By Mike Gonzalez
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Sects, Lies and Virile Monks

This article is over 17 years, 9 months old
The history of decadent, out of touch rulers should worry Tony Blair, writes Mike Gonzalez.
Issue 284

Listening to Blair’s Churchillian blast at Labour’s spring conference was a peculiarly unpleasant experience. As usual, he mobilised his two good old standbys – moralism and fear. Like Canute, Blair stood resolutely on the beach looking out across the water and commanded the waves to turn back. This was a man so obviously lying to himself and others – so obviously acting a part – that not even the toadies and sycophants lined beaming along the front row of the hall could have believed a word of it. Yet Tony glowed with a sense of mission, of moral fervour – and with a conviction that he alone stood between us and the catastrophe to come.

What is it that makes powerful people facing disaster undergo this peculiar conversion? What weird psychological mechanism blinds the emperor to the collapse of his empire? Literature and art are full of self deluding tyrants who cannot see their imminent fall. King Lear stumbles across a heath that is, almost certainly, a kind of inner landscape – barren, empty of love, full of menace (winds and storms). His daughter Cordelia has warned him of the disaster to come but he prefers the flattery and self interested reassurance of his older daughters and their ambitious consorts.

In Gabriel García Márquez’s wonderful novel The Autumn of the Patriarch the protagonist rides though the streets in disguise so that he can hear what the people are saying about him – he cannot believe that they have ceased to love him, despite the terrible things he has done in their name.

It seems that rulers, especially those like Blair who see themselves as destined to hold power, react in disbelief when they see it slipping from their hands. In the final years of the Romanov dynasty, having celebrated their 300 years in power in 1913, the court of the Russian Tsar seemed to have slowly spun into a kind of madness. Behind the stiff formality of the regime there was decay and internal collapse. Astrology and magic, black arts and eccentric quacks were seen more and more at court. The parties grew wilder, the sexual relations more inventive and bizarre.

And then, as if to symbolise the collective instability, the mad monk Rasputin. Born a poor peasant in 1869, by the beginning of the 20th century he had acquired incredible influence at court. People insisted that he could cure the sick with a look or a touch. He dressed in rags and rarely took a bath, which fascinated the carefully washed and perfumed aristocrats round the tsar and his family. Rumours of his extraordinary sexual powers spread and multiplied, though they were probably nonsense – there seems more evidence, indeed, to suggest that he was sexually impotent. But he was clearly a tremendously successful seducer of both men and women, who seemed ready to allow him to humiliate and scorn them in public, and use them to extend his influence and control at court.

When he was finally murdered by a well educated gay military lover on behalf of a group of aristocrats at court, he appeared to have few material possessions, but what he did have was clout – ways of getting his friends and favourites into positions of power, ways of persuading the decadent Romanovs to do his bidding.

It is not only his prowess, reputed or real, that gave Rasputin his power. Why should a class which had absolutely no contact with or knowledge of the life of the poor become so hypnotised by this uneducated peasant? Why did they surround themselves with quacks and false philosophers, and priests of various hedonistic sects? It was a sign of absolute isolation, of the hypnotic and blinding influence of power. But it was also a sign of a class that saw its right to rule as beyond question and beyond criticism – until the revolution of 1917 swept them from the map of history.

There is, of course, no comparison to be made with the latter days of a democratically elected British prime minister. And there is certainly no possible parallel between a ragged and disreputable Russian peasant and a lithe and elegant style guru with a strange hold over him and his wife. And yet there are signs of the delusions that come with excessive power: the strange and inexplicable ceremonies that involve mud baths and animistic rituals; the insistent fundamentalist Christian rhetoric with its idea of community that has little to do with solidarity or democracy and a great deal to do with an overweening and immovable sense of moral authority; the strange indifference to public perceptions; the circle of protectors who shield this insulated family from any kind of reality (except of course for those three days holiday in Britain, between Barbados and Tuscany – was it at Center Parcs?); the eyes constantly lifted to heaven, the sermonising tone.

It begins to feel like those wild and heady days that came before the fall of the Romanovs.

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