Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin became one of the most infamous figures of Imperial Russia's final years. The "Mad Monk" earned a reputation as a sinister, debauched mystic whose hold over Tsar Nicholas II's wife, Alexandra, was undermining the proper government of Russia. Yet many regarded him as a simple, Godly man who possessed genuine healing powers. Where did the truth lie? The Myths
Rasputin was a self-serving chancer whose malign influence on the Imperial household helped tip Russia into chaos. Or was he just a misunderstood scapegoat? He was murdered by a group of Tsarist nobles irate at his growing influence in the royal household. But was a foreign power also involved in his death?
Controversy surrounded so many aspects of Grigory Rasputin's life that it's no surprise to learn that historians can't even agree on when he was born. The most likely year appears to be 1869, though dates before and after this have been suggested in the past. He was born into a peasant family near Tyumen in western Siberia and, despite having some schooling, grew up illiterate.
Many accounts state that the name Rasputin was a nickname meaning "debauched one" but other sources indicate that Rasputin is simply a fairly common Russian surname. Grigory married young and fathered four children but appears to have been an unsettled man. He underwent some form of religious conversion in his youth and travelled far beyond his homeland, spending time at Mount Athos in Greece and in Jerusalem. By this time, he was styling himself as a "starets", or self-proclaimed holy man.
By 1903, Rasputin had drifted to St Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia. Here, he began to acquire a reputation as a mystic who possessed healing powers. St Petersburg's elite were fascinated by Rasputin, whose wild appearance and staring eyes made him an alluring curiosity among society hostesses.
In 1905, Rasputin was introduced to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. Their young son, Alexsei (pictured, above left, with his father), suffered from haemophilia and frequently experienced bouts of uncontrolled bleeding. In 1908, Nicholas and Alexandra asked for Rasputin's help with Alexsei. He was able to calm the child and ease his condition, possibly by use of hypnosis: there are no definitive explanations of the techniques he employed. From this point onwards, Rasputin had unfettered access to the royal household.
Rasputin's influence on the royal couple and on Alexandra (pictured, left) in particular steadily increased, leading to resentment in court and government circles. In addition, he was drinking heavily and acquiring a licentious reputation – as well as several mistresses. Rumours also circulated that Rasputin was practising a form of ecstatic worship that involved orgiastic sex. Officials tried several times to discredit Rasputin but Nicholas was reluctant to banish someone who had the knack of easing Alexsei's suffering.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Rasputin was still a court fixture. His influence increased in September 1915, when Nicholas left to take personal command of Russia's front line troops, leaving Alexandra in charge of internal affairs. Whatever he was, Rasputin was no statesman. Together, he and Alexandra were responsible for a string of bad decisions, including the appointment of talentless favourites to key government posts.
Anger against Rasputin reached fever point in conservative circles and a group of nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov plotted to kill him. The story of Rasputin's death as told by Yusupov was a gruesome one. In late December 1916, Rasputin was invited to Yusupov's house, where he was given poisoned wine and tea cakes. When the poison didn't work, Yusupov shot Rasputin. The mystic still wasn't dead, so he was shot again, beaten and flung through a hole in the iced-over Neva River, where he drowned.
As if that story wasn't shocking enough, a re-examination of evidence by modern experts suggests that another force was at play in Rasputin's murder – the British Secret Service. British analysts have concluded that a bullet wound to the forehead, not drowning, killed Rasputin and now believe that this fatal injury was the work of Oswald Rayner. Rayner worked for Britain's Secret Service Bureau and was a university friend of Yusupov. The British were concerned that Rasputin, who was opposed to Russia's involvement in the war, wanted to persuade the Tsar to make peace with Germany. If this had happened, hundreds of thousands of German troops would have been released from the east to threaten Allied forces on the western front.
However he died, Rasputin died surrounded by myth and controversy. Was he really a holy man and healer? Or was he just a licentious opportunist? We shall never know for sure, because his activities are separated from us by the huge upheaval of the Russian Revolution, in which many key witnesses, including the Imperial family, were killed.
Rasputin had yoked his fortunes to a dynasty that was dying on his feet. A year after his murder, Imperial Russia was wiped away. The Bolsheviks had bigger fish to fry than the reputation of a man who had made his living hanging around the royal household. The real Rasputin, whoever he may have been, was rapidly consumed by myth.