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Grigori Rasputin: The life and times

Grigori Rasputin; vilified and contempt

No other figure in recent Russian history has received the amount of vilification and contempt heaped upon than Grigori Rasputin. He was a self-styled monk, who received practically little education in the intricacies of the Russian Orthodox faith. Grigori came from the rural areas of Russia and achieved great recognition as a “staretz”. Notably a holy man in the highest circles of St. Petersburg society. From rags to social prominence the life of Grigori Rasputin holds many of the events. Eventually leading to the eventual overthrow of the Russian imperial system. And finally, the dethronement of the House of Romanov and the assassination of the Imperial Family.

Early life

Grigori Efimovich Rasputin came from solid peasant stock. Grigori Rasputin was born on January 10, 1869, in Prokovskoe. This is a small village in Siberia on the banks of the Tura River. As a young lad, Grigori Rasputin frequently shocked his village. He did this by constantly finding ways to get into trouble. Often 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.

Sins

It was while on one of his escapades that Grigori 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. He developed his own self-gratifying doctrines, traveled the country as a “staretz” and sinned to his heart’s content.

Early thirties

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.

Royal miracle

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. He was consideren a giant by most accounts. Alexander would be dead before his fiftieth year. And no one was more terrified than the young heir. Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich by the events unfolding at the Imperial compound at Livadia. This compound is located in the Crimea. At the time of his father’s death in late 1894, Nicholas was an inexperienced youth. He was wholly unprepared for the great task destiny had placed on his shoulders. Nicholas himself was terribly aware of this. Upon his father’s death, the new Tsar consoled himself by praying to God. He was asking Him to give him the guidance and strength to carry out the impossible burdens. Burdens of ruling the complex and vastly complicated Russian empire.

Nicholas II

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 much participation in governmental affairs. It is likely that Alexander III feared that his eldest son was not intellectually capable of handling the inheritance. Although it was rightfully his. Therefore, the father kept postponing the son’s introduction in to the daily running of Russia. No one,  most of all Alexander III, ever imagined that this young and inexperienced Romanov would ascend the throne soon. Especially as early in life as he did.

Family matters

It was Nicholas II’s mother, the Empress Maria-Feodorovna. She 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 behaviors 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. A princess whom Maria-Feodorovna and Alexander III did not like. 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. She was the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. She was forced to marry Duke Peter of Oldenburg. He was a minor German princeling whose family had settled in Russia. He was notoriously known as one of the most scandalous members of St. Petersburg society.

Opposing marriage

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. She was the youngest sister of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna. The 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 Queen’s granddaughters. The queen being Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Still, Alexander and Maria-Feodorovna saw Alix as a very poor choice for a bride . They opposed Nicholas’ intentions to marry his melancholic German love.

Marriage proposal

Nicholas remaining unmarried was a threat. And thus risking the imperial succession. It 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. It was an affront that the Coburg bride would never forget.

The death of Alexander III

Alexander III died at the age of forty nine on October 20, 1894. He was at the imperial palace in Livadia, the Crimea. He 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.

Nicholas and Alexandra

There is very little question that Nicholas and Alexandra loved each other intensely. Even to the point of isolating themselves completeley. From the rest of their family and the country as a whole. They were happiest when away from society. They were surrounded by the seclusion of their official residence. This was the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. Within a year of their hasty wedding, the couple became parents to a plump little girl. She was called the Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaievna. Three more daughters were to follow: Tatiana Nicholaievna born in 1897. Maria Nicholaievna born in 1899. And lastly Anastasia Nicholaievna, born in 1901. They were loving parents. However Nicholas and Alexandra were deeply concerned at their inability to provide an heir. An heir to the imperial throne. 

A daughter is born

After the birth of their fourth daughter, the couple desperately sought all sorts of help. 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.

Pregnant again

By late 1903 Alexandra found herself pregnant again. Intense praying and mysticism accompanied her throughout the pregnancy. 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.”

Alexis is born

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 hemophilia was the price for marrying into Victoria’s powerful family. Running the risk of bringing hemophilia into the royal palaces of Europe.

Hemophilia 

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.” Alexis was one year old when he again was afflicted by a more serious bleeding episode. The imperial couple’s anxiety was accentuated by doctors . They told them they “had to realize their son will never be cured of this disease. The attacks of hemophilia will recur now and then…”.

The sinner returns

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. She was the Empress Alexandra’s trusted companion. It was under their recommendation. The recommendation of the Grand Duchesses and Anna Vyrubova. That Rasputin was summoned to appear before Alexandra.

Grigori 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 his power over the poor little boy. Some have claimed that Grigori did indeed have holy powers. Others, believe that Grigori  Rasputin was able to hypnotize Alexis and therefore cause the bleedings to stop. However Rasputin managed to stop Alexis’ suffering. He gained Nicholas and Alexandra’s undivided support.

Grigori Rasputin’s ties to the royal family

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 Grigori Rasputin became skeptical. They did not like his relationship with the imperial couple. St. Petersburg society also failed to understand the bonds. The bonds that brought him into such close proximity to the throne. Nicholas and Alexandra had refused to inform their subjects about Alexis’ sickness. Therefore 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. 

Gossip

More pernicious gossips even extended the rumors to include the couple’s four daughters. They 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 continue while the reputation of the imperial couple fell to pieces. No one was more responsible for the growing rumors than Grigori Rasputin himself. During his many drunken parties, the monk would boast of his exploits. Tales of the Empress and her daughters were slurred. Even going as far as proclaiming that the Tsar was at his fingertips.

Grigori Rasputin’s punishment

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. He 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. Not only from the capital but also all those circles that had traditionally been the mainstay of tsarism. Nicholas and Alexandra were doomed from that point on.

Franz-Ferdinand assassination

It was june 28, 1914. While the Russian Imperial Yacht Standart sailed along the Baltic coastline. 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. 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 palaces in countries that were about to declare war on each other.

Gearing up for war

Vienna decided to declare war on Serbia. Using the involvement of Serbian government officials. The assassination of Franz-Ferdinand being the 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.

War troubles

However bellicose the Russians felt, the country was completely unprepared. Unable 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.  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. 

Clawing back from defeat

He was a cousin of the Tsar and the husband of Grand Duchess Anastasia. She was the woman responsible for sponsoring Grigori Rasputin. Grand Duke Nicholas desperately tried to reverse the initial Russian losses. 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. He offered to 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.”

Romanov frustrations towards Grigori Rasputin

The Grand Duke Nicholas’ reactions towards Grigori Rasputin exemplified the high level of frustration. This frustration was felt by the Romanov family. It concerned the relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra and the hated monk. As the war progressed, the Russian government simply collapsed . It buckled under the weight of the enormous efforts demanded by the armies. Also the obtuse leadership provided by Tsar Nicholas II played part. It certainly did not help matters when it was discovered that Nicholas was also relying on Alexandra. He relied on her for the day-to-day handling of governmental affairs. 

True lord?

Alexandra and Rasputin were in close contact. This was the reason 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. Exiled from the imperial couple’s proximity. The Romanovs were never really fond of Alexandra They constantly approached the Tsar and demanded that Rasputin be sent away. Nicholas however, was blinded by his love for Alexandra and fearful of risking Alexis’ life. He rudely dismissed his family’s entreaties. Grigori Rasputin’s influence continued. The Imperial Family’s image continued to be tainted with opprobrium and scandal. Alle originating from the actions of the evil monk.

Not fit for a ruler

Nicholas II’s biggest mistake was dismissing Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaievich in 1915. After which he assumed command of the Russian armies. He proved to be i0nefficient as a ruler. Mainly due to his lack of preparation for the office. Additionally, Nicholas II was a dismal military commander as well. He was encouraged by his wife, who had a deep dislike for the Grand Duke Nicholas. This 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. He 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. Rasputin’s influence with Alexandra was checked by Nicholas prior to his departure. Now that Tsar was away from Petrograd Grigori Rasputin became the Empress’ chief counsel. 

Russian implosion

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. Regardless of the martyrdom suffered by Nicholas, Alexandra and their children, one cannot ignore the damaging role. The role that was 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. But was instead a Tsar of All the Russias, Alexandra’s attempt at single-handedly governing Russia was doomed to failure. Alexandra was isolated from Russia’s realities.

Blindly devoted

She was blinded in her devotion to Grigori and fearful for her son’s survival. Alexandra was in no position to effectively fill the absence. The hiatus 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.

Murder plot against Grigori Rasputin

Some family members were frustrated. Angry by their inability to break down the walls built by Nicholas and Alexandra. This lead to some of the Romanov family taking events into their own hands. How many of the Romanovs were involved in the actual plotting to assassinate Grigori Rasputin? It 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. He was asked 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. This was during the evening of December 16, 1916. He did not survive the evening.

Must reads

Several excellent books recount in detail the events that took place at the Youssoupov palace. Among these books are Greg King’s “The Man Who Killed Rasputin”. Also 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. Finally he died by drowning when his body, wrapped in a carpet was thrown into the Moika Canal on the Neva River.

Heralded as heroes

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 received orders of Alexandra. The orders forbid the conspirators from leaving the Russian capital. As soon as he received news of events in Petrograd Nicholas boarded his train. Then 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. 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. Many believed that the “alleged” German influence represented by Alexandra was going to stop.

Tethered no more?

The Petrograd elite enjoyed their supposed liberation from Rasputin’s clutches. Although 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.

Enter Bolsheviks 

In the end, Nicholas sent his two wayward relatives into exile. Ironically enough, it was this punishment that allowed Dimitri and Felix to avoid falling in the hands of Bolsheviks. They could not be caught 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. The sister. In her Memoirs: “His death came to late to change the course of events. “

Self destruction in hindsight 

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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