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 A sculpture of Grigorii Rasputin in Tumen, Russia

The life and death of Rasputin: part 1: The wandering holy man

Image Credit: Cherkashin Denis / | Above: A sculpture of Grigorii Rasputin in Tumen, Russia

Over a hundred years ago a Siberian monk reputed to have mystical powers of hypnosis was violently assassinated after having been lured to his death by aristocratic assailants. The incident has become a legendary tale merging fact with fantasy and which continues to fascinate storytellers and filmmakers with ghoulish interpretations of how one of the most infamous monks in history died.

The name Rasputin has become iconic and shorthand for dark forces and evil, even lending itself to folklore and myth. His death at the hands of incompetent assassins has itself become legendary. But whatever the reality is, be it that the so-called ‘mad monk’ who befriended Russia’s powerful royal family was a demon with superhuman powers, or simply an ambitious peasant with a bag of conjuring tricks - his extraordinary life represents some of the most dramatic and bloody events in the history of the 20th century.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born on 21st January 1869 in Pokrovskoye in south Siberia in one of the largest and most remote pieces of land in the world. It was a place that was home to religious men, healers and secret religious sects. Here in the Siberian wilderness Russian people felt a sense of isolation and like Rasputin would have experienced this desolate place as a cold, hostile place to live and survive.

The harsh environment may have played a part in the shaping of Rasputin’s character, particularly as a strong belief in paganism influenced everyday life in this almost forgotten part of rural Russia. Even at this time, the young Rasputin was a known lecher and drinker. His claims as a child to have divine visions and an ability to heal horses caused much talk in his home town which held strong beliefs in magic. Villagers viewed the youthful Rasputin less with awe and more as a devil-child and one to be avoided. As he grew older he developed a reputation that he could foresee the future.

Wandering holy man

In 1887 the illiterate eighteen-year-old Rasputin married a peasant girl called Praskovya Dubrovina while visiting Abalak in Russia. Together they had seven children of which only three survived. After ten years of marriage, this image of domestic respectability was ruined by his growing reputation as a drunkard and later a horse thief, prompting the now twenty-eight-year-old Rasputin to flee to a nearby monastery to evade pointing fingers and prosecution.

Rasputin purposely resisted bathing or changing his clothes, going so far as not touching his body at all

It was here at the St Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye while learning to read and write that he felt his calling to become a monk. With its theatrical rituals and spiritual atmosphere, Rasputin wanted to know much more and to become involved with this new world of mysticism. It was while at the monastery he made friends with a famous wandering holy man called Makary, who in the past had advised Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra on spiritual matters, which gave Rasputin a glimmer of his future following in the elder man’s footsteps.

Religion and sex rituals

At first, taking long walks in woods and later embarking on long pilgrimages, Rasputin purposely resisted bathing or changing his clothes, going so far as not touching his body at all and even wearing iron shackles to increase the hardship of suffrage. His epic wanderings to far-flung destinations to Athens in Greece and the Far East lasted three years. It was during this time that Rasputin became involved with a notorious outlawed and secret sect called the Khlysts. This underground movement was an offshoot of the Orthodox Russian church and was regarded as a fringe anti-Church cult which practised a particular kind of worship where devotees gathered in crypts.

Sex and transcendence

The Khlyst sect had no priests or leaders and used feverish dancing to work themselves into a frenzy which they called ‘ecstasy’. As the dance movements became more frenetic the believers would reach a trance-like state and reach ‘spiritual transcendence’ in a climax of sexual activity and fornication.

Devotees would copulate with whoever was next to them. The doctrine of the Khlysty sect - ‘sinning to drive out sin’ – suited Rasputin’s unbridled libido as the sect believed that by committing a mortal sin followers could repent more fervently. It was a philosophy that Rasputin embraced and continued to adhere to in his new persona as holy monk and healer where enthusiastically sinning through sex allowed him to experience extreme religious states.

Sinner to holy man

By the time Rasputin returned back home to his village everyone thought there was a miraculous change in him: one they recognised as holy. But some villagers suspected that there were darker forces at hand with the now self-proclaimed holy man’s changed personality. Claiming to be a higher being Rasputin built a chapel under his house and encouraged others to follow him. Part of his seductive religious service involved him having sex with his congregation. At the age of thirty-four the self-appointed ‘holy monk’ claimed to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, who according to Rasputin told him to go to St Petersburg to assist the Imperial Royal family.