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Rasputin in 1916
21 January 1869|
Pokrovskoye, Siberia, Russian Empire
|Died||30 December 1916 (aged 47)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Cause of death||Homicide|
|Spouse(s)||Praskovia Fedorovna Dubrovina|
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (Russian: Григорий Ефимович Распутин [ɡrʲɪˈɡorʲɪj jɪˈfʲiməvʲɪtɕ rɐˈsputʲɪn]) (21 January [O.S. 9 January] 1869 – 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1916) was a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II and gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia.
Born to a peasant family in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, Rasputin had a religious conversion experience after taking a pilgrimage to a monastery in 1897. He has been described as a monk or as a "strannik" (wanderer, or pilgrim), though he held no official position in the Russian Orthodox Church. After traveling to St. Petersburg, either in 1903 or the winter of 1904–5, Rasputin captivated some church and social leaders. He became a society figure, and met the Tsar in November 1905.
In late 1906, Rasputin began acting as a healer for the Tsar and his wife Alexandra's son Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia and was Nicholas' only heir (Tsarevitch). At court, he was a divisive figure, seen by some Russians as a mystic, visionary, and prophet, and by others as a religious charlatan. The high point of Rasputin's power was in 1915, when Nicholas II left St Petersburg to oversee Russian armies fighting World War I, increasing both Alexandra and Rasputin's influence. As Russian defeats in the war mounted, however, both Rasputin and Alexandra became increasingly unpopular. In the early morning of 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1916, Rasputin was assassinated by a group of conservative noblemen who opposed his influence over Alexandra and the Tsar.
Some writers have suggested that Rasputin helped discredit the tsarist government, and thus helped precipitate the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Very little about Rasputin's life and influence is certain, however, as accounts have often been based on hearsay, rumor, and legend.
Rasputin was born a peasant in the small village of Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River in the Tobolsk guberniya (now Tyumen Oblast) in Siberia. According to official records, he was born on 21 January [O.S. 9 January] 1869, and christened the following day. He was named for St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose feast was celebrated on January 10.
There are few records of Rasputin's parents. His father, Efim (sometimes spelled Yefim), was a peasant farmer and church elder who had been born in Pokrovskoye in 1842, and married Rasputin's mother, Anna Parshukova, in 1863. Efim also worked as a government courier, ferrying people and goods between Tobolsk and Tyumen The couple had seven other children, all of whom died in infancy and early childhood. There may have been a ninth child, Feodosiya. According to historian Joseph T. Fuhrmann, Rasputin was certainly close to Fyeodosiya and was godfather to her children, but "the records that have survived do not permit us to say more than that."
According to historian Douglas Smith, Rasputin's youth and early adulthood are "a black hole about which we know almost nothing," though the lack of reliable sources and information did not stop others from fabricating stories about his parents and his youth after Rasputin's rise to fame. Historians agree, however, that like most Siberian peasants, including his mother and father, Rasputin was never formally educated, and he remained illiterate well into his early adulthood. Local archival records suggest that he had a somewhat unruly youth - possibly involving drinking, small thefts, and disrespect for local authorities - but contain no evidence of his being charged with stealing horses, blasphemy, or bearing false witness, all major crimes that he was later rumored to have committed as a young man.
In 1886, Rasputin travelled to Abalak, where he met a peasant girl named Praskovya Dubrovina. After a courtship of several months, they married in February 1887. Praskovya remained in Pokrovskoye throughout Rasputin's later travels and rise to prominence, and remained devoted to him until his death. The couple had seven children, though only 3 survived to adulthood: Dmitry (b. 1895), Maria (b. 1898) and Varvara (b. 1900).
In 1897, Rasputin developed a renewed interest in religion, and left Pokrovskoye to go on a pilgrimage. His reasons for doing so are unclear: according to some sources, Rasputin left the village to escape punishment for his role in a horse theft. Other sources suggest that he had a vision – either of the Virgin Mary, or of St. Simeon of Verkhoturye – while still others suggest that Rasputin's pilgrimage was inspired by his interactions with a young theological student, Melity Zaborovsky. Whatever his reasons, Rasputin's departure was a radical life change: he was twenty-eight, had been married ten years, and had an infant son with another child on the way. According to Douglas Smith, his decision "could only have been occasioned by some sort of emotional or spiritual crisis."
Rasputin had undertaken earlier, shorter pilgrimages to the Holy Znamensky Monastery at Abalak and to Tobolsk's cathedral, but his visit to the St. Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye in 1897 was transformative. There, he met and was "profoundly humbled" by a starets (elder) known as Makary. Rasputin may have spent several months at Verkhoturye, and it was perhaps here that he learned to read and write, but he later complained about the monastery itself, claiming that some of the monks engaged in homosexuality and criticizing monastic life as too coercive. He returned to Pokrovskoye a changed man, looking disheveled and behaving differently than he had before. He became a vegetarian, swore off alcohol, and prayed and sang much more fervently than he had in the past.
Rasputin would spend the years that followed living as a Strannik, (a holy wanderer, or pilgrim), leaving Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time to wander the country and visit a variety of different holy sites. It is possible that Rasputin wandered as far Athos, Greece – the center of Orthodox monastic life – in 1900.
By the early 1900s, Rasputin had developed a small circle of acolytes, primarily family members and other local peasants, who prayed with him on Sundays and other holy days when he was in Pokrovskoye. Building a makeshift chapel in Efim's root cellar - Rasputin was still living within his father's household at the time - the group held secret prayer meetings there. These meetings were the subject of some suspicion and hostility from the village priest and other villagers. It was rumored that female followers were ceremonially washing him before each meeting, that the group sang strange songs that the villagers had not heard before, and even that Rasputin had joined the Khlysty, a religious sect whose ecstatic rituals were rumored to included self-flagellation and sexual orgies. According to historian Joseph Fuhrmann, however, "repeated investigations failed to establish that Rasputin was ever a member of the sect," and rumors that he was a Khlyst appear to have been unfounded.
Rise to prominence
Word of Rasputin's activity and charisma began to spread in Siberia during the early 1900s. Sometime between 1902 and 1904, he travelled to the city of Kazan on the Volga river, where he acquired a reputation as a wise and perceptive starets, or holy man, who could help people resolve their spiritual crises and anxieties. Despite rumors that Rasputin was having sex with some of his female followers, he won over the father superior of the Seven Lakes Monastery outside Kazan, as well as a local church officials Archimandrite Andrei and Bishop Chrysthanos, who gave him a letter of recommendation to Bishop Sergei, the rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Seminary at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and arranged for him to travel to St. Petersburg, either in 1903 or in the winter of 1904–1905.
Upon meeting Sergei at the Nevsky Monastery, Rasputin was introduced to a number of different church leaders, including Archimandrite Feofan, who was the inspector of the theological seminary, was well-connected in St. Petersburg society, and later served as confessor to the Tsar and his wife. Feofan was so impressed with Rasputin that he invited him to stay in his home, and became one of Rasputin's most important and influential friends in St. Petersburg.
According to Joseph T. Fuhrmann, Rasputin stayed in St. Petersburg for only a few months on his first visit, and returned to Prokovskoye in the fall of 1903. Historian Douglas Smith, however, argues that it is impossible to know whether Rasputin stayed in St. Petersburg or returned to Prokovskoye at some point between his first arrival there and 1905. Regardless, by 1905 Rasputin had formed friendships with several members of the aristocracy, including the "Black Princesses," Militsa and Anatasia of Montenegro, who had married the Tsar's cousins (Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich), and were instrumental in introducing Rasputin to the Tsar and his family.
Rasputin first met the Tsar on November 1, 1905, at the Peterhof Palace. The tsar recorded the event in his diary, writing that he and Alexandra had "made the acquaintance of a man of God - Grigory, from Tobolsk province." Rasputin would not meet the Tsar and his wife again for some months: he returned to Prokovskoye shortly after their first meeting, and did not return to St. Petersburg until July 1906. On his return, Rasputin sent Nicholas a telegram asking to present the tsar with an icon of Simeon of Verkhoturye. He met with Nicholas and Alexandra on July 18, and again in October, when he first met Nicholas and Alexandra's children. Joseph Fuhrmann has speculated that it was in October that Rasputin was first asked to pray for the health of Alexei.
By December 1906, Rasputin had become close enough to the royal family to ask a special favor of the Tsar – that he be permitted to change his surname to Rasputin-Novyi (Rasputin-New). Nicholas granted the request and the name change was speedily processed, suggesting that the Tsar viewed – and treated – Rasputin favorably at that time.
Healer to Alexei
Much of Rasputin's influence with the royal family stemmed from Alexandra and others' belief that he had eased the pain and stopped the bleeding of the Tsarevich – who suffered from hemophilia – on several occasions. According to historian Marc Ferro, the Tsarina had a "passionate attachment" to Rasputin as a result of her belief that he could heal her son's affliction. Harold Shukman wrote that Rasputin became "an indispensable member of the royal entourage" as a result.
Rasputin had been rumored to be capable of faith-healing since his arrival in St. Petersburg, and the Tsarina's friend Anna Vyrubova became convinced that Rasputin had miraculous powers shortly thereafter. Vyrubova would become one of Rasputin's most influential advocates.
It is unclear when Rasputin first learned of Alexei's hemophilia, or when he first acted as a healer for Alexei. He may have been aware of Alexei's condition as early as October 1906 and was summoned by Alexandra to pray for Alexei when he had an internal hemorrhage in the spring of 1907. Alexei recovered the next morning.
During the summer of 1912, Alexei developed a hemorrhage in his thigh and groin after a jolting carriage ride near the royal hunting grounds at Spala, which caused a large hematoma. In severe pain and delirious with fever, the Tsarevich appeared to be close to death. In desperation, the Tsarina asked Vyrubova to send Rasputin (who was in Siberia) a telegram, asking him to pray for Alexei. Rasputin wrote back quickly, telling the Tsarina that "God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much." The next morning, Alexei's condition was unchanged, but Alexandra was encouraged by the message and regained some hope that Alexei would survive. Alexei's bleeding stopped the following day.
Historian Robert K. Massie has called Alexei's recovery "one of the most mysterious episodes of the whole Rasputin legend." The cause of his recovery is unclear: Massie speculated that Rasputin's suggestion to not let doctors disturb Alexei had aided his recovery by allowing him to rest and heal, or that his message may have aided Alexei's recovery by calming Alexandra and reducing the emotional stress on Alexei. Alexandra, however, believed that Rasputin had performed a miracle, and concluded that he was essential to Alexei's survival.
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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)[better source needed] to undue political domination over the royal family.
Even before Rasputin's arrival in St. Petersburg in 1903, alternative religious movements such as spiritualism and theosophy had become increasingly popular among the city's aristocracy, and many of them were intensely curious about the occult and the supernatural more generally. 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 strained relationship. The Holy Synod frequently attacked Rasputin, accusing him of a variety of immoral or evil practices. 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 lifestyle in the form of the famous "staircase notes" — 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 I, 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. 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.
During World War I, Rasputin became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular Tsarina, meanwhile, who was of Anglo-German descent, was 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 Tsar 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 war, Rasputin's influence over Tsarina Alexandra increased. He soon became her confidant and personal adviser, and also convinced her to fill some governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. To further advance his power in the highest circles of Russian society, Rasputin cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favours.
World War I, the ossifying effects of feudalism, and a meddling government bureaucracy all contributed to Russia's declining economy 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 Tsarina ... 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 Tsarina, 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.
On 12 July [O.S. 29 June] 1914 a 33-year-old peasant woman named Chionya Guseva attempted to assassinate Rasputin by stabbing him in the stomach outside his home in Pokrovskoye. Rasputin was seriously wounded, and for a time it was not clear that he would survive the attack. After a local doctor performed emergency surgery in Rasputin's home and some time in a hospital in Tyumen, however, Rasputin recovered from the attack.
Guseva was a follower of Iliodor, a former priest who had supported Rasputin before denouncing his sexual escapades and self-aggrandizement in December 1911. A radical conservative and anti-semite, Iliodor had been part of a group of establishment figures who had attempted to drive a wedge between the royal family and Rasputin in 1911. When this effort failed, Iliodor had been banished from St. Petersburg and was ultimately defrocked. Guseva claimed to have acted alone, having read about Rasputin in the newspapers and believing him to be a "false prophet and even an Antichrist." Both the police and Rasputin, however, believed that Iliodor had played some role in the attempt on Rasputin's life. Iliodor fled the country before he could be questioned about the assassination attempt, and Guseva was found to be not responsible for her actions due to insanity.
According to his daughter Maria, Rasputin was very much changed by the experience and began to drink alcohol.
Having decided that Rasputin's influence over the Tsarina had made him a threat to the empire, a group of nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich concocted a plan to kill Rasputin in December 1916, apparently by luring Rasputin to the Yusupovs' Moika Palace.
Rasputin was murdered during the early morning on 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1916, at the home of Felix Yusupov. He died of three gunshot wounds, one of which was a close-range shot to his forehead. Beyond this, little is certain about his death, and the circumstances of his death have been the subject of considerable speculation. According to historian Douglas Smith, "what really happened at the Yusupov home on 17 December will never be known." The story of Rasputin's death that Yusupov recounted in his memoirs, however, has become the most frequently told version of events.
According to Yusupov's account, Yusupov invited Rasputin to his home shortly after midnight, and ushered him into the basement. Yusupov offered Rasputin tea and cakes which had been laced with cyanide. At first, Rasputin refused the cakes, but then began to eat them. To Yusupov's surprise, Rasputin did not appear to be affected by the poison. Rasputin then asked for some Madeira wine (which had also been poisoned) and drank three glasses, but still showed no sign of distress. At around 2:30 am, Yusupov excused himself to go upstairs, where his fellow conspirators were waiting. Taking a revolver from Dmitry Pavlovich, Yusupov returned to the basement and, referring to a crucifix that was in the room, told Rasputin that he'd "better look at the crucifix and say a prayer," then shot him once in the chest. Believing him to be dead, they then drove to Rasputin's apartment, with Sukhotin wearing Rasputin's coat and hat, in an attempt to make it look as though Rasputin had returned home that night. Upon returning to the Moika Palace, Yusupov went back to the basement to ensure that Rasputin was dead. Suddenly, Rasputin leapt up and attacked Yusupov, who – with some effort – freed himself and fled upstairs. Rasputin followed, and made it into the palace's courtyard before being shot by Purishkevich and collapsing into a snowbank. The conspirators then wrapped Rasputin's body in cloth, drove it to the Petrovsky Bridge and dropped it into the Malaya Nevka River.
News of Rasputin's murder spread quickly, even before his body was found. According to Douglas Smith, Purishkevich spoke openly about Rasputin's murder to two soldiers and a policeman who was investigating reports of shots shortly after the event, but urged them not to tell anyone else. An investigation was launched the next morning, as rumors that Rasputin had been killed were already circulating. One newspaper, the Stock Exchange Gazette, even ran a report of Rasputin's death "after a party in one of the most aristocratic homes in the center of the city" on the afternoon of 30 December [O.S. 17 December] 1916.
When two workmen noticed blood on the railing of the Petrovsky Bridge and a boot was found on the ice below, river police began searching the area for Rasputin's body. His body was found under the river ice on January 1st [O.S. 19 December], approximately 200 meters downstream from the bridge. An autopsy was conducted by Dr. Dmitry Kosorotov, the city's senior autopsy surgeon. The report that Kosorotov wrote was later lost, but he later stated that Rasputin's body had shown signs of severe trauma, including three gunshot wounds - one of which had been sustained at close range, and to the forehead - a slice wound to his left side, and many other injuries, many of which Kosorotov felt had been sustained post-mortem. Kosorotov found a single bullet in Rasputin's body, but stated that it was too badly deformed and of a type too widely used to trace. He found no evidence that Rasputin had been poisoned. According to both Douglas Smith and Joseph Fuhrmann, Kosorotov found no water in Rasputin's lungs, and reports that Rasputin had been thrown into the water alive were incorrect. Contrary to some later accounts that claimed that Rasputin's penis had been severed, Kosorotov found his genitals intact.
Rasputin was buried on January 2 [O.S. December 21] at a small church that Anna Vyrubova had been building at Tsarskoye Selo. The funeral was attended only by the royal family and a few of their intimates. Rasputin's wife, mistress, and children were not invited, although his daughters met with the Royal family at Vyrubova's home later that day. His body was exhumed and burned by an attachment of soldiers shortly after the Tsar abdicated the throne in March 1917, in order to prevent his burial site from becoming a shrine or a rallying point for supporters of the old regime.
Some writers - including Oleg Shishkin, Andrew Cook, Richard Cullen, and Michael Smith - have suggested that agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service (BSIS) were involved in Rasputin's assassination. According to this theory, British agents were concerned that Rasputin was urging the tsar to make a separate peace with Germany and withdraw from the war, and that this would allow Germany to transfer a large number of troops to the Western Front. The theory suggests, in other words, that British agents played an active role in Rasputin's assassination in order to keep Russia in the war and force Germany to keep defending the Eastern Front. While there are several variants of this theory, in general they suggest that British intelligence agents under the command of Samuel Hoare, and in particular Oswald Rayner - who had attended Oxford University with Yusopov - were directly involved in planning and carrying out the assassination.
Shishkin was the first historian to suggest that British agents were directly involved in Rasputin's death, but according to Joseph Fuhrman, Shishkin's suggestion that Hoare himself shot Rasputin is "almost certainly not true." Later, both Cook and Cullen also wrote books which argued that Yusopov had essentially been a "front man" for British agents, who had planned and executed Rasputin's murder. Both authors point to a letter that British agent Stephen Alley wrote to his colleague John Scale - which suggested that Rasputin's death had been "well received" and noted that "a few awkward questions have already been asked" about British involvement - and to stories that Rayner, Alley, and Scale later told their families as evidence of British involvement in the assassination. Cook also commissioned a forensic analysis of old photographs of Rasputin's corpse, and concluded from this that Rayner had personally shot Rasputin. According to Fuhrmann, however, the forensic analysis Cook relied on was likely incorrect, and the letter between Alley and Scale demonstrates that British agents were aware of the plot, but does not prove that they were actively involved.
According to historian Douglas Smith, the authenticity of the letter itself is "far from certain," since it is "apparently in the possession of Alley's descendants" but cannot be verified. If genuine, according to Smith, the letter would offer "the best proof of British involvement in Rasputin's murder," but "of what sort and to what extent is not clear," and it "does not mean" they set the plot in motion, or were present at Rasputin's death. Responding to Cook, Cullen, and other authors' analysis of forensic evidence, Smith writes that the 'British agents' theory "suffers from a number of problems," because it focuses on the gun that was used to shoot Rasputin, when neither the authorities at the time nor later forensic experts have "been able to say with any accuracy the caliber or make of gun that had been used in the murder," and because it relies on photographic evidence that "does not convincingly show" what the theory's proponents claim. According to Smith, "there is no convincing evidence that places any British agents at the murder scene." Historian Keith Jeffrey has stated that if British Intelligence agents had been involved in the assassination of Rasputin, "I would have expected to find some trace of that" in the MI6 archives, but that no such evidence exists.
Rasputin's daughter, Maria Rasputin (Matryona Rasputina) (1898–1977), emigrated to France after the October Revolution, and then to the U.S. There she worked as a dancer and then a lion tamer in a circus.
In popular culture
Numerous film and stage productions have been based on the life of Rasputin.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rasputin.|
|Wikisource has the text of a 1922 Encyclopædia Britannica article about Grigori Rasputin.|
- Okhrana Surveillance Report on Rasputin - from the Soviet Krasnyi Arkiv