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Book Review April 5, 2004
Salnikov Saves Russia
By John Dolan Browse author Email
"Lost Splendor - The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin", by Prince Felix Youssoupoff [sic], New York, 2003

"Lost Splendor - The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin", by Prince Felix Youssoupoff [sic], New York, 2003

Every red-blooded boy knows the story of Rasputin's death: how the superhuman monk straight-armed the death angel for hours. The story goes that after watching Rasputin devour a plateful of cyanide-laced cakes and several glasses of poisoned wine without ill effect, his aristocratic murderers decided to finish him off by shooting him in the heart. But though he fell and lay apparently dead, the monk managed to get up and crawl upstairs looking for his killers, who then shot him several more times, clubbed him, and finally threw him into the half-frozen Neva -- where he finally died, as determined at the autopsy, of drowning. It's one of the coolest death-scenes ever, and better still, it's all true.

Or is it? After reading this reissued translation of the memoirs of Felix Youssoupoff, the decadent aristocrat who killed Rasputin, I'm not sure. As the memoir makes very clear, Youssopoff was a pretty wild drama queen, well up to fancying up the story. And by the time he wrote his memoirs, the other witnesses to Rasputin's death were conveniently dead.

As a former fervent believer in Rasputin's glorious, protracted death-scene, I face with great sadness the prospect that our hirsute, unwashed hero died quickly and prosaically. But Youssoupoff's habit of turning every episode in his life into an operatic climax, or even a cosmic confrontation between Good and Evil, eventually forces the reader to doubt every assertion he makes.

Imagine Salnikov as a pre-Revolutionary aristocrat, and you'll have a good idea of Youssoupoff's character. Like many of the finest literary narrators of the early twentieth century, he was an exhibitionistic, androgynous brat whose early interests were terrorizing guests and servants. He describes with an indulgent chuckle the music teacher "...whose finger I bit so savagely that the poor woman was unable to play the piano for a year." Aiming higher, the little prince's next victim was Grand Duke Michael, who liked to watch Youssoupoff and his brother play tennis. With his uncanny instinct for doing the greatest harm possible, Youssoupoff hit a return which "...struck the Grand Duke in the eye with such violence that one of the greatest specialists in Moscow had to be called in to save the eye."

Little Felix grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Russia. His great-great-grandfather, Prince Nicolas Borissovitch, was a classic Russian aristocrat who used his thousands of Serfs as breed stock for concubines. Choosing only the best stock, the Prince outfitted an entire corps de ballet, which was trained to respond to his every gesture: "...when the whole ballet was on stage the Prince waved his cane and suddenly all the dancers appeared completely naked." No wonder ballet was so much more popular in those days.

Youssoupoff has a charming pride in the family's vampiric past, ending his account of great-great-grandfather's career with the boast that "his last intrigue was with a girl of eighteen. He was then eighty."

The family grew somewhat more discreet by Felix's time, but retained the habit of doing things on a grand scale. Prince Felix mentions in passing that "one of our estates in the Caucasus stretched for 125 miles along the Caspian Sea...." He fondly recalls travelling through Russia, from one vast estate to another, in the family's private railway car, and playing with a tray of precious stones on display in the parlor. Mealtimes presented difficulties on a typically vast scale: "One of my father's whims consisted in continually changing rooms. Almost every day we dined in a different room, and this complicated the table service to an uncommon degree. [My brother] Nicolas and I, who were often late, were sometimes obliged to run all over the house before discovering where dinner was being served."

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