“They tried stabbing him, poisoning him, beating him, shooting him five times, and they even tried drowning him,” our history teacher said, “but the Russian peasant named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin refused to die.”
This “The Man who Couldn’t be Killed” introduction to a chapter in Russian history was brought to us by our World History teacher, and it led an otherwise rowdy class of sixteen-year-old boys to be silent. Our teacher enjoyed that for a beat, then went on to fulfill his duty of informing us of all of the other details regarding the life of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, including the fact that some believed Rasputin had powers bordered on the supernatural and that this speculation led some to call him “The Mad Monk”. The teacher’s presentation was quite thorough, but few of us cared about that at the time. We were on the edge of our seats waiting for the conclusion of that “The Man who Couldn’t be Killed” introduction.
We had no idea that World History could be this compelling. History, some of us realized for the first time, is nothing but a collection of stories, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller, some of these stories could be absolutely riveting. As soon as our World History teacher concluded with the bullet points of this chapter in World History, and the material that would probably appear on the test, he returned to the tale of “The Man who Couldn’t be Killed”. His conclusion did not disappoint us.
“After Rasputin’s assassins believed they finally murdered him, they rolled his body up in a carpet. They tied this carpet up with chains connected to concrete blocks that they hoped would bound him to the bottom of the Malaya Nekva River once they threw him in. Due to the weather, Russian officials were not able to search the river for the body for some time. When they were finally able to search it, they found the carpet, the cinder blocks, and the chains, but they never found no body.”
“Is he alive today?” one of my fellow students asked.
“They never found a body,” our teacher answered.
The silence of the sixteen-year-olds ended, as soon as he said that. Some of us looked at each other with “Wow!” faces, but the rest of us immediately began speculating about what happened. Is he dead? How could he not be? What if he was evil incarnate? You can’t kill something that was never alive. Was he the real life influence for Dracula? Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. As horrifying as those tales were, this really happened, and we didn’t learn this from some crackpot on a late night radio show. We heard this from an esteemed World History teacher. If you doubt what I just told you, we would later tell our friends, take it up with him. Our World History teacher didn’t even try to silence us, as he knew the fervor he created grew to a point that he just created a love of some history in some of us. The volume we reached surely disrupted the other classes across the hall. He didn’t appear to care about any of that in the moment. He obviously enjoyed the looks on our faces, the excited tones of our discussion, and all of the other products of his pitch-perfect presentation on Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, “The Man who Couldn’t be Killed”.
“The truth of Rasputin’s murder,” author Joseph T. Fuhrman suggests, “was not as amazing as the mythology that has surrounded it.”
While it may be true that all of the attempts to kill Rasputin occurred in the manner our history teacher detailed, 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 prostitute without a nose, but that did not prove fatal. He was shot at five times in the course of one night by a team of nobles led by Felix Yusupov, the richest man in Russia, 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, by lacing his tea and cake with cyanide, but it’s conceivable that they failed give him a lethal amount of that poison. When Rasputin showed no signs of succumbing to the cyanide, they upped the dose they put it in his wine. 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 my class of sophomore World History 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 the 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 beginning.
The shock we experience when we hear 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 always hits, it almost always finds our most delicate and vulnerable locations, and we’re dead within milliseconds. The good guys run behind bunkers, amid a flurry of bullets unharmed. The good guys reload and take out eight with eight shots. This happens so often, in the movies and TV, that we’re almost conditioned to believe that good guys are hard to kill bad guys aren’t. When a story, such as Rasputin’s, show that a bad guy is just as capable of surviving an errant shot, we immediately assign supernatural qualities to the survivor.
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, as it turns out, 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 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 who 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 locate 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 who ignored, or misread, the tea leaves 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 who 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 who seek to characterize the man as a monster for the benefit of their monster stories.
In our mind’s eye, we picture Rasputin as being about 6’5″ with broad shoulders, but objective reporters state that Rasputin was 5’9” and relatively thin. We might also project some scintillating intellect with Svengali-like powers of manipulation on Rasputin, but while some suggest he was not an illiterate peasant his whole life, 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 however. 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. 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, Rasputin was deeply affected by it. Witnesses suggest he was scared, even paranoid, and in that state of mind, he 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 who wasn’t as proactive in shaping his story as others suggest. Fuhrmann refutes that, to some degree, 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.
“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.\
Rasputin’s Legacy and the Clash of History with Subjectivity As fascinating as our history teacher’s provocative introduction was, those of us who did our own research on Rasputin in the years that followed learned that speculation and uncertainty looms over just about every event that occurred in the life of Grigori Rasputin, including his death. Interested parties can now read numerous books, watch numerous documentaries on the Bio Channel and Discovery, and learn different perspectives on just about every story told about the man on the internet. Some stories contradict all prior stories and others contradict the contradictions. My personal favorite, as should be obvious to the reader at this point, is Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s excellent book Rasputin: The Untold Story. Fuhrman approaches each tale with what I view as detailed, and sourced, skepticism that is more measured than the typical contradictory biographer who claims, “Everyone else is wrong. My book should, heretofore, be regarded as the preeminent source.” Fuhrman chose to synthesize archival sources with published documents, memoirs, and other studies of Rasputin into a single, comprehensive work. Should we regard Rasputin: The Untold Story the preeminent source of all things Rasputin, or is it just another in a long line of books about the man? We don’t know. You don’t know, and I don’t know, but Fuhrman did go to great pains to avoid speculation, and many of what I believe are his fact-based theories are as negative as they are positive. We don’t know how many copies of this book he sold, but we can speculate that a Rasputin: The Mad Monk, the Monster title probably would’ve sold better. Fuhrman instead chose what I view as a more fact-based approach to answering the questions, was Rasputin truly evil, or was he an innocent pawn used by the monarchy as a scapegoat? How much influence did he have on the Russian empire? Was Rasputin an opportunist who seized upon a vulnerable empire with a level of political savvy that allowed him to manipulate some of the most educated, most influential people of his day as well as any manipulator in history has? Fuhrman’s Rasputin, does not appear to have an agenda, a marketing gimmick, or a focused approach other than truth. Having said that, as Colin Wilson states, we’ll never know if Fuhrman, or anyone else at this point, can know with 100% certitude the facts regarding what Rasputin did or did not do in his involvement with the Russian Monarchy, or his eventual murder.
“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.