Grigori Rasputin is one of the most notorious names in Russian history - and his piercing eyes, creepy gaze, greasy hair, and bushy beard only add to the mystique surrounding him. The Mad Monk, as he has been called, was a figure of both fascination and outrage in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution. And in the century since the revolution, time has done little to diminish interest in the Black Monk.
Rasputin was a self-made holy man whose interest in spirituality and mysticism brought him from the fields of Siberia to the imperial court in St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. The Romanovs employed him to help heal their ill son, Alexei Romanov. Soon, Rasputin was influencing the entire government, not just the health of the heir to the throne. For that, he made more enemies than friends, and played a political game that would lead to his death. He preceded his imperial patrons to the grave by two years.
Rasputin had a controversial life and a mysterious death, so actual facts about him are sometimes hard to separate from legend. Enough tantalizing glimpses remain to piece together the life of a self-styled monk who was unapologetic about his earthly gaze.
Rasputin was one of the most mystical men in Russia - indeed, he actually believed that he had mystical abilities. But at the same time, he regularly slept with sex workers. The Russian establishment quickly latched onto this information and used it to discredit Rasputin. He was even rumored to have intercourse with his female followers, of whom he made many. Rasputin actually used the rumors to his advantage by claiming he could heal people by sleeping with them.
When Rasputin was a young man wandering in search of his spirituality, he may have taken up with a religious sect known as the Khlysty. The Khlysty's name was similar to the Russian word for "whip." They were rumored to participate in orgies and flagellation, among other things altogether scandalous in early 20th-century Russia. A number of investigations into Rasputin's connection with the Khlysty came up empty-handed, suggesting that Rasputin probably was never a member. The rumors, however, are enough to show the fear and mystery that surrounded the man.
Critics often complained about his hygiene, using it as evidence that an uncouth man such as Rasputin had no place near the imperial family. He wore dirty clothes, even in the presence of the imperial family. In fact, he once boasted he hadn't changed his underwear for six months. He usually had bits of food stuck in his beard, he licked serving spoons before serving others, and used his fingers to tear bread and fish. He was terribly uncouth in both manner and hygiene, but to his admirers that was part of his charm. He stood apart from the well-mannered aristocracy, and some believe he exaggerated what others thought were taboo in order to entice people.
By 1905, Rasputin's reputation as a mystical healer and man of faith had reached the imperial court at St. Petersburg. Soon, aristocrats were flocking to him and parading him at their salons and parties. Ladies, in particular, were drawn to Rasputin. To them, his filthy and unkempt appearance perhaps evoked a robust, wild authenticity that was stifled by aristocratic life. He often invited women to bathe with him and personally wash him. Historian Abraham Ascher even notes, "Some men actually felt honored to be cuckolded by the lascivious monk."
Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra were a famous love match with a happy home life. The glaring exception to this was the health of their beloved son, Alexei. Alexei was the youngest of the couple's five children - and he was the only son and heir. So when the dreaded symptoms of hemophilia - a hereditary disease that plagued many royal houses in Europe, thanks to their genetic link to Queen Victoria, the so-called "Grandmother of Europe" - first appeared while he was a baby, anxiety for Alexei's health consumed the imperial couple. Though they tried various doctors, their son's health wasn't improving.
In 1908, Nicholas and Alexandra summoned Rasputin to the palace to treat Alexei after they had heard about his mystical abilities at court. And he seemed to help: whenever Rasputin was around, Alexei's episodes seemed less severe and painful. Historians still can't quite explain why Rasputin, more than anyone else, appeared to significantly lessen Alexei's suffering. Some claim he used hypnosis on the imperial prince, while others insist he simply could calm the boy and enable him to relax.
Claims of Rasputin's mystical powers, however, are highly dubious, and many scholars have questioned the physical possibilities of his healing abilities. Looking through historical and physical evidence some hematologists have even concluded the young prince's hemophilia diagnosis was incorrect and he may have suffered from hemolytic anemia, which could explain why his cases of hemorrhaging stopped.
For all of her son's life, Alexandra was wracked with anxiety over his health. So she had an almost obsessive trust in Rasputin, the only man who seemed to ease Alexei's suffering. She was also attracted to mysticism. As a German princess, Alexandra had been raised a Lutheran. But when she married Nicholas and became empress in 1894, Alexandra converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, the official religion of Russia. She was a zealous, eager convert who enthusiastically embraced its mysticism. She thus continued to rely more and more on Rasputin, a man whom she viewed with the utmost reverence and admiration as her son's savior.
The German-born Tsarina Alexandra was far from popular with the people of Russia. Her unpopularity only increased during World War I, when anti-German sentiment reached a fever pitch. While her husband managed the war, some felt that the tsarina was becoming too close to Rasputin. Rumors circulated that the two were involved in an illicit affair. There is no evidence, however, to suggest those rumors were true.