In a decaying Russian village, I meet Rasputin's "great grandson" and spend the night with a babushka who has lost so muchby / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
I hitch a lift to the small, unkempt village of Pokrovskoe, the birthplace of Rasputin. The truck-driver who dropped me off swore that a relative of Rasputin survived here. But the only people in sight were some old women seated on benches. At the mention of a man resembling Rasputin they waved us in varying directions; eventually we arrived outside a ramshackle house with closed shutters, and a voice inside cried out: “Viktor!”
Perhaps he had been warned of our approach, because he was dressed for the part. As he loped towards us across his vegetable patch, even the truck-driver was taken aback. All the photographs of Rasputin that I had seen sprang to shocking life in his face. He was like a ghastly distillation. He wore the belted peasant smock of an earlier time, and the loose-fitting boots, and his black beard splayed down untrimmed. It was a conscious act of theatre. Greasy locks of hair dangled around his shoulders and pale eyes watched us with a kind of na?ve cunning.
The truck-driver said: “So, are you his grandson?”
“There aren’t any relatives left, officially. But my great-grandmother was Rasputin’s maid. She helped in the house.” Viktor’s voice was melodious and cynical. “I think she sinned with him.” He touched his hair and beard; Rasputin’s sin had become his glory. “That is why I look like this.”
After the truck-driver left, Viktor took my arm with the same confusing intimacy reported of his notional great-grandfather, and asked what he could do for me. I said I needed a room for the night. Mentally I divested Viktor’s face of its props-the beard, the contrived slicks of hair-and still an extraordinary likeness remained. He emanated the dissoluteness and guile of his idol, too. But there was no authority in him.
The villagers seemed to shun him. Viktor was living with his sister and brother-in-law, because his own house was a wreck. When he asked them to accommodate me for the night, I glimpsed through the slats of the fence an angry-faced peasant kneeling among his cabbages, and a bitter-looking wife. Above Viktor’s pleas, a harsh voice told him to fuck off.
He returned smiling, and petitioned three old women seated in the sunlight. I stood beside him as if I were being auctioned. They were the babushkas of clich?: matriarchs with a stout, vegetable calm, in flowery skirts and felt slippers. They looked me over with misgiving. One of them turned a rather child-like face to mine, and said: “I’m afraid of men!” But the others burst out laughing, and she took me in.
But Viktor would not let me go yet. He conducted me about his village, revelling in the prestige of a foreigner. A few farmers had appeared in the quiet evening, working their vegetable patches as the Tura river snaked through meadows beyond. They looked desperately poor: ill-nourished men with grizzled heads, faces louche and exhausted; and heavy, enduring women. They acknowledged Viktor reluctantly or not at all. In his half-mocking theft of Rasputin’s identity, he seemed to occupy the timeless role of the village yurodivy, who played with God and simulated foolishness. He made people uneasy.
In Rasputin’s days the settlement had been busier, alive with summer water-traffic, and prosperous. “It was full of Rasputins then,” said Viktor. “Thirty-three families. But at the start of collectivisation, in 1929 they disappeared-they were rich, you see, kulaks-so they were taken off into exile, or they died. There are still Rasputin families to the north somewhere… but the real relatives, they’re gone.” From time to time he would clasp my arm and stop. His silky smile said: only I am left. “And you see that mound? That’s where the church was, the tallest building here. They destroyed it after the war. The masonry was so strong that it took them over three months. That’s where Rasputin wanted to sing.” His voice fell to a soft, transfigured bass: “We have seen the true light/And welcomed in the heavenly spirit… But the clergy hated him.”
“Is there anyone left who remembers him?” I asked.
“There was an old woman who used to cut the grass in his garden, but she died last year. She always said that he was kind. That’s the memory he’s left here. Whenever he came back from St Petersburg there was a village holiday. He usually came in the spring, and in the autumn for the harvest.” Viktor’s voice liquefied as he drifted closer to daydream. “He gave out presents-sweets for the children, and little cakes, and promissory notes for people to buy things in the store. They say he gave away everything.”
So he had left behind a memory of the emigrant made good, visiting to scatter benevolence and receive applause, and perhaps to feel at peace. Yet he belonged nowhere. He had arrived in St Petersburg as an itinerant holy man, at a court susceptible to rural mysticism and the occult. Because some hypnotic authority in him calmed (it seemed) the internal bleeding of the tsar’s haemophiliac son, Rasputin gained an ascendancy over the imperial couple which barely slackened until his murder in 1916.
Who was Rasputin? He slips away as you observe him. Rasputin enacts the old Russian intimacy between holiness and sin. He was a lecher and drunkard, in love with power, in love with self. He boasted that he had bedded the empress. Transgression was the path to God. He could barely write, but he preached with peasant force. Sincerity, piety-the concepts blur around him, as they did around his putative descendant at my elbow. But his effect on the imperial family was fatal. He exacerbated all that was most insular in them. Their reputations shook and dwindled around him. Rasputin, more than anyone, said their family tutor bitterly, was responsible for their end. Even now, nostalgia for a lost imperial utopia can find no focus in the last tsar.
“That’s where his house was. There.” Viktor pointed across the barred road. I had seen photographs, taken long ago, of a handsome two-storey mansion, fronted by a picket fence and set in a high walled courtyard. Only a log cottage stood there now. “Soon after they destroyed the death-house in Yekatarinburg, the Party demolished this one, too. They were afraid of it exciting interest. I remember that time well. They were going to break up the roof-a beautiful roof, it was-but the people protested, so a brigade came with seven tractors and lifted it off whole. They sold it to Kazakhstan for 40,000 roubles. The ruin stood for a long time, then the authorities told our people to take it away. A gang of volunteers got together-fellows who didn’t want to lose their Party membership-and they razed it. Somebody built a pig-sty out of the remains.”
His tone had slithered into self-pity-or the pretence of it-as if this had been his own mansion they had wrecked, his patrimony. He added: “But that wasn’t quite the end. A few years ago, when we were building a greenhouse in that garden, we opened up an underground passage, lined with beams, down to the river. Rasputin had enemies, and he must have used it to get to his boat unseen. He owned a dacha upriver, with a lake and a bath-house, where he would take women.” He rolled the word over his palate. It sounded a sweet corruption. His hand came up and covered his heart in the eerie gesture of Rasputin’s hand in photographs. I imagined he did this when he was lying. Perhaps they both did. “Rasputin had hundreds of them.”
I crossed to the vanished mansion and looked back. A post-house had once stood opposite, where horses were changed beneath Rasputin’s windows; but this, too, had gone. In April 1918, on their way to Yekaterinburg and their deaths, the tsar and tsarina had stopped here under guard while their cart’s horses were changed, and stood looking up at the house of the dead prophet. The empress recorded in her curt diary that they could see the frightened family watching them through the windows. Rasputin’s daughter wrote that the empress was weeping.
We turned down mud streets, past other houses. The Tura river had wandered away from the village. This August the current looked too sluggish for danger; but it had drowned Rasputin’s only brother, and swept away his epileptic sister as she washed clothes on its banks. Then, with his widowed and drunken father, Rasputin was alone. Viktor, too, was a drunk. With the collapse of the collective farm two years ago, the land had been parcelled out-11 hectares to each worker-and he rented his in exchange for vodka. He lived by selling potatoes. We stopped before another house. “That’s where I used to live. I was married for five years-and then one day I came back from Tyumen early and found her with another man. I actually found them…” He smoothed his hands lasciviously over an aerial bed.
“And now I’m already a grandfather! I’m 46-and Rasputin died at 47!” Suddenly his gaze was a soft question mark, inviting pity, perhaps a little afraid. For years he had grown older alongside Rasputin; but what would happen when he reached Rasputin’s age of death? Would he become meaningless? Would he die? “Only five months more…”
Then he cried out: “Have you drunk Rasputin vodka? Rasputin’s death is on the label. It says he was born in 1869, but he wasn’t, he wasn’t! He was older, he was born on 12th January 1865. Wasn’t he? Wasn’t he?” If Viktor was right, then he had already outlived his shadow. He had survived. But he was wrong. And every Rasputin vodka bottle he emptied carried on it this haunting deadline.
But the next moment he had turned buoyant and sly again. “Anyway, who needs a wife? Not when the women of Tyumen are the prettiest in Russia!”
“You have a girlfriend there?”
His breath was hot in my ear. “Many! I go to Tyumen every week. And do you know why they’re so pretty?” His hand came up to knead my arm in sensuous conspiracy. “Because after the Revolution, all the prostitutes from St Petersburg and Moscow were pushed out to the Urals, then to Tyumen! And these are their descendants. A paradise of them! You can sin all night…” He gazed at me in self-adoration, self-disgust. “Many every week… paradise!”
We had arrived at the door of Anfissa, the old woman who had accepted me for the night. Her cottage was newly painted, her garden immaculate, her lace curtains drawn. As I pushed at her courtyard door, Viktor vanished like a ghost at cockcrow.
Anfissa’s face is boxed in on three sides by short grey locks; on the fourth side her chins cascade seamlessly into her neck. When she smiles her mouth is a mass of steel, lending her a glittering intimacy. She is kind, in her cautious way, and rather lonely. She has trouble with her legs. “It’s my heart. My legs swelled up because of my heart, the doctors said.” She gives me vegetable soup, flecked with scraps of meat of varying ages, and she has baked the light brown bread herself, from local flour. “That Viktor,” she says, sitting beside me (but not eating), “I thought he’d taken you drinking. Because that’s all he does. His brother drinks even more, and his sister, she drinks… His parents gave him a house when they died, and he can’t even maintain the fence. Now the place is falling down, and still he does nothing.”
From outside, these log cottages looked as comfortless as trappers’ shacks; but inside, the walls were thickly plastered and papered, and an immured brick stove separated the two rooms, heating both. Anfissa drew her water from a pump in the street; sometimes it was dry. But electric wires multiplied over the walls and ceilings, feeding a television. An ethereal, white cat flitted in and out. Everything was wrapped in paper or secured with string or safe in jars. She seemed to be shoring herself up against the changes rocking everything outside. “In the towns half the factories have broken down,” she said, “yet the workers somehow find jobs. But here the collective farm was destroyed, and there’s nothing. The bosses just dismantled it and took everything for themselves. Almost all the cattle have been sold off, so it’s hard even to get butter. There’s only chaos.”
I asked: “Why?” but there was no simple answer.
“I don’t know why. Who knows? We need money for machinery-half the tractors are laid off-and the farm leader stole all the petrol.” She turned her childlike stare on me. It was a look I was to see often in Russia: the bewilderment of a people betrayed, whose certainties had turned to mist. “In England, if you’re a couple, how much land do they give you?… Really?… Then if you’ve so little land, why are your lives better than ours?” After my inability to explain, her wonder became a helpless threnody: “We used to have fine corn growing here… There used to be flax and hemp… It was full of vegetable and fruit before, but now you don’t see a thing.” She hitched her skirts from her smooth, blotched legs. “If it wasn’t for these I could work. Now nobody works. My husband used to get up at 4am in summer, and he came back after dark.”
“In Brezhnev’s time?”
“Long ago. He died at 47, I don’t know why. He just fell asleep and didn’t wake up.”
The past was closing in on her. At first, she had stuck her family photographs in albums, out of sight. Then one day it was not enough simply to leaf through them, as if visiting. She wanted them with her, always. So she tore them out and framed them along the shelf of the living room, above the chest of drawers and the bed. She wobbled to her feet. “When there’s nobody here, and life gets heavy, then I look at them.”
It was a gallery of the young-hopeful parents, blonde children-but they looked far away. I asked dutifully: “How many children do you have?”
“Four. But three of them are dead.” A white cowlick had loosed from her headscarf and was knocking on her forehead. She looked like an ancient girl. “I had a daughter who fell ill and died at six months. And my eldest son-that’s him, with his car and wife-he died four years ago, only 44, from a blood clot in the head. He had been repairing their new apartment in Tobolsk, and lay there a week before they found him.” Only one son had survived. Yet Anfissa’s grandchildren proliferated along the wall in a parade of cheekiness and summer dresses. Her eyes came to rest on a yellowing photograph at the end. “That’s my youngest son.” A saturnine youth leaned towards the camera, unsmiling. “He was 16. He killed himself on a motorcycle.” Her tone of routine melancholy sharpened into living pain. “He had such a future.” His snapshot stood separate from the rest, enshrined. Her fingers trembled when she pointed at it. Above it she had plastered a saccharine print of the Virgin, and beneath it stood an icon, sooted by candleflame, of the Mother of God cradling her Son. “There,” she said, “there.” It was the sound a mother makes as she soothes her child to sleep.
I went out into the night, brushing through the cow-parsley; by the time I had returned she had lit a candle beneath the icon and was contemplating her gallery again. I wondered why it comforted her to watch them-this regiment riddled by death. Perhaps in her mind the living and the dead occupied the same remote hemisphere, because none of them ever came to see her, she said, they were all too far away. Or perhaps she slipped back into the time before tragedy, when her husband had worked a combine harvester all day, and there was flax in the fields, and children.
Before bed I wondered whether to pull the divan into the kitchen and sleep there. But she only said: “It’s up to you. I’m an old woman. Nobody will talk.” She laughed gruffly. “That’s all finished.” Her bed stood under a garish, hanging wall-carpet; for a moment, before I switched the light off, her stout body under its striped sheet lay framed in Persian glamour. Soon, in the darkness, the candle flickered and died under the Virgin and Anfissa’s sullen son, and only the lace curtains cast faint patterns of light in the windows. Anfissa’s talk became quiet and disembodied in the dark. “You have a mother? How old is she?… So she’s older than me… Does she look older?” An obscure vanity was surfacing.
I lied. “Yes, of course.”
Silence. Then: “Your flat in London, is it made of wood? And do you have cattle or pigs? Ah… ah…” A clock rustled on the wall above my divan. Time became audible. “But you have no children. How can that be? Think how quickly they die!” She stirred and groaned. “In England do you have a war now or not?… No? There’s always war in this land. And you, travelling here alone, aren’t you afraid? It’s become terrible in the towns. People are taking to killing now. In Tobolsk, too. Last week a mafia boss was pulled from his car and murdered. I heard it on the radio. You ought to be afraid…” Her voice sank in sleepy misgiving. In her experience, men died young. Her sentences shrank to disconnected words-“Alone… mafia…”-until the patterns in her curtains grew dim above my head, and she fell silent, or I ceased to hear. n