December 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the controversial holy man, faith healer and adviser to Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Rasputin’s presence at the Imperial court undermined popular confidence in the ruling Romanov dynasty and he was ultimately murdered by members of the Czar’s extended family and the political elite. Rasputin’s life, reputation and murder are the subject of the December installment of my monthly column in Smithsonian Magazine. I examine Rasputin’s rise to power, theories concerning his ability to alleviate the heir to the throne’s hemophilia and what really happened on the night of his murder.
Sources and Further Reading:
If you are interested on learning more about Rasputin and his impact on the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, I strongly recommend Douglas Smith’s 2016 biography,Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. During the research for his previous book, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, Smith found that almost every prominent Russian in the last years of Czar Nicholas II’s reign had an opinion about Rasputin and his influence. Smith therefore draws on an unprecedented range of source material to determine how Rasputin came to be introduced to the Imperial family, his role at the court of the last Czar and how he developed the larger than life reputation that persists to the present day.
Smith reveals that much of what we think we know about Rasputin is legendary but in the political and social conditions of early twentieth century Russia, what people thought they knew about “the Mad Monk” became even more significant than his actual behaviour. Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs far surpasses all previous biographies of Rasputin and is essential reading for anyone interested in this controversial historical figure.
The quote at the beginning of my Smithsonian article is from the description of Father Zosima, a character who plays a key role in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Zosima dispenses advice and is treated with reverence in the novel, giving a sense of the role of holy men in late Imperial Russian society.
An excerpt from Nicholas II’s letter to his Prime Minister, Peter Stolypin about the first meeting between the Imperial couple and Rasputin is published in A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story, a selection of diary entries, letters and memoir excerpts written by Nicholas and Alexandra and the people closest to them. The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917 (Documentary Reference Collections) has also been published.
Nicholas II’s sister, Grand Duchess Olga, who witnessed Rasputin praying by the bedside of her nephew, Alexei, survived the revolution and eventually settled in Canada. During her last years, she dictated her memoirs to Ian Vorres, which were published as The Last Grand Duchess: Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. There is also a popular biography of Olga, Olga Romanov by Patricia Phenix.
Empress Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting, Sophie Buxhoeveden, also survived the revolution and wrote three sets of memoirs about her time at the Russian court. before the Storm discusses the possibility that Rasputin employed peasant faith healing techniques. Buxhoeveden also wrote The Life & Tragedy Of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress Of Russia. A Biography and Left Behind: Fourteen Months in Siberia During the Revolution, December 1917-February 1919 about the Imperial family and her own experiences during the Russian Revolution.
In Les Romanov: Une dynastie sous le règne du sang (Biographies Historiques) (French Edition), French historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse discusses the theory that Rasputin’s success in alleviating the heir to the throne’s hemophilia symptoms was his insistence that the doctors leave the child alone and stop giving him medications, which may have included aspirin.
The traditional exaggerated account of Rasputin’s murder, including his supposed immunity to poisoned cakes and superhuman strength in his last moments comes from Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin by Prince Felix Yussupov. The Prince was the only one of the murderers who discussed the deed publicly and his sensationalized account remains the most widely known description of Rasputin’s death, informing popular culture.
Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, was the only member of his family to escape Russia after the Revolution. She became a circus lion tamer and cabaret dancer before settling down as a Russian language teacher in the United States. She wrote a number of books about her famous father, including Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth – A Personal Memoir by Maria Rasputin and Patte Barham. Maria Rasputin has been the subject of numerous historical novels including Rasputin’s Daughter by Robert Alexander.