17 January 2017

Library Limelights 124

Douglas Smith. Rasputin: faith, power, and the twilight of the Romanovs. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
What can I possibly say about the most exhaustive work yet on this most charismatic, often adored but mostly reviled figure in the old tsarist regime? Smith had access to a host of archives in Russia unavailable to a throng of previous biographers. His measured reporting and analysis of each event (personal or political), particularly from 1905 when Rasputin first met the imperial couple to 1916 when he died, are beyond reproach. Familiar with many stories, I do confess picking and choosing my chapters in this epic tome. What becomes very clear is the obstinacy of Nicholas II and especially of Alexandra that protected Rasputin in the face of dissent from so many different levels of society. There is no question he unwittingly played a large part in the downfall of the royal family and the empire.

Smith was able to piece together Rasputin's younger life before becoming an on-again, off-again resident of St. Petersburg and regular visitor to the royal palaces. The man first became revered as one of the peripatetic Siberian "holy fools" and groups of acolytes began to surround him, both peasant and privileged. As his influence grew, so did the jealousy and accusations: (among others) that he took advantage of women (to put it mildly) and that he was a khlyst. The word refers to a Christian sect said to indulge in unholy practices. Whatever, it takes 700 pages to get a feel for, if not understand, the enabling ambiance of the times; in Russian circles of power, gossip and rumour were astonishingly rampant, self-servingly embroidered, and swallowed whole in each iteration. Rasputin was painted in many contradictory terms. The conspirators who ended his life in a bloody confrontation led by Prince Felix Yusupov were likely almost as affected by hysteria as Rasputin's supporters. It seems that Rasputin's holiness fought with, but inevitably succumbed, to his celebrity.
Choosing a few sample passages is near impossible.

Portrait 1914 by T. Krarup in Smith's book; original was destroyed.

One-liners:
Once he had crawled inside my head, Rasputin refused to leave me alone. (5)
Alexandra remained blind to the reality of the situation up until the end. (580)
"When Rasputin entered my study I was shocked by the repulsive expression of his eyes, deep-set and close to each other, small, gray in color." (259)

One of the assassins:
The Felix Yusupov that is described in his memoirs is a caricature of the vain and spoiled aristocrat for whom everything is permitted, nothing is to be taken too seriously, and the entire world and all the things (and people) in it have been created for his own use and enjoyment. Nothing held his attention for long, and Felix's life amounted to a search for intense experiences and thrill-seeking that began with cross-dressing and eventually ended in murder. (185)

The early path:
Life as a pilgrim was hard. Rasputin walked thirty miles a day in all kinds of weather. He begged for alms or worked at odd jobs to earn a few kopecks. He was often set upon by brigands and chased by murderers. The Devil forever tempted him with "unholy desires." Rasputin humiliated himself to test his resolve. He would force himself to go without food or water for days, for six months he wandered without changing his underclothes or touching his body, for three years he traveled across Russia in fetters. In age-old Christian fashion, this mortification of the flesh brought him closer to the spirit of Christ. With time Rasputin gave up his metal chains for "the chains of love." He learned to read the Gospels, to contemplate their meaning, and to find God in all things, especially in the beauty of the Russian landscape. ...
Wonder at the beauty of nature. Conviction of the Devil's presence in the world around us. Struggle with the demands of the body. Disregard for money and material things. Awe at the power of love. Asceticism and unusual religious practices combined with an independent spirit. In these passages Rasputin revealed the themes that would dominate his life. (23)

Alexandra's words:
She was becoming increasingly irritated by Nicholas' weakness and sent him hectoring letters demanding that he "bang on the table" and act like a tsar, for "Russia loves to feel the whip." She passed on Rasputin's advice that he be strong and stand up to the ministers ... She ordered her husband to be "a man" and confessed that "its harder keeping you firm than [enduring] the hatred of others wh. leaves me cold." In exasperation she cried, "How I wish I could pour my will into your veins!" But she could not. The monarchy, as Alexandra saw it, was threatened chiefly by her husband's lack of will. In Rasputin, Alexandra had hoped to find the strength to support Nicholas and his reign. Her belief in Rasputin never wavered, but her hope for the success of his mission to guide Nicholas was fading. (582)

Brent Ghelfi. Shadow of the Wolf. USA: Picador/Henry Holt and Company, 2008.
Speaking of Russia ... Almost catapulting out of a comic strip, scarred and battered Alexei Volkovoy is a one-man wrecking crew. Generally known as Volk (wolf), his skills are employed by a variety of ruthless power-seekers inside or outside today's Kremlin. Controlling oil is power. Russia is still dealing with Chechen terrorists but the vicious attacks are mutual. The novel begins with an explosion in Moscow and continues with more dead bodies. Tough guy Volk, who provides the narrative, begins to find his conscience as he works out the very tangled skeins of greed, betrayal, and horror. Volk lost a foot and part of his leg in a previous book; this time he does not want to lose his Chechen lover Valya.

The cast of characters is longer than your arm. Two Americans are only bit players. References to Putin and deep-rooted corruption at top levels of Russian administration are totally convincing. But cultural warfare, abductions, torture ... the resulting violence is not for the faint. Nevertheless, kudos to an American author who knows every nuance of the necessary background political and geographical. The details are impressive; the writing is excellent and not without strategically placed bits of alleviating humour.

One-liners:
Putin has earned a reputation for being everywhere at once, straddling the ocean, filling the sky, just like Stalin. (48)
To me the differences between American politicians are insignificant, and mostly rhetorical; damn near everyone of them voted to bomb Iraq until the sand turned to glass, all the while condemning Russia for invading Chechnya. (83)
When the institutionalized rigidity of Soviet life vanished suddenly, as if a chunk of the country had fallen off the earth, we had no frame of reference. (183)

The local cop shop:
The station is falling apart for want of repairs it won't get anytime soon. Its white walls are trimmed in green paint cracked like a dried lake bed. The boiler downstairs gasps and thunks, fighting a holding action against Moscow's January freeze. Condensation drips from the overhead pipes, and more moisture wicks from the corners of the ceiling, where radiating brown stains that look like tree rings mark the advance and retreat of past incursions. (116)

Walk with me:
He leads the way out and we cross the bridge to chug along the embankment on the edge of the Moscow River, the big man huffing like a steam engine, his bodyguards trailing some distance behind us like freight cars. The cold and wind turn his face red, but he seems happier to be outside.
"In a hundred years we'll kill each other for different reasons," he says. "But only one kind of world politics matters right now. Petropolitics. The pipes are the asshole of the oil and gas world. Shut them down, how long you think everything else keeps going? And just wait until the crazies in Iran start aiming suicide boats at Persian Gulf tankers."
He stops just before we reach Red Square. One of his men rushes toward us with a cup. Maxim pops off the lid, slugs half the boiling brew inside, and loudly smacks his lips. (172)

In the Caucasus mountains:
"This is a generational problem, Volk," he says on the exhale. "Just like what we have in Afghanistan and Iraq. That kid back there will never know anything except how to fight and how to hate. Unless something changes soon, neither will his children. And they won't even understand why."
I remember thinking something similar in Masha's flat. How long ago was that? Four days I think. Maybe five. The hours in the Lubyanka hole warped my sense of time. ...
"This isn't new," I say. "The highlanders haven't known anything except fighting for a thousand years."
But even as I say the words I know I've evaded the point. The children of the Chechen wars are refugees in their own land. They represent the beginning of a new cycle, not a continuation of what began long ago. A downward spiral that won't end until something catastrophic disrupts it. (248-9)

Arnaldur Indridadson. Voices. 2003. UK: Vintage/Random House, 2010.
We're in Iceland and it's just about Christmas time. Detective Erlendur is on the case of a murdered hotel doorman, a man no-one knew well. In fact the cop decides to book a room and stay in the hotel, to the consternation of the mostly unhelpful staff. Erlendur doesn't like to admit going home is lonely, or that a traumatic childhood memory plagues him just as the slain victim did. While Erlendur grapples with suspicious hotel guests and vinyl record collectors, his attention keeps drifting to his sad daughter Eva Lind. Erlendur's colleague Elinborg fumes about the trial of a father who might have abused his child. Slowly the victim's hidden past comes to light through old acquaintances.

Boy soprano choirs evoke the book's title. Boys growing up without a father's attention, or too much attention, play a part throughout the story line. Sibling relationships also factor in. The police characters are eminently likeable although appearing a bit thick at times ... a reader can see one of the revelations coming from a mile away. Middle-aged Erlandur actually asks a woman for a date (a bit scary considering the man's favourite meal is to boil some smoked lamb). There's something rather homey and comfortable about all this, if one can say that about a crime novel.

One-liners:
The main course every Christmas was a Swedish-style leg of pork, which she kept outside on the balcony to marinate for twelve days, and tended it just as carefully as if it had been the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. (27-8)
Halldรณra was the woman he married a whole generation before, then divorced and whose hatred he earned for doing so. (75)

A confession of sorts:
In twenty-three years he had been faithful to his wife. Two or three times in all those years he'd perhaps had the chance to kiss another woman, but nothing like this had ever happened to him before.
"I lost the plot completely," he told Erlendur. "Part of me wanted to run home and forget the whole thing. Part of me wanted to go with the woman."
"I bet I know which part that was," said Erlendur. (97)

Voices:
"A wolf in his voice?" Erlendur said. "I'm not too well up on ..."
"It's an idiom for when your voice breaks. What happens is that the vocal chords stretch in puberty, but you go on using your voice in the same way and it shifts an octave lower. The result isn't pretty, you sort of yodel downwards. This is what ruins all boys' choirs. He could have had another two or three years, but Gudlaugur matured early. His hormones started working prematurely and produced the most tragic night of his life." (136-7)

Unsolicited advice:
"What's new with you?" Marion asked, puffing on the cigarillo.
"Nothing," Erlendur said.
"Does Christmas annoy you?"
"I've never understood this Christmas business," Erlendur said vaguely as he peered into the kitchen, on the lookout for the chef's hat.
"No," Marion said. "Too much cheer and joy, I would imagine. Why don't you get yourself a girlfriend? You're not that old. There are plenty of women who could take a fancy to an old fart like you." (186)

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