Mystical, Powerful, Insatiable
By Henry Frost
Biography magazine, 1998
Six weeks after his birth, Alexis began to bleed from his navel, and the hemorrhage continued for three days. He was afflicted with hemophilia, a rare disorder not effectively treatable by the medicine of the day. Thankfully for the boy, the illness only flared up occasionally in its most severe form, but when it did, it brought excruciating pain that on a couple of occasions nearly killed him.
Only one person could sooth the agony – a Russian Orthodox cleric and mystic named Grigory Efimovich Rasputin. Rasputin’s healing skills contributed to a central event of modern history: the collapse in 1917 of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, and the rise several months later of the Soviet state.
Historians have struggled to establish facts about Rasputin’s youth. Early published information about his first years came from his political enemies or people with second-hand knowledge; this data has endured in various books; so he is often described as nothing more than a phony wretch – evil, fake, mad, a “self-styled” monk. The apotheosis of this view came with the 1997 animated movie “Anastasia.”
This view is false.
Rasputin was born in the late 1860s or early ’70s in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoe, 200 miles east of the Ural Mountains. From an early age he apparently possessed psychic gifts – one story tells how, at age 12, out of the blue, he identified a hitherto-unknown horse thief in the village. As an adolescent he developed a powerful sexual magnetism and appetite, and for the rest of his life he cut a wide swath through Russian womanhood. His wife Praskovia, whom he married when he was 20 and she was 23 or 24, said, with some combination of pride and resignation, “He has enough for all.”
A revered hermit named Makariy urged the young Rasputin to channel his energy toward spirituality, to seek intimate connection not only with females but with God. The young man entered a monastery (some sources say he entered before meeting Makariy) and emerged months later in the throes of emotional turmoil – agitated, depressed, ecstatic, eager to have his life shaped by the hand of the Lord. He embarked on a series of pilgrimages that lasted years and covered thousands of miles. The religious fervor of Grigory Rasputin was genuine. A man does not walk from Siberia to Palestine on a whim.
Rasputin became a walking, preaching, healing figure loved by people of every class – he was a holy man, a starets. Many starets avoided temptation; Rasputin gave in to it. He possessed an overpowering life force that he never disciplined or sublimated, an exuberantly sensual nature that he was loath to tamper with, a lust for wine, for parties, for balalaikas ringing out, and for pliant women of all classes who accepted his ministrations as signs of spirituality. He was influenced by an obscure Orthodox sect, the Khlysts, who were committed to ecstatic ritual. The scholar Viktor Erofeyev says, “Secretly, Rasputin would always remain a Khlyst.”
Nicholas II, 18th ruler of the House of Romanov, ascended the Russian throne in 1894 at age 26. He was firmly inclined toward autocracy.
Political freedom and representative government had not found a decisive foothold in Russia. These “Western” ideas – articulated by Locke, Jefferson, and Voltaire, and made manifest by the English Revolution of the 1600s, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789 – were found odious by the Russian state and by many influential Russian philosophers. Russian autocracy was based on a belief that law and order (and positions of privilege) are friable, capable of vanishing in an instant, preservable only by a firm dictatorial hand. A Russian parliament, the Duma, was established in 1906, but it functioned within narrow limits.
With an outmoded political system, the empire struggled ineptly with industrialization. By the late 1800s and early 1900s many factory workers felt themselves to be overworked and underpaid. They were receptive to revolutionary rhetoric. Meanwhile the intelligentsia also fulminated – lawyers, teachers, journalists, students, agitators. And in rural regions, the peasantry raged against aristocratic ownership of the land.
Educated Russians inclined toward radicalism were influenced by Marx and Engels, the New Testament, the French socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837), the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), and the Russian author Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), among others. The latter’s book “What Is To Be Done?”, written in prison, serialized in 1863, stands as one of the most influential (and turgid) novels ever published. It features a revolutionary named Rakhmetov, who, to strengthen his body and will for combat with the upper classes, sleeps on a bed of nails, eats only raw meat, and avoids sex. Historian Ana Siljak writes, “Young, educated Russians….did not merely read this novel, they reread it obsessively, memorized it, quoted passages from it like a catechism, and carried it around with them like a prayer book.” One reader was Lenin (1870-1924), an exact contemporary of Rasputin’s with fully as much craving for spiritual sustenance and for power. Lenin supposedly read “What Is To Be Done?” five times in one ecstatic summer and described it years later as “a thing which supplies energy for a whole lifetime.” (A depiction of Lenin’s energy can be found in the TV series “Reilly: Ace of Spies” reviewed here.)
Nicholas II didn’t grasp the fervor of the forces arrayed against him. He was isolated, cosseted, and timid. He took comfort from the support of the Russian Orthodox church, the state bureaucracy (including a huge police force), and princes, dukes, and other courtiers who whispered to him that the “true Russians” – the peasantry – loved him. This was true, actually, despite peasant anger at the nobility. The common folk had a saying: “Good tsar, bad advisers.” This reflected their belief, writes journalist Clifford J. Levy, that “a Russian leader with the right intentions is often betrayed by underlings.” Nicholas was often betrayed, to be sure, but he was also a garden variety dunce who avoided thinking too hard about upsetting events, such as the tumult in the streets in 1905, or modern history’s first suicide bombing attack, in 1906, on the household of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. (Stolypin survived the assault.) Radicalism decreased after 1906 with creation of the parliament and Stolypin’s agrarian reforms, but revolutionary momentum picked up again after 1910. Stolypin was assassinated in 1911.
Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg in 1903 and quickly began attracting followers, including a grand duchess, who in 1905 introduced him to Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra. The royal couple yearned for a feeling of connectedness with “true Russians.” They didn’t actually know many such people, and were not inclined to go looking for them, so they welcomed a visit by a great soul from the steppes, a voice of the rural folk, a healer and mystic. They found him inspiring and interesting. They liked the fact that he would speak to them without fawning. They apparently knew about the bacchanalian aspect of his life; they ignored it.
Their little boy, Alexis, was their hope for the future. (Their daughters were not considered heirs to the throne.) Alexis was the center of the family, writes his tutor, Pierre Gilliard: “His sisters worshiped him. He was his parents’ pride and joy. When he was well, the palace was transformed. Everyone and everything in it seemed bathed in sunshine.”
From outward appearances Alexis appeared fine – happy, exuberant, racing about, causing the mischief that’s the birthright of every toddler. His elders watched and worried, aware that a very light blow could cause a seige of internal bleeding. If injured, Alexis’ blood leaked into spaces around his joints, destroying tissue and causing pressure on nerves, resulting in intense pain that was, perhaps, akin to a ferocious, unrelenting attack of arthritis. Court doctors and the family decided against giving morphine on such occasions, fearing addiction; modern painkillers did not exist yet; so the boy suffered for days on end, delirious with fever, moaning, screaming, drifting into fitful sleep. During one bout, reports historian Joseph T. Fuhrmann, Alexis asked, “When I am dead, it will not hurt any more, will it?” and asked to be buried “in the light” with blue sky overhead.
(Hemophilia today afflicts more than 15,000 people in the U.S. The disorder can be mild or severe. There is no cure but treatment has made significant advances in recent years.)
The boy’s mother, Alexandra, nursed him when he was sick and tortured herself with worry when he was well. The ordeal left her emotionally drained, physically ill, and remote from the day-to-day world. She found a modicum of refuge in prayer, beseeching God for a miracle that would save her son, save Russia, and allow the Motherland to save a benighted world.
During one brutal onslaught of the disease, probably in 1906 (the year isn’t certain; many details of the boy’s illness were shrouded in secrecy), Alexandra, desperate to try anything that might help, dispatched a carriage from the palace to fetch Rasputin. Entering the darkened, candle-lit sickroom, the monk saw the tsarina on her knees, sobbing and praying. He moved to the sickbed with confidence, gazed at the pale two-year-old, and tenderly touched the lad’s forehead. The boy sighed, opened his eyes, and smiled. The pain had stopped.
This was one of the pivotal moments of history. What, exactly, had happened?
One of Rasputin’s gifts was the ability to induce calm in tense situations with his soothing manner and famously compelling eyes, which, like a good actor, he could transform readily to reflect his emotions. At this moment, his eyes were surely warm. His confident entry into the room probably encouraged the tsarina to quit the whimpering that likely stressed the boy.
Rasputin was probably adept at transmitting heat-based energy from his hands – what the Chinese call “T’chi.” By a simple act of touch, Rasputin generated an instant decline in the child’s blood flow, a reduction in swelling, and a cessation of pain. Scholar Ashley Montagu offers anthropological perspective on this healing modality:
The “laying on of hands” is an ancient practice extending into remote antiquity. Since the hand is the most active organ of the body, performing every kind of act, whether ordinary, magical, or religious, it is understandable that it should have come to stand as a symbol for power. As such, in many cultures, it came to be regarded as an important means of transmitting the powers inherent in a person who touches another….During the Middle Ages almost all the kings of France and England exercised the royal touch, and the practice continued into modern times.
A healer named Laura describes her art to Stephen Mitchell in his book “The Gospel According to Jesus” (1991):
When I’m doing a healing with someone, I don’t try to direct the energy out through my hands. I allow it to flow out….It’s a very pleasurable experience, very calm. When the energy is flowing, I feel that everything in the universe is perfect the way it is, that everything is just as it should be. There’s a deep calm, and a quiet sense of joy. The energy flows through my body, and it flows out through my hands. It is highly intelligent, so it moves to wherever the person needs healing, on whatever level.
Rasputin comforted the boy several times over the next few years. Tsarina Alexandra became convinced that the monk had been sent by God. Perhaps, she thought, he could bring the hand of the Lord to deliberations of state and ensure that Alexis would one day be tsar. Rasputin agreed with this assessment of his potential; by 1911 he was an adviser to the throne.
Russia united briefly in 1914 with the coming of the Great War but things began falling aprt when the tsar’s army was scythed by the Germans.
At this moment of maximum peril for his dynasty, Nicholas made a fateful decision – he would travel to the front lines and take direct command of his troops. He departed St. Petersburg in August, 1915, authorizing his wife to supervise day-to-day government, including food distribution to the population. She, in turn, looked for guidance to Rasputin.
By now, the monk had enemies in the press, the church, and the government, powerful forces that hated his manipulation of policy and dissolute lifestyle. Many people also disliked Tsarina Alexandra: Did she not have a German heritage? Was Germany not the enemy? Did she not close her eyes to Rasputin’s outrageous behavior?
Tension escalated in the capital in 1916 as the war situation deteriorated and as Rasputin allowed politics to disintegrate into a mad scramble for power. Ministers won advancement simply because the monk liked them; their incompetence contributed to shortages in food, fuel, and munitions. Defeatism spread through the populace and the army. Nicholas, isolated and exhausted, and none too skilled at politics to begin with, failed to respond.
A group of right-wing aristocratic conspirators decided that killing the monk would help save the regime and preserve their privileged positions. Rasputin sensed the danger. In December, 1916, he wrote a letter predicting his fate: “I feel that I shall leave life before January 1….I shall be killed.” This was probably not so much a psychic event as a shrewd assessment by a man who had many enemies. He refused to flee St. Petersburg; life and death, he believed, are ordained by God.
On the night of December 29, 1916, he was lured to the mansion of Prince Felix Yussupov with the promise of Gypsy music and long-legged dancers. Did he decide to die in a blaze of ecstasy? Perhaps.
In Yussupov’s luxurious basement, he supposedly ate cakes filled with cyanide – enough poison, according to various sources, to “kill a horse,” “kill an ox,” or “kill several men.” In fact, no trace of cyanide was found in his body by an autopsy. (Considerable mystery attends the murder of Rasputin, with varying accounts offered over the years.)
Yussupov shot Rasputin with a pistol. The conspirators examined the monk, prodded him, shook him, and pronounced him dead. Some minutes later, Yussupov again shook the “dead” man, and this time, an eyelid twitched. Rasputin struggled to his feet, smashed through a door, and ran for the street. A conspirator named Purishkevich dropped him with a shot, and then shot him again. The cause of death was a bullet in the forehead. British agents may have had a hand in the murder.
Rasputin’s corpse was dug up by a revolutionary mob in 1917. Rumors persist today that his penis was sliced off and preserved for posterity; this seems possible, since it’s known that soldiers used a brick to measure the famously large organ. His remains were doused in gasoline and burned for six hours, and the ashes were buried.
Within a few weeks of Rasputin’s death, the tsar’s regime tottered; more and more Russians decided that Nicholas and his court were core reasons for the government’s failures. On March 13, 1917, military leaders recommended to Nicholas that he abdicate; two days later he complied. He and his family were put under house arrest by the provisional government.
By the autumn of 1917, desertion was rampant in the Russian army; returning soldiers, armed and covetous, attacked the nobility, murdering, raping, pillaging, boozing, seizing land. (World War I, among other things, “lowered the acceptable threshold for violence” of all kinds, notes historian Michael Burleigh. Perhaps many or most wars have this effect.)
Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in November, 1917. The fate of the Romanovs was now in the hands of a bed-of-nails fanatic.
Supporters of the royals tried to get them freed, to no avail. Lenin ordered transport of the family and their retinue to the town of Ekaterinburg, in Siberia, and soon decided the prisoners must die. If alive, they would serve as a rallying point for the anti-Bolshevik forces, the Whites, who were engaged in a terrible civil war with the Bolsheviks, the Reds.
On the night of July 16-17, 1918, men from the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, ordered the Romanovs and their retinue to gather in a small basement room, in preparation, said the squad, for moving to a new location. When the sleepy group was assembled, nine Cheka members entered. Perhaps the tsar and tsarina instantly realized their fate.
One member of the squad read a short judicial statement. Shooting and bayoneting commenced. Bloody bodies fell into a pile.
A whimper came from the pile. Alexis, still alive, reached for his father and was shot twice in the head. Anastasia, who had fainted, regained consciousness and screamed. She too was killed. The dead: Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexis, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, along with the family physician and the servants. The family dog, Jimmy, was also dispatched.
The Cheka killers had been ordered to make sure the Romanovs were never found. The men carted the bodies to an abandoned mine shaft, hacked the remains into pieces, dissolved the flesh in acid, and threw the fragments down the hole. These pieces were later moved to another site.
The Whites seized the region a week later and a team of investigators unearthed dozens of bits of evidence: charred pieces of bone, belt buckles, corsets, eyeglasses, bullets, and one severed human finger. The Whites eventually captured the executioners and took testimony.
The Soviet government sat on the case for years. Only in 1991, after the collapse of Communist rule, did the Kremlin make an official announcement: the remains found in Siberia were those of the Romanovs. The final resting place for the royals is the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church declared sainthood for the family. ●