Grigori Rasputin was a Siberian starets (faith healer) who arrived in St Petersburg around 1904. He became an important friend and spiritual advisor to the Romanov family, particularly Tsarina Alexandra. Rasputin’s public behaviour and his interference in government policy, political appointments and even military strategy would have catastrophic consequences for the Romanov dynasty.
A superstitious culture
In early 20th century Russia, still dominated by religion and superstition, men of faith commanded enormous interest and respect. The Romanovs had many religious advisors and attendants, while other royals, aristocrats and members of the upper-class were fascinated with spiritualism and the occult.
Rasputin, while charismatic, was a paradox, a holy man in the guise of an unwashed, foul-mouthed peasant. By day, he served as 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 character could work his way into Romanov palaces and earn their trust was worrying enough. By 1916, Rasputin appeared to many as a malevolent puppeteer, pulling the strings of the Tsarina, manipulating government ministers and meddling in policy.
For loyalists and conservatives, Rasputin had to be stopped before he toppled the dynasty. Stopped he certainly was, though not before bringing shame and discredit to the regime.
The Siberian preacher
Rasputin was born in Siberia and journeyed to St Petersburg in 1905, probably the join the throng of occultists and faith healers making a living from city’s aristocracy.
Learning the infant Tsarevich, Alexei, was dangerously ill, Rasputin arranged an appointment with his mother. Whether by charisma, persuasion, hypnotism or some other force, Rasputin convinced the Tsarina he could ease the boy’s suffering.
The Romanovs supplied Rasputin with an apartment in the capital and he became a regular visitor to the Winter Palace. When not with the Romanovs, Rasputin was often engaged in drunken parties or carousing with low-rent prostitutes. He also provided spiritual guidance – and sexual services, by all accounts – to several society women in St Petersburg.
Servant of the Romanovs
Rasputin came to exert some influence over Alexandra, particularly after the tsar had left to command the army during World War I. During his regular bar crawls, the Siberian preacher openly boasted that the Tsarina, the throne and the Russian government were in his hands. This 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 for the frontline. Before leaving, he asked Alexandra to manage domestic affairs in his absence.
This itself was a grave error. The German-born queen was already the target of scurrilous rumours about her disloyalty to Russia. Some accused Alexandra of selling Petrograd’s food supplies to the Germans through an intermediary; others claimed she kept a radio transmitter under her bed to communicate with the German Kaiser.
There is no concrete evidence of Alexandra’s treachery but she was undoubtedly a political incompetent who was spellbound by Rasputin and far too willing to accept and implement his advice.
Rasputin’s most visible impact on the government was his frequent demands for the replacement of ministers. In most cases, Rasputin did this to curry favour with his benefactors and drinking partners. The Siberian preacher would suggest a ministerial sacking or appointment to the Tsarina, who would encourage her husband to endorse it.
Occasionally, Rasputin’s advice even extended to government policy and military strategy. Several examples can be found in the Tsarina’s correspondence to Nicholas, including suggestions on troop movements and attacks on certain locations. This made Rasputin very unpopular with military commanders like Nicholas Nikolaevich, who were already curtailing the tsar’s own suggestions. Rasputin was likely a factor in Nikolaevich’s dismissal in August 1915.
The effects of this were obvious. Between September 1915 and February 1917, Russia went through four prime ministers, three war ministers and five interior ministers. Most were replaced at Rasputin’s behest. This ministerial leapfrogging destabilised an already unstable and foundering government.
Rasputin was a godsend for socialists and reformists. They pointed to his political interference and lurid nocturnal activities as clear 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 hinted at a sexual relationship between Rasputin and the Tsarina (see above).
The plot against Rasputin
Consternation about Rasputin was particularly strong in the Duma. Conservative aristocrats were fearful the ‘mad monk’ might bring down the dynasty. Others were worried that Rasputin’s meddling was weakening an already struggling government and undermining the war effort. It became clear that Rasputin had to be stopped.
In late 1916, a trio led by Prince Felix Yusupov, a minor royal, concocted a plan to murder Rasputin. The starets was lured to Yusupov’s Petrograd palace, plied with wine and fed cakes laced with large amounts of cyanide. When this failed to work, the three conspirators stabbed and shot Rasputin and 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.
A historian’s view:
“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.”
1. Rasputin was a Siberian preacher, spiritual advisor and faith healer who arrived in St Petersburg in 1904. He became a regular counsellor to the Tsarina due to the treatment of her haemophiliac son.
2. In time Rasputin won the tsarina’s trust and they became friendly and affectionate. While not in her presence, Rasputin acquired a reputation as a notorious drunk and philanderer.
3. From late 1915, Rasputin also provided Alexandra with political advice. He interfered in political appointments by recommending individual ministers be sacked and replaced.
4. Though historians debate his real influence on the government, Rasputin became the focal point of anti-tsarist propaganda, evidence that tsarism was rotten to the core.
5. Conservatives in the Duma and Russian society were concerned that Rasputin could bring down the regime. In December 1916, the Siberian monk was assassinated by a clique led by Prince Felix Yusupov.