Read Part 1.
Look, we’re never going to get to the objective truth about Rasputin. Not in detail at least.
So if you’re looking for that, you may as well quit reading now. The myth and the contradictions are, paradoxically, all the dependability we have. Those and such matter-of-fact throwaways as: “He was murdered”, “He influenced the Russian Monarchy”, “He traded as a holy man”. The major reason for this obfuscation appears to be that the “facts” have famously come from sources with very strong vested interests in the subject: some wishing to condemn Rasputin, others (quite literally) to canonise.
The “facts” had to survive the destruction of the era in which they were born (the end of the Tsarist monarchy), the upheaval of the First World War, the official “history” issued under the new communist regime, the Second World War and subsequent “closing” of Russia to the West during the cold war, the West’s own purposeful slant on Russian history during this period, and, finally, the disintegration and re-formation of the Soviet State into modern Russia – and the truths now in vogue. Chinese whispers create Russian monsters?
Both for those in the Russian court and for those seeking to dissolve it, Rasputin needed to be a monster: a symbol of why things had to change, and a convenient scapegoat when it ultimately did. All for the salvation or destruction of the monarchist status quo, depending upon who you asked.
Having ingratiated himself with the Tsarina to the point of becoming a “friend” and “advisor” to the Romanovs, Rasputin found himself a member of the Russian court and increasingly in a position of power. Unsurprisingly, the nature and extent of this power, his desire to wield it and to what end, are all debatable issues. His alleged crimes range from putting out of joint the noses of court nobles and frocked clergy offended by this interloping, brusque commoner who showed insufficient deference, to treason and the destruction of the Russian Monarchy. No doubt they considered him a threat to their privilege and position, as his increasing ability to appoint names to power expanded into removing them from it as well.
Glaringly, he wasn’t one of them. Right from the word go. People have died for less. Witness the photographs of him amongst his society admirers: powerfully built, rough cut and dressed in simple clothes. In character: charismatic, direct, forceful, manipulative, intimidating, embracing the divine and the profane – and with supernatural associations and even supernatural powers to boot. He must have presented as an object of fascination and repulsion in equal measure, especially to the refined sensibilities of the Russian aristocracy. Perhaps it was this very contrast that amplified his appeal in the precious, buttoned-up, etiquette-driven world that he now inhabited.
One crucial factor – and the key, perhaps, to balancing his drinking and womanising on the one hand, with his religious dedication on the other – was his belief in accepting, even embracing, the cycle of sin and repentance as a route to salvation; the notion that sin itself is integral to the human condition. This cycle of sin and repentance would, he considered, bring him and his followers closer to God. Brilliant rationalisation for those looking to have both cakes and eat them too. To be fair, this was an established practice for the Khlyst sect, in which Rasputin did once have an interest but ultimately rejected, as their self-flagellation grated against his Orthodox reverence for God’s master creation: the human body.
The true extent and severity of Rasputin’s “indulgences” may never be known. Do you ask his enemies? His friends? Family? Whatever he did or didn’t do, it’s fairly apparent that there were many influential figures keen to blacken his name and reputation for their own benefit and satisfaction. If there is indeed no smoke without fire, then he wouldn’t be the only “alternative” spiritual leader (perhaps the term is now “cult” leader) to experience, indulge and enjoy his devoted female followers. He may have believed in the legitimacy of his actions in the context of his religion too. Why not? Given the right mind, context and belief system, anything – anything – can be rationalised, even embraced.
The final straw came about through Rasputin’s stance and political involvement in Russia’s participation in the First World War. In 1915 Tsar Nicholas II left to command Russian forces resisting Germany’s advance on the Eastern front, possibly at the behest of Rasputin himself, although that would be rather convenient in light of following events. So, this left behind the Tsarina, herself a German, now ruling the country with Rasputin (an opponent of the war) as her advisor – or “pulling the strings”, as his enemies would have it. This was considered an affront too far in the light of Russian nationalism, the war effort, the opponents of the monarchy and Rasputin’s opponents within office. Something had to be done.
Is there any point in re-detailing his already infamous and over-documented death scene? Probably not. A conspiracy helmed by Prince Felix Yusupov, assisted by Dr. Purish- Kevich and Grand Duke Dimitri (powerful enough to act as “legal insurance” in the affair), ensured that Rasputin would be set up to meet his death. Poisoned, stabbed, beaten, shot and drowned – right? Well, perhaps…
Documentary evidence, apparently from Rasputin’s real autopsy, has surfaced at auction, and has been reviewed as recently as 2005. This shows a bullet hole in Rasputin’s forehead… Not surprising then, as shooting was always known to be part of the murder. The best match for this entrance wound is a Webley .455 calibre unjacketed bullet – very specific in its “signature” and designed for its brutal single-shot stopping power at close range. The round would deform (“mushroom”) upon impact, resulting in low penetration but causing massive tissue damage. Through the forehead: a one-shot-kill. At the time of the murder, the Webley revolver and the associated round was in use almost exclusively by British officers. Two British officers were reported as present in St Petersburg at the time, one of whom, Lieutenant Oswald Rayner, was witnessed at the scene.
As well as his anti-war stance, it seems that some of the “names” removed from office by Rasputin’s disdain were considered very British-friendly. If Russia had indeed removed itself from the First World War, the Eastern front would have ceased to exist and Germany would have been able to concentrate its efforts in the West. Its regrouped and concentrated force may even have been too much for the allies to resist, resulting in the loss of the war. And in the loss of Britain.
Next time: Where Angels Fear