Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin is one of the most famous, one of the most written about, and one of the most reviled men in history. To some he was the Mad Monk, to others a Man of God. Some believed him to be little more than a drunken lecher, others a misunderstood mystic and healer, and there were many that could not see the merits in either. He was both foolish and wise in equal measure - but how did this poor, uneducated, itinerant peasant come to hold sway at the Imperial Court of the Tsar of all the Russia’s, how was he able to wield such power, and was he truly a mystic or merely a manipulative charlatan?
He was born in the village of Pokrovskoye in Siberia on 22 January, 1869. He was one of three children but he was to lose both his brother and his sister to tragic accidents. This early trauma had a profound effect on him and it has been suggested that his magical powers derived from it. Indeed, he was to name two of his own children after his much-mourned and greatly-lamented siblings.
Siberia was a vast wilderness sparsely populated that had been used for many centuries by the Tsar’s as a place to exile their political opponents. It was a harsh environment and the weather so extreme that its people were forced to scratch a living from the soil as best they could. Its great expanse and isolation from the rest of Russia made it a place of myth and magic and the deeply religious peasants who populated it worshiped a Christianity that bordered on the edge of paganism.
Rasputin was a man of Siberia, strong, resilient, obdurate and self-confident but he was also different. People who knew him from childhood later said he displayed supernatural powers from an early age. One story tells of how he identified a man who had stolen a horse from his father simply by pointing him out in a crowd, for which he received a beating, though he was later proved to have been right. He could also heal animals simply by touching them. It was also said that he had risked his own life to save a child from drowning. But he was also a well-known thief, and liar, and one with a violent temper who his fellow villagers feared. However, because he had no formal schooling or ever held down a proper job we have little documented evidence of his early life, most of the sources we have are anecdotal.
At the age of eighteen he entered the Monastery of Verkhoturya, possibly to do penance for a crime he had committed, or simply to hide out. Whilst in the confines of the Monastery he is said to have had visions and to have shared a dialogue with God who had told him that he must live the life of an itinerant monk, that he was destined to be a religious mystic. It was not long after this that he fell under the spell of the Khlysty, a Christian sect of flagellants who would quite literally whip themselves into an orgiastic frenzy, and who mixed fervent devotion and physical exhaustion with acute sexual ecstasy.
Upon leaving the Monastery he married his childhood sweetheart Praskovia Dubrovina by whom he was to have two children. He was also to father two other children out of wedlock.
Despite his wanderings he was to remain a frequent visitor to his home village, and would often return to his wife where he enjoyed the company of his children who were to remember him fondly. In 1901, he travelled abroad, visiting Greece and getting as far south as Mount Atos before embarking upon a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During his period of pilgrimage he travelled on foot and refused to touch any part of his body with his hands. During his travels he acquired the reputation as a Holy Man who could heal by prayer and touch alone. His powers had even come to the attention of the Russian Orthodox Church. By 1903, at the age of 34, he was resident in the Russian capital St Petersburg, a city where the interest in religious mysticism and the occult was almost an obsession.
It was supposed to be a closely guarded secret, though Rasputin appears to have been aware of it, that the young heir to the throne, the Tsarevich Alexei, suffered from haemophilia, a disease he had inherited from his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. This was a serious illness, one where if the sufferer is injured the blood may not clot and they could bleed to death as a result. There was also no cure and no effective means of treatment. The doctors were impotent to do anything about it and the Imperial Family were at their wits end. In her desperation the Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna turned to a friend, Anna Vyburova, a spiritualist, who told her of a Siberian peasant, a Holy Man, who was in the city. He had the power to heal, she said.
Alexandra Fedorovna was also a friend of the Militsa Sisters, two Montenegrin Princesses who were known as the Crows. They held regular séances which the Tsarina would often attend. They informed her that they too had met this Rasputin and could arrange for him to visit the Imperial Palace. The Tsarina was not only at her wits end she was also a woman who was in thrall to the Men of God. She prayed that this simple Siberian peasant was a Holy Fool, a simple man of the soil from the mystical vastness of the Russian interior born without sin and thereby closer to God.
In the meantime, Rasputin had been introduced to Bishop Hermogen by the monk Illiodor, who had long been aware of his reputation. Illiodor was to complain of his lack of hygiene and the suffocating stench of his body odour, accusing him of smelling like a goat, but Hermogen dismissed this as a sign of his simplicity. There was no need for a Man of God to be perfumed and wear fancy clothes. Impressed by Rasputin’s evident holiness he too suggested to the Empress that she might consider meeting him.
Rasputin, however, turned up at the Imperial Palace even before he had been sent for. His arrival at the Imperial Court caused quite a furore and the doctors immediately objected to the presence of this supposed mystic, this witch-doctor. The Tsar was sceptical of his powers but the Tsarina was insistent that he be allowed to treat her son. After all, everything else had failed.
Rasputin immediately stopped any further treatment and dismissed the doctors from his bedside and then gently placing his hand on the child’s brow he spoke to him in hushed tones as he did so the young Tsarevich appeared to calm down and his metabolic rate slowed significantly.
Some have since suggested that Rasputin used the classic techniques of hypnosis to aid the boy’s recovery.
Whatever he did, it worked.
Rasputin had achieved in a few brief moments what the best physicians in the country had failed to do, and the Imperial Family, in particular Alexandra Fedorovna, now became increasingly reliant upon him. He soon became a regular in Court circles where he was loved and loathed in equal measure. To a devoutly religious Tsarina, however, this simple peasant was a Man of God sent by the Almighty to serve the Imperial Family not just with regards to the Tsarevich, but also in their domestic affairs, and far more seriously for the future of the Romanov Dynasty, politically. As far as she was concerned Rasputin was a prophet who should be listened to and obeyed in all things.
Tsar Nicholas was less impressed and upon meeting him he had merely written in his diary:
“November 1, 1905, at a private dinner made the acquaintance of a Holy Man named, Grigori.”
To the Political Establishment, the various Counts, Dukes, Generals, and administrative lackeys that made up the Imperial Court, Rasputin was a problem. He was coarse, plain-spoken, lacked deference, and they resented his influence with the Tsarina. It seemed that no policy could be enacted without his say so. All too often they were greeted with the words "What does Rasputin think?"
To many his influence was inexplicable, he was a charlatan, a false prophet, and transparently so. His dissolute behaviour scandalised the Court. He was a foul-mouthed, drunken, licentious lecher, no more, no less.
At 5'10" inches tall, physically strong, loud, gregarious, with wildly staring eyes, and heavily bearded Rasputin was an imposing figure. His appetite for alcohol, food, and sex were voracious, and he was known for his lack of hygiene. He was never seen to bathe, and rarely changed his clothes except when visiting the Imperial Family.
Described as magnetic by some, others less kind said his magnetism derived from the suffocating experience of being too close to him, he could be generous to a fault and had little interest in acquiring wealth for its own sake. But he would also dismiss out of hand those he had nothing but disdain for regardless of their status or rank, a trait that was to earn him a great many enemies.
His behaviour towards the women of the Court earned him further enmity.
They would flock to his person and were desperate to be photographed in his presence, and he acquired in effect an entourage, a virtual harem of Duchesses and Countesses and he tried to seduce every single one of them, many succumbing to his advances.
Rasputin believed that the path to salvation lay within, that yielding to temptation was a form of self-humiliation that served to dispel vanity. He advocated yielding to sexual temptation to his disciples, especially his many rich and pampered female admirers.
He held regular salons at his residence that would be attended by his many female admirers. There he would tell them they were full of sin and that only by performing a further sin, a carnal sin, could the redemption be sufficiently fervent to drive it out. He would then take one of the more compliant women to his bedroom where the act of redemption would take place. Few it was said could resist the blazing gaze of his magnetic and hypnotic eyes.
One of his women described what happened:
“I went to see Rasputin and he sat down across from me and placed my legs between his knees. Something ruthless and terrible was staring at me from the depths of his eyes. He said, “You want to know what sin is,” and pulled me into the bedroom, tearing off my dress as he went. The next moment I became aware of his savage animal desire. The last thing I remember was his tearing off of my underwear then I passed out. When I woke I found myself lying on the ground torn and defiled.”
Another one of his disciples, Olga Lokhina, became convinced that Rasputin was Christ and she the Holy Virgin. She had earlier abandoned her wealthy husband and children to devote herself to Rasputin, and was to be seen in the street holding his penis and saying, “You are Christ and I am your ewe.” Rasputin called her a skunk who demanded sin.
When he was not seducing the wives and daughters of the richest and most powerful men in Russia he would visit the bath houses where he would have sex with local prostitutes. At night he wandered the streets of St Petersburg often exposing himself to women, frequenting the bars, joining parties uninvited, and giving away his money to the poor people he met. He was rarely sober, often hopelessly drunk, and it was not uncommon to find him lying unconscious in the street.
Such was his behaviour that for many it seemed that he would be the ruin of the Romanovs, some even thought that he must be the agent of a foreign power, and the police placed him under twenty-four hour surveillance. In their reports he was referred to as the, “Dark One.”
His debauched lifestyle was to be well-documented.
Outraged, and believing that Rasputin was bringing the Church into disrepute, Bishop Hermogen summoned him to a meeting. Once there, he, along with the monk Illiodor lured him to a basement where they proceeded to berate him for his behaviour. They accused him of using the power of the Devil to work his healing miracles. They told him that he was in a state of spiritual temptation and his work was that of the Anti-Christ. At one point Hermogen grabbed him by the penis and said, “This is what is leading you.” They then beat him repeatedly with a crucifix.
Rasputin later reported the attack to the Tsarina and within a month both Bishop Hermogen and Illiodor had been expelled from the city. The monk Illiodor was particularly resentful as it had been he who had introduced Rasputin to the Bishop and thereby brought him to the Tsarina’s attention.
He now vowed revenge.
On 29 June 1914, visiting his hometown of Pokrovskoye he was on his way to send a telegram when he was attacked and stabbed by Khionia Guseva, a former prostitute well known locally for having no nose. He was seriously wounded but managed to stagger away. Guseva pursued him screaming “I have killed the Anti-Christ! I have killed the Anti-Christ!” She continued to slash away at him with her knife until Rasputin rallied enough strength to strike her in the face. The crowd that had gathered now shouted for her to be lynched but she managed to give herself up to a policeman. Only later did it emerge that she had been in the pay of the monk Illiodor.
Rasputin was not expected to survive by the surgeons who operated on him but he had the constitution of an ox. He managed to pull through but his injuries ensured that he was away from St Petersburg at a crucial time for Russia when he could perhaps have counselled the Tsar against his slide into war.
He may perhaps have been the only man who could have curbed the Tsar’s belated enthusiasm for Imperial glory.
Rasputin had always been opposed to war. He was later to write to the Tsar:
“A terrible storm cloud hangs over Russia, disaster, grief, murky darkness and no light, a whole ocean of tears there is no counting them, and so much blood. I can find no words to describe the horror. We will all drown in blood. The disaster is great, the grief infinite.”
It was with the outbreak of the First World War that Rasputin went from being a loathed alien presence in the Imperial Court to a positive menace in the corridors of power. He had progressed from being a Holy Man who wielded undue influence over the Imperial Family to a maker of policy, and the breaker of careers. When, in the spring of 1915, Tsar Nicholas II appointed himself Commander of the Army and left for the front, the Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna became effective Head of Government, and she was totally under the influence of Rasputin.
He had been opposed to the war believing in peace between all nations, and that the war would be a great disaster for Russia. He now told the Tsar that the Russian Army could only overcome its enemies if he personally blessed all the troops. The Grand Duke Nicholas Nikaleyevich, who was Commander of the Army at the time, told him that if he turned up at the front he would have him hanged.
Rasputin didn't visit the front but he did continue to make policy, and to appoint Ministers. In less than two years the Tsarina (with her husband's endorsement) was to appoint on his recommendation 4 Prime Ministers, 4 War Ministers, and 6 Ministers of the Interior, all of them a disaster.
Such was his influence that rumours began to spread that he and the Tsarina, were lovers. It almost certainly wasn't true but her devotion and utter subordination to her Holy Prophet did little to dispel the rumours.
Ministers wrote frantically to the Tsar warning him time and again that Rasputin's constant meddling was creating chaos and begging him to do something about it. Finally, he responded by having him exiled. But it was only to be a brief exile as the Tsarina soon persuaded her husband to revoke his order and permit him to return, if only for the sake of their son.
Rasputin’s temporary exile had done nothing to temper his behaviour and his public displays of drunkenness and his cavorting with prostitutes were now a regular sight on the streets of St Petersburg, though he was careful never to be drunk when in the presence of the Tsarina. He was also taking bribes which he accepted because he could and not for the money which he simply gave away.
As he continued to scandalise good society the war for Russia went from bad to worse.
Those at the front blamed their Commander-in-Chief, the Tsar. Those at the Imperial Court in St Petersburg blamed Rasputin. As long as he continued to appoint and dismiss Ministers, as long as he decided where the money was to be spent and where the priorities lay, as long as he continued to spit his poison into the Tsarina's ear, Russia was doomed. If the Tsar would not act to curtail his activities then someone else would.
Rasputin was not blind to the perceived threat and knew that he was living in fear of his life.
By now Rasputin was undergoing his own spiritual crisis, his healing abilities were in decline and he was no longer able to reach deep into his soul to create the trance-like state from which his power to heal came.
He was no longer able to communicate with God he thought, and he could now be seen wandering the streets talking wildly to himself as if in deep conversation, sometimes he appeared to be arguing as if confronting the devil directly. He wrote:
“I will die soon in terrible pain. God has sent me to be sacrificed to save our Holy Russia.”
After a drunken night spent with St Petersburg gypsies when he gave away some 2,000 roubles, he visited his friend Fillipov, and with tears rolling down his cheeks declared he was no longer holy. He was losing his own personal fight with the devil.
In the winter of 1916, Rasputin told his friends that he would not live to see in the New Year. Later he wrote to the Tsar:
"The Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigori has been killed, you must know this, if it was your relations who have wrought my death, then no one in the family, that is to say, none of your children or your relations, will remain alive for more than two years. They will be killed by the Russian people.”
On the night of the 16 December, Rasputin was lured to the palatial home of the Tsar’s nephew, the homosexual transvestite Prince Felix Yusopov, whose own earlier sexual advances towards the unwashed, enigmatic peasant Holy Man had been spurned.
Prince Yusupov was one of the richest men in Russia but he was not a man who was greatly admired. Effeminate, cloying, and arrogant, it was said he attended Cadet School only so he could acquire a commission in the army and parade around the streets and drawing rooms of St Petersburg in his uniform, and that he'd never had any intention of ever joining an army unit or fighting for his country.
After attending a session of the Duma where he heard the right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkeyvich, refer to Rasputin as the “Evil Genius of Russia” he had taken it upon, himself to rid Mother Russia of the man he believed was responsible for leading it to catastrophe. He told Rasputin that there was to be a wild party held at his home, an orgy, and that his wife Irina, considered one of the most beautiful women in Russia would be present and she wanted to meet him, and that he must attend. It would be fun, he said.
Rasputin was picked up outside his house and driven to the party by Yusupov himself.
He thought it a little strange upon his arrival that the only other people present were the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavluvich, a cousin of the Tsar, Vladimir Purishkeyvich, and a certain Dr Lazovert, but he was told that the other guests would be arriving shortly, including the women. In the meantime, he was plied with wine and cakes that Lazovert had earlier laced with cyanide, more than enough he believed to kill any man twice over. The others excused themselves for a time, leaving Rasputin to indulge himself, they expected upon their return to find him dead. The poisoned cakes, however, were to have little effect.
According to Prince Yusupov, he returned to the room alone armed with a revolver and found Rasputin alive and well and admiring some pretty ornaments in a cabinet. He said to him"Grigori Yefimovich, you would do better to look upon the crucifix and pray to God." He then shot him in the chest.
Hearing the shot the others now entered the room. Dr Lazovert checked the body and confirmed that Rasputin was dead. They left the corpse and went to raise a glass of champagne to their success. Some hours later Prince Yusupov's curiosity got the better of him and he returned to check that the old monster really was dead. As he leaned over the body Rasputin's eyes suddenly opened and he grabbed Yusupov around the throat. Yusupov screamed and struggling free fled from the room to the others in a state of hysteria shouting : "He's alive! He's alive!"
Upon the hearing the news Dr Lazovert fainted, and it took some time for Purishkeyvich to calm Yusupov down.
Having both gathered their thoughts and recovered their courage they eventually returned to the room only to find Rasputin gone. He had managed to crawl out of the Palace and into the Courtyard. In a panic they ran into the yard desperately fumbling around in the darkness to find him before someone else did. Finally, they discovered him crawling on all fours towards the gates. They descended upon him like a pack of wolves, tearing at his clothes, beating and strangling him whilst Rasputin shouted that he would tell the Tsarina.
Fumbling for his revolver Pavluvich somehow managed to shoot him twice more. Then wrapping his body in a rug they dumped it in the boot of a car and driving out of the city they found an isolated spot, broke the ice on the frozen River Neva, and dropped the body through the hole. They hoped that his corpse would be taken out to sea.
His body, however, was recovered the following day and the subsequent autopsy found that he had still been alive when he had entered the river and had either drowned or frozen to death.
Upon hearing the news of Rasputin's murder the Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna was thrown into a paroxysm of grief that soon turned to fury. She demanded that the Tsar put the culprits on trial and have them executed. The Tsar, who was always less enamoured of Rasputin that his wife, though angry, would hear of no such thing.
Prince Yusupov and the others claimed that the murder had been a patriotic act: Rasputin, they said, had been a defeatist and pro-German. He had undermined the Government and had actively sought the destruction of the Romanov Dynasty. Yusupov made reference to his attendance at the meeting of the Duma in the days leading up to the murder when he had heard the speech by Vladimir Puriskeyvich who had stated that:
"The Tsar's Ministers are little more than marionettes whose strings are being pulled by the evil genius Rasputin, and his Queen, a German on the throne of Russia."
He claimed that after hearing this speech he felt compelled to do no other than his patriotic duty.
Yusupov and the others who conspired in Rasputin's murder were exiled from St Petersburg and ordered to remain on their country estates but no other punishment was forthcoming.
There is little doubt that the Tsar's absence from the Imperial Court and his capital St Petersburg caused a power vacuum. It allowed Rasputin to wield unparalleled influence in the Affairs of State through his surrogate Queen, Alexandra Fedorovna. His influence was for the most part negative. His constant appointments and sackings caused chaos in the Administration, and his policy making was a disaster. His continued outrageous behaviour provided grist to the mill of the rumour mongers, scandalised the Imperial Court, and emboldened the revolutionary opposition.
In the months immediately following Rasputin’s death Russia descended into chaos resulting in the overthrow of the Romanov Dynasty. Fulfilling Rasputin’s earlier prediction under house arrest on 17 July 1918, the Tsar, his wife, four daughters, and young son, were murdered by their Bolshevik guards.
Despite his coarse demeanour, his catastrophic meddling in politics, and his reputation as a lecherous dolt he was by his own lights first and foremost a Holy Man, a Man of God, a spiritual healer who was the only man who could treat the young Tsarevich where modern medicine had so abysmally failed.
Undoubtedly enigmatic with an almost hypnotic hold over many of those he met his life remains as controversial and mysterious today as it was in his own lifetime.