In a decaying Russian village, I meet Rasputin's "great grandson" and spend the night with a babushka who has lost so muchby Colin Thubron / 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…