An award-winning historian and translator, Douglas Smith is the author of four books on Russia, including Working the Rough Stone (1999), Love & Conquest (2004) and Former People (2012). His works have been translated into a dozen languages. He studied German and Russian at the University of Vermont and has a doctorate in history from UCLA. Over the past thirty years Smith has made many trips to Russia. In the 1980s, he was a Russian-speaking guide on the U. S. State Department’s exhibition “Information USA” that travelled throughout the USSR. Theodora Clarke talked to Douglas about his new book, Rasputin, which will be published in November 2016, to find out the true story of this mystic character and his role in Russian history.
Theodora Clarke: Douglas, why did you decide to write about Grigori Rasputin?
Douglas Smith: I never had any plan to do it, but for my last book Former People I had to do a lot of research on the final years of Tsarist Russia, the early years of the 20th century. I could not get away from Rasputin in all the documents I was reading: he was on everybody’s mind, everyone was talking about him. That became interesting to me, and I decided to look at what was already written about him. The biographies I was looking at presented him either as the devil incarnate or, somewhat less frequently, as a true saint, a true unblemished man of God. Neither image seemed convincing. I became curious and decided to figure out where the truth lay in Rasputin’s story. This was in 2010, and I realized that we were coming up on the centenary of his murder in December 2016. I thought it would be good to use this opportunity to go back and analyse what we knew and what we could better understand about this character.
TC: As you mentioned, you are not the first person to write about Rasputin and his role in history. What is new or original about your book in comparison to the previous research that has been done on this topic?
DS: There are hundreds of books on Rasputin and I started this project wondering what I might add that was new. One of the things I found fairly quickly is that almost all of the books out there basically recycle the same set of stories, that most of them are chiefly repeating the previous biographies. Part of the reason for this is that for most of the 20th century access to the archival documents in Russia dealing with Rasputin was closed off. It changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the things that is new about my book is that no one has dug as deeply into the original sources. I went to the archives in Siberia, in Tobolsk and Tyumen. I went to his home-town in Pokrovskoe in Siberia, ransacked the archives in Moscow and St Petersburg, found plenty of great material there, which no one has seen before. I am a bit of an archival rat and I wanted to look at what everybody was saying about Rasputin. For example, I spent a week in Berlin and worked in the Political Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, loaded with great stuff on Rasputin but ignored till now; I went to Vienna, to Paris; I also worked in the National Archive in England and several archives in the US. In the end, I got materials from archives in seven different countries that no one had seen before. It’s hard to put it into a few short words all that I discovered, but in general I found the richness and detail that allowed me to create a much more complete, rounded, and honest depiction of Rasputin and his life than has ever been presented. I can track him almost day to day, something no one was able to do before. Thanks to what I uncovered in the archives I’ve been able to debunk a lot of the myths that were repeated over and over as the truth.
TC: You have mentioned that you worked in the archives in Russia. Is this material that the Russian were happy for you to see? I heard from other historians, who worked in Russia, that they had problems getting access to documents or documents disappeared during their research. Did you have any similar troubles getting access to the information?
DS: I was quite fortunate, for the most part the doors were held open to me, and archivists seemed happy to share what they had. Let me give you one example of just how things work in the Russian archives. There are enormous police files on Rasputin in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow, thousands and thousands of pages of police reports compiled by the agents as they were following him around and taking notes on everything they observed. For years I had tried to get access to these files that only two other persons had seen, yet I was always told that they were with the director and no one could see them. Just by coincidence I met someone at a literary festival in the UK who happened to be close with the director of the archive, Sergei Mironenko. They put a good word in for me with him, and so I went to Moscow to meet Mr. Mironenko, and he then agreed to let me have access to these files. It was amazing, so much new material that is so important for Rasputin’s story.
Thanks to this material I was able to debunk some of the most notorious legends about Rasputin. One of the most famous, iconic stories in his biography is how in 1915 while in Moscow Rasputin went to a restaurant called ‘Yar’, where he got drunk and lost all control of himself. He dropped his pants and waved his private parts in front of everybody, bragging that this was the tool that ruled Russia, and other obscene things. This episode is described in every biography, but I found in these police files that this incident never happened. In fact, the police created this story so they could present it to the tsar and say: “Look what Rasputin is doing behind your back, look how he is tarnishing the image of the monarchy. You need to banish him to Siberia for all time.” It was all a lie, bogus kompromat fabricated by the police. This is a story that people have talked about for a hundred years, and it was only by getting access to the archives that I was able to prove that this iconic “fact” about Rasputin is nothing but an enormous lie. From this revelation I then began following all sorts of interesting things, trying to understand how many of all these stories were lies and the degree to which the police and others were trying to bring him down.
TC: I suppose that people remember only one fact about Rasputin, which is of course his murder and death. What do you think happened that night?
DS: The story of his murder is another famous one in Rasputin’s biography, along with the ‘Yar’ episode. I spent a lot of time deconstructing what I think happened that night. One of the things that is fascinating about the story of the murder is that it comes from the memoirs of Prince Felix Yusupov. He, of course, was one of the conspirators responsible for killing Rasputin. It is amazing that people accepted his account as the truth. But since when do we take the words of a murderer as statements of fact? No one had really looked closely at the way his narrative is constructed. In my book I show that it’s a gross fabrication, a repulsive attempt at self-justification for killing a man in cold blood, which is exactly what Yusupov and the others did. They invited Rasputin to Yusupov’s home, claiming that there was going to be a party, and then murdered him. The story tells us that he was poisoned, beaten, shot and somehow survived all of this, only to be dumped into a branch of the Neva River while still breathing. It’s all one big lie. It was concocted to puff up the bravery of Yusupov, to suggest that only he had the courage and strength to kill a man filled with the spirit of Satan himself. I show that all of this was not true, there probably never was any poison. It is clear that they basically just shot Rasputin three times, once in the forehead, and he was killed instantly. It’s amazing how this bogus story took hold and became one of the defining moments in the life of Rasputin.
TC: In the course of your research you must have come across some fascinating stories. Could you share with us one or two interesting facts you have found during your work on this book?
DS: There are so many! One of the things that was really fascinating was to dig into the earlier attempt to murder Rasputin by the Minister of the Interior, a man named Alexei Khvostov. Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia, had helped to put him in the position of the Interior Minister, thinking that he would protect Rasputin and make sure that no harm came to him. In fact, shortly after he became Minister, Khvostov quickly set about trying to kill Rasputin. In the archives I found the details about how Khvostov set all this in motion. He enlisted one of Rasputin’s arch-enemies, the notorious defrocked priest Iliodor, who had earlier tried to murder Rasputin by sending one of his followers to stab him and nearly did kill him in the summer of 1914. I found how Khvostov sent an agent in disguise to Iliodor, who was then living in exile in Europe, with an offer of sixty thousand rubles to arrange Rasputin’s murder. This started a bizarre cascade of events. The plot quickly broke down and the conspirators turned on each other. One minister tried to set up another, and they sought through wicked, dirty tricks to advance their own careers. It was all terribly nasty. In a sense this one episode shows the complete rot that was at the core of the tsarist regime by then. In order to advance themselves, officials thought nothing of murder, intrigue, and conspiracy. I think by looking in detail at Rasputin’s life you can see he was reflective of this decay, but was, in fact, much less compromised than so many others at the time.
Another thing that was really fascinating is that Rasputin has long been considered to be an evil genius: cruel, sadistic, blood-thirsty, and it is so far from the truth. One of the things I hope I bring out forcefully in the book is the degree to which Rasputin truly believed in his Christian faith. For him murder of any kind went against Christian teaching. If not a pacifist, he was against war. In the summer of 1914 he wrote an amazing letter to Tsar Nicholas II, begging him to resist the warmongers and not to declare war. Amazingly, this letter has survived and is now in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University. I held this letter in my hands during my research and quoted it in full in the book because it is truly remarkable. It is one of the elements in Rasputin’s story that is not well-known. Had the tsar listened to Rasputin in the summer of 1914, and had Russia not gone to war, as Rasputin begged him, the course of Russian history, and indeed of the 20th century itself, would have been very different.
TC: You have mentioned his relationship with the tsar. Could you explain what kind of relationship Rasputin had with Nicholas and Alexandra?
DS: This is something else that in my book is different from what we longed believed. The standard interpretation is directly related to the story of Alexei, the tsarevich, heir to the throne. After he was born the family realised that the boy had haemophilia. They looked for somebody who could safeguard the tsarevich’s health, and then along came Rasputin. Many people wrote that the source of his power with the Imperial family was his role as a healer to the tsarevich.
What I found during my research fundamentally changes the way we think about that relationship. Alexandra had been searching for a man like Rasputin even before there were concerns for the health of the tsarevich. What in fact was as important, or even more important, in her alliance with Rasputin was advice and counsel that he could give to Tsar Nicholas II. Alexandra loved Nicholas dearly as a man, but she was very conscious of the fact that he was a weak ruler. Even before Rasputin she invited Philippe Nizier-Vachot as someone to guide Nicholas and give him the will and the authority that he lacked within himself. After Monsieur Philippe was forced out of the country, they turned to Rasputin. From the very beginning and all the way through their relationship you can see that she was constantly looking for advice and guidance from Rasputin and was telling Nicholas to follow this advice. The health of the tsarevich was important to Alexandra, but not more so than the support a man like Rasputin could give to her husband.
TC: Who is the main target audience of your book?
DS: I don’t write books for academics, but aim to speak to readers who enjoy an engaging read about the past and want to learn something new about important events and personalities, such as Rasputin. My goal is to say something fresh, to write books that combine exhaustive research with good storytelling. I would like to think that my readers are the people who would pick up a book by Antony Beevor, Catherine Merridale, or Simon Sebag Montefiore.
TC: Do you have any plans to publish the book in Russian or is it just for the Western audience?
DS: So far I’ve not found a Russian publisher, but I would love to. My US publisher has arranged a few foreign editions and I hope more will be forthcoming.
TC: It is such a huge subject, and I wonder how did you organise your research and how long did it take? I know that everyone has a different process.
DS: I found this book to be particularly difficult. With the help of archivists and historians in Russia, I managed to get thousands of pages of documents. Trying to manage all this material, to stay on top of it, to figure out what’s important and how the pieces all fit together was, quite simply, daunting, much more complicated than any previous book I had written. This book took me six years to research and write, and this was full-time, six days a week with almost no time away.
I work long hours, but am not fast. I work very methodically. I am old fashioned. I have to print all my notes and research and work with paper. If it’s only on my computer, I don’t know how to really work with it properly. Once everything’s printed, then I organise it, usually by source, in separate files. I have a file for every archival document, every book or article, that I read. Then I start going through this material, highlighting and taking notes, at the same time putting it in chronological or some sort of thematic order. And then I start lifting pieces out of the notes in a cut-and-paste way, creating an enormous outline. For a couple of years it’s a mess, and were I to show my work to anyone it wouldn’t make the least bit of sense. Slowly I start editing this mass of notes, quotes, and ideas, and then I begin to see connections that I had not seen before, which often makes me go back to the sources and pull out some other things, bits that earlier did not seem significant but become so when placed alongside other information that ties in with specific themes, events, personalities. It’s a slow, laborious process, and I’m certain other writers of history have much better, more efficient methods than I, but it works for me and I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
TC: You are an American historian, specialising in Russian history, and you wrote several books on the topic. What was that originally attracted you to writing about another country’s history?
DS: My first love was the German language, I took German in high school and spent a summer in the country when I was sixteen. I have lived in Vienna for two years, and at a certain point in my life was interested in all things Germanic. But by mere coincidence I started taking Russian during my freshman year at university in 1981. It was the Cold War, and there was a mystique, an exotic appeal, but I also fell in love with the language from the very beginning. I was immediately entranced by the new alphabet, by the sound of the language. Then I started visiting the USSR, first as a student in 1984 in Leningrad. I quickly became obsessed with the country. After graduating, I got a job with the US State Department working in the Soviet Union for a year. I worked in a number of cities: Tbilisi, Tashkent, and Irkutsk and got to travel extensively throughout the Soviet Union. It was an incredible experience: Perestroika, glasnost’, changes were coming. I just got swept away, there is something about the country and its wonderful people. There is also their beautiful and tragic history. I was hooked and decided that I had to study the country more systematically, so I left government service and enrolled in graduate studies at UCLA, one of the best decisions I ever made.
TC: Thank you, Douglas!
Rasputin by Douglas Smith Published by Macmillan Publishers, November 2016