Masters of Darkness: Rasputin, The Devil in the Flesh

Tuesday, February 12, 2002 by

Before I sat down to watch this Channel 4 documentary, my knowledge of Rasputin was scant. In fact, this is all I knew: he was “The Mad Monk”, he had a beard and – according to Boney M, always a reliable source – he was “Russia’s greatest love machine”. This film was about the myth of Rasputin – how a Siberian peasant was able to infiltrate the hierarchy of Russian society, to the point where he was practically running the country. Somewhat of an outcast from an early age, Rasputin went from being a horse-healing oddball from the middle of nowhere, to having the Russian royalty virtually at his beck and call. The programme charted his calculated rise and inevitable fall, from impoverished beginning, to bizarre end.

It was standard C4 fare – tell the story, get in a few learned types – lecturers, professors, occult historians – add spooky music and some reconstructions and voila! It’s certainly a well trodden path, but that’s not to detract from its effectiveness and it’s hard to see how this peculiar story could have been better told. The narrative took in superstition, royalty, class politics, mysticism and the social climate of turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, all the while keeping your attention with its genuinely unsettling tone.

The film was educational in the sense that it really did inform, while the talking heads were clearly enthused about their subject. In fact, they provided an amusing and entertaining interlude between the shots of the Christopher Eccleston lookalike playing Rasputin, who did a good job of being generally unhinged. Author Colin Wilson was forthright in his opinions: “Alexandra was a silly bitch!” he spluttered while talking about the Tzarina’s shortcomings. “Those two in charge of a country?! Disastrous!”

Alex Lott, occult historian was altogether more reverent to his subject and was shot looking moody in Russian streets – but was clearly in his element when filmed looking around Rasputin’s downtown St Petersburg apartment. Far more disturbing, was Edvard Radzinsky, who resembled a crazed cherub and gleefully told how the crazy cleric encouraged all to engage in sinful (sexual) exploits with him, in order that they could repent more fully and get closer to God (“It was not sex! It was a way to God!”)

Opinions varied – to some contributors he was a “holy man” seeking a pure connection with a divine spirit, to others he was a power crazed demon who got his kicks beating women. Just as Rasputin’s own story was steeped in rumour, this film too sought to perpetuate some of those myths. That he had some unexplained powers of healing seemed to be true enough, and his hold over almost all who met him was also evident. He was the one person who could have talked Nicholas II out of entering the war, but as it was, he was recovering in hospital after an ex-prostitute with no nose ripped part of his intestines out (you couldn’t make it up).

The makers of “The Devil in the Flesh” were not seeking to uncover The Real Rasputin, or deconstruct the myth, but simply tell us a gripping story. Professor Orlando Figes was clearly spot on when he described Rasputin as a chancer who drank too much and got lucky. It was probably the most truthful approach, but had that been the end of the matter, this documentary wouldn’t have been nearly so entertaining.


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