Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a complex Russian cunning man, sometimes called a monk, yet also described as a demon. Why is he still such a fascinating figure?
Born a Siberian peasant, Rasputin rose to fame as a mystical faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II and his family. His name, however, is often associated with trickery, debauchery, and the lust for power.
Following the death of his two young sons, Rasputin claimed a holy vision led him to become a religious wanderer. In 1907 he was summoned to the royal palace to attend Alexei – heir to the throne – who secretly suffered from hemophilia. Although traditional medicine could do nothing for him, Rasputin healed the young man with special prayers (and possibly his own herbal remedy), offering the Tsar and his wife their first glimpse of hope for their son’s future.
At a time when most of educated Europe was interested in mysticism, Rasputin claimed to have access to the spirit world. This – and his sway over the royal family – earned him many critics, some of whom claimed he was the Tsarina’s lover. The newspapers of the day continually hounded him, yet by 1914 he was a firm influential force in Russian politics.
Multiple assassination attempts were made on the cunning man’s life. One the first occasion he was stabbed. But the night his enemies finally murdered him, Rasputin was poisoned with cyanide, shot three times at close range, bludgeoned with a shoe, and dumped in an icy river.
Scholarship suggests Rasputin was not a saint – he was never ordained in any religious order. Rather, he was a charismatic personality with hypnotic eyes, who clarified the scriptures and made them accessible to everyone. Most likely he was a herbalist and a gifted faith healer. But his strong male appetite for power, fame, sex, and entertainment ultimately led to his downfall.
At the end of the day Rasputin was human, and like all of us he had both good and bad qualities. Yet the widespread public fascination he evoked (and continues to evoke) suggests he may have been one of the first modern pop-culture icons.
Perhaps that is why his fame has stood the test of time. Rasputin was the undisputed paparazzi star of his era!