“Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary,” by Aron Simanovitch, translated and annotated by Delin Colon, edited by Bryna Kranzler and Delin Colon, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 284 pages, $14.85 (paperback)
Earlier this year, “Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary,” based on the recollections of Aron Simanovitch, was published in the United States. Simanovitch, a Jew, was one of the personal assistants of Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), the spiritual guide, mystic and healer who wielded tremendous influence with the last czar, Nicholas II, among members of the Romanov family, and in the imperial court of the Russian Empire, in general. Simanovitch’s original volume of memoirs, entitled “Rasputin and the Jews,” was first published in Russian in Riga, then translated into French and issued by Editions Gallimard, and subsequently appeared also in Spanish and German before World War II.
In a preface, Simanovitch claimed these were his personal recollections from a very stormy era in Russia, a time of revolutionary turmoil, the collapse of the House of Romanov and social and political earthquakes.
The new book, based in part on those memoirs, but annotated and with commentary, was translated by Delin Colon, the great-great niece of Simanovitch. Colon is also the author of a 2011 volume called “Rasputin and the Jews: A Reversal of History,” whose back cover noted that Rasputin “has been unjustly vilified simply because history is written by the politically powerful and not by the common man.” Those who write history, it was intimated, are either highly placed in regimes or academics who also are doing their masters’ bidding, and Colon was out to set the record straight. In her opinion, the czar’s influential courtiers envied Rasputin because of his high standing, and therefore presented him in a highly negative, even satanic light. But he was in fact a victim of a corrupt aristocracy, the author argued: Moreover, Simanovitch knew Rasputin extremely well, heard his declarations and was convinced of the man’s compassion and love for all of God’s suffering creatures, including the Jews.
Publication of the latest book elicited a variety of responses on the Internet. Online, too, Colon responded that history is written by the establishment’s representatives, whereas the new volume sought to describe the facts in the name of those actually involved in it.
Aron Simanovitch was born in 1875 in Kiev, where he became a successful diamond merchant. In 1902, looking to expand his business, he traveled to Saint Petersburg. As a merchant who was associated with the most prestigious guild, that is, with those whose volume of trade was very high, he possessed a permit that allowed him to carry out business in the imperial capital. He was also scrupulous about paying his taxes, so that the authorities would have no pretext to banish him because of his Jewish heritage. To build strong business relations and improve his prospects in society, he started attending the theater, ballet, race tracks and gambling clubs frequented by the rich. Once he had ingratiated himself with members of the aristocracy, he opened and ran his own gambling establishments; society women also began to buy expensive jewelry from him.
In his own writings, Simanovitch recalls that Alexandra Feodorovna, the czarina herself, having heard about him, summoned him one day to discuss gems. Knowing of her tight-fistedness, he offered her stones for lower prices than those offered by Peter Carl Faberge, at the time the imperial goldsmith. Alexandra was quite impressed by his “fairness and integrity” and recommended him to her ladies-in-waiting and others in her inner circle.
Some years later, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, dressed in the clothing and heavy boots befitting a peasant, thickly bearded and with a fiercely penetrating gaze, arrived in Saint Petersburg. He had apparently become a member of a Christian sect known as the Khlysty (flagellants), who supposedly whipped themselves to stimulate the flow of blood during impassioned prayer services and sexual orgies on the bare ground that ended in physical exhaustion and with thanks to the good Lord for granting them such bliss.
Even before his arrival in the city, Rasputin was renowned for his magical healing powers, which included an ability to come up with miracle cures where doctors had failed. He was the only one who succeeded in treating the crown prince’s hemophilia, and his status in the imperial court became firm. Simanovitch, who had become experienced in financial matters, saw an opportunity to help Rasputin manage his life, and in so doing gain even greater personal proximity to the aristocracy and imperial household. Specifically, he took it upon himself to handle Rasputin’s everyday affairs: maintaining his apartment, paying his living expenses and other bills, drafting his letters, making his appointments, and even making bribes in Rasputin’s name.
Simanovitch observed the dozens of people coming to the miracle-worker’s home every morning and his manner with the penniless, sick and downtrodden who believed that healing and salvation would come from the starets.
“Starets” is the term for a Russian folk concept denoting a charismatic spiritual
leader with superhuman influence − but without connection to the Church hierarchy. Such people were not appointed by any religious authority; they were simply recognized by the faithful as being people of the spirit. Dostoyevsky, in “The Brothers Karamazov,” defines the starets as someone who takes over another person’s soul and will, making that person yield completely and absolutely.
In the turbulent decade preceding the Russian Revolution, Rasputin’s influence on the collapsing empire was great, and other courtiers envied him. They persecuted him, photographed him in orgies, and vilified him before the czar. Thus, in 1911, Rasputin set out for the Holy Land, in order to demonstrate his penance for his sins (see box at end).
‘Should I be killed’
Many books have been written about Rasputin and his escapades, some of which make mention of Simanovitch. According to Joseph T. Fuhrmann, author of “Rasputin: The Untold Story” (2012), Simanovitch was a key individual in the life of the scandalous healer and visionary. The 1998 French-language biography “Raspoutine,” by Henri Troyat (born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov), also mentions Simanovitch, and both he and Fuhrmann quote a letter, based on Simanovitch’s memoirs, describing a declaration Rasputin ostensibly made a few days before his murder, in 1916: “I feel that I will leave this life before January 1. I would like to inform the Russian people, our father the czar, our mother the czarina and the children, and the soil of Russia, what they must do. Should I be killed by base murderers, especially by my fellow Russian peasants, you, the czar of Russia, will have nothing at all to fear for your children. They will continue to rule for many generations to come. But if I am killed by the aristocrats and they shed my blood, their hands will remain stained for the next 25 years, and they will have to leave Russia. Brother will rise up against brother and kill one another. Not one member of your family, not a single one of your children will live more than two years. They will be killed by the Russian people.”
These statements, if in fact they were uttered, are tantamount to prophecy, because the House of Romanov and all its attendants ceased to exist in the October Revolution of 1917, and until World War II, 25 years later, many rivers of blood were spilled in civil wars in Russia and at the hands of Stalin.
Simanovitch’s memoirs, the basis for “Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary,” include inaccuracies, exaggerations and supposed facts that cannot be independently verified. But the book does allow one to learn about
Rasputin’s way of life − the fish soup he loved and in which he would dip dried-out bread and serve to his guests; the hundreds of miracle seekers who approached him; his lack of concern about the future; and the fact that he never asked anyone for financial help. Of course, money naturally flowed his way from the wealthy who sought him out, including members of the imperial household and various other interested parties. Furthermore, the Okhrana, the czar’s secret police, were charged with safeguarding Rasputin’s quarters, day and night, and observing all of his visitors.
We learn in the new book that one of these secret agents was Manusevich Manuilov, whose father had been a state-appointed rabbi before he converted to Christianity. Manuilov, a master of intrigue, and a double and even triple agent, was first responsible with following Rasputin’s every move, but soon became his assistant. According to Colin Wilson, author of “Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs” (1971), Manuilov would visit the mystic daily. Upon his arrival, the starets would dismiss all supplicants and closet himself with his visitor for several long hours.
This ostensible “crossing of lines” is instructive with respect to the unique situation on the eve of the 1905 Russian Revolution, a twilight era in which policemen joined revolutionaries, persecuted and tortured revolutionaries, betrayed their comrades and joined the secret police. Dr. Zeev Iviansky, in his book “1905: Revolution and Terror” (in Hebrew, 1988), asserts that the most prominent and important members of the secret police at the time were former revolutionaries; they could imbue others with passion, resolve and faith in their goal. Some joined the secret police out of ideology, like Sergei Zubatov, who would later become the force’s chief; others, like Manusevich Manuilov, did it for money.
It may be that Rasputin’s two assistants − Simanovitch and Manuilov − did not serve their master at the same time, which explains why the latter is not mentioned in the former’s memoirs. Or perhaps Simanovitch was leery of getting on the bad side of the secret police and therefore kept his distance. He also wrote that he burned his notes when he fled Russia and only later reconstructed his memoirs from memory.
“Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary” is arranged not in chronological order, but by subject − such as Rasputin’s introduction to the czar and czarina, his arrival at the palace, his conduct, court intrigues, etc. The chapter entitled “The Jewish Problem,” for example, contains many unlikely stories, some of which certainly warrant further investigation, such as about encounters between Simanovitch and the wealthiest of local Jewish families: the Ginzburgs, Poliakovs and Brodskys. The chapter also includes Rasputin’s supposed prophecy of the 1911 blood libel affair involving a Jew named Menahem Mendel Beilis, and his prediction that Beilis would eventually be found innocent.
Simanovitch also boasts of having asked the czar for help in preventing the expulsion of 200 Jewish dentists from Saint Petersburg. On the other hand, Gen. Alexander Spiridovich, head of the royal family’s personal guard, who had a network of detective-agents spread throughout the palace, wrote in his own memoirs, published in Paris in 1928, that Simanovitch never visited the palace and that his memoirs are inaccurate and false. Spiridovich was familiar with every step taken by the czar, czarina and their children. He accompanied them everywhere − on winter excursions to their Crimean retreat, trips to the fiords of Norway, hunting expeditions in the forests, visits to the seashore − and describes many of their joys and worries in detail. And with respect to Simanovitch, he is highly critical.
According to Delin Colon, Simanovitch moved to France after the 1917 revolution. During World War II, when the Germans occupied France, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered there. His eldest son, Semyon, perished in Sobibor. Colon writes this in the epilogue, basing these statements on testimony submitted to Yad Vashem. After studying the subject, however, questions arise.
According to Russian-language Internet sources − not necessarily reliable, but worth taking note of − Aron Simanovitch and one of his sons, Johan, reached Liberia, where they lived for many years, with the elder Simanovitch dying only in 1978, at the age of 103. According to these sources, he lived in Monrovia, and even ran a restaurant there called Chez Rasputin. He was apparently a close associate of the Liberian president and advised him on various matters, especially encouraging him to support Israel. In fact, Liberia was one of the first African nations to vote for the partition plan at the United Nations on November 29, 1947.
Journey to the Holy Land
Grigori Rasputin was actually the author of a book, an account of his 1911 journey to the Holy Land. This summer, a bilingual, Russian-English edition of the original manuscript, titled “My Pilgrimage to Jerusalem,” was brought out by the New York publisher Liberty Publishing House.
It was the Russian Empire’s last czar, Nicholas II, who financed Rasputin’s four-month journey in 1911 to Jerusalem, intended to allow him to atone for his sinful libertine ways. Four years after his return, in 1915, Rasputin presented the czar with a summary of his journey. The original text was written in inarticulate language and a script. With turbulent emotion and great pathos, he tells about his trip from Saint Petersburg to Odessa, and then from Odessa to Constantinople and on to Jerusalem.
Along with describing his excitement at witnessing the sanctity of the city, Rasputin mentions the many temptations that lay in wait for young people there. He describes the beggars and the lepers who gathered near the sacred sites and the way of life of the residents, as well as their traditional garb. The language is confused, but it is imbued with a profound Christian enthusiasm and a humility that seems genuine.
Perhaps that is how Rasputin tried to convince the czar and his detractors of the purification he experienced: “Golgotha makes such an impression! Here, the Church of Resurrection, on the spot where the Queen of Heaven appeared, a round hollow was made, marking the spot the Mother of God gazed upon the heights of Golgotha and wept as the Lord was crucified on the Cross. As you look at the spot where the Mother of God stood, tears cannot help but flow and you see before you how it was.”
According to the memoirs of his daughter, Maria, Rasputin also visited Gethsemane, the place where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion; it is while there, apparently, that Rasputin realized that he really had sinned, and that he was losing his magical powers. Rasputin felt that a hidden hand was pulling his spirit out of his body, and that his spirit resisted any return to his body. He fainted, and a group of pilgrims brought him back to the Sergei Imperial Hospice, where he was staying.
This particular incident is not mentioned in the writings he sent to the czar, nor are the harsh and humiliating conditions experienced by rank-and-file Russian pilgrims in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, which Rasputin described elsewhere.
From the holy city, Rasputin went to Lake Kinneret and visited the churches along the Jordan River, including St. George’s Monastery, where, according to tradition, the prophet Elijah hid, as well as the Monastery of the Temptation, where Satan is said to have tempted Jesus, and the lofty Mar Saba monastery. In each of them he said a prayer to his savior, with a submissive heart, asking for forgiveness.
When Rasputin arrived at the Dead Sea, he became frightened and wept copiously about the immensity of the sins that had prompted God to pour out his wrath on the entire region and turn it into plains of salt and a sea of death. (Ruth Bachi-Kolodny)