This story appears in VICE Magazine's Truth and Lies Issue.
Last year, I wrote a book called No One Man Should Have All That Power. It’s about Rasputins. What the hell is a Rasputin? A fair question!
You may not have heard the term before. But you know the archetype that it defines. It’s one that exists in pop music studios and on Hollywood sets and in fiction workshops and halls of political power and criminal conspiracies, and, well, anywhere really. Svengalis, éminences grises, the shadowy puppet masters pulling the strings on others more prominent—these are Rasputins.
Like: You are President Huff N’ Stuff. I am your plotting, masterfully effective senior adviser. I am President Huff N’ Stuff’s Rasputin.
Now, to manipulate a person, you need to have a liminal relationship with the truth. It’s not so much about out-and-out lying; that’s the traditional purview of the con man. And that’s transactional, limited, easily defined. What we’re talking about is a more fluid, more expansive situation. What I learned over the last few years, while interviewing and reporting on Rasputins from Los Angeles to Tijuana to St. Petersburg, is that they don’t peddle fraud bit by little bit. They’re grander than that. They have worldviews.
It is an unintuitive truism of lying that if you are going to lie, lie big.
The term Rasputin comes to us via Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the notorious 1900s man of God who transfixed Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last tsar and tsarina of the Russian Empire, until he was assassinated, sloppily, by political enemies and crudely dumped in the Neva River.
Rasputin’s worldview was his religion. He was a simple and rough Siberian peasant, and his unencumbered Russian Orthodox faith suggested to the Petersburg elite that he had a pure connection to the Christian God. He could heal you, he promised. His most famous patient: Alexei, the hemophiliac son of Nicholas and Alexandra, and the heir to the Russian Empire.
In her memoirs, Rasputin’s daughter Maria (who had her own shaky relationship vis à vis facts) quoted her father telling the tsarina in a telegram, after one particularly harrowing hemophilic incident, “Have no fear. God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve; your son will live.” And indeed he did. (Well, at least until the Bolsheviks came around a few years later. But that’s another story).
So Rasputin could bullshit that his belief could save the tsar and tsarina’s boy, and it won him their love and their ears. Practically speaking, he was their best friend; the country at large saw him as their master. (As one of his assassins put it, the couple had “been turned into marionettes whose threads have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin… the evil genius of Russia.”)
His was a grand tactic. And it’s one well understood by modern-day Rasputins. They, however, usually offer a less dramatic iteration. Most of the time, they’re peddling you a regular humdrum American ideology of affluence. It may be a bit reductive, but there is a process to it that can be roughly blocked out.
Step 1: Promise Money
Rasputins understand the culture, they tell you. They can take your raw gifts and make them into something palpable and revenue-generating.
The ruddy-faced Lou Pearlman turned a Ponzi scheme into a boy-band empire and then turned that empire into ashes. He made the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC a lot of money and pocketed almost all of it and ended up dying in federal prison. Why did these talented and agile young men throw their luck in with this guy, of all the guys trolling central Orlando promising fame in the early 90s? Perhaps because his chutzpah knew no bounds. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote, days before he went to prison Pearlman “issued a formal request [to the court] to be permitted to develop bands while behind bars; all he would require was a telephone and an Internet connection two days a week.”
Step 2: Promise a Path to Posterity
During my reporting, the novelist Brian Evenson told me about his experiences with the literary Rasputin Gordon Lish, the fiction editor famous for chopping Raymond Carver’s bighearted first drafts into frigid, beloved blasts of ellipticalness. In the early 90s, Evenson was a young writer in the Pacific Northwest submitting manuscripts blind to publisher’s slush piles. Having come across his work, Lish cold-called him and told him he could make him “one of the best writers of my generation” if he would quit everything and come to New York to attend Lish’s fiction workshop. “It was amazing to hear,” Evenson recalled, of that out-of-the-blue late-night phone call. “And it was very convincing. You’re hearing that speech and you’re hearing ‘I can be famous.’ But the thing that you should be hearing is—‘I can make you famous.’”
But it wasn’t about fame only (and its attendant financial rewards). It was about being gifted Lish’s path to genius—Carver-level genius. Lish was about as blatant as you can get: Come with me if you want to touch the eternal.
Step 3: Promise the Inexplicable
Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s personal trainer and confusingly-influential best friend, offered me an even grander goal: life extension. “I don’t think the brain understands the concept of time,” Guerrero told me. “It doesn’t understand age. Right? How would your brain know you’re whatever age you are? I always tell Tom, we’re not gonna tell our body what we wanna do. We’re gonna tell our body what we want it to do.”
In the years before he met Brady, Guerrero had been shut down by the FTC for pushing a sham cancer cure in a late-night infomercial. Now, with the QB, he’s successfully pushing the TB12 Method, their proprietary wellness worldview (via fitness books, apps, and branded electrolytes) to the world.
I asked Guerrero about his famous massage skills or, as Brady has called it, with glowing affirmation, his “body work.” That body work—that vaguely spiritual medicinal touch—is the most direct line between modern-day Rasputins and the original Rasputin. “Can that be taught?” I asked.
“Tom asks me that all the time,” Guerrero replied. “I can teach the theory, but I just don’t know how”—he flexed his fingers as he talked, showing off that foundational source of power—“to teach this.” And there’s that liminal relationship to the truth again.
Yes, Guerrero is offering money and fame in posterity: The longer Brady plays, the more of both he’ll have. But there has to be something else there. There has to be something that Brady cannot understand.
You, a rational person, know that a massage is a massage. It’s very nice, to be sure! But can it heal you? Can it help you win yet another goddamn Super Bowl? You, a rational person, might say no. But Tom Brady is not a rational person. He’s the best quarterback of all time. And he believes in the body work of Alex Guerrero .
And that’s the thing: Everybody wants to believe.
That includes the Rasputins—the Rasputins want to believe, too. To convince yourself you are the possessor of some otherworldly worldview—and so to be able to really, truly lie to yourself—that it is some rare thing. That is power. You, a rational person, say that’s power built in quicksand. But I am telling you: Sit in a room with an individual telling you they hold the secrets to the universe, and you may find yourself less stalwart in your defenses than you think.
In Moscow, in the early days of a Russian winter, I met Aleksandr Dugin. He’s a self-proclaimed philosopher with a bizarre and fascist-first worldview that, coincidentally or otherwise, happens to justify all of Vladimir Putin’s foreign incursions in Georgia and Ukraine. Dugin has been called “Putin’s Brain” and, literally, “Putin’s Rasputin.” Whether that’s accurate is up for debate. But as far as presenting himself as a self-styled puppet master goes, he’s one of the best in the world.
When I asked him about the ethics of his influence, he answered, first, by quoting The Picture of Dorian Gray’s Lord Henry, the brilliant high-society layabout who corrupts the titular Dorian. “All influence is immoral, from the scientific point of view,” he rattled off. “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul.” I was confused and unsettled by this statement at the time. I also ended up making it the epigraph prefacing my book.
Then Dugin went on.
“I could recognize that I am responsible for imposing my world vision over others,” he told me. “And what excuse do I have for that? My excuse precisely exists in my own philosophy. I am not creator of the thought. It is a kind of angelic or demonic dialect that I’m involved in. I am but a transmitter of some objective knowledge that exists outside of myself—beyond myself.
“I put myself in the center of all the society of history. It’s not egocentric. It’s completely opposed to egocentrism. I put myself in the center of the world by precisely liberating myself from the individual. It is some other in myself that is the center.
“That is the operation that I am leading. My influence is very special. I would say, a revolutionary kind. That is why I am called, by some American figures, the most dangerous man in the world. I would gladly accept that as labeled. I hope that it is true.”
It was, truly, a performance. And it was masterful and it was effective. I didn’t walk away believing Russia was right to take the Crimea. But I did walk away understanding why there are those who desperately crave the kind of stuff Dugin is peddling. We all wake up with a gaping, aching hole in our stomach. And we all want something to fill it. And here comes that person—that Rasputin—who promises he can grant you that sustenance. That answer.
There are Rasputins who don’t accomplish it all. Who get stalled out after a step or two. But the all-timers, they tick every box. With that unvarnished chutzpah, they promise you money, and posterity, and they offer you a private confluence with forces and powers you cannot ever fully fathom. And where all that ends is faith. In the end, you come not to trust them. You come to believe in them.
Step 4: Give Them the Faith
The English national Colin Wilson is one of Rasputin’s many, many untrustful biographers. Writing in 1964, he said of Rasputin’s followers, “They believed again in man’s power to control his own destiny. It was impossible to be a fatalist in the presence of this power.”
The writer Teffi once recounted a strange night out with Rasputin. He told her, “Don’t you know we all love sweet tears, a woman’s sweet tears? Do you understand? I know everything.”
I guess all I’m really trying to say is what Sheryl Crow already said on Tuesday Night Music Club, her note-perfect 1993 debut. “Liiiiie to me,” she crooned, with a winking heart and some true, precocious wisdom. “I promise, I’ll believe.”
Follow Amos Barshad on Twitter.