Everyone has heard of Rasputin. Well perhaps not if you are a recent product of the American public school system. Rasputin has been dead now about a century and six months or so. Not exactly ancient history. He died the year my dad was born and about 25 years before Toritto came upon the scene. I don’t consider it ancient history.
Gregori Yefinovitch Rasputin, son of a Russian peasant was born in Siberia on January 16, 1869. His father Yefim was described as a typical Russian peasant – “chunky, unkempt and stooped.”
Like many other peasant families of the time Rasputin had no surname. He was given the name Rasputin by his neighbors; it means “the dissolute.”
Gegori attended school for a while but it is said he never learned to read or write. He went to nearby monasteries with his parents as a child and claimed he wanted to become a monk. As he grew older however his personality embodied contrasting and divergent strains – “the religious seeker and debauched hell raiser.”
There is something vaguely unsatisfactory about surviving photos of Rasputin. They usually depict a sturdy man of medium height, wearing a peasant blouse, baggy trousers and sturdy boots. He has long, brown not very well combed hair parted in the, middle, unkempt beard and is staring hypnotically at the camera. His eyes appear enormous and contemporaries describe them of being a piercing, steely blue.
“He appears to be a genuine rascal going out of his way to look like one.”
Historians evaluating his contribution to the fall of Tsarism have labeled him a charlatan, drunkard, blasphemer, a debauchee. He was lecherous. He stank “like a rancid goat” and had a scar on his scalp that Trotsky linked with suspected horse stealing. He did wash as little as possible during his early career.
Notwithstanding whether contemporaries supported or opposed the autocracy the evidence that he was actually a scoundrel is almost overwhelming. All of this however leaves a mistaken impression about the nature of his villainy.
The boorishness and debauchery undoubtedly came naturally; but the peasant smock and the matted hair were props he used deliberately to build up his image. At the beginning Rasputin was a kind of back woods revivalist, not as an evangelist but a soothsayer and healer. The calling was an ancient one overlaid with a rich patina of tradition.
Practicing it first required one spend a term of preparation as a strannik – a pious hobo. After gaining sufficient sanctity in travels to holy places one might eventually gain recognition as a starets – a holy man and lay religious teacher.
But Rasputin was more than that; he wasn’t just a lay preacher dabbling in politics. He was a politician. And like his religiosity, his politics was unorthodox, unofficial and despite the exotic trimmings it conformed to a pattern we can recognize.
His business was power, the acquisition of power and its manipulation. The mysticism he exploited to the fullest was a comparatively modern one. He was to embody the unspoiled Russian peasant – the muzik – glorified by Tolstoy. He was the Russian offshoot of the “noble savage”-the “ideological cousin of all those unwashed masses in whose name homespun demagogues from every land have labored to build up the widespread twentieth confusion between folksiness and democracy.”
Rasputin was the Tsarist version of the common man and he made sure he looked and acted the part. He scratched in public for the same reason that Khrushchev took off his shoe. He moved from lout to holy man, from mystic to political boss.
Gregory made the trip to the holy land twice and traveled all over Russia praying at the holiest of shrines. Not for the lecherous Rasputin was a monks life however. As a starets he preached that one must have a humble heart and a man who repents has the humblest of hearts. Unsaid was that one must be a sinner in order to repent. The influence of Klysti, an illegal and heretical sect of erotic flagellants which flourished underground in Rasputin’s part of Siberia seems apparent in his teachings but he managed to camouflage it sufficiently to avoid prosecution or anathema.
He arrived in St. Petersburg in 1903 and set himself up as a reformed drunk and a rake. He had a wife and 3 children but left them far behind in Siberia. He was gaunt and ascetic from his wanderings. His phenomenal filth, verminous rags and burning eyes attested to the sincerity of his repentance.
A couple of religious mystics with connections to the salonsof the capital brought him to the attention of Grand Duchess Militsa, a noted collector of seers, mediums and similar para-ecclesiasticals. His healing prowess was already established – especially with the female patients – as well as his ability to see the future. He predicted the Tsarina would bear a son in 1904 after bearing only girls. It was probably the Grand Duchess who arranged the introduction of Rasputin to the Tsar and Tsarina.
The imperial couple and their children lived a sheltered, in-grown family life but the tragic obsession with the health of the little Tsarevitch along with their ignorance and superstition made them abnormally vulnerable to quackery in pious dress. The Tsarrina was convinced that Rasputin held the power to stop her son’s bleeding attacks and thus preserve his life. Any doubt she had vanished in 1912 when her son who was near death rallied and survived after she received a telegram from Rasputin promising that all would be well.
The Empress and her children with Rasputin and the family nurse – 1908
How could he do this? It has been suggested that Rasputin, like many other charlatans, had extraordinary tranquilizing powers. Many of the young boy’s symptoms might have been aggravated by emotional stress caused by hovering parental anxiety. I have read another account where is was noted that Rasputin would no longer permit the child to be given aspirin which was considered a miracle drug at the time. It is, of course, a blood thinner which would only exacerbate bleeding.
The Tsarina of course believed it was a miracle and only saints are endowed with miraculous power. From that moment on Rasputin was her closest advisor and a member of the entourage – And she was the closest to the Tsar.
“The Tsarina was completely convinced by the supernatural power of Rasputin. In their despair at the inability of orthodox medicine to overcome or alleviate the disease, the imperial couple turned with relief to Rasputin… She attached physical power to objects handled by Rasputin. She sent Rasputin’s stick and comb to the tsar so that he might benefit from Grigori’s vigour when attending ministerial councils.”
The Tsarina became very dependent on Rasputin. One occasion, when he had to spend time outside St. Petersburg, she wrote: “How distraught I am without you. My soul is only at peace, I only rest, when you, my teacher, are seated beside me and I kiss your hands and lean my head on your blessed shoulders… Then I only have one wish: to sleep for centuries on your shoulders, in the embraces.” The Russian aristocracy began to wonder who exactly was ruling the country – and whether or not the Empress had been debauched.
Ariadna Tykovna, wife of the British journalist Harold Williams wrote: “Throughout Russia, both at the front and at home, rumor grew ever louder concerning the pernicious influence exercised by the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, at whose side rose the sinister figure of Gregory Rasputin. This charlatan and hypnotist had wormed himself into the Tsar’s palace and gradually acquired a limitless power over the hysterical Empress, and through her over the Sovereign. Rasputin’s proximity to the Tsar’s family proved fatal to the dynasty, for no political criticism can harm the prestige of Tsars so effectually as the personal weakness, vice, or debasement of the members of a royal house.”
After the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, the Tsar made it clear that Russia would come to the aid of their Slavic, Orthodox brethren in Serbia. The mobilization of Russian forces was the first step in the outbreak of war for which Russia was ill prepared.
“By December, 1914, the Russian Army had 6,553,000 men. However, they only had 4,652,000 rifles. Untrained troops were ordered into battle without adequate arms or ammunition. “Untrained troops were ordered into battle without adequate arms or ammunition. And because the Russian Army had about one surgeon for every 10,000 men, many wounded of its soldiers died from wounds that would have been treated on the Western Front. With medical staff spread out across a 500 mile front, the likelihood of any Russian soldier receiving any medical treatment was close to zero“.
After the disaster at Tannenberg a the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Nicholas II took personal command of the army and moved to his headquarters on the Eastern Front leaving the Empress to run domestic policy. With Rasputin by her side she began dismissing Ministers right and left as “fools and idiots.” The Empress was now the de-facto ruler of Russia.
And she was a German Princess and Rasputin was also opposed to the war.
Nicholas II dancing to Rasputin’s tune – a Russian cartoon of the day,
Revolution was in the air. On the left, the Social Democrats, Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks plotted the elimination of the monarchy. On the right, were those who sought to save monarchy either as it was or as a constitutional monarchy, eliminating autocracy. And among the aristocracy there werr those who sought the elimination of Rasputin and, if necessary, the Tsar’s German wife.
Enter Prince Felix Yusupov and British Intelligence – MI5.
End of Part I