You wrote Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History and you also translated your great-great uncle’s memoirs. What are the memoirs about?
Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary is my English translation (with annotations) of the French memoirs of my great-great uncle, Aron Simanovitch, who was secretary and friend to Rasputin for a decade. His perspective is also unique because he was one of a small percentage of Jews permitted to live outside the Pale of Settlement that most Jews were confined to. He lends an up-close, affectionate and intimate view of Rasputin whom he depicts as a threat to the nobility due to Rasputin’s progressive and egalitarian opinions on social and economic reform, which rendered him a convenient scapegoat for all of Russia’s ills. Simanovitch’s discourse is interspersed with much of the gossip, plots and intrigues of Petersburg society at the start of the twentieth century.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
My father had always told me that his great uncle, Simanovitch, had been Rasputin’s secretary but I didn’t really start researching my ancestor until I was in my forties (fifteen years ago). I’ve spent much of my life researching and writing in some form or another, but when I found and read Simanovitch’s memoirs in French, there was no doubt in my mind that the truth needed to be told – that Rasputin’s image needed to be rehabilitated. Simanovitch recounts Rasputin’s numerous acts of kindness, healing and aid to the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed, especially his advocacy of equal rights for Jews at a time when anti-Semitism was government policy. One doesn’t read about these events in such detail, if mentioned at all, in most biographies on Rasputin. That is because history is written by the powerful, like the aristocrats who hated, slandered and eventually killed Rasputin. It’s not written by the common folk like those he helped, many of whom were not in a position to be heard, believed, or in some cases, were simply not literate.
How long did it take you to write your book?
I finished my first draft of the translation in about a year, during which time I was also occupied full-time with running my construction company. After selling the company, I devoted myself to polishing the manuscript and, upon completion of the sixth draft, decided to hold off publishing it in order to research Simanovitch’s claims of Rasputin’s deeds. I published the results of that research in 2011, under the title Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History, as I felt it laid the historical, social and legal groundwork and context for Simanovitch’s memoir to be understood, as well as providing numerous sources substantiating many of Simanovitch’s claims. That book has received critical acclaim and a few awards.
I then went back to the last draft of my translation of the memoir and decided to have another writer/editor take a look at it. Bryna Kranzler, award-winning author of her grandfather’s memoir, The Accidental Anarchist, cracked her editorial whip over me for three or four more drafts as I omitted redundancies, added annotations and reorganized the material in a more logical and fluid manner, all the while keeping Simanovitch’s thoughts, words and expressions true to his voice. Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary was finally published in May, 2013, about fifteen years after I began reading Simanovitch’s French memoir.
What kind of research did you do?
I read a lot of biographies on Rasputin but my primary interest was in accounts of people who knew the man, such as his daughter, his secretary, and people of the Russian court and clergy. Most of those works are out of print, so it wasn’t always easy finding them. I also read books about the living conditions, customs, laws, superstitions and social strata of the time, to accurately annotate Simanovitch’s memoir.
What I noticed was that nearly every author who wrote about Rasputin mentioned his concern for the Jews, whether with admiration or derision, speaking favorably or unfavorably. Even his murderer, Yussupov, mentioned it in his memoir.
What about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
This book is a completely different take on Rasputin from what readers are accustomed to. He is depicted as a fuller, more complex human being than the cartoon demon described in most accounts. Most surprising are descriptions of his generous nature and his egalitarian and democratic ideas for reform, many of which were instituted after the 1917 revolution.
What is your goal for the book, ie: what do you want people to take with them after they finish reading the story?
I’d like readers to come away with a more accurate view of Rasputin, a man who has been unjustly and systematically vilified throughout history. But, on a more global scale, I’d like readers to understand that historical accounts are biased, depending on the perspective of the writer. For example, a privileged aristocrat writing about tsarist Russia will have a much more sentimental and affectionate view of the regime than the poor Jews who were forced to live in The Pale of Settlement and denied basic human rights, often fearing for their lives. Since the powerful and educated are the ones who write history, it’s their perspective that is taken as fact. One must consider the source.
What one word describes how you feel when you write?
“Gone.” I am not in this world when I’m writing. I’m aware of nothing and no one around me. It’s as if I were in a bubble, separate from the rest of the world. I become singularly obsessed with and totally immersed in my project and, often, the time from sun-up to sundown whips by in a flash. I rarely know what time or what day it is when I’m writing or editing.
Of course, writing non-fiction is very different from writing fiction, but I’ve never suffered from ‘writer’s block’ which, to me, is a self-sabotaging term. A ‘block’ is a dead end that offers no hope. Most writers do come to a crossroads where decisions have to be made. A crossroads, however, offers a choice of direction and possibilities. A writer who sees himself as blocked sabotages himself into believing he’s hit a brick wall; one who sees the options available does not feel at an impasse.
Such decision–making moments should not be forced. That’s when I take advantage of something I call ‘productive procrastination.’ It’s a matter of doing some other beneficial task like a chore, jogging/running/biking, gardening, etc. that you focus on to distract your conscious mind, with all of its preconceived notions, from the project. This allows the subconscious mind to work on the issue while you’re getting other things done, eventually resulting in that ‘Eureka!’ moment when you’re doing nothing more than washing your hair. Banging your head against a wall, when you see yourself as ‘blocked’ only causes frustration and distances you from solutions; the positive attitude of seeing options and giving them the time to simmer to the surface brings you closer to a decision.
Where can people learn more about your books?
Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary by Aron Simanovitch (translated and annotated by Delin Colón; edited by Bryna Kranzler and Delin Colón) is available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/RASPUTIN-Memoirs-Secretary-Aron-Simanovitch/dp/1484925858/
Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History by Delin Colón is also available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rasputin-Jews-Reversal-Delin-Col%C3%B3n/dp/1461027756/
The Real Rasputin is my website that has much more information: http://therealrasputin.wordpress.com/
Thank you for the opportunity to be featured in this interview!
You’re welcome. Thank you for answering my questions.