The truth behind Romeo and Juliet’s demise, San Francisco’s mercury fish, and the murder of a Russian bogeyman.

I feel a powerful lust for red salmon. – Dr. Gonzo, Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas

( This is part two. Here’s part one )

I like google books, but when you type in “poison” it comes up with a lot of erotic vampire-detective novels, something about “Venomous Vixens,” and then I come across one that sounds worth a look; Poison Eaters: Snakes, Opium, Arsenic, and the Lethal Show. I feel kind of weird looking at this stuff in the middle of Starbucks, but what the hell – I just realised, it just hit me like a revelation, or a thunderbolt from Zeus, that Romeo and Juliet were probably just druggies and that’s how they died. Shakespeare just cleaned up the memory for the embarrassed families, and in doing so revealed a little too many of their own peccadillos. They would have been better off admitting that their children were poison eaters. Perhaps the double-overdose happened first and that’s what sparked off the rivalry to tear apart the once-close Capulet and Montague dynasties. Perhaps it was blame shifting. But then, perhaps someone already thought of this and I’m just plagiarising. There’s a possibility that I just re-wrote Shakespeare and that makes me the cleverest person in Starbucks right now so I’ll read “Poison Eaters” if I want to – they don’t get payed enough to stop me.


One page in: No. I close the window, ¡ estoy hasta la madre !, disappointed and bored. Next book. Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics and Poison. Okay! This sounds better. I’ve heard about this mercury stuff. Something about filling medicines for the Third World with poison – and we thought austerity packages were a bitter pill! Ha, take that poor people! The bastards at Washington don’t mind playing doctor. So I read on and realise that I was projecting, too much Immortal Technique, which isn’t healthy. The book was about methylmercury levels in rich San Francisco people’s swordfish. No worries, there was a conspiracy here too! Welcome to the convoluted web of corporate interests in the bellies of little fish, then bigger fish, then hungrier fish, and then tinned, plated, eaten by Nancy fish, and then playing with Nancy’s cells as she drives to work at the factory that filled the water with mercury in the first place. Something like that. It didn’t really hold my attention either. But if you’re into that kind of thing it’s a well written book. Kudos Dr. Hightower, your writing is like fish oil, fish oil for the eyes.

I probably should wrap up. It’s obvious enough in those last two paragraphs I was floundering, get it, eh, eh? Lucky I crescendoed with that reference to Adventure Time. But before we go, let’s take a little trip to a small Siberian village on the Tura River, Pokrovskoye, in the year 1869. Little Grigori wasn’t able to save his sister Maria from succumbing to the river, where she drowned while having an epileptic fit. Nor was he able to save his brother Dmitri who died of pneumonia after falling into the clutches of that same water. But rumour has it that he miraculously identified the horse-thief who had stolen his father’s pride mare. Humbly thus begins the mystery of the young Siberian who would become known simply as Ra-Ra-Rasputin. Grigori Rasputin’s life would be shrouded in mystery and speculation from that point on.


How did things ever get so far? –
Vito Corleone, The Godfather I

Healer, prophet, mystic, debaucher (I think you say that word with another -or on the end, debaucher-or), charlatan, orgy-monger (I made that last one up). The history of prophets and perverts lends itself well when we say that the two worlds, wild sex and strange religion, aren’t mutually exclusive. Hearsay (and nothing more I tell you) has it that the Mad Monk made his bones with a banned religious sect who enjoyed a healthy dose of self-flagellation, the illusive khlysty. Alexander Guchkov, a pedantic jackass of man (not really, this badass volunteered for the Second Boer War, fighting with the Afrikaners against the British Empire. He was also known for getting himself into duels and shooting cigarettes out of people’s mouths. Sweet!); anyway, Guchkov was unimpressed by Rasputin’s religious sex parties, whether they happened or not. Lucky for Grigori, Tsar Nicholas II, in classic Russian style, banned all conversation on the matter and fired the Interior Minister for impotence in the face of Press’ gossip-mongering. Tsarevich (baby-tsar) Alexei was a haemophiliac, just like his great-granny Queen Victoria of Britain (European royals are all related somehow), and so the peasant Rasputin was called in when all the doctors of the Csardom failed. A mixture of common sense and potent prayers kept the bleeding at bay (or hypnosis, leeches or pro-scribing aspirin, depending on who you ask) and Rasputin won the trust of the the family, becoming a kind of Tom Hagen to the Petersburg padron-ays.

As dirty dog Grigori tallied up sleepovers with the lovely ladies of future-Leningrad, he also climbed the rungs of political power. Things started to get a little hectic during the World War I period, and criticism came harshly against the Tsarist oligarchs and their outmoded monopoly of wealth and politics. This is the time where the deep rifts in the expansive Russian Empire began to show up in political turmoil and peasant revolts, pressurised by the international scene in which Russia was visibly failing. Add to that a circle of back-handed elites clambering for the top spots and we get to the poisoning plot, the strangest yet of the events that make up Rasputin’s eternal fame. This wasn’t the first plot concocted against the Mad Monk. In June 29, 1914, when visiting one of his wives in the old Tobolsk neighbourhood, a prostitute called Guseva, hired by rival monk Illiodor, carved up Grigori like a Christmas-in-July roast turkey. His entrails hung out of his tree-trunk abdomen but that wasn’t enough to warrant Guseva’s “I have killed the antichrist!” Rasputin was patched up and made the best of the situation by self-administering opium to relieve the pain. Sometime in December, two years later, they finally got him. The year after that begins the Russian Revolution.

This is the second part of three. Rasputin dies on the next page!



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