We've seen and heard a lot of this monk with supernatural powers capable of casting a spell that tore Russia apart. But are these stories really true?
Often portrayed as the devilish mystic with dark powers who escaped death several times, a sexual deviant, the antichrist, and the man who sealed the doomed faith of Imperial Russia, Grigori Rasputin is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the history of the country and perhaps of the early twentieth century. He was a man that scaled in the social pyramid like no other had to become basically the most powerful figure in Tsar Nicholas’ Russia. But are all the allegations and vicious stories about himself true? Was he really the cause of all the political strife that took the Romanovs down and changed abruptly and violent the course of the country?
To start with we have to understand that Rasputin’s history is one of the most mythicized and fictionalized in history mainly because media tried its best to portray him as a devilish figure enforcing his power in the royal family. It’s not that he was a martyr as Tsarina Alexandra wrote after his death, but perhaps he wasn’t as malignant as he was thought to be. But let’s start at the beginning. Very little is known (well, that’s been confirmed) about his early life. He was born in 1869 in a remote village in Siberia called Pokrovskoye as the only surviving child of farmers. It’s said that one of the first encounters he had with religion as means of healing was after the death of his brother when he was just a child. Some even claim that he had developed his healing powers since he was ten years old by curing sick horses and animals. At the same time, it’s also said that his sexual appetite developed quite early in his teens, but both facts are just rumors that stuck.
What it’s known is that he got married at the age of eighteen and had children at a very rapid pace. This is where the facts merge with rumors, according to some stories he was accused of stealing horses and other minor crimes (some claim he was accused of rape), others state that he got acquainted with a theological student called Meliti Zaborovsky. Whatever the reason, Rasputin left his village and decided to go on a pilgrimage throughout the country. It was on this trip where he met Makari, an elder religious man who became a huge influence in his religious life. He returned to Pokrovskoye a new man, he acquired his shabby look and starting preaching. This new identity won him several followers who would join him to pray. It was then said that he actually had joined the Khlysty, a religious sect whose rituals included self-flagellation and orgies, but this was never proved. Anyway, he became some sort of prophet whose fame spread throughout his village and nearby towns.
By the first years of the twentieth century, he decided to travel to Kazan where his charisma made him quite popular to the point that people would seek him to ask for his help in solving their crisis. The rumors of the healing and miraculous monk reached the ears of prominent church officers who recommended him to a Bishop in St. Petersburg. Once in the capital of the country at the time, he was introduced to many important members of the church and society who became captivated by his strong eyes and prophetic attitudes. It was by late 1905 when he was finally introduced to Tsar Nicholas II. However, this was going to be just a regular meeting and they didn’t see each other until one year later when he was introduced to Nicholas’ family including his children.
Rasputin’s entrance to the royal family came after the Tsarevich Alexei got really sick. The child suffered from hemophilia and he would have very painful and severe episodes. In one of them, it’s said that Rasputin asked Alexandra to allow him to see the Tsarevich and pray with him. He was fully recovered by the next day, something that impressed Alexandra, who considered the event as a miracle and the monk (though he never actually attended any religious school nor had any preparation) a holy healer they needed around to take care of the only heir to the throne. Now, Alexei’s disease was kept a secret so for many, it was terribly suspicious for a peasant monk to have all that access to the family, the reason why many rumors sparked against the royal family and Rasputin himself.
By that time WWI started and Russia decided to participate against the Germans, something that together with the remnants of the feudal-like economic system remaining in the country, would produce a dramatic decline in the economy causing terrible misery among the population. Those who saw how the people they loved died out of hunger and cold, would see with contempt the aristocrats who kept their lavish lifestyles. This discontent would eventually derive into the Russian Revolution, the execution of the royal family, and the overthrow of the monarchy. Things would get even worse when Nicholas decided to travel with his troops to war, leaving Alexandra as regent to deal with the country.
Due to the people’s discontent, rumors of Rasputin being a sexual maniac started to spread. Now, it’s known that he had particular views about sex and sin as the means to the ultimate redemption and that he did engage in what would be considered promiscuous behaviors, but what was published in newspapers and spread throughout Russia and Europe was most likely an exaggerated reality. Alexandra worried for Rasputin's safety and had him under police surveillance 24/7 and many of the reports they made do confirm that he had a life filled with vices. These reports weren’t only handed over the royal family, but also to the press who wanted so badly to show that the royal family was inadequate to rule the country. To all those set of half-truths, the rumor of Rasputin controlling the empress through sex was one of the most popular to the point that it was said that he was the one ruling the country.
Many rumors of both Rasputin and Alexandra being, in fact, German spies (the Tsarina had actually an Anglo-German heritage) started to spread throughout the territory increasing the hatred towards both characters. However, while it’s true that he did use the favor of the Romanovs at his convenience by convincing them to appoint his friends and supporters in important government seats, it’s also true that he tried his best to convince Nicholas to bring his troops back and get out of the war. According to the story, he was sure it was a futile venture they would going to lose, but Nicholas was so keen on succeeding that he didn’t listen to his advice.
All in all, Rasputin was the aim of different unsuccessful plots throughout his relationship with the royal family, but it wasn’t until 1916 when the myth of the devilish man who wouldn’t die got stuck in history. Many of Nicholas' relatives tried in vain to convince him of firing Rasputin, but Alexandra did her best to keep him around. When hearing about this Rasputin allegedly told Nicholas what has been interpreted and known as the Romanov curse. According to the story, he told him that if he was killed “by common men, you and your children will rule Russia for centuries to come; if I am killed by one of your stock, within two years you and your family will be killed by the Russian people.” It was indeed one of Nicholas’ stock, Prince Felix Yusupov, the one that concocted a plot to kill the monk.
According to Yusupov, he invited Rasputin to his palace for dinner. When he arrived he conducted in the basement where the prince allegedly offered him some cakes soaked in cyanide capable of killing any man with just a couple bites. After a couple of cakes, Rasputin seemed to be as normal as ever; he asked for some wine (which was also poisoned) but nothing happened. Distraught, Yusupov excused himself and went upstairs where the rest of the plotters were anxiously waiting. They gave him a gun and he went downstairs to end with the monk. It’s said he shot him in the chest and left the body in the basement while preparing everything to dispatch the body. When he went back to him, Rasputin allegedly stood up and attacked the Prince who run immediately to ask for help. Rasputin tried to escape but he was caught in the entrance of the palace and shot a couple of times more, this time killing him for real. He was thrown into the Malaya Nevka River where he was found two days later.
Many theories about why he resisted death have emerged since he was found dead but the truth is that it’s most likely that they killed him immediately and invented all this story so people see them as real warriors against this demon. Still, together with the curse (which there’s no evidence of actually being true), the story of his death only made of him one of the most impacting and mystical figures of modern history. They might have killed him, but the legend and myth will always be around making him even more popular than the Romanov family ever was.
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