Rasputin: the ‘mad monk’ who became a friend to the Romanovs

In pre-revolutionary Russia, there was no one more divisive than this megalomaniac mystic, a peasant who reached his way to the heights of Imperial Russia, only to oversee its destruction. Jonny Wilkes explores his life and influence, and the legends that still surround him, for BBC History Revealed

Grigory Yefimovich Novykh, also known as Rasputin

Mysterious powers and eyes able to hypnotise; a penchant for bedding women despite his grubby disregard for personal hygiene; a dishevelled figure who preached about how his constant, womanising was the key to spiritual salvation; a fondness for guzzling bottles of wine on a daily basis; and an assassination that saw him poisoned, beaten, shot and dumped in a freezing river – these are just some of the legends surrounding the life, and death, of Rasputin.

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In pre-revolutionary Russia, there was no one more divisive than this megalomaniac mystic. While adored by hordes of fanatics and the Tsarina Alexandra herself – who believed his powers to be healing her sick son – Rasputin was despised and feared by most of the country’s elite. To them, Rasputin was the evil puppet master to a weak-willed monarchy and his murder, on 30 December 1916, was necessary to save the country from catastrophe. Yet, as the numerous attempts required to finish him off seemed to demonstrate, Rasputin’s influence was devilishly difficult to stamp out.

Rasputin
34-year-old Rasputin arrived in the Russian capital of St Petersburg in 1903. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The life of 
Grigory Rasputin: a timeline

9 January 1869

Grigory is born to the Siberian peasants Yefim and Anna Rasputin in the village of Pokrovskoe on the Tura river

2 February 1887

Grigory marries Praskovya Dubrovina. They will go on to have three children: Dmitry, Matryona (Maria), and Varvara

1897–1905

Rasputin wanders to holy sites across Russia as a strannik, or pilgrim

1 November 1905

Rasputin is presented to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Empress Alexandra, for the first time

1907

Rasputin is investigated 
by the church for his supposed 
connections to the underground sect known as the khlysty (whips)

March 1910

The Moscow Gazette launches 
the first of many press campaigns 
against Rasputin

Spring 1911

Rasputin travels to the Holy Land

October 1912

Tsarevich Alexei almost dies from internal bleeding at Spała, but is saved, 
so Nicholas and Alexandra believe, by Rasputin’s divine intervention.

29 June 1914

Rasputin is stabbed by a woman named Khioniya Guseva outside his home in Pokrovskoe and nearly dies

January–February

1916 Minister of the Interior Alexei Khvostov plots Rasputin’s murder. The plot fails

17 December 1916

Rasputin is murdered in the Petrograd mansion of Prince Felix Yusupov

10–11 March 1917

Rasputin’s body is cremated, most likely at the Petrograd Polytechnic Institute, under mysterious circumstances

How did Rasputin become involved with the Russian royal family?

When a 34-year-old Rasputin arrived in the Russian capital of St Petersburg in 1903, his timing couldn’t have been better. Interest in mysticism and the occult was growing among the city’s fashionable circles, and Rasputin was perfectly placed to take advantage of such a craze. For years, the illiterate Siberian peasant turned self-professed holy man (despite his nickname today, he was never a monk) had been travelling through Russia, and he claimed to have travelled as far as Greece and Jerusalem.

Having converted to a radical religious sect at the age of 18, he built a reputation as a healer – one who could predict the future and grant divine deliverance. This was achieved through his doctrine of ‘holy passionlessness’, which claimed that the best way to be closer to God was through sinful actions, especially those of the flesh. His flesh, to be exact. No wonder his name changed from Grigory Yefimovich Novykh to Rasputin, thought to mean ‘the debauched one’.

Rasputin dipped his dirt-crusted fingers into jam so women could lick them clean

Despite his filthy hair and beard and malodorous appearance, Rasputin’s followers grew in number, and he took pleasure in treating them however he wanted. There are accounts from his life – be they true or rumours – that Rasputin dipped his dirt-crusted fingers into jam so women could “humble” themselves by licking them clean. He supposedly honoured his admirers further with innuendo-laden nicknames or by having them bathe his naked body. Once, he allegedly invited two young sisters to a bathhouse, and declared to their mother that it was a “Day of Salvation”.

Rasputin surrounded by followers, c1914.
Rasputin surrounded by followers, c1914. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Acolytes would crowd, sometimes in their hundreds, outside his house, hoping to seek an audience with Rasputin, nab a souvenir (including nail clippings) or leave gifts of flowers. “Idiots bring flowers every day. They know I love them,” he once quipped. Rasputin’s ‘true holy work’, however, was carried out by sleeping with these women, on the promise that contact with his body could purify the soul.

Although he had sex with countless women, including married nobles, Rasputin’s wife and mother to his children – whom he married aged 19 – remained loyal. Treated like another of his devotees, she once said, “He has enough for all”. His lechery didn’t stop Rasputin from rising to very top of Russian society. In fact, it was his claims of magical healing powers that led to his introduction to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, as they were looking for someone to cure their sickly son.

Friend to the Romanovs

Traditional doctors had been unable to treat the young Alexei – who suffered from haemophilia, meaning his blood wouldn’t clot properly whenever he was injured – so a desperate Alexandra turned to unorthodox healers. When Rasputin supposedly managed to stop a bad bleeding episode in 1908, through prayer, the Tsarina fell under his spell. Rasputin became “Our Friend” to the Romanov family, and was summoned whenever Alexei needed faith healing. In 1912, the Prince’s condition deteriorated so badly that he received the last sacrament. On hearing the news, Rasputin sent a telegram to Alexandra, reading: “The little one will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” Alexei recovered, Rasputin’s bond with the royals strengthened and his name spread throughout Russia.

The Romanov family
Traditional doctors had been unable to treat the young Alexei (front left). (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

As Rasputin’s influence over the Romanovs rose, their popularity went down. They already struggled for support, as Nicholas II didn’t have the strength and gravitas of his father, Alexander III, especially following his ineffective leadership during the Revolution of 1905. Meanwhile, Alexandra, as a German, was treated with suspicion in Russia’s insular society, worsened by her desire to live in seclusion to raise her children, rather than be a public face of the dynasty.  So when the Romanovs elevated a peasant mystic with a lascivious reputation, tensions were only exacerbated.

And Rasputin did nothing to help matters as, with increased power, he went about his debauched lifestyle with greater impunity. While Alexandra invited Rasputin to spend time with Alexei and her daughters (where he played the perfect holy man), his enemies spread rumours about him. It was even claimed that, in a drunken haze, Rasputin boasted the Tsarina among his sexual conquests, although there is no evidence for this and it seems unlikely as Alexandra was, by all accounts, devoted to her husband. When the attacks on their beloved friend reached the ears of the Romanovs, they refused to accept them. “I know Rasputin too well to believe all the tittle-tattle about him,” stated Nicholas. Alexandra went further with her praise: “Saints are always calumniated. He is hated because we love him.”

As Rasputin’s influence over the Romanovs rose, their popularity went down

Even when the accusations against Rasputin became overwhelming – including an incident in March 1915, when he pulled down his trousers and, as one eyewitness put it, waved his “reproductive organ” in a restaurant – the Romanovs were too dependent on him for the health of Alexei. To many, Rasputin threatened the very existence of the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of World War I heralded a new chapter in Rasputin’s power. Nicholas II took personal command of his forces in September 1915, leaving Alexandra in charge of the affairs of state. Although he was initially against the war, Rasputin had now become the most powerful man in the country. He removed enemies from their positions and replaced them with his own choices, blackmailed 2,000 roubles out of anyone hoping to avoid the front line and did little to assist the war effort.

Opposition cries of treason and sabotage grew louder, not only aimed at Rasputin, but against the monarchy too. Revolution seemed imminent, and preventing it meant, to many nobles, freeing the Romanovs from their pernicious puppet master. Rasputin had to die.


Listen: Helen Rappaport explains why the last Russian tsar and his family met a violent end in 1918, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Did Rasputin ‘cheat death’?

Details of what happened on 29 December 1916 are far from certain, but it is thought Rasputin spent the day gulping down a dozen bottles of wine and possibly spending time with followers in a bathing house. That evening, he trudged through the snow-covered streets of St Petersburg (or Petrograd, as it was then), on his way to the home of Prince Feliks Yusopov, the wealthy husband to Nicholas’s niece, for a rendezvous with his beautiful, young wife Irina.

Yusopov, along with a small cabal of conspirators including the Tsar’s cousin, had other plans. Rasputin was led downstairs to wait for Irina, who wasn’t even in the same city, and offered wine and cakes laced with cyanide. Despite consuming enough to kill five men, it is claimed, Rasputin showed no signs of succumbing to the poison. It was then that Yusopov retrieved a revolver and shot him at close range. Somehow, however, he didn’t die. As the conspirators celebrated with a glass of wine, Rasputin opened his eyes, got to his feet and made it to the courtyard before being chased down and shot a second time, sending him crashing to the ground at the palace gate.

If the story is to be believed, Rasputin still twitched with life, so the assassins beat him – with vicious consideration given to his crotch, which had caused so much trouble in their eyes. For good measure, one more bullet was fired, this time into his brain. They wrapped the body in a carpet and hurled it into the Neva River (although some claim he may have been alive when he hit the water, and actually perished by drowning). Rasputin’s body was discovered a couple of days later, washed up on the shore – his arms raised as if he had broken his bonds in one last attempt to cheat death.

Not long before he died, Rasputin allegedly wrote an warning to the Romanovs, reading: “When the bell tolls three times, it will announce that I have been killed. If I am killed by common men, you and your children will rule Russia for centuries to come; if I am killed by one of your stock, you and your family will be killed by the Russian people! Pray Tsar of Russia. Pray.” Although the authenticity of this letter is debated, the Romanov dynasty did indeed come crashing down, after more than three centuries, with the Revolution of 1917. Much of Rasputin’s life and death is steeped in unanswerable questions and unreliable sources, but there is no doubt of the enigmatic, shadowy role he played in the bloody end of Imperial Russia. !at is one of the reasons why he remains so fascinating today. He has become more myth than man.

Illustration of Grigori Rasputin (left) and Tsar Nicholas II (right) in conference, from the Russian satirical publication Signaly (Signals), 1905. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)
Illustration of Grigori Rasputin (left) and Tsar Nicholas II (right) in conference, from the Russian satirical publication Signaly (Signals), c1905. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

After Rasputin

While Tsarina Alexandra was distraught on hearing the news of Rasputin’s death, most of Russia celebrated the news. At best, the mystic was corrupt and immoral, but at the worst, he was evil. There was so much public support for his death that Tsar Nicholas II feared to punish his killers too harshly, in case it sparked riots.

Such was the loathing towards Rasputin that, while alive, he had provided a handy scapegoat for the Romanovs. With him gone, however, resentment towards the weak ruling dynasty sharpened. Nicholas made enemies of the Duma, a parliament created after the 1905 Revolution, by dissolving it when he met with opposition.

Nicholas and Alexandra
Tsarina Alexandra was distraught on hearing the news of Rasputin’s death. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

World War I crippled Russia’s economy, killed men at a rate never experienced before and caused food shortages. In early 1917, the February Revolution broke out in St Petersburg and, when troops were ordered to break it up, they mutinied. Nicholas was forced to abdicate, bringing an end to a dynasty that lasted more than 300 years, and a provisional government was established. This wouldn’t last long either, as a second revolution later that year put Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks in power. On 17 July 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children – who had been under house arrest – were executed.

Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history.

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This content first appeared in the June 2016 issue of History Revealed