Delin Colón is the author of Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History; here is a link to her website:
Q: What originally made you interested in writing about Rasputin?
A: My roots are Russian-Jewish. I’m a second-generation American. My father had always told me that his great uncle, Aron Simanovitch, had been secretary to Rasputin, and he had often recounted meeting Simanovitch in 1923, when my father was a young boy. I was in my late forties when I started researching my great-great uncle. I began finding mention of him in various biographies on Rasputin, but I hit the jackpot when I discovered an out-of-print copy of the 1930 French edition of Simanovitch’s memoirs (originally published in Russian in 1928). Fortunately, my undergraduate degree is in French and I spent several years living in the province of Québec, speaking only French.
When I began reading the memoir, I knew I was going to translate it into English, but as I delved into Simanovitch’s daily life with Rasputin, over the decade they were together, I was struck by my ancestor’s affectionate account of Rasputin’s aid to the poor, the ill, the disenfranchised, and especially the Jews. It was not at all the image of the ogre-demon that’s been popularized and exaggerated for profit.
It occurred to me that history wasn’t written by the poor, the disenfranchised, and certainly not by the illiterate. It’s generally said that history is written by the powerful. In this case, the powerful were the aristocrats who eventually felt threatened by Rasputin’s talk of social equality. In tsarist Russia, anti-Semitism was government policy. There were numerous laws defining not only where Jews could live (most were restricted to the Pale of Settlement), but what jobs they could have, what they could own, and allowing educations to only a small percentage of Jews. To advocate equal rights for Jews, under those circumstances, was akin to treason, as most Jews were considered spies. The aristocracy had an axe to grind when it wrote Rasputin’s history.
I knew I had to show the other side of the story. So, I spent the next dozen or so years researching Simanovitch’s claims, reading biographies, memoirs, papers, history books, treatises and articles, in French and English. I found a wealth of substantiating material. Of particular note is the fact that nearly every book about Rasputin, from his daughter’s to his murderer’s, mentions his efforts to obtain equal rights for Jews. Whether it’s noted with admiration or derision, it is there. I published the results of that research two years ago under the title Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History. That book establishes a more global historical context for Simanovitch’s Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary which I translated into English and annotated.
I was further encouraged by my contact with Rasputin’s great granddaughter who tours Europe speaking about him, in an effort to dispel the many myths that surround him.
Q: What kind of professional and educational background do you have?
A: I attended six different universities to accommodate my wanderlust (remember, this was the late sixties and throughout the seventies), with my undergraduate work in French and my graduate work in Clinical Psychology.
I’ve held a variety of positions including researcher, technical writer, editor, and owner of an agency that paired writers with jobs. I’ve worked in a variety of psychiatric settings, as well as having owned and operated a stair-building company. My weirdest job was as a ‘disco bunny’ at a Playboy Club (more than 40 years ago), and my favorite job offer was that of shepherdess on a sheep ranch in Québec.
Q: For those who don’t know, please explain who Rasputin was and what his role was in Russian history.
A: Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was a Siberian peasant who was neither monk nor priest, but a ‘strannik,’ a wandering spiritual pilgrim. He was widely known among the peasantry for his sermons and healing powers, and was brought to Tsar Nicholas II’s court to attend to the hemophiliac heir to the throne, Tsarevitch Alexei. Rasputin was effective at alleviating the young boy’s pain when doctors couldn’t. He became the spiritual advisor to the royal family as well. He was often accused of interfering in politics, as he suggested to the Tsar bureaucratic candidates who agreed with his anti-war and egalitarian agendas.
Historically, he is characterized as a womanizer and a drinker, which is not completely inaccurate but has been wildly exaggerated by those who wished to discredit him, and further still by writers and filmmakers profiting from sensationalism. The myth of Rasputin resulted in the title of ‘the Mad Monk.’
Q: What is the most misunderstood thing about him?
A: That he was evil. The demonic image fabricated by aristocrats, the clergy and the newspapers were intended to discredit Rasputin. The tsarist regime was oppressive for most Russians, unless they belonged to the nobility. What people don’t read about him, although documented, is that many citizens lined up at Rasputin’s door every day seeking help. Some were bureaucrats seeking promotions and decorations, but most were poor and many were Jews seeking educations (above the allowed quota), permission to move out of the ghetto or some other favor such as preventing a ‘pogrom’ (a raid by the military, including looting, torture and slaughter) on a Jewish village. He tried to help them all.
Rasputin’s aid to Jews and his pleas to the Tsar to accord them equal rights flew in the face of government policy. It was widely believed that Jews were not to be trusted and had to be kept in check to foil the fictitious ‘Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.’ The military could destroy an entire village of Jews (and often did) and justify it with the accusation of espionage. One of the worst generals bent on the elimination of Jews was the Tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armies. Rasputin was horrified by such inhumane treatment and was seen by many as a traitor for sympathizing with the Jews. People found him ‘evil’ for his views when, in fact, the ‘evil’ lay in the tsarist regime.
Certainly he liked to party and enjoyed the company of women (with his wife’s approval and pride in his popularity) who threw themselves at him. He loved dancing and gypsy orchestras. However, to put his behavior into proper context, the aristocracy’s accusations of womanizing and alcoholism were more than hypocritical considering that they, themselves, consumed champagne and vodka by the case, and were rife with venereal diseases due to their own promiscuity. Many military, noblemen and bureaucrats were known to have been taking cures for diseases like syphilis, which were so rampant that the newspapers were filled with ads for remedies. In fact, one historian wrote that if Rasputin had been born an aristocrat, no one would have thought anything of his social activities. The bottom line is that he never harmed nor killed a soul, unlike the Russian military which, with the Tsar’s knowledge, tortured, raped, maimed, and murdered many thousands of innocent Russian Jews and other minorities.
Q: It’s my understanding that Rasputin was a spiritual advisor to the Romanovs and other aristocrats; you say that “Rasputin was a progressive humanitarian who was victimized by the aristocracy who fabricated his evil image.” What led you to believe that he was a humanitarian, and how were his actions progressive?
A: Rasputin was, primarily, spiritual advisor to the Romanovs (and key to their son’s health), as well as giving sermons to his devotees (mostly wives of aristocrats and bureaucrats, when he was in Petersburg). It was, by the way, customary for the tsars to have a spiritual advisor, seer, holy fool, or psychic to consult. So, Rasputin’s position as the Tsar’s ‘favorite’ was not an unusual thing.
However, it was quite progressive, even radical, for Rasputin to suggest not only equal rights for all Russians, but that they have a say in government. He did what he could to bend the oppressive regulations in order to gain justice for the persecuted, often through bribery of officials (a customary and accepted practice in Russia for centuries). Through requests to the Tsarina, he often managed to reduce or eliminate the prison sentences of those who had been incarcerated on fabricated charges. If petitioners needed money for food, or to bribe officials for an education, job, travel permit, etc., Rasputin would demand that the rich petitioners empty their pockets to divide the money among those who needed it.
He was able to have many Jews excused from military service, as their lives were generally in as much danger from anti-Semitic Russian soldiers as from any enemy. In addition, Jews were generally conscripted in proportionately higher numbers and for longer periods than the rest of the population, with the goal of distancing them from their religion and even converting them.
Rasputin also abhorred bloodshed and begged the Tsar not to go to war with Germany at the start of World War I. During the war, his pleas for its end, like his stance on Jewish rights, was viewed by many as treasonous and he was accused of being a German spy. Any and all accusations against Rasputin were, of course, discounted by the royal couple. As the war waged, Rasputin begged the Tsar to wait until after the harvest to send in new recruits because Russia would need the food supply. He also asked the Tsar to put an end to the black market food prices and not to send soldiers into combat without weapons and ammunition (a common practice).
All of the above actions and convictions, in addition to healing the ill, are indicators of a humanitarian — someone whose first priority is human lives, unlike that of the tsarist regime which found them all too expendable. Despite Rasputin’s entreaties to the Tsar, his vision of equality for Jews, an end to the war, and government with citizen involvement would not come about until the 1917 revolution (and then only briefly), several months after Rasputin’s murder.
Q: Who would be a modern day Rasputin?
A: That’s a really good question if we’re talking about the man and not the myth. Any particular individual eludes me. I’m sure one will pop into my head after this interview is published. Such a person would love his country and its leader whom he would try to persuade, at risk to his own position and life, to eradicate oppressive laws to ease the suffering of the masses and stop ethnic cleansing. If that individual, upon having no legislative influence, routinely circumvented the law to help the oppressed, case by case, and was subsequently scapegoated, vilified and murdered as a subversive, then you have a Rasputin. And, of course, he would have to be able to survive all night parties of singing, flirting and dancing.
Q: Do you believe he was really a mystic?
A: It’s a tricky question. I do believe he was very spiritual but, again, was progressive in his beliefs. He didn’t believe that God resided only in the Russian Orthodox Church (his religion), but that there was just the one God for all religions and that the way a person worshipped was his own business. He especially revered the teachings of Jesus, and encouraged people to worship God in a joyful way rather than a fearful one.
There are numerous tales of Rasputin’s healing abilities which he stated were not his at all, but God’s. Simanovitch recounts that Rasputin had an extensive knowledge of Siberian, Tibetan and Chinese herbs which he often used. But he also describes incidents that have all the hallmarks of empathic healing — the ability to draw out and absorb the energy that makes one ill. The healer is temporarily afflicted by the symptoms before releasing that negative energy they’ve absorbed. It is an exhausting process that leaves the healer depleted. Many witnesses, including the Tsarevitch’s doctors have described such scenes. Both of my books contain accounts of various such healings, including the one of Simanovitch’s young son who had long suffered from a debilitating neurological disorder called ‘St. Vitus’ Dance.’ The boy, who had barely been able to walk, recounted that Rasputin laid a hand on his head and began having tremors and spasms symptomatic of the disorder. After several moments, the tremors stopped and Rasputin told the boy to run home, which he did and never suffered from the affliction again.
It’s hard to say if he’s a mystic. From everything I’ve read, a number of his predictions did come true, but many didn’t. I do believe that Rasputin had healing capabilities, aside of his knowledge of herbs. If you want to call that mystical, then I guess I’m a believer. There was, however, a time when he began to lose his healing powers after an assassination attempt which left him in critical condition and from which he never fully recovered. Maria Rasputin, his daughter, wrote that when he could no longer heal people, in the year or two before his death, he put all of his energy into championing the causes of oppressed Russian minorities, especially the Jews.
Q: Why do you think he got such a bad reputation?
A: The reasons are numerous and came from all quarters, notably from the clergy, the aristocrats, the bureaucrats and the military. The clergy grew to hate Rasputin due to the popularity of his informal sermons in which he discussed applying biblical wisdom to daily life, as well as finding joy in God rather than fear. The priest in his Siberian village was so jealous of the attendance at Rasputin’s talks that he lodged a formal complaint with church authorities, accusing Rasputin of belonging to the secretive Khlysty sect, known to hold orgies and to repent with self-flagellation. Undercover church investigators infiltrated his meetings, which were not held in secret as the Khlysty did, and returned not only confirming that Rasputin was Russian Orthodox, but raving about his sermon as well. Unfortunately, the accusation was made repeatedly, although always found to be untrue, and was used to discredit him. While a juicy bit of gossip, it was widely used to support the view of him as some sort of sex fiend. When it became evident that the smear campaign wasn’t working, one monk initiated several assassination attempts against Rasputin, even after being exiled.
The aristocracy feared Rasputin’s influence on the Tsar would ultimately threaten its privileged standing if the weak-willed Tsar permitted a constitution, allowing greater participation in government. They also didn’t want the Tsar changing the numerous anti-Semitic laws of his forefathers, having been inculcated with a paranoia vis-à-vis Jews. The Tsar’s mother and uncles also wanted Rasputin gone, with his liberal ideas that would only reduce the power and authority of the Romanov dynasty. So, the nobility conducted their own extensive smear campaign against Rasputin, including rumors of sexual impropriety with the Tsarina and her daughters, and making sure the newspapers published any salacious rumors about him. They hoped he would appear so repulsive that the Tsar would banish him. When that didn’t work, the assassination plots began until one succeeded.
The bureaucrats were fed up with Rasputin’s constant requests for favors for various groups and people. They resented that he wielded the power to influence their actions, usually with the threat “I will tell the One Who Loves Me,” meaning the Tsar or Tsarina. His influence on the appointing and firing of various cabinet members intimidated many of them into simply complying with his wishes. Several government officials plotted assassination attempts against him, and one was involved in his murder.
The military, too, resented Rasputin’s ideas and his interference with its persecution and imprisonment of innocent people on manufactured charges of espionage or in ‘blood libel’ cases. They saw him as a traitor — as a German spy because he was anti-war (and closely associated with the Tsarina who was German), and because he defended and sympathized with the Jews, contrary to government policy and social convention.
All of these groups worked to discredit Rasputin via smear campaigns, the Twitter of the time. Parlor gossip was the most common form of entertainment at that time and was more likely to be believed than not — the more outrageous the better, and the more quickly it spread. Russia was prodigious at finding scapegoats for its ills. The Jews had long been one of their scapegoats; Rasputin was an easy target. This is how his reputation was fabricated. Many cite Rasputin as the cause (or at least one of them) of the downfall of the Romanov Empire. This short-sighted view ignores the centuries of oppression suffered by many Russian citizens, and their unwillingness to suffer any longer. The evidence is that before the 1917 revolution, there was another in 1905 by factory workers seeking better conditions, hours and pay. Rasputin was not yet known in Petersburg at that time.
Q: If you had to sum up his philosophies into a paragraph what would you say?
A: Rasputin was a spiritual man (and devoted father) who believed in equality for all citizens and avoiding bloodshed. He believed that anyone who believed in God was a good person and should worship according to his own religion. He decried the church’s lack of aid to non-Russian Orthodox citizens, believing that all people are children of God. His plan for social equality involved abolishing anti-Semitic laws. His idea for economic reform was to buy acreage from the nobles that the peasants could farm to increase the country’s food supply, and then have the aristocrats, with their profits, build factories to increase industry and create jobs. Ironically, most of these ideas were realized, in some form or another, after the revolution.
Aron Simanovitch, Rasputin’s secretary and friend, said it best in his memoir, Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary:
“He was fond of me and, for my part, I also felt close to him. I never saw him do anything evil or wrong. In fact, his mission was to be good to everyone. If Nicholas II was a bad tsar, Rasputin was not to blame. With my assistance, Rasputin helped thousands of people, with a real and sincere goodness and with no personal profit motive. Numerous were those he saved from misery, death, humiliation and suffering. This I will never forget. I have neither the right to judge nor to condemn him. No human being is without faults, and Rasputin was more honest than most of those around him.”
Q: What personal characteristics do you think Rasputin had that made people listen to him?
A: Most of those who knew him said that his eyes were very intense. However, his behavior was always friendly. He talked with, joked with, and hugged and kissed people on the street, as well as in high society milieus. Most found him jovial and energetic. However, those who came to him with spiritual, physical or psychological problems generally reported that he had a great talent for calming people and making them feel better. Nicholas II even stated that his spiritual discussions with Rasputin left him feeling serene. Rasputin’s sermons were so popular not only due to his impassioned delivery, but because he showed his followers how to use the scriptures to fashion their own lives and behavior. While he had little tolerance for injustice, he felt it a waste of time to respond to his accusers, although many encouraged him to. His daughter, Maria, would urge him to defend himself against the vicious attacks in the newspapers, but he would laugh it off, saying they had to have something to write about, and that Jesus had had to bear far worse than mere accusations.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)