Born a Siberian peasant in 1869, Grigori Rasputin became a mystic and renegade monk who entranced the Romanovs — and ended up being assassinated because of it.
For almost the entirety of Russia’s 370 years under the tsars, it was a sparsely populated country that yielded virtually no industrial output. It only abolished serfdom in 1861. And by 1900, revolutionary ferment could be heard and felt in the streets across the empire. Grigori Rasputin was born into this turbulent world in 1869.
Ultimately, Rasputin, a son of landed peasants, would rise near the top of court society. And yet, he fell just as dramatically when he was killed by assassins just before the country’s whole system blew up in warfare and revolution. It was Rasputin’s fate to play a role in the last years of the regime from the heart of the royal court.
While many of us know the broad strokes of that tale, there are nevertheless a number of things that most don’t know about the “Mad Monk.”
The Early Life Of Grigori Rasputin: A Nobody From Nowhere
Grigori Rasputin came from perhaps the least promising background possible.
He was born in the small Western Siberian farming town of Pokrovskoe, hundreds of miles away from anything that wasn’t also a small rural town. He didn’t make enough of an impression to leave many records of his early life. But around 1887, he married a local peasant girl named Praskovia, and they had several children together.
Three of the children died young, which may have motivated Rasputin to take a pilgrimage to a monastery in Verkhoturye in 1892. While there, Rasputin seems to have gone through the motions of work and prayer like the other pilgrims, but he spent most of his time outside the monastery with a hermit, who converted him to a fundamentalist version of orthodoxy that included vegetarianism and continuous penitence for sin.
Rasputin would then wander Russia as a hermit for several years after his conversion, though he usually made it back to his family in time to help out with the planting and harvest. But while he was on the road, he developed a gift for talking people into putting him up in their homes and for giving him free food while he preached to them.
Somewhere along the way, a rumor started that he was a mystical healer. Never one to walk away from a soft living like that, Grigori Rasputin decided to start treating injured and ill farmers with a mix of faith healing, laying on of hands, scriptural teaching, and occasional common-sense advice about getting lots of rest and drinking plenty of fluids.
Why Rasputin Was A Hard Man To Live With
Grigori Rasputin didn’t drop the act when he returned home, which over the years grew increasingly rare. Every time he came back to his family’s house, he insisted on mandatory prayer and religious services that could last hours. Every day was potentially an ordeal when Rasputin was home.
He “celebrated” every holiday, saint’s day, birthday, anniversary, and special occasion by forcing everyone to fast and kneel in prayer all evening. He forbade any work on the Sabbath, and instead of doing any work on the farm himself, he often convened religious meetings in the village square and preached for hours.
Meanwhile, his nonreligious activities were getting strange. Sometime during his career as a hermit, Rasputin had developed the habit of talking to himself, though genuine religious hermits usually took vows of silence.
He also had a number of disturbing facial and body tics that kept people around him nervous. While distracted or talking, his arms would jerk and his hands fluttered wildly. Sometimes, his whole torso would seize momentarily while he made a particularly emphatic point.
After the first few marathon preaching sessions, the men of Pokrovskoe had learned to live with his eccentricities – for their own safety. When Grigori Rasputin felt he was being mocked, he had a reputation for plunging into the crowd and pummeling as many men as he could catch while screaming damnation at them.
How The “Mad Monk” Made Powerful Friends
Given the relative inactivity of Western Siberia, Grigori Rasputin started attracting crowds. Lacking a local church, Rasputin started holding religious services in his own house, complete with healings and miracles.
By 1902, the crowds at these events had gotten too large to fit into his home, so Rasputin took his show on the road again, this time for good. He set off on an overland journey to a monastery in Kiev, more than 1,800 miles away.
When he finished a year of religious instruction there – part learning, part teaching – he again crossed the Russian steppe to Kazan, where he started meeting bishops and aristocrats. There, Rasputin displayed the bluff confidence that he’d honed living by his wits as a hermit and ended up taking over religious instruction at the seminary.
He must have impressed somebody important, because within a year he was on his way, with letters of introduction, to the capital at St. Petersburg, where he would rub elbows with the rulers of the Russian Empire.
Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg at one of the most dangerous moments in its 200-year history. In 1904, Russia was badly losing a vicious little war with Japan. Men across the country were being drafted and estates were being taxed to support a Far East conflict that seemed to be the Tsar’s pet project.
And when the Russian fleet was destroyed at Tsushima, riots erupted in the streets. Active revolutionaries in the crowds turned food riots and a labor disturbance into a full-blown revolt against the monarchy, which was swiftly put down with volleys of rifle fire from returning troops.
Vladimir Lenin’s own brother was killed in the violence, and he and the other leading Bolsheviks had to go into exile when it ended.
Why Rasputin Also Made Powerful Enemies
It’s possible that Grigori Rasputin barely noticed these upheavals. After all, during this time period, he was quite busy ingratiating himself with the local aristocrats and members of the royal family.
Or at least, he was trying to ingratiate himself. The Russian courtiers seemed to have had a low opinion of the hairy peasant whose name loosely translates as “muddy one.” Rasputin’s life as a hermit and low-born mannerisms – not to mention his tics – irritated St. Petersburg’s noble families, and his obvious efforts to schmooze with the Romanovs alienated them further.
When he actually got an audience with the then-pregnant Tsarina Alexandra and won her favor with his simple demeanor and several flattering prophecies about her unborn child, the latent dislike of Rasputin in aristocratic circles flared up into open jealousy and anger.
The tension only grew more serious after the birth of heir apparent Alexei Romanov, when his mother, Alexandra, turned to Rasputin for treatment and advice on managing the prince’s hemophilia.
Rasputin’s advice — to stop giving the baby aspirin — helped Alexei recover somewhat and cemented his mother’s faith in the monk. By 1907, he was a regular caller at the royal palace and felt confident enough to start offering advice to the tsar on matters of state.
This provoked several powerful rivals to get Rasputin prosecuted within the church. Rasputin’s interpretation of the Bible had always been unconventional, but now the Spiritual Consistory of Tobolsk was accusing him of “kissing and bathing with women” and demanding a church trial for heresy.
Specifically, he was accused of holding beliefs similar to a suppressed Orthodox cult from Siberia, which if true would have seen him defrocked and possibly imprisoned. When he beat the rap in 1908, Grigori Rasputin’s prestige only grew. And by 1911, most of his enemies had either fallen out of favor with the Romanovs or had actually been exiled.
By 1912, the odd, sometimes violent monk from Siberia was arguably the main power broker in Russia. But his power wouldn’t last forever.
Grigori Rasputin’s First Assassination Attempt
Anytime a peasant manages to position himself as close to an absolute monarch as Grigori Rasputin did, his enemies will start wishing he was dead. And some of them will go the extra mile and try to do the job themselves.
The first known attempt on Rasputin’s life, or at least the first one anybody noticed, came in the summer of 1914, on the day in July when Alexandra summoned him to the palace to discuss a threat of war from Austria.
Though he always rushed to the Tsarina’s side when she called, this day Rasputin stopped in the street to give money to what he thought was an old beggar woman. But the “beggar” was actually a disguised 33-year-old ex-follower of a fellow monk named Iliodor. While he was fishing through his pockets, the woman produced a dagger and struck him just above the navel.
But instead of falling down or going into shock, Rasputin ran to a nearby growth of trees and grabbed a stick, which he used to beat the fleeing woman. Iliodor then immediately went into hiding, and Rasputin spent the next few weeks recovering from his injuries.
The next few years were a nightmare for Russia. War with Germany and Austria ground up whole armies and popular opinion at home quickly turned toward peace at any price.
Through it all, the aristocracy was deep in denial. The Romanovs and their courtiers firmly believed that the war could be won, and talk of surrender was grounds for banishment from the court.
Rasputin, coming from a very different background, saw things differently. By 1916, he was secretly conspiring with some of the more realistic members of the court to force the tsar into negotiations. But one of the conspirators’ meetings was abruptly broken up when a relative of the tsar, Prince Felix Yusupov, walked in on them unannounced.
Later, Yusupov would write that he and Rasputin had spent long evenings together talking about politics and that Rasputin had tried to talk him into supporting peace on the grounds that it was the only way to save the monarchy and avoid a civil war.
But as far as the prince was concerned, this was treason — and he resolved to do something about it.
Killed To Prevent Peace
Felix Yusupov was quite a character. Born to a line of increasingly mad aristocrats — his father had a fetish for eating dinner in different rooms every night, his aunt bred silkworms that filled every room of her estate, and his grandfather arranged marriages among his peasants to selectively breed girls for their beauty — the young prince and his friends had spent their youth drinking and gambling, as well as occasionally dressing up as women and hanging around in bars while at school in Oxford.
Yusupov was married to the tsar’s niece, and they were actually visiting Germany together when war broke out. The Germans initially detained them, but by pulling a lot of strings, Felix had managed to get his family back to Russia a few months into the hostilities.
Though they often met for talks, Yusupov despised Rasputin, apparently for aesthetic reasons. Yusupov later wrote: “…with his caftan, baggy breeches, and great top-boots he looked exactly what he was – a peasant. He had a low, common face.” Of the meeting Yusupov broke up, he said he saw Rasputin:
“[S]urrounded by seven shady-looking men. Four of them were of a distinctly Jewish type, the other three were fair and curiously alike in appearance [Felix took them to be German agents]…They looked like a group of conspirators.”
If Yusupov was right and they were conspirators, they were actually Russia’s last hope. If Rasputin had actually managed to negotiate peace with Germany in the winter of 1916, the Kerensky Coup and later Bolshevik Revolution would probably not have happened. There would have been no civil war, no Great Purge, no Stalin, and maybe no World War II.
That wouldn’t do for Yusupov. Bringing an uncharacteristic decisiveness to the job, he laid plans to kill Rasputin and end any talk of peace with Germany.
On the evening of December 29th, Rasputin arrived at Yusupov’s home for another one of their late-night talks. Down in a basement room, while “Yankee Doodle” played over and over on the gramophone, Felix plied Rasputin with what he thought was cyanide-laced food and wine. In fact, the doctor he’d hired didn’t add the poison at all, and Rasputin just got drunk.
Yusupov went upstairs and got his revolver before coming down to the soundproof room and shooting Rasputin once in the chest. Suddenly awake, Rasputin lurched for the stairs. Another conspirator came downstairs just then and fired four more shots, hitting him once. While he was lying on the floor, yet another man shot him in the forehead. They bundled up the body and dumped it into the Neva River, where someone found it the next day.
Contrary to the popular account, Rasputin was not breathing when he went into the river. The water found in his lungs — which supposedly gives credence to said myth — could easily have seeped in through the multiple gunshot wounds he suffered in the assassination.
Years later, Grigori Rasputin’s daughter sued Yusupov for wrongful death but the presiding French court ruled it had no jurisdiction, and the Soviet authorities let the matter drop.