Society

The Murder of Rasputin

How does the killing of the so-called Mad Monk fit into the larger picture of the Russian Revolution?

The murder of Rasputin, Russia’s infamous “Mad Monk,” is the fodder for a great historical tale that blends fact and legend. But the death of the controversial holy man and faith healer had a combustible effect on the tense state of affairs in pre-revolution Russia. Rasputin was killed on December 30, 1916 (December 17 in the Russian calendar in use at the time), in the basement of the Moika Palace, the Saint Petersburg residence of Prince Felix Yussupov, the richest man in Russia and the husband of the Czar’s only niece, Irina. His battered body was discovered in the Neva River a few days later.

In the decade prior, Rasputin had risen rapidly through Russian society, starting as an obscure Siberian peasant-turned-wandering-holy-man and then becoming one of the most prominent figures in the Czar’s inner circle. Born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoye, on the Tura river that flows eastward from the Ural Mountains, where Europe meets Asia in Siberia. He seemed destined for an ordinary life, despite a few conflicts in his youth with local authorities for unruly behavior. He married a local woman, Praskovya Dubrovina, became the father of three surviving children, Maria, Dmitri and Varvara, and worked on his family’s farm.

Rasputin’s life changed in 1892, when he spent months at a monastery, putting him on the path to international renown. Despite his later nickname, “The Mad Monk,” Rasputin never took Holy Orders. Men in Rasputin’s position usually gave up their past lives and relationships but Rasputin continued to see his family – his daughters later lived with him in Saint Petersburg – and support his wife financially.

His religious fervor, combined with an appealing personal charisma, brought Rasputin to the attention of some Russian Orthodox clergymen and then senior members of the Imperial family, who then introduced him to Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra.

Nicholas wrote to one of his ministers in October 1906, “A few days ago I received a peasant from the Tobolsk district, Grigori Rasputin, who brought me an icon of St. Simon Verkhoturie. He made a remarkably strong impression both on Her Majesty and on myself, so that instead of five minutes our conversation went on for more than an hour.”

The Imperial couple had consulted unconventional spiritual advisors in the past, but Rasputin filled this role by his ability to read their inner hopes and tell them what they wanted to hear. He encouraged Nicholas to have more confidence in his role as czar, and Alexandra found that his counsel soothed her anxieties. By the First World War, Rasputin was also providing political advice and making recommendations for ministerial appointments, much to the dismay of the Russian elite.

Rasputin cemented his relationship with the czar and czarina when he supposedly helped alleviate their only son Alexei’s hemophilia. Rasputin’s alleged healing powers continue to be debated today. The Czar’s sister, Grand Duchess Olga, wrote that she observed Rasputin healing Alexei by kneeling at the foot of his bed and praying; the calming atmosphere that he created in the palace may have assisted with the recovery. Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, thought that Rasputin employed peasant folk medicine used in Siberian villages to treat internal bleeding in horses.

Historians continue to debate Rasputin’s impact on Alexei’s health. In his 2016 book, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs, Douglas Smith observes, “Rasputin’s assurances 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.” In addition to increasing confidence in recovery, a key variable may have been Rasputin’s insistence that doctors keep away from Alexei. Medical knowledge was still sparse, even though drugs like aspirin were available for treatment.

Unfortunately for Alexei, aspirin, considered a cure-all remedy, had the then-unknown side effect of thinning the blood, which would have exacerbated hemophilia symptoms. French historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse argued that when Rasputin insisted that remedies prescribed by the doctors be thrown in the fire, the discarded medicine likely would have included aspirin. Rasputin’s insistence that the doctors leave him alone would have improved his condition and appeared to create a miraculous improvement in his symptoms.

Rasputin presented himself in the Imperial Court as holy man, despite no formal affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church, and spoke as a self-appointed representative of the peasantry, but his behavior away from court offered a different portrait. His drunkenness and affairs with women of all social backgrounds, from street prostitutes to society ladies, scandalized the public. Rasputin appeared to bask in his fame, showing off shirts embroidered for him by the Empress and inviting her friends and servants to his home in Prokovskoye. (Rasputin’s wife appeared untroubled by his infidelities, commenting “He has enough for all.”)

The press, unshackled thanks to rights granted to them by Nicholas II in 1905, spread lurid tales about Rasputin both within Russia and abroad. Rumors about Rasputin’s influence over the Czarist regime spread throughout Europe. Petitioners, believing that Rasputin lived with the Imperial family, mailed their requests to “Rasputin, Czar’s palace, Saint Petersburg.”

Soldiers on World War I’s Eastern front spoke of Rasputin having an intimate affair with Alexandra, passing it off as common knowledge without evidence. As the war progressed, outlandish stories expanded to include Rasputin’s supposed treason with the German enemy, including a fantastical tale that he sought to undermine the war effort by starting a cholera epidemic in Saint Petersburg with “poisoned apples imported from Canada.” What the public thought they knew about Rasputin had a greater impact than his actual views and activities, fueling demands that he be removed from his position of influence by any means necessary.

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May 2017
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