Aug 27 2010

Rasputin’s Remains

In his series of articles in the New Yorker about traveling through Siberia, Ian Frazier laments that the town of Pokrovskoye does not have a museum dedicated to its most famous son, Grigory Rasputin.  Born a peasant, Rasputin was the sex-crazy, self-proclaimed visionary who moved to St. Petersburg and gained influence over the royal family by supposedly curing the bleeding of Tsarevitch Alexey, Nicholas and Alexandra’s hemophiliac son. Soothing, compassionate, and blessed with what I’ve heard described as a particularly well-placed wart, his influence over the royal family was matched only by his influence over aristocratic women, whom he convinced could find salvation by having sex with him.

“Rasputin, it was said, gave off a powerful odor of goat,” writes Frazier. “What a museum you could make about a guy like that! Oh, well.”

There may not be a tribute to Rasputin in his home town, but it seems that Frazier – busy as he was making an epic over-land journey across Siberia in a sour cream delivery van – missed page 268 of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia. There, in a box titled “Off-beat St. Petersburg,” is a small blurb that reads “Inspect Rasputin’s Penis – the mad monk’s meaty 30cm-long member is the chief attraction at the otherwise eminently missable Museum of Erotica, housed in a venereal disease clinic.” Perhaps this reflects poorly on our priorities,  but Peter and I made it one of our first stops.

According to a set of complimentary Rasputin postcards that we received along with our tickets, the Museum of Erotica’s formal title is actually “the Museum of Erotics, Center of Prostatology, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.” It’s an imposing title for an institution housed in the basement of an unremarkable building about a mile east of the Summer Gardens, whose stairway leads to a large cardboard cutout of a tanned, buxom woman wearing nothing but a white bikini  and a stethoscope. Next to it hangs a poster of the clinic’s founder – Dr. Knyazkin – sitting in a chair and dressed in white, glaring as he takes notes on a red clipboard. He is surrounded by women dressed in costumes that would be described on Halloween packaging as “slutty nurse,” complete with stiletto heels and giant, suggestively positioned syringes. A dignified entrance, it is not.

This would be weird enough if the place were simply the Museum of Erotica. But it really is a functional venereal disease clinic. In addition to detailing the circumstances behind Rasputin’s death (“March 24th, 1917, 2 to 7am: Rasputin is cremated in the furnace of a heating boiler at the Polytechnic Institute”), my postcard pack also lists some of the available services, including urology and “andrology,” gynecology, laboratory and functional diagnostics and, most intriguingly, “sexology and sexopathology.”  And there were customers: as proof that Russia has very low expectations for patient privacy, the erotica museum doubles as the clinic waiting room; we saw embarrassed-looking men sitting on benches in front of cases filled with porcelain figurines of copulating pigs. Occasionally, a side door would open, revealing examination chairs and what looked like legitimate medical equipment, albeit equipment staffed by women with larger than normal cup sizes.

Once we’d made it past the entrance, we approached one of these large-breasted slutty nurse figures, a friendly young woman who was sitting behind a desk in what looked like a normal hospital reception area, but for the abundance of genitalia on the walls. Looking us up and down, she correctly guessed we were there for the museum, not the clinic. Then she gave us pairs of blue booties to put over our shoes.

While I would never describe the museum as “eminently missable” – how could that be true of a place that features a large poster of a woman in leather boots, red bra and military hat with the title “The Cold War Just Got Hot”? – I will say that I don’t remember many of its exhibits. But that’s probably because the display I do remember has been etched in my mind in such clear, painful detail that it is likely to haunt me in my sleep: the enormous, brown and bloated penis of Grigory Rasputin, floating in a jar.  Pointing downward, it sits calmly suspended in clear fluid, beckoning the viewer with tentacles of wispy hair. It is repulsive, the penis, the sort of thing that fills you immediately with visceral disgust even as you inspect it for signs of its legendary warts (I couldn’t find them). But here is what I did gather about its history, taken from my un-fact-checked postcard collection and a laminated piece of paper next to the exhibit titled “Brief History of Founding Rasputin’s Penis.”

-At the age of 19, Rasputin was married to a girl from the neighboring village. He had three children with her, though he was prone to “alcohol abuse and vagabonding.” At the age of 30, he supposedly gave up smoking and drinking and converted to vegetarianism. He did not, however, give up his sexuality; rather, he brought it with him to St. Petersburg where, surrounded by impressionable (and repressed) female admirers, he successfully convinced many of them to have sex with him.

-In between affairs, Rasputin gained influence over the royal family by, as noted above, supposedly curing their hemophiliac son. This influence earned him enemies and would-be assassins, among them the syphilitic Khionia Guseva, who approached him in his native village posing as a beggar and stabbed him in the stomach. He survived.

-Prince Felix Yusupov Count Sumarokov-Elston was a man who, according to my postcards, liked to “sing on stage in the woman’s attire.” He approached Rasputin seeking a cure for his homosexuality, but then fell in love with him. Alas, his unrequited affection morphed into hate, and he conspired with a different lover, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, to murder Rasputin. (Pavlovich later emigrated from Russia, married the daughter of an American railroad tycoon, and entered the champagne business.)

-Yusupov and Pavlovich, working with another assassin and, possibly, help from the British, lured Rasputin into Yusupov’s palace on December 30, 1916. They fed him poisoned wine and sweet cakes stuffed with cyanide. Neither worked. Rasputin eventually figured out there was something funny going on with his breakfast and tried to flee, at which point all three of his would-be killers tried to shoot him. One succeeded — though there are still rumors that Rasputin didn’t actually die until his assassins threw his body into an icy river.

-Fast forward to 1999. A small box was found in an abandoned house in a Parisian suburb that used to belong to Akilina Laptinskaya, Rasputin’s secretary. According to my postcards, the casket contained photographs, letters, “and some mummified hairy shrunken object, which turned out to be Rasputin’s penis.” How the penis got there – or, for that matter, how it was identified — I do not know. The postcards only offer this tease: “The full story of the phallus and the occasion on which it was cut off the body is explained in the ‘Big Rasputin Book’ by Dr. Knyazkin (DEAN Publ., St. Petersburg, 2007).”

-The museum obtained the box (and penis) in 2000. But what do you do with a shrunken phallus? Again, my postcards: “Before the unique penis found its place in the exhibition of the first Russian Erotic Museum, the staff of the Centre of Prostatology had to restore it scrupulously. The organ was steamed, the sticking together hair was detached, the wounds were sutured and the penis was filled with gel. What came to hand [!] was semi-erected phallus 24 cm long, which is kept in the special solution in order to be preserved forever.”

I left the museum with many questions – about penis rehydration, about why it was cut off in the first place and, perhaps most of all, about the story of Dr. Knyazkin, the founder of the clinic, author of the history, and the keeper of the artifact. All over the museum were posters featuring his face. Most notable was the one in the exit hall, framed above a display of letters – perhaps from fans. It is a photograph of  Knyazkin and his prize. Staring into the camera, he clutches the base of Rasputin’s penis with his left hand, its mass dwarfing the microscope that sits behind it on the table. Knyazkin’s right index finger delicately pushes its head toward the camera, as if he is a parent coaxing a shy child. The look on his face indicates he is performing work of grave importance.

There are many things about Russia that I don’t understand.

The good doctor, striking a different pose.

It was even worse in person.