Grigori Rasputin was a Siberian starets (faith healer) who arrived in St Petersburg around 1904 and became an important friend and spiritual advisor to the Romanov royal family. In early 20th century Russia, still dominated by religion and infected by spiritualism and superstition, men like Rasputin commanded enormous interest and respect. Rasputin was a paradox: a holy man in the guise of an unwashed, foul-mouthed peasant. By day he was a spiritual advisor to royals and aristocrats, at night he crawled the streets of the city, guzzling cheap wine and seeking out sexual conquests. That such a creature could work his way into the palaces of the Romanovs was remarkable and worrying enough. But by 1916 Rasputin appeared to many as a malevolent puppeteer, pulling the strings of the tsarina and manipulating the government. He had to be stopped – and stopped he was, though not without bringing considerable shame and discredit to the tsarist regime.
Rasputin was born in Siberia in 1869. Almost nothing is known of his childhood except for the members of Rasputin’s immediate family. Later accounts tell of the young Rasputin demonstrating psychic or telepathic powers, though these stories are apocryphal and not supported by evidence. Rasputin married at a young age and later embarked on a pilgrimage, travelling by foot to Greece and the Holy Lands. In late 1904 Rasputin journeyed to St Petersburg, possibly inspired by stories that the newborn tsarevich Alexei was sickly and unlikely to live. He arrived in the capital, won over the local bishop and soon acquired a reputation as a preacher, a spiritual counsellor and a faith healer. One of Rasputin’s clients – and probably also one of his lovers – was Anna Vryubova, a lady-in-waiting and a confidante to Tsarina Alexandra. Though she later denied this, Vryubova recommended Rasputin to the tsarina sometime in early 1905, suggesting that his prayers might benefit her son.
“Ordinary people lined up outside his home every day to ask help in getting an apartment, to request letters of introduction for jobs as clerks, for auditions at theatres, or to beg for help in keeping their sons out of the army. Rasputin could help the little people because the important people he had helped owed him favours. ‘I can do anything’ he said, and because he could get results so often, he was believed. His confidence grew with each success and with it, his ego.”
Ted Gottfried, historian
Rasputin’s ministrations had an immediate effect on the ailing tsarevich and he became a regular fixture in the Romanov court. The tsarina was convinced that Rasputin’s presence reduced the frequency and intensity of Alexei’s haemophiliac episodes. Whether this was truly the case – and if so, how it was done – remains a matter of historical debate. Some have claimed that Rasputin hypnotised the boy or simply put him at ease; either might have benefited his condition. Rasputin also pushed away several doctors, whose interference may have been worsening Alexei’s haemophilia rather than improving it. Whatever the reality, the tsarina came to associate Rasputin’s presence with her son’s health and happiness. The tsar was somewhat more sceptical about Rasputin but he was not inclined to question or challenge a religious figure. There was also the impact on his wife to consider (“better one Rasputin than ten fits of hysterics a day”, Nicholas once said in private).
The Romanovs supplied Rasputin with an apartment in St Petersburg and he became a regular visitor to both the Winter Palace and Tsarskoye Selo. When not with the royal family Rasputin provided spiritual advice – and sometimes sexual services – to at least two dozen upper-class women. When not with them he could be found drinking heavily in the city’s bars and cafes, dancing the kasachok and cavorting with prostitutes. Rasputin’s connections to the royal family were no secret, in fact, he openly boasted that the tsarina and the throne were in his hands. This information was fodder for the city’s scandal sheets and socialist propagandists. Rumours of a sexual relationship between Alexandra and Rasputin worsened in 1912 when one of her letters was leaked to the press. “I kiss your hands and lay my head upon your blessed shoulders”, Alexandra wrote to Rasputin. “All I want is to sleep, sleep forever on your shoulder, in your embrace”.
The situation worsened in September 1915, when the tsar left to take command of the army, asking Alexandra to manage domestic affairs in his absence. The German-born tsarina was already the target of scurrilous rumours that questioned her loyalty to Russia. She was variously accused of selling Petrograd’s food supplies to the Germans through an intermediary; and of having a radio transmitter under her bed so she could communicate with Berlin. Though there is no concrete evidence of treachery, Alexandra was a political incompetent who was spellbound by Rasputin and prepared to do anything he proposed. Rasputin’s most visible impact on the government was to demand the replacement of ministers, usually to curry favour with his benefactors and drinking partners. Between September 1915 and February 1917 Russia went through four prime ministers, three war ministers and five interior ministers – most of them replaced at Rasputin’s behest. This ministerial leapfrogging destabilised an already foundering government.
Rasputin was a godsend for socialists and reformists, who pointed to his political interference and lurid nocturnal activities as evidence that tsarism was rotten to the core. Articles and cartoons depicted the tsar under Rasputin’s spell or dancing to his music; coarser examples played on the possibility of a sexual relationship between Rasputin and the tsarina. Consternation about Rasputin was particularly strong in the Duma and among conservative aristocrats, who were fearful that the ‘mad monk’ might single-handedly bring down the dynasty. In late 1916 a trio led by Prince Felix Yusupov, a minor royal, concocted a plan to murder Rasputin as a means of protecting the Romanovs. Rasputin was lured to Yusupov’s Petrograd palace, plied with wine and fed cakes baked with large amounts of cyanide. When this failed to work, the three conspirators stabbed and shot Rasputin then threw his body into the icy Neva River. Rasputin’s murder was intended to save tsarism – but the end of tsarism was already imminent, perhaps even inevitable.
1. Rasputin was a Siberian preacher, spiritual advisor and faith healer who arrived in St Petersburg in 1904.
2. He became a regular counsellor to the tsarina because of his ability to ease the suffering of her haemophiliac son.
3. In time Rasputin won the tsarina’s trust while acquiring a reputation as a notorious drunk and philanderer.
4. From late 1915 he provided Alexandra with political advice, leading to the sacking and turnover of ministers.
5. Rasputin was also the focal point of tsarist propaganda and his presence threatened to bring down the dynasty. As a result, he was assassinated by a conservative clique in December 1916.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, John Rae and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Grigori Rasputin” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/grigori-rasputin/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].