The Real Rasputin? by Richard Smoley

A fresh look at “the mad monk”

The story of Gregory Rasputin—the Siberian “mad monk,” healer, profligate, unwitting destroyer of the Romanov dynasty—is well known. He has been the subject of innumerable books and several films. Yet none of them seem to have fathomed him fully. His weird power continues to encompass the poles of sanctity and debauchery.

Rasputin was born c.1869 in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoe. Accounts of his early life rely on his own testimony, so they are not entirely trustworthy. But it is clear that in his youth, he lived a life of violence and drunkenness. “Until I was twenty-eight, I lived, as people say, ‘in the world,’ that is, I loved what was in the world,” he later recalled. Then, perhaps as the result of a beating on the head he received from a peasant whose fence he was stealing, he was transformed and became a wandering seeker. Although he married and eventually had seven children, three of whom lived to adulthood, he was often absent from home on pilgrimages to holy sites in Russia and beyond.

The facts about Rasputin’s life become clearer after he appeared in St. Petersburg around 1903. Thanks to a display of mystical powers that apparently included a kind of second sight and the power to heal, he made his way with remarkable speed to the outer circles of the imperial family, and then to Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra.

The salient fact about the family of Nicholas and Alexandra was jealously kept from the public: the hemophilia that afflicted Alexis, their only son and heir apparent, which became evident soon after his birth in 1904. At that time, there was no cure for the disease, which prevents blood from clotting normally, so that even a slight bruise could lead to fatal bleeding. 

The doctors were unable to help, but Rasputin was. Through his use of his mysterious healing powers, he was able to stop the heir’s bleeding even after serious injuries. He became indispensable to the imperial family. Alexandra came to see him as a starets, a holy man, and looked to him for advice on matters far beyond healing.

The years between 1905, the year Rasputin first met the imperial couple, and 1916, the year of his death, saw the wandering Siberian peasant become the single most influential man in the Russian Empire apart from the tsar himself. For reasons that we will soon explore, side by side with his mystical charisma was a penchant for sexual and alcoholic debauchery. Reports of his escapades regularly came to Nicholas and Alexandra, but they dismissed them as slander.

Rasputin’s influence reached its peak during World War I. In 1915, the tsar unwisely assumed the supreme direct command of the Russian army in its brutal struggle with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Militarily, this was not as much of a mistake as it seemed—he was largely content to leave strategy to his generals, who were reasonably competent—but it put the tsar hundreds of miles from the capital. The empress, guided by Rasputin, filled the void in power.

Russia’s cataclysmic fate in World War I was not solely the fault of either the empress or Rasputin, but by 1916, society (including most of the extended imperial family) was blaming them for all disasters and misfortunes. The opinion was widely voiced that Rasputin must be eliminated.

A conspiracy to kill him developed at the highest levels, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to the tsar’s niece, and V.M. Purishkevich, an ultraconservative member of the Duma (the Russian parliament), as well as the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, himself a member of the imperial family.

In December 1916, Rasputin was invited to Yusupov’s palace for a late-night visit. There he managed to evade death by sequential poisoning, shooting, and beating. Unconscious but apparently still alive, he was wrapped up in some curtains and dropped into the ice-bound Neva River, where his body was later dredged up by the police. The official autopsy listed his cause of death as drowning.

This was Russia, where nothing is quite as it appears, so there may be reason to doubt the autopsy’s findings. For some reason, the Orthodox church will not canonize anyone who has died by drowning. Conceivably the authorities listed this cause of death to prevent the empress from having him made a saint. Of course, within a couple of months she would not be the empress anymore, but no one knew that then.

Rasputin’s healing powers were enigmatic but real. There is too
 much eyewitness testimony to his inexplicable ability to stop Alexis’s bleeding for anyone to believe otherwise, even though medical science displays no more capacity for, or interest in, exploring this power than it did in 1916.

Other aspects of the Rasputin enigma bear further investigation. In the first place, he was clearly not an all-out Tartuffe, a charlatan who put on a show for the imperial family while mocking them behind their backs. Mystical powers, a genuine aspiration toward holiness, and dissipation were all integral parts of his character. Writing one side off gives no coherent explanation of him. He can only be understood in the context of Russia itself, the nation above all others that embraces contradictions: religious fervor, sublimity, and unsurpassed artistic achievements along with degeneracy, cruelty, and extolment of suffering.

Rasputin is best understood in the light of his background as a Khlyst—a member of a widespread popular sect that combined mystical aspiration with Dionysiac excess. The name (plural Khlysty) means whip: the Khylysty were a flagellant sect. Emerging as a popular movement in the seventeenth century, they taught a doctrine by which redemption can only be preceded by extreme sin, followed by great suffering and repentance. They also held that each male believer could become a Christ and each female believer could become a Mother of God. Indeed, most Khlyst “arks” (congregations) were headed by individual Christs and Mothers of God.

Following a theme that has been present in Christianity from the earliest times, the Khlysty believed that this kind of deification was possible only through a complete triumph of the spirit over the flesh. But the process for accomplishing this was extremely unusual. Many Khlyst sects (and they were numerous) eschewed ordinary sexual congress, even in the context of marriage. In its place, they substituted rites of orgiastic ecstasy.

The Russian author Edvard Radzinsky describes a Khlyst rite he witnessed in 1964:

In white flaxen shirts worn over naked bodies they went down into the cellar of a peasant lodge. There in the dry cellar they lit candles. They started to sing something sacred in the half-light—as was later explained, a verse from the Easter canon: “Seeing, we are gladdened, for Christ has risen.” After that a little old man with joyful, light-colored eyes—the local Christ—began to chant a Khlyst prayer in the flickering candlelight. And then with youthful energy he started to “rejoice,” that is, to whirl wildly in place, crossing himself and continually whipping his body. The choir chanted prayers, their voices ever more fervently and passionately praying, so that some of them were already screaming and sobbing. But at this point the old man stopped his whirling and cried out wildly, “Brothers! Brothers! I feel it, the Holy Spirit! God is within me!” And he began to prophesy, shouting incoherent sounds mixed into which were the words, “Oh, Spirit!” “Oh, God!” “Oh, Spirit Lord!” After that began the main communal rite of “rejoicing,” or general whirling and dancing….

Everything flew. They were no longer whirling people, but flying hair, billowing clothes, cries, and shouts. Their sweat ran in rivulets, and they themselves were swimming in it as if in a bath. The flames of their candles flickered and died out. And everything was in darkness.

And then, intoxicated by their furious whirling, they fell to the floor. And that was the end of it. But apparently only because I was present. 

Radzinsky explains that in ordinary circumstances, there would have followed a spate of indiscriminate orgiastic coupling: “It is a sin only to the uninitiated. They themselves know that they sin to suppress the flesh—so that they will be purified, so that their souls may shine with the brotherly love of a ‘Christ,’ a love liberated by sin from sin and from any carnal intentions. They drive out sin with sin. That is the Khlyst revelation.”

Radzinsky adds that any children born from copulation on these occasions “are born not of the flesh but of the Holy Spirit.”

Out of such a background it is easy to see how a Rasputin could emerge. Indeed the first ecclesiastical investigation of him, in 1903, said he “had brought from his life in the factories of the province of Perm an acquaintance with the teachings of the Khlyst heresy.” And he stated many fundamental Khlyst teachings to his coteries in St. Petersburg.

Nevertheless, as Rasputin’s biographer Alex DeJonge notes, “Rasputin was incapable of accepting discipline,” even of the antinomian Khlyst variety. So he is better seen, not so much as an adherent of the Khlysty, but as one who adapted their teachings to his own convenience.

These considerations explain Rasputin’s idiosyncratic methods and motives at least to some degree. But they open up a much greater mystery: how he played such a convulsive role in the history of both Russia and the whole twentieth century. This leads us to ask, how do such transformative individuals—and we can think of inspiring as well as detestable instances—shape the collective fate?

The closest approach to a definitive answer appears in Tolstoy’s brilliant epilogue to War and Peace:

The movement of peoples is produced, not by power, not by intellectual activity, not even by a combination of the two, as historians used to think, but by the activity of all the people taking part in the event…. Why does a war or a revolution take place? We do not know; we know only that for the accomplishment of the one action or the other, people form themselves into certain units and all participate; and we say that this is so because it is unthinkable otherwise, because it is a law. [Emphasis Tolstoy’s.]

I do not think that historical thinking has greatly advanced in the 150 years since this was written, but we may add a few insights that may be illuminating.

The French occultist Papus (Gérard Encausse) visited the Russian imperial court around the turn of the twentieth century and continued to correspond with Nicholas and Alexandra until his death in 1916 (two months before Rasputin’s). His views, expressed in a letter from that year, were prophetic:

Cabalistically speaking Rasputin is a vessel like Pandora’s box, which contains all the vices, crimes, and filth of the Russian people. Should the vessel be broken we will see its dreadful consequences spill themselves across Russia. 

Since the Russian Revolution broke out two months after Rasputin’s murder—which itself has been called the first act of the revolution—Papus’s views carry some weight.

Even so, we can go further. Rasputin’s power can also be understood through the then prevalent belief in the all-encompassing wisdom and goodness of the Russian people, especially the peasants, who constituted the greatest part of the population. Radzinsky observes:

This was an idea that united all Russian intellectuals, even the most radical . . . : that it was only the common people, destitute, illiterate, downtrodden, who possessed a kind of hidden truth. It was only in the gloom of their wretched huts that the true spirit of Christ survived, preserved through their constant suffering. It was to the folk that one should turn to study a wise and Christian life. 

If this view united Russian intellectuals, no doubt it influenced the imperial couple as well. And for them—isolated not only from the people but even from their own courtiers—the folk were embodied in Rasputin, who appeared to embody all of these qualities, from the grossest to the most sublime. That he had the powers to assuage the suffering of the heir apparent could only reinforce this belief. Although Nicholas and Alexandra doubted the reports of Rasputin’s mischief, it probably would not have shaken their faith in him even if they believed them.

Throughout this whole account, we can perceive the threads of what we may call a collective karma: the sum total of sins and virtues, not of an individual, but of a nation. It is, I believe, extremely difficult to look at world history or any portion of it without concluding that some such force is in effect.

But how does it work? Classical Buddhism, the source of many present-day concepts of karma, knows nothing of the collective variety. In any case, why should this collective fate fall on the heads of one generation and not another? Why should it be embodied in salient figures such as Rasputin?

In one way or another, this topic has exercised the minds of nearly all of the great historians. None of them has come close to an answer. Tolstoy’s is probably the best, but it simply says that this is what happens, although we do not know why, just as with the fundamental laws of science. (Just try to get a scientist to explain to you exactly what electricity or gravity is.)

No wonder it is a mystery: the individual is separated from the collective by a penumbra that sometimes seems like an impassible wall, sometimes like an easily penetrated mist. Understanding this relation leads us into the enigma of human nature, which will continue to fascinate us even as it continues to elude us. ◆


DeJonge, Alex. The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1982.

Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Translated by Judson Rosengrant. New York: Anchor, 2000.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 2007. 

This piece is excerpted from the Fall 2023 issue of Parabola, 
SAINTS & SINNERS. You can find the full issue on our online store

By Richard Smoley

Richard Smoley is a consulting editor to Parabola. His latest book, How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible, was reviewed in Parabola, Summer 2016.