Sunday, October 31, 2010

Russia's Greatest Love Machine..

Grigori Rasputin seems to belong to another age, and a medieval age at that. And yet Rasputin was one of the figures who did the most--albeit unintentionally--to usher in the Russian Revolution. In the documentary series Land of the Tsars an entire episode is devoted Rasputin's fascinating rise to power and ignominious demise.

Rasputin was a Siberian peasant with captivating eyes and boundless sexual energy whose charisma charmed local women and eventually led to his angry expulsion at the hands of unsympathetic townsmen. Although Rasputin married, and remained devoted to his wife throughout the rest of his life, he never stopped courting other women, and his wife seemed to accept her husband's infidelities as inevitable. After his expulsion from his native village, Rasputin took a trip to a famous monastery where he experienced a profound religious epiphany. After that, the film relates, Rasputin wandered the length and breadth of Russia for many years, gaining an ability to deal with people from every walk of Russian life in the process.

At the end of his travels, Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg, where his charisma immediately won him an audience with the Tsar and Tsarina. At their first meeting, the holy monk used startlingly familiar language to address the country's ruler, calling him "papa." Rasputin was a strange sort of holy man, one who developed a theory that one had to sin brazenly in order to earn true forgiveness from God. Rasputin sometimes asked women to strip with him in order to practice their powers of sin-resistance: sometimes they successfully resisted sin, other times they failed. Rasputin's unusual behavior did not stop him from winning the hearts of the tsar and his wife. He did so, in part, by conforming to a long Russian tolerance for the role of a "holy fool" who, notwithstanding his personal eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, had special access to God's will.

Most importantly, Rasputin soon demonstrated an ability to heal the tsarevich, whose hemophilia saddened his parents and threatened to undermine the line of succession. In effect, Rasputin's healing powers seemed to protect the heir to the thrown for the better part of a decade, and even seemed to work at a distance, when the monk was far from the capital. Rasputin was a regular presence at the royal court, but he wasn't unduly influential until the advent of World War, which Rasputin warned the tsar against.

During the war, the royal family's fortunes declined precipitously. When the tsar left to lead the troops at the front, the tsarina assumed a great deal of authority in domestic affairs, and listened attentively to all of her holy favorite's advice. To her, Rasputin spoke for God. On the other hand, Rasputin's disastrous advice carefully mirrored the empress' own political philosophy, so it's impossible to say whether or not Rasputin directly undermined the authority of his peers. Yet Rasputin's deleterious effect on popular opinion is impossible to gainsay. He was seen as sexual profligate, a mad monk, a German spy, and an ally of the devil himself.

When one of his lovers nearly assassinated him, Rasputin made matters worse. In pain, he turned to alcohol and his behavior became still more erratic. Bragging about his influence at court, drinking heavily, chasing women, and even at one point exposing himself in public, Rasputin became the symbol of autocratic immorality and incompetence. Deeply unpopular even within the aristocracy, one leading member of society and a group of supporters eventually conspired to kill Rasputin to save Russia. Famously, Rasputin survived a poisoning, and then two volleys of shots, and then apparently remained alive as he was sent into a frozen river. The tsarina fell into deep mourning, but recovered in a month; the tsar was at least partly relieved to be free of the negative publicity that surrounded Rasputin's nefarious activities. The film ends with Rasputin's strange prophesy, delivered shortly before his death: that if he were to be killed by friends of the tsar, the country would disintegrate the tsar's own family would be dead within the space of two years, which was in fact what happened.

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