Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Sashenka

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A Novel

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore X
Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 544 pages
    Nov 2009, 544 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A Short Biography of Rasputin
Rasputin's role within St. Petersburg's high society is detailed throughout the first section of Sashenka.

Gregori Yefimovich Rasputin was born in a small village in Siberia in 1864 or 1865. At the age of 18 he was sent to a monastery, possibly as a penance for a minor theft. He returned a changed man, and embarked on the life of a religious mystic. He married in 1889 and had three children. In 1901 he started traveling, spending time in Greece and Jerusalem, eventually settling in St. Petersburg in 1903 as a self-proclaimed holy man, healer and prophet.

He was initially well-received by the Russian Orthodox Church in St Petersburg. He was charismatic, with a talent for calming people and his forthright peasant style lent him increasing credibility with St. Petersburg's aristocracy. He developed a relationship with Anna Vyrubova, a close friend of Tsaritsa Alexandra, which eventually led to his introduction to the Empress.

In 1905, Alexandra's only son Alexei, a hemophiliac, suffered internal bleeding as the result of a fall. His condition worsened, and the physicians in attendance were sure the boy would die. As a last resort, Alexandra asked Anna Vyrubova to bring Rasputin, who banished the doctors, stopped all treatment, and prayed over the child. Miraculously, Alexei was much better in the morning. Much conjecture has surrounded Rasputin's power to heal. Some suggest he was a skilled hypnotist, while others feel that simply getting the doctors to leave Alexei alone was the cure. It's also been postulated that one of Alexei's treatments was a new miracle drug – aspirin – which was in fact causing the bleeding to worsen. Regardless, from that point on Rasputin was called whenever Alexei fell ill, and he gained considerable influence with the Imperial couple as a result.

Rasputin preached a rather unorthodox theology. He claimed that repentance was necessary for salvation, but there could be no repentance without sin. The larger the sin, the greater the repentance, and therefore yielding to temptation was, in fact, a holy act. His followers, increasingly from the higher echelons of St. Petersburg society, embraced the dissolute way of life Rasputin seemed to advocate.

By 1916, the affects of years of war were being felt by most of St. Petersburg's citizens. Thousands had been killed in battle, and supplies of food and other staples were dwindling rapidly. At the same time, members of the aristocracy were perceived as living an opulent and debauched lifestyle. Tsar Nicholas's policies were repressive, and censorship was absolute. These factors led to discontent among the populace who blamed the Tsar for their increasing impoverishment and distrusted the German-born Tsaritsa. Rasputin became a lightening rod for their resentment. Journalists and politicians exaggerated his influence over the Imperial couple and claimed it was evidence that the Tsar should no longer have absolute power, further inciting the people to revolt. The resulting lack of confidence in the Tsar's ability to govern eventually forced him to abdicate.

The details of Rasputin's death may never be fully known, as those present repeatedly changed their accounts. One account is that Felix Yussupov, a member of the royal family, invited Rasputin to his palace on December 29, 1916. Rasputin was given poison, but it was ineffective. Yussupov then shot Rasputin once in the back, and left the body alone in a room while he rejoined his other guests. Yassupov returned later to check the body, at which point Rasputin stood up and attempted to choke Yassupov. Further shots were fired, but these, too, failed to kill Rasputin. He was bludgeoned and then dumped through a hole in the ice in a nearby river. When his body was found several days later, its arms were raised in a position that seemed to indicate Rasputin had been alive at the time of immersion.

A more recent theory put forward in a BBC documentary suggests that he was murdered by rogue members of the British Secret Service because he was seen as a serious threat to the British because, had he persuaded the Tsar to pull out of the First World War, the Allies would have been overwhelmed on the Western Front by German troops redeployed from the Eastern front.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the November 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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