Espionage in World War I Russia? I’m there!
Petrograd is a book about Rasputin, but it’s not only about Rasputin. It’s a story that has Rasputin at the center of it, even though he doesn’t appear all that often and dies two-thirds of the way through it.
It’s a tale about an Englishman even though it takes place in Russia. It seems to be pro-Russian Revolution even though the star predicts dire things for that same revolution. It’s puzzling, isn’t it? But it’s quite good. It’s written by Philip Gelatt, drawn by Tyler Crook, lettered by Douglas E. Sherwood, published by Oni, and it costs 30 bucks. Let’s see what’s what, shall we?
The lure of Grigori Rasputin is a powerful one, and Gelatt, apparently, has been fascinated by him for a long time. However, there’s also the problem of overexposure, and Rasputin, for one, has been picked over so much that it’s tough to find new things to write about with regard to him and his odd hold over the imperial family of Russia in the 1910s. Gelatt wisely focuses on Cleary, a spy for the British government, who is in Petrograd to communicate with Russian intelligence about the war effort while also spying on them and the various revolutionaries around the city. Through Cleary, Gelatt is able to examine the weird life of Rasputin without getting too close to him until the crucial moment of assassination, so Rasputin remains a shadowy figure, much like he was in life. It also allows Gelatt to go beyond just the plot to kill Rasputin – the book is called Petrograd, after all, not Rasputin – and show how Cleary deals with the events after Rasputin’s murder.
The set-up of the book shows the complicated situation that existed in Petrograd during 1916.
The British agency in the city consists of a station chief and two agents – Cleary and Alley. Alley is much more of a politician than spy, keeping his nose clean, thinking about advancement, and making sure Cleary is the one in danger. Cleary is on friendly terms with the head of the secret police (the Okhrana), an aristocrat named Felix Yussupov, and the Bolsheviks in the city (he’s sleeping with Marya, one of the Communists). He’s rather uniquely positioned to uncover several secrets – we see him leaving notes for the Okhrana about the location of a Communist cell, but he also has some affection for Marya. Mainly, Cleary is desperate to stay away from the front, where he spent some time.
The plot begins when the British discover that the Russians might be making peace overtures to the Germans. The British are very concerned about this, because with Russia out of the war, the Germans can send all their Eastern troops to the Western front, where they might overwhelm the British (in fact, this is pretty much what happened, but by then the Americans had arrived to shore up the British and French and it didn’t work as well as the Germans hoped). Cleary figures out that the tsarina and Rasputin are the ones making the overtures, and Alley comes up with a plan. Cleary had mentioned to him that Felix and Dmitri, another aristocrat (and possibly Felix’s lover, although Gelatt is far more explicit about this than, it seems, history is), hate Rasputin and think he’s ruining the country, so Alley communicates this to London, who tells him to encourage their wishful thinking and turn it into an actual assassination. He, of course, tasks Cleary with this.
Felix, Dmitri, and their conspirators were ultimately successful, of course (Rasputin was definitely killed on 16 December 1916), but Gelatt does a nice job building the tension nevertheless, once again because he doesn’t simply focus on whether the plotters will be successful or not, as we know they will be.
This is mainly because he sticks with Cleary, who at first tells Felix to go ahead with the plot but then realizes that Komissarov, his friend in the Okhrana, seems to know about his involvement. He gets cold feet, but Alley won’t allow him to back off. He tries to tell Felix to delay the plot, but Felix and Dmitri are fired up with romantic notions of freeing the country from Rasputin’s thrall and won’t hear of it. Cleary ends up at Felix’s mansion on the night Rasputin is lured there, and Gelatt does a fine job making the murder and the aftermath a thrilling affair. Not surprisingly, Cleary is hung out to dry, and the rest of the book deals with how he tries to survive in a city suddenly thrown into even more turmoil than before – the Okhrana is after him, Marya finds out he’s betrayed her, and he has no friends left. Gelatt chooses to end the book with the February 1917 revolution, giving it somewhat of a “happy” ending (as in, before Lenin came back and started, you know, killing everyone who didn’t agree with him).
Why he ends it in February 1917 is interesting, because the book is about more than just the plot to kill Rasputin or the revolution to overthrow the tsar. Gelatt casts this as a struggle between romanticism and realism, and by ending it where he does, he can leave that question unresolved (before the reality of the Soviet Union crashed down on the revolutionaries). Felix, Dmitri, and Marya represent the romantic, Alley and Komissarov the realistic, and Cleary navigates between both worlds. Felix and Dmitri even discuss how the crime will look – at one point, Dmitri says, “To kill a man is easy. The difficulty is making sure the act has the proper meaning. We don’t want to be perceived as common hoodlums!” The murder plot itself is wildly complicated, and, of course, fails utterly. It comes down to bullets in the brain, as it often does, but even that doesn’t quite quell the romanticism in the aristocrats’ blood. Marya is much the same way – she doesn’t care about the deaths, just that she and her comrades die well. Gelatt makes Cleary an Irishman, which makes his conscience even more troubled – he keeps newspaper clippings about the Easter Rising, but he still works for the British government. Marya even calls him on this. Gelatt keeps this tension throughout the book, and it makes it a more interesting book.
The clash is woven into the very fabric of Russia in 1916 – the romantic St. Petersburg, home of the magnificent Romanovs, has become Petrograd, where the Russian Revolution began. The “romantic” murder of Rasputin, with the poison and the knives and the dumping of the body in the Neva River, is contrasted with the brutal realism of the February revolution, where both the commoners and members of the aristocracy were shot in the heads.
Crook’s art is impressive, as well. He colors the entire book in olde-tymey sepia tones, but it works because of the way Gelatt tells the story – this is truly a flashpoint of the modern world vying against the medieval world, and so while Russia of 1916 had many of the amenities of modern life, the sepia tones help remind us how different the world could be. I’m opposed to sepia tones when they’re used solely to convey days of yore, but here it helps highlight the overall theme. Meanwhile, Crook’s pencils are very good, as he has to draw a lot of characters, many of whom look fairly alike (white men of privilege) but whom he manages to differentiate. Obviously, he needs to do good work on faces, as this is (for the most part) a slow-burning book and the characters’ emotions help tell the story, and he’s up to the task. When he finally gets to cut loose (during the violent part of the murder and during the February revolution), he does a very good job loosening up his linework a bit and giving us jarring images of violence. Crook had help to get the scenery of Petrograd in 1916 from online sources, and he does a fine job putting us deep in the middle of the city and its apartments and palaces. The scenes of the February revolution are expansive, beautiful, and almost make you believe the Russians can make something of it, even as Crook intercuts the magnificence with scenes of horrific violence. He incorporates sound effects very well, too, which is harder than it looks.
It’s very clear why Mike Mignola got Crook to draw B.P.R.D. – he has a handle on horror but can also draw a Victorian-style book extremely well.
Petrograd is a very impressive book, not just because Gelatt tells a gripping tale of espionage and murder or because Crook is a fine artist, but because Gelatt manages to get deeper into the Russian psyche and why a man like Rasputin might actually be able to hypnotize an entire nation. This is a thoughtful thriller, and those are always good to read. I have no idea if Oni is planning to release a cheaper, softcover version of this book, but why wait? Petrograd is too good to pass up!
(By the way, Yussupov lived until 1967, often retelling the story of his involvement in Rasputin’s murder – which might be completely spurious. If his role in the murder didn’t impart on him some immortality, his lawsuit against MGM for a movie about the events in which they showed his wife being seduced by Rasputin led to the famous disclaimer in all works of fiction about any similarity to actual people being coincidental. So there’s that. Dmitri and Alley are actual historical figures, as well, and it seems that Gelatt based Cleary on Oswald Rayner, who worked for British Intelligence and may have been part of the plot.)