“The holy man is he who takes your soul and will and makes them his. When you choose your holy man, you surrender your will. You give it to him in utter submission, in full renunciation.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The murder of Grigori 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 the last days of imperial Russia. A group of Russian nobles conspired to kill Rasputin on December 30, 1916, in the basement of the Moika Palace, the St. Petersburg residence of Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the richest men in Russia and the husband of Nicholas II’s only biological niece, Irina. Rasputin’s battered body was discovered in the Neva River a few days later.

Rasputin’s rise to power

In the decade prior, Rasputin had risen rapidly through Russian society, transforming himself from an obscure Siberian peasant into one of the most prominent figures in the czar’s inner circle. He was 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. Rasputin seemed destined for an ordinary life, despite a few conflicts in his youth with local authorities for unruly behavior. At age 18, he married a local woman, Praskovya Dubrovina. The couple had seven children, but only three survived to adulthood: Maria, Dmitri and Varvara.

Rasputin, the "Mad Monk"
Rasputin, the "Mad Monk" Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rasputin’s life changed in 1892, when he left his family’s farm to spend months at a monastery, putting him on the path to international renown. Despite his later nickname, the “Mad Monk,” Rasputin was not ordained; he was simply a wandering holy man in search of spiritual enlightenment. Such individuals usually gave up their past lives and relationships, but Rasputin continued to see his family—his daughters later lived with him in St. Petersburg—and support his wife financially.

Rasputin’s religious fervor, combined with his appealing personal charisma, brought him to the attention of Russian Orthodox clergy and senior members of the imperial family, who introduced the holy man to Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra.

As the czar 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 Saint Simeon of Verkhoturye. 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 advisers in the past, but Rasputin surpassed their expectations with his ability to discern 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 beginning of World War I in 1914, Rasputin was providing political advice and making recommendations for ministerial appointments, much to the dismay of the Russian elite.

All About Hemophilia, The Royal Blood Disease

Rasputin cemented his relationship with the czar and czarina by supposedly alleviating the suffering of their only son and heir, Alexei, who had hemophilia, a rare disorder in which blood doesn’t properly clot. The holy man’s alleged healing powers continue to be debated today. The czar’s sister, Grand Duchess Olga, later reported that Rasputin healed Alexei by kneeling at the foot of his bed and praying; the calming atmosphere that Rasputin created in the palace may have assisted with the boy’s recovery. One of Alexandra’s ladies-in-waiting, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, thought that Rasputin employed peasant folk medicine used in Siberian villages to treat internal bleeding in horses.

In his 2016 book, Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs, historian Douglas Smith wrote, “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 Alexandra’s confidence in her son’s recovery, Rasputin insisted that the czarina “not allow the doctors to bother [Alexei] too much.”

At the time, medical knowledge was limited, even though drugs like aspirin were available for treatment. Aspirin, then considered a cure-all remedy, had the unknown side effect of thinning the blood, which would have exacerbated Alexei’s hemophilia symptoms. By stopping doctors from administering aspirin, Rasputin may have improved Alexei’s condition under what seemed to be miraculous circumstances.

The mysterious life and death of Rasputin - Eden Girma

Rumors and Rasputin’s reputation

Rasputin presented himself to the imperial court as a holy man, despite no formal affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church. He also spoke as a self-appointed representative of the peasantry. But his behavior away from court offered a different portrait. Rasputin’s drunkenness and affairs with women of all social backgrounds, from prostitutes to society ladies, scandalized the public. He 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 Pokrovskoye. (Rasputin’s wife appeared untroubled by his infidelities, commenting, “He has enough for all.”)

The press, unshackled thanks to rights granted by Nicholas 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, incorrectly believing that Rasputin lived with the imperial family, mailed their requests to him at the czar’s palace in St. Petersburg.

Nicholas and Alexei sawing wood in Tobolsk in 1917
Nicholas and Alexei sawing wood in Tobolsk in 1917 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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

Rasputin’s political sway increased during the war, when Nicholas left the capital to take command of the Russian Army. In her husband’s absence, Alexandra assumed nominal control of the empire, relying heavily on Rasputin as an adviser. The German-born empress was deeply unpopular, but Nicholas—described by historian Robert K. Massie as “a decent man but a bad czar”—stood by his wife, supporting her political decisions and rejecting calls for an alternative interim government.

Empress Alexandra
Empress Alexandra Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Rasputin with Alexandra and her five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei
Rasputin with Alexandra and her five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The conspiracy to kill Rasputin

Before he murdered Rasputin, Yusupov, a wealthy aristocrat who married into the Romanov family, lived a comparatively aimless life of privilege. Nicholas’ eldest daughter, also named Grand Duchess Olga, worked as a nurse during World War I and criticized Yusupov’s refusal to enlist, writing to her father, “Felix is a ‘downright civilian,’ dressed all in brown … and virtually doing nothing; an utterly unpleasant impression he makes—a man idling in such times.” Plotting Rasputin’s murder gave Yusupov an opportunity to reinvent himself as a patriot and man of action, determined to protect the throne from a malignant influence.

Yusupov and his co-conspirators, most of whom were fellow aristocrats, believed that Rasputin’s removal would give Nicholas one last chance at restoring the reputation and prestige of the monarchy. With Rasputin gone, they hoped, the czar would return from military headquarters and once again govern from St. Petersburg, taking the advice of his extended family, the nobility and the Duma—the Russian legislative body—instead of listening to Alexandra.

The best-known account of Rasputin’s murder appears in Yusupov’s memoirs, published in 1928. The prince claimed to have invited Rasputin to his palace to meet his wife, Irina (who was in fact away at the time), then served him a platter of cakes and numerous glasses of wine laced with toxic potassium cyanide. To Yusupov’s astonishment, Rasputin appeared to be unaffected by the poison. The desperate prince borrowed a revolver from Grand Duke Dmitri, the czar’s cousin, and shot Rasputin multiple times but was still unable to kill him. As Yusupov later wrote, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.” Rumors that circulated in the immediate aftermath of Rasputin’s death suggested water was found in his lungs, indicating the “Mad Monk” had ultimately died by drowning.

Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of the conspirators in the plot to murder Rasputin
Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of the conspirators in the plot to murder Rasputin Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Felix Yusupov and his wife, Irina, in 1915
Felix Yusupov and his wife, Irina, in 1915 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Yusupov’s account of Rasputin’s murder quickly entered popular culture. The lurid scene was dramatized in numerous films about Rasputin and the Romanovs and even made it into a 1970s disco hit by Boney M., which included the lines “They put some poison into his wine. … He drank it all and said, ‘I feel fine.’”

Rasputin’s actual murder was probably far less dramatic. His daughter Maria, who fled Russia after the revolution and became a circus lion tamer billed as “the daughter of the famous mad monk whose feats in Russia astonished the world,” wrote a 1929 book that condemned Yusupov’s actions and questioned the veracity of his account. Maria wrote that her father did not like sweets and never would have eaten a platter of cakes. In fact, the autopsy reports do not mention poison or drowning, instead concluding that Rasputin was shot in the head at close range. Yusupov transformed the murder into an epic struggle of good versus evil to sell books and bolster his own reputation.

The responses from the public were mixed, reflecting Rasputin’s checkered reputation. The elite, from whence Yusupov and his co-conspirators came, rejoiced and applauded the killers when they appeared in public. (Nicholas banished Yusupov and Dmitri from court for their involvement in the plot, inadvertently saving the pair from the coming revolution.) The peasantry mourned Rasputin as one of their own, seeing the murder as one more example of the nobility controlling Nicholas: When a peasant rose to a position of influence with the czar, he was murdered by wealthy men.

Boney M. - Rasputin (Sopot Festival 1979)

To the dismay of the conspirators, Rasputin’s murder did not lead to a radical change in Nicholas and Alexandra’s approach to governing. Confronted with events that “moved too quickly” for him, according to Massie, the czar abdicated in March 1917, bringing 300 years of Romanov rule to an end and leading to his family’s brutal deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks in July 1918.

To these emergent revolutionaries, Rasputin symbolized the corruption at the heart of the imperial court, and his murder was seen, rather accurately, as an attempt by the nobility to hold onto power at the continued expense of the proletariat. To the working class, Rasputin represented the broader problems with czarism. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky went so far as to say, “Without Rasputin, there would have been no Lenin.”

Rasputin's corpse
Rasputin's corpse Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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