No other figure in recent Russian history has received the amount of vilification and contempt heaped upon Gregory Rasputin. The self-styled monk, who received practically little education in the intricacies of the Russian Orthodox faith, came from the rural areas of Russia and achieved great recognition as a "staretz," or holy man in the highest circles of St. Petersburg society. From rags to social prominence the life of Gregory Rasputin holds many of the events leading to the eventual overthrow of the Russian imperial system, the dethronement of the House of Romanov and the assassination of the Imperial Family.
Gregory Efimovich Rasputin came from solid peasant stock. Gregory Efimovich was born on January 10, 1869, in Prokovskoe, a small village in Siberia on the banks of the Tura River. As a young lad, Rasputin shocked his village by constantly finding ways to get into trouble with the authorities. Drunkenness, stealing and womanizing were activities particularly enjoyed by the dissolute young man. Rasputin in fact was developing into a rake, a man with a debauched, and endless, sexual appetite.
It was while on one of his escapades that Rasputin was first impacted by the mystical powers of the Russian Orthodox religion. At Verkhoturye Monastery Rasputin was fascinated by a renegade sect within the Orthodox faith, the Skopsty. Followers of the Skopsty firmly believed that the only way to reach God was through sinful actions. Once the sin was committed and confessed, the penitent could achieve forgiveness. In reality, what the Skopsty upheld was to "sin to drive out sin." Rasputin, one of the biggest sinners of the province, was suddenly struck by the potential held by this theory. It was soon thereafter that the debauched, lecherous peasant adopted the robes of a monk, developed his own self-gratifying doctrines, traveled the country as a "staretz" and sinned to his heart's content.
By the time he reached his early thirties, Rasputin had traveled to the Holy land and back. It was while in Kazan that the mysterious traveling monk made an impression among the local clergy. It was with the recommendations of these fooled priests that Rasputin headed to St. Petersburg for his first visit. While in the Russian capital, Rasputin's presence attracted the attention of many of the country's leading religious leaders. The staretz' traveling tales, as well as the stories he told about his religious revival, seemed to capture the attention of the higher clergy of the Russian empire. The year was 1902.
The Tsar's death seemed imminent as his once strong body caved under the strain of his sickness. No one would have thought that Tsar Alexander III, a giant by most accounts, would be dead before his fiftieth year. And no one was more terrified by the events unfolding at the Imperial compound at Livadia, in the Crimea, as the young heir, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. At the time of his father's death in late 1894, Nicholas was an inexperienced youth wholly unprepared for the great task destiny had placed on his shoulders. Nicholas himself was terribly aware of this and upon his father's death, the new Tsar consoled himself by asking God to give him the guidance and strength to carry out the impossible burdens of ruling the complex and vastly complicated Russian empire.
Nicholas II was barely twenty-six years old at the time of his accession. During his son's golden youth, Alexander III did not allow his son Nicholas much participation in affairs of government. It is likely that Alexander III feared that his eldest son was not intellectually capable of handling the inheritance that was rightfully his. Therefore, the father kept postponing the son's introduction in to the daily running of Russia. Not one person, most of all Alexander III, ever imagined that this young and inexperienced Romanov would ascend the throne as early in life as he did.
Nicholas II's mother, the Empress Maria-Feodorovna, was largely responsible for continuing her son's adolescence into his twenties. The Empress, a doting mother at best, refused to let her children grow. These behavior would have dire consequences in the future, particularly as the responsibilities of royal life entered the lives of her children. Not only would Nicholas marry a princess whom Maria-Feodorovna and Alexander III did not like, but also her other surviving son, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich married a twice-divorced commoner. The misfortune of her children was also extended to the imperial couple's youngest daughter, the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, who was forced to marry Duke Peter of Oldenburg, a minor German princeling whose family had settled in Russia and who was notoriously known as one of the most scandalous members of St. Petersburg society.
Alexander and Maria-Feodorovna's opposition to Nicholas' marriage caused the dying Tsar much distress. Years before, Nicholas had made the acquaintance of Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine who was the youngest sister of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas' uncle Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich. Alix was also the granddaughter of Prince Charles of Hesse and by Rhine, who in turn was a brother of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, mother of Tsar Alexander III. Thus, Nicholas and Alix were third cousins. More importantly, at least from a dynastic standpoint, Princess Alix was one of the favorite granddaughters of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Still, Alexander and Maria-Feodorovna saw Alix as a very poor choice for a bride and opposed Nicholas' intentions to marry his melancholic German love.
The threat of Nicholas remaining unmarried and thus risking the imperial succession ultimately forced Alexander and Maria-Feodorovna to consent to their son's marriage. At Coburg, during the marriage of Grand Duke Ernst-Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine, Alix's brother, to Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Nicholas finally obtained Alix's consent to his marriage proposal. The developing relationship between Nicholas and Alix overshadow the wedding celebrations of Victoria Melita and Ernst-Ludwig, an affront that the Coburg bride would never forget.
Alexander III died at the age of forty-nine on October 20, 1894. He was at the imperial palace in Livadia, the Crimea, and was surrounded by his afflicted family. Nicholas and Alix, who soon after the Tsar's death joined the Russian Orthodox church as Alexandra Feodorovna, were married within a week of Alexander's death. The marriage took place in the midst of the overwhelming mourning that had engulfed the lives of all the members of the imperial family.
There is very little question that Nicholas and Alexandra loved each other intensely, even to the point of isolating themselves from the rest of their family and the country as a whole. They were happiest when away from society and surrounded by the seclusion of their official residence at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. Within a year of their hasty wedding, the couple became parents to a plump little girl, the Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaievna. Three more daughters were to follow: Tatiana Nicholaievna born in 1897, Maria Nicholaievna born in 1899 and Anastasia Nicholaievna born in 1901. Loving as they were as parents, Nicholas and Alexandra were deeply concerned at their inability to provide an heir to the imperial throne. After the birth of their fourth daughter, the couple desperately sought all sorts of help to insure that the next child would be a boy. The desire for Alexandra to produce a boy developed into an fixation. Mystics, faith healers and staretz' found themselves in great demand at the Alexander Palace. Most of these people were of doubtful reputation but since they were sponsored by the Grand Duchesses Militza and Anastasia, daughters of King Nicholas of Montenegro and married to two of Nicholas' cousins, Nicholas and Alexandra received them with intense hopes that the arrival of a son would thus be guaranteed.
By late 1903 Alexandra found herself pregnant again. Intense praying and mysticism accompanied her throughout the pregnancy, and finally on July 30, 1904, a little boy was born. Nicholas and Alexandra called him Alexis in memory of the second Romanov tsar. The heir became the center of the family's attention as a delighted imperial couple reveled in the joy of finally having an heir they could call their own. Despite the couple's delight, within months of Alexis' birth a dark cloud settled over the imperial nursery. Alexis's body, once injured, would not stop bleeding. The Tsarevich was another victim of the dreaded disease inherited from his great-grandmother Queen Victoria, Hemophilia. Nicholas accepted this new trial with stoic fatalism, Alexandra blamed herself for her son's affliction. The Tsar's brother-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Michaelovich, once said that Alexandra "refused to surrender to fate...she talked incessantly of the ignorance of the physicians. She professed an open preference for medicine men. She turned toward religion...but her prayers were tainted with a certain hysteria. The stage was set for the appearance of a miracle worker."
At the time of Alexis' birth several of Queen Victoria's descendants were sufferers of the disease. Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, wife of Prince Henry of Prussia, had two hemophiliac sons. Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, had died as a result of a bleeding. Some of the Queen's other granddaughters, Princess Victoria of Battenberg and Princess Alice of Albany, would pass the disease to their children. Alexandra Feodorovna and her sister Irene had lost a brother to the disease as well. It seemed to many that the price for marrying into Victoria's powerful family was running the risk of bringing hemophilia into the royal palaces of Europe.
The first decade of Alexandra's life in Russia were married by the continued absence of a male heir. The second decade of her life among the Romanovs was devastated by the disease that martyred her only son. When hemophilia first manifested itself in Alexis, Nicholas wrote in his diary that "it was a dreadful thing to have to live through such anxiety." By the time Alexis was one year old, he again was afflicted by a more serious bleeding episode. The imperial couple's anxiety was accentuated by doctors who told them they "had to realize that the heir apparent will never be cured of this disease. The attacks of hemophilia will recur now and then..."
In the midst of this tragedy within the imperial family, Rasputin returned to St. Petersburg after a two-year hiatus. Initially, Rasputin moved prudently in the Russian capital's aristocratic circles. He tried, unsuccessfully, to restrain his debauched, womanizing ways, yet temptation was overwhelming. Within months, Rasputin, the saintly sinner, had achieved recognition and a small following in St. Petersburg. Besides gaining the friendship of Grand Duchess Militza and Anastasia, Rasputin also gained the trust of Anna Vyrubova, Empress Alexandra's trusted companion. It was under the recommendation of the Grand Duchesses and Anna Vyrubova that Rasputin was summoned to appear before Alexandra.
Rasputin managed to bring calm and hope into the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. Most importantly, the staretz was capable of putting a stop to the Alexis' bleedings. Many people have tried to explain the nature of Rasputin's power over the poor little boy. Some have claimed that Rasputin did indeed have holy powers. Others, believe that Rasputin was able to hypnotize Alexis and therefore cause the bleedings to stop. However Rasputin managed to stop Alexis' suffering, the truth of the matter was that he gained Nicholas and Alexandra's undivided support.
As the monk's star rose in St. Petersburg, so did the number of his enemies. Many of the Orthodox clergymen who had initially supported Rasputin became skeptical about his relationship with the imperial couple. St. Petersburg society also failed to understand the bonds that brought Rasputin into such close proximity to the throne. Nicholas and Alexandra had refused to inform their subjects about Alexis' sickness, thus it baffled many to see the imperial couple in dealings with such a lecherous rake as Rasputin. Soon enough, the rumor mills of St. Petersburg accused Alexandra of being romantically, and even sexually involved with the monk. More pernicious gossips even extended the rumors to include the couple's four daughters who supposedly had become Rasputin's sex toys. It is inconceivable that someone as upright and unbending as Alexandra would have ever considered such vile behavior. Yet it is also inconceivable that the rumors were allowed to continued while the reputation of the imperial couple fell to pieces. No one was more responsible for the growing rumors than Rasputin himself. During his many drunken parties, the monk would boast of his exploits with the Empress and her daughters, even going as far as proclaiming that the Tsar was at his fingertips.
Nicholas's secret police quickly informed the Tsar of these rumors. A penitent Rasputin was summoned to appear before the infuriated Tsar, but Alexandra defended the staretz. Nicholas punished Rasputin by sending him back to the provinces, but no sooner had Rasputin left when another bleeding crisis almost killed Alexis. Rasputin's influence over the boy guaranteed the monk's return to St. Petersburg. His position within the imperial circle was never again challenged. Alexandra grew completely dependent on the man, who not only became her son's faith healer, but also the Empress' confidant. The evil monk's presence among the Tsar and his family would further alienate them from the capital and all those circles that had traditionally been the mainstay of tsarism. Nicholas and Alexandra were doomed from that point on.
On June 28, 1914, while the Russian Imperial Yacht Standart sailed along the Baltic coastline, the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Habsburg and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. Within weeks of this vile act of regicide all of Europe was in a flurry of prewar preparations. The great moment to define European mastery had arrived. The arrival of war surprised practically everyone. At the time of Franz-Ferdinand's assassination no one in Europe believed the act would lead to war between the great empires of the time. The Tsar continued on his cruise, the Kaiser sailed along the Norwegian coast, the French President prepared his entourage for a state visit to St. Petersburg. All along the continent European royalty visited their royal cousins in countries that were about to declare war on each other.
When Vienna decided to declare war on Serbia, using the involvement of Serbian government officials in the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand as an excuse, Russia could not stand idly by. On one opportunity when Austria had annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Nicholas had been unable to come to the rescue of his fellow Slavs. On this new affront to Slavdom, the Tsar took a stand and geared his country for war against Austria-Hungary. Germany being Austria's ally, a move against Vienna would mean that St. Petersburg would also have to fight Berlin. Paris and London watched hopelessly as the crowned heads of Europe forgot their family ties and recent summer visits to take up the dangerous flag of nationalism. A state of war between the Russia and Germany and Austria was declared by the first week of August.
However bellicose the Russians felt, the country was completely unprepared to fight against formidable enemies such as Germany and Austria. The Russian supply lines were inefficient, there were not enough rifles for as many soldiers as Russia had, new recruits were often sent to the front without even the proper clothing and not enough ammunition. Corruption within the Russian weapons' supply system was rampant and several army officers made vast fortunes at the expense of the lives of hundred of thousands of Russian victims. The leadership of the Russian military forces was given to the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich, a cousin of the Tsar and the husband of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the woman responsible for sponsoring Rasputin. Grand Duke Nicholas desperately tried to reverse the initial Russian losses, but given the resources he had this was a Herculean task. Consequently, the country's military effort continued to suffer dismal setbacks. Rasputin himself sent a note to the Grand Duke Nicholas offering t visit his headquarters to bless the troops, but the Grand Duke Nicholas, one of Rasputin's most vehement opponents, replied "Yes, do come. I'll hang you."
The Grand Duke Nicholas' reactions towards Rasputin exemplified the high level of frustration felt by the Romanov family concerning the relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra and the hated monk. As the war progressed, the Russian government simply collapsed under the weight of the enormous efforts demanded by the armies and the obtuse leadership provided by Tsar Nicholas II. It certainly did not help matters when it was discovered that Nicholas was also relying on Alexandra for the day-to-day handling of governmental affairs. And since Alexandra and Rasputin were in close contact, many believed that indeed it was Rasputin who had become the true lord of All the Russias. Nicholas's family, even his mother, desperately tried to have the monk removed from the imperial couple's proximity. The Romanovs, never really fond of Alexandra, constantly approached the Tsar and demanded that Rasputin be sent away. Nicholas, blinded by his love for Alexandra and fearful of risking Alexis' life, rudely dismissed his family's entreaties. Rasputin's influence continued and the Imperial Family's image continued to be tainted with opprobrium and scandal emanating from the actions of the evil monk.
Nicholas II's biggest mistake was dismissing Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich in 1915 and assuming command of the Russian armies. Inefficient as a ruler, mainly due to his lack of preparation for the office, Nicholas II was a dismal military commander as well. Encouraged by his wife, who had a deep dislike for the Grand Duke Nicholas, the Tsar convinced himself that his place was among his troops. Consequently, Nicholas left Petrograd, as the capital was then called to avoid using a German sounding name, and headed for military headquarters. In his place, and to act in his stead, Nicholas II left none other than his beloved Alexandra. The Empress, regardless of her later martyrdom and previous suffering, was simply the most incompetent choice available to Nicholas. If Rasputin's influence with Alexandra was checked by Nicholas prior to his departure, now that Tsar was away from Petrograd Rasputin became the Empress' chief counsel. The Russian imperial government basically disintegrated as ministers were fired and quickly replaced by many of Rasputin's supporters. Accountability for the growing corruption within the government simply disappeared as the country headed towards utter chaos and ruin. Regradless of the martyrdom suffered by Nicholas, Alexandra and their children, one cannot ignore the damaging role played in the demise of the Romanovs by Alexandra. Incapable of ruling, married to a husband who would have been happiest as a country squire instead of a Tsar of All the Russias, Alexandra's attempt at single-handedly governing Russia was doomed to failure. Isolated from Russia's realities, blinded in her devotion to Rasputin, fearful for her son's survival, Alexandra was in no position to effectively fill the absence left by Nicholas' decision to join his armies. Indeed, both Nicholas and Alexandra are greatly, if not solely, responsible for the ignominious end the Romanov dynasty faced in 1917-18.
Frustrated by their inability to break down the walls built by Nicholas and Alexandra, some members of the Romanov family took events into their own hands. How many of the Romanovs were involved in the actual plotting to assassinate Rasputin will never be known for certain. What is widely accepted is that the Tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich and Prince Felix Youssoupov, husband of Nicholas II's niece Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia, were among the leaders of the plot to strike against Rasputin. The monk, always frustrated by the Romanov's opposition to his role in Russia, was invited by Youssoupov to attend an evening gathering at his vast Petrograd palace. Felix promised Rasputin that his wife Irina would be there to greet him. The monk fell in the trap and willingly arrived at the Youssoupov palace in the evening of December 16, 1916. He did not survive the evening.
Several excellent books recount in detail the events that took place at the Youssoupov palace, among them Greg King's "The Man Who Killed Rasputin," Alex de Yonge's "Rasputin," Robert K. Massie's monumental "Nicholas and Alexandra," and Prince Felix Youssoupov's "Lost Splendour." During the fateful last evening of Rasputin's life, the conspirators drugged, poisoned, beat and shot him. Yet the staretz survived all these and actually died by drowning when his body, wrapped in a carpet was thrown into the Moika Canal on the Neva River.
By the morrow Prince Felix Youssoupov was under questioning by the Petrograd police. So messy had been the assassins that proof of their deed was found all over the Youssoupov palace. Within hours of the report concerning Rasputin's disappearance, the Petrograd police by orders of Alexandra, forbid the conspirators from leaving the Russian capital. As soon as he received news of events in Petrograd Nicholas boarded his train and hurriedly returned to the capital. Rasputin's corpse was discovered under the ice of the Neva on December 19. The fury and outrage expressed by Nicholas and Alexandra knew no bounds as they sought to punish all of the conspirators. At the same time, news of Rasputin's death caused widespread eruptions of rapture in Petrograd. Dimitri and Felix were heralded as heroes and many believed that the "alleged" German influence represented by Alexandra was going to stop.
While the Petrograd elite enjoyed their supposed liberation from Rasputin's clutches, the vast majority of the Russian population saw the events in a completely different light. For 80% of the Russian population Rasputin was a "man of the people." He was their hope that the imperial couple would never forget the plight of the peasantry. His assassination at the hands of aristocrats, and even members of the imperial family, robbed the upper classes of much support among the inhabitants of their estates.
In the end, Nicholas sent his two wayward relatives into exile. Ironically enough, it was this punishment what allowed Dimitri and Felix to avoid falling in the hands of Bolsheviks during the revolution. Within three months of Rasputin's death, Nicholas lost his throne, the imperial family were imprisoned and many of the Romanov cousins arrested. In then end almost twenty members of the Romanov family were massacred by Bolshevik firing squads. No other epitaph to Rasputin's death better exemplifies the repercussions of the monk's death than that written by Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova, sister, in her Memoirs: "His death came to late to change the course of events. His dreadful name had become too thoroughly a symbol of disaster. The daring of those who killed him to save their country was miscalculated. All of the participants in the plot, with the exception of Prince Youssoupov later understood that in raising their hands to preserve the old regime they struck it, in reality, its final blow."
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