Rasputin III: The Fall of Rasputin


“They tried stabbing him, poisoning him, beating him, shooting him five times, and they even tried drowning him,” a history teacher said, “but a Russian peasant named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin refused to die.”

This provocative introduction to a chapter in Russian history left a sophomore class of boys spellbound. The teacher went onto detail how this Russian peasant climbed the ladder of Russia’s otherwise strict class structure to provide some influence on the Romanov empire. The teacher described how Rasputin’s reputation for having mystical, healing powers precipitated an ascension into power in the empire. The teacher also stated that some believed his powers bordered on the supernatural, and how this speculation led some to call him “The Mad Monk”. 

This history teacher, unlike the many I’ve had since, was a gifted storyteller. He laid that provocative description out there, and he spent the rest of the class detailing the life of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. As interesting as the tale of Rasputin’s rise was to us, we couldn’t wait for him to conclude the provocative “the man that couldn’t be killed” introduction. It sounded like a real life tale of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger, or any of the 70s/80s horror movies in which the bad guy could not be killed.   

“The truth of Rasputin’s murder,” counters author Joseph T. Fuhrman, “was not as amazing as the mythology that has surrounded it.”

RasputinWhile it may be true that all of the attempts to kill Rasputin occurred in the manner listed above, it is not true, as my history teacher’s verbal commas suggest, that they all occurred on separate occasions.

It is true that Rasputin was stabbed on one occasion, by a woman without a nose, but that did not prove fatal. He was shot at five times in the course of one night, but two of those shots missed, and two of them penetrated locations that would not have been immediately fatal to any other mortal. It is also true that the conspirators, who would take his life on this fatal night, did try to poison Rasputin, but it’s conceivable that they failed give him a lethal amount of that poison. When the poison failed to produce the immediate results they desired, they panicked, and they began shooting at him, and he did survive, but it wasn’t the real life Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees-style resurrection we students imagined. It was more about the location of the shots, on Rasputin’s body, than anything supernatural, or mystical. One of the bullets, Fuhrmann notes –citing autopsies performed on Rasputin’s body– passed through Rasputin’s stomach and liver, and another passed through his kidney. Neither of those bullets proved to be fatal, as they wouldn’t have on any other mere mortal, but they would’ve … given enough time.

In the intervening minutes that occurred after the first shot –that went through his stomach and liver– Rasputin did manage to regain his feet and make a move on his assailant, but all Rasputin ended up doing, was grab his assailant’s shoulder and tear an epaulet off his uniform. He did not, as some speculate, reach up and begin choking his assailant. He grabbed his assailant’s shoulder, tore the epaulet off, began grumbling the assailant’s name, and fled into the snowy night.

While attempting to flee, Rasputin was shot at four more times, two missed, one struck him in the back and traveled through the kidney, and he dropped. The other, the fifth and fatal shot, went through his forehead. Some have it that that final shot occurred from a distance, but the autopsies suggest it was delivered execution-style, due to the gun residue located at the entry point on Rasputin’s forehead. Some autopsies suggest that there was water in Rasputin’s lungs that would suggest that he was alive when he hit the water, as his assailants attempted to drown him after the shooting, but Fuhrmann suggests that the greater evidence disputes that notion and suggests that Rasputin was dead before he hit the water. 

As for my history teacher suggesting that they tried beating him to death, the evidence derived from the post-mortem examination suggest that the bumps and bruises Rasputin received all occurred as a result of a beating his body received after death. The execution-style gun blast to the forehead ended the story of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, but the mythology surrounding the man was just starting. 

This idea that Rasputin was difficult to kill speaks to this very human fear we have of how easy it is to kill a person. Movies and TV shows leave the impression that when a person shoots at us, the bullet almost always finds our most delicate and vulnerable locations, and we’re dead within seconds. The same holds true for an attempt to poison another. When we learn that another does not die as quickly as we fear we might in a similar situation, especially when those facts are presented in a provocative ten second introduction, we immediately assign supernatural qualities to their survival.  

Our teacher also told us that Rasputin’s presumed dead body was thrown in the water, with a stone tied to him, and that the Russians dragged the lake and found the ropes and the stone, but they never found Rasputin’s body. This is not true, but it added a necessary ingredient to the “he who never lives can never die” narrative our history teacher was building. I still don’t know if my teacher was such a great storyteller that he wanted to avoid the facts of his narrative, or if he believed what he was telling us, but the captivating details led me to do some research on Rasputin later that night. 

To those of us who love great stories, and the mythology that grows around them, it was disappointing to learn that Rasputin’s body was as vulnerable to those agents that cause death as anyone else’s. We consider it much more interesting to speculate about the differences between history’s good guys, and bad guys, and how history’s bad guys escape that are which the rest of us are more susceptible. On a certain level, we all know that none of this is true, but it’s more interesting, and fun, to speculate and mythologize an otherwise normal, albeit brutal tale regarding one’s demise by leaving out key details.

The Parables of History

“Those that don’t study history, are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana said to give history teachers a gift that keeps on giving. 

“All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that,” a cynical student of history might say, when learning of Santayana’s quote, in conjunction with some of history’s greatest failings. They might use this mindset in response to the Romanovs’ involvement with Rasputin. “We’re not as hyper-religious as those in the Russian Empire were at the turn of the century, so we’re not going to be as vulnerable to a charlatan who states that he knows scripture backwards and forwards, who states he has God’s ear, and thus gains a Svengali-like hold on the minds of the citizens.”

“As opposed to the messages in modern media, history is replete with charlatans, both religious and non,” that history teacher might respond. “It’s also replete with victims who fail to learn from the mistakes made in history and proceed to repeat the same mistakes when the next charlatan comes along with different promises of something bigger and better. If your takeaway from this lesson is that a charlatan follows a uniform code of conduct, or that you can spot a charlatan by spotting a cross in their ensemble, you’re more likely to become one of history’s next victims.”

“How could they have been so stupid?” will still be on the lips, and in the minds, of these cynical students reading through the history of the Romanov Empire, just as it will be when they learn of the lead up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now that we know the outcome, we can’t help but feel superior to those that ignored, or misread, all that led up to the great deceptions in history.

Are we superior now, after learning history’s lessons, or will future students of history be shaking their heads, and condemning our generation, for missing all of the undeniable signs of inevitability that led to the terrorist attack on 9/11/01? “How did your generation’s leaders fall for all that?” these future students may ask. “There were so many signs. How could they have been so stupid?”

“All I can tell you,” we may say to that member of another generation studying our history, “is that you have the advantage of hindsight. You weren’t there.”

Other than the rise to influence that Grigori Rasputin attained in the Russian Empire, and the healing of Alexis Romanov at the miracle at Spala, Rasputin’s name is etched into history by the manner in which he was murdered, and the mythology that surrounds it.

The Mythology of the Mad Monk

The lone mythology of the murder of the “Mad Monk” that Fuhrmann willing entertains is the idea that the British Secret Intelligence Service (the BSIS) either organized the plot to kill Rasputin, or they encouraged it. He states that what lends this speculation plausibility is the idea that Britain may have believed that Rasputin was influencing Nicholas II to end Russia’s participation in World War I (WWI).

“Rasputin was not doing this,” Fuhrmann writes, “but Britain may not have known this, and Britain needed (WWI adversary) Germany concentrating at least some of their forces on Russia, until the United States would enter the war.” Fuhrmann further states that “Britain’s Military Intelligence, Section Six, (MI6), promised to publish its files on Rasputin’s murder, but it decided to delay it, we can assume, to avoid cooled relations between Moscow and London.”

Those that portray Rasputin as a towering figure that loomed over the Russian Empire may be putting too much weight in the characterizations put forth by Rasputin fans, and those that seek to characterize the man as a monster for the benefit of their monster stories.

Objective reporters report that Rasputin was 5’9”and thin. They will also tell you that he was born an illiterate peasant, and he died having never achieved what observers would call a well-educated background. Those same reporters will concede that he did make the most of that limited education. They will report that far from being detached from tangible possessions, or status, Rasputin accepted and showed off gifts from the Romanovs and their loyalists with child-like glee. Witnesses characterized this glee as similar to that which a dog may display after receiving treats for performing tricks, and like that dog Rasputin never recognized that the treats were laced with unintended condescension. These objective historians will also report that if Rasputin ever towered over the Russian Empire, in the manner some historians suggest, it was dealt a hefty blow when the girl without a nose stabbed him. Those favorable renditions claim that Rasputin recovered, and they leave it at that to further the mythology surrounding him. Rasputin did recover, but it took a considerable amount of time in which Rasputin could be found wounded, sick, frail, and paranoid from that point forward. In the time he spent healing from his wounds, and in the state of mind he was in in the aftermath, Rasputin lost whatever influence he may have had at one time. Even if all of these objective reports are true, it could still be stated that Rasputin achieved a position that was light years above the station his friends and family in Pokrovskoye ever knew.

The Politics of Grigori Rasputin

Reflecting on the life of Grigori Rasputin, some historians suggest that he was nothing more than a “right place, right time” opportunist that wasn’t as proactive in shaping his story as others suggest. Fuhrmann refutes that by stating that Rasputin exhibited a politician’s ability to make connections, and that he was particularly adept at choosing those connections that would prove most conducive to advancing him into an influential position.

He also managed to persuade those in power, in a political manner, to change his name from Rasputin to Rasputin-Novyi, or “New Rasputin”. The modus operandi for doing this, according to Fuhrmann, was that the name Rasputin carried some negative connotations within the Russian Empire of the day. Rasputin further managed, as some “more adept” modern politicians have done, to persuade those in the Empire to deem it “unethical” for anyone to use his true name. Rasputin later stated that it was never his idea to change his name, but Fuhrmann states that the name change was made as a result of Rasputin’s petition to Tsar Nicholas II. Rasputin also managed to have the Tsarista Alexandra refer to Rasputin, in the letters she wrote of him, with a capital ‘H’ on the pronoun him, a convention of the English language most reserve for God. Thus, it could be said, Rasputin did have some hand in manipulating the legacy we know today, in that he knew how to manipulate his perception in ways the modern culture will when they attempt to soften perceptions of criminals and terrorists with more pleasing terms, even if those calculated manipulations tend to appear inconsequential at the time.

Rasputin’s Legacy and the Clash of History with Subjectivity

“If I die, or you abandon me,” Rasputin is reported to have told Nicholas II, “you will lose your son, and your crown in six months.” 

This has been regarded as an ominous prophecy by Rasputin, based on the fact that the Romanov rule would end seventy-five days after Rasputin’s murder. If one dissects the timeline, however, they realize that once the one that plagued the empire was out of the way, the excuses for the failures of the ruling family would be gone too, and the Romanovs would then become the center of the focus for any of Russia’s failures.

Reading through Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s excellent book Rasputin: The Untold Story, the numerous internet sources on the subject, and watching the Rasputin documentaries on Bio and Discovery, one cannot help but realize how much speculation and uncertainty looms over the events that occurred in the life of Grigori Rasputin. The author/researcher needs to choose between the varying versions of the tale of the man’s life, and they have to sift through the varying opinions of those near contradictory versions.  

The question regarding whether Rasputin had any influence on the Russian empire is uniformly accepted, but how much he had is the source of some speculation. Some regard him as an opportunist that seized upon a vulnerable empire, and others suggest that he was a savvy man, in a political sense, in that he manipulated some of the most educated, most influential people of his day as well as any manipulator in history has.

“No figure in modern history has provoked such a mass of sensational and unreliable literature as Grigori Rasputin,” writer Colin Wilson states. “More than a hundred books have been written about him, and not a single one can be accepted as a sober presentation of his personality. There is an enormous amount of material on him, and most of it is full of invention or willful inaccuracy. Rasputin’s life, then, is not ‘history’; it is the clash of history with subjectivity.”

The Beginning: Part I: Rasputin Rises

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.  2013. Print.

http://www.amazon.com/Rasputin-Untold-Joseph-T-Fuhrmann-ebook/dp/B00E9CSSNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388534025&sr=8-1&keywords=rasputin

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Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala


“How could they have been so stupid?” students of history say when they learn of the conclusion of some of history’s greatest stories, and her victims. “How could they not have known?”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it can lead the observer to believe that they are smarter than the greatest minds in sports, politics, and history. Hindsight can lead us to call the brightest minds and most celebrated figures of history stupid, incompetent, and inept.

“How could the Romanovs have failed to see Rasputin for what he was?” students of history will ask as they page through the history of the Russian Empire, the Romanovs, and their association with the “Mad Monk” Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. “All the signs were there. Why did they ignore, or fail to grasp the totality of what Rasputin was on about?” 

There may be some moments in their brief history together, where a student of history sympathizes with the Romanovs, but for the most part, they will key in on those moments when the Romanovs proved most vulnerable to the “Mad Monk’s” displays of “other worldly” powers of healing to launch himself into a powerful, and influential, position in the Russian Empire and say, “All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that.”

As stated in the previous entry Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises, most historical figures are “right place, right time” opportunists defined by their ability to take advantage of windows of opportunity in their era, and for those that would go on to achieve infamy, the ability to take advantage of people in their most vulnerable moments. Adolf Hitler, it could be said, never would’ve risen to power were it not for the vast vulnerability Germany found itself in, in the aftermath World War I and The Depression, and an illiterate peasant from Pokrovskoye, named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, may never have risen to historical status were it not for one sick, young child.

A Sick, Young Child

In Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s book Rasputin: The Untold Story, we learn that Rasputin’s window of opportunity occurred when Tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexis suffered a serious attack of hemophilia that began at a hunting preserve in a Russian village called Spala on October 2, 1912.

“This particular attack,” Fuhrmann writes, “was not life-threatening, and Rasputin never “cured” or “healed” the Tsarevich (son of the Tsar) of his hemophilia on this, or any other, occasions. The Tsarevich Alexis Romanov had hemophilia the day he was born, until the day he died.” 

In the space of all of the men of medicine attempting to alleviate Alexis of the pain of the symptoms of this particular attack, however, a peasant from Pokrovskoye stepped forward and did something to provide the boy some temporary relief, and that something that he did would eventually enshrine the name Rasputin in history.

As the author writes numerous times throughout the book, it’s impossible to know with absolute certitude what that something was. We can speculate from accounts witnessed and recorded by friends of the empire, and we can sort through the accounts put forth by family members, and others in the empire, but for the most part we are left to speculate, because the Romanovs were so isolated from even the surrounding communities of the Empire, that all historical accounts of this era can be characterized as speculative. The very idea that Alexis was sick was a state secret that the Romanov family kept hidden from the rest of the country. It is the speculation of what Rasputin did, however, that has made the story of Rasputin so intriguing for so many, for near one-hundred years.

How Did He Do it?

Did Rasputin drug the young Tsarevich to health? Was it an hypnosis technique that Rasputin is purported to have studied throughout the course of his life? Was there some form of auto-suggestion that Rasputin used to manipulate Alexis’ mind in a manner that no one in the age knew, so they assigned supernatural, and/or mystical qualities to Rasputin’s actions? Or, did he, in fact, possess those mystical powers that he claimed to have since childhood, and that he ended up using on the young Tsarevich?

Some claim that Rasputin may have had a friend inside the empire who administered drugs to the young Tsarevich, and that Rasputin knew enough about the effects of the medicine to have its effects coincide with Rasputin’s arrival.

Some claim that an auto-suggestion technique employed by Rasputin, calmed the notorious nerves of the mother, Alexandra, and that she conveyed such assurances to her son Alexis, who then calmed to a degree that his blood calmed and the issue passed. This theory also holds true in modern science when they speak about the power of prayer, the placebo effect, and the psychological belief of healing, that led the young Tsarevich to believe he was healed. If Alexandra believed Rasputin could cure Alexis, and she conveyed this belief onto Alexis, Rasputin’s ability to heal Alexis could prove to be greater than those of all the other doctors involved.

Others suspect that Rasputin benefited from some other form of incidental coincidence, or intended coincidence. Those that suspected Rasputin of intentional coincidence, claim that he may have known more about the illness hemophilia than anyone else in the empire, doctors included, and that he knew the precise time to make an appearance in accordance with a lessening of pain to have “the cure” attributed to his presence.

Others claim that the time Rasputin spent mourning the death of his cousin Dmitry led him to ostracize himself from those in his village, and that he sought the comfort of horses. While gaining the favor of horses, and their owners, Rasputin learned horse whispering techniques to calm horses, and that he employed these tactics to calm the Tsarevich Alexis, and thus relieved him from some of the more painful symptoms of hemophilia.

For his part, “Rasputin never claimed to have worked miracles on the boy.” He kept what modern readers would term a political distance from self-aggrandizement, and he allowed those around the incident to fill in the blanks for him. “He claimed that God, alone, could perform miracles. He insisted that his healings were nothing more than manifestations of God’s will,” and by saying such things Rasputin remained in good stead with the Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, that never stated that Rasputin was a saint, or anything more than human, but they did believe that he had spiritual gifts that were made apparent during the miracle at Spala. They also, we can assume, asked the question what’s more important engaging in the debate of Rasputin’s role in the health of their son, or the health of their son? The one thing they knew was that when Rasputin was near their son, he suffered less.

Why was Rasputin Chosen?

Some might speculate that by the time that the incident at Spala occurred, the Romanovs reached a point of desperation, and that they Rasputin as their last, best hope, and that they had little choice in the matter when Rasputin proved to be a healing agent in the years that followed. If it’s true that the Romanovs met Rasputin on a number of occasions prior to the incident at Spala, and as Fuhrmann points out they were afforded a number of opportunities to see “the real” Rasputin firsthand. If that’s true, why did they keep him around? Why was Rasputin afforded the chance to “heal” or “cure” Alexis in the first place? If there were that many men vying for the position of Holy Fool in the Empire, how did a semi-literate peasant from Pokrovskoye rise to the top?

As stated in the previous entry Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises, Rasputin was characterized as an illiterate to semi-literate peasant, with no formal attachments to religion, or formal education, and some would suggest that these characteristics would forever lead to Rasputin and the Romanovs down separate paths. Others would suggest that it was these very characteristics that led Rasputin to gain entrance into the Empire.

As with every aspect of this story, some of the answers of why the Romanovs continued to have some faith in Rasputin lies in conjecture, some in speculation, but knowing human nature the way we do, we can speculate that a “more normal” citizen of St. Petersburg, with “equivalent mystical powers” but a more sensible haircut, and a normal temperament, may not have been regarded for this particular position in a serious manner. We can assume that the Romanovs wanted someone that had a mysterious air about them, someone that looked a little more bedraggled, and wild. They wanted someone who fit their perceptions of what it took to fit the role of Holy Fool in the empire.

Rasputin, as witnesses suggest, often smelled like a goat, his hair was famously unkempt, he did not bathe often, picked his nose in polite company, criticized and seduced women in public, and often had food in his beard, but he also had a “Blazing gaze in his magnetic light colored eyes,” and people stated that he could dilate his eyes at will. Rasputin, it could be said, fit the mold of the “Holy Fool” the Romanovs sought, as if by central casting.

One can also guess that the Romanovs chose Rasputin to stick around, to “heal” their son based on the same unintended condescension that leads some to believe that the uneducated are superior in spiritual mediums, and more in tune with God than those focused on more formal training. The Romanovs were given to the very natural speculation, we all are, that those not attuned to standardized measures of intelligence, are attuned to something different, something greater, and something their more normal citizens would never be able to understand. One can also guess that some degree of privileged guilt caused Alexandra, and Rasputin’s eventual followers, to assign superhuman, spiritual qualities to Rasputin in the same manner the modern day American attaches exotic and spiritual characteristics to children, the indigent, and those with characteristics deemed foreign to our experience. It’s an unintended form of condescension that derives from the guilt of the haves when dealing with the have nots, and if the have nots play it in a strategic manner, as Rasputin did, the process can provide benefits to both parties involved.

Fuhrmann provides the impression that had Tsar Nicholas II been in total control of the interaction between Rasputin and the empire, Rasputin may never have achieved influence he did in the Empire. Nicholas’ philosophy of life, Fuhrmann writes, was guided by the “Classic Russian acceptance of fate (sudba), God’s will, or the force that ruled the cosmos.” Nicholas saw to it that Alexis’ fate was not unnecessarily precipitated, but Nicholas was not one to believe that he, nor any other human, could control fate in any manner. Tsarista Alexandra, however, was not guided by the same beliefs. She was more prone to believe in what she saw as proactive measures. She believed that fate could be controlled, and altered, through prayer, and she believed that what God needed to work his miracles was a spiritual conduit, in the manner she believed a illiterate, bedraggled peasant could best provide, and it was probably Alexandra’s belief that Rasputin fit this somewhat unintended, unspoken, and condescending mold.

Most readers who have had a near-death experience with their child will find some sympathy with Alexandra’s desperation to save, or at least relieve her only son of pain. Readers may extend further sympathies when they learn that Alexandra’s knew her genes caused her son, the Tsarevich Alexis, the heir to the throne, this severe case of hemophilia. They may further sympathize with Alexandra’s desperation after the Empire’s doctors informed her that there was little they could do to ease her son’s suffering. They may sympathize with Alexandra’s desire to keep Rasputin around after the “Miracle at Spala”, and they may forgive her for being so grateful to the man that she ended up allowing him to influence her mind on matters on the empire in a manner she allegedly shared with Tsar Nicholas II to make, but there will be those moments in which the reader, knowing how this story turned out, will say to themselves, “All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that.”

Next: Part III: The Fall of Rasputin

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.  2013. Print.