The seed of this book was planted nearly a half century ago, when my father told me that his paternal great uncle (my great-great uncle), Aron Simanovitch, had spent about a decade as Grigori Rasputin’s secretary, and one of the few Jews allowed at the tsar’s court. Simanovitch had journeyed to the States from France in 1923, to try to sell his story here. My father, though only 6 then, remembered meeting him and being told that he looked just like Aron’s sister (my father’s grandmother who died shortly after the birth of my grandfather). I heard this story many times, although it meant little to me until I reached middle adulthood.
Like many who reach middle adulthood and are confronted with our mortality, I took an interest in searching for my roots. I ran across Simanovitch’s name in various contexts, until I discovered, via a website forum, that he had written his memoirs (in Russian, in 1928, and translated into French in 1930). I quickly found a copy of his book, “Raspoutine”, read it and translated it into English.
The most surprising thing about Aron’s memoirs was the praise he lavished on Rasputin for his compassion for the oppressed Russian Jews. He wrote of many incidents of Rasputin petitioning the Tsarina, or paying off bureaucrats, to free innocent prisoners, permit Jews to get an education, occupations, reside outside the Pale of Settlement, and many other opportunities which they were otherwise denied.
The unfortunate part of Aron’s memoirs was the extensive court gossip he included. While gossip was a common form of recreation (as it is today), it does not lend credibility. So, when a well known publisher expressed interest and asked to see the entire manuscript, after the first three chapters, I was elated. When he finished reading it, he called me and asked what I had hoped to accomplish with the book. I told him that I wanted to stress Rasputin’s humanitarianism and dispel the demonic image. He told me what I already knew – that the gossipy parts of the memoir diminished the point I was trying to make, and that perhaps I should seek another tack.
It took me nearly a year to solidify what needed to be done. I culled, from Aron’s memoirs, only the specific incidents of aid Rasputin lent the Jews, leaving out all the gossip about the aristocracy. Then, I spent the next decade reading memoirs, historical treatises, all sorts of writings substantiating those incidents, and the connection between Rasputin and Russian Jews.
Structuring the Book:
At first, I was simply going to address Rasputin’s aid to Jews, but after speaking to several people who were unaware of the status of Russian Jews at that time, I knew I needed to add some background. The chapter called “Anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia summarizes the treatment of Jews, beginning with Peter the Great, in the 17th century, and summarizes the attitudes and policies of each of the Tsars.
The chapter following it, “The Quotas and The Pogroms,” details the laws restricting the educational, occupational and residence limits of Russian Jews. Also included in that chapter is a section on the pogroms – Russia’s attempt to eradicate the Jewish population. These were regular raids, sanctioned by the Tsar, the military and the government, that resulted in the destruction of entire Jewish villages, and in the torture and slaughter of the occupants. These two chapters lay the groundwork for understanding the dire straits and tenuous lives of the disenfranchised Jews, and Rasputin’s empathy for and efforts to help them.
Those closest to Rasputin, participating in his daily life, included his daughters Matryona (Marya) and Varvara (Varya), as well as his secretary, Simanovitch. While Varya was killed shortly after the Revolution, while trying to escape to Berlin, Marya did manage to escape and wrote two books about her father. And Simanovitch wrote his book. Their writings offer a glimpse into Rasputin’s daily life, his attitudes, deeds, conversations and feelings. The perspectives of these people who knew him most intimately each have their own chapter.
It occurred to me that Rasputin’s evolution, as a human being – the personal events of his life – contribute greatly to understanding the man. The chapter, “Man of Faith,” follows him from his early life to his position at the Court, discussing his exploration of various faiths and his disillusionment with organized religion, corrupt monks, and the Church’s unwillingness to help non-Christians. The chapter “Rasputin The Healer,” with accounts of specific cases, goes hand in hand with this one, as his faith and healing abilities were intertwined.
“Rasputin’s Politics” addresses his progressive ideas for avoiding war, according all Russians equal rights, and land distribution to the peasants, to increase food production and better feed the population. His enlightened views on women, decrying their second-class status, is illuminating, considering all the slander that’s proliferated to the contrary.
The chapter called “Protector of the Jews,” (and the meat of the book) delineates numerous specific incidents, all substantiated by those who were there, of Rasputin’s aid to persecuted groups and individuals who had nowhere else to turn.
In “Conclusion”, other authors’ works and memoirs are generally reviewed according to the bias of each. There is a synthesis of the information in the previous chapters, to lend a more realistic and complex view of the man who inspired the hatred of most of the aristocracy, and the love of the common people he defended.
After publication is the really hard part: marketing and promotion. My first step was to seek editorial reviews. I targeted Jewish publications and book reviewers first. I was fortunate enough to pique the interest of Jonathan Kirsch of The Jewish Journal (http://bit.ly/skeeE9), Neil Rubin of The Baltimore Jewish Times, Steve Pollak of the Jewish Literary Review (http://bit.ly/wObHRH), Dr. Israel Drazin, author and book reviewer (http://bit.ly/vGVd5X), Diana Brement of JT News, book blogger Kate Brauning of The Bookshelf (http://bit.ly/yIOr0r) and a number of others. I wrote articles about Rasputin’s efforts, using excerpts from the book, which were published on a variety of websites such as Yahoo, Ezine, Sirgo, and others. A number of interviewers were kind enough to give me space on their blogs, as well.
Putting the book on Kindle and Nook broadened my market, as the popularity of ebooks continues to soar.
(to be continued)