“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 an illiterate peasant from Pokrovskoye, named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, may never have risen to historical status were it not for a 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, this peasant from Pokrovskoye stepped forward and did something to provide the boy some temporary relief, and that something that he did would enshrine the name Rasputin in history.
As the author writes numerous times throughout the book, it’s impossible to know with facts, and without debate, 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.
Did Rasputin drug the young Tsarevich to health? Was it the hypnosis 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 had claimed to have since childhood, and that he ended up using on the young Tsarevich?
Some claim that drugs were used on the young Tsarevich, and that they were “discontinued before Rasputin’s appearance” to coincide with Rasputin’s appearance in such a manner that led those concerned to believe Rasputin cured the boy. Those that make this claim believe that Rasputin may have had a co-conspirator in the empire that would administer the drugs to Alexis to time their effect, so that Alexis’ relief would occur at the exact moment of 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 either 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.
Some might speculate that by the time that the incident at Spala occurred, the Romanovs had reached such a point of desperation, and that Rasputin was their last 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 had 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 had been 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.
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 ways, 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 that aren’t attuned to standardized measures of intelligence, are attuned to something different, something greater, and something more “normal” people would never be able to understand. One can also guess that some degree of privileged guilt also 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, it can benefit 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 Alexandra’s belief that Rasputin fit this somewhat unintended, unspoken, and condescending mold.
Most readers that 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 it was Alexandra’s genes that caused her son, the Tsarevich Alexis, the heir to the throne, this illness. They may sympathize with Alexandra’s desperation when they learn that the Empire’s doctors informed her that there was little they could do to ease his 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 all of the decisions that she influenced 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.”
Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 2013. Print.