Prince Felix Youssoupoff
Helen Marx Books ($21.95)
by Rod Smith
Let's be realistic. We're all born assassins—in our heads, at least. Who among us has never dreamt of sending some tyrannical mayor, mullah, president, or lifeguard to his or her grave, whether with bomb, bullet, blade or pure malevolent intent? Most of us, thank goodness, never get around to actually doing anything along those lines. Assassination attempts—even ones that end in success as regards the killing part—tend to generate pesky legal complications and often lead to lifelong incarceration or death. Rare indeed is the assassin who walks away scot-free.
Prince Felix Youssoupoff is one such exception—and a damned interesting one. In his perennially popular Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin (first published in 1953 by G. P. Putnam), the prince provides an exciting and detailed account of how, with the help of a few close friends, he put an end to none other than Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, the infamous peasant and petty criminal turned erstwhile holy man who wielded a frightful and prodigious power over Russia's royal family in the years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution.
Lost Splendor covers a lot of other turf as well: The genesis of the fabulously wealthy Youssoupoff family, the prince's pre-adolescent adventures as a cross-dressing nightclub entertainer, his tumultuous courtship of and eventual marriage to one of the Czar's nieces, the chaos that gripped his country during the revolution—Youssoupoff tells all in lively, often intimate, prose. But, like many good writers, he's a chump—24-carat proof of the fact that "noble" doesn't necessarily equal "smart."
In stating the case against Rasputin, Yousoupoff portrays him as a fascinating, compelling character, more rogue than villain, given to great excesses but also possessed of enormous powers. After he wins the confidence of the starets ("religious advisor;" Rasputin spent a lot of time in monasteries doing monastic things but never received Holy Orders), the fledgling assassin nearly succumbs to Rasputin's ultra-magnetic gaze, when, having conned the mock monk into believing that he suffered from an intense fatigue which no doctor had been able to ameliorate, Youssoupoff gets a taste of the cure:
I felt as if some active energy were pouring heat, like a warm current, into my whole being. I fell into a torpor and my body grew numb; I tried to speak, but my tongue no longer obeyed me and I gradually slipped into a drowsy state, as though a powerful narcotic had been administered to me. All I could see was Rasputin's glittering eyes.
Though Youssoupoff and company kill Rasputin in the hope of saving the Romanov dynasty, they accomplish just the opposite. The revolution starts shortly after the starets's death; had he lived, the wily peasant almost certainly could have led the Czar, Czarina, and Czarevitch to safety. Instead, they get captured and, eventually, executed by the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, half the country knows that Youssoupoff killed Rasputin, rendering him considerably more popular than the average Russian nobleman at the time. He and his family escape with relative ease to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1967. Youssoupoff himself wonders whether, as many suggest, his deed sparked the revolution and the end of his world, and never arrives at a satisfactory conclusion. Still, Lost Splendor makes for a inspiring romp—even if you're not planning an assassination.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004