Uncover the Myth of Rasputin, Who Was Also Known as the Mad Monk

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The myth of Rasputin, the Mad Monk, is well-known: He was a scheming sexual predator who insinuated himself into court life with devastating effects on Russia’s royal family. The reality — what we know of it — is much more nuanced.

Most of what we know about Rasputin is thanks to Douglas Smith, historian and translator, who in 2016 published an exhaustively researched biography, Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. According to Smith, if the Rasputin you know is the character from pop culture, you don’t know Rasputin.

The real man, Smith says, was “an infinitely more interesting and captivating person” than the simplistic figure of legend.

Who was Rasputin and What Did He Do?

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin was born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoye, in Siberia, a part of the Russian empire. He was a self-taught peasant who left his family farm to become something of a wandering holy man, though he was never ordained. He wound up in St. Petersburg, where he came to the attention of the Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. And that is where the plot thickens.

Legend has it that Rasputin exerted an almost supernatural influence on the couple, especially Alexandra, and that through her, Rasputin manipulated Nicholas, effectively running the empire. But according to Smith, this influence was much more limited than legend suggests. Though he did advise on matters of state, Rasputin did not control the Tsar. Nor was Rasputin’s influence always malign.

Smith recounts the story of how in the summer of 1914, while near death in a hospital in Siberia, Rasputin sent a letter to Nicholas urging him not to go to war, predicting “oceans of blood and misery for all of Russia” if the country were to enter the war.

“If Nicholas had listened to Rasputin’s advice and kept Russia out of the war, the history of the 20th century would have been different; there would have been a lot less bloodshed,” Smith says.

Rasputin also had an understanding of the people that the insulated royal couple lacked. Because Rasputin had contact with all parts of society, peasantry as well as nobility, he had a much better insight into the mood of the empire during this time when revolution was brewing.

“There were moments where, if the Tsar and Tsarina had listened to him,” says Smith, “things may well have been better for Russia.“

Read More: How Scientists Identified the Remains of the Romanovs

Did Rasputin Heal Alexei?

One reason often cited for Rasputin’s influence on the royal couple was his ability to lessen the suffering of Alexei, the crown prince. Alexei had hemophilia. When he was 3 years old, he fell, which caused severe bruising and a great deal of pain. One story goes that Rasputin came, prayed, and assured the Tsarina that all would be well.

The next morning Alexei was completely recovered, convincing many, including Alexandra, that Rasputin had miraculously healed the prince. Smith writes that Rasputin’s reassurances may have calmed Alexandra, who in turn was able to reassure and calm her child so that he could heal.

But it’s possible that Rasputin helped Alexei in another way. According to an account in Robert K. Massie’s book Nicholas and Alexandra, once when Alexei was thought to be near death, Rasputin reassured the Tsarina with the following words, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.”

Not letting the doctors bother him too much may have been the substance of Rasputin’s magic. At the time, little was known about hemophilia. Frequent examinations by the royal doctors may have actually interfered with the blood’s very slow clotting. In addition, the doctors may have given him aspirin, which at that time was used for pain, but was not then known to be an anticoagulant.

Read More: Prince’s Bones Show That Hemophilia Decimated European Royal Families

How Did Rasputin Die and Who Killed Him?

Rumors about Rasputin were widespread at the time, and he gave the press plenty to work with. He drank heavily and had many affairs. But the stories went far beyond describing a flawed man. They portrayed him as nothing less than an evil mastermind. What accounted for this hatred? It was likely due, says Smith, to a tendency to seek simple solutions to complex problems.

“It became easy to blame all of Russia’s ills on Rasputin,” Smith says.

In December 1916 a group of nobles led by Felix Yusupov murdered Rasputin in the belief that with Rasputin gone, the royal family might be saved, and with it the empire. The plan did not work. In two months, the February Revolution had forced Nicholas to abdicate. By November, the entire royal family would be dead at the hands of another revolution.

Read More: Garlic May Have Saved Rasputin From Just One Assassination

Why Was Rasputin Killed?

The legends say that Rasputin was nigh impossible to kill. The conspirators, the story goes, invited him to dinner and served him poisoned food. When that had no effect, they shot him several times, including in the heart, but Rasputin remained alive. They then dropped the wounded mystic into the freezing Neva river, where he finally drowned.

But the truth is that Rasputin was as mortal as you and I. An autopsy showed that he died of gunshot wounds. The body removed from the icy river was dead when it was thrown in.

Rasputin was neither an arch villain nor a saint. But the stories that surrounded him while he lived and continue to define him after his death have made it difficult to appreciate what he actually was: a fascinating and complex man who lived at a particularly pivotal time in history.

Read More: Who Was Catherine the Great?

Article Sources

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Avery Hurt is a freelance science journalist. In addition to writing for Discover, she writes regularly for a variety of outlets, both print and online, including National Geographic, Science News Explores, Medscape, and WebMD. She’s the author of “Bullet With Your Name on It: What You Will Probably Die From and What You Can Do About It,” Clerisy Press 2007, as well as several books for young readers. Avery got her start in journalism while attending university, writing for the school newspaper and editing the student non-fiction magazine. Though she writes about all areas of science, she is particularly interested in neuroscience, the science of consciousness, and AI–interests she developed while earning a degree in philosophy.

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