Unruly Figures
Unruly Figures
#36: Rasputin

#36: Rasputin

Russia's greatest love machine?

Hello folks,

First of all, Happy Halloween! 👻 Today I have the creepy and troubling tale of Grigori Rasputin, mystic, accused lover of the Russian queen, sexual deviant, and all-around bad guy.

🎙️ Transcript

Hey everyone, welcome to Unruly Figures, the podcast that celebrates history’s greatest rule-breakers. I’m your host, Valorie Clark, and today I’m covering Rasputin.

🎶Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine…🎵

That’s the one. He’s remembered as the villain in Russia’s history. The mystic and mad monk who ruined the Romanovs and caused the downfall of the Russian monarchy. He drank, did drugs, attacked women, and was impossible to kill.

Or was he? The popular story of Rasputin is, well, terrifying—perfect Halloween fodder. But is he all he was trumped up to be? Or is there more to the story? Today we’re going to take a good hard look at the story of the man who supposedly seduced the Russian queen.

But before we jump into Rasputin’s life and how he became one of the most infamous historical figures maybe ever, I first have to thank all the paying subscribers on Substack who help me make this podcast possible. Y’all are the best and this podcast wouldn’t still be going without you! If you like this show and want more of it, please become a paying subscriber over on Substack! When you upgrade, you’ll get access to exclusive content, merch, and behind-the-scenes updates on the upcoming Unruly Figures book. When you’re ready to do that, head over to unrulyfigures.substack.com.

Also, I want to put a trigger warning right up front. Rasputin’s story contains a lot of violence and discussion of sexual assault as well as some victim blaming, so just be aware. I will try to note when these things get mentioned, but they are sort of repeating themes here, so if you’re not in the right headspace for that, this might not be the episode for you right now.

Okay, let’s hop in.

The popular version of Rasputin’s life reads like a Guillermo del Toro version of a fairytale: a peasant with little to no education from the wilds of Siberia goes on a religious quest that takes him all the way into the bosom of the royal family. He saves the life of the only prince of the land, bringing the tsar and tsaritsa fully under his power, terribly influencing the kingdom toward ruin. He revealed himself to be the very devil incarnate, a wicked brute who took more the more he was given, never satisfied with what he had. Then, just as people started to turn against him, he foretold his death, saying that if anything should happen to him, then the tsar would lose his throne, a prophecy that ended up coming true when he was brutally murdered, though it would take a dozen attempts to do so.

It’s a creepy tale any way you spin it. And it has some basis in reality, but not much.

So let’s really crack into this. For this episode, I’m relying a lot on Douglas Smith’s incredible biography of Rasputin, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. The book is over 600 pages, with another 200 pages of images and citations, so there is simply no way I can fit all of it in here. If you are interested in learning more about Rasputin—and there’s so much to learn—I really recommend picking up this biography.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born in Pokrovskoe, Siberia on January 9, 1869, and right away we run into a little controversy—both with his name and the date. The date is easiest to explain: before February 1918, the Russian government used the Julian calendar, but in 1918 switched over to the Gregorian calendar, which the rest of Europe was using already and we still use today. This causes a bit of a discrepancy in dates throughout this story. I don’t think we’ll run into it much in this episode, but it’s worth noting right up top because you might have also seen his birthday notated as January 21. January 9th is the Julian calendar date, and January 21 the Gregorian calendar.

So he grew up in Pokrovskoe, east of the Ural mountains and very separated from Moscow and St. Petersburg. For a little context, the Ural mountains represent this interesting divide in Russia at this time. On Rasputin’s side, in Siberia, serfdom was already over. The people there were free, which drew a lot of folks out to Siberia—the number of peasant households in Siberia grew 50% between 1678 and 1710!1 This possibly included Rasputin’s family, who may have moved out there as early as 1643.2

I should say that people in Siberia were more like free-adjacent. Men were very free, but women could still be traded like fur or liquor, and the military governors were, quote, “venal, corrupt, and violent.”3 In addition to the harsh weather conditions, it could be a violent life.

This brings us to the name Rasputin, which is often the subject of wild speculation and controversy as well. People often claim that the surname comes from the word “rasputnik,” which means something like “reprobate” or “ne’er-do-well.”4 It would be the equivalent of having your last name be Badman, John Badman. This reinforces the idea that Siberia is Russia’s Wild West or their version of an Australian colony where criminals are sent. And both of those things are true—Russians at the time saw Siberia as something akin to a more lawless and primitive place, and criminals were exiled there—but I think that interpretation gets tacked onto Rasputin right at the outset, and it’s just not an accurate portrayal.

During his lifetime, newspapers ran allegations that Rasputin was not his family name but actually a nickname given to him because he was a youthful criminal, which is not true. It had been with the family for at least 8 generations before reaching Grigori.5 If it had been assigned to a far-flung ancestor as a character assessment, then that must have been a very common practice because a lot of people in Siberia at the time had it. I feel like the equivalent today would be Fisher—lots of us probably have met at least one person with the last name Fisher, at least here in the US, but it doesn’t mean that they’re a fisherman or recently descended from one.

That right there sort of sets the pattern for Rasputin’s biography. There’s the truth of the matter, the story the press ran in the early 20th century, and then the myth that has survived and trickled down to us a hundred years later.

In addition to these suggestions of criminality, also tacked onto his birth are other upper-class Russian understandings of what people from Siberia are supposedly like. So many tales come out of Siberia, of parents eating their children and men with eyes on their chests, all living in this horrible place where snot trickling from your nose might freeze fast enough to trap you in place, making you freeze to death.6 Russia was full of these sorts of strange myths that made people nervous.

The truth is that we don’t know much about Rasputin’s early life. In fact, Douglas Smith calls the first thirty years of his life, quote, “a black hole about which we know almost nothing.”7 And that has made it really easy for people to make up stories to fill in the blanks. For example, a common story even during his lifetime was that Rasputin was a horse thief in his youth, which was a particularly serious offense at the time. Smith shows us, however, that many of these stories showed up as he began to gain power in Russia; there is no evidence of Rasputin being brought up on criminal charges as a youth.8

What we do now is that he remained illiterate into his early adulthood. For peasants in Siberia, this was very usual—the Siberian literacy rate was only about 4% in 1900 and only 20% nationally.9 He liked to drink and had other small vices, and as we’ll see those things come and go.

Rasputin might have grown up an only child. His parents Yefim and Anna were very unlucky—between 1863 and 1867, Anna gave birth to four children, all of whom died within a few months.10 After Grigori, she had a couple more children who also died, and then possibly a ninth baby, a girl named Feodosiya, who survived to adulthood. We think she is Grigori’s sister; at least in 1895 he was the witness at her wedding, and soon after that he became the godfather to her two children. Despite all this tragedy, the myth of Rasputin still manages to get these facts wrong—people claim he had a brother who drowned and, quote, “in whose death Rasputin foresaw his own demise.”11 That’s completely false.

One of the most surprising facts about Rasputin was that he himself was married. In 1886 he met a girl named Praskovya Dubrovina, who was a few years older than him. They courted for a few months, and then married in February 1887; he was just 18 years old.12

Little is known about Praskovya, probably because she didn’t fit in with the mad monk narrative. She was dutiful, loyal, sweet. She remained devoted to him for the rest of his life, always keeping a home in Pokrovskoe for him to return to. They had seven children together, though most of them died young. Their son Dmitry was the first to live to adulthood, followed by Matryona—today better known as Maria—and Varvara. In fact, Rasputin has descendants still alive today, some of whom apparently live in Los Angeles.

Their life was probably typical at this point. Rasputin and his wife and kids continued living with Rasputin’s parents, working the farm and attending church. So we’re going to skip ahead to 1897, when he was 28 years old and has something of a crisis. By the average lifespan of Russian peasantry at the time, you could arguably call it a midlife crisis, but it was really focused on religion.

At this point, he goes on a pilgrimage. He had apparently had a dream that St. Simeon of Verkhoturye appeared before him and said, “Give all that up and become a new man, and I will exalt you.”13 The “all that” is a reference to his drinking, mostly, but possibly also some womanizing. Some people claim that he went on a pilgrimage to cleanse himself of his sins, which was something that priests prescribed to people as punishment in the late Medieval Era, but we don’t have evidence that Rasputin was ordered by someone to go; it seems he decided to himself.

He returned home an apparently changed man, according to Maria, though she had not actually been born yet when this all began.14 According to her, however, after his first pilgrimage, he was out in the fields and the Virgin Mary appeared to him, directing him to wander more and become a holy seeker. “I am weeping for the sins of mankind, Grigory. Go, wander, and cleanse the people of their sins,”15 she supposedly told him.

So Rasputin listens and decides to become a strannik, a religious pilgrim who wanders about, often in fetters, begging for food and preaching from their own personal experience of Christianity, not necessarily the Bible. It’s all very Tolstoy, really. And it was surprisingly common in Russia at this time as a response to a schism within the Russian Orthodox Church. I’m not going to get into it, because it’s not totally relevant, but these holy wanderers undertaking pilgrimages were understood to be a legitimate religious sect and highly respected by Russians, though the official church wasn’t really loving them as much. Some estimates place the number at a million such pilgrims in 1900, quote, “forever wandering from one holy place to the next in search of salvation and enlightenment.”16

So Rasputin arrived at Verkhoturye, in the Ural Mountains, which was considered one of the holiest places in Russia, where many starets, that is elders, lived in small huts and mentored younger religious seekers. He learns from Makary, one of the most revered holy men of their day, and was “profoundly moved” by him.17 He had memorized the Bible, and his acolytes believed that he was the very personification of Jesus’s teachings. Rasputin spent months at the monastery, but did eventually return home. Later he would say that, quote, “the vice” had infected the Verkhoturye, probably referring to same-sex intercourse among the monks, whether forced or consensual.18 He would also later imply that he found monastic life coercive, and that, quote,”the only true path as a Christian was to seek salvation in the world,” as opposed to permanently withdrawing from it.19

I want to point out that this religious seeking must be sincere, because why else do it? The life of a strannik is hard—he’s wandering around Siberia in chains and rags, probably without shoes but walking everywhere. There’s no reason for him to do it if he doesn’t mean it! He is just an anonymous peasant at this point, with no promise that going on a pilgrimage is going to make him gain anything worldly, right?

Rasputin continued his pilgrimages and wanderings, some of which took him away from his home and his family for months or even years at a time. Despite this, he maintained a loving relationship with his children, who he both played with and parented but also guided in their religious learnings. He taught them that god was love and in all things.

In 1907, however, he gave up wearing the fetters that were common to stranniki, telling a Father Alexander Yurevsky that, quote, “It is not good to wear them: You start to think only about yourself, that you are a holy man. And so I took them off and began to wear one shirt for an entire year without taking it off. That is a better way to humble oneself.”20 We see that even though he’d never been taught to read, he’d clearly been taught to think critically at some point. And this strain of rebelliousness, even when it’s relatively minor, runs through his life.

These travels allowed him to meet all levels of Russian social life. Over time, he developed a deep knowledge of human psychology as well as a talent for reading people; later people would think that he could read minds because he became so attuned to what was bothering someone. Though he learned to read during these travels, his early life without reading Scripture meant that in his own talk about God, he was, quote, “unlike the priests with their book learning. His language was direct, personal, unmistakably alive, and earthy, filled with references to daily life and the beauty of the natural world.”21 Which of course made him a lot more relatable, and he eventually began to collect acolytes of his own. After several years of this, the people of Pokrovskoe saw him largely as a “kindhearted person and a man of God,” an interpretation that stuck in his hometown long after people started to question his motivations and invent stories about him.22

But despite this, his popularity started to be his downfall. People started to whisper that he was wandering with women, which immediately implied all manner of sexual immorality and scandal.23 And the local priest of the church in his hometown, Father Ostroumov, got so upset over Rasputin’s popularity compared to his, that he tried to break up Rasputin’s circle. But he was too late, the news of this remarkable, charismatic starets—for Rasputin officially was an elder himself—began to spread across Russia.

Given how his popularity grew, you’d think he was proposing some kind of radical shift in Christianity. But Rasputin’s theology was rather standard, really. It was anything you would have been taught in kindergarten—be nice to people, everyone is good, et cetera. He told people to pray. But he wasn’t telling people to go off to monasteries unless that’s what they felt called to do; in fact, there’s at least one record in Smith’s biography of Rasputin talking someone out of a life shut away in religious service.

Tracing how Rasputin transitioned from popular religious figure in Siberia to the religious advisor of the tsar and tsaritsa requires quite a bit of backtracking. So let’s rewind to 1884, when Nicholas Alexandrovich, the heir to the Russian throne, fell in love with Princess Alix on sight. She was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. Alix resisted Nicholas’s romantic advances at first, insisting that she would not give up her devout Lutheran beliefs for him. She evidently changed her mind, first taking holy communion in the Russian Orthodox Church and then marrying Nicholas—who was the fresh young Tsar of Russia by then—in November 1894.

They were a happy couple, but their marriage was fraught with tension. Neither of them was particularly adept at ruling. Nicholas struggled with self-doubt about his ability to rule, meaning he often hesitated to act at key moments or conversely was too impulsive and rash; Alexandra, as she’d been re-christened, always struggled to understand why, as the Empress of Russia, she couldn’t be afforded more privacy in her life. By some accounts, she was very shy and anxious, but it came off as haughty, which made people even more prone to talking about her, which made her more shy and anxious—it was a vicious cycle.24 Unfortunately, she wanted a quiet life, something that still is not very available to rulers of large nations, and she raged against the forces that prevented that for basically the rest of her life. In some ways, Alexandra and Nicholas perceived themselves as beset by attackers, them against the world.

Russia at the end of the 19th century was industrializing at a breakneck pace, and traditions of government were sort of buckling under the strain of this changing world.25 Adding fuel to the fire, Alexandra gave birth to four daughters in a row—Olga, Tatyana, Maria, and Anastasia—which some people interpreted as weakening the monarchy further. Their argument for their existence and status above the rest of Russia was that they were ordained by God to rule over Russia, but the lack of a male heir was calling this into question a bit. If God wanted the Romanovs to rule, why wouldn’t He give them a son to continue their rule?

In 1905, a revolution transformed Russia from an absolutist monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, establishing an elected legislative body called a Duma. The revolutionaries had wanted to go further, trying to turn the country into a democracy, but were mostly arrested before they were able to.26 It also established freedom of the press, which we will see is key in here.

Nicholas was devastated by these reforms. The Romanov family had been in charge of Russia for nearly 300 years and they had always been extreme autocrats. His father had not given into reformers, and insisted that a constitutional monarchy would lead to “degeneracy.”27 and Nicholas was a little humiliated over his inability to continue on the family tradition.

Meanwhile, many people in Russia got caught up in the sweep of Spiritualism that had taken Europe and North America by storm as well. The wave of occultism and obsession with the supernatural was a symptom of the eroding trust in Christian religious domination, and it was showing up in almost all the old Christian nations at this time. In Russia, this occultism blended with Christian hermeticism and morphed into a particularly morbid strain of religious anarchy, with sects dedicated to self-flagellation and self-injury, like cutting off the sexual organs and beating oneself in public. These in particular were called khlysts, and keep them in mind because we’re going to come back to them. But basically, everyone starts believing in so-called “dark forces” like demons, as well as religious conspiracies, especially anti-Semitic ones that featured Jewish people trying to destroy Russia. This resulted in Jewish people being forced into pogroms, which I discussed in the Polly Adler episode.

The elite people of Russia weren’t really participating in a lot of these sects—and that S-E-C-T-S, not sex—but they were aware of them and seemingly fascinated by them. But they perceived them as being a thing that happened in Siberia, that strange land of strange people.

But that did mean that when Rasputin finally made it over the Urals and into St. Petersburg, where he began slowly climbing up the social ranks to meet with upper-class people, they were primed to think that this strange starets with his intense gaze was maybe into some stranger things than he initially let on.

Adding intrigue and danger to the story, the two women credited with introducing Rasputin to the royal family are remembered variously as The Montenegrin Spiders, The Black Souls, The Black Crows, and The Black Princesses, among other things.28 If you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a tinge of the occult and demonic influence to them already. They were the daughters of the king of Montenegro, which is where the “Black” in their epithets comes from—Montenegro means Black Mountain. They both had been educated in Moscow and later married into the Romanov family. They became obsessed with the supernatural, mysticism, and the occult; the older one, Militsa, even earned a “Doctor of Hermeticism” from the Advanced School of Hermetic Sciences in Paris, created by Gérard Encausse as part of the Martinist Order, which is seemingly still going! Militsa became a very close friend of the tsaritsa, who seemingly hung on her every word like she was a prophetess herself.29

Encausse, better known as Papus, was a frequent guest of the Romanov family. He established a Martinist Order Lodge in Petersburg, and some think that Tsar Nicholas was a member.30 During the 1905 Revolution, he apparently even held a séance at court, where Tsar Alexander III, Nicholas’s father, was summoned to buck up his son’s spirits. Papus also swore to do everything he could, mystically, to prop up the monarchy in Russia but warned Nicholas that the power would only last while Papus was alive. Interestingly, Papus died in October 1916 and the dynasty collapsed a mere four months later. As we’ll see, people kept giving Nicholas dire warnings like this, and a few of them were bound to be right.

Another occultist leader who became close to the royal family around this time was Monsieur Philippe, a French “sage” who took Russian high society by storm.31 He was born in Savoy in an impoverished family and had received a bit of medical education before becoming a mystical healer, setting people up with cures through words alone. The royal couple met him in March 1901. Nicholas became especially drawn to Philippe and would meet with him for hours. He and Alexandra both were often, quote, “rushing through their official commitments so as to have as much time with [Philippe] as possible.”32

Now, Alexandra’s desperation for a son makes her particularly susceptible to someone like Philippe who is promising to quote-unquote “heal” her through words alone. He promised her that her next pregnancy would be a boy, and sure enough in late spring 1902 Alexandra showed signs that she was pregnant. And everyone was overjoyed…at first. But when she stopped getting any bigger, they finally consulted an actual gynecologist, who found that Alexandra was not pregnant at all. The palace quickly put out a statement that she’d had a miscarriage to hush it all up and save face, but most people believe that Alexandra experienced pseudocyesis, which used to be rudely called a hysterical pregnancy.33

Tsaritsa Alexandra Fyodorovna (Alix of Hesse), seated. Taken by Boasson and Eggler. Source.

At this point, it becomes clear that the extended Romanov family finds their interest in the occult troubling. Nicholas’s mother and sister, Xenia, were constantly trying to show the rulers that men like Monsieur Philippe were charlatans, and they hoped that after the false pregnancy, they would begin to see reason. But no luck—the more they pushed Nicholas to disavow Philippe, the more he hung onto him. Eventually how reliant he was on this French mystic made it out into the press—the Russian journal Liberation ran a story about how Nicholas refused to make a decision without consulting Philippe. The journal’s claim that the country’s foreign and domestic policy were both now in the hands of an unknown and untrustworthy Frenchman became an enormous scandal, and even though Liberation was banned in Russia, it found its way in.

Finally, the couple gave in to the pressure and sent Philippe away. But before he went, he promised them that a new friend to replace him would arrive soon. He even, quote, “fell into a trance and experienced a prophecy” telling Alexandra that if she sought the intercession of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the angel would give her a son.34 Now, if you thought that the simple fact that there was no such saint in the Russian Orthodox Church would be enough to snap Alexandra out of it, you would be wrong. Because there was a starets by the name Seraphim who had lived in poverty in a monastery in Sarov. He had been a holy man, but had not been sanctified, which either was a very lucky coincidence for Philippe or was perfectly set up to reinforce her distance from the official church and her trust in alternative religious authorities.

Alexandra and Nicholas, taking Philippe’s prophecy seriously, decided in July 1903 to force through the sanctification of Seraphim, which infuriated the Holy Synod, the church’s governing body that normally decides who becomes a saint and who doesn’t.35 If you’re starting to see why there was a large-scale revolution a mere 18 months later… Yeah.

But, I will say this—on July 30, 1904, at 1:15 pm, Alexandra gave birth to Alexei Romanov, their long-awaited heir.36 For her, it was confirmation that following the religious advice of occultists and healers would give her what she needed. For everyone else, it was confirmation of the law of averages—if a person gives birth enough times, there’s bound to be at least one child of every sex.

Now, if you know one thing about the Romanovs, it’s probably the myth that Anastasia survived. If you know two things, the second is probably that Alexei had hemophilia, meaning that his blood didn’t clot well. It ran through Queen Victoria’s familial line, which meant that almost every royal house in Europe was troubled with the disease. The fact that it was inherited was well-understood by the mid-nineteenth century, although the word hemophilia hadn’t been coined yet. In fact, two of Alexandra’s nephews had inherited it, one dying of the disease just weeks before Alexei was born.

The family probably discovered this very quickly. Within two months of his birth, Alexei was bleeding inexplicably, getting bruises from the lightest of touches. There was simply no treatment for it at the time, and the average life expectancy for someone with hemophilia was 12 or 13.37 For the rest of their lives, protecting him would be their biggest focus.

Now, I’ve said all this to show how the pins are being lined up perfectly for Rasputin when he arrives in St. Petersburg. Through 1904, he continued his pilgrimages, meeting and befriending important men of the church, like the father superior of the Seven Lakes Monastery outside Kazan. Through the father superior, Rasputin met Archimandrite Andrei, who had been born Prince Alexander Ukhtomsky, a moment of one of Russia’s oldest noble families. Rasputin became a frequent guest in their home, and it was Andrei who provided Rasputin with the encouragement and connections to travel to St. Petersburg.38

Rasputin’s later recollections of Kazan would be positive, focused on meetings with clergymen. But it’s one of the first times we have stories about his improper acts with women. While there had been hints of it before, this is when we start to see documentation of questionable meetings alone with women, including taking young ladies to the city’s bathhouses.39 Rasputin would always insist that these meetings were appropriate, that he might kiss women but he was not having sex with them, and that the kisses were holy or merely friendly. His Kazan friends dismissed it at the time, but similar accusations would keep piling up.

Later, these accusations would attach themselves to Rasputin with another damaging name: Khlyst. This was one of those religious sects in Russia that had mingled with occult beliefs and Christian hermeticism to produce a Christian faith that believed in speaking in tongues, but also in worship of god through dancing, a preference for charismatic leaders, and self-flagellation in front of a group. People often disparaged the Khlysti by accusing them of sexual immorality, saying that they were having these wild orgies were women and animals and children were forced to participate; there’s no real evidence of this, but it didn’t stop people from saying it.

It’s also worth noting that Khlyst was not the term they preferred—they referred to themselves as “Khristy,” meaning Christs. Khlyst was somewhat disparaging already, it refers to the thin whip they used to hit themselves. But it seems like the only term they’re really remembered by, unfortunately, so I’m still using it. Also, it sort of seems like what people were accusing Rasputin of and what this sect was actually doing are two totally separate things, so maybe the different terms are useful here.

Regardless of what the Khristy were up to, repeated drawn-out investigations into Rasputin’s ties to the sect ultimately never came up with evidence that he was a member of it. Many of these investigations and their findings predate his controversial friendship with the tsar, which makes them more believable.

So, Rasputin left Kazan for St. Petersburg, arriving in late 1904 or early 1905, just as the revolution was happening. There he met Archimandrite Feofan, who was always on the lookout for “men from the narod who came unpolished, uneducated, yet full of the living church.”40 Rasputin fit the bill perfectly. Feofan was “mesmerized” by him, coming to believe that Rasputin not only was a true holy man but that he had the gift of prophecy and could perform miracles, which is sort of the first documentation we get of people believing this. Feofan believed that the traditional church had become quote-unquote “unleavened” and was no longer the salt of the earth as Jesus had preached; but that Rasputin had come to reignite that lost fire.41 We start to see a lot more talk about Rasputin’s eyes around this time—they seemed to change colors with his mood, but were always very bright and intense. They seemed to reach deep into one, adding to the idea that he could read minds.

Through Feofan, Rasputin met the Black Crows, and they slowly introduced him to very high-ranking officials, military men, and more, circling closer and closer to Nicholas and Alexandra. Smith in his biography points out that a lot of the women around Rasputin were, quote, “emotionally fraught figures, suffering in some way. they were drawn to his inner strength and powers of perception… so many of the society ladies had sad lives.”42 And when Rasputin finally met Alexandra, she fit this bill, despite being the empress.

Rasputin with some well-dressed noble ladies. It’s unclear if these are some of the “motionally fraught” women that Douglas Smith refers to. Taken circa 1907. Source.

He’s been “vetted,” so to speak, by so many people, including church officials, that by the time he gets to the tsar and tsarina, there’s no reason not to trust him, in their book. And like Monsieur Philippe before, he arrives when they’re a bit vulnerable, emotionally, with few friends and allies, so they were extremely susceptible to a charismatic leader such as him.

For Nicholas and Alexandra, who feel so besieged, Rasputin represented “the soul of Russia” in a way.43 He was preaching pretty conservative ideas, and he was a monarchist through and through; he often told them that the people loved the tsar, they just hated the politicians.44 There was also sort of an idea that Moscow and St. Petersburg had become too European and the court too separate from “real” Russia, whereas Rasputin with his peasant manners and naturalistic speech was from “real” Russia.45 At a time of great change and anxiety, the tsar and tsaritsa relished being near someone who embodied that ideal.

And Rasputin did something really cunning—he refused to be impressed or cowed by their social status. He called them Mama and Papa, referencing an old idea that they were God-appointed father and mother of the people. He also used the informal “ty“ with them, instead of the much more formal “vy,” which both lifted him above them but also made them feel familiar and close to him.46

Tsar Nicholas II. Source.

However, it’s sort of commonly believed that it was in St. Petersburg that Rasputin lost his way. He later told Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, the conservative and openly gay confident of Tsar Alexander III—all of which I only note because each description seems to contradict the last and they’re all happening in the Russian royal family—Rasputin later told Meschersky that, quote, “It’s hard to live [in St. Petersburg]. There are no regular hours, no regular days, nothing but holidays that mean the death of the soul. […] Fate threw me into the capital. It’s so noisy here that men lose their minds… It’s like a noisy wheel… All of this often makes my brain swell.”47

Maria would later agree, writing in her memoirs that this move to St. Petersburg corrupted her father. He grew famous as the bored and disenchanted elite latched onto him, raising him up as an incredible starets from Siberia, distinct and anointed by god to teach them all. Women threw themselves at him, attracted to the potent combination of fame, selflessness, and exoticism that he represented. The holy kisses he’d shared—or perhaps foisted upon—women in Kazan blurred into sexual and romantic dalliances, and he had numerous consensual affairs with women. Many of these would later be disavowed by them as sexual assault, as they tried to distance themselves from the monk who became the most hated man in all of Russia, but their contemporaneous diary entries and letters show that it was often a consensual relationship.

These accusations of sexual assault are the trickiest part of Rasputin’s legacy, for me. On the one hand, I always want to believe women who accuse someone, because it takes a lot of bravery to do so, and that was more true in early 20th century Russia than it is today. However, the evidence is unclear and mixed—women were attracted to him, and there are accounts of women telling other women about that attraction and consummating that affair happily. Smith points out that these fraught women had husbands who cheated on them and ignored them; quote, “they were lonely…Rasputin would listen to them, show them attention, stroke and kiss them—some found this attention just what was missing in their lives.”48

There don’t seem to be records of women warning each other off to avoid a dangerous man. They wrote about their feelings in their diaries, to each other, and to him. Later on, Rasputin would be accused of trading sexual favors for prayers, but a lot of these accusations didn’t come from the women themselves but from the men around them.

I suspect it’s probably a case of Rasputin sometimes being in the wrong, but not always. Lots of people who commit rape have consensual sex as well, and my guess is that that’s what happened here. There probably were many women who consensually had an affair with him, and there were probably some women who felt tricked, pressured, or forced into the affair either by his fame, or by promises he made them, or a fear of angering him, or something else. It doesn’t have to be that 100% of his sexual encounters were violent or that 100% were consensual, and it almost certainly isn’t either case. The fact that he didn’t hurt everyone he met doesn’t excuse the fact that he possibly or probably hurt some of them, of course.

For example, there is a story of a time Rasputin took several women from the capital back to Pokrovskoe with him. The train ride, which lasted multiple days, saw a lot of seduction and groping and cavorting, with Rasputin apparently having sex with one of the women while other women remained in the room.49 He tried to seduce all of the women on this trip, or most of them, and one wasn’t having it. He was persistent, even insistent, in this pursuit of her, but when she refused him, he respected that boundary.

There is one other wrinkle in the theory. For all the accusations of rape and orgies and sex with the tsaritsa and whatever else, Rasputin never fathered a child outside of his marriage. We would know if he had because his detractors wouldn’t have let the news remain a secret. As you’ll see, if Rasputin had fathered even one child outside of wedlock, his enemies would have written it in their own blood in the snow in front of the palace if that’s what it took to get the tsar and tsaritsa to notice. That they didn’t ever come up with one illegitimate child, even a made-up one, suggests that a lot of the stories of these affairs are exaggerated. I think Smith was suggesting that maybe Rasputin never did more than some unwanted kisses, which is possible. Nationalist Russian historians are now saying that Rasputin was a saint who did none of these things at all, which seems like a dramatic swing in the other direction.

On the other hand, the tale of Olga Lokhtina bears remembering too. She came to him suffering from serious mental illness, and it grew until others noticed that she had developed, quote, “religious mania” that was becoming “unhealthy, even dangerous. She had taken to calling Rasputin ‘God.’”50 Her obsession with Rasputin destroyed her marriage, and she left her husband and children to live with Rasputin’s wife. She went to a hospital for the mentally unwell at some point, but, quote, “wandered off.”51 She wanted Rasputin’s help, but the simple fact of the matter is that Rasputin didn’t have the tools to help her. Today we might characterize her illness as perhaps schizophrenia or some kind of delusion, but at the time Rasputin just believed that her odd behavior was, quote, “the work of the Devil, which he had failed to exorcise.”52

So he beat her. Anyone who has studied the history of mental health “treatment,” in quotation marks, will know that violence against mentally ill people is not uncommon in history. And Lokhtina seems to have really suffered at his hands, being beaten numerous times quite violently. Clearly, Rasputin’s treatment of women left a lot to be desired.

Rasputin, in bed, with his intense eyes. Source.

Throughout 1906 and 1907, Rasputin’s influence over Nicholas and Alexandra grew until they relied on him absolutely. Many people believed that his influence was based on his relationship with Alexei. Some people claim he predicted the son—or even fathered him. But in fact, Alexei was born before the tsar and tsaritsa met Rasputin. It really seems to have been simply that he was charismatic, agreed with them about key things, and made them feel calm during a period of great anxiety. This is something that is repeated over and over again by other people who became his acolytes—something about Rasputin’s presence was very soothing.53

But the rumors of Rasputin’s inappropriate and even sexual hold over Alexandra just wouldn’t die. Pamphlets circulated publicly with allegations that she was his lover; rumors also swirled that Alexandra had an affair with her lady-in-waiting Anna Vryobova. If this sounds a little like the rumors that swirled about Marie Antoinette just before the Russian Revolution, that is a parallel a lot of people have drawn—weak king, foreign queen, economic hardship... the ingredients are all the same.54 I mean, everyone believed Nicholas was so weak that he knew this relationship was happening under his roof and just allowed it because he was as enthralled with Rasputin as she was.

This accusation is so out of character with who Alexandra was though. For one, she was a devout Christian, and for another, she believed she was ordained by God to be the maternal head of the imperial family, a role she took very seriously. She never would have risked her position by cheating on the tsar. And even if she’d wanted to, she suffered from terrible pains, I’ve heard sciatica from some sources.55 The idea that she was having illicit romps in broom closets, or whatever the rumors were, is absolutely laughable.

In addition to the rumors of his affairs with Alexandra, there were also rumors about his relationship with their children—it was said that he was allowed into the daughter’s bedrooms unaccompanied. One of the earliest detractors of Rasputin inside the palace was the woman who was in charge of caring for the children; she complained to both Alexandra and Nicholas on numerous occasions that Rasputin had too much access to them and was too familiar with them. She claimed he ever sat on their beds as they went to sleep; which is one of those actions that can seem very sinister or very sweet, depending on your perspective.

Rumors began to swirl that Rasputin had seduced or even raped the older daughters. This is possibly the most preposterous of all the rumors—Alexandra was, if nothing else, a loving mother, and if there was any hint that he was a danger to any of her children, she probably would have had him killed, honestly. Even contemporaneous Russians seem to know that rumor went too far, though his unfettered access to them was strange.

But despite these complaints, in 1912 Alexandra’s devotion to Rasputin was sealed. From then on, no one could convince her of anything wrong with him. It centered, as it always did for Alexandra, on Alexei.

In September 1912, the family traveled to their Polish hunting lodge at Spała. Alexandra took Anna Vyrobova and Alexei for a ride in their carriage, but the boy quickly began to complain of pain in his leg and abdomen. Quote, “with each bounce of the carriage, eight-year-old Alexei cried out in agony. Vyrubova later recalled the ride as ‘an experience in horror.’”56

He was examined by a doctor named Eugene Botkin, who found severe hemorrhaging in his upper leg and groin. The internal bleeding would not stop, and his skin began to swell and tighten. He was screaming in pain, so loudly apparently that the servants began to stuff their ears with cotton.57 The torture went on for ten days, but the doctors wouldn’t give him opium! They didn’t want him to become an addict, apparently.58 Despite this, they were also giving up on him, and someone was called to administer the last sacrament.

Word got out around the country that the heir to the throne was in danger of dying, but Alexei’s condition of hemophilia was kept secret, so the story going around was that he’d been the victim of an assassination attempt.59 Churches around Russia held prayer services.

And finally, only once the doctors gave up, Alexandra wrote to Rasputin in Pokrovskoe, asking him to pray for her son. He replied nearly immediately, and though the original telegram has been lost, reports claim that he said something like, quote, “God has seen Your tears and heard Your prayers. Do not be sad. The little boy will not die. Do not let the doctors torment him too much.”60

Alexandra was reassured. She later said, “I am not a bit anxious myself now. During the night I received a telegram from Father Grigory and he has reassured me completely.”61

And wouldn’t you know it, Alexei showed signs of improvement the very next day.

But what did Rasputin do here? He might have prayed. But the modern consensus is that this telegram acted as a placebo effect, accidentally producing what Alexei really needed: Rest. There was no treatment for hemophilia in the early 20th century, and doctors didn’t fully understand what was happening in the body. The only hope for “bleeders,” as they were called, was that the bleeding would stop on its own. The doctor’s constant poking and prodding up until that moment had probably only made Alexei worse, reopening internal wounds that could only clot if he was still. So it was that line, “do not let the doctors torment him too much,” that saved Alexei.

Furthermore, Rasputin’s letter calmed Alexandra and the rest of this “emotionally intense household.”62 Once she calmed down, Nicholas stopped bursting into tears every time he saw his son, and Alexei in turn relaxed as well.63

Alexei Romanov. Source.

And that, that is the most important part. Think about it: If you’re 8 and your mother is freaking out and your father the emperor bursts into tears every time he looks at you and the doctors won’t leave you alone, your blood pressure is going to be high, even if you don’t have the words to explain that. High blood pressure is the worst possible thing for a hemophiliac with no medicine. But everyone calms down and Alexei does too, and his internal bleeding stops. He gets better.

From then on, Rasputin was practically untouchable.

A photo of Rasputin in bed. Source.

He gained a reputation as a healer, and after word got out that he’d healed Alexei, people began to approach him for healing of their other ailments. Rumors said that he had used hypnotism to heal Alexei; several of his contemporaries said that “‘electricity’ emanating through his hands and eyes” was the source of his incredible hypnotic powers.64 A newspaper even printed a photograph of him hypnotizing someone, one which he quickly and publicly insisted was a fake. In 1914, he was quoted saying he had never studied hypnotism and had no ability for it.65 But the claims never went away—even today, depictions of Rasputin by actors include the intense eyes and weird gestures of the hands based on these claims. Everyone was saying that Rasputin had healed the tsarevich with hypnotism.

But I want to point out that Rasputin did not heal Alexei. The boy still suffered from hemophilia. And though he technically didn’t die from hemophilia, which was rare at the time, he still had issues with the disease for the rest of his life. Alexandra, however, became convinced that it was Rasputin’s faith, which status as an instrument of God, that safeguarded her son’s life. “Through this lens,” Smith writes, “Rasputin’s acts took on the aura of miracles.”66

Her unwavering support of him would go a long way toward distancing the royal family from their supporters. It fueled the rumors that she was completely under his spell.

One of the most explosive rumors about Rasputin’s relationship with the royal family, and especially Alexandra came in 1915. One night while visiting Moscow, Rasputin went to a nightclub/restaurant called the Yar, where he proceeded to get incredibly drunk and start groping and harassing the dancers who were performing. Then he got more drunk, jumped up on a table, and started loudly bragging about how he had control over the tsar and tsaritsa. He got so caught up in it that he dropped his pants, pulled out his penis, and started waving it around saying “This is the altar at which the empress worships.”67 Eventually the police were called and he was dragged from the place “snarling” at the people who carried him away.68

The scandal of this night spread far and wide and has been a key piece of the Rasputin myth for a long time. It’s what inspired Boney M’s “Russia’s greatest love machine” lyric, probably. Dozens of witnesses agreed they’d seen it, and a British diplomat, Robert Bruce Lockhart, even later claimed that he was there and disgusted by Rasputin’s behavior.

But it’s patently false. Rasputin was under a lot of supervision—by this point from three different agencies, if I’m keeping count in Douglas Smith’s biography right! No police report from that night details any such scene and the notes from the agents who were following him make no mention of Rasputin even going to the Yar. It was completely fabricated by Rasputin’s enemy, the Deputy Interior Minister, Zhukovsky. He pressured the local constabulary into inventing this story to help bring Rasputin down. As for Lockhart, he wasn’t even in the city on the night in question—he was in Kyiv!

When Nicholas and Alexandra heard this story, they dismissed it. They didn’t believe it for one second, which is smart because it was fake. And actually, biographer Smith had a great insight here: Everyone made up these dramatic stories of how awful Rasputin was to try to get Nicholas or Alexandra to send him away, but by over exaggerating them, the royal couple didn’t trust them, which further isolated Nicholas and Alexandra from other supporters. If they had just told the imperial family the truth, they might have listened. Maybe.

The only substantiated accusation of quote-unquote “sexual deviance” about Rasputin during this time, in addition to all the casual kissing of women, is that he visited prostitutes while in Moscow while remaining married to his wife back home in Pokrovskoe. The agents following him note these visits, but they don’t follow him inside to note what he pays the sex workers for, so I’m sure at least one Russian nationalist historian is out there trying to claim that he was like Jesus befriending Mary Magdalene, trying to get these women on a path toward God. I suspect the simplest explanation is the truest—Rasputin went to sex workers to pay for sex.

These stories also make it back to the tsar, but it was not enough to have him change his mind either. The sad truth to all this is that Nicholas and Alexandra have this very childlike relationship with Rasputin. They constantly turned to him for advice and when they were fearful. They called him “Our Friend” and were very excited when he visited because they got to pray with him…it’s just very innocent. Their letters to each other are sweet but somewhat juvenile as well—when they were apart, Alexandra sometimes wrote to Nicholas multiple times a day, calling him lovey and reminding him to be careful and passing along messages from Rasputin, while also giving him instructions. She often referred to herself as “wifey” in those letters, which is again cute and such a far cry from what they were being told about Rasputin, it’s no wonder they didn’t believe it.

But their advisors and family weren’t alone. The press was having an absolute field day with this whole relationship, trumping up already bad rumors into worse things, whipping the public into a frenzy of worry over how terrible Rasputin was and how gullible and/or evil the royal couple must have been to trust him. They created a picture of a morally bankrupt world of sexual perversion that the entire royal family was twisted into, all with Rasputin at the center. The public ate it up.

The other big accusation the papers printed was that Rasputin was getting rich on his relationships with the tsar. They hinted that the royal coffers were being used to line Rasputin’s pockets, but this was also not completely correct. Rasputin was receiving a lot of money, but not from Nicholas or Alexandra. In none of us his surviving letters does he ask for money from them, and there’s no record of them giving him money, at least that I remember seeing. They did, however, lease him an apartment in the city during the last year of his life. The money for the rent seems to have come from Alexandra’s private wealth, not Russian public funds.

But Rasputin did get a lot of money from his other wealthy patrons. They were happy to donate to the cause, so to speak, sort of like tithing. Unlike other starets, he never preached giving up all wealth to become poor and therefore closer to god, which made the nobility like him more, and ironically more likely to give him money.

What did Rasputin do with the money? Gave it away. All of it, it seemed. Some of it was probably sent home to his family, but the vast majority of it seemed to slip through his hands and and right into the hands of the many, many people who had begun to come to him for prayers, concession, and alms. By the time he had his own apartment in St. Petersburg—he always stayed with friends before this—the crowd of supplicants was non-stop. Monrning through night Rasputin heard people’s stories then prayed with them, often giving them money or writing little notes to other high-level government officials he knew to help solve their problems. A lot of these notes survive today! Most of them were dismissed or ignored, but that didn’t matter to the people who had come to him desperately, because Rasputin was doing more for them than the rest of the government and Orthodox church combined. It made him the good guy, and infuriated the government officials who didn’t want to be bothered with things like this. They in turn fed information to the papers, hoping that more scandal would eventually get Nicholas and Alexandra to let Rasputin go. But it didn’t work.

Alexandra and Nicholas were both desperate to get the newspapers to stop printing all this nonsense, but they… well, they don’t have a good PR team. The press had only become freed from censorship after the 1905 revolution and the royal family really hadn’t figured out how to manipulate and manage this new free press that criticized them and printed absolute bunk. Many of the claims Russian newspapers were printing in general, not just about Rasputin, were easily disproven, but yellow journalism that focused on the lurid sensational details over actual facts was the game of the day. In a bid to sell papers, newspapers printed whatever ridiculous thing they could think of, inventing new rumors about Rasputin to make money because he quickly became the easiest target, and new rumors about Rasputin always sold papers. Multiple times they tried to go through private channels to tamp down these runs of rumors, but the more the tsar protested, the more some people printed. Maybe they thought that the tsar wouldn’t complain if it wasn’t true, that his denial confirmed that there was something more to the story?

This brings us to the political crux of it all, the reason why this relationship between Rasputin and the rulers really matters. The Russian monarchy was weak—both seen as backward by an industrializing and progressive populace and weakened by wars and other struggles. And Rasputin’s very presence called into question the wisdom of the monarch. His terrible reputation and the rumors of sectarian heretical beliefs and violence that swirled around him further delegitimized the throne. He gave fuel to the liberals who were calling for the end of the monarchy. In fact, many of the advisors who were trying to warn Nicholas to stay away from Rasputin were trying to protect the monarchy from outside forces that wanted to topple it, but they couldn’t make him and Alexandra see why this private relationship mattered to the public. But it really was a huge threat to the monarchy.

They even tried to send Rasputin on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to get him out of the public eye for a while. They thought that if they could show him doing something incredibly devout, and also far away from Russia, things would calm down. I’ve heard some claims that Rasputin walked all the way to Jerusalem on his own two feet!69 This was actually the way that most Russian pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem—thousands went every year by the way! But it’s much much more likely that Rasputin’s trip was paid for by the tsar because he traveled by train and ship to get there.70

Though Rapsutin spent three months away and published a short memoir of his trip, it wasn’t enough to calm the press’s wild claims. They just got more outlandish and damaging to both Rasputin and the monarchy.

Which brings us to the first attempt on Rasputin’s life. It was late June 1914. He was home in Pokrvoskoe, in front of his own house. A strange figure, a woman in black, approached him, her face shrouded by a kerchief. He assumed she wanted alms, so he reached for his wallet, but she leaped forward and stabbed him in the stomach.

He yelled, “I’m hurt! I’m hurt! She stabbed me!”71 He ran away from her down the road, but she chased him with a bloody dagger, so he picked up a large stick and hit her with it. A crowd began to form, separating the woman from Rasputin; a, quote, “mob of screaming villagers” took her to the Pokrovskoe administration building, where she was locked in a cell.72

Rasputin was taken home, and a doctor was fetched, but things weren’t looking good. The wound had stabbed deeply into his abdomen, damaging his intestines in several places. The surgeon did the best he could, but people didn’t think he’d survive; a priest was called to administer the last rites to Rasputin.

Miraculously, he survived, though he was taken to a hospital for several weeks of recovery.

The woman who had stabbed him was Khionya Guseva. She was a 33-year-old seamstress from Tsaritsyn and, of particular note to people at the time, was that she didn’t have a nose. Think, Voldemort: The fleshy part of her nose was gone, leaving just a single large nostril in her face. Many people had a lot to say about this, and everything theory from satanic influence to syphilis to fighting was given to explain her appearance. She is almost as maligned as Rasputin himself.

Nevertheless, she confessed to the murder, saying explicitly that she had sought him out to kill him because he was, quote, “a false prophet, slanderer, a violateor of women, and a seducer of honest maidens.”73 She had been convinced of these things by the newspapers, but also by a monk named Iliodor, who had once been a friend of Rasputin’s but they’d had a falling out a while before. Iliodor was delusional at best, and he blamed Rasputin for his fall from grace, though he really had gained the ire of the tsar by verbally attacking every member of the Russian monarchy and trying to start his own sects despite being an ordained member of the Russian Orthodox Church. He later published a semi-true memoir called The Mad Monk, which accused Rasputin of many things, including raping a nun, while putting himself in the best possible light. Interestingly, Soviet writer Maxim Gorky helped Iliodor draft this memoir explicitly in an attempt to discredit the Russian monarchy. The claims about Rasputin within it should be considered with a whole handful of salt.

I find Guseva’s story kind of sad. She was clearly mentally unwell—she told interrogators that she genuinely believed that Rasputin was the Antichrist, and that she often experienced intense hallucinations, including of the Devil dressed as a monk. Some sort of quote “madness did run in the family. Her late brother Simeon went crazy”—her words—”and their father had a habit of cutting [them] on their legs.”74 It seems like she was manipulated and tricked into this assassination attempt. She was certainly told to pretend Iliodor had nothing to do with it, a claim she asserted despite abundant evidence that he had raised the money to buy her weapon and help her travel to Pokrovskoe.

The state agreed—Guseva was found non compos mentis and placed in the Tomsk Regional Clinic for the Insane.

How the royal family reacted to this attack is unclear—neither of them wrote about it in their diaries. Nicholas, wisely it would turn out, wrote to the Minister of the Interior, Nikolai Maklakov, insisting that this attack was quote, “the doing of a clique of foul people with evil intentions.”75 But we do know from the children’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, that many people around the royal family were overjoyed at news of the attack. While Rasputin’s royal adherents worried, quote, “Everyone else was inspired by a lively hope of being at last delivered from that baneful influence.”76

Because of the nature of slow-traveling news in the early 1900s—and their own sensationalist tendencies—newspapers initially printed that Rasputin had died. Though Rasputin did receive sympathetic letters from around the country, there was also much celebrating throughout the country in early July, which is a bad sign. You never want people to cheer because you were murdered. Nevertheless, from his sickbed Rasputin wrote to Vyrubova confirming Nicholas’s fear of a larger conspiracy, while also saying that, quote, “I was not scared too much; this time it didn’t work, next time—whatever God orders.”77 But he didn’t focus on it much because something else was on his mind: war.

On June 28, 1914, just before the assassination attempt on Rasputin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. World War I was unleashed. Rasputin had actually been asked for his opinion of the assassination while he was still in Petersburg; he said, “Yes, they say there will be war, and they are getting ready for it. May God grant that there will be no war. This troubles me.”78

Rasputin was, through and through, a man of peace. He never supported bloodshed. Two years earlier, when Russia entered the Balkan wars, he’d also warned everyone not to do that. From his hospital bed, he sent multiple telegrams to Nicholas, warning him to stay strong and ignore the voices called for war. One famous—but lost—telegram apparently said, quote, “Let Papa not plan for war, for war will mean the end of Russia and yourselves, and you will lose to the last man.”79

When that didn’t work, we wrote the single most remarkable and prophetic letter ever written to probably any monarch by one of his subjects. It says,

I know they all want war from you, evidently not realizing that this means ruin. Hard is God’s punishment when he takes away reason, it’s the beginning of the end. You are the Tsar Father of the people, don’t allow the madmen to triumph and destroy themselves and the people. Yes, they’ll conquer Germany, but what of Russia? […] truly never for all of time has one suffered like Russia, drowned in her own blood. Great will be the ruin, grief without end. Grigory.80

The letter probably survives because Nicholas took it with him into exile, passing it along to someone else who smuggled it out of Russia and eventually into the Yale University archives.

It is an incredible letter because it’s so correct, and it begs the question, What if Nicholas had just listened? World War I killed at least 1.5 million Russians, probably more. He would have definitely avoided that, and might have even avoided the 1917 revolution. But he ignored Rasputin and went forward with mobilization and war.

This is also a key refutation in the story that Rasputin always controlled state affairs. In fact, Nicholas rarely listened to his advice. Rasputin soothed his soul, but Nicholas was too sure of his own place in the world to accept much political advice from an uneducated peasant.

It should be said that once Nicholas made up his mind, Rasputin supported him wholeheartedly. As soon as he was released from the hospital, almost two full months after the stabbing, Rasputin traveled to St. Petersburg. He was still not well, exactly—certainly he couldn’t consume solid food until September, and he had digestive problems for the rest of his life.81

Here a significant change happened. Nicholas actually took direct command of the armed forces in August 1915, and insane idea that absolutely no one supported. With that, he was often away from home. So Alexandra stepped in to fill the power vacuum, which she was not prepared to do. She became even more reliant on Rasputin, and began to repeat his advice to Nicholas in letters. Rasputin did wield a lot of control, especially in the appointment of government officials who would be sympathetic to him. A glance at the lists of people who filled certain Russian government roles shows people rising and falling at an alarming rate throughout 1915 and 1916. Worse, when Nicholas was home, he didn’t see the growing issues right in front of him. He too became very reliant on Rasputin, writing in his diary, quote, “Only under the influence of Grigory’s calming talk did my soul return to its normal balance.”82

As if to cement all of this, on December 5th, 1914, Rasputin performed another miracle. The tsarevich had a cold and was sneezing incessantly; soon he developed a nosebleed.83 It wouldn’t stop and his temperature began to rise. Twice he fainted from blood loss, and people began to panic once again that Alexei was going to die. Doctors tried to cauterize the veins in his nostrils, but it didn’t work. This time, Alexandra didn’t wait for the last rites. She sent for Rasputin that night.

The story goes that he approached Alexei’s sickbed, made the sign of the cross, and then assured Alexandra that he would be fine. And he was!

Rasputin, with hand raised to make the sign of the cross. Source.

But Nicholas’s diary refutes all of this. It seems Alexei’s nose was cauterized a second time, and the bleeding stopped overnight. Rasputin didn’t visit the family until late on December 6th, when Alexei was already doing better. He’d sent a telegram earlier in the day, congratulating the tsar on his baptismal name day, which was the 6th, and mentioned that it was, quote, “much glorified with miracle-making,” which makes it sound like he was already aware that Alexei was healing.84 Whether he had told them separately that he had prayed for Alexei is unknown, but somehow this became a reassurance for Alexandra that he had the “infinite power” of God behind him.85

I’m going to skip ahead now to the end of 1916. While a lot—a lot—was happening in Russia and the world throughout 1915 and 1916, it was more of the same for Rasputin. He’s worshipped by some, hated by many, people are plotting his downfall, et cetera.

A central part of the Rasputin myth is his ability to prophesize things that would come to pass. After the first attempt on his life, he seemed to understand that his death would have to come at the hands of another, that he wouldn’t be allowed to die peacefully of old age. In late 1916, he apparently wrote an entire testament to his life in a single night, including a prophecy for his death. It goes, quote,

If I am killed by simple robbers of the Russian peasants Tsar Nicholas should not fear for his fate, and the descendants of the Romanovs will reign a hundred years and more. However, if the murder is committed by nobles – relatives of the Tsar – then the future of Russia and the Imperial Family will be terrible. The nobles will flee the country, and the relatives of the Tsar will not be alive in two years. Brothers will rise up against brothers, and will kill each other.86

Considering that the group of people that murdered Rasputin in December 1916 was a group of nobles, this seems prescient and terrifying. A few months later the dynasty fell, and the entire family was dead by July 1918.

Apparently, this prophecy was delivered to Alexandra after Rasputin’s death, though many claim that the imperial family already knew of a similar prediction, which was why they protected him from all the accusations of terrible crimes that would have seen him banished and murdered in Siberia, if not executed by the crown.

But no such letter exists among Alexandra’s papers. Most people assume he just didn’t write it. It’s a fabrication, made up after the fact to fit the events that did happen. He did, however, write a similar letter to his family. It goes, quote,

My dears,
A disaster is threatening us, a great misfortune is drawing near. The face of Our Lady has darkened and the spirit is disturbed in the calm of the night. This calm will not last. Terrible will be the wrath. And whither shall we flee? It is written: Watched, for ye know neither the day nor the house. This day has come for our country. There will be cries and blood. In the great darkness of these griefs I can now distinguish nothing. My hour will soon strike. I am not afraid, but I know it will be bitter. I shall suffer and it will be pardoned to men. I shall inherit the kingdom, but you will be saved. The road of your sufferings is known to God. Men without number will perish. Many martyrs will die. Brothers will be slain by their brothers. The earth will tremble. Famine and pestilence will reign, signs will appear to men. Pray for your salvation. And through the grace of the Savior and of Her who intercedes with Him you will be consoled.

Now. While all of this might seem prophetic, it’s really not. Most Russians could see a very bloody revolution coming, it was in the air, as they say. The only part that is sort of startling is the lines about “My hour will soon strike…I shall suffer and it will be pardoned to men.” Could he see his violent end coming?

December 16, 1916, in the Julian calendar, started as a bad day for Grigory Rasputin. He was “nervous and agitated” after an unfamiliar voice called him up and threatened to kill him.88 He was invited over to the house of Prince Felix Yusupov, who I haven’t talked about much in here only because I think I want to do an entire episode on him later.

Their paths had crossed much earlier, as Yusupov was married to Tsar Nicholas’s only biological niece. One of his closest friends, Munya Golovina, was also one of Rasputin’s most devout acolytes and she’d tried to make the two become close friends in 1912 or 1913, but the friendship hadn’t stuck.

The Yusupov family was also the richest family in Russia, and Rasputin often came into contact with Felix’s mother, Princess Zinaida Nikolayevna Yusupova, at court, where she was very popular. She had once been friends with Alexandra, but became severely critical of her over her relationship with Rasputin, and often wrote to Felix about how dangerous Rasputin was.

On October 2nd, 1916, Zinaida wrote to her son, quote,

I am so shocked by what is happening at [the palace] that I’d like to go somewhere far far away and never return! Gr[igory] is back yet again… I’m literally suffocating from indignation and think that this cannot be tolerated any longer. I disdain everyone who tolerates this and remains silent!89

We learn two things from this letter, I think. The first is that things were coming to a head and everyone who had calmly—if with exaggeration—denounced Rasputin to the imperial family before was starting to look for other ways to get rid of him. The second is that people have been using the word ‘literally’ incorrectly for much longer than modern-day mockers of Valley Girls would have us believe.

Smith suggests that it was this October 2nd letter that put the idea to kill Rasputin in Felix Yusupov’s head. He certainly started putting out feelers soon after, looking for people who could help him. A plot was hatched with a doctor named Stanislas Lazovert, a politician named Vladimir Purishkevich, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Together, they believed that by killing Rasputin, they would save the monarchy.

On the night of December 16th, Yusupov picked up Rasputin and took him to Yusupov’s home, theoretically to meet with Munya. Felix and his conspirators had set up the cellar with furniture and a gramophone to make it seem like a party was underway.

The most common story of what happened is that when Rasputin entered sometime after midnight, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was playing. They went down to the cellar to avoid the party Yusupov pretended his wife was having upstairs. Once there, Yusupov served Rasputin Madeira wine and petit fours, both laced with enough cyanide, quote, “to kill several men instantly,” at least according to the doctor.90 Rasputin ate all of the cakes and drank all of the wine, but two hours later, he was still feeling all right.

Yusupov, frustrated, went upstairs and asked his co-conspirators and friends for advice. They were astounded that he was still alive, but Dmitry gave Yusupov his revolver and went back down into the cellar. Instead of shooting him on sight though, Yusupov apparently sat back down and started talking about performances they could go see? Finally, he said, quote, “Grigroy Yefimovich, you’d far better look at the crucifix and say a prayer.”91 And then he finally shot him in the chest.

The others ran downstairs, and Lazovert checked him over, declaring him dead. One of them quickly donned Rasputin’s clothing and drove back to his apartment, so that if there was anyone looking about, they would see Rasputin returning home safely.

But when they returned to Yusupov’s home and descended back into the cellar to figure out what to do with the body, they found Rasputin’s face twitching. And suddenly his eyes opened—”the green eyes of a viper, staring at me with diabolical hatred,” Yusupov wrote in his memoirs.92 He attacked Yusupov, grabbing him, and Yuupov wrote, “I realized now who Rasputin really was—it was the reincarnation of Satan himself who held me in his clutches and would never let me go until my dying day.”93

Prince Felix Yusupov. Source.

Yusupov ran upstairs, calling for help, and by the time the others got back, Rasputin had managed to drag himself out of the cellar and was off into the night. They hunted him like a wounded animal, Purishkevich firing four shots total, finally killing Rasputin.

They took his body back to the house for a while, then wrapped him in cloth and dropped him off a bridge into the icy water below. It was found a few days later and Yusupov fled Russia to avoid conviction. He later wrote his memoirs of killing Rasputin, called Lost Splendor, which is where this tale comes from.

But as Smith points out—murderers are the classic unreliable narrator. And a lot of this story has been refuted. Rasputin’s daughter Maria, in particular, says that there’s no way Rasputin was eating tons of cakes because he’d been having digestive issues ever since that stabbing two years before. This aligns with the examination of his remains, which did not find poison in his system, though some people suppose that Yusupov just didn’t use the right chemical—maybe he sprinkled the then-new miracle drug aspirin on his Rasputin’s cake instead of cyanide.94 They are both white powders. Some people suppose that Rasputin had made himself immune to poison by making little bits of it over time, but that’s impossible to do with cyanide.95

There are three other huge reasons to doubt Yusupov’s account. The big one is that it was written after the Revolution, when the Yusupov family had lost all of their wealth and Felix was desperate for money. A sensational memoir will always sell, and so he was motivated to heighten whatever really happened. He was also confessing to murder in it, so he needed to make it clear that he was killing The Devil Himself, not an unarmed man who he’d tricked into his home.96

The other is that Yusupov was writing this around the same time as the first horror films were coming out. In The Rest Is History podcast, hosts Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook point out that Yusupov probably got a lot of the imagery of the murder scene from scary movies! It does sort of read like a dramatic third act, right?

And finally, scholars have pointed out that this whole account is basically a ripoff of a Dostoevsky novella, The Landlady.

The autopsy did show that Rasputin had been shot three times. And that’s it. The staret was dead.

Nicholas and Alexandra were devastated. She ensured that his body was returned to Pokrovskoe and buried properly—and it was whole, he was not castrated as some have claimed; the penis on display in Moscow that claims to be Rasputin’s is certaily not his.97

The Russian Imperial family in 1913. Source.

They didn’t really have time to mourn—army mutinies and bread riots in St. Petersburg brought the monarchy down in a few short months. Obviously, the assassin’s plans didn’t rescue the monarchy as they’d hoped. They and their children were taken to Siberia and shot in a basement as well, which mirrors Rasputin’s murder kind of strangely. And to really pour salt into the wound, there are some reports that on the way down to the basement, they passed pornographic graffiti of Nicholas watching Rasputin and Alexandra have sex—it’s the last thing they all see.98 The girls apparently had amulets around their necks with images of Rasputin, topaz stones, and a little prayer as well, which feels just tragic. I didn’t talk about the kids much here, but it seemed like they saw Rasputin as some kind of uncle, calling him Our Friend as much as their parents did.

Rasputin’s legacy is terrifying and wild, still to this day, despite what the more pedestrian truth of it is. I think that it’s partly because it has been conflated with other men of the same time who mixed the demonic with the deeply religious to create bastardized doctrine that didn’t shy away from sin. For example, another quote-unquote staret arrived in St. Petersburg at the same time as Rasputin, a man named Alexei Shchetinin who was a charismatic preacher but also a drunk who demanded that his followers give him everything, their money, their wives, and even their children, who he would place in orphanages without telling the parents which one, so they could never be reunited with their children.99 There were multiple credible accusations of sexual assault against Shchetinin, and he eventually went to jail for raping a minor.100

He wasn’t the only one floating around St. Petersburg. Several other quote-unquote priests and starets who claimed to hear God but were often abusive womanizers. Many were arrested and exiled to Siberia. And I think the stories of the real crimes they committed get conflated with Rasputin through the accusation that he was a khlyst, because some of these people were card-carrying members of the khrysty.

The myth got attached to Rasputin so thoroughly because it was pushed by liberals who wanted to discredit the monarchy and get more people on their side. Conservatives fell for it, publicly criticizing this wild man and therefore perpetuating the rumors to save the monarchy, or so they thought, but not realizing they were playing into the revolutionaries’ hands. And then when the Russian Empire fell and became the Soviet Union, the records that would have salvaged Rasputin’s reputation—and therefore the imperial family’s—were censored, hidden away in an archive so people couldn’t use them to bring about a counterrevolution.

I think the myth also lives on in part because it perpetuates the image of Russia, and especially Siberia, as exotic and strange, as somehow Other. These sorts of violent, salacious things happen Over There, and these sorts of things don’t happen in the West.

These ideas live on in depictions of Rasputin in pop culture, even ones that are not explicitly depictions of Rasputin. I’m thinking of the Hulu show, The Great, which has a Rasputin-like figure advising Catherine the Great, even though she predates this tale by a hundred years or so. He’s even styled to look a lot like Rasputin. I’m also thinking of the whole Grishaverse series of books, written by Leigh Bardudgo—Grisha is a diminutive form of Grigori, and the shadowy corrupt character who poisons the emperor, The Apparat, Bardugo has explicitly said is based on Rasputin.101 I guess she hasn’t read Douglas Smith’s version of the story.

Adam Godley as Archbishop Archie in The Great. Source.

As I mentioned, Rasputin’s story is being rehabilitated. Some Russian nationalist historians go so far as to say that Rasputin was framed for all of it, and some people even consider him a saint today. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Empress Alexandra as Saint Alexandra the Passion Bearer, and some people think it won’t be long until Rasputin joins her ranks.

But again, there is ample evidence that Rasputin behaved inappropriately with women, even if the charges of sexual assault were not substantiated. His body was exhumed and burned by the Bolsheviks, so we don't know if it remained whole instead of rotting—which is one of the requirements for sainthood. I should note that some have accused Douglas Smith’s book of being a bit too far on the ‘apologist for Rasputin’ side of history. There are moments in it, especially when he’s very dismissive of women’s claims of pressure to have sex with Rasputin, that I think he could have done better, but overall I think he does a pretty good job of calling out Rasputin’s flaws in addition to clearing the conspiracy from his tale.

That is the story of Rasputin! I hope you enjoyed this episode. You can let me know your thoughts on Substack, Twitter, and Instagram, where my username is unrulyfigures. If you have a moment, please give this show a five-star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts–it really does help other folks discover the podcast.

This podcast is researched, written, and produced by me, Valorie Clark. My research assistant is Niko Angell-Gargiulo. If you are into supporting independent research, please share this with at least one person you know. Heck, start a group chat! Tell them they can subscribe wherever they get their podcasts, but for ad-free episodes and behind-the-scenes content, come over to unrulyfigures.substack.com

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Until next time, stay unruly. 

📚 Bibliography

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Kolstø, Pål. “‘For Here We Do Not Have an Enduring City’: Tolstoy and the Strannik Tradition in Russian Culture.” The Russian Review 69, no. 1 (2010): 119–34.

Paert, Irina. “Preparing God’s Harvest: Maksim Zalesskii, Millenarianism, and the Wanderers in Soviet Russia.” The Russian Review 64, no. 1 (2005): 44–61.

“Ra Ra Rasputin.” Noble Blood, April 26, 2022. https://podcasts. apple.com/za/podcast/ra-ra-rasputin/id1468332063?i=1000558710034.

“Rasputin.” The Rest Is History, December 5, 2021. https://podcasts.a pple.com/us/podcast/rasputin/id1537788786?i=1000544041644.

“Russian Revolution of 1905 | Causes, Consequences & Impact | Britannica.” In Britannica. Britannica, September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/event/Russian-Revolution-of-1905.

Smith, Douglas. Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. New York, NY: Farra, Straus and Giroux, 2016. https://bookshop.org/a/79066/9781250141262.

“SYSK Selects: What’s the Deal with Rasputin’s Death?” Stuff You Should Know. iHeart Radio, June 3, 2017. https://www.iheart.com/podcast/105-stuff-you-should-know-26940277/episode/sysk-selects-whats-the-deal-with-29467452/.

“The Mad Monk.” Accessed October 27, 2023. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/06/11/reviews/000611.11dani.html.

Time. “5 Myths and Truths About Rasputin,” December 29, 2016. https://time.com/4606775/5-myths-rasputin/.

vladak1. “Russian Forms of Addressing People,” October 26, 2018. https://www.justrussian.com/russian-ways-of-address/.

Warth, Robert D. “Before Rasputin: Piety and the Occult at the Court of Nicholas II.” The Historian 47, no. 3 (1985): 323–37.

Youssoupoff, Felix Prince. Lost Splendor. New York : G.P. Putnam’s, 1954. http://archive.org/details/lostsplendor00yous.

Zukowski, Chelsea. “Sankt’ya and Merzost: The Russian Influences behind Shadow and Bone.” Winter Is Coming (blog), May 9, 2021. https://winteriscoming.net/2021/05/09/sanktya-merzost-russian-influences-shadow-and-bones-grishaverse/3/.

Some of the links in this are affiliate links. That means if you click through and buy something, you’ll be supporting Unruly Figures!

Douglas Smith, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs (New York, NY: Farra, Straus and Giroux, 2016), https://bookshop.org/a/79066/9781250141262.


“Rasputin,” The Rest Is History, December 5, 2021, https://podcasts.a pple.com/us/podcast/rasputin/id1537788786?i=1000544041644.


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Unruly Figures
A show about history's favorite rebels. Releasing every other Tuesday.