By Emma Westport
In July 1904, the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress fired 300 times to announce that, after four daughters, Alexandra had given birth to a son. Russia had a Tsarevich. The imperial couple was overjoyed but, within six short weeks, that joy turned to pain. Something was wrong. The slightest bump, the smallest pinch and the baby’s skin bruised. The bruises did not heal. The child cried with pain and neither his mother nor his doctors could offer him relief. Alexei was a hemophiliac.
For Alexandra, the news was devastating. She’d already lost a brother and uncle to the disease and she knew what the future held. Her beautiful boy had almost no chance of surviving to adulthood and, even if he did, he’d never be live or play like a normal child. There was nothing conventional medicine could do.
Alexandra looked elsewhere. In 1905, friends introduced her and her husband to Rasputin. Neither priest nor monk, the uneducated peasant had already earned a repuation as a starets or spiritual teacher. He was also known as a healer and prophet. Did he provide relief to the young Tsarevich? His worst critics admit he did. He also helped the Tsarina deal with her unbearable guilt and suffering--but that help came at a price.
Rasputin's gifts were offset by his drinking and womanizing. Scandal was his constant companion. As his power grew, so did his faults, his behavior becoming increasingly outrageous. Nicholas ignored it—Alexandra denied it—but the scandal was always there. And the stink of it threatened the autocracy. Many believed there was more to the relationship between Alexandra and Rasputin than the sharing of spiritual comfort.
The situation became especially ugly in 1910 and 1911 when Rasputin seduced a woman serving as nurse to the Imperial children. The governess, on hearing the story, objected to Rasputin’s familiarity with the Grand Duchesses. She insisted the Tsarina ban him from the girls’ bedrooms. The Tsarina refused. The nurse and governess were dismissed. Rasputin was now free to come and go as he pleased and the rumors that spread through St. Petersburg now included the young Grand Duchesses.
Nicholas was ineffective in dealing with Rasputin. Unwilling to upset his wife, he ignored police reports and the advice of friends. He even ignored photographs. After a night's carousing, a drunk and naked Rasputin had been photographed surrounded by a circle of nude women. Blackmailers told Rasputin he had a choice. Leave St. Petersburg or the pictures would be given to the Tsar. Rasputin took the photos to Nicholas himself, saying he’d sinned and begging for forgiveness. Nicholas forgave him. But the behavior continued.
In 1914, the first attempt was made on Rasputin’s life. A former prostitute, disfigured by syphilis, disguised herself as a beggar woman and followed Rasputin to his home in Siberia. She asked him for money and, when he stopped to help her, she stabbed him, nearly killing him. Rasputin recovered but his drinking increased.
In 1915, Rasputin tried to seduce a woman at the famous Yar restaurant in Moscow. When the lady refused his efforts a drunken, outraged Rasputin went berserk. He smashed the furniture and mirrors in the private dining room, shouting all the while about his relationship with the ‘old woman,’ the Tsarina, and bragging how he did “with her what I want!” He exposed himself and was finally dragged away by police, fighting and hollering the Tsar would protect him and threatening to get even. The event was witnessed--and publicized--by a journalist who was present.
Alexandra had failings but being Rasputin’s lover was not one of them. Unfortunately, letters she’d written to Rasputin convinced people otherwise. The Tsarina’s flowery language was deliberately misinterpreted and pornographic caricatures of the Tsarina and Rasputin began to circulate.
All this occurred at a time when Russia was experiencing defeats at the front and serious problems at home. With Nicholas taking over command of the armies, Alexandra took a more active role in the government and her decisions were guided by Rasputin. It was a recipe for disaster.
In November 1916, Vladimir Purishkevich, a conservative member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, gave a speech in in which he spoke of spoke of the “filthy, depraved, corrupt peasant” the Tsarina all but worshipped. Rasputin was seen to be at the center of the ‘Dark Forces’ destroying the country.
In less than a month, Purishkevich joined with Prince Felix Yusopov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and a few other conspirators. Together, they would plot the infamous and successful assassination of the starets.
Rasputin was murdered on December 29, 1916. His assassins hoped Rasputin's death would turn things around but it was already too late.
For his part, Rasputin expected assassination. He'd allegedly warned Nicholas and Alexandra that if his death came at the hands of the nobility, neither they nor their dynasty would last more than two years. In that, he was correct. Nicholas abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917. He, his wife and five children were murdered in July 1918.
The 300 year old dynasty had come to an end.
(All dates are new style. The quotes are from Brian Moynahan’s biography, Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned. The photo is from wikimedia.)