It was with great excitement last week that David Raskin, a researcher at the Russian State Historical Archives in St Petersburg, announced to the world the existence of the hitherto unknown text.
'The historic value is in no doubt,' he declared. Historians waited with bated breath for details of a find that promised to illuminate some of the great unanswered questions of modern Russian history.
Did Rasputin sleep with Alexandra, wife of the last tsar, Nicholas II? Or was he cursed, as a doctor who examined him in 1914 claimed, with shrivelled genitals? Was he an evil charlatan whose misdeeds brought the tsar into disrepute and Lenin to power? Or was he a miracle worker capable of transmitting healing energy down a new-fangled device called the telephone?
Thanks to Mr Raskin's industry, Rasputin may at last have a chance to speak for himself. Although he is one of the best-known figures in Russian history, hard facts about his life are few. Most of what we know comes from the memoirs of his enemies and legends embellished by decades of re-telling.
Much of the text is gibberish, though Mr Raskin is reluctant to release more than few extracts for fear of prejudicing his chances of finding a publisher ready to print the entire document. It contains, for example, this garbled comment by Rasputin about his patron, Alexandra: 'The tsarina was not at the dinner of a princess, she was occupied.' Intriguing, but hardly a smoking gun.
'Several archivists knew the text was here,' Mr Raskin said. 'I didn't find it, I translated it from Rasputinese into Russian.'
The text confirms Rasputin as a man of little, if any, education. His spelling is atrocious; even the word 'diary' is misspelt. His grammar and punctuation are terrible. 'Any peasant with a few years in school could write 10 times better. Rasputin was practically illiterate,' Mr Raskin said.
Born into an impoverished family in western Siberia, Rasputin joined a bizarre religious sect called called Khlysty, or Flagellants. The group was founded on the belief that the best way to reduce the amount of sin in the world was to sin as much as possible: a doctrine Rasputin followed with great devotion.
After working as a waiter and taking a servant girl as his wife, he enrolled in the city's Theological Academy. In about 1905, he insinuated himself into the imperial court, quickly winning the trust of the tsarina, who was impressed by his apparently miraculous ability to stop the bleeding of her haemophiliac son, Alexis.
This intimacy with the tsar's wife stirred resentment among Russian aristocrats, who accused Rasputin of leading the royal family astray and blamed him for Russia's wartime defeats. Such complaints did nothing to dent the tsarina's faith in his powers. Rasputin's influence at court grew, as did the scandal caused by his increasingly outrageous and drunken antics.
In December 1916, a group of nobles led by Prince Yusupov resolved that the only way to rescue the monarchy was to kill Rasputin. They served him cakes and wine laced with with potassium cyanide, but the poison had little effect. They then shot him as he bent down to inspect a crucifix. He struggled outside into the snow and was shot again. He kept going. Only when his twitching body had been thrown into the Moika Canal were his murderers confident the task was complete.
Many details of Rasputin's life come from accounts by those involved in the murder. 'There is something repulsive in his appearance,' wrote Prince Yusupov. 'His face had no sign of anything spiritual but recalls the face of a satyr: evil and lustful.'
Rasputin himself did nothing to improve his image. He delighted in public displays of debauchery. Shortly before his murder, he had a premonition and set about destroying his personal papers. Mr Raskin believes he did this not to conceal damaging information but to conceal his illiteracy.
When or why Rasputin wrote his diary is not known. According to Mr Raskin, it was completed before the outbreak of the First World War and therefore before the height of his influence.
There seems little doubt that the work is by Rasputin. The handwriting, grotesquely deformed, matches that of other texts known to be his. It is written in a school exercise book, its cover decorated with a picture of Pushkin. On the back page is a multiplication table.
The cover bears a quote from Pushkin: 'There yet remains but one concluding tale/and when this chronicle of mine is ended/done is the duty bequeathed by God/ to me, to me the sinner.'
The lines are among the most famous in Russian literature. But it seems to have been the reference to sin rather than literary merit that caught Rasputin's eye. And it is his own repuation as a prodigious sinner that transfixes the popular imagination nearly eight decades after his body was tossed into the icy waters of the canal. The discovery of his diary seems unlikely to change this.
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