Grigory Yefimovich Novych, the man who would come to be better known to history as the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, is a figure shrouded in mystery, intrigue, conspiracy theories and the darkest of legends. He came to prominence as the Siberian peasant and mystic whose uncanny ability to improve the condition of Aleksey Nikolayevich, the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, made him an influential favourite at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. He was also reputed to be a murderer, sorcerer, libertine and chronic womanizer – his eventual moniker of Rasputin literally means ‘debauched one’ in Russian. Unsurprisingly, Rasputin made many enemies in the course of his relentless rise to power. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, culminating in the events that led to his ‘death’ in 1916. I have used quotation marks because in the opinion of many – conspiracy buffs and historians alike – the life of Rasputin may well not have ended there. Even during his lifetime, there was considerable uncertainty over Rasputin’s actions and influence, as accounts have often been based on dubious memoirs, hearsay and legend. Despite the fact that Rasputin’s body was discovered after he was killed by conspirators, rumours persist to this day that his death was faked and that somehow, bizarrely, the Mad Monk may have survived his apparent execution.
Rasputin first entered the annals of Russian history when he appeared mysteriously in St Petersburg in 1903, where he was welcomed by the bishop Hermogen at the city’s famous religious academy. The court circles of St Petersburg at that time were entertaining themselves by delving into mysticism and the occult, so Rasputin – a filthy, unkempt wanderer with brilliant eyes and allegedly extraordinary healing talents – was welcomed warmly. From there it was not long before his fame reached the ears of the Tsar himself and in 1905 Rasputin was summoned to the palace of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra during one of their son’s bleeding episodes. Rasputin succeeded in easing the boy’s suffering (perhaps by virtue of his hypnotic powers, which were certainly real enough) and, upon leaving the palace, warned the parents that the destiny of both the child and the dynasty were linked irrevocably to him, thereby setting in motion a decade of Rasputin’s powerful influence on the imperial family and affairs of state. Although while in the presence of the royal family Rasputin consistently maintained the posture of a humble and lowly peasant, outside court he revelled in his licentious ways. Even when accounts of Rasputin’s conduct reached the ears of the Empress Alexandra, she refused to believe that he was anything other than a holy man, and the Mad Monk’s accusers found themselves transferred to remote regions of the empire. All the while Rasputin never fell out of imperial favour.
Rasputin reached the pinnacle of his power in court after 1915, when Tsar Nicholas took personal command of his forces on the eastern front during World War I. Alexandra was left in charge of Russia’s internal affairs and Rasputin served as her personal adviser. In this position Rasputin’s influence ranged over matters as wide and varied as the appointment of church officials, selection of cabinet ministers and even intervention in military matters. In every area in which he was involved, Rasputin’s influence was invariably detrimental, motivated as he was by the consolidation of his own position rather than the public good, and he quickly became a hate figure, thereby contributing indirectly to the growing unpopularity of the Russian royal family as a whole. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin and save Russia from further calamity, but none were successful until 1916, when a group of conspirators invited him to the home of Prince Feliks Yusupov (husband of the Tsar’s niece). Their intention was to save the monarchy from further scandal and accordingly they were nothing if not thorough in their elimination of the Mad Monk – he was poisoned, shot, clubbed, castrated and finally drowned. This is the point at which fact and myth get somewhat difficult to separate. Part of the reason why Rasputin’s killers went to such extraordinary lengths to kill him was, apparently, because at first their efforts did not seem to work!
Accounts discovered afterwards suggest that Rasputin was supplied with enough poison to kill five men, yet somehow this did not seem to have the desired effect on the Mad Monk (perhaps because he had developed a resistance to many of the more well known poisons in anticipation of attempts to take his life). After poisoning him failed, it was necessary for Yusupov to shoot Rasputin four times because on each occasion he seemed to be able to get up and keep going. Deciding that the only way to be rid themselves of the Mad Monk once and for all was drowning, the conspirators threw his (by that time, after being beaten into submission, senseless) body into the icy waters of the Neva River. Two days later his apparently dead body was recovered and set on fire. This is where things get really weird – numerous eyewitness accounts from the time say that Rasputin’s body appeared to sit up in the flames. His apparent attempts to move and get up thoroughly horrified bystanders. It was this final happenstance that really fuelled the legends and mysteries surrounding Rasputin, which continue to live on long after his death. Muddying the waters further is the fact that the official report of Rasputin’s autopsy disappeared during the Joseph Stalin era, as did several research assistants who had seen it, making any further attempt to study his post-mortem impossible.
Despite the motives of those who killed him, Rasputin’s death came far too late to save the reputation of the royal family and, shortly afterwards, the revolution swept away the old order. However, the reputation of the Mad Monk, if nothing else, has long survived his physical demise. There are few figures in history to which as many conspiracy theories have attached over the years as Rasputin. Some suggest that he died not at the hands of Russian conspirators, as was widely reported, but on the instigation of the British Secret Service, in order to prevent Russia’s withdrawal from the eastern front. Others have suggested that ‘Rasputin’ was in fact one of many fake identities assumed by the Count de St Germain, whose purpose in Russia was to smooth the way for the revolution so that history could follow what was, in his view, its proper course. A letter was allegedly discovered, written a few days before Rasputin’s death by the man himself, in which he apparently predicted not only the circumstances of his own death, but also the revolution and the fate of the Russian royal family. Even more bizarre is the supposed discovery in the 1960s of the mummified remains of Rasputin’s severed private parts in a Paris museum. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his colourful character, Rasputin has also popped up in a range of fictional media over the years, including films, books, cartoons and even the Hellboy comic and motion picture. One way or another, therefore, it can be argued that the Mad Monk is still alive and kicking to this day.