ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Was Grigory Rasputin a mad monk with magical powers? A drunkard with a varied and enormous sexual appetite? A calculating genius of political intrigue?
Or was he a czarist-era spin doctor who just couldn't spell?
A notebook of writings belonging to this larger-than-life figure from Russia's history has just been unearthed in a musty government archive here. Unfortunately, it seems more likely to prolong the debate than to end it.
Myths and legends abound about Rasputin, a bizarre and shadowy actor in the twilight hours of Russia's monarchy. An uneducated peasant and member of the Khlysty religious sect--which believed that sinning reduced the relative quantity of sin in the world--Rasputin was famous for crassness, bragging and drunken debauchery.
Yet his inexplicable power to control the internal bleeding of the young Prince Alexis, who suffered from hemophilia, made him the closest confidant of the czar's wife--prudish Empress Alexandra.
Through her, Rasputin wielded vast power over the czar himself.
While all of Russia watched in outrage--save Czar Nicholas II, who was busy writing pathetic letters to Alexandra and signing them "your poor weak-willed hubby"--Rasputin handpicked government ministers and boasted publicly that he could have his way with Alexandra.
Now scholars in St. Petersburg have unearthed 12 pages of barely legible notes Rasputin penned sometime between 1911 and 1913, on the eve of World War I.
"This is my diary," begin the writings in a child's loopy, overly large hand. But according to David Raskin, a scholar at the Russian State Historical Archives, Rasputin was not writing a diary but a document--perhaps to be published, surely to be somehow "leaked," for use in a political intrigue that has now been lost in the mists of time.
"I'm not even sure that he knew what a diary is," Raskin said. "The goal of this writing is mysterious. It's nearly illegible; the grammar is terrible. But it is also written with a great deal of cunning."
Raskin, 57, said many of the archive's older workers had known of the diary--a faded green notebook filled with ruled paper that looks like a college exam booklet--but had misjudged its value, forgotten about it or been discouraged by Rasputin's atrocious grammar, spelling and handwriting.
Raskin discovered the diary anew and set about translating it "from Rasputinese into Russian" about a month ago. He found musings on philosophy mixed in with fawning praise for the czar and his court.
Rasputin raved about the czar's family life, and especially about the education of the children, noting that the czar's daughters were polite, religious and "love Russia."
The czar himself was a man of "deep thought" and "almost a saint."
"Clearly this document was intended to convince somebody--perhaps one person, perhaps a select group, or perhaps the people themselves--of the czar's goodness," Raskin said.
But that theory leaves little room for Rasputin's digressions.
For example, Rasputin discusses the reasoning behind his decision to change his last name--which is roughly translatable as "the debauched one"--from Rasputin to Rasputin-Novy (Rasputin the New). That change was made by decree of the czar in December, 1906.
"Rasputin believed that people with unpleasant-sounding last names suffer greatly from that, and that a person's last name actually predetermined much of his character, fortunes and life," Raskin said.
The diary also leaves several long-lived mysteries unresolved. Rasputin writes nothing about whether or not he had slept with Alexandra, a popular legend that historians have debunked.
And of course, the diary can do little to explain the legends surrounding Rasputin's murder in 1916--an event all of St. Petersburg, including the British ambassador, knew of well in advance and eagerly looked forward to.
Nobles disgusted by Rasputin's insolence and bragging fed him chocolate pastries packed with cyanide. Long after the poison should have killed him, Rasputin was on his feet, cajoling his would-be murderers to go out whoring.
They then shot him and left him for dead--but he soon rose up, tried to strangle the gunmen and then fled through the snow.
The nobles set off in pursuit and shot him twice more, kicked him in the head, beat him furiously with a truncheon, wrapped his body in iron chains and heaved him into the Moika Canal. His ice-encased corpse was dragged out a few days later.
Rasputin's ability to control Alexis' hemophilia has never been satisfactorily explained. Nor have his premonitions. He seems to have anticipated his own murder, for in the days leading up to it, he destroyed much of his correspondence, deposited money in his daughters' bank accounts and spent much time in prayer.
Could he have even foreseen the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the abdication and, ultimately, the murder of Nicholas II and the rest of the imperial family?
"Rasputin frequently prophesied that should any harm befall him, Russia would go through another Time of Troubles," historian Richard Pipes has written. "He had visions of rivers of blood, of fire and smoke, an uncanny and rationally inexplicable foreboding of what would soon, in fact, occur."