Biographies Russian Courtiers Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Born: 1869, Pokrovskoe (Tobolsk Province)
Died: 1916, Petrograd

A peasant from the village of Pokrovskoe in Tobolsk Province, Grigory Rasputin is the hero of many works of fiction and non-fiction. In books and films, he is variously portrayed as a lecherous drunkard or a mad monk. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that he was able to ease the sufferings of the haemophiliac heir to the throne, Tsarevich Alexis.

Rasputin was introduced to the emperor and empress in autumn 1905. Outside the palace, his drunken excesses and scandalous love affairs made him an inconvenient friend for the imperial family. From aristocrats and ministers down to peasants and workers, the whole country discussed the possible relationships between Rasputin, Anna Vyrubova, Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna. The “holy man” was said to have turned the entire court into his private harem.

Many books have been written about the relationship between the imperial family and Rasputin. Although much is untrue, a large portion is true. What contemporaries and, later, historians could not understand is what bound the royal couple so closely to this illiterate Siberian peasant, who rapidly acquired the reputation of a debauched and dissolute impostor. From 1910 until his death in 1916, Rasputin was under the constant surveillance of the secret police. Their notebooks dispassionately record, day after day, his life in St Petersburg and Moscow – a lifestyle not known for its special piety. Rasputin frequently drank to excess, habituated brothels, caroused and fought in restaurants.

Despite the evidence, Rasputin was always a welcome guest at Tsarskoe Selo. Nicholas and Alexandra Fyodorovna simply refused to believe the police reports, regarding them as the work of enemies. Rasputin addressed the tsar and tsarina in the familiar “thou” and called them “Papa” and “Mama.”

Rumours of Rasputin’s incredible influence over the empress and their almost physical intimacy eventually spread outside the royal household. Splashed out onto the pages of the popular press, their relationship became known to the general public. The sheltered lifestyle of the imperial couple only added to the rumours. Everything taking place at Tsarskoe Selo was hidden behind a veil of secrecy, fuelling the wildest fantasies. Seeing their places taken by Rasputin inside the imperial palace, the jealous grand dukes and duchesses may also have deliberately stirred up public opinion against the peasant.

Of course, there were not and could not be any intimate relations between Rasputin and the empress. Alix’s attachment to the Siberian moujik was inspired by other reasons. The most common explanation for Rasputin’s hold over the empress is his special role in the fate of the tsarevich. He reputedly had the supernatural ability to ease Alexis’s sufferings. Today, it is difficult to confirm or reject this claim. Whatever the case, Nicky and Alix believed in Rasputin and considered that he alone was able to save their son. According to Anna Vyrubova: “Rasputin had assured the Empress that when the boy was twelve years old he would begin to improve, and that by the time he was a man he would be entirely well. The undeniable fact is that after the age of twelve Alexis did begin very materially to improve. His illnesses became farther and farther apart and before 1917 his appearance had changed marvellously for the better.”

There is another explanation for Rasputin’s hold over Alexandra Fyodorovna. The investigative file kept on the peasant in the Tobolsk diocese from 1906 to 1912 – he was suspected of being a member of the Khlysty, a sect that believed in reaching God through sexual intercourse – reveals that he was a talented psychologist. Rasputin’s followers included many exalted women suffering from all kinds of psychological disturbances. By simply talking to them, he was able to restore their mental composure. In this sense, he was like a modern psychoanalyst.

The empress’s inhibited and hysterical personality required someone who could help her overcome her afflictions. She was convinced that she had found such a person in Rasputin. In their diaries and personal correspondence, both Nicholas and Alexandra refer to him as “our Friend.” On the one hand, this concealed Rasputin’s name from outside eyes. On the other, it underlined his special status in their lives.

Hopelessly removed from the realities of Russian life and throwing herself into Orthodoxy with all the fervour of a convert, Alexandra Fyodorovna regarded Rasputin as the personification of the nation. God had placed her husband on the Russian throne and now, through Rasputin, was protecting him and the people. In this way, the wily peasant managed to convince the couple that, while he lived, the country and the dynasty were safe. Anna Vyrubova wrote: “Rasputin associated his death with great calamities for their majesties.”

The rest of the imperial family was horrified at Rasputin’s growing influence at the court and the lurid tales circulating in society and the press. When the question of Rasputin was raised in the Duma in 1912 and the chairman, Mikhail Rodzianko, prepared an official report for the tsar, the dowager empress summoned the politician to her palace.

Maria Fyodorovna listened to Rodzianko’s detailed report on Rasputin, which concluded that “the presence at the court, in an intimate setting, of such a defiled, dissolute and dirty man” was impermissible. She nevertheless asked him not to raise the matter with the tsar: “Unfortunately, he will not believe you and, what is more, this will deeply depress him. The Emperor is so pure of heart that he does not believe in evil.” When Rodzianko refused to be silent, she asked him: “Have things really gone that far?” He replied: “Your Majesty, this is a question of the dynasty. And we monarchists can be silent no longer.” Finally, Maria Fyodorovna gave Rodzianko her blessing, asking him not to cause her son “too much pain.”

Although Rodzianko divulged the entire contents of his report to Nicholas, he did not achieve any results. Exasperated, Maria Fyodorovna undertook her own attempt to speak to her son. Prince Felix Yussupov told Rodzianko that she had gone to the emperor with the ultimatum “I or Rasputin,” threatening to leave Russia if the peasant remained. For a brief period, Rasputin was obliged to stay away from St Petersburg, but his relationship with the imperial couple did not weaken in the slightest. Similarly, the nationwide condemnation of the tsar and tsarina for associating with him remained as strong as ever.

Maria Fyodorovna described her interview with her son in a letter to Queen Alexandra of England on 27 February/11 March 1912: “I am sending this letter with the Russian military attaché and, as this is a reliable communication channel, I shall allow myself to tell you a little bit about things that are bothering and depressing me. You probably remember that, several years ago, A[licky] got into the bad habit of secretly meeting with a simple peasant, who prayed with her and is her confessor and comforter, as she is convinced that he is a saint. Up until now, this was only whispered about in corners, but in spring people began to speak openly and even write about it in the newspapers, true, without giving her name, but reporting that he belongs to some immoral sect, that he is a terrible person, etc. The newspapers were immediately fined and forbidden, which was the greatest stupidity, for unfortunately we have freedom of the press and no one has the right to close them down any more. They then began to talk seriously about it and the Duma asked the minister a tactless question, demanding that he explain what sort of a person this is, about whom no one dares speak. One bishop was even expelled from the Synod for stating his opinion of him. A terribly unpleasant story, which is already known to the whole country, and everyone attempts to add to it, in order to present the picture in an even more disadvantageous light.

“Many dutiful people have come and begged me to speak [with Nicholas], in order to save the dynasty. I believe, true, that the story is greatly exaggerated, but naturally do not know what they are talking about further down the line. They claim, however, that the situation right now is even worse than before the revolution. You understand, of course, although I maintain my composure, how all these conversations torment me, as a result of which I have lost sleep and my appetite. And so, one fine day, I finally made up my mind and gave notice that I was coming to Tsarskoe for tea, in order to clear my conscience at least a little. Before leaving, I prayed to God and asked for His help, to inspire my words and to ease my mind, for it is so difficult to speak of something about which they have never confided to me.

“At first, we drank tea with the children, and everyone was so nice and happy that I felt sorry for them, having to spoil their mood. After six had struck, I asked Nicky if I could talk to him alone. The children left and I immediately said that it was a very alarming thing and that people were even saying that this story contained danger for N[icky] and the dynasty. After it found its way into the newspapers, minds became so worked up against this personality, who was unknown to me, that the only way to calm them down was to banish this person. As a result, it might be possible to avoid the necessity of giving an official answer in the Duma and an explanation to the enquiry, which might lead to a real scandal.

“At this point, she jumped up from the couch and announced that this was the greatest stupidity, for everyone would think as if we gave in, and one must not distance such a unique person from oneself or allow him to fall. Poor Nicky had such a serious and unperturbed appearance. He himself probably thinks the exact same as we do, but she, unfortunately, is uncommonly stubborn and believes that everyone is wrong, except for herself. Moreover, she has unbelievable power over him, so that he has to perform all her wishes. But what amazes me most if all is that she, living solely in order to save her soul, is completely lacking in Christian humility and exudes only hatred and animosity towards everyone. You cannot imagine how she expressed herself: that is all the disgusting society who lies and invents these horrid things and the ministers are all cowards! I was horrified, but still kept calm, and at the end, when our conversation was over and I got up to go, she was so friendly and cordial to me. She even thanked me and said: I am so glad we had it out at last, and even kissed my hand, etwas noch nie dagewesenes [which had never happened before]. So I was touched and felt a sense alleviation and thanked the Lord, who had indeed helped me, if the meeting had gone so well and finished on such a cordial and friendly note. Thank God. If only this might help, if only Nicky’s eyes might be opened. Poor thing, I am ready to give up my own life, if only to help him.

“That thing really did leave after this, but the newspapers claim he will soon return, and has gone to the Crimea, but this is a lie, for Nicky promised me not to let him go there. But the whole effect of his departure is spoilt by this phrase that he will return. I believe that this subject has hypnotised her, for she places such an unhealthily exalted and unlimited trust in him. Moreover, she is firmly convinced that misfortune will overcome all who go against him, and that while he is near her, all will be well. That is probably what he has bewitched her with. She is said to be afraid that, in his absence, something might happen to her son. But that is awful, I cannot grasp how anyone can believe like that in a person, as if he were God! I do not think that we have such a right, it is an outright sin. Poor Ella wrote an emotional letter to Xenia about this. She suffers more than most, because it involves her sister, and she cannot do anything. On the contrary, after they talked, relations between them grew even worse. How terrible that A[licky] has immersed herself in these strange and exalted things. She believes, she is sure, that this is religion, but this, unfortunately, is not the case at all. This is only delusion and deception.”

The dowager empress was haunted by the premonition of an approaching tragedy. In January 1914, she held a meeting with Vladimir Kokovtsov, the minister of finance. After a long pause, she said: “You must understand my fears for the future. My daughter-in-law does not like me; she thinks that I am jealous of her power. She does not perceive that my one aspiration is to see my son happy. Yet I see that we are nearing some catastrophe and the Tsar listens to no one but flatterers, not perceiving or even suspecting what goes on all around him. I myself feel it more by instinct, yet am unable to clearly visualise, what it is that awaits us... My poor daughter-in-law does not perceive that she is ruining both the dynasty and herself. She sincerely believes in the holiness of an adventurer and we are powerless to ward off the misfortune which is sure to come.”

The scandal around Rasputin erupted with fresh vigour when the First World War broke out in summer 1914. Wild rumours abounded that he was against the war and that he and the empress were German spies. The personal antagonism felt towards Alexandra Fyodorovna in the Romanov family began to assume more open forms. Relations became particularly strained after Nicholas – despite the advice of his ministers and the pleas of his mother and closest relatives, but strongly supported by Alexandra Fyodorovna – decided to take personal command of the Russian army.

Convinced that this was Rasputin’s doing, Maria Fyodorovna was in despair. For almost two hours, she pleaded with her son in the gardens of Yelagin Palace, imploring him to abandon the idea of taking over as commander-in-chief. The dowager empress wrote in her diary on 8/21 August 1915: “The evil spirit G(rigory) has returned and ?[licky] wants Nicky to take over as commander-in-chief, in place of Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich. One must be mad to want that!” Four days later, she returned to the same theme: “Nicky came with his four daughters. He himself began by saying that he was taking personal command instead of Nikolasha. I was so horrified that I almost had a fit, and told him that this would be a great mistake. I begged him not to do it, especially now, when everything is going badly for us, adding that if he does this, everyone will say that it is on Rasputin’s orders. I think that made an impression on him, as he blushed deeply. He does not understand at all what danger and misfortune this might bring to us and the whole country.”

In September 1915, Nicholas left Petrograd and moved with Alexis to army headquarters. Anna Vyrubova recalled: “The Grand Dukes and the commanding officers were, as a matter of course, invited each day to lunch with the Emperor, but with insolence and audacity hitherto unheard of, many of the Emperor’s near kinsmen declined these invitations. They gave the most trivial and transparent excuses for their absence – headaches, fatigue, previous engagements, alleged duties… I chanced to overhear a conversation among officers of the foreign military missions, in which the most slanderous words against Her Majesty were uttered. ‘She has come again, it appears,’ said one of these men, ‘to see her husband and give him the latest orders of Rasputin.’”

After Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, the Provisional Government formed a special commission to investigate the “criminal actions” of the tsarist regime. They were particularly interested in the role and influence of Rasputin. Although the commission never completed its work, much of the evidence was later published. Vladimir Rudnev wrote about Rasputin: “One of the most valuable sources throwing light on Rasputin’s personality is the journal of the police agents who kept him under secret surveillance... Rasputin’s love affairs were confined to nocturnal orgies with girls of immoral character, cabaret singers and several of his female petitioners... No evidence was found to confirm his proximity to members of the upper class.”

The problem was not just the presence of Rasputin in the royal chambers, which had seen many colourful people throughout the three-hundred-year history of the Romanov dynasty. What angered the tsar’s relatives and other members of the court was the way in which he interfered in the running of the government, particularly the appointment and dismissal of ministers. He was not simply disliked; he was loathed. Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, commander-in-chief of the Russian army, promised to hang him if he visited headquarters during the First World War. And it was Nikolai’s wife, Anastasia, who had first introduced Nicholas and Alexandra to Rasputin.

Finally, two close relatives of the tsar – Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and Prince Felix Yussupov – decided to kill Rasputin. On the night of 16/17 December 1916, he was lured to the Yussupov Palace on the River Moika and murdered in the basement. While news of Rasputin’s demise evoked widespread celebration throughout the country, this joy was short-lived. His death was merely the first in a long line of mass murders. Learning of his death, Maria Fyodorovna said prophetically: “Thank God, Rasputin has been cleared out of the way. But now even greater calamities await us.”

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