Monday 28th November

Revolutionary puritans murdered Russian  (8)

It is clear that the Fiasco is not going to go again any day soon. It is time for a new set of wheels. Fortunately, I know a man who has some to sell or, if I am lucky, give away. Bandmate Ozzie Kay, praelector in nineteenth-century literature and all round good egg, has a Yaris that is surplus to requirements. The college is obviously paying him more than I thought if he can afford a new car, but ours is not to reason why.

“You can’t go wrong with a Toyota,” he assures me once I have given it a broadly satisfactory test drive. “Their engines require zero maintenance so they are perfect for ….”

“A complete idiot like me? Yes, thanks, Ozzie.”

“Where was it you turned the last one over?”

“Middle of nowhere, not too far from Thame, just next to a level crossing. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just curious. You know we were talking about Prince Felix Yusupov and the murder of Rasputin?”

“At band practice, ye-es …”

“Well, your little mishap sounds remarkably similar to an anecdote told by Univ’s notorious old boy, Felix Yusupov, in his autobiography, Lost Splendor.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“No, check it out for yourself. The whole book is up there on my favourite website in all the world. Alexanderpalace, one word, dot org. It’s like a set of matryoshka dolls hand-crafted by Fabergé. The further in you go, the more magic you find ….”

Suitably piqued, I dial up Ozzie’s site at the earliest opportunity and click on the links to Lost Splendor. Just as Bill Clinton’s autobiography may be judged by what he chooses to foreground, this is how the fabulously rich Prince Felix starts his story:

‘I was born on March 24, 1887, in our house on the Moika Canal, at St. Petersburg. The evening before, my mother went to a ball at the Winter Palace and danced the whole night through. Our friends thought this was a sign that I would be gay, and a good dancer.’

And how right they were, although possibly not in the way that Yusupov intends. The young aristo proves to be as camp as a boy scouts’ jamboree, but resolutely in denial throughout his lifetime, including his long and apparently happy marriage to the lovely Princess Irina. Our hero was christened Felix:

During the christening, which took place in our chapel, the priest almost drowned me in the baptismal font, into which, according to the Orthodox rite, I had to be plunged three times. It seems that I was revived with the greatest difficulty.

Does this near-drowning prefigure the final element of Yusupov’s monumental and murderous triptych, the drowning of the monster after poisoning and shooting have failed? Yusupov is (like me, I concede) a great believer in portents of all kinds.

If this remarkable opening was sure to strike me as ominous, then what am I to make of Prince Felix’s time at Univ? That’s where he finally pitches up after numerous grand tours of Europe, including the witnessing of his elder brother’s death in a Parisian duel. Attempting to slum it in Oxford, he insists on being known by the more modest title Count Sumarokov-Elston and is duly given freezing, damp rooms on the High St, not so far from the site of the newish Shelley Memorial. The rooms serve not only as an all-night drinking club for freeloading Englishmen but also as a convenient entry point to the college for those who are out after hours.

Young Felix takes up rowing but finds that golf is rather more congenial. (Maybe he went home to form his own USPGA, the Univ-St Petersburg Golf Alliance?) He has plenty of brushes with the college authorities and this is the bit that Phil must have had in mind:

Without the personal intervention of the Bishop of London, I would certainly have been expelled … I was returning from London where I had dined with a fellow undergraduate. In spite of a heavy fog, we were driving at top speed, and we were anxious to be on time as I had already been late twice during the term, and a third offense would have automatically led to my expulsion.

Blinded by the fog, my friend who was driving crashed into the closed gates of a level crossing. The violent collision smashed the gate and I was thrown on the track. I must have lost consciousness, and, as I came to, I saw a light through the fog which grew larger and larger at terrifying speed. I was still too dizzy to realize what was happening, and was only saved by instinctively turning and rolling off the track. The London express thundered by, and the blast sent me head over heels into the ditch. I picked myself up without a scratch, but my friend, though alive, was in very bad shape, with several broken limbs. As to the car, needless to say very little of it remained after the express had gone by. I telephoned from the gatekeeper’s cottage for an ambulance, and after taking my friend to the Oxford Hospital I reached my college two hours late. However, in view of the circumstances, I was not expelled.

You may imagine my feelings on reading this extraordinary tale which prefigures the fate of William Jefferson Blythe II and my own in so many ways. What model car was it? Presumably not the same Rolls Royce which ferried the unkillable Rasputin to the bridge over the icy Neva. Where was this level crossing? Alas, Felix does not say. I am naturally convinced it is the very same spot that I visited. And who was the unnamed undergraduate friend? Presumably it is not Eric Hamilton, the closest of his Oxford friends, because he is named in the preceding paragraphs.

Was it instead Oswald Rayner, the Black Country boy who was also to enjoy Yusupov’s spectacular largess in St Petersburg? Rayner is only mentioned later on as “a British officer whom I had known at Oxford”. We can only speculate on the circumstances in which they met – Rayner was up the High at Oriel, not Univ. As a student of modern languages, it seems reasonable to guess that Rayner joined the Russian Society, the creation of which had been Yusupov’s one lasting contribution to university life.

Yusupov studied (if that is not too strong a word) at Univ between 1909 and 1912 and seems to have encountered the “lascivious, malicious satyr”, Rasputin, shortly before matriculation, forming an instant hatred for the ambitious starets. This was seven years before the assassination. But did the germ of the idea form in his whisky-addled mind as he lay in his damp Univ bed so far from the comforts of St Petersburg? Did the imposing marble memorial to the drowned Shelley inspire some of the detail of that plan?

Along with a lot of kids of my generation, I remember being force-fed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the Modern Prometheus) for GCSE Eng Lit and I am struck now by the parallels between Yusupov’s portentous narrative and the earlier story (written in late 1816) of a love-hate relationship which concludes with a fatal rendezvous in the Arctic seas, creator and creation locked together in a frozen embrace.

Like GCSE students up and down the country, I memorised the last two paragraphs:

“But soon,” [the monster] cried with sad and solemn enthusiasm, “I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”

He sprang from the cabin window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

To my eyes now, it reads not just as a blueprint for the drowned Shelley’s funeral pyre on the beach near Viareggio but for the murder of another misunderstood ‘monster’ in a frozen St Petersburg.

Was Rasputin’s murder best explained as a spurned lover’s revenge or did Yusupov grow to regret the creation of this unkillable monster? Was Rasputin truly evil or simply the misunderstood ‘wild man’ of legend? History, as ever, was written by the winners and Yusupov’s account, as translated by the self-effacing English spy who may actually have done the deed, has been generally accepted as a factual account. In reality, Rasputin may well have been an ordinary home-loving boy who devoted his life to prayer and good deeds.

Have I read Lost Splendor before? I am 99.9% certain that I haven’t. It is a little more plausible that I saw the the movie, Rasputin and the Empress, on TV at some point in my childhood. How else am I to explain the strange parallels between Yusupov’s early life and the alter ego I created to impress Marie-Claire? I had wondered at the time where those flights of fancy had come from. It must be that the details of some dreary film have imprinted themselves on my childish imagination.

Looking now at the résumé of the film’s plot, so conveniently supplied by Wikipedia, it is clear that very little of Yusupov’s life-story is used in the characterisation of Prince Paul (who kills Rasputin). The film was made long before Lost Splendor was written, after all. The film does include the haemophiliac Prince Alexy, heir to the Russian throne and subject to Rasputin’s faith-healing, so perhaps that was the element that struck me most as I sprawled in front of the TV set during some long-forgotten school holiday?

It’s rather harder to account for some of the finer details in my version of the well-travelled young plutocrat from St Petersburg. That scenario in which I escaped from Yalta with a handful of Rembrandts under my arm – what the heck was going on there? The last chapter of the first volume of Lost Splendor describes that last journey into exile from, yes, Yalta. How on earth could I have guessed all this?

But there is more. There is one detail in this extraordinary tale which stands out above all others, one detail which chills me like the icy waters of the Neva. The one indisputable fact in this whole farrago of self-aggrandisement and mythopoesis – the date. The date on which this extraordinary assassination occurred. Rasputin was murdered in the early hours of December 30th 1916, one hundred years to the very day before I too am destined to drown.

How can that be a coincidence?

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