Today is the birthday (1869) of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (Григо́рий Ефи́мович Распу́тин), now usually simply referred to as Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, and gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia before being murdered by Russian nobles.
Rasputin was born a peasant in the small village of Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River in the Tobolsk Governorate (now Tyumen Oblast) in Siberia. 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.
Almost nothing is known about Rasputin’s childhood. 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 traveled 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 three survived to adulthood: Dmitry (b. 1895), Maria (b. 1898) and Varvara (b. 1900).
In 1897, Rasputin developed a passion for religion and left Pokrovskoye to go on a pilgrimage. His reasons for doing so are unclear, but whatever his reasons, Rasputin’s departure was a radical life change: he was 28, had been married ten years, and had an infant son with another child on the way. 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 from previously. He became a vegetarian, swore off alcohol, and prayed and sang much more fervently than he had in the past. Rasputin spent 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 as Athos in 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.
Word of Rasputin’s activity and charisma began to spread in Siberia during the early 1900s. Some time between 1902 and 1904, he traveled to the city of Kazan on the Volga river, where he acquired a reputation as a wise and perceptive starets, 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. 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 1st, 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 did 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 18th and again in October, when he first met their children. At some point, the royal family became convinced that Rasputin possessed the power to heal Alexei of his hemophilia, but historians disagree over when. Much of Rasputin’s influence with the royal family stemmed from the belief by Alexandra and others that he had eased the pain and stopped the bleeding of the tsarevich on several occasions.
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. Alexandra believed that Rasputin had performed a miracle, and concluded that he was essential to Alexei’s survival.
The royal family’s – and especially Alexandra’s – belief that Rasputin possessed the power to heal Alexei brought him considerable status and power at court. The tsar appointed Rasputin his lampadnik, or lamplighter, who was charged with keeping the lamps that burned in front of religious icons in the palace lit and thus had regular access to the palace and royal family. 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. Rasputin used his status and power to full effect, accepting bribes and sexual favors from admirers and working diligently to expand his influence. He soon became a controversial figure; he was accused by his enemies of religious heresy and rape, was suspected of exerting undue political influence over the tsar, and was even rumored to be having an affair with the tsarina.
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.
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 proceeded to take personal command of the Russian army, with dire consequences for himself as well as for Russia. While Nicholas was away at war, Rasputin’s influence over Alexandra increased. He soon became her confidant and personal adviser, and he convinced her to fill some governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. To advance his power further in the highest circles of Russian society, Rasputin cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favors.
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.
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.
On 12th July [O.S. 29th 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. After surgery and some time in a hospital in Tyumen, however, he did recover.
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 30th December [O.S. 17th December] 1916, at the home of Felix Yusupov. The circumstances of Rasputin’s death have been the subject of considerable speculation and have led to wild stories concerning his invulnerability.
According to Yusupov written account, he 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 beat Rasputin with a club, wrapped his body in cloth, drove it to the Petrovsky Bridge and dropped it into the Malaya Nevka River. They claim that Rasputin was seen to be struggling as he floated down the river but that the cold water finally killed him.
The coroner’s report of the autopsy does not confirm this story. It says that there was undigested alcohol, but no cyanide in his stomach. So, either the doctor’s technique was flawed or Yusupov did not have genuine cyanide (which I suspect is the case). The report does not indicate any signs of the body having been beaten, nor was there any water in the lungs, meaning Rasputin was already dead when his body was thrown in the river. The body had three bullet wounds, two in the back that were not fatal, and one in the forehead delivered at point-blank range when Rasputin was supine. All of this suggests that Yusupov was weaving a detailed fantasy in his written testimony and that he shot Rasputin in the back and then, when he still showed signs of life while on the ground, shot him in the head, and then dumped the body in the river: less dramatic, but more believable.
It might be morbid to give a recipe for a favorite 19th century Russian cake to celebrate Rasputin, but I would not be the first. Here is a detailed video recipe for medovik – Russian honey cake. Note that there is no cyanide in the recipe.