The Siberian Mystic: Who Really Was Rasputin?

History Hit

3 mins

07 Jun 2019

The murder of the self proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin came at a critical time in Russian history.

The nobles who killed him were just as dissatisfied with the Tsar’s regime as the men in the street.

The unashamed assassination of this man at the heart of the government by members of the Tsar’s own family was the first sign that something would have to give – and soon.

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Illiterate peasant to mystic prophet

The figure of Rasputin has exercised a strange fascination over people ever since his death.

There have been many film portrayals of him from actors as distinguished as Christopher Lee and Alan Rickman, and he is just as well known from the Boney-M song which bears his name.

Born in Siberia as an illiterate peasant in 1869, he underwent a religious conversation after an experience as a teenager, and then confidently sold himself as a mystic healer and even a prophet with the ability to tell the future.

In the last troubled years of Tsardom in Russia even these dubious claims were hopeful enough to be listened to.

In 1908 the Tsar’s family turned to Rasputin when the heir to the throne of Russia seemed certain to die from the hereditary illness of hemophilia.

Miraculously, after all the doctor’s efforts the boy recovered under the monk’s charge, and from 1908 onwards the mad holy man could do no wrong in the eyes of the Royal Family. Particularly the Tsar’s wife, Empress Alexandra.

Empress Alexandra Feodorovna with Rasputin, her children and a governess.

Driven almost mad by concern over her son, she turned to the mystic for comfort and guidance. Inevitably, their closeness began to give rise to rumours, especially as Rasputin was a prodigious womaniser.

As famous for his great beard and mesmerizing eyes as he was for holding drunken orgies and attempting to seduce the wives of aristocrats.

These rumours are likely nothing more than gossip without foundation, but by the start of the First World War they were widely believed and damaging for the Tsar’s fragile prestige.

Growing anger

By 1916, things had come to a head.

After a series of catastrophic Russian defeats in the opening months of the war, Tsar Nicholas II took personal charge of the Imperial armies, and left the business of governing the Russian Empire to his wife.

As a result, her favourite Rasputin began to exercise a degree of influence that alienated huge sections of Russian society. The powerful Orthodox church was furious about his public and immoral behaviour.

The ordinary people were suspicious of his relationship with the Tsar’s German wife, and most importantly the nobles were outraged over the influence this rustic peasant had over Government policy.

It did not help that the Russian government was a shambles under Alexandra’s leadership. By the end of the year most nobles agreed that something had to be done.

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The plot to kill Rasputin

On the night of the 29 December, the Princes Yussupov and Pavlovich, both close relatives of the Tsar, lured Rasputin to the Yussupov place. The three men drank, ate, and talked various topics with Rasputin, who quickly became drunk.

Little did he know that both the food and the drink were laced with cyanide. To the dismay and astonishment of his would-be assassins, however, the monk refused to die and continued to talk as if nothing had happened.

In response, they decided to take more drastic action. Rasputin was unexpectedly shot from almost point-blank range and collapsed, bleeding, onto the floor.

Amazingly, however, after a little while he revived and attempted to flee the palace through an open window.

As he jumped he was shot again, and then viciously beaten by his assailants before being shot once more to the head and dumped in the frozen river nearby.

Caricature of Rasputin and the Imperial couple, 1916.

Incredibly, some accounts say that Rasputin was still alive, and even that claw marks had been found under the ice that froze over him as he tried to escape.

This time, however, he could no longer cheat death and his frozen corpse was found a few days later.

Yussupov and Pavlovich were open about their deed and both exiled, though the former survived to write a famous set of memoirs about these extraordinary times.

Unwittingly, these two aristocrats had helped to usher in the chaos that would grip Russian in February 1917.

With Rasputin dead, the Tsar’s last scapegoat was gone, and as the people of Russia’s cities continued to starve, and the peasants continued to be sent unprepared off to the front, a revolution became the only option available to the people.

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