Sunday, March 19, 2017

Douglas Smith's Rasputin

Even during my hiatus, I can't keep away from Russian history. For this reason, I read Douglas Smith's fantastic new biography of the so-called mad monk, entitled Rasputin:  Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.  Like his other books, Smith's new book is exhaustively researched and exceedingly well-written.  It also attempts to deal with the mythology that surrounded Rasputin as much as it seeks to discern the true outline of the man's fascinating life.  Overall, Rasputin comes off as a relatively genuine religious man of the people.   Smith's Rasputin was no saint, but he was a generous person, who even moved away from the anti-semitism that surrounded him.  On the other hand, this biography of Rasputin reveals an absolutely bankrupt autocratic couple whose psychological dependence on Rasputin almost defies all rational explanation.  By the time one finishes this book, one cannot help but think that Russia plunged into World War I with possibly the worst tsar and tsarina it could possibly have had.  Smith's book is fascinating in that it reveals the extent to which the Russian political classes were willing to create or circulate fantastic rumors about the sovereign and his wife.  Yet Smith clearly demonstrates that the tsar and tsarina were absolutely unwilling to put their own safety, or Russia's, above their own personal relationship with Rasputin.  Again, Smith humanizes Rasputin, and suggests that the man was no maniac.  Along the way, Smith debunks countless stories about the man's debauchery.  Even so, Smith shows that an ordinary man like Rasputin should never have played such a central role in the life of either Nicholas II or Alexandra.  And most importantly, Smith rightly suggests that the royal repeatedly refused to accept the fact Rasputin had been a symbol of everything wrong with the old regime.  With their brutal assassinations,  and in light of the Soviet disaster, students of Russian history naturally see the royal couple as ordinary people victimized by the deadly currents of history.  However, this book seems to prove that the tsar and his wife were criminally naive about both power and faith.

Stalin's Daughter

As I've mentioned, Soviet Roulette is currently on hiatus due to the author's competing academic obligations. However, I do hope to post now and again until I am able to resume this blog in earnest. For the moment, I would just like to briefly mention Rosemary Sullivan's new book, Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.  As I've mentioned previously, Alliluyeva's two memoirs were excellent.  In light of the searing honesty of these two books of personal reminiscences, one may not feel like a biography will add all that much to the subject. (And when I write "searing honesty" I have in mind Elroy's book, My Dark Places, which freely acknowledges that nobody is able to do more than confront one's demons as bravely as possible, on a day to day basis).  In truth, Sullivan's book does add some objectivity to Alliluyeva's poetic accounts, as well as offering a full account of the subject's fascinating life, which certainly didn't end after the period of time covered in the two autobiographical sketches. Sullivan's book also seems to show us that Stalin's legacy did not end but rather continues to linger almost to this very day.  Sullivan's book also reminds us--as if we needed reminding in the age of Trump--that the stories of Russia and American are inextricably linked, for better or worse.