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Unveiling the Real Rasputin

Rasputin book

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Unveiling the Real Rasputin

For a historian working with source documents, there’s a certain visceral thrill of the chase to research. Admittedly, it’s not a Jason Bourne on a motorcyle chase, but a quieter kind. “I love that contact with the actual historical documents themselves—the physical fact that you’re holding papers that Rasputin wrote himself, or the tsar, or these various police agents,” says Doug Smith ’85. “The feel of the paper, the look of it, the ink, it brings you in contact with that world that your characters inhabited.” 

As an accomplished Russian historian, whose five books have brought Russian history alive for a wide audience, Smith has spent a good deal of his career immersed in that world. His latest book, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, is an authoritative, critically celebrated biography that draws back the thick veil of myth surrounding the man variously described as angel or devil, and explores his role in the downfall of Tsarist Russia.   

Smith’s Rasputin biography is the result of six years of work, taking the author to archives in seven countries. Filling in the sparse facts known of Rasputin’s youth drew Smith to an archive in Tobolsk, Siberia, a town near his birthplace. There, he found a scrap of knowledge that had evaded biographers for a century, documents that showed Rasputin was briefly jailed for the crime of cursing at the mayor. “It’s a little clue,” Smith says. “But it’s a little clue that offers insight into who he was as a young man—this sort of rebellious, unruly side, a lack of respect for authority.” 

Conversely, sometimes it was what Smith didn’t find in those archives that shed light. A popular story, seeded by Rasputin’s enemies, asserted that he’d been a horse thief as a young man. Smith found no evidence in police records. “Rasputin: Horse Thief” was fake news early twentieth-century Russian style. 

With some 150 Rasputin biographies in the Library of Congress, the author initially wasn’t sure that one by Douglas Smith needed to join the call number. But as the centenary of Rasputin’s death approached, Smith was struck by how much myth still seemed to stand as fact with this famous life. “I came away from reading previous biographies not terribly satisfied,” Smith says. “It seemed like Rasputin was presented as a cartoon character. He is ‘the holy devil, the saint who sinned.’ I just didn’t find it very convincing.”

Looking back at his evolution as a Russian scholar, Smith laughs, and admits to some embarrassment that his initial draw to languages may have been inspired by the bits of German he heard sprinkled into episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes.” At UVM, his interest in German took a turn toward Russian when he minored in the language on the advice of Professor David Scrase. “I fell in love with Russian that first couple days of classes—the new alphabet, the strange sounds and grammar.” Smith still has his copy of the introductory text, Russian for Americans by Ben T. Clark. 

That minor would turn into a double major in German and Russian, and Smith went on to earn his doctorate in Russian history from UCLA. While an academic career seemed his most likely course, Smith took the road less travelled in writing books that bring Russian history alive for a lay audience.

“I love what I do,” he says. “I’m a true Russophile. I think it is such a fascinating country. I have great respect for the place and the people, and I like to share my passion for it with others who don’t get to spend every day thinking and reading about Russia.”

BOOK BRIEFS

Kevin Dann G’85 explores a legend of American letters in his new biography, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, published on the bicentennial of the writer/philosopher’s birth. Dann brings his skills as historian, writer, and naturalist to the job, delving deeply into Thoreau’s mystical view of the well-trod forest paths of Concord and the cosmos beyond. 

Frank Manchel, professor emeritus of English and film studies, continues his prolific retirement run of publications with Take Two: A Film Teacher’s Unconventional Story. It’s a wide-ranging volume, inspired by Manchel’s love of film and filled with the insight of decades spent studying and teaching the medium. 

Will Alexander G’06 recently published Ambassador, the latest in his award-winning run of fantasy and science fiction books for children and young adults. Alexander’s debut novel, Goblin Secrets, received the 2012 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Richard Weintraub ’75 was a compassionate voice and tireless innovator and leader on behalf of Boston’s homeless population across three decades. He also had a love of writing poems and short stories. Following Weintraub’s death last summer, his widow, Eva Posner ’76, published two volumes of his work: The Teeny Tales and Love, Life, and Other Matters.  

Vince Feeney G’68, a longtime lecturer in the UVM History Department, looks close to home with Burlington: A History of Vermont’s Queen City. The author’s accessible, finely told stories take Burlington lovers deep into the city’s past from the glory days of Big Lumber to the origins of a certain university on the hill. 


 

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