It’s time for another biography. Today it’s the Siberian Swindler, Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin is primarily known for two things: His seeming ability to control the Russian Czar, and one of the most odd, confusing, unreliable deaths in modern history.
Rasputin was born in Pokrovskoye, in Siberia in 1869. He was assassinated in Saint Petersberg in 1916. In that time he went from a peasant in a small town no one had ever heard of, to controlling one of the most powerful families at the time, and, depending on your view, indirectly led to the October Revolution.
Grigori was one of nine children, and one of two who survived. In the years after Rasputin died, Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev would send political enemies to Siberia to die. Cold and alone. Desolate and desperate. That’s where Rasputin was born.
Keep in mind, that very little has been verified about Rasputin’s life. There are contradictory statements, biased rumors, and politically motivated descriptions. Since he was born in a small village in the late 19th century, it’s reasonable to accept that he was illiterate, and if he did attend any kind of education it was work based. It is said that he had various “tics”. Since relevant medical tests were not made, it’s unsure what he had.
There are plenty of myths that claim he had supernatural abilities, even in his youth. These were most likely added after his death, by his followers, family, or good story tellers. One story claims that his father’s horse was stolen, and Rasputin used his powers to figure out the criminal. Other’s claim he could instantly hypnotize people with his intense stare. I mean, look at the picture above. Even if he didn’t have supernatural powers, those eyes are haunting. You remember how in the movies of yore, the villain would hide behind a painting with the eyes cut out, so he could watch from his concealment? Doesn’t the above picture look like that is going on? It’s the same with almost any picture you can find of him. Same crazy eyes. I don’t know if it’s because he always looked that way, or those are just the pictures that people kept.
At some point (contradictory statements place it between his 18th and 23rd birthday), he visited a monastery in Verkhoturye. It was there that he claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. This experience led to a religious life. I don’t mean he became a celibate monk (more on that later, to be sure), more like he was what the US in the 1960s would have a called a hippie, but with a religious undertone. He spent time wandering Russia (particularly the poor uneducated areas, because… uneducated gullibility), and became known as an elder and a healer.
In typical religious charlatan fake modest fashion, he didn’t consider himself as an elder. In what leads me to think he might have had schizophrenia, it is said that he couldn’t form complete sentences. This caused him to rarely speak in public. Rasputin’s religious flavor incorporated Eastern Orthodox teachings mixed with mysticism, bordering on the occult. His followers grew in number, and soon, his private cult… err… I mean totally legit… meetings had to be disbanded.
He continued to travel and eventually made it to Saint Petersberg (later renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad, then back to Saint Petersberg). Under the guise of raising money for a small village church, he met some influential people, including Theofan Bystrov, the occasional confessor of Czar Nicholas II. Through Theofan and his acquaintances, Rasputin came into contact with the Czar’s wife, Alexandra.
That was the beginning of the end for the Russian monarchy. To say that the Czar’s plate was full, was quite an understatement. He had been dealing with wars, a revolution, and infrastructural damage. In addition to his public problems, his only son, Alexi, was sick. Alexandra had heard of Rasputin’s healing abilities, and asked for Rasputin’s help. Alexi had haemophilia B, a heritable blood clotting disorder that was known to affect royal families across Europe, due to inbreeding.
Alexi seemed to get better after each visit. Rasputin’s supporters believed this confirmed his magical abilities. His detractors claimed it was everything from mysterious herbs to hypnosis. This, in addition to his seemingly magnetic personality made him intimately close to the royal family. Much to the chagrin of the political powers in Russia.
At the same time, Rasputin lived the rock star’s lifestyle. His drunken sexual escapades were common topics of discussion. Since he was raised in an orthodox religion, he felt immense shame about his more base desires. Consequently, he would alternate between binges and repentance. There were rumors that he had raped a nun and had sex with Alexandra. The church and police monitored almost everything he did. He believed that those who sinned the most could repent the best, and be closest to God. If this policy was true, he was VERY close to God.
Meanwhile, Theofan had become an enemy. He had risen in the ranks of the church and was now an investigator. He looked into the church’s claims of impropriety, yet found nothing. Still, Theofan realized that Rasputin was dangerous both to the royal family and the country itself. By 1911, Theofan was banished to Crimea. Or, rather, he moved there for his health, and was banned from returning.
Political leaders kept petitioning the Czar to remove Rasputin from influence, and even showed letters allegedly from Alexandra and their daughters of an inappropriate nature. Nicholas refused and defended Rasputin. The Prime Minister tried to bribe Rasputin to leave. Anytime someone was bold enough to speak out against Rasputin, Alexandra would defend him to the Czar. The Prime Minister was dismissed.
The first World War started, and Rasputin, who was outspokenly against war, encouraged the Czar to not only enter the war, but to lead his troops. This ended up being a huge failure for the monarchy. This, coupled with the royal family’s increasingly irrational infatuation with Rasputin, put them at odds with their ministers and the people. While Nicholas was leading the war, Alexandra (of German descent) and Rasputin were basically running the country… into the ground.
Now to the most confusing part of the story. The part where Rasputin went from madman to legend. By 1914 the politicians wanted Rasputin gone. Some wanted him gone because of the damage he was doing to the country. Others were worried about his influence on Alexandra, and therefore, Nicholas. Still others were jealous of his seemingly unchecked power.
While visiting his hometown, a former prostitute named Khionia Guseva slashed his stomach and exclaimed that she had killed the Antichrist. She was a part of a support group for women who had been hurt by Rasputin. Not hurt by men. Hurt by Rasputin. That’s how infamous he had become. The Czar sent his own physician and Rasputin recovered. Guseva, however, was found to be insane and spent the next few years in an asylum.
Despite being under constant surveillance by the police, investigations seemed to lead nowhere. Rasputin’s opponents were out of options. There are many many many variations of what happened next. I’ll start with the most interesting version (to me). A group of Rasputin’s main dissidents invited him to a party. There he was poisoned with “enough cyanide to kill five men”. He seemed to be unaffected. Did he not eat the cyanide laced food? Had he given himself small doses to build up a tolerance? We’ll never know. Since he wasn’t dying quickly enough, one of the adversaries shot him in the back. Seemingly dead, the assassin left. He later returned, and Rasputin attacked him, while tauntingly saying “you bad boy”. The others of the group shot him three more times. He got back up, so they beat him and cut off his genitals. He was still breathing, so they threw him in an icy river. Wait. It’s Russia. Of course the river was icy. Anyway, he tried to claw his way out of his restraints, and eventually drowned.
Later, his phallus became a sort of fertility icon. A maid took it, and it was revered due to it’s “size” and Rasputin’s “sexual prowess”. In the 1920s it was taken to France. Because of… really fucking weird reasons? Rasputin’s daughter, Marie, heard it was in France, and demanded it back. She kept it until her death in 1977. This was later found to be a sea cucumber. However, another collector claimed to have purchased Rasputin’s real “cucumber”, if you know what I mean.
So that’s the interesting version of his death. In reality, the police didn’t really do much about Rasputin’s death. Perhaps ordered not to do anything by those responsible, who had some authority. Perhaps out of laziness. After Lenin came to power, many of the few documents were lost. Even those who claimed responsibility couldn’t agree on the details. The official police statement was that he died of drowning, though a bullet wound was found in Rasputin’s head, and cyanide was found in his system.
Earlier, I said that Rasputin is sometimes thought to have indirectly led to the October Revolution. While Czar Nicholas II was fighting and losing World War I, Rasputin used his influence over Czarina Alexandra to run the Country. Anytime they didn’t like someone, they had them removed. This period saw four Prime Ministers, five Ministers of the Interior, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, two Ministers of Transport and four Ministers of Agriculture come and go. The Russian military was draining the country’s finances. The people were starving. The elites had given up on the Czar.
Meanwhile, Communists, led by Lenin, used the terrible leadership to incite the people against the monarchy. The Czar was abandoned by almost everyone, and entered seclusion. Nicholas’ family abdicated the throne in 1917. They were executed in 1918, two years after Rasputin was killed.
In roughly ten years, Rasputin went from wandering monk to practically running Imperial Russia. On that path, he drank and fucked his way from Siberia to Moscow. He was loved or hated. Revered or reviled. To his believers he was a saint, a healer, and a holy man. To his enemies, he was manipulative, a mountebank, and a degenerate. They all agreed that he was not to be trifled with, and disagreeing with him could have disastrous, or even deadly consequences.
Now, almost a century later, Rasputin has been characterized in countless media. The events surrounding almost everything about him are shaded in such thick fog that the line between real and legend is hazy at best. He was undoubtedly one of the most controversial, influential, and confusing people of the 20th Century.