It took three bullets to kill him: a bullet into his left chest, one into his back, and the third into his forehead. The killers then threw his body off a bridge and into the icy water of the Neva River below. The doctor who performed the autopsy said his body had suffered a number of wounds from the fall. His head, nose, eyes were severely damaged, and one of his ears was nearly torn off. This only added to the legend of Rasputin.
He had been one of the most famous, infamous to some, men in Russia. He was murdered because five conspirators believed, as did many of Russia’s aristocrats, that he had become too powerful and had too much influence over Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, and that Russia could only be saved if he were dead.
To some the Siberian peasant Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin was a drunk and a sexually-prodigious demon, a horse thief in his youth who became the incarnation of the devil himself and used his supernatural powers to hypnotize and gain control of women and men, and the powerful. To others, including Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, he was a humble man of God, a holy man, a starets or spiritual father, and a friend.
Although he had not fired any of the shots that killed Rasputin on December 17, 1916, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, cousin of Tsar Nicholas II and one of the conspirators, called the brutal murder “a stain on my conscience.”
Pavlovich’s words echo those of his cousin, Nicholas, who said at the time of the murder: “I am ashamed before Russia that the hands of my relatives are stained with the blood of a peasant.”
The remorse of Pavlovich and the shame of Nicholas II were not shared by many in Russia at the time. Yet the stain they speak of soiled all of Russia, from the aristocracy to the Russian Orthodox Church and the peasantry.
Historian Douglas Smith, who spent six years researching and writing his new book Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), calls the story of Rasputin “a tragedy, and not just that of one man but of an entire nation.”
In search of the real Rasputin, Smith relied little on secondary sources and instead sifted through primary sources found in the archives of Russia, which only recently have been opened to researchers. Initially, he wanted to separate the real Rasputin from myth and legend. He soon realized, however, that to do this “was to completely misunderstand him.”
So Smith examined the myths and the legends, and the portrait of Rasputin that emerges, while still seen through the hazy lens of history, is sharper than what we have known of him in the past.
At the end of his life, Rasputin was essentially a self-proclaimed holy man who struggled with the vices, which, Smith tells us, Rasputin “never denied,” a man who was befriended by the Romanovs and served as an adviser to them on spiritual and political matters and, they believed, had the power to heal.
Until the age of 28, however, it seems that Rasputin lived the normal life of a peasant. He spent his days “… working the fields, attending church, saying one’s prayers, obeying one’s father, marrying, having children, and keeping the eternal rhythm of peasant life in motion.”
Why his life changed when he was 28 is unclear, Smith says, but it seems certain that at that age he became a pilgrim. Some believed he became a pilgrim to get out of work. At the same time, he was a restless man. Yet, Rasputin’s desire to seek God, Smith writes, was sincere. So Rasputin joined the numerous Russian “Stranniki, holy wanderers or religious pilgrims” of his times.
On one of his pilgrimages he visited St. Nicholas Monastery in the Ural Mountains, “one of the holiest places in Russia,” and there he met the starets, the elder Makary, who greatly impressed him. But life in the monastery was not for him. He was put off by the vices of the monks and the regimentation. Besides, he was married to a loyal and faithful wife and had a family.
Even so, Smith writes, “According to Maria, it was her father’s visit to Makary that convinced him that the wandering life was the one for him.” And while pilgrims generally had no family or home, Rasputin was not deterred. Smith writes, “he defined what it means to be a pilgrim as he saw it.”
Rasputin wandered, and he eventually attracted followers and a reputation as a holy man. On one of his journeys he visited St. Petersburg. And on November 1, 1905, he met the Tsar and Tsarina for the first time. And the fate of Russia, some came to believe, fell into the hands of a peasant from Siberia.
Smith covers every aspect of Rasputin’s life, as well as detailed accounts of the lives of his followers and detractors. He leaves no question about Rasputin unexamined. In reading this book, we witness significant and seemingly insignificant moments in Rasputin’s life as he wins friends and makes enemies and becomes the subject of malicious gossip and lies, which led to his murder and eventually contributed to the revolution and to the murder of the Romanovs.
The story of Rasputin, Russia, the Romanovs, and the Russian Orthodox Church that Smith recounts is enthralling and heartbreaking. It is enthralling because of the complexity of Rasputin as a man and because of the times. It is heartbreaking because of the many men and women who used a false image of Rasputin to promote themselves or their agenda. It is heartbreaking because the portrait of Russia that Smith presents is of a nation gone completely mad.
While Smith gives us a clear picture of Rasputin and Russia in the final days of the Romanovs, he also shows us the horrific power of lies and gossip, and social and political intrigue. While this is the story of a man, a monarchy, and a nation, the story Smith tells is timeless and one that should be read today with great care.