The Sacred Madman of Russia
The Mad Monk, Rasputin said he was ‘Purifying’ Women by Sleeping with Them
The Russian word “rasputnik” means debauchee. This so irritated the Russian holy man, Grigory Rasputin, that he persuaded Tsar Nicholas II to let him change his name by law. Just before Christmas 1906, he became Rasputin Novy, which means “New Rasputin.” Rasputin later claimed that this name was bestowed on him by the Tsar’s young heir, Alexis. The boy had haemophilia, and it was Rasputin’s supposedly mystical capacity to staunch its effects which gave him such a hold over the imperial couple.
Rasputin was indeed a debauchee, and remained so to his atrocious end. Shortly before his murder, for example, he had what Frances Welch calls “a late night session more or less running into a long lunch” in which he drank 12 bottles of Madeira before passing out. Although he had mesmerising eyes, he was not physically prepossessing: “Following years of use as a napkin, his straggling beard was festooned with decaying food.”
“There’s no remorse without sin,” professed Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), whose mystical powers were reportedly in evidence from the age of 12. His burning eyes and alleged ability to expand and contract his pupils at will brought him dozens of followers during his pilgrimages to Greece and the Middle East. He claimed to have powers allowing him to heal the sick and predict the future, while his lack of personal hygiene and his intimidating complexion were in line with the Russian tradition that viewed mujik (rural peasants) as potential saints. Among many other things, Rasputin was one of the Siberian shamans that healed in the name of Christ, and that was enough to counteract the misery of the world with religious devotion.
Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was born in a dank bog in rural Siberia – a lush, magical, unicorn-breeding ground of an uninhabitable wasteland, where the temperature never gets above freezing and the people are made out of a combination of battle-hardened asbestos.
Grigori Rasputin was born the son of a well-to-do peasant and postal coachdriver in the small village of Pokrovskoe, in the Tobolsk Governorate in the immense West Siberian Plain. The parish register contains the following entry for 9 January 1869: “In the village of Pokrovskoe, in the family of the peasant Yefim Yakovlevich Rasputin and his wife, both Orthodox, was born a son, Grigory.” The next day, he was baptized and named after St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose feast day is on 10 January.
Grigori was the fifth of nine children, perhaps the only who survived. He never attended school, as there was not one in the area. (The first Russian Empire Census in 1897, registered 87.5 per cent of the Siberian population as illiterate.) In Pokrovskoe, a village with 200 dwellings and roughly a thousand inhabitants, Grigori was regarded as an outsider, but one endowed with mysterious gifts. In those days, Rasputin acquired a reputation as a brawler and a libertine. Having a rude attitude towards the district head, he was locked up in jail for two nights; according to Douglas Smith this is the only mention of Rasputin’s criminal past.
On 2 February 1887, Rasputin married Praskovia Fyodorovna Dubrovina (1865/6–1936) and they had three children: Dmitri, Matryona, and Varvara. Two earlier sons and a daughter died young. In 1892 after the death of one of his children, Rasputin left his family and spent several months in a monastery in Verkhoturye. Maybe Rasputin was curious as the monastery was enlarged to receive more pilgrims. Outside the monastery lived Starets Makary, a hermit, whose influence led him to give up tobacco, alcohol, and meat. When he returned to the village, he had become a fervent and inspired convert. His children dreaded the long hours of enforced prayer and fasting “for which everything, anniversaries or penitence, served as an excuse.”
It was said that the family cows produced more milk when he was around and he once solved a horse theft by prophesying correctly that the stolen animal would be found in the home of the richest man in the village.
After a spell in a monastery in his late 20s, he claimed that by sleeping with women he could take on their sins and thus help them find the ‘grace of God’.
‘I don’t degrade you, I purify you,’ he told his female followers as he led them in energetic dances around incense-fragranced fires in nearby forests, after which he would purportedly ‘rejoice’ with each of them.
With mesmeric eyes and an ability to contract and expand his pupils at will, he had plenty of willing disciples, despite his poor personal hygiene.
Every spring he set off on treks to various holy places and boasted of the privations he suffered en route, once claiming he had gone six months without changing his underwear.
One man who encountered him remarked that he smelled like a goat. Others talked of his foul breath and ‘teeth like blackened stumps’.
This did not deter the groups of young women he frequently brought back from his travels. These acolytes were given distinctly unholy nicknames such as ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘Boss Lady’ and ‘Sexy Girl’.
Remarkably, his liaisons with them were tolerated by his wife, Praskovia, who, three years his senior, had married him when he was 18 and remained loyal to him to the end.
‘He has enough for all,’ she once remarked cryptically, referring perhaps to the legendary size of Rasputin’s endowment.
Many could attest to that, including the two sisters, aged 15 and 20, who were invited to join him at a bath-house in the city of Kiev for a session of ‘rejoicing’.
When he was accosted by their outraged mother, he told her that she should feel at peace. ‘The Day of Salvation has dawned for your two daughters,’ he announced grandly.
On 13 October 1906, Rasputin paid a visit to the Imperial family and presented an icon. On request of the Tsar, he visited the next prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin. A few weeks before, 29 people had been killed on Aptekarsky Island in a bomb attack by the Maximalists and two of Stolypin’s children were wounded. Rasputin was invited to pray.
His crazy adventures fornicating with Russian nobility, frightening children, and absorbing dozens of large-calibre gunshot wounds would go on to make him pretty much the most infamous monk of all time.
From his crazy, out-of-control beard to his wild hypnotic maniac eyes, this mystical and mysterious holy man was notorious for his physical and mental strength, his political stranglehold on the Russian Imperial Family, and his incredible ability to read peoples’ weaknesses and manipulate them to carrying out his evil will.
When he entered the gates of Saint Petersburg in 1903, Rasputin was an illiterate peasant nobody who had spent his entire life randomly wandering around the Russian countryside searching for God and one maiden at a time (or sometimes two or three at a time, depending on how energetic he was feeling). Carrying only a Bible and a backpack and wearing little more than beat-up, tar-covered boots and a cheap gray overcoat, this impoverished, half-insane priest decided to settle down in the capital city of Imperial Russia and enter the country’s most prominent monastery. It wasn’t long before his powerful, commanding personality and creepy-weird magical powers asserted themselves among Rasputin’s holy brothers – even the Archbishop of Imperial Russia was convinced that this crazy mysterious monk had the power to control the weather and call down thunderstorms at his whim. Rasputin grew in power, was introduced to a Countess in the imperial court, and immediately started to have sex with every aristocratic he could lay his hands on.
His love of the new expressed itself in his addiction to the telephone. He used to make nuisance calls, vet women for appointments and, with a friend singing a medley of songs down the line, dance “in squats, twirls and stamps”, with the receiver in his hand. He spoke frequently to the Tsarina. The phone in her bedroom stood under a portrait of Marie-Antoinette.
Although disapproved of by the Church authorities, Rasputin acquired huge status as a holy man which he readily exploited with what he called “the little ladies”. He much disliked elderly women, shouting, “Get away, you old carcass!” Young ones had readier access. They would be invited to soap him all over in bath-houses (“Take your clothes off and wash the muzhik [peasant]”). As their spiritual “pilot”, he would incite them into ecstatic dancing and then seduce as many as possible with the cry “Sin is salvation!” E J Dillon, this newspaper’s correspondent, wrote, deadpan: “The simple souls who gathered around him as their saviour were amazed at the ease with which they would qualify for the Kingdom of Heaven.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was the last absolute monarchy in Europe, and Czar Nicholas II had proven to be an unpopular ruler. Fearful of revolution and mired in corruption, the Romanovs also suffered from another significant problem: Czarevich Alexei, the young heir to the throne, had haemophilia, an incurable and then-deadly blood disease. When doctors failed to cure the boy, Nicholas II turned to alternative methods. Around 1906, he and the Czarina Alexandria were introduced to a Siberian holy man. Neither a monk nor a priest, but a peasant pilgrim turned preacher and faith healer, Rasputin made a good impression on the royal couple, and by 1910 was a regular at the Romanov court.
While Rasputin quickly developed a reputation for his heavy drinking, all-night carousing, and unabashed womanizing (one of his best pickup lines was to tell women that they would be purified of all their sins if they had sex with him), it was his powers as a mystic that caught the attention of Empress Alexandra of Russia.
Her son, thanks to centuries of extensive inbreeding on behalf of the European nobility, was born with haemophilia and was pretty much constantly in danger of bleeding to death at any given moment. Alexandra brought Rasputin in to cure the Tsarovitch’s lingering ailment, and, somewhat amazingly, it turned out that the “mad monk” was really remarkable at stopping his haemophilia.
Or it might have been his distaste for the new wonder-drug aspirin, dished out by the Russian court doctors for pain relief and only discovered in later years to be an anti-coagulant which would have worsened the bleeding considerably.
Rasputin was the only person who could apparently do anything regarding the hemophiliac condition of Alexei, whose blood would not coagulate. Their doctor, who had been impressed with his mix of religious fervor and stench, had recommended him to the Romanov family in 1908. What Rasputin did was, of course, the subject of medical debate. During the hemorrhagic episodes, Rasputin would speak with the child, tell him stories and calm him. This may have reduced his arterial pressure and as a result his flow of bleeding. His contemporaries believed that Rasputin could hypnotize people with his eyes and that he possibly hypnotized Alexei with the same calming effect.
Whatever lay behind the cures, the Tsarina’s faith in Rasputin was unwavering and his name became known the length and breadth of Russia.
While his wife remained at home in Pokrovskoye, he took a flat in St Petersburg, where the streets outside became crowded with his followers, the so-called ‘Rasputinki’.
Up to 400 of them at a time were known to gather before sunrise, waiting as long as three days to see him.
His ability to save the child’s life every couple of weeks catapulted Rasputin into the position of Chief Awesome of Imperial Russia, and the Tsar’s family eventually asked the unwashed, sex-crazed priest to move into their home.
Although the czar, czarina, and even the royal doctors (begrudgingly) believed in Rasputin’s healing abilities, his proximity to the throne inspired suspicion and jealousy among the church, nobles, and the public. Rough in manners, fond of drinking, and prone to flirting and even sleeping with his married female followers, Rasputin’s brazen disregard for social norms caused some to speculate about his intentions. A few people even called him a heretic.
His devotees came in search of miracle cures or keep-sakes, including Rasputin’s fingernail clippings. These were much prized, despite one St Petersburg restaurant manager testifying that the Man of God’s hands were ‘grimy, with bitten, blackened nails’.
Since it was known that he had the ears of the ‘Tsars’, as he called them, favour-seekers would file through the lobby, bearing lavish gifts of wine, carpets and even huge fish. Floral tributes were a favourite: ‘Idiots bring fresh flowers every day. They know I love them,’ he swaggered ungraciously.
Those deemed attractive enough to become one of his ‘little ladies’ would, like Sister Maria, be invited to join him in his study. That contained a sofa so over-used that its back eventually gave way.
Reports of such excesses soon spread through Petersburg and those outside the city had other damning tales. At one monastery, the nuns claimed that Rasputin had been conducting orgies and bathing with novices.
Soon his life was being threatened by outraged clerics, including an unhinged monk called Iliodor whose zeal was such that at one point he had accrued 120 bombs with which to dispatch him.
He never deployed them, opting instead to brandish an axe at Rasputin and threaten to castrate him.
In a similar vein, a crazed dwarf Holy Man named Blessed Mitya first punched ‘the true Christ’, as the Tsar apparently called him, and then attempted to pull off his manhood.
Rasputin survived such assaults, but in the years leading up to his death, there was ever more anger about his growing influence at court.
By claiming divine guidance, he could persuade the Tsarina to do almost anything and this also gave him great influence over the Tsar, a colourless and indecisive man who generally went along with his highly-strung wife’s wishes.
‘Better one Rasputin than ten fits of hysterics a day,’ he would say.
His dark legend, full of absurdities and incongruences – as is typical of such improbable figures – is due in part to that premise that he divulged among his followers: first it is necessary to sin in order to then find illumination and divine redemption. It was also due to his sexual and alcoholic indulgences – an intrinsic part of the former and the merely superficial part of the story – but above all, to the fact that the enigmatic Tsar’s wife Alexandra Romanov would be hypnotized by his prayers alone and that Rasputin was able to stem the fatal hemorrhages of Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich.
One of those he worked against was the Tsar’s uncle, the Grand Duke Nicholas, who was hugely distrustful of Rasputin and had once threatened to hang him. In 1915, Rasputin urged the Tsar to remove the Grand Duke from command of the country’s million-strong army and this he agreed to do, even though the country was then engaged in World War I.
Rasputin was also said to be exploiting that war to his own financial advantage, charging 2,000 roubles a time (roughly £200 today) for keeping a soldier from the Front. Other gossip accused him of sleeping with the Tsarina. This was unlikely since she was a woman of such modesty that she assiduously covered the lavatory and bath when they were not in use. But Rasputin inadvertently encouraged the rumours during a drunken dinner at a restaurant in Moscow.
During that period Russia was entering a period of intense crisis and Rasputin enjoyed the total confidence of the Tsarina and therefore the kingdom’s political power. Furthermore, dozens of noble supplicants sought him out for his hypnotic charisma and his prophetic powers, among them several women of Russian high society whose ‘bedroom visits’ ended up being highly controversial. At that time he represented that sexual and mystical flight of those sacred and insane ones of ancient Russia, and soon his relationship with the royal family would become a scandal. The Orthodox Church, which had supported him, now tried to warn the Tsar of his behavior. But Alexandra saw the warnings against Rasputin as direct attacks on her family.
In 1915, Tsar Nicholas II left the capital to fight on the Russian front in the First World War and left Alexandra in charge of domestic affairs. Rasputin was against the war and served as her counselor, and during the following months she ignored the lawmakers and ministers alike. Rumors that she and Rasputin were leaders of a pro-German group began to circulate and there were at least four attempts to kill him, one of them at the hands of a young woman who stabbed him in the stomach. The man survived, but the final onslaught came in 1916, carried out by a lawmaker of the Duma monarchy and two young aristocrats: Felix Yusupov (inheritor of the largest fortune in Russia), and Grand Duke Dimitri, the Tsar’s nephew.
One of the few women with whom Rasputin did not sleep was the Tsarina herself. She was pure, and faithful to her husband. Her unwavering love for the man she always referred to as “Our Friend” was spiritual. Unfortunately, many chose to believe otherwise. Russia, by the time Rasputin had risen to prominence, had a fledgling parliamentary democracy, but the Tsar had never really forsworn absolute power, and was constantly encouraged by his wife to use it. As a result, Rasputin could increasingly employ his favour with the imperial family to affect appointments in church and state, and even the conduct of the First World War, in which Russia was fighting Germany. Since the Tsarina herself was German, people were suspicious of her. Rasputin’s influence was widely seen as disastrous. Without him, wrote Kerensky, the leader of the first of the two Russian revolutions of 1917, “there would have been no Lenin.” When the imperial family were murdered by the Bolsheviks, the Tsarina and four young Grand Duchesses were found to be wearing amulets containing miniature portraits of “Our Friend.”
Fearful of Rasputin’s growing power (among other things, it was believed by some that he was plotting to make a separate peace with the Germans), a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Youssupov, the husband of the czar’s niece, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Nicholas’s first cousin, lured Rasputin to Youssupov Palace on the night of December 29, 1916.
For someone who described himself as ‘a Christ in miniature’ and had inveigled his way into Russia’s imperial court as a much-revered ‘Holy Man’, Grigori Rasputin spent his last day alive indulging in an astonishing amount of debauchery.
That snowy morning had seen him staggering into his St Petersburg flat in the early hours, clearly embracing one of his favourite dictums, that wine was ‘God’s own remedy’.
This was by no means unusual according to the police bodyguards who watched over his home on the direct orders of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Tsarina Alexandra, the last rulers of the doomed Romanov dynasty.
Their reports described Rasputin at various times as ‘very drunk’, ‘dead drunk’ and ‘overcome with drink’. Shortly after returning to his flat, the Man of God, known for his shunning of sleep, was back on the street.
A brief lie-down had set him up for his next trip, to his beloved ‘banya’, the bath-house where he would have his genitals soaped by one of the ‘little ladies’, as he called his female followers, after which they would thrash him with twigs. After this rousing session, he was ready for a brisk walk to the nearest church to renounce Satan. As he said repeatedly: ‘Without sin there is no repentance.’
The evening found him back home, where he finished off his 12th bottle of Madeira wine in as many hours, before receiving a visitor, a plump blonde called ‘Sister Maria’.
His niece Anna, who was there, recalled that this was no sister of mercy. ‘She helped him to remove the tension that apparently took hold of him against his will,’ she recalled.
Rasputin and Sister Maria retired to his study where they set about removing some of that tension. But he could not dally with her for too long for he had one more appointment that night, with a beautiful young aristocrat called Princess Irina. He was to meet her at her sumptuous palace in St Petersburg after her dinner guests had gone home. It was an assignation he was looking forward to, yet one to which he should never have agreed.
For it was in that palace that he was about to meet his bizarre and brutal end — poisoned, beaten and ultimately shot by a gang of his enemies.
The fact that a vague promise of sex should have proved Rasputin’s downfall was unsurprising.
He was, after all, a man who considered the serial seduction of women to be some kind of religious duty.
There are very few facts between the night Rasputin disappeared and the following Monday when his corpse was dredged up from the river. “As far as the Yusupov Palace is concerned, the Police had no right to make inquiries unless invited to do so. The Director of Police was unable to ask the simplest of questions such as who was present at the palace on the night,” and “nothing other than a cursory search was allowed inside.” So the murder of Rasputin has become something of a legend, some of it invented, perhaps embellished or simply misremembered.
Few murderers boast about their crimes. But Prince Felix Yusupov was no ordinary killer, and his prey—the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin—no ordinary victim.
Yusupov’s penchants for transvestite dressing and wild evenings with gypsies show an interestingly unconventional side. His childish pranks (such as letting rabbits and chickens loose in the Carlton Club in London) were much funnier for the perpetrator than the hard-pressed servants who had to clear them up. The humble Siberian peasant bewitched Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Tsarina, with his apparently miraculous powers. His aristocratic assassins, recruited by Yusupov, believed Russia, misruled to the point of collapse, could be saved only if the royal family could be freed of the faith-healer’s malign influence.
On the morning of December 29, 1916, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was startled by a phone call that turned out to be yet another death threat. His daughter, Maria, later remembered that it put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day. That night, at 11 p.m., he gave her a final reminder before she went to sleep: He was going to the Yusupov Palace that evening to meet an aristocrat. It was the last time she saw him alive. Two days later, a search party found a body trapped beneath the ice of the frozen Malaya Nevka River. It was Rasputin: missing an eye, bearing three bullet wounds and countless cuts and bruises. The most infamous man in Russia was dead, assassinated at age 47.
Prince Felix Yusupov—Rasputin’s self-confessed killer and the czar’s cousin—first published his account of the murder, Rasputin, while living in exile in France in 1927. According to his version of the evening, Yusupov walked Rasputin into the Moika Palace at a little after 1 a.m. Upstairs, Yusupov’s four accomplices—Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, conservative member of the Duma Vladimir Purishkevich, Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, and army officer Sergei Sukhotin—lay in wait, passing the time listening to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a gramophone. Yusupov accounted for their noise by explaining that his wife had a few friends over, then led his victim down into the basement. He’d spent all day setting the scene, and had prepared two treats for Rasputin: a bottle of Madeira and several plates of pink petit fours—all laced with cyanide by Dr. Lazovert.
As Rasputin relaxed, eating multiple cakes and drinking three glasses of wine, Yusupov waited. And waited. The “Mad Monk” should have been dead in seconds, but the cyanide seemed to have no effect. Growing worried, Yusupov excused himself to the other room. He returned with a gun, promptly shooting Rasputin in the back. The other accomplices drove off to create the appearance that their victim had departed, leaving Yusupov and Purishkevich alone at the mansion with what appeared to be Rasputin’s corpse.
A strange impulse made Yusupov check the body again. The moment he touched Rasputin’s neck to feel for a pulse, Rasputin’s eyes snapped open. The Siberian leapt up, screaming, and attacked. But that wasn’t the worst part. As Yusupov wrote in 1953, “there was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die. I realized now who Rasputin really was … the reincarnation of Satan himself.”
To hear Yusupov tell it, Rasputin stumbled out of the cellar door into the snow. Purishkevich fired four shots before their victim finally collapsed in a snow bank. Yusupov fainted and had to be put to bed. When the others returned, the body was tied up, wrapped in a fur coat, thrown in a sack, and dumped off the Large Petrovsky Bridge into the river below. In the end, Yusupov said, it had been the first step to saving Russia.
As if Yusupov’s account of Rasputin’s seemingly superhuman strength wasn’t strange enough, another detail from the murder provided by Maria Rasputin and other authors goes farther. When Rasputin’s body was found, his hands were unbound, arms arranged over his head. In her book, My Father, Maria claimed this was proof Rasputin survived his injuries, freed himself in the river, and finally drowned while making the sign of the cross. Although Maria and Yusupov’s accounts had opposing motives, together they inspired the mythic perception of Rasputin as a man who was impossible to kill.
Despite the popularity of Yusupov and Maria’s stories, they have more than a few problems. According to the 1917 autopsy, Rasputin did not drown; he was killed by a bullet.
(While accounts of the autopsy differ, according to the account cited by historian Douglas Smith in his book Rasputin, there was no water in the Siberian’s lungs.) Although it might seem strange that Maria embellished the events of her father’s murder, she had motives to do so: Rasputin’s legend protected her father’s legacy, and by extension her livelihood. The image of his almost-saintly final moments helped turn her father into a martyr, as Rasputin is currently designated by an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church.
When Yusupov published the first version of his “confession,” he was a refugee in Paris. His reputation as “The Man Who Killed Rasputin” was one of his few assets, and it proved so profitable that he became very protective of it. In 1932, while living in the U.S., Yusupov sued MGM for libel over the film Rasputin and The Empress, winning the sole right to call himself Rasputin’s killer. Not only did this lawsuit inspire the mandatory “this is a work of fiction” disclaimer that appears in every American film, it made Yusupov’s claim that he killed Rasputin a matter of legal record. However, even this is a lie. In his memoir, Yusupov admits that Vladimir Purishkevich fired the fatal shot—a fact confirmed in the other man’s account as well.
When the Prince was subsequently implicated in his murder, the Tsar exiled him to one of the Yussoupov family’s far-flung estates, but he dared not punish him further for fear of revolt. Hailed as a hero, the Prince survived the Revolution, and he and Princess Irina lived out their years in the South of France.
The imperial family were not so fortunate, of course, and when they were shot and bayoneted to death by the Bolsheviks in July 1918, their murderers discovered lockets around the necks of the Tsarina and her four young daughters. Each contained a picture of Rasputin.
Others seem to have sought out rather grislier reminders of the mystic-turned-martyr.
An exhibition of erotica at a museum in St Petersburg has claimed to be in possession of his giant pickled pecker, while at the museum in his home village, it’s said men can be cured of impotence simply by sitting on his clumpy wooden chair. At an impressive 11 inches (nearly 30cm) long, and as thick as most men’s wrists, the beastly trouser snake certainly measures up to the reports of Rasputin’s raking rapier –
So faith in Rasputin’s healing powers persists even a century after the passion for women which so dominated his life eventually tempted him to his death.