Rasputin: History's Most Memorable Spell
A brief summary of the sacred madman of Russia, the embracing of whom led to the fall of the Romanovs.
“There’s no remorse without sin,” professed Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), a Siberian peasant whose mystical powers were reportedly in evidence from the age of 12. His burning eyes and alleged ability to expand and contract his pupils at will brought him dozens of followers during his pilgrimages to Greece and the Middle East. He claimed to have powers allowing him to heal the sick and predict the future, while his lack of personal hygiene and his intimidating complexion were in line with the Russian tradition that viewed mujik (rural peasants) as potential saints. Among many other things, Rasputin was one of the Siberian shamans that healed in the name of Christ, and that was enough to counteract the misery of the world with religious devotion.
His dark legend, full of absurdities and incongruences – as is typical of such improbable figures – is due in part to that premise that he divulged among his followers: first it is necessary to sin in order to then find illumination and divine redemption. It was also due to his sexual and alcoholic indulgences – an intrinsic part of the former and the merely superficial part of the story – but above all, to the fact that the enigmatic Tsar’s wife Alexandra Romanov would be hypnotized by his prayers alone and that Rasputin was able to stem the fatal hemorrhages of Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich.
Rasputin was the only person who could apparently do anything regarding the hemophiliac condition of Alexei, whose blood would not coagulate. Their doctor, who had been impressed with his mix of religious fervor and stench, had recommended him to the Romanov family in 1908. What Rasputin did was, of course, the subject of medical debate. According to Frances Welch in his biography, during the hemorrhagic episodes, Rasputin would speak with the child, tell him stories and calm him. This may have reduced his arterial pressure and as a result his flow of bleeding. His contemporaries believed that Rasputin could hypnotize people with his eyes and that he possibly hypnotized Alexei with the same calming effect.
During that period Russia was entering a period of intense crisis and Rasputin enjoyed the total confidence of the Tsarina and therefore the kingdom’s political power. Furthermore, dozens of noble supplicants sought him out for his hypnotic charisma and his prophetic powers, among them several women of Russian high society whose ‘bedroom visits’ ended up being highly controversial. At that time he represented that sexual and mystical flight of those sacred and insane ones of ancient Russia, and soon his relationship with the royal family would become a scandal. The Orthodox Church, which had supported him, now tried to warn the Tsar of his behavior. But Alexandra saw the warnings against Rasputin as direct attacks on her family.
In 1915, Tsar Nicholas II left the capital to fight on the Russian front in the First World War and left Alexandra in charge of domestic affairs. Rasputin was against the war and served as her counselor, and during the following months she ignored the lawmakers and ministers alike. Rumors that she and Rasputin were leaders of a pro-German group began to circulate and there were at least four attempts to kill him, one of them at the hands of a young woman who stabbed him in the stomach. The man survived, but the final onslaught came in 1916, carried out by a lawmaker of the Duma monarchy and two young aristocrats: Felix Yusupov (inheritor of the largest fortune in Russia), and Grand Duke Dimitri, the Tsar’s nephew.
Yusupov invited Rasputin to his house and offered him wine and poisoned cakes, but when those had no effect he shot him in the back. Rasputin, however, got up and ran. Duma shot him again. The conspirators then wrapped him in a curtain, tied his hands and threw him in a hole in the ice in the Neva River. Rasputin drowned.
Two weeks later crowds invaded the streets of Saint Petersburg and Nicholas was forced to abdicate the throne. Rasputin’s poisoned, bullet-ridden and drowned body was exhumed from the ice and burned. Not long afterwards, the Bolsheviks seized power.
From a historical and geographical distance, the figure of Rasputin shines darkly and at the same time strangely brightly. As far as his charisma can be explained, it was almost entirely the result of his gaze, his light colored eyes with his protean pupils; a fluid and ambiguous speech (it is said that his phrases never comprised ‘subject, verb and predicate,’ but that there was always a missing element); his great attraction to women, due to his imposing physique, intuition and a certain Russian religious tradition (jlystý) of following orgiastic practices as a path to God (“without sin there is no remorse.”) Russian obituary writer Alexander Yablonsky wrote: “For Europe, Rasputin was an anecdote, not a fact; for us, however, he was not only a fact. He was an epoch.”
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