Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia, and gained considerable influence in late imperial Russia. Rasputin’s influence over the tsar and tsarina helped discredit the tsarist government and contributed to the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.
Rasputin was born in 1869 into a peasant family in Siberia. As a young man, he joined a religious sect known as the Khlysty and displayed behaviors that some considered shocking and scandalous, including claims of divine visions, healings, and spiritual powers. He eventually made his way to St. Petersburg and embedded himself at court through his friendship with Tsarina Alexandra and by convincing her that he could heal her son Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia.
Rasputin’s growing proximity to the tsarina provoked suspicion and hostility from the Russian Orthodox Church, the aristocracy, and politicians who viewed him as wielding undue influence. His morality, drunkenness, and position at court generated countless scandals in Russian society. During World War I, Rasputin increasingly argued against the war, advancing defeatest views that further discredited him.
In December 1916, a group of nobles assassinated Rasputin, shooting him and dumping his body into the Neva River. However, the myth and legacy of Rasputin lived on. He remains a mysterious figure, viewed by some as a religious charlatan and sexual deviant who manipulated the tsarina, contributed to the fall of the Romanovs, and discredited the Orthodox Church. Others view him in a more sympathetic light as a spiritual seeker with rare gifts.
Rasputin’s Early Life
Grigori Rasputin was born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoe along the Tura River in western Siberia. He was raised in a peasant family and had little formal education. As a young man, Rasputin joined a religious offshoot sect called the Khlysty. This fringe group practiced ecstatic spiritual rituals that involved banned Orthodox practices like self-flagellation. They also engaged in group sex orgies as a way to reach divine grace.
Rasputin later claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary when he was around 18 years old, prompting a religious awakening. He eventually spent months living in a monastery and then as a religious pilgrim. Rasputin traveled widely across Russia and the Orthodox world, visiting Greece and Jerusalem. According to his own telling, it was during this spiritual searching that Rasputin discovered his divine powers of healing through prayer.
To the Russian Orthodox Church, Rasputin was considered a dangerous heretic straying well outside Church teaching and practice. His membership in the banned Khlysty sect immediately marked him as suspicious. And his claimed visions, healings, and religious powers were viewed as spiritual hubris and vanity.
Rasputin had a contradictory reputation for both religious devotion and drunken debauchery. By many accounts, he was a coarse, dirty, womanizing vagrant in his early travels. But he also attracted followers enraptured by his intense spirituality. Rasputin eventually made his way to the capital of St. Petersburg, where his destiny with the royal family awaited.
Rasputin’s Rise to Prominence
Rasputin’s first major connection with the Russian royalty came through Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. In 1905, their infant son Alexei nearly died from internal bleeding due to hemophilia. Rasputin was introduced to Alexandra as a holy man with healing powers who might be able to save her son.
Impressed by Rasputin’s spirituality and bearing, Alexandra became convinced he had been sent by God in answer to her prayers for Alexei. When Rasputin appeared able to relieve Alexei’s suffering through prayer, it cemented his role as a divine miracle healer in Alexandra’s eyes. Rasputin gained her enduring loyalty and trust.
Through Alexandra’s patronage, Rasputin’s access and influence grew at court. He soon became a controversial figure known across Russian society, infamous for his apparent ability to control the tsar and tsarina while indulging his own vices.
To his supporters, Rasputin was a holy man blessed with supernatural powers that helped the crown prince. To his enemies, he was a debauched charlatan manipulating the royal family and meddling disastrously in Russia’s secular governance.
Rasputin’s disreputable reputation was fueled by his own brazen behavior. He drank heavily, held wild parties, openly seduced women, and accepted bribes and favors. The shy and nervous Tsar Nicholas generally avoided Rasputin, but Nicholas highly valued Alexandra’s opinion and she insisted on keeping Rasputin close.
During World War I, Rasputin’s influence reached its peak, as he lobbied strongly for peace. With Nicholas away at the front, Rasputin served as Alexandra’s counselor and as a conduit for people to access the tsarina. Many blamed Rasputin directly for spiraling inflation, food shortages, and Russia’s military defeats after he swayed Alexandra to make poor policy decisions.
Reasons for Rasputin’s Rise
There were several reasons why an outsider like Rasputin was able to gain such proximity to the throne of imperial Russia:
- Alexandra’s desperate need to help her hemophiliac son, Alexei. She fervently believed Rasputin’s prayers and powers could relieve Alexei’s suffering.
- Nicholas and Alexandra’s deep religious faith and fascination with mysticism. They were inclined to place spiritual hopes in Rasputin.
- The exclusion of the Russian nobility from political power, which allowed Rasputin to function as an insider.
- Widespread mistrust of the tsar and tsarina as out-of-touch and controlled by forces like Rasputin.
- Rasputin’s hypnotic personal presence and cunning intelligence in presenting himself as a holy peasant.
Alexandra in particular proved willing to entrust great authority to Rasputin because of her conviction that God had sent him to save her son. Rasputin cleverly played upon this belief and built an almost spellbinding relationship of dependency with the tsarina.
Opposition to Rasputin
Rasputin made many enemies across Russian society as his influence grew. Members of the nobility were appalled by Rasputin’s access to the royal family. Orthodox clergy condemned his religious teachings and activities. Politicians worried about his interference in matters of state.
To the aristocracy, Rasputin represented the dangers of allowing a peasant holy man to meddle with the monarchy. The Orthodox Church hierarchy officially denounced Rasputin as a heretic and a vessel of Satan. He engaged in spiritual practices that the Church deemed to be occultism and sensed a rival in his direct religious bond with the tsarina.
Government ministers and Russia’s allies like Britain and France were horrified that an illiterate Siberian mystic could wield such power over the Tsar. They feared his talk of peace would cause Russia’s withdrawal from World War I before Germany was defeated.
Many Russians believed darkly supernatural forces were at work that allowed a debauched wanderer like Rasputin to seduce the imperial family. Anti-German paranoia during World War I led some to speculate Rasputin was a German agent exerting sinister mind control.
Nicholas stubbornly refused to remove Rasputin despite the desperate pleas from family, the nobility, clergy, politicians, and the public. He continued to trust Alexandra’s instincts on Rasputin’s holiness. But the swelling opposition further discredited the throne and fueled the eventual downfall of Tsarist autocracy.
Assassination of Rasputin
In December 1916, a group of aristocrats led by Prince Felix Yusupov finally took matters into their own hands by assassinating Rasputin. Yusupov invited Rasputin to his home, where he served wine and cakes laced with cyanide. To Yusupov’s astonishment, Rasputin was unaffected by the poison.
Panicked, Yusupov shot Rasputin multiple times before wrapping his body in a carpet and dumping it into the icy Neva River. An autopsy later showed Rasputin survived the poison and gunshots before drowning.
Rasputin was only 47 years old at the time of his murder. Just months after his dramatic death, Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne in March 1917. The Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for 300 years collapsed within a year of Rasputin’s passing.
The mythic image of Rasputin lived on far beyond his death. The lurid rumors around him became anchored in popular culture, music, films, and literature. But history’s judgment remains divided on whether he truly helped precipitate the fall of the Romanovs or was merely a convenient scapegoat after the fact.
Impact on Russian Orthodox Church
Rasputin’s relationship with the imperial family had a damaging impact on the prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church hierarchy’s condemnations of Rasputin were ignored by the Tsar and Tsarina. The fact that such an obviously heretical figure could gain favor with the pious Nicholas and Alexandra discredited the moral authority of the Orthodox clergy.
Rasputin was used as evidence by the Church’s critics to argue that Orthodox Christianity had grown too entangled with mysticism, superstition, and questionable quasi-religious figures like Rasputin. His rise seemed to demonstrate that the Church lacked spiritual discernment and had abandoned its duty to fight harmful spiritual forces.
The Orthodox Church argued in response that Rasputin deliberately hid his most egregious behaviors from the royal family. But nevertheless, Rasputin’s proximity to the devout Tsar and Tsarina undermined the public perception of the Church’s vigilance against heresy and spiritual corruption.
Rasputin became inextricably linked with the fall of the Russian monarchy in the public mind. By extension, the Church also suffered a loss of moral credibility through its failure to remove Rasputin’s pernicious influence. This decline in society’s goodwill toward the Church foreshadowed even greater persecution of organized religion under the Soviet communist regime.
In many ways, the legend of Rasputin exceeds the verifiable facts of his actual life. He remains an enigmatic figure who evokes many contradictions – holy man or heretic, healer or charlatan, peasant visionary or debauched con man.
What is clear is that Rasputin developed an extraordinary relationship of trust and authority with the deeply religious Tsarina Alexandra. Her insistence on keeping him nearby, despite his obvious flaws, tarnished the imperial family’s reputation.
Rasputin’s rise was symbolic of the wider distrust brewing toward the tsarist autocracy in its final years. Although the Romanov dynasty had deeper structural issues sealing its doom, Rasputin’s malign aura played a part in discrediting the royals.
Through his association with the royal family, Rasputin also diminished the moral authority of the Orthodox Church in Russian society. Yet the judgment of history remains split on whether to view him as a charismatic pilgrim or a crazed charlatan who wreaked havoc upon the ruling Romanovs.