one about to go out, something in the embers of Rasputin’s glower speaks of a curse blazing demonically back to life.
Knowing what we do—and hindsight being what it is—it’s easy for us to read too much into both sets of eyes. But how much do we really know? In the case of Rasputin, especially, much of what we think we know is only the distillation of rumors and contradictory accounts of the holy man’s life that have served different purposes for different masters over a turbulent century in Russian history.
The spirit of Rasputin, as Edvard Radzinsky notes in his new biography, The Rasputin File, is on the rise once again in Russia. Where his name was once synonymous with the cancers of a failing autocracy, Rasputin is now being invoked in the context of nationalistic ideology as something of a byword for new autocratic ideas. It is, as Radzinsky notes, one of history’s jests. And it could only have come about because whatever truths are blazing away in that baleful stare of Rasputin’s have long been obscured by the burden of legend, sensationalism, and pure fantasy.
What immediately sets Radzinsky’s biography of the Siberian peasant apart from others is the author’s possession of the file of the title, a bound edition of depositions made before a government committee by many of the people who knew Rasputin best. The panel was convened after the abdication the Tsar in March, 1917 and before the Bolshevik coup in October, with many of Rasputin’s circle of intimates in the religious and aristocratic communities of St. Petersburg literally hauled out of jail in the Peter and Paul Fortress to deliver their testimony. Many of these forced witnesses to Rasputin’s character had wonderful things to say about him, but their comments were severely expurgated for the first and only publication of the committee’s findings, in a history journal, on the tenth anniversary of the revolution in 1927. The complete transcripts of the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry’s findings existed only in the form of 426 individual folios bound into one monograph. The file was long presumed destroyed or simply missing in the vast National Archives until, amazingly, the bound edition surfaced at a London auction in 1995, when it was purchased by Radzinsky’s friend, the conductor Slava Rostropovich.
What a stroke of luck! Taken with other rare documents uncovered in state and family archives and in the mustering bowels of monasteries across Siberia, the so-called “Rasputin file” at Radzinsky’s disposal represents the single richest trove of primary-source material ever marshaled for an attempt at biography. Having achieved this coup as a researcher, Radzinsky also proves himself more than equal as a writer. Armed with his find, he is able to draw many of the myths that have long served as fact in the Rasputin story out in the open and demolish them one at a time.
Yet all the ingredients that make Rasputin’s strange life and death so sensational by any measure are still in place, and what The Rasputin File lacks in scurrilous detail (very little, at that), it more than makes up for with Radzinsky’s expert sleuthing and freshets of previously unpublished material. The strange circumstances of Rasputin’s death, for example, have done as much as anything from his life to propagate the legend of a superhuman being immune to poison and bullets. Radzinsky unravels these legends and half-truths a strand at a time, splicing in new testimony and his own astute observations to arrive at, if not the unattainable truth, then at least something much closer to the truth than we’ve read before.
And, even in death, Rasputin’s mesmeric power seems little diminished. When his body bobbed to the surface of the Neva river three days after his death, the agony frozen into his face and outstretched hands seemed to prove that he was still alive and kicking underwater, long after his killers had presumed him dead. Frantic St. Petersburg residents raced to the water’s edge with bottles and buckets to scoop up some of the water that might have bathed this diabolical resolve. Reading The Rasputin File, we get to know Rasputin intimately. And we still get a chilling splash of that old insanity.