It’s a rare moment in life when you are introduced to an aspect of a country’s history by a Europop dance song. That was surely the way in which interest in the life and times of Rasputin (1869-1916) was revived in the summer of 1978, as Boney M’s second single from their third album Nightflight to Venus was released, with some sensational lyrics:
Ra, ra, Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen – there was a cat that really was gone,
Ra, ra, Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine – It was a shame how he carried on.
Grigoriy Yefimovich Rasputin, the bizarre “holy man” from western Siberia who insinuated his way into the Russian imperial household, is one of those figures who have become more famous for how they died than how they lived. As with so many other dramatic acts of assassination, the exact circumstances of his murder exactly a century ago are still mysterious.
Was he really the “lover of the Russian queen”? It is unlikely: Tsarina Alexandra was far too devoted to her husband and children (the letters make clear) for her to have thought of having anything sordid to do with the “holy man” who nonetheless managed to treat her son’s haemophilia. The story that Rasputin and the Tsarina were an item is more likely down to Russian court gossip, which in turn fed underground liberal and radical satirical journals – as the country’s aristocracy could see for themselves the public-relations disaster that was his presence among the imperial family, even if the Tsarina could not. Was he “Russia’s greatest love machine”? Quite possibly: he is known to have been a hard-drinking womanizer among preachers, with his faith being one where it was thought that you could reach God by over-indulging in vice and getting it out of your system before repenting later (in the words that Christopher Lee puts into Rasputin’s mouth in the 1966 Hammer Horror flick Rasputin, the Mad Monk – ‘When I go to confession I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies – I offer him sins worth forgiving.’).
It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when considering Rasputin: the writer Colin Wilson wrote of him that he ‘seems to possess the peculiar quality of inducing shameless inaccuracy in everyone who writes about him.’ He clearly was not the diabolical, Satanic Machiavellian “mad monk” of feature films. As for his “miracle healing”, the Tsarevitch Alexei’s haemophilia may well have been eased simply through Rasputin’s calming effect with the boy and his mother – and also through his advice not to use Aspirin, a drug designed to thin the blood, which would obviously make haemophilia worse. Unquestionably, the sudden and rapid social rise up the Russian hierarchy of a Siberian peasant ruffled many feathers among the country’s upper crust, who saw in Rasputin only a PR liability at a time when the country was coming off worse in the war against the Central Powers – but this can hardly be blamed on the man himself. With the exception of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Rasputin was almost the sole public figure cautioning against Russia getting involved in the First World War, as can be seen in a letter he wrote to Tsar Nicholas II:
You are the Tsar, the father of your people. Don’t let the lunatics triumph and destroy you and the people. And if we conquer Germany, what in truth will happen to Russia? We all drown in blood, the disaster is great, the misery infinite.
Two-and-a-half years, and 2.3 million battlefield dead later, who can say he was wrong? Russia went into the war unprepared, badly led, and inefficiently organised, and yet its armies were expected by the Tsar and his government to take on Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire simultaneously. Inevitably, they reaped the consequences of this insane move in the form of catastrophic casualties that slowly but surely ran the soldiers’ high morale down into the ground. The sensible thing to do would have been for Russia to cut its losses and make peace with Germany after the fall of Warsaw in August 1915, but the empire was being run by people who were anything but sensible – starting with the Tsar himself, who made things worse the following month by taking personal command of the armed forces. This meant that the buck for the next big disasters (of which there would be many) would always stop with him.
Despite this, the monarchists in the capital St Petersburg were convinced that Russia’s biggest problems were those of the image and reputation of its rulers, and so two aristocrats, Prince Felix Yusupov and Vladimir Purishkevitch, hatched a plot to eliminate Rasputin. They may well have had some assistance from the British secret service, which is understandable: the last thing they wanted was an influential and troublesome man within the Russian establishment who wanted his country out of the war, as Russia’s collapse would mean a strengthened German army facing the Allies on the Western Front.
The story of Rasputin’s demise is one where myth seems to have gotten the better of many historians’ ethics over the years, as they tended unquestionably to swallow Yusupov’s own account of his actions. First, he said, he and his co-plotters fed Rasputin with wine and cakes laced with potassium cyanide, which had no effect on the intended victim (! – potassium cyanide works very quickly, and there is no record of anyone failing to be affected by it! What’s more, there was no trace of any poison in the body at the post-mortem). Then, Yusupov said, he shot his target in the back – only for Rasputin to jump back up seconds later and attack his assailant. Yusupov’s story reads like the assassin was thinking about how his own memoirs were going to read:
The eyes of Rasputin, greenish and snake-like, fixed themselves upon me. I tried to turn myself away but his iron clutch held me with incredible strength. I rushed upstairs, calling on Purishkevitch. Rasputin made a final leap towards the door. He was like a wounded animal. Purishkevitch rushed after him…
The story goes that Purishkevitch then shot Rasputin, and the two men dumped the body in the icy River Neva. Finally, topping off this list of whoppers was the story that Rasputin’s lungs were filled with water – suggesting that he survived assassination but died of drowning…
Unsurprisingly, the accounts of both Yusupov and Purishkevitch are riddled with inconsistencies, the desperate stories of men who have convinced themselves that they acted heroically in dispatching a man they regarded as a devilish, sinister figure. The prosaic truth is that Rasputin died instantly from a gunshot to the forehead – as the post-mortem photograph clearly indicates.
As with most assassins of major public figures, Rasputin’s killers failed in their objective. If Yusupov and his cronies had thought getting rid of a Siberian peasant-mystic would save Russia – or at least, their part of Russia – they were made very soon to think again. Just ten weeks after Rasputin’s murder, steelworkers at the capital’s Putilov works went on strike, setting off a chain of events that would culminate in the downfall of the monarchy, and Russia’s eventual exit from the war.
It was the beginning of the end of the world of Yusupov and other Russian aristocrats like him. Nonetheless, they continued to wield their wealth and power in other influential ways: they took out a libel action in the English courts against the movie-makers MGM over the suggestion in the 1932 feature film Rasputin and the Empress that Rasputin had raped Yusupov’s wife Irina. The courts found in the aristocratic couple’s favour, and the two were awarded damages and an out-of-court settlement together totalling over $1.1million. Thereafter, the makers of motion pictures would increasingly append the credits with an “all persons fictitious” disclaimer, aiming to reduce the risk of being similarly sued for defamation. A century after he was murdered, Rasputin’s influence lives on, even if we barely have time to see it as we head towards the exit and the car park…