Rasputin was no love machine

Is nothing sacred, asks Phil Reeves: was the sinner in fact a saint?
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The Independent Online
MUD sticks, especially smut. Everyone who has held power knows that. For all eternity, eyebrows will slide knowingly skywards when "Catherine the Great" and "horses" arise in the same sentence. Whether guilty or not, Bill Clinton is now doomed to glide through history accompanied by a squall of winks and nudges. But few can rival the feral reputation that history has hung around the neck of Grigory Rasputin, the evil-smelling Siberian peasant, hypnotist and confidant to Russian royalty.

When it comes to lechery, he is in the premier division, a beast among beasts. Stories of Rasputin's drunken and orgiastic exploits lodge themselves in the imagination with a vividness that outshines even the most squalid rumour to waft out of the White House. Who can forget the claim, made by his assassin and transvestite lover, Prince Felix Yusupov, that the reason noblewomen in St Petersburg were enraptured by this goatish conman was that he had an enormous wart on his penis, so positioned that one of his lovers passed out cold during orgasm? Who can rinse the mind clean, once they have read in Orlando Figes best-selling A People's Tragedy about how Rasputin would dip his dirt-caked finger into a bowl of jam and instruct his assembled female admirers to "humble yourself, lick it clean".

He was, it seems, an Olympian-class sleazeball whose combined taste for power and flesh has ensured the world will always regard with a hypocritical mixture of disapproval and rapt fascination. Or could we be dealing with another victim of misreporting? Could the millions who have cavorted under the Friday night disco lights bawling out Boney M's "Ra, Ra, Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine" have been perpetrating a horrible fabrication?

According to a small but determined group of Russians, the answer is a most definite "yes". They believe that Rasputin was a genuinely devout figure, a victim of his enemies' propaganda who was about as likely (as his detractors allege) to trade his influence with the clean-living Empress Alexandra for sexual favours as Mother Teresa. The most vocal among them is Vladimir Osipov, a writer and monarchist. In December 1996 he organised a requiem to Rasputin in a church in Moscow to mark the 80th anniversary of his assassination. Un-deterred by the small turnout, he is now planning to convene a conference this year to discuss Ras- putin's proper place in history.

The stories about Rasputin being a drunk and a womaniser are "complete lies" an indignant Mr Osipov told the Independent on Sunday. "They are perpetrated by historians who don't have any other sources apart from the falsifications that were published at the time by the anti-monarchists trying to bring down the Romanovs." Once that task was achieved, the slur was made concrete by the Communists.

Soviet classroom text books carried only three lines about him, all bad. In reality, argues Mr Osipov, he was "a great patriot". He says many Russians, especially the Orthodox faithful, share his views; some even think he should be canonised. Arkardi Bugayev, another prominent royalist, agrees: "He was a good man, who did much to help the empress and her haemophiliac son, Alexis." While the monarchists belong to the fringe, their case is getting some support from a weightier voice.

Eduard Radzinsky, a television personality and author of popular works on Tsar Nicholas II and Stalin, is soon to publish a book about Rasputin, based on what he claims are fresh documents which have been given to him by an anonymous collector. He, too, believes the popular image of the man, perpetrated by film makers, biographers and journalists, is distorted by anti-royalist propaganda. Rasputin may have been immoral, but he was not the bearded wild man the West has come to know and secretly love.

Hitherto, he says, the subject has been surrounded by "too many legends, and too many documents by his enemies." But, his apologists are taking on some formidable guns. Witness his latest biographer, historian and former Sunday Times journalist Brian Moynahan, whose recently published Rasputin: the Saint Who Sinned has been well received. The title reveals where he stands - but he has a separate disclosure.

If there is one aspect of Rasputin even more famous than his profligacy, it is the manner of his death. No lesser figure than the historian Richard Pipes has documented how he was lured to a palace, poisoned with cyanide, shot and beaten before being dumped in the freezing waters of the Neva. It was implicit testimony to Rasputin's demonic powers that he should be so hard to slay. Or so we thought.

Mr Moynahan has a different version, based on new witness accounts. He says Rasputin died ignominiously from three gunshot wounds in Prince Felix's palace while St Petersburg's prostitutes and dandies carried on partying around him . Nothing, it seems, is sacred.