Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (or Grigori Yefimovich Novy) was a Russian mystic who is perceived as having influenced the later days of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, his wife the Tsaritsa Alexandra, and their only son the Tsarevich Alexei. Rasputin had often been called the “Mad Monk”, while others considered him a “strannik” (or religious pilgrim) and even a starets (ста́рец, “elder”, a title usually reserved for monk-confessors), believing him to be a psychic and faith healer.
It has been argued that Rasputin helped to discredit the tsarist government, leading to the fall in 1917 of the Romanov dynasty. Contemporary opinions saw Rasputin variously as a saintly mystic, visionary, healer, and prophet, and, on the other side of the coin, as a debauched religious charlatan. Historians may find both to be true, but there is much uncertainty, for accounts of his life have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay, and legend.
For some time, the date of Rasputin’s birth remained questionable. “It is still not known with any certainty when Rasputin was born, and all the books which deal with him and his career give differing dates; not even his biographers—and there have been many—have been able to agree. The closest one can come with certainty is sometime between the years 1863 and 1873.” It was not until recently that new documents surfaced revealing Rasputin’s birth date as January 10, 1869 O.S. (equivalent to January 22, 1869 N.S.) Rasputin was born a peasant in the small village of Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River in the Tobolsk guberniya (now Tyumen Oblast) in Siberia. Not much is known about his childhood, and what is known was most likely passed down through his family members. He had two known siblings, a sister called Maria and an older brother named Dmitri. His sister Maria, said to have been epileptic, was drowned in a river. One day, when Rasputin was playing with his brother, Dmitri fell into a pond and Rasputin jumped in to save him. They were both pulled out of the water by a passerby, but Dmitri eventually died of pneumonia. The deaths of both siblings effectively at the hands of a river has understandably been seen as far more than mere coincidence, but there is no proof of anything untoward having happened. Both fatalities affected Rasputin, so he subsequently named two of his children Maria and Dmitri.
The myths surrounding Rasputin portray him as showing indications of supernatural powers throughout his childhood. Efim Rasputin, Grigori’s father, raised horses, and one ostensible example of these powers was when he mysteriously identified the man who had stolen one of the horses. Rasputin had a knack for identifying thieves and seems to have assumed that everyone possessed this supernatural power.
When he was around the age of eighteen, he spent three months in the Verkhoturye Monastery, possibly a penance for theft. His experience there, combined with a reported vision of the Mother of God on his return, turned him towards the life of a religious mystic and wanderer. It also appears that he came into contact with the banned Christian sect known as the khlysty (flagellants), whose impassioned services, ending in physical exhaustion, led to rumors that religious and sexual ecstasy were combined in these rituals. Suspicions (which have not generally been accepted by historians) that Rasputin was one of the Khlysts threatened his reputation right to the end of his life. Indeed, Alexander Guchkov charged him with being a member of this illegal and orgiastic sect. The Tsar perceived the very real threat of a scandal and ordered his own investigations, but he did not, in the end, remove Rasputin from his position of influence; quite the contrary, he fired his minister of the interior for a “lack of control over the press” (censorship being a top priority for Nicholas then). He pronounced the affair to be a private one closed to debate.
Shortly after leaving the monastery, Rasputin visited a holy man named Makariy, whose hut was nearby. Makariy had an enormous influence on Rasputin, who would model himself after him. Rasputin married Praskovia Fyodorovna Dubrovina in 1889, and they had three children, named Dmitri, Varvara, and Maria. Rasputin also had another child with another woman. In 1901, he left his home in Pokrovskoye as a strannik (or pilgrim) and, during the time of his journeying, travelled to Greece and Jerusalem. In 1903, Rasputin arrived in Saint Petersburg, where he gradually gained a reputation as a starets (or holy man) with healing and prophetic powers.
Rasputin was wandering as a pilgrim in Siberia when he heard reports of Tsarevich Alexei’s illness (it was not publicly known in 1904 that Alexei had haemophilia). This disease was widespread among European royalty descended from Victoria of the United Kingdom, who was Alexei’s great-grandmother. When the young Tsarevich, while vacationing with his family, sustained a bruise after falling off a horse, he suffered internal bleeding for days. The Tsaritsa, looking everywhere for help, asked her best friend, Anna Vyrubova, to secure the help of the charismatic peasant healer Rasputin in 1905. He was said to possess the ability to heal through prayer and was indeed able to give the boy some relief, in spite of the doctors’ prediction that he would die. Skeptics have claimed that he did so by hypnosis — although, during a particularly grave crisis, Rasputin, from his home in Siberia, was believed to have eased the suffering, in Saint Petersburg, of the Tsarevich through prayer. His practical advice (such as “Don’t let the doctors bother him too much; let him rest”) may also have been of great assistance in allowing Alexei and his worried mother to relax, so that the child’s own natural healing process might take place. Others believe he used leeches to stop the boy’s bleeding for the moment; however, this is unlikely to have been successful because leech saliva contains hirudin and other natural anticoagulants. Every time the boy had an injury which caused him internal or external bleeding, the Tsaritsa called on Rasputin, and the Tsarevich subsequently got better. This made it appear that Rasputin was effectively healing him.
Diarmuid Jeffreys has proposed that the medical treatment halted due to Rasputin’s intervention included aspirin, then a newly-available (since 1899) “wonder drug” for the treatment of pain. Since aspirin is an antiaggregant (prevents aggregation of platelets thereby interfering with blood coagulation) — this was discovered only in 1971 — the treatment would have increased the bleeding into the joints, which was causing Alexei’s joint swelling and pain.
The Tsar referred to Rasputin as “our friend” and a “holy man”, a sign of the trust that the family placed in him. Rasputin had a considerable personal and political influence on Alexandra, and the Tsar and Tsaritsa considered him a man of God and a religious prophet. Everyone desirous of an audience with the royal couple had to go through him, a situation which angered certain individuals. Alexandra came to believe that God spoke to her through Rasputin. Of course, this relationship can also be viewed in the context of the very strong, traditional, age-old bond between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian leadership. Another important factor was probably the Tsaritsa’s German-Protestant origin: she was definitely highly fascinated by her new Orthodox outlook — the Orthodox religion puts a great deal of faith in the healing powers of prayer.
Rasputin soon became a controversial figure, becoming involved in a paradigm of sharp political struggle involving monarchist, anti-monarchist, revolutionary and other political forces and interests. He was accused by many eminent persons of various misdeeds, ranging from an unrestricted sexual life (including raping a nun) to undue political domination over the royal family.
While fascinated by him, the Saint Petersburg elite did not widely accept Rasputin: he did not fit in with the royal family, and he and the Russian Orthodox Church had a very tense relationship. The Holy Synod frequently attacked Rasputin, accusing him of a variety of immoral or evil practices, but such anecdotal evidence on Rasputin’s life, however abundant, should be treated skeptically. Because Rasputin was a court official, though, he and his apartment were under 24-hour surveillance, and, accordingly, there exists some credible evidence about his life—reports from police spies which were not given only to the Tsar but also published in newspapers.
According to Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, Rasputin did “look into” the Khlysty sect—but rejected it. One Khlyst practice was known as “rejoicing” (радение), a ritual which sought to overcome human sexual urges by engaging in group sexual activities so that, in consciously sinning together, the sin’s power over the human was nullified. Rasputin is said to have been particularly appalled by the belief that grace is found through self-flagellation.
Like many spiritually-minded Russians, Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also maintained that sin and repentance were interdependent and necessary to salvation. Thus, he claimed that yielding to temptation (and, for him personally, this meant sex and alcohol), even for the purposes of humiliation (so as to dispel the sin of vanity), was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation. Rasputin was deeply opposed to war, both from a moral point of view and as something which was likely to lead to political catastrophe. During the years of World War One, Rasputin’s increasing drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes (in return for helping petitioners who flocked to his apartment), as well as his efforts to have his critics dismissed from their posts, made him appear increasingly cynical. Another way to look at this, of course, is that, like most Orthodox Christians, Rasputin was brought up with the belief that the body is a sacred gift from God. Attaining divine grace through sin seems to have been one of the central secret doctrines which Rasputin preached to (and practiced with) his inner circle of society ladies. The idea that one can attain grace through correction of sin is not unique; Christians believe that sin is an inescapable part of the human condition, and that the responsibility of a believer is to be keenly aware of his sins and be willing to confess them, thereby attaining humility. (This doctrine—sin as a means to grace—is as old as Christianity. It was condemned by St. Paul in Romans 6:1.)
During World War I, Rasputin became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court; the unpopular Tsaritsa, meanwhile, was of German descent, and she came to be accused of acting as a spy in German employ.
When Rasputin expressed an interest in going to the front to bless the troops early in the war, the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, promised to hang him if he dared to show up there. Rasputin then claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the Tsar personally took command. With this, the ill-prepared Nicholas proceeded to take personal command of the Russian army, with dire consequences for himself as well as for Russia.
While Tsar Nicholas II was away at the front, Rasputin’s influence over Tsaritsa Alexandra increased immensely. He soon became her confidant and personal adviser, and also convinced her to fill some governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. To further the advance of his power, Rasputin cohabitated with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favours. Because of World War I and the ossifying effects of feudalism and a meddling government bureaucracy, Russia’s economy was declining at a very rapid rate. Many at the time laid the blame with Alexandra and with Rasputin, because of his influence over her. Here is an example:
Vladimir Purishkevich was an outspoken member of the Duma. On November 19, 1916, Purishkevich made a rousing speech in the Duma, in which he stated, “The tsar’s ministers who have been turned into marionettes, marionettes whose threads have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna—the evil genius of Russia and the tsaritsa … who has remained a German on the Russian throne and alien to the country and its people.” Felix Yusupov attended the speech and afterwards contacted Purishkevich, who quickly agreed to participate in the murder of Rasputin.
Rasputin’s influence over the royal family was used against him and the Romanovs by politicians and journalists who wanted to weaken the integrity of the dynasty, force the Tsar to give up his absolute political power and separate the Russian Orthodox Church from the state. Rasputin unintentionally contributed to their propaganda by having public disputes with clergy members, bragging about his ability to influence both the Tsar and Tsaritsa, and also by his dissolute and very public lifestyle. Nobles in influential positions around the Tsar, as well as some parties of the Duma, clamored for Rasputin’s removal from the court. Perhaps inadvertently, Rasputin had added to the Tsar’s subjects’ diminishing respect for him.
The legends recounting the death of Rasputin are perhaps even more bizarre than his strange life. According to Greg King’s 1996 book The Man Who Killed Rasputin, a previous attempt on Rasputin’s life had been made and had failed: Rasputin was visiting his wife and children in his hometown, Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River, in Siberia. On June 29, 1914, he had either just received a telegram or was just exiting church, when he was attacked suddenly by Khionia Guseva, a former prostitute who had become a disciple of the monk Iliodor, once a friend of Rasputin’s but now absolutely disgusted with his behaviour and disrespectful talk about the royal family. Iliodor had appealed to women who had been harmed by Rasputin, and together they formed a survivors’ support group.
Guseva thrust a knife into Rasputin’s abdomen, and his entrails hung out of what seemed like a mortal wound. Convinced of her success, Guseva supposedly screamed, “I have killed the antichrist!”
After intensive surgery, however, Rasputin recovered. It was said of his survival that “the soul of this cursed muzhik was sewn on his body.” His daughter, Maria, pointed out in her memoirs that he was never the same man after that: he seemed to tire more easily and frequently took opium for pain.
The murder of Rasputin has become legend, some of it invented by the very men who killed him, which is why it becomes difficult to discern exactly what happened. It is, however, generally agreed that, on December 16, 1916, having decided that Rasputin’s influence over the Tsaritsa had made him a far-too-dangerous threat to the empire, a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (one of the few Romanov family members to escape the annihilation of the family during the Red Terror), apparently lured Rasputin to the Yusupovs’ Moika Palace, where they served him cakes and red wine laced with a massive amount of cyanide. According to legend, Rasputin was unaffected, although Vasily Maklakov had supplied enough poison to kill five men.
Conversely, Maria’s account asserts that, if her father did eat or drink poison, it was not in the cakes or wine, because, after the attack by Guseva, he had hyperacidity, and avoided anything with sugar. In fact, she expressed doubt that he was poisoned at all.
Determined to finish the job, Yusupov became anxious about the possibility that Rasputin might live until the morning, which would leave the conspirators with no time to conceal his body. Yusupov ran upstairs to consult the others and then came back down to shoot Rasputin through the back with a revolver. Rasputin fell, and the company left the palace for a while. Yusupov, who had left without a coat, decided to return to grab one, and, while at the palace, he went to check up on the body. Suddenly, Rasputin opened his eyes. As he made his bid for freedom, however, the other conspirators arrived and fired at him. After being hit three times in the back, Rasputin fell once more. As they neared his body, the party found that, remarkably, he was still alive, struggling to get up. They clubbed him into submission and, after wrapping his body in a sheet, threw him into an icy river, and he finally met his end there—as had both his siblings before him.
Three days later, the body of Rasputin, poisoned, shot four times and badly beaten, was recovered from the Neva River. An autopsy established that the cause of death was hypothermia. His arms were found in an upright position, as if he had tried to claw his way out from under the ice. In the autopsy, it was found that he had indeed been poisoned, and that the poison alone should have been enough to kill him. Yet another report, also supporting the idea that he was still alive after submerging through the ice into the Neva River, is that after his body was pulled from the river, water was found in the lungs, showing that he didn’t die until he was submerged into the water.
Subsequently, the Empress Alexandra buried Rasputin’s body in the grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, but, after the February Revolution, a group of workers from Saint Petersburg uncovered the remains, carried them into a nearby wood and burnt them. As the body of Rasputin was being burned, he appeared to sit up in the fire. After being poisoned, shot, beaten, drowned, and officially verified as dead, he thoroughly horrified bystanders in his apparent attempts to move and get up. This legend is attributed to improper cremation. Since his body was in inexperienced hands, his tendons were probably not cut before burning. Consequently, when his body was heated, the tendons shrunk, forcing his legs to bend, and his body to bend at the waist, resulting in it appearing to sit up. This final happenstance only poured fuel on the fire of legends and mysteries surrounding Rasputin, which would continue to live on, long after he had truly passed away.
The details of the killing given by Felix Yusupov have never stood up to close examination. There were many versions of his account: the statement which he gave to the Saint Petersburg police on December 16, 1916, the account that he gave whilst in exile in the Crimea in 1917, his 1927 book, and, finally, the accounts given, under oath, to libel juries in 1934 and 1965. No two accounts were entirely identical, and, until recently, no other credible, evidence-based theories have been available.
According to the unpublished 1916 autopsy report by Professor Kossorotov, as well as subsequent reviews by Dr. Vladimir Zharov in 1993 and Professor Derrick Pounder in 2004/05, no active poison was found in Rasputin’s stomach. A possible explanation why the poison from the eaten cakes was inactive is given by the fact that the cyanide went through high temperatures when the cakes were baked in the oven. Subsequently the cyanide, or a large part of it, would have vaporized. It could not have been said with certainty that he drowned, as the water found in his lungs is a common non-specific autopsy-finding. All three sources agree that Rasputin had been systematically beaten and attacked with a bladed weapon, but, most importantly, there were discrepancies regarding the number and caliber of handguns used.
This discovery may have significantly changed the whole premise and account of Rasputin’s death. British intelligence reports, between London and Saint Petersburg in 1916, indicate that the British were extremely concerned about Rasputin’s displacement of pro-British ministers in the Russian government but, even more importantly, his apparent insistence on withdrawing Russian troops from World War I. This withdrawal would have allowed the Germans to transfer their Eastern Front troops to the Western Front, leading to a massive outnumbering of the Allies, and threatening their defeat. Whether this was actually Rasputin’s intention or whether he was simply concerned about the huge number of casualties (as the Tsaritsa’s letters indicated) is in dispute, but it is clear that the British viewed him as a real danger.
Professor Pounder tells us that, of the four shots fired into Rasputin’s body, the third (which entered his forehead) was instantly fatal. This third shot also provides some intriguing evidence. In Pounder’s view, with which the Firearms Department of London’s Imperial War Museum agrees, the third shot was fired by a different gun from those responsible for the other three wounds. The “size and prominence of the abraded margin” suggested a large lead non-jacketed bullet. At the time, the majority of weapons used hard metal jacketed bullets, with Britain virtually alone in using lead unjacketed bullets, for their officers’ Webley revolvers. Pounder came to the conclusion that the bullet which caused the fatal shot was a Webley .455 inch unjacketed round, the best fit with the available forensic evidence.
Witnesses to the murder stated that the only man present with a Webley revolver was Lieutenant Oswald Rayner, a British officer attached to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) station in Saint Petersburg. This account was supported further during an audience between the British Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, and Tsar Nicholas, when Nicholas stated that he suspected a young Englishman who had been an old school friend of Yusupov. Rayner certainly had known Yusupov at Oxford. There was, however, another SIS officer in Saint Petersburg at the time, namely Captain Stephen Alley, who had actually been born in the Yusupov Palace in 1876. Both families had very strong ties, so it is difficult to come to any conclusion about whom to hold responsible.
Confirmation that Rayner, along with another officer, Captain John Scale, met up with Yusupov in the weeks leading up to the killing can be found in the diary of their chauffeur, William Compton, who recorded all visits. The last entry was made on the night after the murder. Compton said that “it is a little known fact that Rasputin was shot not by a Russian but by an Englishman” and indicated that the culprit was a lawyer from the same part of the country as Compton himself. There is little doubt that Rayner was born some ten miles from Compton’s hometown and, throughout his life, described himself as a barrister-at-law, despite never having practised in that profession.
Evidence that the attempt had not gone quite according to plan is hinted at in a letter which Alley wrote to Scale eight days after the murder: “Although matters here have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved…. a few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement. Rayner is attending to loose ends and will no doubt brief you.”
On his return to England, Oswald Rayner not only confided to his cousin, Rose Jones, that he had been present at Rasputin’s murder but also showed family members a bullet which he claimed to have acquired at the murder scene. Conclusive evidence is unattainable, however, as Rayner burnt all his papers before he died in 1961 and his only son also died four years later.