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Slavoj Žižek on Greece: the courage of hopelessness

The people of Greece are not being asked to swallow many bitter pills in exchange for a realistic plan of economic revival: they are asked to suffer so that others in the European Union can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben said in an interview that "thought is the courage of hopelessness" ─ an insight that is especially pertinent for our historical moment, when even the most pessimistic diagnosis as a rule finishes with an uplifting hint at some version of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The true courage is not to imagine an alternative, but to accept the consequences of the fact that there is no clearly discernible alternative: the dream of an alternative is a sign of theoretical cowardice; it functions as a fetish that prevents us thinking through to the end the deadlock of our predicament. In short, the true courage is to admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely the headlights of another train approaching us from the opposite direction. There is no better example of the need for such courage than Greece today.

The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 can appear as nothing other than a step not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Stathis Kouvelakis noted in Jacobin magazine, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. Is there any other way to characterise the extraordinary reversal of one extreme to its opposite that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of endless negotiations with EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, Syriza called for a referendum on Sunday 5 July asking the Greek people if they support or reject the EU's proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government clearly stated that it supported a No vote, the result was a surprise: the overwhelming majority, more than 61 per cent, voted No to European blackmail. Rumours began to circulate that the result – victory for the government – was a bad surprise to Alexis Tsipras himself, who had secretly hope that the government would lose, so that a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands (“We have to respect the voters’ voice”). However, literally the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece was ready to resume the negotiations, and days later Greece negotiated a EU proposal that is basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details, even harsher). In short, he acted as if the government had lost, not won, the referendum. As Kouvelakis wrote:

“How is it possible for a devastating ‘no’ to memorandum austerity policies to be interpreted as a green light for a new memorandum? . . . The sense of the absurd is not just a product of this unexpected reversal. It stems above all from the fact that all of this is unfolding before our eyes as if nothing has happened, as if the referendum were something like a collective hallucination that suddenly ends, leaving us to continue freely what we were doing before. But because we have not all become lotus-eaters, let us at least give a brief résumé of what has taken place over the past few days . . . From Monday morning, before the victory cries in the country’s public squares had even fully died away, the theater of the absurd began . . . 

The public, still in the joyful haze of Sunday, watches as the representative of the 62 per cent subordinated to the 38 per cent in the immediate aftermath of a resounding victory for democracy and popular sovereignty . . . But the referendum happened. It wasn’t a hallucination from which everyone has now recovered. On the contrary, the hallucination is the attempt to downgrade it to a temporary ‘letting off of steam’, prior to resuming the downhill course towards a third memorandum.”

And things went on in this direction. On the night of 10 July, the Greek parliament gave Alexis Tsipras authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32, but 17 government MPs didn’t back the plan, which means he got more support from the opposition parties than from his own. Days later, the Syriza Political Secretariat, which is dominated by the left wing of the party, concluded that the EU’s latest proposals are "absurd" and “exceed the limits of Greek society's endurance” – leftist extremism?  

But the International Monetary Fund itself (in this case a voice of minimally rational capitalism) made exactly the same point: an IMF study published a day earlier showed that Greece needs far more debt relief than European governments have been willing to contemplate so far European countries would have to give Greece a 30-year grace period on servicing all its European debt, including new loans, and a dramatic maturity extension . . .

No wonder that Tsipras himself publicly stated his doubt about the bailout plan: "We don't believe in the measures that were imposed upon us," he said in a TV interview, making it clear that he supports it out of pure despair, to avoid a total economic and financial collapse. The Eurocrats use such confessions with breathtaking perfidity: now that the Greek government accepts their tough conditions, they doubt the sincerity and seriousness of its commitment. How can Tsipras really fight for a program he doesn't believe in? How can the Greek government be really committed to the agreement when it opposes the referendum result?

However, statements such as that from the IMF demonstrate that the true problem lies elsewhere: does the EU really believe in its own bailout plan? Does it really believe that the brutally imposed measures will set in motion economic growth and thus enable the payment of debts? Or is it that the ultimate motivation for the brutal extortionist pressure on Greece is not purely economic (as it is obviously irrational in economic terms), but politico-ideological – or, as Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times, "[S]ubstantive surrender isn’t enough for Germany, which wants regime change and total humiliation — and there’s a substantial faction that just wants to push Greece out, and would more or less welcome a failed state as a caution for the rest.” One should always bear in mind what a horror Syriza is for the European establishment – a Conservative Polish member of the European Parliament even directly appealed to the Greek army to make a coup d’état in order to save the country.

Why this horror? Greeks are now asked to pay a high price, but not for a realistic perspective of growth. The price they are asked to pay is for the continuation of the "extend and pretend" fantasy. They are asked to ascend to their actual suffering in order to sustain another's (Eurocrats') dream. Gilles Deleuze said decades ago: Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutus. ("If you are caught in another's dream, you're fucked"), and this is the situation in which Greece finds itself. Greeks are not asked to swallow many bitter pills for a realistic plan of economic revival, they are asked to suffer so that others can go on dreaming their dream undisturbed.

The one that now needs awakening is not Greece, but Europe. Everyone who is not caught in this dream knows what awaits us if the bailout plan is enacted: another €90bn or so will be thrown into the Greek basket, raising the Greek debt to roughly €400bn. Most of this will quickly return to western Europe the true bailout is the bailout of German and French banks, not of Greece  and we can expect the same crisis to explode in a couple of years.

But is such an outcome really a failure? At an immediate level, if one compares the plan with its outcome, obviously yes. At a deeper level, however, one cannot avoid a suspicion that the true goal is not to give Greece a chance but to change it into an economically colonised semi-state kept in permanent poverty and dependency, as a warning to others. But at an even deeper level, there is again a failure – not of Greece, but of Europe itself, of the emancipatory core of European legacy.

The No of the referendum was undoubtedly a great ethico-political act: against a well-coordinated enemy propaganda spreading fears and falsehood, with no clear prospect of what lies ahead, against all pragmatic and "realist" odds, the Greek people heroically rejected the brutal pressure of the EU. The Greek No was an authentic gesture of freedom and autonomy, but the big question is, of course, what happens the day after, when we have to return from ecstatic negation to the everyday dirty business – and here, another unity emerged, the unity of "pragmatic" forces (Syriza and the big opposition parties) against the Syriza left and Golden Dawn. But does this mean that the long struggle of Syriza was in vain, that the No of the referendum was just a sentimental empty gesture, destined to make the capitulation more palpable?

The catastrophic thing about the Greek crisis is that the moment the choice appeared as one between Grexit and capitulation to Brussels, the battle was already lost. Both terms of this choice move within the predominant Eurocratic vision (remember that German anti-Greek hardliners such as Wolfgang Schäuble also prefer Grexit!). The Syriza government was fighting not just for a greater debt relief and for more new money within the same overall co-ordinates, but for the awakening of Europe from its dogmatic slumber.

Therein resides the authentic greatness of Syriza: in so far as the icon of the popular unrest in Greece was the protests on the Syntagma (Constitution) Square, Syriza engaged in a Herculean labour of enacting the shift from syntagm to paradigm, in the long and patient work of translating the energy of rebellion into concrete measures that would change everyday life for the people. We have to be very precise here: the No of the Greek referendum was not a No to “austerity” in the sense of necessary sacrifices and hard work, but a No to the the EU dream of just going on with business as usual.

The country's former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, repeatedly made this point clear: no more borrowing, but an overall rehaul was needed to give the Greek economy a chance to rebound. The first step in this direction should be an increase in the democratic transparency of our power mechanisms. Our democratically elected state apparatuses are thus more and more redoubled by a thick network of “agreements” and non-elected “expert” bodies, which yield real economic (and military) power. Here is Varoufakis’s report on an extraordinary moment in his dealings with the EU negotiator Jeroen Dijsselbloem:

“There was a moment when the president of the Eurogroup decided to move against us and effectively shut us out, and made it known that Greece was essentially on its way out of the eurozone. /. . . / There is a convention that communiqués must be unanimous, and the president can’t just convene a meeting of the eurozone and exclude a member state. And he said, ‘Oh, I’m sure I can do that.’ So I asked for a legal opinion. It created a bit of a kerfuffle.

For about five to ten minutes the meeting stopped; clerks, officials were talking to one another on their phones; and eventually some official, some legal expert addressed me, and said the following words: ‘Well, the Eurogroup does not exist in law; there is no treaty which has convened this group.’ So what we have is a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. So no citizen ever knows what is said within . . . These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.”

Sounds familiar? Yes, to anyone who knows how Chinese power functions today, after Deng Xiaoping set in action a unique dual system: the state apparatus and legal system are redoubled by the Party institutions, which are literally illegal or, as He Weifang, a law professor from Beijing, put it succinctly: “As an organisation, the Party sits outside and above the law. It should have a legal identity  in other words, a person to sue  but it is not even registered as an organisation. The Party exists outside the legal system altogether” (Richard McGregor, The Party, London: Allen Lane 2010, page 22). It is as if, in McGregor's words, the state-founding violence remains present, embodied in an organisation with an unclear legal status:

"It would seem difficult to hide an organisation as large as the Chinese Communist Party, but it cultivates its backstage role with care. The big party departments controlling personnel and the media keep a purposely low public profile. The party committees (known as 'leading small groups'), which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing them, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions."

No wonder that exactly the same thing happened to Varoufakis as to a Chinese dissident who, some years ago, formally brought to court and charged the Chinese Communist Party with being responsible for the Tiananmen Massacre. After a couple of months, he got a reply from the ministry of justice: they cannot pursue his charge, because there is no organisation called “Chinese Communist Party” officially registered in China.

And it is crucial to note how the obverse of this non-transparency of power is false humanitarianism: after the Greek defeat, there is, of course, time for humanitarian concerns. Jean-Claude Juncker immediately stated in an interview that he was so glad about the bailout deal, because it would immediately ease the suffering of the Greek people, which worried him very much. Classic scenario: after a political crackdown, humanitarian concern and help . . . even postponing debt payments.

What should one do in such a hopeless situation? One should especially resist the temptation of Grexit as a great heroic act of rejecting further humiliation and stepping outside into what? What new positive order are we stepping into? The Grexit option appears as the “real-impossible”, as something that would lead to immediate social disintegration. Krugman writes: “Tsipras apparently allowed himself to be convinced, some time ago, that euro exit was completely impossible. It appears that Syriza didn’t even do any contingency planning for a parallel currency (I hope to find out that this is wrong). This left him in a hopeless bargaining position.”

Krugman’s point is that Grexit is also an impossible-real”, which can happen with unpredictable consequences and which, as such, can be risked. “All the wise heads saying that Grexit is impossible, that it would lead to a complete implosion, don’t know what they are talking about. When I say that, I don’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong — I believe they are, but anyone who is confident about anything here is deluding himself. What I mean instead is that nobody has any experience with what we’re looking at.”

While in principle this is true, there are nonetheless too many indications that a sudden Grexit now would lead to utter economic and social catastrophe. Syriza economic strategists are well aware that such a gesture would cause an immediate further fall in the standard of living for an additional (minimum) 30 per cent, bringing misery to a new unbearable level, with the threat of popular unrest and even military dictatorship. The prospect of such heroic acts is thus a temptation to be resisted.

Then there are calls for Syriza to return to its roots: it should not become just another governing parliamentary party; the true change can only come from grass roots, from the people themselves, from their self-organisation, not from the state apparatuses . . . another case of empty posturing, because it avoids the crucial problem, which is how to deal with the international pressure concerning debt, or, more generally, how to exert power and run a state. Grass-roots self-organisation cannot replace the state, and the question is how to reorganise the state apparatus to make it function differently.

It is nonetheless not enough to say that Syriza put up a heroic fight, testing what is possible the fight goes on: it has just begun. Instead of dwelling on the “contradictions” of Syriza policy (after a triumphant No, one accepts the very programme that was rejected by the people) and of getting caught in mutual recriminations about who is guilty (did the Syriza majority commit an opportunistic “treason”, or was the left irresponsible in its preference for Grexit?), one should rather focus on what the enemy is doing. The “contradictions” of Syriza are a mirror image of the “contradictions” of the EU establishment, gradually undermining the very foundations of united Europe.

In the guise of Syriza “contradictions”, the EU establishment is merely getting back its own message in its true form. And this is what Syriza should be doing now. With ruthless pragmatism and cold calculation, it should exploit the tiniest cracks in the opponent’s armour. It should use all those who resist the predominant EU politics, from British conservatives to Ukip in the UK. It should flirt shamelessly with Russia and China, playing with the idea of giving an island to Russia as its Mediterranean military base, just to scare the shit out of Nato strategists. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, now that the EU God has failed, everything is permitted.

When one hears complaints that the EU administration brutally ignores the plight of the Greek people in their blind obsession with humiliating and disciplining the Greeks, that even southern European countries such as Italy or Spain didn’t show any solidarity with Greece, our reaction should be: but is there any surprise in all this? What did the critics expect? That the EU administration will magically understand Syriza's argument and act in compliance with it? The EU administration is simply doing what it was always doing. Then there is the reproach that Greece is looking for help in Russia and China – as if Europe itself were not pushing Greece in that direction with its humiliating pressure.

Then there is the claim that phenomena such as Syriza demonstrate how the traditional left/right dichotomy is outlived. Syriza in Greece is called "extreme left", and Marine Le Pen in France "extreme right", but these two parties in effect have a lot in common: they both fight for state sovereignty, against multinational corporations. It is therefore quite logical that in Greece itself, Syriza is in coalition with a small rightist pro-sovereignty party. On 22 April 2015, François Hollande said on TV that Marine Le Pen today sounds like George Marchais (a French Communist leader) in the 1970s – the same patriotic advocacy of the plight of ordinary French people exploited by international capital – so no wonder Marine Le Pen supports Syriza . . . It was a weird claim, which doesn't say a lot more than the old liberal truism that fascism is also a kind of socialism. The moment we bring into the picture the topic of immigrant workers, this whole parallel falls apart.

The ultimate problem is a much more basic one. The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but then, sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, he or she stumbles upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly “punished” by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.

The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth run of the Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by the combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting the environment, etc); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multiparty rituals (participation, etc); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society. Both traps are to be avoided here: the false radicalism (“What really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism; all other fights are secondary”), as well as the false gradualism (“Now we fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy; forget your socialist dreams: this comes later – maybe . . .”).

When we have to deal with a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive, half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans thatone cannot but characterise as crowd-pleasers – for democracy, against corruption, etc. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realise that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospect of a decent life) goes on in a new guise. In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime but corruption remained, and the prospect of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery: the majority not only remain poor, but, to add insult to injury, they are being told that, because they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy: democratisation also of social and economic life. In short, we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent in this principle itself. To learn this move from the distortion of a notion, its incomplete realisation, to the distortion immanent to this notion is the big step of political pedagogy.

The ruling ideology mobilises here its entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion. It starts to tell us that democratic freedom brings its own responsibility, that it comes at a price, that we are not yet mature if we expect too much from democracy. In this way, it blames us for our failure: in a free society, so we are told, we are all capitalists, investing in our lives, deciding to put more into our education than into having fun if we want to succeed, etc. At a more directly political level, US foreign policy elaborated a detailed strategy of how to exert damage control by way of rechannelling a popular uprising into acceptable parliamentary-capitalist constraints – as was done successfully in South Africa after the fall of apartheid regime, in Philippines after the fall of Marcos, in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, and so on. At this precise conjuncture, radical emancipatory politics faces its greatest challenge: how to push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over, how to make the next step without succumbing to the catastrophe of the “totalitarian” temptation – in short, how to move further from Mandela without becoming Mugabe.

The courage of hopelessness is crucial at this point.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage