Teffi | Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi | New York Review Books Classics | May 2016 | 39 minutes (10,692 words)
The essay below appears in the new collection Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi, released this month for New York Review Books Classics. Teffi, whose real name was Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in St. Petersburg in 1872 and went into exile in 1919, first in Istanbul, then in Paris. “Rasputin” was orginally published in Paris in 1924. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
This isn’t simply because he was so very famous. In my life I’ve met many famous people.
There are people who are remarkable because of their talent, intelligence or public standing, people whom you often meet and whom you know well. You have an accurate sense of what these people are like, but all the same they pass through your life in a blur, as if your psychic lens can never quite focus on them, and your memory of them always remains vague. There’s nothing you can say about them that everyone doesn’t already know. They were tall or they were short; they were married; they were affable or arrogant, unassuming or ambitious; they lived in some place or other and they saw a lot of so-and-so. The blurred negatives of the amateur photographer. You can look all you like, but you still don’t know whether you’re looking at a little girl or a ram.
The person I want to talk about flashed by in a mere two brief encounters. But how firmly and vividly his character is etched into my memory, as if with a fine needle.
And this isn’t simply because he was so very famous. In my life I’ve met many famous people, people who have truly earned their renown. Nor is it because he played such a tragic role in the fate of Russia. No. This man was unique, one of a kind, like a character out of a novel; he lived in legend, he died in legend, and his memory is cloaked in legend.
A semi-literate peasant and a counsellor to the Tsar, a hardened sinner and a man of prayer, a shape-shifter with the name of God on his lips.
They called him cunning. Was there really nothing to him but cunning?
I shall tell you about my two brief encounters with him.
So you really don’t understand? You don’t know who it is we can’t discuss over the telephone?
The end of a Petersburg winter. Neurasthenia.
Rather than starting a new day, morning merely continues the grey, long-drawn-out evening of the day before.
Through the plate glass of the large bay window I can see out onto the street, where a warrant officer is teaching new recruits to poke bayonets into a scarecrow. The recruits have grey, damp-chilled faces. A despondent-looking woman with a sack stops and stares at them.
What could be more dismal?
The telephone rings.
“Who is it?”
In my surprise, I ask again. Yes, it’s Rozanov.
He is very cryptic. “Has Izmailov said anything to you? Has he invited you? Have you accepted?”
“No, I haven’t seen Izmailov and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“So he hasn’t yet spoken to you. I can’t say anything over the telephone. But please, please do accept. If you don’t go, I won’t either.”
“For heaven’s sake, what are you talking about?”
“He’ll explain everything. It’s not something we can talk about on the telephone.”
There was a click on the line. We had been disconnected.
This was all very unexpected and strange. Vasily Rozanov was not someone I saw a lot of. Nor was Izmailov. And the combination of Rozanov and Izmailov also seemed odd. What was all this about? And why wouldn’t Rozanov go to some place unless I went too?
I rang the editorial department of the Stock Exchange Gazette, where Izmailov worked. It was too early; no one was there.
But I didn’t have to wait long. About two hours later Izmailov rang me.
“There is the possibility of a very interesting meeting… Unfortunately, there’s nothing more I can say over the telephone… Maybe you can guess?”
I most certainly could not guess. We agreed that he should come round and explain everything.
“Have you still not guessed who we’re talking about?”
Izmailov was thin, all in black, and in dark glasses; he looked as if he had been sketched in black ink. His voice was hollow. All rather weird and sinister.
Izmailov truly was weird. He lived in the grounds of the Smolensk cemetery, where his father had once been a priest. He practised black magic, loved telling stories about sorcery, and he knew charms and spells. Thin, pale and black, with a thin strip of bright red mouth, he looked like a vampire.
“So you really don’t understand?” he asked with a grin. “You don’t know who it is we can’t discuss over the telephone?”
“Kaiser Wilhelm perhaps?”
Izmailov looked through his dark glasses at the two doors into my study—and then, over his glasses, at me.
“Here in Petersburg there’s a publisher. Filippov—perhaps you’ve heard of him? No? Well, anyway, there is. Rasputin goes to see him quite often; he dines with him. For some reason he’s really quite friendly with him. Filippov also regularly entertains Manuilov, who has a certain reputation in literary circles. Do you know him?”
Manuilov was someone I had come across a few times. He was one of those “companion fish” that are part of the entourage of great writers or artistic figures. At one point he had worshipped Kuprin, then he had moved over to Leonid Andreyev. Then he had quietened down and seemed to disappear altogether. Now he had resurfaced.
“This Manuilov,” said Izmailov, “has suggested to Filippov that he should ask round some writers who’d like to get a glimpse of Rasputin. Just a few people, carefully chosen so there’s no one superfluous and no chance of any unpleasant surprises. Only recently a friend of mine happened to be in the company of Rasputin—and someone covertly took a photograph. Worse still—they sent this photograph to a magazine. ‘Rasputin,’ the caption read, ‘among his friends and admirers.’ But my friend is a prominent public figure; he’s a serious man, perfectly respectable. He can’t stand Rasputin and he feels he’ll never get over the disgrace of this photograph—of being immortalized amid this picturesque crowd. Which is why, to avoid any unpleasantness of this kind, I’ve made it a condition that there should be no superfluous guests. Filippov has given his promise, and this morning Manuilov came over and showed me the guest list. One of the writers is Rozanov, and Rozanov insists that you absolutely must be there. Without you, he says, the whole thing will be a waste of time. Evidently he has a plan of some kind.”
“What on earth can this plan be?” I asked. “Maybe I should stay at home. Although I would, I admit, be curious to get a glimpse of Rasputin.”
“Precisely. How could anyone not be curious? One wants to see for oneself whether he really is someone significant in his own right or whether he’s just a tool—someone being exploited by clever people for their own ends. Let’s take a chance and go. We won’t stay long and we’ll keep together. Like it or not, he’s someone who’ll be in the history books. If we miss this chance, we may never get another.”
“Just so long as he doesn’t think we’re trying to get something out of him.”
“I don’t think he will. The host has promised not to let on that we’re writers. Apparently Rasputin doesn’t like writers. He’s afraid of them. So no one will be telling him this little detail. This is in our interests too. We want Rasputin to feel completely at ease—as if among friends. Because if he feels he’s got to start posturing, the evening will be a complete waste of time. So, we’ll be going, will we? Tomorrow late—not before ten. Rasputin never turns up any earlier. If he’s held up at the palace and can’t come, Filippov promises to ring and let us all know.”
“This is all very strange. And I’ve never even met the host.”
“I don’t know him either, not personally—nor does Rozanov. But he’s someone well known. And he’s a perfectly decent fellow. So, we’re agreed: tomorrow at ten.
She had suddenly, shamelessly, lost all self-control at the mere mention of Rasputin.
I had glimpsed Rasputin once before. In a train. He must have been on his way east, to visit his home village in Siberia. He was in a first-class compartment. With his entourage: a little man who was something like a secretary to him, a woman of a certain age with her daughter, and Madame V——, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsaritsa.
It was very hot and the compartment doors were wide open. Rasputin was presiding over tea—with a tin teapot, dried bread rings and lumps of sugar on the side. He was wearing a pink calico smock over his trousers, wiping his forehead and neck with an embroidered towel and talking rather peevishly, with a broad Siberian accent.
“Dearie! Go and fetch us some more hot water! Hot water, I said, go and get us some. The tea’s right stewed but they didn’t even give us any hot water. And where is the strainer? Annushka, where’ve you gone and hidden the strainer? Annushka! The strainer—where is it? Oh, what a muddler you are!”
In the evening of the day Izmailov had come round—that is, the day before I was due to meet Rasputin—I went to a rather large dinner party at the home of some friends. The mirror above the dining-room fireplace was adorned with a sign that read: “In this house we do not talk about Rasputin.”
I’d seen signs like this in a number of other houses. But this time, because I was going to be seeing him the next day, there was no one in the world I wanted to talk about more than Rasputin. And so, slowly and loudly, I read out: “In this house we do not talk about Ras-pu-tin.”
Sitting diagonally across from me was a thin, tense, angular lady. She quickly looked round, glanced at me, then at the sign, then back at me again. As if she wanted to say something.
“Who’s that?” I asked my neighbour.
“Madame E——,” he replied. “She’s a lady-in-waiting. Daughter of the E——” He named someone then very well known. “Know who I mean?”
After dinner this lady sat down beside me. I knew she’d been really wanting to talk to me—ever since I’d read out that sign. But all she could do was prattle in a scatterbrained way about literature. Clearly she didn’t know how to turn the conversation to the subject that interested her.
I decided to help her out.
“Have you seen the sign over the fireplace? Funny, isn’t it? The Bryanchaninovs have one just like it.”
She immediately came to life.
“Yes, indeed. I really don’t understand. Why shouldn’t we talk about Rasputin?”
“Probably because people are talking about him too much. Everyone’s bored with the subject…”
“Bored?” She seemed almost scared. “How could anyone find him boring? You’re not going to say that, are you? Don’t you find Rasputin fascinating?”
“Have you ever met him?” I asked.
“Who? Him? You mean—Rasputin?”
And suddenly she was all fidgety and flustered. Gasping. Red blotches appeared on her thin, pale cheeks.
“Rasputin? Yes… a very little… a few times. He feels he absolutely has to get to know me. They say this will be very, very interesting. Do you know, when he stares at me, my heart begins to pound in the most alarming way… It’s astonishing. I’ve seen him three times, I think, at friends’. The last time he suddenly came right up close and said, ‘Why so shy, you little waif ? You be sure to come and see me—yes, mind you do!’ I was completely at a loss. I said I didn’t know, that I couldn’t… And then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You shall come. Understand? Yes, you absolutely shall!’ And the way he said ‘shall’ so commandingly, with such authority, it was as if this had already been decided on high and Rasputin was in the know. Do you understand what I mean? It was as if, to him, my fate were an open book. He sees it, he knows it. I’m sure you understand I would never call on him, but the lady whose house I met him at said I really must, that plenty of women of our station call on him, and that there’s nothing in the least untoward about it. But still… I… I shan’t…”
This “I shan’t” she almost squealed. She looked as if she were about to give a hysterical shriek and start weeping.
I could hardly believe it! A mild-mannered lady, mousy and thin, and she looked as if she were at least thirty-five. And yet she had suddenly, shamelessly, lost all self-control at the mere mention of Rasputin, that peasant in a pink calico smock whom I had heard ordering “Annushka” to look for the tea strainer…
The lady of the house came over to where we were sitting and asked us a question. And without replying, probably without even hearing her, Madame E—— got up and with a jerky, angular gait went over to the mirror to powder her nose.
These were strange times, and so no one was especially surprised.
All the next day I was unable to put this twitching, bewitched lady-in-waiting out of my mind.
It was unnerving and horrible.
The hysteria around the name of Rasputin was making me feel a kind of moral nausea.
I realized, of course, that a lot of the talk about him was petty, foolish invention, but nonetheless I felt there was something real behind all these tales, that they sprang from some weird, genuine, living source.
In the afternoon Izmailov rang again and confirmed the invitation. He promised that Rasputin would definitely be there. And he passed on a request from Rozanov that I should wear something “a bit glamorous”—so Rasputin would think he was just talking to an ordinary “laydee” and the thought that I might be a writer wouldn’t so much as enter his head.
This demand for “a bit of glamour” greatly amused me.
“Rozanov seems determined to cast me in the role of some biblical Judith or Delilah. I’ll make a hash of it, I’m afraid—I haven’t the talents of either an actor or an agent provocateur. All I’ll do is mess things up.”
“Let’s just play it by ear,” Izmailov said reassuringly. “Shall I send someone over to fetch you?”
I declined, as I was dining with friends, and was going to be dropped off after the meal.
That evening, as I was dressing, I tried to imagine a peasant’s idea of “a bit of glamour”. I put on a pair of gold shoes, and some gold rings and earrings. I’d have felt embarrassed to deck myself out any more flashily. It wasn’t as if I was going to be able to explain to all and sundry that this was glamour on demand!
At my friends’ dinner table, this time without any wiles on my part, the conversation turned to Rasputin. (People evidently had good reason to put injunctions up over their fireplaces.)
As always, there were stories about espionage, about Germans bribing Russian officials, about sums of money finding their way via the elder into particular pockets and about court intrigues, the threads of which were all in Rasputin’s hands.
Even the “black automobile” got linked with the name of Rasputin.
The “black automobile” remains a mystery to this day. Several nights running this car had roared across the Field of Mars, sped over the Palace Bridge and disappeared into the unknown. Shots had been fired from inside the car. Passers-by had been wounded.
“It’s Rasputin’s doing,” people were saying. “Who else?”
“What’s he got to do with it?”
“He profits from everything black, evil and incomprehensible. Everything that sows discord and panic. And there’s nothing he can’t explain to his own advantage when he needs to.”
These were strange conversations. But these were strange times, and so no one was especially surprised. Although the events soon to unfold swept the “black automobile” right out of our minds. All too soon we would have other things to think about.
But at the time, at dinner, we talked about all these things. First and foremost, people were astonished by Rasputin’s extraordinary brazenness. Razumov, who was then the director of the Department of Mines, indignantly related how one of his provincial officials had come to him with a request for a transfer. And to support his case, he had held out a piece of paper on which Rasputin—whom Razumov had never even met—had scrawled:
Dearie, do wot the barer asks and yul have no caws for regret.
“Can you imagine? The cheek of it! The brazen cheek of it! And there are a great many ministers who say they’ve received little notes like this. And all too many of them just do as he asks—though they don’t, of course, admit as much. I’ve even been told I was reckless to be getting so angry, because he would hear about it. It was vile. Can you imagine it? ‘Dearie’! As for the fine fellow who turned up with the note, I showed him what a ‘Dearie’ I can be! I’m told he flew down the stairs four at a time. And he had seemed like such a respectable man—as well as being a rather eminent engineer.”
“Yes,” said someone else, “I’ve heard about any number of these ‘Dearie’ recommendations, but this is the first time I’ve heard about one not being granted. People get all indignant, but they don’t feel able to refuse the man. ‘He’s vindictive,’ they say, ‘a vindictive peasant.’”
God Almighty! Do you really not know how to get a man to talk?
Sometime after ten o’clock I arrived at Filippov’s.
Our host greeted me in the hall. After saying in a friendly way that we’d already met once before, he showed me into his study.
“Your friends arrived some time ago.”
In the small, smoke-filled room were some half a dozen people.
Rozanov was looking bored and disgruntled. Izmailov appeared strained, as if trying to make out that everything was going fine when really it wasn’t.
Manuilov was standing close to the doorway, looking as if he felt entirely at home. Two or three people I didn’t know were sitting silently on the divan. And then there was Rasputin. Dressed in a black woollen Russian kaftan and tall patent leather boots, he was fidgeting anxiously, squirming about in his chair. One of his shoulders kept twitching.
Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to have been gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes. Whenever he said something, he would look round the whole group, his eyes pricking each person in turn, as if to say, “Have I given you something to think about? Are you satisfied? Have I surprised you?”
I felt at once that he was rather preoccupied, confused, even embarrassed. He was posturing.
“Yes, yes,” he was saying. “I wish to go back as soon as possible, to Tobolsk. I wish to pray. My little village is a good place to pray. God hears people’s prayers there.”
And then he studied each of us in turn, his eyes keenly pricking each one of us from under his greasy locks.
“But here in your city nothing’s right. It’s not possible to pray in this city. It’s very hard when you can’t pray. Very hard.”
And again he looked round anxiously, right into everyone’s faces, right into their eyes.
We were introduced. As had been agreed, my fellow scribes did not let on who I really was.
He studied me, as if thinking, “Who is this woman?”
There was a general sense of both tedium and tension—not what we wanted at all. Something in Rasputin’s manner—maybe his general unease, maybe his concern about the impression his words were making—suggested that somehow he knew who we were. It seemed we might have been given away. Imagining himself to be surrounded by “enemies from the press”, Rasputin had assumed the posture of a man of prayer.
They say he really did have a great deal to put up with from journalists. The papers were always full of sly insinuations of every kind. After a few drinks with his cronies, Rasputin was supposed to have divulged interesting details about the personal lives of people in the very highest places. Whether this was true or just newspaper sensationalism, I don’t know. But I do know that there were two levels of security around Rasputin: one set of guards whom he knew about and who protected him from attempts on his life; another set whom he was supposed not to know about and who kept track of whom he was talking to and whether or not he was saying anything he shouldn’t. Just who was responsible for this second set of guards I can’t say for certain, but I suspect it was someone who wanted to undermine Rasputin’s credibility at court.
He had keen senses, and some animal instinct told him he was surrounded. Not knowing where the enemy lay, he was on the alert, his eyes quietly darting everywhere…
I was infected by my friends’ discomfort. It felt tedious and rather awkward to be sitting in the house of a stranger and listening to Rasputin straining to come out with spiritually edifying pronouncements that interested none of us. It was as if he were being tested and was afraid of failing.
I wanted to go home.
Rozanov got to his feet. He took me aside and whispered, “We’re banking on dinner. There’s still a chance of him opening up. Filippov and I have agreed that you must sit beside him. And we’ll be close by. You’ll get him talking. He’s not going to talk freely to us—he’s a ladies’ man. Get him to speak about the erotic. This could be really something—it’s a chance we must make the most of. We could end up having a most interesting conversation.”
Rozanov would happily discuss erotic matters with anyone under the sun, so it was hardly a surprise that he should be so eager to discuss them with Rasputin. After all, what didn’t they say about Rasputin? He was a hypnotist and a mesmerist, at once a flagellant and a lustful satyr, both a saint and a man possessed by demons.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do what I can.”
Turning around, I encountered two eyes as sharp as needles. Our surreptitious conversation had obviously disturbed Rasputin.
With a twitch of the shoulder, he turned away.
We were invited to the table.
I was seated at one corner. To my left sat Rozanov and Izmailov. To my right, at the end of the table, Rasputin.
There turned out to be around a dozen other guests: an elderly lady with a self-important air (“She’s the one who goes everywhere with him,” someone whispered to me); a harassed-looking gentleman, who hurriedly got a beautiful young lady to sit on Rasputin’s right (this young lady was dressed to the nines—certainly more than “a bit glamorous”—but the look on her face was crushed and hopeless, quite out of keeping with her attire); and at the other end of the table were some strange-looking musicians, with a guitar, an accordion and a tambourine—as if this were a village wedding.
Filippov came over to us, pouring out wine and handing round hors d’oeuvres. In a low voice I asked about the beautiful lady and the musicians.
The musicians, it turned out, were a requirement—Grisha sometimes liked to get up and dance, and only what they played would do. They also played at the Yusupovs’.
“They’re very good. Quite unique. In a moment you’ll hear for yourself.” As for the beautiful lady, Filippov explained that her husband (the harassed-looking gentleman) was having a difficult time at work. It was an unpleasant and complicated situation that could only be sorted out with the help of the elder. And so this gentleman was seizing every possible opportunity to meet Rasputin, taking his wife along with him and seating her beside Rasputin in the hope that sooner or later he would take notice of her.
“He’s been trying for two months now, but Grisha acts as if he doesn’t even see them. He can be strange and obstinate.”
Rasputin was drinking a great deal and very quickly. Suddenly he leant towards me and whispered, “Why aren’t you drinking, eh? Drink. God will forgive you. Drink.”
“I don’t care for wine, that’s why I’m not drinking.”
He looked at me mistrustfully.
“Nonsense! Drink. I’m telling you: God will forgive you. He will forgive you. God will forgive you many things. Drink!”
“But I’m telling you I’d rather not. You don’t want me to force myself to drink, do you?”
“What’s he saying?” whispered Rozanov on my left. “Make him talk louder. Ask him again, to make him talk louder. Otherwise I can’t hear.”
“But it’s nothing interesting. He’s just trying to get me to drink.”
“Get him to talk about matters erotic. God Almighty! Do you really not know how to get a man to talk?”
This was beginning to seem funny.
“Stop going on at me! What am I? An agent provocateur? Anyway, why should I go to all this trouble for you?”
I turned away from Rozanov. Rasputin’s sharp, watchful eyes pricked into me.
“So you don’t want to drink? You are a stubborn one! I’m telling you to drink—and you won’t.”
And with a quick and obviously practised movement he quietly reached up and touched my shoulder. Like a hypnotist using touch to direct the current of his will. It was as deliberate as that.
From his intent look I could see he knew exactly what he was doing. And I remembered the lady-in-waiting and her hysterical babbling: And then he put his hand on my shoulder and said so commandingly, with such authority…
So it was like that, was it? Evidently Grisha had a set routine. Raising my eyebrows in surprise, I glanced at him and smiled coolly.
A spasm went through his shoulder and he let out a quiet moan. Quickly and angrily he turned away from me, as if once and for all. But a moment later he was leaning towards me again.
“You may be laughing,” he said, “but do you know what your eyes are saying? Your eyes are sad. Go on, you can tell me—is he making you suffer badly? Why don’t you say anything? Don’t you know we all love sweet tears, a woman’s sweet tears. Do you understand? I know everything.”
I was delighted for Rozanov. The conversation was evidently turning to matters erotic.
“What is it you know?” I asked loudly, on purpose, so that Rasputin, too, would raise his voice, as people often unwittingly do.
Once again, though, he spoke very softly.
“I know how love can make one person force another to suffer. And I know how necessary it can be to make someone suffer. But I don’t want you to suffer. Understand?”
“I can’t hear a thing!” came Rozanov’s cross voice, from my left.
“Be patient!” I whispered.
Rasputin went on.
“What’s that ring on your hand? What stone is it?”
“It’s an amethyst.”
“Well, that’ll do. Hold your hand out to me under the table so no one can see. Then I’ll breathe on the ring and warm it… The breath of my soul will make you feel better.”
I passed him the ring.
“Oh, why did you have to take it off? That was for me to do. You don’t understand…”
But I had understood only too well. Which was why I’d taken it off myself.
Covering his mouth with his napkin, he breathed onto the ring and quietly slid it onto my finger.
“There. When you come and see me, I’ll tell you many things you don’t know.”
“But what if I don’t come?” I asked, once again remembering the hysterical lady-in-waiting.
Here he was, Rasputin in his element. The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words—all this was a tried and tested method. But if so, then it was all rather naive and straightforward. Or, perhaps, his fame as a sorcerer, soothsayer and favourite of the Tsar really did kindle within people a particular blend of curiosity and fear, a keen desire to participate in this weird mystery. It was like looking through a microscope at some species of beetle. I could see the monstrous hairy legs, the giant maw—but I knew it was really just a little insect.
“Not come to me? No, you shall come. You shall come to me.”
And again he quickly reached up and quietly touched my shoulder. I calmly moved aside and said, “No, I shan’t.”
And again a spasm went through his shoulder and he let out a low moan. Each time he sensed that his power, the current of his will, was not penetrating me and was meeting resistance, he experienced physical pain. (This was my impression at the time—and it was confirmed later.) And in this there was no pretence, as he was evidently trying to conceal both the spasms in his shoulder and his strange, low groan.
No, this was not a straightforward business at all. Howling inside him was a black beast… There was much we did not know.
In the style of the Song of Songs and obscurely amorous.
“Ask him about Vyrubova,” whispered Rozanov. “Ask him about everyone. Get him to tell you everything. And please get him to speak up.”
Rasputin gave Rozanov a sideways look from under his greasy locks.
“What’s that fellow whispering about?”
Rozanov held his glass out towards Rasputin and said, “I was wanting to clink glasses.”
Izmailov held his glass out, too.
Rasputin looked at them both warily, looked away, then looked back again.
Suddenly Izmailov asked, “Tell me, have you ever tried your hand at writing?”
Who, apart from a writer, would think to ask such a question?
“Now and again,” replied Rasputin without the least surprise. “Even quite a few times.”
And he beckoned to a young man sitting at the other end of the table.
“Dearie! Bring me the pages with my poems that you just tapped out on that little typing machine.”
“Dearie” darted off and came back with the pages.
Rasputin handed them around. Everyone reached out. There were a lot of these typed pages, enough for all of us. We began to read.
It turned out to be a prose poem, in the style of the Song of Songs and obscurely amorous. I can still remember the lines: “Fine and high are the mountains. But my love is higher and finer yet, because love is God.”
But that seems to have been the only passage that made any sense. Everything else was just a jumble of words.
As I was reading, the author kept looking around restlessly, trying to see what impression his work was making.
“Very good,” I said.
“Dearie! Give us a clean sheet, I’ll write something for her myself.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He chewed for a long time on his pencil. Then, in a barely decipherable peasant scrawl, he wrote:
God is lov. Now lov. God wil forgiv yu.
The basic pattern of Rasputin’s magic charms was clear enough: love, and God will forgive you.
But why should such an inoffensive maxim as this cause his ladies to collapse in fits of ecstasy? Why had that lady-in-waiting got into such a state?
This was no simple matter.
The palace evidently knew exactly where Rasputin was to be found. Probably, they always did.
I studied the awkwardly scrawled letters and the signature below: “Grigory”.
What power this signature held. I knew of a case where this scrawl of seven letters had recalled a man who had been sentenced to forced labour and was already on his way to Siberia.
And it seemed likely that this same signature could, just as easily, transport a man there…
“You should hang on to that autograph,” said Rozanov. “It’s quite something.”
It did in fact stay in my possession for a long time. In Paris, some six years ago, I found it in an old briefcase and gave it to J.W. Bienstock, the author of a book about Rasputin in French.
Rasputin really was only semi-literate; writing even a few words was hard work for him. This made me think of the forest-warden in our home village—the man whose job had been to catch poachers and supervise the spring floating of timber. I remembered the little bills he used to write: “Tren to dacha and bak fife ru” (five roubles).
Rasputin was also strikingly like this man in physical appearance. Perhaps that’s why his words and general presence failed to excite the least mystical awe in me. “God is love, you shall come” and so on. That “fife ru”, which I couldn’t get out of my head, was constantly in the way…
Suddenly our host came up, looking very concerned.
“The palace is on the line.”
Rasputin left the room.
The palace evidently knew exactly where Rasputin was to be found. Probably, they always did.
Taking advantage of Rasputin’s absence, Rozanov began lecturing me, advising me how best to steer the conversation on to all kinds of interesting topics.
“And do please get him to talk about the Khlysts and their rites. Find out whether it’s all true, and if so, how it’s all organized and whether it’s possible, say, to attend.”
“Get him to invite you, and then you can bring us along, too.”
I agreed willingly. This truly would be interesting.
But Rasputin didn’t come back. Our host said he had been summoned urgently to Tsarskoye Selo —even though it was past midnight—but that, as he was leaving, Rasputin had asked him to tell me he would definitely be coming back.
“Don’t let her go,” said Filippov, repeating Rasputin’s words. “Have her wait for me. I’ll be back.”
Needless to say no one waited. Our group, at least, left as soon as we had finished eating.
He himself was being carried away by the very force he was trying to control.
Everyone I told about the evening showed a quite extraordinary degree of interest. They wanted to know the elder’s every word, and they wanted me to describe every detail of his appearance. Most of all, they wanted to know if they could get themselves invited to Filippov’s, too.
“What kind of impression did he make on you?”
“No very strong impression,” I replied. “But I can’t say I liked him.”
People were advising me to make the most of this connection. One never knows what the future holds in store, and Rasputin was certainly a force to be reckoned with. He toppled ministers and he shuffled courtiers as if they were a pack of cards. His displeasure was feared more than the wrath of the Tsar.
There was talk about clandestine German overtures being made via Rasputin to Alexandra Fyodorovna. With the help of prayer and hypnotic suggestion he was, apparently, directing our military strategy.
“Don’t go on the offensive before such and such a date—or the Tsarevich will be taken ill.”
Rasputin seemed to me to lack the steadiness needed to manage any kind of political strategy. He was too twitchy, too easily distracted, too confused in every way. Most likely he accepted bribes and got involved in plots and deals without really thinking things through or weighing up the consequences. He himself was being carried away by the very force he was trying to control. I don’t know what he was like at the beginning of his trajectory, but by the time I met him, he was already adrift. He had lost himself; it was as if he were being swept away by a whirlwind, by a tornado. As if in delirium, he kept repeating the words: “God… prayer… wine”. He was confused; he had no idea what he was doing. He was in torment, writhing about, throwing himself into his dancing with a despairing howl—as if to retrieve some treasure left behind in a burning house. This satanic dancing of his was something I witnessed later…
I was told he used to gather his society ladies together in a bathhouse and—“to break their pride and teach them humility”—make them bathe his feet. I don’t know whether this is true, but it’s not impossible. At that time, in that atmosphere of hysteria, even the most idiotic flight of fancy seemed plausible.
Was he really a mesmerist? I once spoke to someone who had seriously studied hypnotism, mesmerism and mind control.
I told him about that strange gesture of Rasputin’s, the way he would quickly reach out and touch someone and how a spasm would go through his shoulder when he felt his hypnotic command was meeting resistance.
“You really don’t know?” he asked in surprise. “Mesmerists always make that kind of physical contact. It’s how they transmit the current of their will. And when this current is blocked, then it rebounds upon the mesmerist. The more powerful a wave the mesmerist sends out, the more powerful the current that flows back. You say he was very persistent, which suggests he was using all his strength. That’s why the return current struck him with such force; that’s why he was writhing and moaning. It sounds as if he was suffering real pain as he struggled to control the backlash. Everything you describe is entirely typical.”
Rasputin leant over towards me: ‘I’ve missed you. I’ve been pining for you.’
Three or four days after this dinner, Izmailov rang me a second time.
“Filippov is begging us to have dinner with him again. Last time Rasputin had to leave almost straight away; he’d barely had time to look about him. This time Filippov assures us that it will all be a great deal more interesting.”
Apparently Manuilov had dropped in on Izmailov. He’d been very insistent (almost like some kind of impresario!) and had shown Izmailov the final guest list: all respectable people who knew how to behave. There was no need to worry.
“Just once more,” Izmailov said to me. “This time our conversation with him will be a lot more fruitful. Maybe we’ll get him to say something really interesting. He truly is someone out of the ordinary. Let’s go.”
This time I arrived later. Everyone had been at the table for some time.
There were many more people than the first time. All of the previous guests were there—as were the musicians. Rasputin was sitting in the same place. Everyone was talking politely, as if they were invited there regularly. No one was looking at Rasputin; it was as if his presence were of no consequence to them at all. And yet the truth was all too obvious: most of the guests did not know one another and, although they now seemed too timid to do anything at all, there was only one reason why they had come. They wanted to have a look at Rasputin, to find out about him, to talk to him.
Rasputin had removed his outer garment and was sitting in a stiff taffeta shirt, worn outside his trousers. It was a glaring pink, and it had an embroidered collar, buttoned on one side.
His face was tense and tired; he looked ashen. His prickly eyes were deeply sunken. He’d all but turned his back on the lawyer’s glamorously dressed wife, who was again sitting next to him. My own place, on his other side, was still free.
“Ah! There she is,” he said with a sudden twitch. “Well, come and sit down. I’ve been waiting. Why did you run off last time? I came back—and where were you? Drink! What’s the matter? I’m telling you—drink! God will forgive you.”
Rozanov and Izmailov were also in the same places as before.
Rasputin leant over towards me.
“I’ve missed you. I’ve been pining for you.”
“Nonsense. You’re just saying that to be nice,” I said loudly. “Why don’t you tell me something interesting instead? Is it true you organize Khlyst rituals?”
“Khlyst rituals? Here? Here in the city?”
“Well, don’t you?”
“Who’s told you that?” he asked uneasily. “Who? Did he say he was there himself ? Did he see for himself ? Or just hear rumours?”
“I’m afraid I can’t remember who it was.”
“You can’t remember? My clever girl, why don’t you come along and see me? I’ll tell you many things you don’t know. You wouldn’t have English blood, would you?”
“No, I’m completely Russian.”
“There’s something English about your little face. I have a princess in Moscow and she has an English face, too. Yes, I’m going to drop everything and go to Moscow.”
“What about Vyrubova?” I asked, rather irrelevantly—for Rozanov’s sake.
“Vyrubova? No, not Vyrubova. She has a round face, not an English one. Vyrubova is my little one. I’ll tell you how it is: some of my flock are little ones and some are something else. I’m not going to lie to you, this is the truth.”
Suddenly Izmailov found his courage. “And… the Tsaritsa?” he asked in a choked voice. “Alexandra Fyodorovna?”
The boldness of the question rather alarmed me. But, to my surprise, Rasputin replied very calmly, “The Tsaritsa? She’s ailing. Her breast ails her. I lay my hand upon her and I pray. I pray well. And my prayer always makes her better. She’s ailing. I must pray for her and her little ones.” And then he muttered, “It’s bad… bad…”
“No, it’s nothing… We must pray. They are good little ones…”
I recall reading in the newspapers, at the beginning of the revolution, about the “filthy correspondence between the elder and the depraved princesses”—correspondence that it was “quite inconceivable to publish”. Sometime later, however, these letters were published. And they went something like this: “Dear Grisha, please pray that I’ll be a good student.” “Dear Grisha, I’ve been a good girl all week long and obeyed Papa and Mama…”
“We must pray,” Rasputin went on muttering.
“Do you know Madame E——?” I asked.
“The one with the little pointed face? I think I’ve glimpsed her here and there. But it’s you I want to come along and see me. You’ll get to meet everyone and I’ll tell you all about them.”
“Why should I come along? It’ll only make them all cross.”
“Make who cross?”
“Your ladies. They don’t know me; I’m a complete stranger to them. They’re not going to be pleased to see me.”
“They wouldn’t dare!” He beat the table with his fist. “No, not in my house. In my house everyone is happy—God’s grace descends on everyone. If I say, ‘Bathe my feet!’, they’ll do as I say and then drink the water. In my house everything is godly. Obedience, grace, humility and love.”
“See? They bathe your feet. No, you’ll be better off without me.”
“You shall come. I’ll send for you.”
“Has everyone really come when you’ve sent for them?”
“No one’s refused yet.”
Was Rasputin the weaver of this web—or the one being caught in it? Who was betraying whom?
Apparently quite forgotten, the lawyer’s wife sitting on the other side of Rasputin was hungrily and tenaciously listening to our conversation.
From time to time, noticing me looking at her, she would give me an ingratiating smile. Her husband kept whispering to her and drinking to my health.
“You ought to invite the young lady to your right,” I said to Rasputin. “She’s lovely!”
Hearing my words, she looked up at me with frightened, grateful eyes. She even paled a little as she waited for his response. Rasputin glanced at her, quickly turned away and said loudly, “She’s a stupid bitch!”
Everyone pretended they hadn’t heard.
I turned to Rozanov.
“For the love of God,” he said, “get him to talk about the Khlysts. Try again.”
But I’d completely lost interest in talking to Rasputin. He seemed to be drunk. Our host kept coming up and pouring him wine, saying, “This is for you, Grisha. It’s your favourite.”
Rasputin kept drinking, jerking his head about, twitching and muttering something.
“I’m finding it very hard to talk to him,” I said to Rozanov. “Why don’t you and Izmailov try? Maybe we can all four of us have a conversation!”
“It won’t work. It’s a very intimate, mysterious subject. And he’s shown he trusts you…”
“What’s him over there whispering about?” interrupted Rasputin. “Him that writes for New Times?”
So much for our being incognito.
“What makes you think he’s a writer?” I asked. “Someone must have misinformed you… Before you know it, they’ll be saying I’m a writer, too.”
“I think they said you’re from the Russian Word,” he replied calmly. “But it’s all the same to me.”
“Who told you that?”
“I’m afraid I can’t remember,” he said, pointedly repeating my own words when he’d asked who had told me about the Khlysts.
He had clearly remembered my evasiveness, and now he was paying me back in kind: “I’m afraid I can’t remember!”
Who had given us away? Hadn’t we been promised complete anonymity? It was all very strange.
After all, it wasn’t as if we’d gone out of our way to meet the elder. We had been invited. We had been offered the opportunity to meet him and, what’s more, we’d been told to keep quiet about who we were because “Grisha doesn’t like journalists”— because he avoids talking to them and always does all he can to keep away from them.
Now it appeared that Rasputin knew very well who we were. And not only was he not avoiding us but he was even trying to draw us into a closer acquaintance.
Who was calling the shots? Had Manuilov orchestrated all this—for reasons we didn’t know? Or did the elder have some cunning scheme of his own? Or had someone just blurted out our real names by mistake?
It was all very insalubrious. What was truly going on was anyone’s guess.
And what did I know about all these dinner companions of ours? Which of them was from the secret police? Which would soon be sentenced to forced labour? Which might be a German agent? And which of them had lured us here? Which member of this upright company was hoping to use us for their own ends? Was Rasputin the weaver of this web—or the one being caught in it? Who was betraying whom?
“He knows who we are,” I whispered to Rozanov.
Rozanov looked at me in astonishment. He and Izmailov began whispering together.
Just then the musicians struck up. The accordion began a dance tune, the guitar twanged, the tambourine jingled. Rasputin leapt to his feet—so abruptly that he knocked his chair over. He darted off as if someone were calling to him. Once he was some way from the table (it was a large room), he suddenly began to skip and dance. He thrust a knee forward, shook his beard about and circled round and round. His face looked tense and bewildered. His movements were frenzied; he was always ahead of the music, as if unable to stop…
Everyone leapt up. They stood around him to watch. “Dearie”, the one who had gone to fetch the poems, turned pale. His eyes bulged. He squatted down on his haunches and began clapping his hands. “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Go! Go! Go!”
And no one was laughing. They watched as if in fear and— certainly—very, very seriously.
The spectacle was so weird, so wild, that it made you want to let out a howl and hurl yourself into the circle, to leap and whirl alongside him for as long as you had the strength.
The faces all around were looking ever paler, ever more intent. There was a charge in the air, as if everyone was expecting something… Any moment!
“How can anyone still doubt it?” said Rozanov from behind me. “He’s a Khlyst!”
Rasputin was now leaping about like a goat. Mouth hanging open, skin drawn tight over his cheekbones, locks of hair whipping across the sunken sockets of his eyes, he was dreadful to behold. His pink shirt was billowing out behind him like a balloon.
“Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” went “Dearie”, continuing to clap.
All of a sudden Rasputin stopped. Just like that. And the music broke off, as if that is what the musicians had intended all along.
Rasputin collapsed into an armchair and looked all around. His eyes were no longer pricking people; they seemed vacant, bewildered.
“Dearie” hastily gave him a glass of wine. I went through into the drawing room and told Izmailov I wanted to leave.
“Sit down for a moment and get your breath back,” Izmailov replied.
The air was stifling. It was making my heart pound and my hands tremble.
“No,” said Izmailov. “It’s not hot in here. It’s just your nerves.”
“Please, don’t go,” begged Rozanov. “Now you can get him to invite you to one of his rituals. There’ll be no difficulty now!”
By now most of the guests had come through and were sitting around the edges of the room, as if in anticipation of some sort of performance. The beautiful woman came in, too, her husband holding her by the arm. She was walking with her head bowed; I thought she was weeping.
I stood up.
“Don’t go,” said Rozanov.
I shook my head and went out towards the hall. Out of the dining room came Rasputin. Blocking my path, he took my elbow.
“Wait a moment and let me tell you something. And mind you listen well. You see how many people there are all around us? A lot of people, right? A lot of people—and no one at all. Just me and you—and no one else. There isn’t anyone else standing here, just me and you. And I’m saying to you: come to me! I’m pining for you to come. I’m pining so badly I could throw myself down on the ground before you!”
His shoulder went into spasms and he let out a moan.
And it was all so ludicrous, both the way we were standing in the middle of the room together and the painfully serious way he was speaking…
I had to do something to lighten the atmosphere.
Rozanov came up to us. Pretending he was just passing by, he pricked up his ears. I started to laugh. Pointing at him, I said to Rasputin, “But he won’t let me.”
“Don’t you listen to that degenerate—you come along. And don’t bring him with you, we can do without him. Rasputin may only be a peasant, but don’t you turn up your nose at him. For them I love I build stone palaces. Haven’t you heard?”
“No,” I replied, “I haven’t.”
“You’re lying, my clever girl, you have heard. I can build stone palaces. You’ll see. I can do many things. But for the love of God, just come to me, the sooner the better. We’ll pray together. Why wait? You see, everyone wants to kill me. As soon as I step outside, I look all around me: where are they, where are their ugly mugs? Yes, they want to kill me. Well, so what! The fools don’t understand who I am. A sorcerer? Maybe I am. They burn sorcerers, so let them burn me. But there’s one thing they don’t understand: if they kill me, it will be the end of Russia. Remember, my clever girl: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia. They’ll bury us together.”
He stood there in the middle of the room, thin and black—a gnarled tree, withered and scorched.
“And it will be the end of Russia… the end of Russia…”
With his trembling hand crooked upwards, he looked like Chaliapin singing the role of the miller in Dvořák’s Rusalka. At this moment he appeared dreadful and completely mad.
“Ah? Are you going? Well if you’re going, then go. But just you remember… Remember.”
As we made our way back from Filippov’s, Rozanov said that I really ought to go and visit Rasputin: if I refused an invitation coveted by so many, he would almost certainly find it suspicious.
“We’ll all go there together,” he assured me, “and we’ll leave together.”
I replied that there was something in the atmosphere around Rasputin I found deeply revolting. The grovelling, the collective hysteria—and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark and beyond our knowledge. One could get sucked into this filthy mire—and never be able to climb out of it. It was revolting and joyless, and the revulsion I felt entirely negated any interest I might have in these people’s “weird mysteries”.
The pitiful, distressed face of the young woman who was being thrust so shamelessly by her lawyer husband at a drunken peasant—it was the stuff of nightmares, I was seeing it in my dreams. But he must have had many such women—women about whom he shouted, banging his fist on the table, that “they wouldn’t dare” and that they were “happy with everything”.
“It’s revolting,” I went on. “Truly horrifying! I’m frightened! And wasn’t it strange, later on, how insistent he was about my going to see him?”
“He’s not accustomed to rejection.”
“Well, my guess is that it’s all a lot simpler. I think it’s because of the Russian Word. He may make out that he doesn’t attach any significance to my work there, but you know as well as I do how afraid he is of the press and how he tries to ingratiate himself with it. Maybe he’s decided to lure me into becoming one of his myrrh-bearing women. So that I’ll write whatever he wants me to write, at his dictation. After all, he does all of his politicking through women. Just think what a trump card he would have in his hands. I think he’s got it all figured out very well indeed. He’s cunning.”
There will be no one there who shouldn’t be there.
Several days after this dinner I had a telephone call from a lady I knew. She reproached me for not coming to a party she had given the evening before and that I’d promised to attend.
I had completely forgotten about this party.
“Vyrubova was there,” said the lady. “She was waiting for you. She very much wants to meet you, and I had promised her you would be there. I’m terribly, terribly upset you couldn’t come.”
“Aha!” I thought. “Messages from the ‘other world’. What can she want of me?”
That she was a messenger from that “other world” I didn’t doubt for a moment. Two more days went by.
An old friend dropped in on me. She was very flustered.
“S—— is going to have a big party. She’s called round a couple of times in person, but you weren’t at home. She came to see me earlier today and made me promise to take you with me.”
I was rather surprised by S——’s persistence, as I didn’t know her so very well. She wasn’t hoping to get me to give some kind of a reading, was she? That was the last thing I wanted. I expressed my misgivings.
“Oh no,” my friend assured me. “I promise you that she has no hidden designs. S—— is simply very fond of you and would like to see you. Anyway, it should be a very enjoyable evening. There won’t be many guests, just friends, because they can’t put on grand balls now, not while we’re at war. That would be in poor taste. There will be no one there who shouldn’t be there—no one superfluous. They’re people who know how to give a good party.”
Who was that masked lady?
We arrived after eleven.
There were a lot of people. Among the tail coats and evening dresses were a number of figures in identical black or light-blue domino masks. They were the only ones in fancy dress; it was clear they had come as a group.
My friend took me by the arm and led me to our hostess: “Well, here she is. See? I’ve brought her with me.”
A Gypsy was singing in the large ballroom. Short and slight, she was wearing a high-necked dress of shining silk. Her head was thrown back and her dusky face an emblem of suffering as she sang the words:
In parting she said:
“Don’t you forget me in foreign lands…”
“Just wait a moment,” the hostess whispered to me. “She’s almost finished.”
And she went on standing beside me, evidently looking around for someone.
“Now we can go.”
She took my hand and led me across the ballroom, still looking.
Then we entered a small, dimly lit sitting room. There was no one there. The hostess seated me on a sofa. “I’ll be back in a moment. Please don’t go anywhere.”
She did indeed come back in a moment, together with a figure in a black mask.
“This mysterious figure will keep you entertained,” said S—— with a laugh. “Please wait for me here.”
The black figure sat down beside me and looked silently at me through narrow eye slits.
“You don’t know me,” it murmured at last, “but I desperately need to speak to you.”
It was not a voice I had heard before, but something about its intonations was familiar. It was the same quivering, hysterical tone in which that lady-in-waiting had spoken of Rasputin.
I peered at the woman sitting beside me. No, this wasn’t Madame E——. Madame E—— was petite. This lady was very tall. She spoke with a faint lisp, like all of our high society ladies who as children begin speaking English before Russian.
“I know everything,” the unknown woman began edgily. “On Thursday you’re going to a certain house.”
“No,” I replied in surprise. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She grew terribly flustered. “Why don’t you tell me the truth? Why? I know everything.”
“Where is it you think I’m going?” I asked.
“There. His place.”
“I don’t understand a thing.”
“Do you mean to test me? All right, I’ll say it. On Thursday you’re going to… to… Rasputin’s.”
“What makes you think that? No one has asked me.”
The lady fell silent.
“You may not have received the invitation yet… but you soon will. It’s already been decided.”
“But why does this matter so much to you?” I asked. “Perhaps you could tell me your name?”
“I haven’t put on this idiotic mask only to go and tell you my name. And as far as you’re concerned, my name is of no importance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that on Thursday you’re going to be there.”
“I have no intention of going to Rasputin’s,” I replied calmly. “Of that I can assure you.”
She suddenly leant forward and, with hands tightly encased in black gloves, seized hold of my arm.
“No, you’re joking! You will be going! Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because it’s of no interest to me.”
“And you won’t change your mind?”
Her shoulders began to tremble. I thought she was weeping.
“I thought you were someone sincere,” she whispered.
I was at a loss.
“What is it you want from me? Does it upset you that I won’t be going? I don’t understand a thing.”
She seized hold of my arm again.
“I implore you by everything you hold sacred—please refuse the invitation. We have to get him to cancel this evening. He mustn’t leave Tsarskoye on Thursday. We mustn’t let him—or something terrible will happen.”
She muttered something, her shoulders quivering.
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with me,” I said. “But if it will make you feel any better, then please believe me: I give you my word of honour that I won’t go. In three days’ time I’m going to Moscow.”
Again her shoulders began to tremble, and again I thought she was weeping.
“Thank you, my dear one, thank you…”
She quickly bent over and kissed my hand.
Then she jumped up and left.
“No, that can’t have been Vyrubova,” I thought, remembering how Vyrubova had wanted to see me at that party I hadn’t gone to. “No, it wasn’t her. Vyrubova is quite plump, and anyway, she limps. It wasn’t her.”
I found our hostess.
“Who was that masked lady you just brought to me?”
The hostess seemed rather put out.
“How would I know? She was wearing a mask.”
While we were at dinner the masked figures seemed to disappear. Or perhaps they had all just taken off their fancy dress.
I spent a long time studying the faces I didn’t know, looking for the lips that had kissed my hand…
Sitting at the far end of the table were three musicians: guitar, accordion and tambourine. The very same three musicians. Rasputin’s musicians. Here was a link… a thread.
There on the interrogator’s desk, he could clearly see the guest list.
The next day Izmailov came over. He was terribly upset.
“Something awful has happened. Here. Read this.” And he handed me a newspaper.
In it I read that Rasputin had begun frequenting a literary circle where, over a bottle of wine, he would tell entertaining stories of all kinds about extremely high-ranking figures.
“And that’s not the worst of it,” said Izmailov. “Filippov came over today and said he’d had an unexpected summons from the secret police, who wanted to know just which literary figures had been to his house and precisely what Rasputin had talked about. Filippov was threatened with exile from Petersburg. But the most astonishing and horrible thing of all is that, there on the interrogator’s desk, he could clearly see the guest list, in Manuilov’s own hand.”
“You’re not saying Manuilov works for the secret police, are you?”
“There’s no knowing whether it was him or another of Filippov’s guests. In any case, we’ve got to be very careful. Even if they don’t interrogate us, they’ll be following us. No doubt about that. So if Rasputin writes to you or summons you by telephone, you’d better not respond. Although he doesn’t know your address, and he’s unlikely to have remembered your last name.”
“So much for the holy man’s mystical secrets! I feel sorry for Rozanov. What a dull, prosaic ending…”
When I ask, ‘Who’s calling?’ he says, ‘Rasputin’.
“Madam, some joker’s been telephoning. He’s rung twice, wanting to speak to you,” said my maid, laughing.
“What do you mean, ‘some joker’?”
“Well, when I ask, ‘Who’s calling?’ he says, ‘Rasputin’. It’s somebody playing the fool.”
“Listen, Ksyusha, if this man carries on playing the fool, be sure to tell him I’ve gone away, and for a long time. Understand?”
Remember me then! Remember me!
I soon left Petersburg. I never saw Rasputin again.
Later, when I read in the papers that his corpse had been burnt, the man I saw in my mind’s eye was that black, bent, terrible sorcerer:
“Burn me? Let them. But there’s one thing they don’t know: if they kill Rasputin, it will be the end of Russia.”
“Remember me then! Remember me!”
Translated by Anne Marie Jackson
* * *
Published by New York Review Books.
Copyright Original Russian text © by Agnès Szydlowski
Translation of “Rasputin” © 2014 by Anne Marie Jackson, first published in Subtly Worded (Pushkin Press, 2014).