Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin (1872 – 1916) was an illiterate Siberian peasant, mystic, and charlatan faith healer, whose ability to soothe the suffering of the young Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, won him the favor of his parents, the Tsar and Tsarina of the Russian Empire. Such access and favor made him an incongruously powerful and influential figure in the Russian Empire’s final years.
Born in a small village near Tyumen, Siberia, he developed an early reputation for licentiousness, which earned him the nickname Rasputin – Russian for “the debauched one”. At age 18 he studied at a monastery and joined a flagellant sect, but quickly perverted its belief by inventing a doctrine that nearness to God is best achieved by “holy passionlessness”. The best way to reach such a stage, according to Rasputin, was via sexual exhaustion after prolonged bouts of debauchery by the entire congregation in order to get all the base passions out of their system, so they could get nearer to and focus on God without distractions.
He became a wanderer, roaming the Russian Empire and beyond, to Greece and Jerusalem, living off donations and gradually building up a reputation as a starets, or a holy man who could predict the future and heal the sick. He ended up in Saint Petersburg in 1903, at a time when mysticism and the occult had started becoming fashionable with its decadent and flighty court and high society.
Rasputin, the dirty, smelly, holy peasant with brilliant and captivating eyes and a reputation for faith healing, became an instant hit. He exerted a powerful animal magnetism upon the women of high society, and before long, the licentious healer had a cult following of wealthy and aristocratic women, young and old, maidens and matrons, throwing themselves at him like groupies at a rock star.
One of them introduced him to Tsarina Alexandria, whose son suffered from hemophilia. Inexplicably, Rasputin was able to soothe the child’s suffering, which earned him the mother’s fierce loyalty. Soon, the royal airhead was convinced that Rasputin was guided by God, and started soliciting the illiterate charlatan’s advice on matters of state and government, then badgering her weak-minded husband, the Tsar, into carrying out Rasputin’s recommendations.
Before long, government ministers and high officials were being appointed and dismissed based on what Rasputin thought of them, and those seeking to advance or secure their positions were soon flocking to offer him lavish bribes or sending their wives and daughters to sexually seduce him into putting in a good word for them with the Tsar and Tsarina.
That scandalous state of affairs made the Tsarist government a laughingstock and brought it into low repute, but the Tsarina remained fiercely protective of Rasputin. A group of aristocrats, led by a Prince Feliks Yusupov, husband of the Tsar’s niece, decided to assassinate Rasputin in order to rid Russia of his malign influence. His death was to prove as dramatically unusual as his life had been.
Rasputin was lured to Yusupov’s palace on the night of December 30th, 1916, on the pretext of meeting Yusupov’s wife, who was interested in “knowing” him. Many nobles had offered their wives and daughters to Rasputin before, so the invitation was not suspicious. At the palace, while waiting for Yusupov’s wife to “freshen up”, Rasputin was offered cakes and tea laced with cyanide. He ate and drank with no ill effects. He was then offered wine, also poisoned. He quaffed it down without a problem, asked for another glass, then one more after that, again, with no ill effects.
Exasperated, Yusupov then retrieved a pistol and shot Rasputin in the chest. Believing him dead, the conspirators then went about covering their tracks, only for Rasputin to rise hours later and attack Yusupov, who managed to free himself and flee up the stairs. Rasputin then left via the palace courtyard, where the panicked conspirators caught up with him and shot him again. They then wrapped his body in a rug, cut a hole in a frozen river’s surface, and shoved him inside. When his body was eventually recovered, it was reported that it had not been the bullets or poison that had killed him, but drowning – he was presumably still alive when thrown into the river.