Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov" by Greg King

The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov and the Murder That Helped Bring Down the Russian Empire  by Greg King (297 pages, 1995)-nonfiction

I have long been interested in the final years of the Romanov reign.   Years ago  I read all the standard books on them.   I have a special interest in secondary royal figures and read a number of biographies of Russian Grand Dukes, Duchesses, as well as works on lesser figures.   I recall one very interesting book on the English tutor of the Romanov children, Sydney Gibbs.    I was able to buy most of the books used via Amazon.

I bought Greg King's book maybe six years ago.   I somehow never got around to reading it.   A few days ago I read Katsumura  (1906) by Natsume Soseki set in Japan at the start of the Japanese and Russian War.   The total defeat of the Russian navy by the Japanese was seen by many as the mark of the complete incompetency of the rulers of Russia.   Prince Youssoupov (there are variations in the spelling of his last name) may have played a role in developing the mind set of Czar Nicholas II toward the Japanese.   Felix and Nicholas II were close friends and before Nicholas's marriage the two of them, along with  an army of helpers and other young noble men went on a world tour.    One of the stops was in Japan.    The public purpose of the tour was to meet world leaders and create trade opportunities.   The real purpose in the mind of the young noble men was to visit the most expensive brothels where ever they went.   Felix was a frequenter of the highest level of brothels in St Petersburg and Moscow.   He was well known to divide his time between women and male prostitutes.   In Tokyo he and Nicholas went to a very elite brothel were the workers were men dressed as very high ranking geishas.   Felix and others in the group, of course, indulged themselves in the services of the establishment.   The public statement by all is that Czar Nicholas merely observed.   However, he took from this one visit the impression that all Japanese men were basically like the ones he saw in the brothel and laughed off the Japanese as a military threat. 

The book focuses on two figure, Rasputin and Felix and tells the biographies of each.   That of Rasputin is well known so I read that part of the book rapidly.  The biography section on Felix was much more interesting to me.  His family had very ancient Tatar roots.   For close to 800 years they were allies of the Czars.   Unlike many rich families, they kept their money in tact and stayed friends with the rulers.   By 1900 the Youssoupov's were the richest family in Russia.   They had so many estates in Russia that they actually forgot some of the properties they owned.   Felix's mother was hoping for a girl so she dressed him in the clothes for a royal princess, grew his hair in the style of a Russian girl and treated him as if he were a girl.   Not to surprisingly this had some lasting  effects on Felix.   At the age of 12 he and a friend dressed as girls and roamed the streets of St Petersburg.   Felix began a life time of dressing up as a woman and seeking out male partners.   He knew he was expected to produce an heir, his older brother had been killed in a dual so he was due to become an ultra rich man.   His mother, and her sister the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, thought he was just "going through a phase" and found him a suitable bride.   They married, had children and did have a life long deeply bonded marriage.   Felix continue his side activities and his wife pretended she did  not know about it.   The book has a lot of  very interesting detail about the life of Russian nobles in contrast to the utter poverty of the masses.   There are a lot of interesting details including a fascinating look at a visit Felix made to a very wretched slum in St Petersburg (his Aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth had a charitable organization).   Felix for a while had a Buddha like awaking in which he realized not everyone has 100 servants and decided to give all his money away but quickly reconsidered when advised when his wife and mother told that meant he would have to dress himself and told him to stop being silly.

Felix felt Rasputin was a terrible influence on the royal family because of his seeming ability to cure the heir to the throne when he had a hemophiliac episode.   The Czar's wife, Alexandra, was completely under the sway of Rasputin.   Felix decided Rasputin must die.  (Before then Felix was assisted in deciding what shoe to wear by servants whose only job was to maintain his shoes collection.)  The story is well know.   Rasputin is murdered.   Alexandra is outraged.  Czar Nicholas, basically as clueless as monarch as you might find, was leading his army against the Germans.    When the dust of the Russian Revolution settles, Felix and his wife are in Paris.   Felix was smart enough to have property in London and Paris so he was welcome in London whereas most exiled Romanovs had to stay in Paris.   He also smuggled out a small fortune in diamonds. 

He and his wife lived well for a number of years.   He was generous with other White Russians.   King tells us some interesting things about the general situation of many Russian emigrants of the time.   Most had no job skills at all and if they had any training it was to be a military officer.   His account of their adjustments was fascinating to me.   Felix, as you could guess, was not a great money manager.   He decided he could perhaps make some money by telling his story in a book, many others had already done it.   He published three books all of which did pretty well.  He was fairly open about his sexual proclivities in his books. Hollywood  movies about the murder of  Rasputin were made Felix was depicted in these movies without his permission and in a quite unflattering way.  He decided to sue and won a judgment that would be equivalent to about five million dollars today.   After fees he and wife ended up with about half of this money.   By now his wife had taken over full management of the family funds and the two of them lived out their days in high society in New York and London.   They spent the WWII years in New York City.

This is an interesting book and will, I think, be enjoyed by those interested in the last years of the Romanovs and the post Czarist experience of White Russian nobles.   A lot of people will speed read the sections on Rasputin, this being common knowledge and enjoy more the sections of the book devoted to Felix.   Most reviewers give it a high rating (keep in mind that no one will read this book who is not already quite interested in the topic).   It has one annoying flaw in that it makes claims  of factuality without support for Rasputin having mystical powers.   The section on the tradition of wandering holy men in Russia was very interesting.   King also says that at the time of his marriage Felix was  the most handsome man in all of Russia.  This is a completely unsupported and almost foolish sounding assertion that might put some readers off on the book.

If you are interested in the period, I think you will like this book.   It seems not to be in print but has it on sale used for about $2.50

Mel u


Suko said...

This is, of course, another excellent, in-depth review, and this book sounds intriguing in many ways. (I must admit that my knowledge of Russian history is pitiful.)

bermudaonion said...

I've always been fascinated with the Romanovs and Rasputin as well, so I think this book sounds great! Thanks for the review.

Care said...

Wow - what a life! I don't know much at all about Russian history. After this post, I want to know more. THank you