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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Rasputin, The Tsarina and the fall of the Autocracy

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.)


Alysia said...


Thanks for a great article about this fascinating time in Russian history. I was a Russian history major in college, and I still remember the day we discussed the almost farcical events surrounding Rasputin’s murder. He was poisoned, shot three times, and bludgeoned with a dumbell, and yet there was evidence indicating he was not dead when they threw his body in the river - his hands were frozen in a raised position and there was water found in his lungs during the autopsy. I visited Yusupov Palace in 1996, and they walked us through the events of the night and the rooms where they occurred. It was amazing!

You are correct that Rasputin's death came too late to save the Romanov Dynasty, but in a way I think it also made things worse since the mysticism surrounding Rasputin’s death made people even more suspicious of the royal family.


Angelyn said...

Great post---well-condensed overview of Rasputin's fatal influence on the Tsarina. I think the British were suspicious of the family as well because they were not allowed sanctuary in England, despite the efforts of George V.

Emma said...

Alysia, you are absolutely correct. And the behavior of the Imperial Family didn't help. Purishkevich, Yusupov and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich--the three main assassins--were never jailed, tried or convicted. They were exiled. In the Grand Duke's case, that may have saved his life but the message sent to the Russian people, specifically to Russian peasants, was that these three men had murdered Rasputin with impunity. After all, Rasputin was, like them, a peasant. Yusupov was titled nobility and one of the richest men in Russia. The Grand Duke Dmitry was the Tsar's nephew and had been practically raised by the Tsar and Tsarina. He was even considered as a husband for the Tsar's oldest daughter. Purishkevich was also very wealthy and a leading right wing conservative.

Rasputin's murder underlined how weak the autocracy was that they could not protect him. If Rasputin, who was so close to the Imperial Family, could be killed what about the Tsar himself?

The failure to punish his killers was also a mistake. It told the peasants there was no justice because, this time, there was no question Tsar knew what had been done. And, yet, he did nothing.

There is a remarkable account by a noble woman volunteering as a nurse at a hospital. (I wish I could remember the source.) She said everyone at the hospital--doctors, nurses, officers, administrator--was buzzing about the assassination, overjoyed it had happened. Not the patients. Thinking they hadn't heard, she told one man, a wounded soldier/peasant, haven't you heard, Rasputin has been killed. He glared at her in anger and silence. She said that was the first time she realized the gap between rich and poor and the first time she understood the murder of Rasputin might have been a mistake.

Emma said...

Angelyn, both the French and the British were at their wits end. Just prior to the Revolution, Paleologue wired his government "I am obliged to report that at the present moment the Russian empire is run by lunatics." I'd say the British shared his opinion. There is even speculation the British were involved in the assassination of Rasputin--they wanted him gone--but I really haven't been convinced on that point yet.

Initially, the British said they would take the royal family. The difficulty was both Nicholas and Alexandra were unpopular and there was fear that granting them asylum might turn the British public against the British throne. Fearing revolution, the offer was withdrawn.

Oddly, it was the Kaiser who appeared to be most concerned with getting the family out and, given Germany's relationship with the Soviet government, he may have had the best chance of succeeding. But, with the two countries at war, neither Nicholas nor Alexandra would consider accepting his help. Nor would they part with their children. His efforts came to nothing.

Alysia said...

Perhaps the Kaiser was so willing to help because Nicholas & Alexandra were of German heritage (as were all of the Romanovs following the reign of Catherine I).

I love this group. It's so nice to be able to discuss history with such knowledgeable colleagues. I look forward to reading your upcoming posts.


Emma said...

That, yes, and guilt. The Germans sent Lenin back to Russia.

I love your comment about the group. My niece, who is tech savvy and a good blogger is always warning me to watch my word count. She's right but we're history nuts! Good grief, if Antiques Roadshow decided to pull a marathon I'd probably clear my calendar to watch!

marybelle said...

Such a tumultuous period in history. Absolutely fascinating.

Anonymous said...

There was a book written in the 1960s (I think) and
a film based on it produced in 1971.
I thought they were excellent. You really got
an understanding of the luxury of the court and
the feeling of helplessness concerning the
Tsarevich and the events which led to the revolution of 1917.

Emma said...

Marybelle, thank you. I love the whole time period.

Emma said...

Anonymous, by any chance was that Robert Massie's biography, Nicholas and Alexandra? I remember reading that and, yes, it was great. I will have to check out the movie.

Caroline Clemmons said...

This story has long fascinated me. Thanks for sharing.

Emma said...

Caroline, thank you for stopping by!

Mrs. C said...

Well, having spent a dozen years researching my book on Rasputin ("Rasputin and the Jews: A Reversal of History"), I must tell you that many of the assertions are myth. I began my research with the memoirs of my great great uncle, who was Rasputin's secretary.

As my book is summarized on Amazon:
"This book is a well-documented account of Rasputin as a healer, equal rights activist and man of God, and why he was so vilified by the aristocracy that their vicious rumors became accepted as history. For nearly a century, Grigory Rasputin, spiritual advisor to Russia's last Tsar and Tsarina, has been unjustly maligned simply because history is written by the politically powerful and not by the common man. A wealth of evidence shows that Rasputin was discredited by a fanatically anti-Semitic Russian society, for advocating equal rights for the severely oppressed Jewish population, as well as for promoting peace in a pro-war era. Testimony by his friends and enemies, from all social strata, provides a picture of a spiritual man who hated bigotry, inequity and violence. The author is the great-great niece of Aron Simanovitch, Rasputin's Jewish secretary."

I also have an article, extracting some of the material from my book, on Yahoo at:

He is not the first example of history being distorted by those in a position to do so, and I'm sure he won't be the last.

Also, Rasputin had nothing to do with the downfall of the dynasty. The Tsar treated his people miserably. Most were overworked, in horrid conditions, and underfed. The Jews were confined to a ghetto called The Pale of Settlement and were subjected to regular raids, called 'pogroms', where the Tsar's henchmen would torture and slaughter entire villages of Jews. The people were unhappy-that's why there was a revolution - as there was one in 1905, before Rasputin was known to the royals.

Emma said...

Mrs. C, I agree with a lot of what you say. Rasputin was hated and vilified by both the right and left and there were any number of rumors about him. One of the biggest--and most damaging--was that he was the Tsarina's lover.

There is also no doubt Nicholas was an incompetent ruler, an anti-semite and well hated, not only at home but abroad, for his actions.

I don't think I'd use the word pacifist but, certainly, by 1913, it was pretty clear Rasputin opposed Russia's involvement in a war as did those leaders and government officials who had the eyes to see how ill prepared she was. And, I also agree, I've never read anything that suggested Rasputin was an anti-semite, unlike some of the more conservative clergy men of his time.

Would the revolution have happened without Rasputin? Who knows. I think, probably, yes. The situation in Russia was so bad and so much of the hunger and suffering had to do with a government that was probably as corrupt as it was incompetent that a collapse was probably inevitable. Certainly, by 1917, things were definitely falling apart.

I do think an argument can be made for Rasputin's assassination providing the catalyst that pushed the collapse forward. And, then, odds are the German government would have sent Lenin and Company back to destabilize the government even further. So, I agree, revolution was probably inevitable. However, I also believe Rasputin played a role.

pptiger tiger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thank you Mrs. C for shedding new light on rasputin´s life. I believed that he was part of a sect and that he had some affairs but now I realized I had not questioned or researched enough on him. I feel what you say is more coherent with a spiritual person who could heal. Thank you again. AndrĂ©s

Anonymous said...

Dear Emma
This is really nice. :D
We had read about the Russian Revolution in school and there was just a mention about the name Rasputin. I had also heard the song by Boney M and was really curious about this man. Wikipedia was too boring. You made the story sound really interesting. :)

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for such great information, I was searching for correct information from a long time. Finally got it! thank you once again :)