Grigori Rasputin is one of history’s most mysterious and reviled figures. Born in a small Siberian village, Pokrovskoye, in 1869, Rasputin was the only one of his seven siblings to survive early childhood. He received no formal education and didn’t learn to read or write until he was an adult. Married at the age of 17, he seemed destined for a life of anonymity in the Siberian hinterlands. But when Rasputin heard the call of God in 1897–or, according to some accounts, fled town to escape punishment for horse theft–he set out on an unlikely path that made him the most notorious man in Imperial Russia.
After spending time at a monastery in the Ural Mountains, Rasputin embarked on a series of religious pilgrimages, perhaps making it as far as Athos, Greece, the center of Eastern Orthodox monastic life. By the early 1900s, he had gained a reputation as a starets, or holy man, whose mystical abilities could cure physical and spiritual ailments. Rasputin’s travels eventually took him to St. Petersburg, where he impressed local church leaders and gained the support of the Montenegrin princesses, who were married to members of the Romanov dynasty. The two sisters introduced Rasputin to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, who asked him to pray for the health of their hemophiliac son, Alexei. On numerous occasions, the mystic’s presence appeared to ease the boy’s pain and stop his bleeding. The Tsarina became convinced that Rasputin was the only person who could cure her son’s illness, and his influence over the royal family grew quickly.
Meanwhile, gossip about Rasputin’s licentious behavior swirled throughout St. Petersburg. He drank heavily, visited brothels, and was rumored to seduce society ladies by preaching that only through sin could they find salvation. He ran afoul of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Tsar received secret police reports documenting his debauchery. Nicholas refused to banish the holy man from the royal court, however. “Better ten Rasputins,” he told his prime minister, “than one of the empress’s hysterical fits.” The situation grew perilous in 1915, when Nicholas left St. Petersburg to command the Russian Army in World War I. Alexandra took charge in her husband’s absence and allowed Rasputin to appoint his cronies as church ministers and other public officials. Sensing that the monarchy was in grave danger, a group of nobles plotted to assassinate him. They invited Rasputin to a party and, according to one of the conspirators, served him cakes and wine laced with cyanide. When the poison had no effect, they shot him multiple times and threw his body into an icy river. The murder could not save the Russian Empire, however. In March 1917, Nicholas abdicated his throne; a year later, he and his family were murdered by their Bolshevik guards.
In death as in life, Rasputin remains an enigma. Was he a misunderstood spiritual seeker, as many in modern-day Russia believe? Or a wicked con man who brought down an empire? These eight surprising facts prove that in Rasputin’s case, truth really is stranger than fiction.
1. Rasputin wasn't actually a monk.
Although he was known as the “Mad Monk,” the “Black Monk,” and the “Holy Devil,” Rasputin never took monastic vows. He accused Russian Orthodox monks of engaging in homosexual acts and said, “The monastic life is not for me. One finds violence over people there.”
2. Rasputin wasn't the first mystic who held sway over the Tsar and Tsarina
Rasputin’s powers of persuasion may have been impressive, but he found a very willing subject in Tsarina Alexandra. Raised a Lutheran, she converted to Russian Orthodox when Nicholas acceded to the throne. Alexandra was drawn to the mysticism of her new faith and was influenced by members of the royal court who eagerly embraced the occult. In 1901, she and Nicholas fell under the sway of a French “healer” named Philippe Nazier-Vachot (also known as Anthelme Nizier Philippe), who conducted séances and claimed that he could predict the future and manipulate the sex of a child in the womb. Even though Nazier-Vachot was exposed as a charlatan and expelled from Russia, the royal couple believed that he helped them to conceive a son. When Alexei’s hemophilia, which had been passed to him through his great-grandmother Queen Victoria, could not be treated by Russian doctors, Alexandra turned to the supernatural for answers.
3. Rasputin "looked into" but was not a member of an underground religious sect that practiced self-flagellation and orgiastic rituals.
A governess for the royal family, horrified that Rasputin was allowed to visit the Tsar’s daughters in their nursery while the girls were in nightgowns, accused him of belonging to the Khlysts, a group that split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 17th century. The Khlysts had secret cells all over Russia and were rumored to whip themselves and engage in ecstatic rituals that sometimes turned into orgies. Rasputin’s belief that salvation could only be found through sin and repentance had similarities to Khlyst teachings, but there is no evidence he was ever a member of the sect. His daughter, who published three memoirs about her father and became a circus performer and a riveter in American shipyards during World War II, claimed that Rasputin had “looked into” the Khlyst sect but rejected it.
4. Rasputin's presence really did help Alexei.
By all accounts, the Mad Monk was able to ease Alexei’s suffering. The Tsarina credited Rasputin’s mystical powers, and others have suggested that he hypnotized the boy. The more likely explanation is that Rasputin’s presence and prayers had a calming effect on Alexandra, which was in turn passed along to Alexei, allowing him to recover more quickly. Another crucial factor may be that Rasputin forbade other treatments, including aspirin, which is now a known blood thinner. Aspirin was a new and innovative treatment in the early 20th century, prescribed for many ailments–including those we now know it will actually make worse, like Alexei’s hemophilia.
5. Rasputin might have predicted his own death and the murder of the Tsar's family.
According to legend, Rasputin foretold his own death in a letter written to Tsar Nicholas in December 1916: “I feel that I shall leave life before January 1st ... If it was your relations who have wrought my death, then none of your children will remain alive for more than two years.” Rasputin was killed early on the morning of December 30 by a group that included the Tsar’s cousin and nephew-in-law. Less than two years later, in July 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra, and their four children were executed. The letter did not appear until the 1920s, however, and the only person to vouch for its authenticity was Rasputin’s secretary, Aron Simanovich. Rasputin’s other predictions, including that the world would end in August 2013, were obviously bogus.
6. He survived one assassination attempt but never came back from the dead.
In 1914, a beggar woman who followed one of Rasputin’s priestly rivals stabbed the Mad Monk in the stomach. He was close to death but made a full recovery, stirring rumors that he was impossible to kill. When he was murdered by noblemen two years later, the gory details quickly became the stuff of legend. According to some accounts, after he was poisoned, shot multiple times, and drowned, Rasputin was still alive when he was pulled from the icy Malaya Nevka River. In reality, it took police three days to find his corpse and the autopsy report found no traces of poison in his system, nor any sign that he had been alive when thrown in the water. His cause of death was a bullet to the forehead.
7. Some historians believe that Rasputin's assassination was related to a British spy plot.
Rasputin was murdered in the home of Prince Felix Yusupov, the nephew-in-law of Tsar Nicholas. Yusupov attended Oxford University with Oswald Rayner, a British secret service agent stationed in Russia during World War I. This fact, coupled with Rasputin’s well-documented antipathy to the war and the Tsarina’s German ancestry, have led some writers to theorize that the British were afraid that the startets’ influence would lead the Tsar to make peace with Germany. To avoid this disastrous turn of events, British intelligence agents plotted and carried out Rasputin’s murder. However, most historians find this theory implausible and no record of such a plot has ever been found in MI6 files.
8. Russia's royal family had faith in Rasputin until the very end.
Severe food shortages and the death of more than three million Russians in WWI laid the groundwork for the October Revolution that ended the Romanov dynasty and resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union. But the royal family’s reputation was severely undermined by rumors that Rasputin was the secret power behind the throne and that he and the Tsarina were lovers. Nevertheless, the Romanovs remained loyal to Rasputin until the very end. Alexandra believed that Rasputin continued to pray for her husband in the afterlife, and the four Romanov daughters were wearing amulets with Rasputin’s picture the day they died.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: Alchetron