Nick Timothy has become “the Brummie Rasputin”. So say some Tory MPs, according to the latest Mail on Sunday. That paper quotes a “senior Cabinet minister” (has a junior one ever given a quote?) who complains of Timothy’s “Rasputin-like influence” over Theresa May.
Timothy finds himself in distinguished company. Denis Healey (no skulking behind the word “senior” for him) once described Sir Keith Joseph, distinguished Conservative thinker and somewhat less successful minister, as “a mixture of Hamlet, Rasputin and Tommy Cooper”.
Joseph was also known as “the mad monk”, a term apparently first applied to him by Chris Patten, with reference to the 1966 Hammer horror film Rasputin the Mad Monk, in which the title role is played by Christopher Lee.
Many Tories, especially those of a wet disposition, claimed Margaret Thatcher was too influenced by Joseph. Forty years on, the same kind of people assert May is too influenced by Timothy, who is said, partly on the basis of his writings for ConHome, to have turned her against Chinese investment in Hinkley Point, and in favour of allowing more grammar schools.
Rasputin was the drunken, dissolute, peasant mystic who was held in the highest esteem and affection by Alexandra, the last Tsarina of Russia, and was accused of exercising, through her, a malign, indeed disastrous influence on Tsar Nicholas.
In more recent times, David Cameron’s brilliantly imaginative adviser, Steve Hilton, of whom like Joseph not every Tory approved, was sometimes referred to at Westminster as “the pint-sized Rasputin”.
The Mail on Sunday was quick to note some of the salient differences between Rasputin and Timothy:
“Unlike Rasputin, known for his sexual and drunken excesses, Timothy, 36, is a clean-living modern romantic: engaged to German Nike Trost, he is reportedly learning German ‘in her honour’.”
Rasputin was illiterate: Timothy is highly literate. Rasputin operated in an autocratic monarchy which was about to be overthrown by a revolution, leading to the murder of the Tsar, Tsarina and their children, and the establishment of a communist dictatorship which lasted for 70 years. Timothy works in a parliamentary system which allows for peaceful change.
There is really no similarity between the two men, apart from their beards. In July, when I profiled Timothy for ConHome, I suggested in all innocence that his beard makes him look like Lord Salisbury, the great Tory Prime Minister.
The verdict of others is less favourable. For when one wishes to attack a leader’s judgement, but finds it too dangerous to do so, the established method is to go instead for the leader’s evil counsellors who have led him – or in this case her – astray.
When the leader is a woman and the adviser a man, the temptation to bring up Rasputin becomes irresistible. We live in a profoundly rude political culture, where without a second thought we exaggerate our opponents’ faults out of all recognition.
This is a very good thing. Freedom of speech must include the freedom to make grotesquely insulting and tasteless claims, or it becomes a prissy and inhibited pretence of free speech.
We should be able, if we wish, to call someone a Quisling who is really nothing like Vidkun Quisling, profiled on this site in March this year. He, by the way, had been awarded the CBE, so signed himself “Quisling CBE” when he telegraphed Neville Chamberlain in October 1939, urging Britain to make peace with Germany.
An even odder detail leaps out of Rasputin’s life. He was murdered by a member of the Bullingdon Club. Not for the last time, the audacious spirit displayed by that nursery of statesmen and criminals was displayed before a wider public.
What had Rasputin done to deserve this? A lot. For although almost every detail of his life is contested, there is no doubt that by the end of his life he had become immensely unpopular, and was the despair of Russian monarchists.
In the last two and a half years of his life, before he met his end in December 1916, there had been at least ten attempts to kill him.
He was born into the peasantry in January 1869 in Pokrovskoe, a village on the Tura River in western Siberia. Only two of his parents’ nine children survived and he never went to school, for there was no school.
At the age of 12, his mystical gifts first became apparent. In what follows I have relied heavily on the short account of him by Frances Welch, which is by far the most enjoyable introduction to him in English, for although she does not pretend to definitive knowledge, she avoids the paralysing indecision which afflicts some historians, and she includes many of the absurd and earthy details which are considered beneath the dignity of history.
When Rasputin was near, the family cows produced more milk. He cured a lame horse by placing his hand on its hamstring and throwing his head back. He was soon able to predict when a stranger was on the way: an hour after his announcement, a stranger would appear in the distance.
All his life, he was able to make implausible statements which turned out to be true. He also beat up the village bully, who was called Boris.
At the age of 18, he got married to a local woman. They had six children, of whom three survived.
Within a few years, he became a religious wanderer. In 1892, he spent several months in a monastery. He had shafts of insight which impressed senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church, although an increasing number were disgusted by him.
For he also became a shameless molester of women, frequenting bath houses which functioned as brothels and making innumerable indecent propositions, often while in an advanced state of drunkenness.
Religiosity and fornication were for him indissoluble. He ate only with his hands and smelled like a goat, for he seldom washed, though after eating he would present a greasy finger to his female followers and say: “Lick it clean.”
After years of use as a napkin, Welch tells us, “his straggling beard was festooned with decaying food”.
At the age of 33, he travelled all the way to Kiev, and had his first encounter with members of the upper classes. The aristocracy “were prone to welcome his rudeness as a mark of integrity”.
In 1905, he met the Tsar and Tsarina for the first time. They led isolated lives, communicating with each other in English. Alexandra deeply disapproved of the Russian aristocracy, which she found immoral, and dominated her husband, Tsar Nicholas, whom she loved but considered little better than a child.
She was the daughter of Grand Duke Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt and Alice Maud Mary, a daughter of Queen Victoria. In Russia, she had few friends, and was terrified that her son Alexei, who had inherited from her the painful and incurable disease of haemophilia, was going to die.
Rasputin seemed able to ease Alexei’s symptoms, or even, during recurrent crises, to save his life. Alexandra was convinced of this, which made it impossible, over the next 11 years, for Nicholas to banish Rasputin: a course often urged upon him by wiser counsellors. As Welch observes:
“Amid the fripperies of life at Court, there was always a call for an uncorrupted straight-talker, a character like Queen Victoria’s John Brown. Indeed, one of the Imperial family’s closest companions, Lily Dehn, compared the Tsarina’s faith in Rasputin to Queen Victoria’s in Mr Brown. Inevitably the Tsarina’s worship of the peasants was encouraged by Rasputin who claimed: ‘Great is the peasant in the eyes of God.’”
By 1912, Rasputin was one of the most hated men in Russia, and even most members of the royal family detested him, though the Tsarina’s children, who had no friends of their own age, followed her lead and were very fond of him.
When the First World War broke out, Rasputin was recovering from an assassination attempt, but warned: “If Russia goes to war, it will be the end of the monarchy, of the Romanovs and of Russian institutions.”
Like many of his prophecies, this turned out to be true. But as Russia lurched from one disaster to another, Rasputin became more and more unpopular. The Tsar took personal command of the army, leaving the Tsarina to hire and fire politicians under Rasputin’s influence.
The slander spread that she had slept with him. This was a lie, but letters which she had written to him, and which were stolen and published before the war, contained sentimentalities which were all too suggestive: “I wish to fall asleep on your shoulder. I love you. I believe in you. I kiss you warmly.”
A caricature published in 1916, entitled “Russia’s Ruling House”, showed a vast, dark picture of a frowning, bearded Rasputin, his hypnotic eyes gazing straight at the viewer, while the Tsar and Tsarina sit like two tiny, feeble children on his lap, smiling weakly at each other, completely dominated by this mountebank.
Harold Williams, a brilliant New Zealand linguist who was at this time in Petersburg, reported to the British Government, which was watching developments in Russia with growing concern: “It seems impossible that the fate of such a huge Empire should remain much longer at the mercy of the plotting of a hysterical woman with a depraved peasant.”
Prince Felix Yusupov, a member of Russia’s richest family and married to the beautiful Princess Irina, niece of the Tsar, agreed that the situation had become impossible, and hatched a plot to kill Rasputin. Before the First World War, Yusupov had studied Forestry and English at University College, Oxford, where he was elected to the Bullingdon.
He befriended Rasputin, and lured him at midnight to an underground room at his palace, where poisoned wine and food had been prepared. The poison had no visible effect, so Yusupov shot Rasputin.
But Rasputin was still not dead, and ran into the courtyard. Here he was shot again, and died. The conspirators dragged him back into the house. Yusupov shot one of his own dogs, to explain all the blood.
He and his accomplices then wrapped up Rasputin’s corpse, took him to a bridge over the Neva River and dropped him through a hole in the ice.
One of Rasputin’s galoshes was found the next morning on the bridge. Two days later, his body was discovered, for the conspirators had neglected to attach weights to it.
The Tsarina was inconsolable. She and the Tsar attended Rasputin’s funeral, which had to be held in private. Within months, the Russian Revolution had begun, the Imperial family was overthrown, the grave was desecrated and the corpse was at length incinerated.
Rasputin’s life has since been commemorated in a series of lurid books, films and even operas.
One trusts nothing remotely like this will ever happen to Mr Timothy, or indeed to Mrs May, and that any plots by members of the Bullingdon Club, at least two of whom have recently been overthrown though another has become Foreign Secretary, will be of a more pacific nature.