“There lived a certain man, in Russia long ago – He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow!”
Hello, friends and foes! You voted on Twitter and Instagram, and this month’s strange history subject is none other than Grigori Rasputin. The man, the myth, the legend. And what a bizarre legend it is. It’s nearly impossible to discern the truth from the fantastical myth surrounding the infamous mystic to the royal family. But I did my best, so let’s get into it.
Grigori Rasputin was born on January 22, 1869 in Siberia as Grigori Yefimovich Novykh. He earned the surname Rasputin (which is Russian for “debauched one”) due to his reputation for, well, debauchery. He had no morals, no restraint, and a great disregard for the rules of correctness at the time.
He went to study at a Khlysty monastery at 18 years old but was ultimately unable to become a monk due to his belief that, to reach God, you must experience total sexual exhaustion through prolonged debauchery. Groovy.
At 19, he married Proskovya Fyodorovna Dubrovina, who gave him four children. Unfortunately, only three survived; Maria, Dmitri, and Varvara. Despite his marriage and family, Rasputin wandered across Greece and Jerusalem as a starets (self-proclaimed holy man), alleging to heal the sick and see the future.
In 1903, his wandering landed him in St. Petersburg, where he was welcomed into the courts. This was a time of great entertainment and fascination in mysticism and the occult. Those of high-society were enamored by the strangeness of Rasputin and his (alleged) healing and prophetic abilities.
In 1908, the royal family invited Rasputin to the palace to heal their son’s bleeding episodes. Czar Nicholas Romanov II and Czarina Alexandra had one son, Alexei, who was diagnosed with hemophilia; a disease in which blood does not clot properly, resulting in spontaneous bleeding. After his initial success in curing Alexei of his ailment, Rasputin left the Romanovs with an ominous warning; the fate of their son – and the dynasty – were linked to him in ways beyond mortal control. And they must have believed him, because Rasputin was an integral part of the royal family for the next decade.
Did he really heal Alexei of his hemophilia, though? And if he did… how? Magic? It’s widely debated, but historian Douglas Smith says, “[he] calmed the anxious, fretful mother and filled her with unshakeable confidence, and she, in turn, transferred this confidence to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health.” So, maybe he just willed it to be so. Other historians cite the fact that Rasputin demanded all doctor prescribed medicines for Alexei to be thrown into the fire and destroyed. These medicines probably included aspirin – a blood thinner that would have exacerbated Alexei’s hemophilia. This change in medication probably appeared as a miraculous recovery to the royal family.
By 1911, Rasputin was a total scandal. He had countless mistresses under the guise that his touch had a healing and purifying effect. And, apparently, his wife was totally cool with it. Proskovya was quoted as saying, “he has enough for all”. Russia’s greatest love machine, indeed. Despite this, Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra were enamored with him. So much so that any members of the court that spoke out against Rasputin were transferred to remote regions of the empire, or outright fired from their positions.
During World War I, when Nicholas II went to the troops on the front lines, Rasputin served as Alexandra’s personal advisor, appointing his own selection of church and court officials. It is from this time one of Rasputin’s greatest myths emerged; his alleged affair with the Czarina. However, historians say there’s no substance to this myth and it was an exaggerated rumor spread by Rasputin’s political enemies.
Rasputin was blamed for much of the calamity of the Russian government during his time in the imperial palace, and many attempts were made on his life in an effort to eliminate his influence. Hell, people were trying to kill him years before his actual death. In 1914, a peasant woman stabbed him in the stomach for seducing too many young women. Not groovy.
In 1916, a group of extreme conservatives invited Rasputin to a private dinner. Legend states he was fed a plate of poisoned tea cakes but did not die, so his enemies then shot him no less than three times. When the gunshots did not kill him, they bound him and threw his body in the freezing Neva River, where he finally drowned. It was this recounting of events that gave Rasputin the reputation of being unkillable. One of his assassins, Felix Yussupov, wrote about the murder in his 1928 memoir. He said, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”
Rasputin’s daughter Maria (who fled Russia after the revolution and became a lion tamer in the circus, by the way) renounced these claims in her own 1929 book. Maria stated that her father didn’t even like sweets and wouldn’t have eaten a plate of tea cakes, poisoned or not. The actual autopsy lists shooting as cause of death, with no signs of poison even found in Rasputin’s system. There was allegedly a small amount of water in his lungs, which led to the theory of his drowning after surviving the poison and multiple gunshots.
One of the most prominent myths surrounding Rasputin’s strange life is that he actually rose from the dead. It was reported that after he was thrown in the river, he was fished out by a group of passersby who found that he was still alive! The truth is that his (very much dead) body was discovered by police several days after his death because the water of the river was frozen.
Rasputin’s assassins thought his murder would lead to a change in the Czar’s politics. Instead, it symbolized the corruption of the imperial court and was recognized as a desperate attempt by Russian nobility to disallow any common person to become influential in the government. Mere weeks after Rasputin’s death, the Romanovs were overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution and, eventually, murdered.
It seems perhaps Rasputin was right, and the fate of the dynasty was tied to his own, after all. Spooky.
Want more Rasputin? Here are some versions of his story worth checking out:
Anastasia, Dreamworks film (1997)
This film is really about the lost princess Anastasia who miraculously escaped during the Bolshevik Revolution and is trying to reclaim her position on Russia’s throne… but the real star of the show is Rasputin. He and his albino bat sidekick Bartok are on a mission for revenge, hunting down Anastasia in an attempt to kill her. Rasputin is voiced by the incomparable Christopher Lloyd, songs sung by Jim Cummings (who also sang as Scar in Disney’s The Lion King. Fun fact.) You can listen to Jonathan Young’s cover of In the Dark of the Night here: https://open.spotify.com/track/2sXChp7RKB6AOWBCO9f0X9?si=98d7cbd613e74ae9
Rasputin’s Daughter by Robert Alexander (2006)
This is an historical fiction account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter Maria, recalling her father’s final days in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Intrigue and conspiracy abound, revealing a shocking “truth” about the identity of her father’s killers, and those who conspired to have him killed. It has mixed reviews, most citing that you never really get a sense for Maria’s character, or who she is. But if you’re looking for Rasputin-centered historical fiction, this is a good place to start. Alexander has another novel set in revolutionary Russia called The Kitchen Boy.
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison (2012)
Here’s an almost completely fictionalized tale about Rasputin’s daughter, with most historically accurate names changed but the setting of the Russian Revolution remaining. After the murder of her father, Masha is sent to live with the Czar’s family in the imperial palace. The Czarina hopes Masha has inherited her father’s healing abilities, so she can continue to heal the prince’s ailment. During the course of the Bolshevik Revolution, Masha and the Czar’s son take solace in each other, and telling stories about Rasputin and other fantastical characters of Russian history – embellished or not.
The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky (2001)
This one’s steeped in actual truth. In 1995, a lost file from the State Archives of Russia mysteriously turned up, containing the testimony of both Rasputin’s inner circle and those who kept him under close surveillance. Radzinsky reconstructs Rasputin’s life (say that five times fast), dispelling myths in a true story just as fascinating as the legend.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram so you can have a hand at choosing next month’s strange history subject. And, as always; Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or, not. Trick-or-treat, after all.
Harris, Carolyn. “The Murder Of Rasputin, 100 Years Later.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 27 Dec. 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/murder-rasputin-100-years-later-180961572/
“Grigori Rasputin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Grigory-Yefimovich-Rasputin
Hasic, Albinko. “Rasputin: 5 Myths and Truths about the Mystic RUSSIAN MONK.” Time, Time, 29 Dec. 2016, https://time.com/4606775/5-myths-rasputin/
Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.
All other images are certified public domain.