Douglas Smith '81: Minding the Mad Monk
This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Cyrus.
Written by Joel Hoekstra
Illustrated by Owen Davey
Delving deep into the lore that surrounds one of the most infamous figures in Russian history, author Douglas Smith '81 went in search of the real Rasputin. The Mad Monk, he argues in a new biography, was a complex character — and perhaps more historically significant than anyone ever thought.
The museum was tiny — barely two rooms in a small but ornately decorated Russian-style house in the village of Pokrovskoye, on the Tura River in Western Siberia. Its collection was unremarkable, including a spinning wheel, some lace curtains, faded photographs and some yellowed newspaper clippings. But Douglas Smith had traveled more than 8,000 miles from home to visit the miniscule museum, devoted to the town's most famous resident and one of the most infamous figures in Russian history, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.
The couple who ran the museum welcomed Smith with enthusiasm. They showed the American scholar the most prized items in their collection and presented him with a three-inch metal nail allegedly gleaned from the ruins of Rasputin's home after it was demolished in 1980. Smith, in turn, presented the couple with some photographs he'd found on eBay — pictures of individuals connected with Rasputin, including his daughter Maria, who eventually immigrated to the United States and lived in Los Angeles. Midway through his visit, the curators steered Smith in the direction of an old wooden chair. They explained the seat had been salvaged from the wreckage of Rasputin's home and, according to legend, any man who sat in it would be guaranteed lifelong virility.
"They insisted I sit in that chair," Smith recalls wryly, before delivering the punch line. "I'll leave it to your imagination as to the actual power of this artifact."
Shocking or not, jokes about sexual potency come with the territory in Rasputin research. Juicy tales have followed Rasputin, a self-styled spiritualist and healer, since the early 1900s, when he found his way from Pokrovskoye to the royal court in St. Petersburg, eventually becoming an advisor to the tsar and his wife. Rumors, lies and myths swirled in his path wherever he went. Even accounts of his death, in 1916, are interwoven with mysterious threads: he was reportedly poisoned, shot, beaten and drowned before he ultimately expired, as if his spirit was super-human, demonic, alien.
Long interested in Russian history, Smith recently published Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, an investigation of the many stories surrounding the life of the so-called Mad Monk. The biography has been lauded by critics as both "impeccably researched" and "colossal" — totaling 817 pages. The Los Angeles Review of Books praised it as "engrossing as any novel."
But Smith, who repeatedly encountered Rasputin in research he did for a previous book he wrote about the Russian aristocracy, admits he was initially reluctant to take on the topic. Academic historians have long regarded Rasputin as a sideshow — a character who, while colorful, had little impact on the course of history. "When I was a Ph.D. student, Rasputin was not a subject you'd take on if you wanted to be viewed as a serious scholar," Smith says. "He's a bit too outlandish, a bit too well known. There's a whiff of the carnival about him."
BITTEN BY THE BUG
Russian history and culture have long been a source of fascination to Smith. "There's a certain Russian bug, and once people get the bug, they can't shake it," he says. "I don't know if there's also a French bug, or an Italian bug, or Japanese bug. But I do know that there's a lot of us who, once we're bitten by this Russian bug, just can't let go."
Smith's first love was German, which he learned at Blake from Heinz Otto. Teacher Rod Anderson encouraged his early interest in history. After graduation, Smith enrolled at the University of Vermont, earning degrees in German and Russian. He chose Russian on a whim but was immediately captivated by its strange alphabet, complex grammar and the window it opened onto this remarkable land. Post-college, he taught for a year in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship and then briefly at a private Russian language camp, headed by another Blake teacher, Chuck Ritchie '57, who became a friend and mentor.
The idea of graduate school began to appeal to him more, but when an opportunity to travel abroad again presented itself, Smith jumped at the chance. The U.S. State Department needed young people to participate in a cultural exchange program with the Soviet Union.
"It was an amazing experience," Smith recalls. Over the course of a year, starting in the fall of 1987, he and two dozen other Americans traveled across Soviet territory, visiting Tbilisi in Georgia, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and Irkutsk in Siberia, among other places.
"The exhibit I worked on was called Information USA. This was the late 1980s, so it was all about the early days of information technology and how that was reshaping American life," Smith recalls. "Grocery stores were just starting to use barcode scanners, and we had a little stand that was basically a mock checkout at a store. We would show the Soviets how the scanner worked, and they were just amazed. This was mind-blowing technology, especially in a country that was still chiefly using an abacus at checkout."
Soviets stood in line for hours to get into the exhibition. But Smith says many of them were more interested in the American people than American technology. Here, in an era of controlled media and Cold War propaganda, was a chance to meet an American face to face. "They could ask all these questions about American life that they had no other way of addressing," Smith says. "And those of us in the program made friends. It was exciting for us to have direct contact with people and hear about their lives at the height of the Cold War. Everyone made Russian friends."
Smith had learned about the program from a college professor who had traveled in the Soviet Union before the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when such exchanges were curtailed. "He said, 'Doug, if they ever get started again, you've got to apply. It'll be an experience you'll never forget.' He was right."
SINNER, SAINT OR SIMPLY HUMAN?
In the fall of 1988, Smith embarked on a doctorate in history at UCLA, focusing on the secret societies in Russia, then briefly returned to Europe in the summer of 1989 to work in Munich as a researcher and Soviet affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe.
Smith eventually produced several books, now translated into a dozen languages. It was while researching Former People, about the last days of the Russian aristocracy, that Smith became interested in a figure he had long regarded as a minor character in history: Rasputin.
"He seemed to crop up in everything I read, no matter how tangentially related to the subject at hand," Smith says. "That got me thinking, 'Maybe he's more important than historians have wanted to admit.'" He began reading biographies about the peasant holy man but found all of them unsatisfying. "His biographers presented him in a two-dimensional manner, as this sort of holy devil, the saint who sinned, that kind of thing. He just didn't seem like a really believable, three-dimensional human."
He decided to give Rasputin a thorough examination, investigating everything from established facts to gossipy rumors. Did Rasputin flee his home after being accused of horse theft? Did he cure Alexandra's son of hemophilia, as the empress claimed? Smith traveled the world looking for evidence to support or demolish even the most outrageous claims.
He also came to wonder if Rasputin's place in Russian history would have been significantly different had Nicholas II heeded his advisor's counsel regarding the needs of ordinary people. In particular, Smith points to a letter Rasputin wrote to the tsar in 1916: "Food was becoming scarce in the capital, Petrograd, and Rasputin advised, 'You need to take note of what is happening here in your own capital. People are hungry. They're having to wait in long bread lines, and there's growing dissatisfaction and anger.'"
Those bread lines and anger eventually sparked the revolution that led to the downfall of the royal house and the tsar's abdication. Says Smith, "It might have been too late to save the regime, but if Nicholas had followed Rasputin's counsel, it's possible there would have been a different outcome to history."
SEARCHING FOR A STORY
Beyond Siberia, Smith's research into the life of Rasputin took him to archives and historic sites in London, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, New York and Washington, D.C. He currently makes his home in Seattle, where he lives with his two children and wife, Stephanie Ellis-Smith. "Stephanie is always my first reader," Smith says. "She ends up living with these subjects pretty much as closely as I do. Sometimes she's grateful for that, sometimes she's not so grateful. I think having Rasputin in the house for six years was a bit of a struggle."
As his work on Rasputin was coming to a close, Smith began to cast about for a new project. A friend told him she had learned about a cache of slides, films and photographs made by an American embassy official stationed in Moscow in the 1950s, shortly before the death of Joseph Stalin. Martin Manhoff had served as an assistant military attaché, working in the old U.S. embassy, across from the Kremlin on Red Square. Manhoff's estate had fallen into the hands of a woman in Seattle, who didn't know what to do with the cache.
Smith went to have a look and was stunned by what he discovered. Though disorganized, there were boxes and boxes of color slides and stacks of 16-millimeter film canisters. Sifting through the items, he discovered a film reel marked "March 1953: Stalin's funeral." His jaw dropped: "Photographs from Moscow in the 1950s, in color, are unheard of," he explains. "As I went through the piles, I realized there is no other existing film in the public realm that captures the scenes he captures, like Stalin's funeral procession." Diving deeper, Smith discovered Manhoff, trained in photography, had taken thousands of images, often concealing his camera inside a car as he drove around Moscow and traveled throughout the Soviet Union to Leningrad, Kiev, Crimea, Siberia. "It was like this strange window opening up on Stalin's Russia that we really hadn't seen," Smith says.
With permission, Smith took the collection, organized it, scanned several images and posted roughly a dozen online. They generated a huge flurry of interest and led to a contract with Radio Free Europe to do a four-part series on Manhoff and his work. The series, posted on the broadcaster's website, has attracted more than 2 million page views. Smith is exploring the possibility of publishing a book containing the best of Manhoff's photographs.
In addition, Smith recently accepted an offer from his publisher to begin work on a short book about a little-known chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations: a relief effort mounted by America when famine struck Russia in the early 1920s. "It was the worst famine in modern European history," Smith says. "Some people were even reduced to cannibalism." The United States, led by Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, responded by setting up a massive relief effort, sending millions of tons of American corn, establishing food stations, distributing medicine. "It really brought Russia up off its knees," Smith says. "And once the famine was over, the Americans packed up and went home and didn't expect anything in return. I think it's one of the finest things America has ever done, and none of us seems to know about it."
Since last fall's election, of course, Russia has been a source of much conversation and news in America. As in Rasputin's day, facts and fictions mingle; intrigue and mystery surround the country's leaders and their motives. Smith has watched events unfold with a historian's eye, noting echoes of the past.
"One of the constants of Russian cultural and political life is that those who have their hands on the levers of power seem to be hidden, operating in a realm of secrecy," Smith says. "No one is sure who has the most power, who has influence. Among the Russian people, this has led to cynicism and a sense of powerlessness. Politics is something done in secrecy. There are definitely echoes of Rasputin's age in today's political environment in Russia."
Currently, Smith has no plans to write about, say, Vladimir Putin or contemporary Russia. He has no intention of delving into potential Russian meddling in the U.S. election. But as a historian who goes where the narrative takes him, Smith is aware all that could change. Anything is possible, he admits: "I never thought in a million years I would end up writing a book on Rasputin."
Joel Hoekstra is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.