Grigori Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” has had his name or his story make pop culture appearances everywhere from an animated movie called Anastasia to a popular song called “Rasputin” by Boney M.
Surprisingly little is known about him, considering he became such a famous (or infamous) figure in Russia during Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Conflicting accounts and memoirs are accounted to everything from his childhood to his death. He was born a peasant, and following the deaths of two of his siblings and penance for theft, turned him to a religious life, specifically one of Eastern Orthodoxy.
As a travelling mystic and due to his introduction by Montenegrin princesses Milica and Anastasia (not to be confused with Anastasia of the Russian Romanov family), the tsarina Alexandra took an interest in Rasputin and his supposed ability to heal her hemophiliac son, Alexei.
Mystics such as Rasputin were expected to heal through prayer, and in a hotly contested issue, Alexei indeed felt better and recovered from a painful physical injury the day after Rasputin’s visit. Some suggest the man used hypnosis, which has been known to distract patients from pain, while others suggest leeches. In fact, letters of Rasputin’s do demonstrate a basic knowledge of bedside manner such as when to simply let Alexei rest.
Tsarina Alexandra was heavily influenced by Rasputin, who she thought of as a holy man of God, and he thus became quite close to the political dealings of the tsar. His personal image was low amongst money for his alcoholism and sexual promiscuity. Tsar Nicholas II, fearing scandal, had Rasputin investigated, but Nicholas II ended up not eradicating the man and instead firing his minister of interior for insufficient press censorship.
At Rasputin’s suggestion, Nicholas II became more involved in World War I and took charge. He moved to the front lines and left his wife in charge at the capital, and by extension Rasputin saw a certain amount of power over Russia. He convinced Tsarina Alexandra to help put some of his friends in high positions, and appeared to support Russia’s withdrawal from World War I (with what might have merely been concern over the number of casualties.) But the people, outraged at Rasputin’s influence and supposedly immoral ways as well as suspecting the German born Alexandra of being a spy wished to get rid of Rasputin.
But perhaps the most contested part of Rasputin’s life was his death. In 1914, he survived a stabbing assassination attempt. In 1916, his real death came at the hands of Prince Felix Yusupov and a group of other nobles. The legend that survives to this day first claims that the nobles called him out and served him cake and wine laced with cyanide, enough to kill 5 men, but Rasputin appeared unaffected. Rasputin’s daughter and some modern historians deny this, the former claiming Rasputin avoided sugar and that she doubted he had ever been poisoned, and the latter claiming no poison was found in his system. However, the assassins’ accounts, a theory of Rasputin building immunity to poison, and the initial autopsy suggest that Rasputin did ingest cyanide. Attempting to finish the job, Yusupov shot Rasputin with a revolver and the group left. However, Yusupov supposedly returned to retrieve a jacket and was lunged at by the bleeding Rasputin. Rasputin was shot thrice more, and still breathing, was thrown into the half-frozen Neva River. The autopsy suggests he died by drowning and the water in his lungs suggests he was still alive when thrown in the water.
The man’s life is something of an enigma, but he found many enemies in those who thought him immoral and he enjoyed a lofty position in the Romanov’s rule during the time of his employment by Tsarina Alexandra. However this man lived and died, he will be remembered for a long time yet.
Sources: Wikipedia, History 1900s, Alexander Palace.org, First World War.com