The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2012 Results

In Search of Rasputin's Penis

Copyright © Fiona Skepper 2012

It was supposed to be in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Emails crossed back and forth across the Pacific from my friend Vanessa who lived in Winnipeg, Canada. I didn’t quite know where that was but it was somewhere in the middle and cold, which are two qualities to make me lose interest in anything. We planned to meet up in Russia. We rated the Russian sights in terms of must-sees, may-sees, and emmms-(not high on the priority list). Vodka was also mentioned several times. I pictured myself dancing with well-toned Cossacks, consuming numerous heavy liquor cocktails and smuggling home to my Dad a bottle of high grade vodka. Mum had adopted a homeopathic obsession in her old age but my justification would be that vodka is made of wheat and potatoes, so it’s vegetarian. Surely she couldn’t argue with that.

Our emails became more frequent as the date of the trip approached. I took advantage of boring parts of my work day that usually involving human resources training, to escape and plan our trip via my Blackberry. One day Vanessa sent me an email that said, 'They have Rasputin’s penis. I want to see that.’

The internet article Vanessa had forwarded me discussed the Erotica Museum in St Petersburg that was housed in an old venereal disease clinic. This prime exhibit was, apparently, thirteen inches long and floating in formaldehyde: the preserved penis of one of the darkest figures in Russian history, Gregory Rasputin.

I had heard that name somewhere before, and I went through my personal encyclopaedic knowledge of world history and attempted to recall the historical figure of Rasputin. I came up with the name of a restaurant in suburban Malvern and a Seventies disco hit. I keep hearing the name ‘RaRaRasputin’, maybe it was one of those funny prefixes the Russians do with their names. After more deep thought, I hit upon the answer, by hitting upon my computer keys on the Google web page like normal people do.

Rasputin was a Russian Orthodox Christian mystic who is infamous for influencing the course of Russian history. The last Tsarina, Alexandra, was said to be under the spell of the mad monk. Rasputin was perceived to posses the ability to cure the Tsar and Tsarina’s only son, Alexis, who suffered from haemophilia, which is the disease where you bleed a lot (thanks again Google). Rasputin slowly gained a greater and greater hold on the Royal family and began influencing politics, including giving disastrous advice regarding Russia’s conduct in the First World War, which added sparks to the powder keg that blew up into revolution. In private, by all accounts, he used the now well-preserved member regularly, seducing women who were mesmerised by his power or who hoped to gain favours at court from the influential holy man. Way to go! My school priest never managed to make friends and influence people (and I don’t think his penis will be preserved one day). He hit the wall of the school board after trying to show us one of those anti-abortion, cutting up babies movies, in our compulsory, once a week, religious reflection class.

Anyway, continuing to utilise my in depth research skills, Google informed me that the Erotica Museum was also trying to purchase Joan of Arc’s ovaries. This left me a little confused, as thanks to a very bad Milla Jovovich film, I thought Joan had been burnt alive and what was left of her organs were swept into an ashtray.

Anyway, that didn’t deter Vanessa, she wanted to see this penis and by God we were going to go and find it. It ended up taking more effort to view the male member than a few glasses of cheap wine and a bit of mindless conversation.

Armed with a tourist map we walked for over an hour, around the streets of historic St.Petersburg. I tried to read the street signs. The people thinned out. Fortunately enough, I had the insight to study the Russian Cyrillic alphabet for a few months before the trip by way of an iPhone app. As a result I remembered such things as the P makes an ‘Er’ sound, while the R around the wrong way is pronounced ‘Ya’ It took me quite a while to read them, especially as a little animated man didn’t appear and draw the character with an animated pencil, and repeat it several times like he did on the app. We walked in the midsummer heat. I could feel the concrete through my sandals and the blisters developing on my feet. We walked past other spots of historical interest, went over bridges and canals, until we were some way away from Nevsky Prospect, and entered in to an area of row upon row of less remarkable streets, without a 7-Eleven in sight. We searched for signs and building numbers to see if we were anywhere near Furshtatskaya ul 47, which is where the Lonely Planet Russia told us we’d find the museum that held this intriguing historical appendage. Of course with the confusion of the Cyrillic alphabet we could have had it completely wrong and have been wandering into an area controlled by a particular suburban branch of the St.Petersburg mafia that might have grabbed us and decided to sell us into an international prostitution ring (that Liam Neeson film had been on the plane). Vanessa was on a hunt for the penis and wasn’t going to be deterred by what she called ‘my unique version of culturally stereotyped paranoia,’ (where was Google when you needed to look up something?). We walked around the block looking for number 47. We discovered a basement room with embossed signs depicting large breasted cartoon women. I thought it might be a sort of Russian beauty spa, promising amazing effects to your body shape. However we could find nothing helpful in the way of an entrance or a Western lettered sign. We walked into a court yard worried that we’d be set upon by an angry guard dog, or an irate Babushka (there seemed to be quite a few of both of them in Russia). Finally on our second time around the block, passing the cartoon breasts, we noticed, stuck to the basement door’s glass window, amongst a long printed text in Cyrillic, one line in English:

‘The museum is closed forever.’ That was brief but to the point.

We sat down on a bench in the middle of a traffic island. I think I’m the type of person who was born to state the bloody obvious, “Ah, how do we get back now?”

A few hours of walking followed until we finally found a taxi who wanted to charge us the equivalent of a night in our hotel room to drive us back to it.

The next day we went to the scene of the crime. While we were waiting for the short window of time the Yusupov palace ticket box said it would open, I tried to picture the palace at night, covered in snow, in December 1916. On that date Rasputin staggered out of the palace in to the snow and fell into the frozen Moika canal after being poisoned, beaten and shot, and then broke through the ice and disappeared. Despite Rasputin claiming to have prophetic visions, he didn’t seem to have they very useful one that people were planning to kill him that night.

Rasputin resurfaced a few days later, dead. Whether he was intact or not is unclear. The story goes that his body had been castrated by his aristocratic murderers with his penis being flung across the room until it was stolen by a maid. Maybe she wanted a souvenir? Another version states that the penis thief was one of Rasputin’s lovers who took her prize after the autopsy, as a memento (as you do). So if the penis exhibited was truly his, where is the mysterious appendage now? I could find nothing on the internet to help me answer this question. When Google can’t answer your enquiry, it is a sign from the universe that there is no answer, or so I thought.

That evening I went swimming. The water was flat and still and smelt very much like the girl’s toilets at my old school, on a Thursday morning after the cleaners have been through. There was no breeze, although I was on the surface of the water. The sky seemed dull and cloudy and it felt stuffy. I realised the sky was more than cloudy. It was glassy, literally. Then I saw a buoy, something I could grab hold of. It was nondescript circular shape bobbing a little up and down on the top of the water, and then suddenly, the penny dropped. I could hardly process the horrible truth.

“What are you looking at?” I heard.

It’s just early onset schizophrenia, I told myself.

“Yeah you, tourist… don’t look away, you know what I am. You came to see a famous dick didn’t you?’ why not just go to the Kremlin, they’re lots of them there. Ha Ha.”

It doesn’t have a mouth…

“Do you know what it’s like being separate from the rest of yourself and being stared at day in and day out?”

The penis actually waited for me to answer, which is pretty generous when you think about penises.

“It must be hard… I mean difficult,” I said, then contemplated banging the glass walls hysterically.

“You came to see me. The ghoulish fascination people have with villains, especially their sex lives. I can just imagine what the hoop-la would’ve been if they had Hitler’s, one ball and all. It’s probably why he arranged for his body to be burnt, like Joan of Arc, you know the museum tired to make out they were getting her guts.”

“I heard,” I said.

“It’s all BS you know I mean you don’t think I actually belonged to Rasputin do you?”

“You don’t?” I exclaimed.

“What you think that after almost a hundred years, I’m in a jar in suburban St.Petersburg, surviving a revolution, two world wars, a siege, and over seventy years of Soviet rule and its collapse. I mean think about it. The siege alone, over a million people died. If I’d really been around during that time don’t you think someone would have eaten me?”

“Who... what are you then… I mean...”

“I belonged to a huge Crimean named Ivan Sevlotski, he was part Cossack. Most of his brain resided in me. Ivan and some friends managed to steal a barrel of pure grade Vodka. He fell asleep in the Summer Garden in the middle of winter and froze to death. I was frozen pretty much solid and stiff, and I broke off at the funeral home, you know like an icicle, possibly the vodka kept me from shrinking. My brother-in-law was one of these new entrepreneurs of the 90’s and saw that I may be able to earn my keep in death unlike I did in life, at least that’s what he said. So tourists actually think that millions of Russians ended prematurely during the Twentieth Century, but not Rasputin’s penis?”

“It’s in the Lonely Planet…”

“Ah don’t worry. I don’t plan to be here much longer. I’ve decided I’m going to make a break for it.”

“You're going to what…?”

“Head for the West. I’ve got it all planned, when everyone has left, break the jar and make my way to the Gulf of Finland. Not like there’s an Iron Curtain anymore.”

I began to try and rationally contemplate why the penis would do this and worse how, but I think my brain began to voluntarily shut down, or at least yell a little in pain. I started to thrash around in panic, yelling and kicking, everything I’d been told not to do in Life Saving class. There was no way I was going to calm down and try to float on my back. I felt myself being tugged from below, but there can’t be sharks in a display jar of formaldehyde can there? However there are not supposed to be helpless miniaturised Australian tourists or talking dildos either. I went under, screaming as best I could. I woke up, in my narrow, repainted ex-Soviet hotel room, in the perpetual twilight cloudiness of the St.Petersburg White Nights, having missed the hour or so of actual darkness that occurred that time of year. I was covered only in sweat and there was nothing chemically-clean smelling, thank God.

I had definitely seen the light. Even body parts had the right to privacy and burial, even when they belonged to someone famous. No part should be put on show in a museum.

Then about ten minutes later I calmed down. I realised I’d crossed over slightly to the nutty side, as apparently occurred when you were a stranger in a stranger place, especially when you could never stay up long enough to see the sun actually set. One thing I knew I didn’t care if Rasputin’s penis ever did see the light of day; I was going to keep well clear of it and any male members that didn’t come with attachments.

When we got back to our respective homes a few weeks later, Vanessa thoughtfully put up a notice on the Lonely Planet website informing all future Russian history trekkers of the museum’s ‘Closed Forever’ status. She didn’t add any information about the varied and interesting language or gestures she used when she first stood in front of the door and saw that it was closed. I didn’t add anything about my psychic connection, or bad vodka trip.

Did the museum shut down because the prime exhibit escaped? Is the no-longer-exhibited penis in a jar really Rasputin’s, or Ivan’s or a sea cucumber? I don’t know. Maybe it’s like the mysterious monk’s member; to conclude, you can insert some sort of crack about it being harder the more you try to find it etc, you get the idea.