In one of history’s worst decisions, Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra put their faith in Grigori Rasputin, an illiterate peasant religious charlatan. After gaining the royal couple’s confidence with his holy man act, Rasputin transformed Russia’s rulers, particularly the impressionable Tsarina Alexandra, into his puppets. He offered them advice on governance, which the royal couple accepted in the belief that Rasputin was blessed by God and would not lead them astray. He led them to disaster.
Rasputin kept up a pretense of being a humble and holy man in the royal family’s presence. Beyond their gaze, he was a depraved drunk who claimed that his body had holy healing powers, and led a Christian sex cult that engaged in wild orgies. It seemed that everybody in Russia was aware of the scandal, except for the Tsar and Tsarina. Russia’s ruling couple were unwilling to hear any criticism of their pet holy man, and turned on those who spoke ill of Rasputin. Towards the end of his life, Rasputin was wielding such influence over Russia’s ruling couple that ministers, high-ranking officials, and generals, were appointed and dismissed based upon his advice.
21. Rasputin Became a Hit When He Arrived in Russia’s Capital
Rasputin arrived in Russia’s capital, Saint Petersburg, at what turned out to have been exactly the right time for him. Slavism and a conservative yearning for a return to Russia’s ancient roots were in vogue, and mysticism and the occult were becoming fashionable with its decadent court and high society. Rasputin, an unkempt holy peasant with captivating eyes and a reputation for faith healing, was a living embodiment of Russia’s roots and Russian mysticism. He became an instant hit.
By 1905, his path paved with introductions and recommendations from prominent Russian religious figures, Rasputin had won over and befriended numerous influential aristocrats. The holy man’s new friends and patrons included not only prominent members from Saint Petersburg’s high society, but also grand dukes and grand duchesses from the Tsar’s family. It did not take long before they introduced Rasputin at court to the Tsar and Tsarina. Soon, his influence – and with it scandal – extended to the Russian Empire’s ruling couple.
20. An Inexplicable Ability to Comfort a Sick Child Secured This Charlatan’s Influence
Rasputin was introduced to Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children, including the heir to the Russian throne, the young Tsarevich Alexei. Alexei suffered from an acute case of hemophilia – a disease whose sufferers bleed uncontrollably from even minor cuts because their blood does not clot up at the surface of an injury. As a result, Alexei had come close to dying on numerous occasions. Doctors had no cure, and were often unable to even alleviate the symptoms or ease the poor child’s suffering.
Rasputin arrived in the midst of that family tragedy at a time when his parents, particularly his mother, were driven to desperation by their only son’s ailment. Rasputin had developed a reputation as a faith healer by then. When Tsarevich Alexei suffered a severe bout of internal bleeding in 1907 and the doctors could offer no relief, Empress Alexandra asked him to pray for her son. He arrived at the palace at night and began praying, and the following morning, the child had stopped bleeding. Rasputin’s standing with the Tsarina rose dramatically.
19. This Faux Holy Man Convinced Russia’s Royals That He Was Sent by God to Help and Protect Them
Rasputin spent hours talking with Tsarina Alexandra about religion and other matters, and flattering her by telling her what she wanted to hear. Specifically, that she and the Tsar were beloved by the Russian masses, and needed to be seen more by their adoring subjects. Additionally, he told her that she and her husband should see him more often and place their absolute trust in him because he would never lie to them. He contrasted that self-declared honesty with the supposed dishonesty of the Emperor’s ministers, who, according to Rasputin, were dishonest and did not care about the people or their tears.
Rasputin’s words moved the Tsarina Alexandra, and she came to believe that the holy man’s arrival at court was not the result of mere chance: he had been sent by God to help her family and protect their dynasty. At the time, Tsarist rule was coming under increasing pressure as the system started crumbling because of structural flaws and incompetent governance. Tsar and Tsarina began turning to Rasputin, confiding in him, seeking the comfort of his assurances that God was watching over them, and soliciting his advice.
18. Rasputin’s Lechery Became the Scandal of Russia
Beyond the Tsar and Tsarina’s gaze, Rasputin’s life was a nonstop scandal. He exerted a powerful and inexplicable animal magnetism upon high society women. Before long, he had a cult following of wealthy and aristocratic women, young and old, maidens and matrons, throwing themselves at him like groupies with a rock star. He set himself up in an apartment where people from all classes, but especially aristocratic women, flocked to visit him. Many of the lower classes virtually worshipped Rasputin, believed him to be a holy man, and frequently asked him for help or money.
Many of those aware that Rasputin had the ear of the Tsar and Tsarina sought to gain his favor. Some even sent their wives or daughters to seduce him into putting in a good word for them at court, or their female kin did so on their own initiative. Rasputin was a sex addict, with enviable stamina and staying power. Saint Petersburg’s authorities posted plainclothes policemen at Rasputin’s building. Their reports frequently described dozens of women, from prostitutes to high ranking aristocrats, visiting his apartment. The police reports described loud noises of drunken revelry, partying, beatings, violent intimate relations, and orgies that lasted until sunrise and beyond.
17. The Tsar and Tsarina Ignored Reports of Rasputin’s Scandalous Lifestyle
Many reports of Rasputin’s unruly and unholy conduct – including the defilement of a nun – reached Tsar Nicholas’ ears. He dismissed them outright, or laughed them off with comments such as “the holy are always slandered“. The Tsar’s confessor investigated the reports of Rasputin’s misconduct, concluded there was truth in them, and advised Nicholas to distance himself from the charlatan. The Tsar, at the behest of his wife who was fiercely protective of Rasputin, banished his confessor from Saint Petersburg instead. By 1911, Rasputin’s notorious misconduct had become a national scandal, and turned the imperial family into a laughingstock.
Russia’s Prime Minister P.A. Stolypin sent the Tsar a detailed report of Rasputin’s misdeeds, which got him banished back to his Siberian village. Within a few months, however, the Tsarevich Alexei suffered another severe bout of hemophilia, and his desperate mother telegrammed Rasputin asking him to pray for her son. When Alexei got better soon after Rasputin wrote back, the Empress forced her husband to bring the charlatan back to Saint Petersburg. From then on the Tsar, anxious for peace at home, and convinced that Rasputin had a beneficial impact on his son, ignored all allegations of wrongdoing.
16. Taking Advice From a Religious Charlatan About How to Run a War Backfired
Rasputin’s worst advice came during World War I. When he sought to visit the front to bless the soldiers, Russia’s army commander, who viewed Rasputin as a charlatan, vowed to hang him if he came anywhere near the front. So Rasputin bad mouthed him to the Tsar, and claimed that he had a religious revelation that Russia’s armies would not succeed until the Tsar went to the front and took personal command. So in 1915, Tsar Nicholas appointed himself commander of the armed forces, and announced that he would take charge in person.
It was a disastrous decision. Tsardom’s absolutist rule was made psychologically palatable to the Russian masses with the myth that whatever went wrong, the Tsar was blameless. Corrupt officials were responsible, and they hid the truth from the Tsar. That myth became untenable once Nicholas took personal command. From then on, responsibility for defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence in conducting the war were laid directly at the Tsar’s feet. Since Nicholas knew nothing about running a war, there was plenty of defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence to lay at his feet.
15. Placing Tsarina Alexandra in charge of the country was a very bad idea.
Things grew worse when Tsar Nicholas, acting again on Rasputin’s advice, placed Tsarina Alexandra in charge of running Russia while he was running the war. On the one hand, there was no doubt of her loyalty to the ruling family. On the other, she proved to be wildly incompetent in the face of running the country in her husband’s stead.
Before long, the Tsarina Alexandra was soliciting the barely literate charlatan’s advice on matters of state and governance. She then heeded his advice, or badgered her husband, Tsar Nicholas, into carrying out Rasputin’s recommendations. Soon, officials were being hired and fired based on Rasputin say so, and those seeking to advance or secure their positions showered him with bribes. Others sent their wives and daughters to seduce Rasputin into putting in a good word for them with the ruling couple. The scandal of Rasputin’s malign influence on Russia’s rulers kept growing.
14. The Rasputin Scandal Gave the Tsar’s Opponents Plenty of Ammunition to Use Against Him
Rasputin’s influence ranged from appointing high-ranking members of the church hierarchy, to selecting cabinet members and high-ranking officials, many of them incompetent opportunists. At times, he intervened in the conduct of the war by writing the Tsar, offering him advice on this or that general or this or that plan, based on religious visions and holy dreams. Rasputin’s malign influence on the Russian government was exploited to challenge Tsar Nicholas’s competence, the integrity of the ruling dynasty, and the very concept of absolutist rule.
Rasputin made things worse by conducting his life as a nonstop scandal visible for all to see. In addition to his dissoluteness and licentiousness, Rasputin got in drunken public brawls with church officials, and bragged about his influence. While drunk, he even boasted of having slept with Tsarina Alexandra. Nonetheless, Alexandra continued to fiercely defend Rasputin. She insisted that he remain by her side, and made her husband resist all calls for his banishment. That undermined public respect for Tsardom, and prepared the ground for its overthrow in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate, and the following year he, along with Tsarina Alexandria and their family, were executed by the Bolsheviks.
13. The Brilliant Athenian Who Jumped From One Scandal to Another
The entire life Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) seemingly consisted of one scandal after another. A brilliant and unscrupulous Athenian politician and general, Alcibiades was the most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic Athenian leader of the Classical era. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler, and he was raised without firm guidance. He grew into a self-indulgent man, whose gifts of brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by self-centeredness, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery.
Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades won a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become one of Athens’ generals, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated. Suspicion immediately fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader. When Alcibiades was eventually summoned to face trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.
12. Alcibiades Wore Out His Welcome In Sparta by Sleeping With the King’s Wife
Once in Sparta, Alcibiades turned traitor and advised Athens’ enemy to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition. The very force that he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he once led. The result was the most catastrophic defeat that was suffered by Athens during the war. Out of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived: the remainder were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death.
Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning and looting, then withdrawing and repeating the process the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting. However, Alcibiades wore out his welcome in Sparta with another scandal: he was forced to flee for his life after getting caught in bed with Spartan King Agis II’s wife.
11. Incredibly, Athens Welcomed Alcibiades Back After He Had Betrayed Her So Disastrously
Alcibiades fled from Sparta to the Persians. He convinced them to opportunistically intervene in the Peloponnesian War in order to prolong it, and keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests. In the meantime, Athens fell into chaos that culminated in an oligarchic coup. However, Athens’ fleet, composed predominately of the lower classes, remained pro-democracy, and in the turmoil, Alcibiades managed to persuade the fleet to take him back.
Between 411 – 408 BC, Alcibiades led the Athenian navy to a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Athens, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat during his absence from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, took refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation persuaded Phrygia’s Persian governor to murder Alcibiades in 404 BC.
10. An Emperor Who Got a Kick Out of Scandalizing His Subjects
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, better known to history as Elagabalus (203 – 222), Roman emperor from 218 until his assassination four years later, enjoyed scandalizing his subjects. His religious practices, which would have weirded-out contemporary Romans if performed by a private citizen, were shocking coming from an emperor. He had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. After ascending the throne as a teenager, he took the god’s name as his own and brought his worship to Rome.
There, he built Elagabalus a lavish temple, whose inauguration astonished everybody. Senators, high-ranking officials, and the public, were astonished on opening day to witness the unprecedented sight of a Roman emperor dancing around the deity’s altar, to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums. Elagabalus further offended sensibilities by attempting to incorporate his religion into the Roman pantheon. He made the sun god Elagabalus a supreme deity, above Jupiter, and transferred the most sacred relics of the Roman religion to his new temple. He also ordered that adherents of other religions, including Jews and the nascent Christians, transfer their rites to Elagabalus’ temple.
9. Elagabalus Could Not Get Enough of Trolling the Romans
At times it seemed as if the Emperor Elagabalus was simply acting out in the most outrageous fashion possible in order to shock people and get a reaction. Which is perhaps not that surprising, considering that he was a teenager, and he would not have been the first teenager to go out of his or her way to act outrageously in order to get attention. Unfortunately, there was one key difference that set Elagabalus apart from all other teenagers: he was the Roman emperor.
In an acts that seems to have been deliberately intended to troll his Roman subjects, the teenage emperor ramped up the shocking conduct by marrying a Vestal Virgin – one of Rome’s most sacred priestesses. It was an exceptionally flagrant breach of customs and laws. For centuries, Romans had been so uptight when it came to the Vestals’ virginity that they were punished with getting buried alive if they ever engaged in sexual behavior. Elagabalus justified the scandal by claiming that the marriage would produce “godlike children”.
8. The Teenage Emperor’s Trolling Finally Got Him Killed
In the eyes of contemporary Romans, the greatest scandal of Elagabalus’ reign was probably his flamboyant homosexuality. He openly went about in women’s clothing, and publicly fawned upon male lovers, whom he elevated to high positions. They included an athlete who was given a powerful position at court, and a charioteer whom he sought to declare as Caesar. He also reportedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace. Respected emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian had male sexual partners, and Hadrian had even created a religious cult for a youthful male lover who had accidentally drowned.
However, Elagabalus was the passive, or receptive partner in homosexual acts: a Roman emperor who was a top was acceptable, but a bottom was not. It all came to a head on March 11, 222, when soldiers in a military parade showed their contempt by cheering Elagabalus’ cousin, while ignoring the emperor. He ordered the arrest and execution of the insubordinate soldiers. Instead, his bodyguards turned around and attacked him and his mother, hacking them to pieces. Their heads were chopped off, and Elagabalus’ corpse was dragged around Rome, before it was unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River.
7. The Communist Spy Who Rose to the Heights of Israel’s Government
Yisrael Bar (1912 – 1966) was at the heart of a scandal that rocked Israel’s government in the 1960s. An Austrian-born Israeli officer, Bar rose to prominence as an expert on Israeli military history. That secured him a high-ranking position in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which commissioned him to write a book on the Israeli War of Independence. It also won him a place within the inner circle of Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, whose trusted confidant and advisor he became.
Bar arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s with an impressive martial resume, having graduated from the Austrian military academy, and served as a commissioned officer in the Austrian army. He then went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the International Brigades, where he was known by the nom de guerre “Colonel Jose Gregorio”. Between his martial exploits, Bar found the time to get a doctorate in literature from the University of Vienna. That CV was all bunk: the real Yisrael Bar had died years earlier.
6. It Was Not Until Yisrael Bar Was Caught Red-Handed That His Deception Came to Light
Yisrael Bar’s rapid rise to prominence highlighted the difficulty Israeli intelligence had during a period of mass immigration in spotting infiltrators. In reality, Bar was a Soviet spy, and was not even a Jew. A man of the sword and letters, urbane and Hollywood handsome to boot, Bar cut a swath through Israeli society and Tel Aviv’s nightlife as a ladies’ man. It took a surprisingly long time before the fact that he was uncircumcised raised suspicions.
In the meantime, Bar took advantage of his access to Israeli secrets and Israel’s prime minister, whose diary he raided to not only photocopy, but to tear out entire pages from and pass on to his handlers. It was not until 1961, when he was caught delivering a briefcase stuffed with sensitive materials to the KGB, that the deception fell apart. Bar never revealed his true identity during interrogations following his arrest. Tried and convicted of espionage, he was sentenced to jail, where he died in 1966, taking the secret of his identity to his grave.
5. The Scandal of the Great Poet Who Was Into His Sister – Literally
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824), was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement. A poet, satirist, politician and peer, his poems and personality captured Europe’s imagination. Byron is one of Britain’s best poets, known and acclaimed for his brilliant use of the English language. However, he gained further fame, or infamy, by living his life as a walking scandal. He became even better-known during his lifetime for his flamboyance, amorous lifestyle, and the notoriety of his scandalous escapades with both men and women.
His most infamous scandal was a years-long incestuous relationship with his sister Augusta Leigh. Byron had seen little of her during childhood, but made up for it in spades in adulthood. The scandal bore fruit in 1814, when he fathered a daughter upon his sister, making Byron the child’s uncle, as well as father. He also liked to keep mementos of his lovers. The norm was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection. For Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all around creep, a simple lock of hair would not do. Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, catalogued and labeled, in envelopes.
Byron’s most famous affair was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. She rejected him at first, describing him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know“. She changed her mind, however, and had a torrid affair with the poet that became the scandal of Britain. When Byron dumped her, Lamb turned stalker, and pursued him relentlessly. She stopped at his house one time too many, and scribbled in a book on his desk “Remember me”. The exasperated Byron responded with a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee!: “Remember thee! remember thee! – Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream – Remorse and shame shall cling to thee, – And haunt thee like a feverish dream! – Remember thee! Aye, doubt it not. – Thy husband too shall think of thee: – By neither shalt thou be forgot, – Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!’
Scandal eventually forced Byron to flee Britain, so he roamed Europe for years at a stretch, including a seven year stint in Italy. Restlessness eventually led him to join the Greeks in their war of independence from the Ottoman Turks. However, he was disappointed with the Greeks of his day, because they differed greatly from the heroic Hellenes described by Homer. While moping about that discrepancy, he caught a fever and died in a Greek backwater at the age of 36.
3. The Scandal of the US Navy’s Poorly Tested WWII Torpedoes
Designed in 1931, the Mark 14 Torpedo was the standard weapon of the United States Navy’s Navy submarines when America joined World War II in 1941. When first introduced, it was heralded as a vast improvement and a technological leap forward. The Mark 14 differed from earlier torpedoes that detonated on impact with a target ship’s hull. Instead, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.
Theoretically a single Mark 14 was enough to sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which usually required multiple torpedoes holing the enemy in various spots on the hull. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two failed. In a scandal that only got worse with the passage of time, a 50% failure rate did not give the US Navy pause and prompt it to conduct further testing. In 1938, the Mark 14 was approved and issued to the US submarine fleet as its standard torpedo.
2. The US Navy Sent American Submariners Into Harm’s Way With Defective Torpedoes
It was not until after the United States joined WWII and the US Navy’s submariners found themselves in life and death encounters with the Japanese that the Mark 14 Torpedo’s flaws became apparent. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had multiple serious problems. It had trouble maintaining accurate depth so as to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel. Its magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely or failed to detonate at all.
The Mark 14’s backup contact detonator failed to set off the torpedo even when it struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine. Worst of all, the Mark 14 tended to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and hit the firing submarine. At least two American submarines were destroyed by their own torpedoes, which circled around to come back and strike them.
1. The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal Was Made Worse by the US Navy Ignoring Reports of Its Flaws
The Mark 14 Torpedo scandal was made worse when the US Navy ignored multiple reports about its serious shortcomings, including reports from submariners. In one incident, a submarine commander fired two spreads totaling a dozen Mark 14s at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off nine more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.
It took the US Navy two years from the start of hostilities to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist with the Mark 14 Torpedo. Only then did higher ups deign to allow live fire tests to be conducted in order to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about all along. Remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading