It takes a special kind of person to undertake the task of changing deeply held perceptions of a historical character when there is no prospect of personal gain, yet that’s what Delin Colón has done with Rasputin & the Jews: A Reversal of History.
To most people who know little about him, the name, Rasputin, conjures up an image of someone disheveled, evil and debauched. If they know a little more, they may be aware of his reputation for having supernatural powers which he used to exert mind control over Czarina Alexandra, as well as his proximity to Czar Nicholas II to advance his own purposes. The stories of the many attempts to murder him -- he was stabbed, poisoned, shot 3 times, bound and thrown into the river before he finally died, though it was never clear which of these actions ultimately did him in -- only built upon the legend of his dark powers as well as the need, by so many, to get rid of him. Although no one denies that Rasputin was unkempt-looking, he was, in reality, a monk with what seemed like an ability to predict the future (though it was often just common sense), and a deep concern for the downtrodden.
Inspired by the published memoir of her great-uncle, Aron Simanovich, who was Rasputin’s Jewish secretary, as well as biographies written by Rasputin’s daughters, and memoirs from the Czar’s court, Colón demonstrates that Rasputin was maligned in history because he supported proper treatment of the Jews, much to the disdain of the Russian nobility and the Czar’s officers who were fervent anti-Semites and who jockeyed amongst themselves for the Czar’s favor.
Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, the last of the Romanov dynasty, blamed the Jews for all of Russia’s and their own problems, so it was quite surprising to learn that Rasputin was an ardent supporter and defender of the Jews. He sought to get Nicholas to call off planned pogroms, and helped get Jewish youths into Universities once the quota had been filled. He also advised Nicholas not to launch the Russo-Japanese War, the loss of which resulted in Russia losing its superpower status. Despite his many efforts and privileged access to Czarina Alexandra (she begged him to use his mystical powers to heal the crown price of hemophilia), Rasputin was never able to change Czar Nicholas’ thinking about the Jews. He did, however, dissuade Nicholas from conducting a few pogroms, and used his position and high-level connections to help get Jews into Universities, without benefitting, himself. But this didn’t calm the paranoia within the Czar’s court. Rasputin’s support wasn’t out of any special connection or obligation to the Jewish people, but simply because he was concerned for all oppressed individuals, and no one at the time was more oppressed than the Jews.
Colón draws a vivid picture of what life was like for Jews during Nicholas II’s reign over the Russian-occupied territories to show the environment in which Rasputin operated. Among the many way the Czar persecuted the Jews (beyond the pogroms) were many laws that made ordinary survival very difficult. For example, in order for a Jew to get into an institution of higher learning, his family needed to pay tuition for multiple Christian students. If a Jew was allowed to practice his profession, he was allowed to do only that, so “if an apothecary’s assistant, unable to find work, opened a druggist’s shop, for which his training qualified him,” this was considered a “change of occupation, leading to the forfeiture of his residence.” While Rasputin knew he was beating his head against a brick wall when it came to trying to talk to Nicholas about fair or equal treatment for the Jews, who had already, 100 years earlier, been banished to the Pale of Settlement by Catherine the Great, yet he never stopped to worry about his own welfare when he was looking out for people who needed a defender.
Simanovich, Rasputin’s Jewish secretary who witnessed his boss’ selfless acts of kindness, wrote his memoir to document the actions of a man who, during his lifetime, had been repeatedly maligned by those who feared the loss of their position or privileged status, and by history. Yet where Simanovich failed, Colón succeeded by drawing on multiple resources. And like Rasputin’s selfless acts of kindness, Colón, too, was only motivated by doing what was morally correct.
Rasputin & the Jews: A Reversal of History is a work of scholarship that urges us to rethink acquired prejudices. And what it points out is that Rasputin was as much a victim of anti-Semitism as was the Jewish population whom he sought to defend.