Rasputin and the Empress

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 13 December 2021

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant holy man, was a presence at the Russian Court between 1908 and his murder in 1916. Even so, Rasputin would only have been one figure among many and not be so notable in history, except for the fact that he gained significant political influence in his last couple of years due to his friendship with the Tsar’s wife. The degree of influence Rasputin exerted and the stories of his debauched behaviour have often been wildly exaggerated—at the time and since. But the stories did have a basis in fact—the Tsarina had fused together her personal forays in mysticism with her political role—and the stories themselves, lurid and defamatory as many of them were, had a concrete effect in damaging the monarchy as Revolution loomed.

EARLY LIFE AND CONNECTING WITH THE COURT

Rasputin was born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoye, not far from Tyumen, the first Russian settlement east of the Urals. Rasputin had a religious conversion in 1897, at 28-years-of-age, and decided to become a wandering pilgrim (strannik). Rasputin made connections with some senior officials in the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazan in 1904 and quite possibly visited European Russia in this same period, where he acquired the connections that eventually led him to the Court.[1]

Calling himself a “starets” (elder), a title of respect usually given to elderly Orthodox monks, Rasputin first met Tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) on 1 November 1905 at a reception in Saint Petersburg. Several meetings occurred over the next three years whenever Rasputin was in the capital and by 1908, to the horror of many of the Imperial couple’s attendants, the man they called “Our Friend” (always in capitals) in letters had become a fixture at Court.[2]

Rasputin was brought in by Empress Alexandra because of his alleged healing abilities to assist in treating her haemophilic son, Alexei (b. 1904), the heir to the throne. The Tsarina, a German (which became a serious problem during the Great War) and a granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, had been educated under her grandmother’s guidance until age-15, absorbing English language and manners, but none of the scepticism. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there was a general trend of interest in “spirituality” across Europe and in Russia the phenomenon of “God’s Fools” or “Holy Fools”—mentally impaired people seen as saintly because of gift’s like prophecy—was well-established, with such people venerated and paid for by the Orthodox Church. Alexandra regularly invited these “blessed” souls to the Palaces.[3]

Rasputin was marginally literate, at most, and never had any kind of formal religious instruction, though he could recite the Gospels.[4] The nature of Rasputin’s beliefs and/or their sincerity is a question that began in his own lifetime.[5]

STRUGGLE TO EMBED IN THE COURT

Pyotr Stolypin

Rasputin did not have serious influence over the state until after the outbreak of the First World War. In the six years before that, there were repeated attempts to sever his relations with the Imperial Family, particularly by the great reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (r. 1906-11), and until late 1915 the political police, the Okhranka, was hostile to Rasputin because they were aware of his “unsavoury acquaintances and immoral behaviour”.[6]

For a time, the Okhranka also considered Rasputin a security threat: he first met the Tsar, after all, right in the middle of the tidal wave of terrorist violence from revolutionaries who, while engaging in indiscriminate atrocities, had made a special focus of assassinating government officials,[7] and had made a known attempt against the Tsar.[8]

Stolypin confronted the Tsar about the need to banish Rasputin in the summer of 1911, shortly before his own assassination, and the Tsar replied: “I agree with you … but it is better to have ten Rasputins than one hysterical Empress”.[9] Occasionally in the years afterwards, the Tsar would temporarily send Rasputin away, but he always relented to his wife’s pressure to bring the starets back. The Tsarina was under Rasputin’s spell, and the Tsar was under his wife’s.[10]

Still, in 1912, Rasputin’s concrete influence was limited to using the state against his rivals in the religious milieu, and the resultant furore finally did get him (temporarily) banished.[11]

THE GREAT WAR AND RISING INFLUENCE

In July 1914, as the First World War broke out, Rasputin—encouraged by the Empress—had sent an extraordinary telegram to the Tsar, which the Tsar evidently cherished since he took it with him after his fall and had it smuggled out of Russia so it could be preserved:[12]

A terrible storm hangs over Russia. Disaster, grief, murky darkness, and no light … You are the Tsar-Father of the people, don’t allow the madmen to triumph and destroy themselves and the people. Yes, they’ll conquer Germany but what of Russia? Never for all time has a land suffered like Russia, drowned in her own blood. Great will be the ruin, grief without end.

That this letter demonstrated Rasputin’s prophetic abilities was reinforced for the Imperial Family when the Empress and her daughters went to work in the military hospital set up in the Catherine Palace and saw the horrors of the Great War for themselves. The hospital, and other charities run by the Empress, were funded by Dmitri Rubenstein, a wealthy Jewish banker and friend of Rasputin’s. This connection, and Rasputin’s increasingly public philosemitism, helped to stir up anti-Rasputin sentiment on the extreme-Right, to join that on the extreme-Left.

The starets was credited with saving the life of the Tsarina’s friend, Anna Vyrubova, in January 1915, appearing in a vision after she was seemingly fatally injured in a train accident, and with saving little Alexei in December 1915, apparently stopping the blood from his nose when the doctors could not after the boy had fallen while on a train. With his opposition to the war and these “miracles”, Rasputin’s position with Alexandra was unassailable by the end of 1915. The public closeness led to wild rumours, fanned by aggrieved former officials and suspicious Duma deputies, of the Empress sleeping with Rasputin and Rasputin overseeing lesbian orgies with the Empress and Anna. These pornographic slanders against the Tsarina—which existed not only in Russia—fused with xenophobic suggestions that she was a German spy and antisemitic ravings about Jews and Masons surrounding Rasputin.[13]

Troublesome as all this was politically, the larger problem with this was that Empress had, as she acknowledged, begun “bothering [the Tsar] with things that don’t concern me”, which is to say interfering against officials she did not like or whom Rasputin did not like, starting with Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich, the Tsar’s cousin and commander-in-chief.[14] And this was only going to get worse.

PERVERSITY AND POWER

In Moscow, on 26 March 1915, Rasputin went to the Yar Restaurant to discuss a sleazy business deal, and behaved in such an atrocious way—like “some kind of sexual psychopath”, as the police report put it, and ridiculed the Empress—that the chief of the city’s gendarmes was uncomfortable putting it in writing to give to the Tsar. Rasputin had been under intense Okhranka surveillance for ten months by this point—and various forms of surveillance back to 1908. In June 1915, the director of the Department of Police, Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, had gathered evidence about the Yar episode and much more, took it to the Tsar, and told him the Sovereign’s continued association with this man threatened the dynasty and the country. By August, Dzhunkovsky, a loyal servant of the throne and a patriot, was gone, fired after Alexandra had made all other outcomes impossible.[15]

Even before this, Rasputin had managed to install loyalists—sometimes people he had just met—in various, usually low-level administrative positions, though occasionally extending to a provincial governor. Now he had removed the head of the Okhranka. The message transmitted itself through the bureaucracy, and this incentive system fed on itself: the ambitious sought to ingratiate themselves to the starets—and, of course, these were the worst people: those not competent enough to rise by their own merit and those willing to set aside all moral scruple and put their own interests above greater concerns like the monarchy and Russia.

The Tsar had finally relented to his wife’s entreaties and agreed for Rasputin to return to Court in July 1915, between Dzhunkovsky’s meeting with the Tsar and Dzhunkovsky’s removal. Rasputin made absolutely no effort to improve his behaviour, getting so drunk aboard a ship on 9 August that, after a fight with the captain and various passengers, he slid under a table and slept until they arrived at port, where two police agents and two crewmen had to carry him onto the dock.[16]

The Russian elite was almost unanimous in its opposition to the Tsar’s decision in September 1915 to leave Saint Petersburg (Petrograd by then) to take command of his troops at the front, and a significant factor in this was that it would leave serious administrative responsibilities to his wife, and that was known to mean Rasputin. The Tsar himself seems to have been partially motivated to leave the capital so he could escape the hornets’ nest the Tsarina had stirred up by her association with Rasputin.[17]

RASPUTIN AT HIS ZENITH

Alexandra’s tenure with de facto control over the Cabinet was marked by instability and mediocrity. Rasputin’s sway over the Tsarina’s personnel decisions increased over this period, becoming decisive if not quite total, with the main inhibitor being the Tsar, who resisted some of the Rasputin-driven suggestions the Empress made.[18]

Alexei Khvostov

By late 1915, the secret police and Interior Ministry were no longer trying to excise the Rasputin cancer from the Court; they were part of the “Rasputin circle”, owing their place to the starets’ influence. Stepan Beletsky succeeded Dzhunkovsky, and Alexei Khvostov took over Interior. Rasputin treated them as his henchmen, and for a time they complied. Soon, however, these officials faced the same problem as their predecessors: with access to a stream of information from the Okhranka about Rasputin’s behaviour—the public drunkenness, various forms of sexual depravity, and financial misdeeds—and the damage this was doing, to the police, bringing contempt on an institution that had at least been respected even if they were disliked, and to the throne itself, they tried to find ways to rein him in. After attempting to influence Rasputin through their friend and his Mikhail Andronikov, to outright bribe him to behave (with money acquired illegally), and sundry other schemes, Khvostov concluded Rasputin had to die. The plot in early 1916 failed, and Beletsky and Khvostov were soon removed from office.[19]

Rasputin had tangled up senior officials in efforts to cover up morally reprehensible activities, induced them to illegality to finance his lifestyle, and ultimately humiliated them by even still refusing to do as they asked. Key parts of the Imperial Government were thus distracted in wartime trying to contain the appetites of a man who owed his position to an Empress he semi-openly ridiculed, and the public disgust at this spectacle spread, along with embellished stories and rumours and conspiracy theories. Nor was it over yet.

Another three Rasputinist stooges now took office. In September 1916, Alexander Protopopov became Interior Minister. The liberals in the State Duma (Parliament) had been demanding this, but it finally came about after Rasputin’s intrigues.[20] Protopopov, who was widely regarded as mad by this time,[21] then appointed Pavel Kurlov, an old friend, as his Assistant Minister. Kurlov, one of “Rasputin’s circle”, was widely despised for his gross incompetence, held responsible for the assassination of Stolypin and by this time popularly accused of treason for his disastrous mishandling of events in the Baltics during the German offensive in the summer of 1915. Kurlov was then responsible for the appointment of Alexander Vassilyev, a friend of his and financial partner, a former procurator with no experience in intelligence, as director of the Department of Police. These officials proved incapable of saving the man to whom they owed their positions, despite having round-the-clock surveillance on him.[22] With this in mind, Protopopov’s failure to secure the capital during the February Revolution is less surprising.

Prince Felix Yusupov || image source

DOWNFALL

A conspiracy against Rasputin was developed after Vladimir Purishkevich, an extreme nationalist Duma deputy and leader of the Union of the Archangel Michael, made a series of speeches throughout November 1916 criticising Rasputin. The lead mover in the conspiracy was Prince Felix Yusupov, husband of the Tsar’s niece,[23] and he was joined by his friend, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a cousin of the Tsar’s yet more like an adopted son. The royal pair then asked Purishkevich to join them, and he agreed. (It seems the British were aware of this plot and not displeased about it.[24]) In the early hours of 30 December [17 December O.S.] 1916, the eight-year debacle of Rasputin’s presence at Court was ended once and for all.[25]

There was little doubt about who had murdered Rasputin.[26] Protopopov  reported on it shortly afterwards to the Tsar, claiming the murder was the first stage in a plan to overthrow the Emperor. Nicholas dismissed this and, by now convinced Rasputin was universally hated, buried the whole thing.[27]

The conspirators had hoped to rescue the prestige of the monarchy by murdering Rasputin. Unfortunately, as the Okhranka was correctly reporting, even if the information was not getting through to the Tsar because of Vassilyev and Protopopov, the murder had come too late: the Rasputin factor had become one of the effective elements in the campaign to undermine the Tsardom and a storm was coming.[28]

 

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REFERENCES

[1] Rasputin is known to have befriended “the Black Princesses”, Militsa and Anastasia (“Stana”), daughters of the then-Prince and later King Nikola I of Montenegro, who were married to socially influential cousins of the Tsar. Militsa married Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich, and Anastasia married his older brother, Prince Georgy Romanovsky. In 1906, Anastasia and Georgy divorced, and the next year she married Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich, another cousin of the Tsar’s, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial Army for the first two years of the Great War.

[2] Charles Ruud and Sergei Stepanov (1999), Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police, p. 292.

[3] Fontanka 16, pp. 290-91.

[4] Fontanka 16, p. 291.

[5] Rasputin was twice formally investigated under suspicion of being a Khlyst, a renegade sect that had been anathematised two-hundred years earlier. Some even accused Rasputin of involvement with the Skoptsy, a splinter from the Khlysts that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century and is best known for its members’ practice of castrating males and mastectomies on women.

[6] Fontanka 16, pp. 292-94

[7] Anna Geifman (1993), Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917, pp. 20-1, 66-9.

[8] Fontanka 16, p. 193.

[9] Fontanka 16, p. 294.

[10] While the Tsar had moments of clarity about Rasputin, at least about the public-relations catastrophe that he was, the Emperor also found solace from this holy fool. As the Tsar said to a courtier at one point, “I love to converse with [Rasputin] and after such conversations, my soul is always light and calm.” Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016), The Romanovs: 1613-1918, p. 588.

[11] Sergei Trufanov (“Iliodor”), a Russian Orthodox priest who led the Union of the Russian People, had created constant trouble for Stolypin by accusing the Tsar of being surrounded by Judeo-Masons, with Stolypin as the head of this treasonous party. Trufanov was able to turn out large crowds and made a nuisance of himself. Trufanov, Bishop Hermogenes (another supporter of the Union), and Mitia Kozelsky (one of God’s fools) had tried to get Rasputin to cease going to Court, whereupon Rasputin retaliated by having the Bishop banned from Synod and shipped off to a monastery, while Trufanov was stripped of his office and thrown in a monastic cell. Rasputin was briefly barred from Court after this when Trufanov released letters from the Tsarina to Rasputin, which were innocent in intent—“I kiss your hand and put my head on your shoulder”—but easily misportrayed as scandalous. Trufanov was also probably behind the effort of the nose-less fanatic Khioniya Guseva, a former lover and one of his “spiritual daughters”, to assassinate Rasputin in his home village on 29 July 1914. Guseva stabbed the starets and declared, “I have killed the Antichrist!” Allowances made for rhetorical excess, one sees what she meant. She had not killed Rasputin, though, and she was soon locked in a sanatorium, only released in 1917 by the Provisional Government. Fontanka 16, pp. 295-96.

[12] The Romanovs, p. 576.

[13] The Romanovs, p. 590.

[14] The Romanovs, pp. 578-80. When the Tsar had proposed bringing Rasputin to the Stavka in the summer of 1915, Grand Duke Nikolayevich had let it be known to people around him he would hang the starets if he saw him at headquarters. A year later, on 28 July 1916, at the height of the Brusilov offensive, the Empress visited the Stavka for Alexei’s birthday and lectured General Mikhail Alekseyev, the Chief of Staff and de facto leader of much of the Imperial Army, about Rasputin being “such a holy and miraculous man, unjustly slandered … Believe me, General, if he could visit Stavka, he would bring everyone great happiness.’ Alekseyev brusquely responded, “Your Imperial Majesty, as soon as he appears at Stavka, I shall immediately resign my position”, and confirmed that this was “without doubt” his final word on the subject. When Alekseyev had a heart attack soon after, the Tsarina detected the Lord at work. The Romanovs, pp. 590-92.

[15] The police agents watching Rasputin had reported in the summer of 1914 that Rasputin “behaved disgracefully, got drunk, [and] led a licentious life”, then feigned “gentle meekness and piety when he was at Tsarkoe Selo”. Fontanka 16, pp. 297-98. Sebag Montefiore gives this vivid description: “Rasputin cavorted with Gypsy singers at the Yar restaurant, … drunkenly boasting of his erotic exploits with the Empress—‘the Old Lady … I can make her do anything’. When diners asked if he was the famous Rasputin, he proved it by dropping his breeches and brandishing his penis accompanied by the ‘shrieks of women, a man’s curse, broken glass and the banging of doors’.” The Romanovs, p. 584. Some historians have concluded that Dzhunkovsky fabricated this event to try to expel Rasputin from Court.

[16] Fontanka 16, p. 301.

[17] Ibid.

[18] In the seventeen or so months Alexandra was directing things, there were four Prime Ministers and five Interior Ministers. The Romanovs, p. 598.

[19] Fontanka 16, pp. 303-09.

[20] Rasputin suggested Protopopov to the Empress, and then wore down the Tsar with a relentless campaign of pleading and hectoring. The Romanovs, p. 598.

[21] Protopopov was suffering with something, probably syphilis, and his “treatment” was administered by a quack doctor brought in by Rasputin, who prescribed “arousing powders” (probably cocaine). The Romanovs, p. 598. When the Duma president Mikhail Rodzianko complained to the Tsar that Protopopov had lost his mind, the Tsar understandably responded that Rodzianko did not seem to have noticed this when Protopopov was working as deputy president in the Duma. Fontanka 16, p. 310.

[22] Fontanka 16, pp. 309-11.

[23] Prince Yusupov, who had been a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, was reportedly bisexual and a transvestite, though this does not seem to have bothered Princess Irina Alexandrovna, perhaps because she was so unworldly that the concept of homosexuality was unknown to her. The Romanovs, p. 568.

[24] Yusupov spoke to British diplomats about his plans and they made clear their approval, since London wanted to keep Russia in the war and knew that (a) Rasputin opposed Russia’s involvement in the war; and (b) his continued presence in this mortal realm was accelerating the trends leading towards Revolution in Russia. Whether British involvement went beyond this is unclear. The Romanovs, p. 604. There was some effort by the conspirators—and by German agents—to shift the blame for Rasputin’s murder onto the proto-SIS/MI6, whose station in Russia was headed by Samuel Hoare, and specifically on to Oswald Rayner, one of Hoare’s officers. The Rayner question was so widespread and immediate that Tsar Nicholas II asked about Rayner by name in a meeting with the British ambassador Sir George Buchanan on 1 January 1917. Buchanan assured the Emperor that Rayner had no involvement in the assassination and said suggestions to the contrary resulted from Rayner being friends with Yusupov since their Oxford days; as best as can be told, Buchanan was telling the truth.

[25] There are all kinds of stories about Rasputin’s death, many of them as wild as those about his life, a common theme being Rasputin’s resistance to what should have been fatal—either poisoned food or physical attacks. The truth seems to be much more prosaic: the conspirators shot him, possibly after getting him drunk, and dumped his body under the ice—a detail that raises the possibility one or more of those who did kill Rasputin had been involved with Beletsky’s earlier effort, since this was his plan, too.

[26] Police were shocked at the sheer incompetence of Rasputin’s murderers, who might as well have left a signed note with the body.

[27] Fontanka 16, pp. 311-13.

[28] Fontanka 16, pp. 314-15.

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