Few historical figures can claim to have so many myths and legends attached to their name than Rasputin. Revered and reviled in equal measure during his lifetime, the so-called 'Mad Monk' started life as a lowly peasant and died a close ally of the last Russian Tsar and his wife during the early 20th century.
Such an eclectic mix of adjectives have been used to describe him over the years that it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s fiction when it comes to Rasputin, mainly due to the smear campaign unleashed by his enemies during and after his life.
We wade through and unravel six of the most enduring myths about this self-professed holy man.
Legend 1: Rasputin was a monk
Contrary to popular belief, Grigori Rasputin was never ordained as a monk and never held any official position in the Russian Orthodox Church, making this one of the easiest myths to debunk.
Legend 2: Rasputin had supernatural healing powers
Although little is known about Rasputin's early years, what we do know is he that married and fathered three children. He then experienced a religious conversion, abandoned his family and wandered as a pilgrim. His travels eventually brought him to St. Petersburg, where he mingled with the social elite and church leaders, impressing them so much that he was eventually introduced to Emperor Nicholas and his wife Empress Alexandra in late 1905.
Their son, Alexei, suffered from haemophilia and in desperation, the Tsar and Tsarina asked if Rasputin could heal their son. According to legend, he stopped the young boy’s bleeding after one session caring for the child, achieving what a multitude of doctors had failed to do in years of consultations.
In reality, historians have argued what’s more likely is that Rasputin prevented the boy from seeing doctors and more specifically being administered any aspirin, which was the wonder-drug for everything at the time. Aspirin thins the blood and makes bleeding worse for those who suffer from haemophilia. Other historians have also noted that Rasputin calmed the boy down, possibly with hypnosis, which also would have helped bring the bleeding under control.
Either way, Rasputin was not gifted with supernatural powers and in this instance he most likely just got lucky. The moment with the young boy was enough, however, to convince the Tsar and his wife that Rasputin should stick around.
Legend 3: Rasputin was a sex-crazed maniac
The truth of this one is a little blurrier than the last. Tales of Rasputin's sexual exploits were rampant during his lifetime and whilst some are true, others are exaggerated.
Rasputin became close with the royal family at a time when their popularity was already heading in the wrong direction. Greater freedom of the press had recently been allowed and the media, afraid to take on the Tsar himself, took shots at someone perceivably close to them. Whilst Rasputin did visit brothels and he most likely slept with several women, including those who followed him, the description of him as a sex-crazed maniac who would often expose his reportedly large penis is almost certainly mere fabrication.
Tales of his sexual promiscuity came to represent everything that was wrong with Russia at the time, so the rumour-mill went into overdrive and the enemies of the monarchy embellished the stories to all new heights.
Legend 4: Rasputin slept with the Tsarina
This rumour was so prevalent at the time that most people in the Russian Empire believed this as common fact. Pornographic postcards even circulated depicting the pair in a multitude of promiscuous positions.
However, this one again seems to be the by-product of the smear campaign against Rasputin by those attempting to destabilise the Russian government. As does the other, less widespread rumour, that suggested he also slept with the Tsarina’s daughters.
Whilst the holy man had struck up a close relationship with the royal family, especially the Tsarina, there is absolutely zero historical evidence to suggest the pair engaged in any sort of sexual activity. To the contrary, Empress Alexandra was devout in her religious beliefs, especially towards adultery and dedicated to her husband. Rasputin would have been on incredibly dangerous ground if the Tsar had got wind of any such activities.
Legend 5: Rasputin controlled the strings
Whilst Rasputin was undoubtedly ambitious, his influence over political decisions been highly exaggerated, again by the enemies of the monarchy to discredit the royal family.
Rasputin’s main role was to help with the children and his influence in court was limited to religious practices. He was certainly closest with the Tsarina, who believed the man to be helping to keep her son alive. Whilst he might have held some sway over her, there is no evidence to suggest Rasputin had any direct impact on the decision-making policies of the time.
Since the royal couple kept their son’s medical condition a secret from the public, it left a gaping hole for the people of Russia to fill with their imaginations as to why Rasputin hung around court so much. Coupled with the fact that the Tsar took personal control over his army during WWI, leaving the Tsarina back home alone, people began to assume the mysterious Rasputin, who was close to the Empress, was in fact in total control.
Legend 6: Rasputin was incredibly difficult to kill
Before his assassination, an attempt on Rasputin’s life had been made. In 1914, a peasant by the name of Chionya Guseva stabbed him in the stomach outside his home. Although seriously wounded, Rasputin recovered from his wounds.
However, when it comes to his murder two years later, nothing is concrete. The accounts we possess come from his assassins and his daughter, sources that are hardly unbiased. The most repeated story seems to be that recounted by his lead assassin Felix Yusupov, a nobleman who had invited Rasputin over to dine at his home in December 1916.
Yusupov changed his story on numerous occasions but the gist of it states that he laced Rasputin's food and drink with cyanide. When that failed to kill the holy man, Yusupov proceeded to shoot him. Rasputin's lifeless body remained limp for a few minutes before rising and lunging towards his attacker who fled into the snow. At that point a fellow conspirator took further shots at Rasputin before the group managed to bundle him over a bridge and into a freezing river below, hoping he might finally drown.
It seems the difficulty to kill Rasputin was propaganda to show him as a man of the devil, possessed with unnatural abilities. What we do know from the autopsy report is that no poison was found in his system and he was shot three times, one of which was in the head. No water was in his lungs, suggesting he was dead before he hit the water. He was, by the sounds of it, very easy to kill.