By Vern L. Bullough

The Bad Monk of St. Petersburg
Grigori Rasputin (1871-1916)

Few peasants in history achieved the power and notoriety of Rasputin. Born in a poverty stricken Siberian village on the Tura River with little opportunity for advancement. Rasputin, though probably illiterate, early on acquired a reputation for magical power over the curing of animals, and even of humans. In other respects he seemed a typical peasant, content with farming. He married a local woman when he was 20 and the couple had had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood.

Sometime around 1900 after he had worked his cures in a peasant village, Rasputin converted, according to his daughter, to a religious group known as the Khlysty. The word is derived from the birch rods which the group used to flagellate themselves and each other to reach ecstasy. According to the Russian secret service the Khlysty believed that sin was a necessary first step towards redemption, and thus sexual excess in the group was rampant. Whether Rasputin joined the Khlysty sect or not, he did come to believe that sin was a necessary part of redemption.

He began wandering through rural Russia as a sort of miracle worker, traveling on to Kiev, the traditional capital of the Russian Orthodox Church, and eventually on to St. Petersburg. Wherever he traveled he performed cures and initiated a growing number of women (and some men) into his belief about the importance of sin to salvation. He was a dominating personality with a hypnotizing effect on people, which earned him the title of a holy man.

So many miraculous cures were attributed to Rasputin that even the ecclesiastical hierarchy in St. Petersburg was willing to call him a genuine "holy man." Perhaps it was inevitable that once he settled down in the capital, word of Rasputin’s miraculous cures came to the attention of Czar Nicholas and the Czarina Alexandra who looked to him to control the bleeding of their hemophilic son, Alexis. They believed he was the only person able to alleviate his symptoms, and this made him almost indispensable to the royal family.

Rasputin soon came to be regarded by many as the power behind the Russian throne, either in spite of or because of the stories about his sex life, which ultimately caused the Orthodox Church to disown him. For a time Rasputin was forced to leave St. Petersburg, but soon returned where his political influence on the Tsar and his family grew -- as did the opposition to him.

Growing increasingly desperate over what they felt was Rasputin’s dangerous effect on the royal family, his opponents turned to assassination. His daughter, Maria, reported that his assassins invited him to a midnight get together where they fed him poisoned cakes and wine. When he grew dazed from the poisons he had been ingesting, he allegedly was attacked sexually by one of them, then shot four times. Rasputin fell but was still alive, when another of his assassins pulled out knife and "castrated" him, finally flinging his severed penis across the room. It was later collected by a servant who turned it over to a woman who allegedly took it with her to Paris, where she kept it at least until 1968. Some of the later stories about Rasputin, recounted mostly by his daughter are rather hard to believe but they have entered popular mythology and are hard to disprove.

From the time he was "seduced" at 14 by some girls near his village, he never ceased to find female partners, although his wife seemed willing to ignore them. His daughter, Maria, however, gave an accounting of hundreds of them, ranging from nobility, actresses and military wives to chambermaids and prostitutes, Though the Czarina wrote flowery love letters to him, he apparently felt it best not to take her to bed.

Many books have been written about him but one of the better ones is Brian Moynahan, Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned. New York: Random House, 1997.