Portrait of Rasputin with Winter Palace in background

The Real Rasputin?: A Look at His Admirers’ Revisionist History

by D.P. Anashkin

The edi­tor­ship of Ortho­dox Life is trou­bled by recent signs, even among cer­tain mem­bers and cler­gy of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church Abroad, of a revi­sion­ist his­to­ry tak­ing hold regard­ing the tumul­tuous and trag­ic events of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry — name­ly, the con­tro­ver­sial and enig­mat­ic fig­ure of Grig­o­ry Efi­movich Rasputin. We there­fore offer this thor­ough and sober inves­ti­ga­tion by a respect­ed schol­ar and his­to­ri­an of the Russ­ian Church. May the ques­tion of “the real Rasputin” be final­ly put to rest, so that with­out dis­cord and tumult in the Church, we may worthi­ly hon­or the life and suf­fer­ings of the Holy Roy­al Mar­tyrs and all the New Mar­tyrs and Con­fes­sors of Rus­sia, espe­cial­ly in the cur­rent and upcom­ing anniver­sary years.

A ver­sion of this arti­cle first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Holy  Trin­i­ty Monastery’s Russ­ian-lan­guage jour­nal Православная Русь.

Russia is liv­ing through com­pli­cat­ed times. The coun­try is being reborn after dis­in­te­gra­tion and abase­ment. A tor­tur­ous search for a nation­al idea is afoot. All these process­es are under­gird­ed by a colos­sal, part­ly fre­net­ic spir­i­tu­al ten­sion in our soci­ety. The huge num­ber of magi­cians, astrol­o­gists, psy­chics, and heal­ers who appear on tele­vi­sion and in print are a clear indi­ca­tion that the pop­u­lace is ill, and grave­ly so.

"So this messenger of death stands between the throne and Russia... He kills because he is two-faced."

One symp­tom of this ill­ness is the ven­er­a­tion in cer­tain — albeit nar­row — cir­cles of Grig­o­ry Efi­movich Rasputin. The facts of his life are so wide­ly known there is no need to recount them here. For us, a dif­fer­ent ques­tion is impor­tant — why has a move­ment appeared for this per­son­’s can­on­iza­tion and what are the argu­ments, both for and against? This dis­cus­sion is unavoid­able in order to devel­op a firm posi­tion on such a com­plex ques­tion and so as not to fall under the influ­ence of pseu­do-eccle­sial agi­ta­tors and, in the final equa­tion, to not do harm to our own spir­i­tu­al state.

Attempts to real­ize the can­on­iza­tion of Rasputin are fraught with sev­er­al neg­a­tive con­se­quences. First, admir­ers of “elder Grig­o­ry” make of him a cer­tain sym­bol of “folk Ortho­dox tra­di­tion,” set against the “bish­ops-bureau­crats.” The move­ment there­by car­ries an anti-eccle­sial char­ac­ter. Even after the Com­mis­sion on the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Saints of the Holy Syn­od of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church has expressed its author­i­ta­tive view against the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Rasputin among the saints, his self-willed apol­o­gists nev­er­the­less ven­er­ate him as a saint­ly elder and martyr.

Sec­ond, the can­on­iza­tion of such a char­ac­ter as Rasputin would throw a shad­ow upon the Roy­al Fam­i­ly and would under­mine the cred­i­bil­i­ty of their own glo­ri­fi­ca­tion. Such an act would also be a huge gift to the anti-Ortho­dox media, giv­ing them an excuse to pour dirt upon the Church.

The “Real Rasputin” — Man and Myth

Did he truly love the Royal Family? If it were so, he would not have discredited them in the eyes of the public by his behavior.

Men like Rasputin appear specif­i­cal­ly at moments of cri­sis and a ten­sion imme­di­ate­ly aris­es sur­round­ing them. About him are lay­ered a large num­ber of the most var­ied myths. Some con­sid­er him a saint, oth­ers — a cun­ning and immoral scoundrel. It is dif­fi­cult to prove or dis­prove any­thing when it comes to Rasputin. The thing is, the extant wit­ness accounts of him con­flict in the extreme. Even descrip­tions of his exter­nal appear­ance made by peo­ple who asso­ci­at­ed with him are so con­tra­dic­to­ry that one is giv­en to won­der. Some write that he was tall, oth­ers — not so tall. Some write that he was, for a peas­ant, tidy, oth­ers — that he was dirty and unkempt. A singer who saw Rasputin many times describes his rot­ten teeth and foul breath; where­as the writer Zhukovska­ia, who knew him well, informs us that his teeth were impec­ca­ble and every one intact, while his breath was fresh. Rasputin’s sec­re­tary writes that he had a wide mouth but that some sort of black roots were vis­i­ble through it. Mean­while Sazonov, an admir­er of Rasputin, describes strong white teeth.

To move on from here to per­son­al­i­ty traits is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult. The sit­u­a­tion is com­pli­cat­ed by Rasputin’s own lack of edu­ca­tion. His papers are com­plete­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble; they con­tain no infor­ma­tion and express only Rasputin’s inter­est in the mat­ter of the peti­tion­er at hand, although in no way clar­i­fy­ing the sub­stance of the request. Just as unhelp­ful as sources are Rasputin’s let­ters and telegrams, which con­sist of con­grat­u­la­tions, infor­ma­tion about his health, and var­i­ous opaque adages.

Rasputin at the Court of the Tsar

How did a semi-lit­er­ate muzhik from Tobol­sk land in the Impe­r­i­al Court and enjoy the esteem of the Roy­al cou­ple? The prob­lem of Rasputin is in many respects a prob­lem of his­to­ry. Inter­est in “God’s peo­ple” was vis­i­ble through­out con­tem­po­rary Russ­ian soci­ety. For instance, the head of the archive and library of the Most-Holy Syn­od, A.N. Lvov, remarked in his diary for 1984 that some wan­der­er, Antonii, has been roam­ing St Peters­burg bare­foot and in chains. His appear­ance in the capi­tol in such a state was enough on its own to give him a halo of sanc­ti­ty, and such appear­ances become a sign of the times. The shin­ing Peters­burg soci­ety treat­ed even the tongue-tied vagrant, Mitya Kozel­sky, with full credulity.

Defeat in the Rus­so-Japan­ese War and the rev­o­lu­tion of 1905 brought out in the soci­ety, and espe­cial­ly among aris­to­crat­ic cir­cles, a height­ened sense of ner­vous­ness. Per the remarks of the assis­tant to the chair­man of the Extra­or­di­nary Inves­ti­ga­to­ry Com­mis­sion of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment B.N. Smit­ten, “Rasputin came to fer­tile ground and it enveloped him.” A por­tion of the aris­toc­ra­cy strove to be immersed in the “pop­u­lar faith,” all the while not quite grasp­ing what was meant by this. It is illus­tra­tive that they sought answers to their ques­tions not so much from pas­tors of the Church as from a var­ied crop of new­ly-appeared prophets and “elders.”

Attempts to rediscover the "real Rasputin" ignore the copious historical evidence that has been long available.
Left to right: Elder Makar­ij, Bish­op The­o­fan of Polta­va, Rasputin.

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Veni­amin (Fed­chenkov) fair­ly not­ed that the cause of the devo­tion to Rasputin lay not so much in his own per­son as in the atmos­phere which reined with­in high soci­ety. From the start, he left a strong impres­sion even on eru­dite hier­ar­chs. Vla­dy­ka Met­ro­pol­i­tan Veni­amin, hav­ing wit­nessed the first intro­duc­tion of Rasputin to the father con­fes­sor of the Roy­al fam­i­ly, Archi­man­drite Theo­phan (Bystrov),1 recalls that Rasputin imme­di­ate­ly left a strong impres­sion on the lat­ter, both in the inten­si­ty of his per­son­al­i­ty and in the under­stand­ing of his soul. Fr Theo­phan was com­plete­ly car­ried away, see­ing in him the ide­al of a holy man. Hav­ing over­heard the con­ver­sa­tions between Rasputin and Fr Theo­phan, Vla­dy­ka Veni­amin notes that the for­mer was no char­la­tan or hyp­no­tist; he sim­ply affect­ed peo­ple by the strength of his per­son­al­i­ty. This trait is also record­ed by oth­er contemporaries.

Janus of the Imperial Court

Con­tra­dic­to­ry opin­ions of Rasputin, from mis­un­der­stood and per­se­cut­ed right­eous one to the mon­ster who destroyed the Roy­al Fam­i­ly, are found­ed in the first instance on the con­tra­dic­to­ry traits of his own per­son­al­i­ty. The philoso­pher and con­vinced monar­chist Lev Tikhomirov wrote regard­ing Rasputin: 

To the Roy­al Fam­i­ly, he turns the face of an “elder,” peer­ing into which the Empress per­ceives the spir­it of God rest­ing upon a holy man… Тo Rus­sia, he turns his debauched mug, drunk­en and las­civ­i­ous, the face of a dev­il­ish satyr from the Tobol­sk taiga… 

And from this stems everything… 

The whole coun­try grum­bles, indig­nant that Rasputin is in the Tsar­it­sa’s cham­bers… But in the Tsar and Tsar­it­sa’s cham­bers — bewil­der­ment and bit­ter resent­ment… Why do the peo­ple rage? Because this holy man prays for the unfor­tu­nate heir?… For the grave­ly ill child, whose every care­less move­ment por­tends death? This per­turbs them. Why? Over what?

So this mes­sen­ger of death stands between the throne and Russia…

He kills because he is two-faced.

Many saw in Rasputin a superb actor who took on the role of sav­iour and lived it to such a degree that he would not part from it even at the very end. Many con­tem­po­raries not­ed the remark­able union with­in this man of sin and right­eous­ness. Thus, Prince Zhe­vakhov remarks in his mem­oirs that there is noth­ing sur­pris­ing about the polar-oppo­site eval­u­a­tions of Rasputin in soci­ety, since some saw him as he was in Tsarskoe Selo, and oth­ers — as he was in the tav­ern. From this, we might gath­er that Rasputin was nei­ther a saint nor a con­sum­mate vil­lain and rogue.

Rasputin among a mixed group of admirers.
Rasputin with admirers.

He also had pos­i­tive traits. From time to time, he appears a kind, respon­sive, co-suf­fer­ing, and gen­er­ous per­son. Rasputin strove to help many. Notes of his have sur­vived with requests for assis­tance from this or that peti­tion­er, who had laid siege to his apart­ment for whole days. Eye­wit­ness­es recall a time when, in response to pleas from a wid­ow who had come to him lack­ing funds enough to sur­vive, he imme­di­ate­ly turned to a per­son of means who stood there and with­out look­ing at the mon­ey hand­ed to him imme­di­ate­ly turned them over to the wid­ow. After cross­ing the thresh­old of the apart­ment where Grig­o­ry Efi­movich lived, she saw that she had received from him 500 rubles, a giant sum for that time.

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As regards his writ­ings (“Life of an Expe­ri­enced Wan­der­er” — 1907; “My Thoughts and Reflec­tions: Brief Descrip­tion of Trav­els to Holy Sites and Reflec­tions upon Reli­gious Ques­tions Raised by Them” — 1911; and oth­ers), these were dic­tat­ed to one of his admir­ers and car­ry evi­dence of sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary exag­ger­a­tion. Rasputin’s dialect could not have been intel­li­gi­ble to his eru­dite fol­low­ers. The so-called “Rasputin’s Diary” was writ­ten under the dic­ta­tion of Rasputin’s admir­er, the aris­to­crat Maria Evge­niev­na Golov­ina. Even less reli­able as sources are the tran­scrip­tions of Rasputin’s thoughts, com­posed by his admir­ers; here we see not so much an expres­sion of his thoughts as of their recep­tion by the one record­ing them.

At first, the “Siber­ian wan­der­er” behaved wise­ly and cir­cum­spect­ly. Often gen­uine piety man­i­fest­ed itself with­in him. As not­ed above, he was able to win over not only cer­tain rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the cler­gy but even the Roy­al Fam­i­ly. There are sev­er­al expla­na­tions for such affec­tion. The tsar sin­cere­ly wished to bridge the divide between the pub­lic and the gov­ern­ment, to become as close as pos­si­ble to his peo­ple. Rasputin, to an extent, played for the Tsar the role of the peo­ple’s tri­bune, who would bring all its hopes and needs direct­ly to the Autocrat.

Empress Alexandra, Devoted Mother

If the learned monk and the­olo­gian Theo­phan esteemed him at first as a saint and hap­pi­ly asso­ci­at­ed with him, then it is no won­der that the reac­tion with­in the Roy­al house­hold was the same. In the most try­ing peri­od, he appeared before them as a guide, a teacher, and even an elder from the very heart of the peo­ple. A true “man of God.” Rasputin became a leg­end already in life, and as often hap­pens, the leg­end obscured the char­ac­ter of the real, liv­ing person.

...the absence of admirers of Rasputin in the Russian diaspora can be explained by the presence within the emigration of people closely associated with the Court... who remembered the real Rasputin rather than the myth concocted about him later.

Empress Alexan­dra Feodor­ov­na saw in Rasputin a friend, heed­ed his coun­sels and appraisals, and relied upon the weight of his author­i­ty.2 Rasputin con­duct­ed dis­cus­sions with her on suf­fer­ing, mer­cy, meek­ness, and patience. To her, he seemed an unmerce­nary and spir­i­tu­al­ly gift­ed seek­er of God from among the peo­ple. Under his influ­ence the Empress became a wartime nurse and she received con­stant sup­port from him in this path, which of course con­tra­dict­ed nei­ther her con­vic­tions nor the incli­na­tion of her soul.

One of the main caus­es of the Empress’s love toward Rasputin was his abil­i­ty to ease the heir’s suf­fer­ing dur­ing more than one attack of hemo­phil­ia. Let us not judge the dot­ing par­ents for grasp­ing at any oppor­tu­ni­ty to aid their son, who him­self loved Grig­o­ry Efi­movich. But again aris­es the ques­tion of this char­ac­ter’s two-faced nature. Did he tru­ly love the Roy­al Fam­i­ly? If it were so, he would not have dis­cred­it­ed them in the eyes of the pub­lic by his behav­ior. Or, if he saw that the sit­u­a­tion had got­ten out of hand, then he would have qui­et­ly with­drawn. Instead, he placed self-assured­ness before this. Besides which, sanc­ti­ty does not sig­ni­fy omni­science. Though sin­cere [in their affec­tion], the Roy­al Fam­i­ly mis­judged their “friend.”

It must be not­ed that the “spe­cial inti­ma­cy of the elder” with the Roy­al Fam­i­ly adver­tised by Rasputin’s admir­ers is great­ly exag­ger­at­ed. To be exact, there was no “spe­cial bond” at all. The Tsar, con­trary to com­men­tary of both the pro-Rasputin and the Sovi­et press, did not place blind trust in Rasputin. In a let­ter to the Empress, he writes, “As far as Rasputin’s coun­sels, you know how care­ful­ly one must regard his coun­sels.” As evi­dence, S. Old­en­burg shows in his book, The Life and Rule of Emper­or Nicholas II, that in 1915–16 the Sov­er­eign heed­ed not one of Rasputin’s sev­en­teen recommendations.

No Elder at All

The tragedy of the Roy­al Fam­i­ly, who saw in Rasputin an elder from among the peo­ple, lies in this key fact — he was no elder. As is well known, an elder is a spir­i­tu­al guide, heal­er of spir­i­tu­al infir­mi­ties who leads a sin­ner on the path of sal­va­tion. Apol­o­gists for Rasputin offer evi­dence that he was an ascetic, elder, and seer. Yet, one attribute of a false prophet is that he can­not fore­tell his own fate. Under this cri­te­ri­on, Rasputin can­not be con­sid­ered a true prophet because he could not accu­rate­ly pre­dict his own fate. True, there is his will, in which he says that if mem­bers of the Romanov fam­i­ly kill him, their line will end; but this seems more like a threat, once we take into account that he knew per­fect­ly well how the major­i­ty of the Impe­r­i­al House regard­ed him.

"Rasputin came to fertile ground and it enveloped him."

One may sup­pose that for the Sov­er­eign, with whom was tied the sta­tus of head of the Ortho­dox con­fes­sion, it was eas­i­er to turn for help to a man of the peo­ple than, for exam­ple, to Bish­op Kir­ill (Smirnov), who served in Gatchi­na3 but was his sub­or­di­nate.4

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Rasputin was some­where below the sum­mit of his fac­ul­ties. Vla­dy­ka Theo­phan notes in his report to the Inves­ti­ga­to­ry Com­mis­sion of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment, “He [Rasputin] was nei­ther a hyp­ocrite nor a scoundrel. He was a true man of God who appeared from among the peo­ple. But under the influ­ence of high soci­ety, which could not com­pre­hend this sim­ple man, a hor­ri­ble spir­i­tu­al cat­a­stro­phe took place, and he fell. The Impe­r­i­al ret­inue, which wished for this to hap­pen, remained non­plussed and account­ed every­thing that occurred as some­thing friv­o­lous.”  Vlad­kya Theo­phan exhort­ed Rasputin to change his ways, but it was already too late. Lat­er, con­vinced by pre­cise, doc­u­ment­ed evi­dence, Vla­dy­ka broke with Rasputin whilst deeply pained by his dis­il­lu­sion­ment in the Siber­ian wan­der­er. And this dis­il­lu­sion­ment was sup­port­ed by seri­ous foun­da­tions. Rasputin’s daugh­ter, Matre­na Soloviev-Rasputin, described to the inves­ti­ga­tor N.A. Sokolov5  in Decem­ber of 1918:

He spoke of God remark­ably well when he was drunk. As I already said, when he left to become a wan­der­er, he stopped drink­ing. But in Pet­ro­grad he returned to wine and drank a lot. More than any­thing he loved madeira and red wine. He drank at home, but even more in restau­rants and at his friends’ homes. The Roy­al Fam­i­ly knew that he drank and judged him for it. We also spoke to him about it. He always had the same answer for all: “I can­not drink that which will come after.” The key to his think­ing was that he await­ed some evil for the future of his home­land, and he want­ed to drown in wine the bit­ter­ness caused by this dread anticipation.

Voeikov, the last com­man­dant of the palace at Tsarskoe Selo, described how Rasputin indeed was able to stop the heir’s loss of blood and saved his life more than once. The trou­ble, how­ev­er, was that some­times he was so drunk that it was impos­si­ble to get him to the palace. If help was urgent­ly need­ed, they would bring him the phone, and Rasputin, speak­ing with the tsare­vich, would stanch the blood by phone. 

Researchers have at their dis­pos­al irrefutable evi­dence of Rasputin’s bac­cha­na­lian lifestyle, record­ed by the direc­tors of Russ­ian spe­cial ser­vices, based on the dis­pas­sion­ate and objec­tive infor­ma­tion of their numer­ous agents — e.g. the mem­oirs of Gen­er­al A.I. Spiri­dovich, head of the Sov­er­eign’s per­son­al guard from 1913–1916,and K.I. Globachev, head of the Pet­ro­grad secu­ri­ty depart­ment from 1915–1917. The lat­ter was per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for the pro­tec­tion and sur­veil­lance of Rasputin in the last years of his life.

Through­out almost the entire­ty of the day, peo­ple from all social stra­ta and rep­re­sent­ing var­i­ous offi­cial and social posi­tions would vis­it him. Some came out of per­son­al sym­pa­thy for Rasputin, oth­ers sought his pro­tec­tion, while still oth­ers sim­ply hoped he would fill their pock­ets. The list of peo­ple who vis­it­ed Rasputin for this or that pur­pose was very long. Besides these, there were the reg­u­lars, which is to say, his entourage, the com­po­si­tion of which mor­phed accord­ing to Rasputin’s per­son­al lean­ings at a giv­en time. The most loy­al of his friends were women — ladies-admir­ers who believed in him as a saint.

As nei­ther an admir­er nor an ene­my of Rasputin, Globachev quite dis­pas­sion­ate­ly describes his every­day rou­tine, which he knew bet­ter than oth­ers. Accord­ing to Globachev, Grig­orii Efi­movich was sim­ply a smart peas­ant who lucked out and oper­at­ed with a great deal of [oth­er peo­ple’s] trust. But Globachev also attests to the close ties between Rasputin and such dark fig­ures as the “doc­tor of Tibetan med­i­cine” Bad­maev and the famous bankers Manus and Ruben­stein, who con­duct­ed major finan­cial trans­ac­tions through him. Besides this, Rasputin’s unwor­thy behav­ior is repeat­ed­ly not­ed in the diaries of out­side observers.

The View of Rasputin’s Contemporaries

It’s no sur­prise that the reac­tion of many of Rasputin’s most notable con­tem­po­raries to him was neg­a­tive in the extreme. Here’s how Pyotr Arkadievich Stolypin6 recalled his intro­duc­tion to the “elder”: “He ran after me with his milky-white eyes,” writes Stolypin, “and uttered some cryp­tic and dis­joint­ed quo­ta­tions from Holy Scrip­ture, ges­tured with his hands in an odd way, and I felt awak­en­ing with­in me an insur­mount­able aver­sion to this mon­stros­i­ty sit­ting across from me. But I under­stood that this per­son pos­sessed a great pow­er of hyp­no­sis and that he was impress­ing upon me quite a strong moral impres­sion, albeit one of repulsion.”

The Empress’s lady-in-wait­ing, A.A. Vyrubo­va, writes about Rasputin some­what guard­ed­ly. Find­ing her­self, per the tsar­it­sa’s orders, in the vil­lage of Pokrovsk, she notes the local cler­gy’s hos­tile atti­tude towards him and con­cedes that the vagrants who sur­round­ed Rasputin, prey­ing on his sim­plic­i­ty, had stolen him away and got­ten him drunk. Rasputin’s vis­i­tors and entourage left an unpleas­ant impres­sion on Vyrubova.

Those who were part of his inner cir­cle also spoke neg­a­tive­ly about Rasputin, among them Iliodor (Tru­fanov)Min­is­ter of Inte­ri­or Affairs Khvos­tov, and the for­mer Chief of Police S.P. Belet­skii. Many high­ly-placed gov­ern­ment offi­cials char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly viewed Rasputin as a duplic­i­tous man, play­ing the role of a sim­ple­ton and “fool for Christ,” but injur­ing the pres­tige of the monar­chy both in high soci­ety and among the plain folk. Stolypin, Min­is­ter of Inte­ri­or Affairs A.A. Makarov, Ober-procu­ra­tor of the Syn­od A.D. Samarin, and Min­is­ter of the Court Count V.B. Fred­er­icks all held to this view.

Portrait of Rasputin, Bishop Hermogenes, and Hieromonk Iliodor
Left to right: Rasputin, Bish­op Her­mo­genes, and Hieromonk Iliodor

Among Rasputin’s adver­saries were also to be found Church lead­ers, lat­er to be num­bered among the saints: the Ven­er­a­ble Mar­tyr Eliza­ve­ta Feodor­ov­na, the Hiero­mar­tyrs Met­ro­pol­i­tan Vladimir of Kiev and Bish­op Her­mo­genes of Tobol­sk. Even those hier­ar­chs who main­tained ties with Rasputin and enjoyed his pro­tec­tion tried not to adver­tise their con­tact with him. It is worth not­ing that, despite the many peo­ple who sought his pro­tec­tion and received help and mon­ey from him, no one spoke out in his defense, as if con­sid­er­ing any men­tion of a con­nec­tion with him to be compromising. 

The Fate of Rasputin

The con­tin­u­ing pres­ence of Rasputin near the Roy­al Fam­i­ly threat­ened to fatal­ly dis­cred­it the Supreme author­i­ty. The neg­a­tive atti­tude of the intel­li­gentsia towards the “elder” was not the most fright­ful con­se­quence of the Rasputin affair. Scari­er still was the atti­tude towards him among the peo­ple. In a report about the role of Rasputin dat­ed Decem­ber 27, 1916, State Duma Deputy V.A. Mak­lakov express­es clear­ly: “Now in the minds and souls of the Russ­ian peo­ple is occur­ring the most ter­ri­ble rev­o­lu­tion that has ever tak­en place in his­to­ry. This is not a rev­o­lu­tion, but a cat­a­stro­phe; the entire age-old world­view, the peo­ple’s faith in the Tsar, in the right­eous­ness of his author­i­ty, in the idea [of monar­chy] as Divine­ly estab­lished.” In the end, the sit­u­a­tion was resolved with the mur­der of Rasputin, which took place on the night of Decem­ber 16, 1916 and was com­mit­ted by a group of peo­ple devot­ed­ly close to the Court and fierce­ly loy­al to the Tsar.

Apol­o­gists for Rasputin say that the con­spir­a­cy was effect­ed by the Masons, who wished to rid them­selves of exam­ples of pop­u­lar piety, a true man of the peo­ple, as the Empress described him. Doc­u­ment­ed evi­dence regard­ing the masons of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry is so con­tra­dic­to­ry that one can ascribe to them any­thing one desires. But Rasputin’s killers were far from rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. They had no desire to over­throw the monar­chy or to sep­a­rate the Romanov dynasty from the throne. Pur­ishke­vich belonged to the far right; Prince Yusupov was mar­ried to a rel­a­tive of the Sov­er­eign Emperor.

The very pre­tense for invit­ing Rasputin to Yusupov’s home is indica­tive. They wish to intro­duce him to the most beau­ti­ful woman in Peters­burg, and he glad­ly accepts. They clear­ly invite him to a clan­des­tine gath­er­ing, and he goes. At first, they attempt to poi­son him with potas­si­um cyanide, hid­den in the madeira and pastries.

Soci­ety’s reac­tion to the news of the roy­al “friend’s” death wit­ness­es to how far the process of de-mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Tsarist regime had come. The news caused jubi­la­tion among the peo­ple. The Ven­er­a­ble Mar­tyr Eliza­ve­ta Feodor­ov­na wrote to Grand Prince Dmitri Pavlovich and Princess Yusupo­va, “May God strength­en Felix after the patri­ot­ic act he has com­mit­ted.” “All my deep and ardent prayers sur­round you all for the patri­ot­ic act of your son. May God pro­tect you.”

Not long after Rasputin’s mur­der, Vasi­ly Shulgin eval­u­ates the event thus: “For all its futil­i­ty, killing Rasputin was a deeply monar­chist act… thus it was under­stood… When news of what had hap­pened reached Moscow (this was in the evening) and pen­e­trat­ed into the the­atres, the pub­lic demand­ed that the Nation­al Anthem be per­formed. And, per­haps for the last time, ‘God save the Tsar’ was heard in Moscow. Nev­er did this prayer have so pro­found a meaning.”

Sev­en­teen sig­na­to­ries from the Tsar’s clos­est ret­inue wrote him a peti­tion for lenien­cy in the pun­ish­ment of Grand Prince Dmitri Pavlovich in con­nec­tion with Rasputin’s mur­der, which they also regard­ed as a “patri­ot­ic act.” Even at the head­quar­ters of the Supreme Com­man­der [of the mil­i­tary forces], the high­er and low­er ranks con­grat­u­lat­ed each oth­er with three kiss­es, as on the day of Pascha.

The Question of Fr Nikolay Guryanov

Sup­port­ers of Rasputin’s can­on­iza­tion often cite elder Niko­lay Guryanov (+2002). The thing is, in the last years of his life, Fr Niko­lay was sur­round­ed by pro­po­nents of the sanc­ti­ty of Rasputin. His cell atten­dants became famous for set­ting loose in his name var­i­ous rumors, among them his sup­posed ven­er­a­tion of Ivan the Ter­ri­ble and Grig­o­ry Rasputin as saints. Now, fol­low­ing the elder’s repose, these rumors spread with new strength since there is no one left in a posi­tion to ver­i­fy their accu­ra­cy. Such accounts are espe­cial­ly exag­ger­at­ed by his for­mer cell atten­dant, sche­ma­nun Niko­la (Goryan). It is unknown where or by whom she was ton­sured. Prey­ing on Fr Niko­lay’s elder­ly infir­mi­ty, his cell atten­dants took pho­tographs of him sit­ting with an icon of Rasputin in his arms.

In my view, the crux of the mat­ter is that the elder’s heart, over­flow­ing with love, received with joy all the good things said about any­one, espe­cial­ly some­one close to the Roy­al Fam­i­ly. But he had no oppor­tu­ni­ty to ver­i­fy this infor­ma­tion. He could not study the archives, dis­cuss with researchers, con­sult with his­to­ri­ans. He received evi­dence only from the peo­ple who sur­round­ed him, who care­ful­ly fil­tered what infor­ma­tion reached him. Fr Niko­lay was a man of prayer, an ascetic and elder, but he was not a historian.

The Sectarian Foundations of the Rasputinites

Ven­er­a­tion of Grig­o­ry Rasputin is a com­par­a­tive­ly recent devel­op­ment. Pri­or to the 1990’s, pro­po­nents of his can­on­iza­tion were com­plete­ly unknown in Rus­sia, let alone out­side the coun­try. In my view, the absence of admir­ers of Rasputin in the Russ­ian dias­po­ra can be explained by the pres­ence with­in the emi­gra­tion of peo­ple close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the Court (e.g., Voeikov and Globachev, not­ed above), who remem­bered the real Rasputin rather than the myth con­coct­ed about him lat­er. It fol­lows that we must seek the roots of this ven­er­a­tion for the “holy elder” in Russia. 

No book, no matter how well-written, not even the most spectacular and gripping film, no strum of the guitar should outweigh in our minds the view of the pastors and archpastors of the Church.

Ven­er­a­tion of Rasputin first appeared in the ecsta­t­ic-mys­tic sect, “The Theotokos Cen­ter,” also known as the “Church of the Reign­ing Moth­er of God.” Cit­ing “rev­e­la­tions of the Moth­er of God,” its leader, John Bereslavsky writes: “Elder Grig­o­ry was for the Impe­r­i­al cou­ple the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Russ­ian holi­ness and God-bear­ing. The Sov­er­eign lit­er­al­ly quaked before his ‘friend,’ as the Emper­or Nicholas and Tsar­it­sa Alexan­dra affec­tion­ate­ly called him.“7

The heretics’ praise for Rasputin is not a coin­ci­dence. Accord­ing to the Syn­odal com­mis­sion’s con­clu­sions, “The few works attrib­uted to Rasputin wit­ness not only to the the­o­log­i­cal igno­rance of the Siber­ian ‘elder,’ but also his adher­ence to spir­i­tu­al states, char­ac­ter­is­tic of mys­ti­cal-charis­mat­ic sects.” Let us turn to one of the most impor­tant of Rasputin’s “com­po­si­tions” — “Life of an Expe­ri­enced Wan­der­er.” As is known, sec­tar­i­ans regard Ortho­dox cler­gy with dis­dain. Rasputin’s appraisal is guard­ed­ly crit­i­cal but still clear­ly neg­a­tive. Although the author encour­ages the read­er to vis­it the church of God, par­tic­i­pate in the Mys­ter­ies and respect the cler­gy, one finds per­vad­ing the work the notion that they [the cler­gy] are infirm and in need of condescension.

Gen­uine guides in the spir­i­tu­al life are not priests, but rather spe­cial “expe­ri­enced” peo­ple, and what is very symp­to­matic of sec­tart­ian argu­ments — their “expe­ri­ence” is con­trast­ed with “the let­ter” and “book-learn­ing.” It is “the cho­sen ones of God” who “will speak not from a book, but from expe­ri­ence” and “pos­sess per­fect love.” They can teach even the priests and bish­ops, whose “lips freeze and they can­not con­tra­dict,” inas­much as “their teach­ing remains insignif­i­cant and they lis­ten to your sim­ple words.” These expe­ri­enced spir­i­tu­al wan­der­ers are of course always per­se­cut­ed, in the first instance by priests, pos­sess only the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge. Sim­i­lar­ly, the heretics of the “Theotokos Cen­ter” declare that the Ortho­dox Church preach­es the dead let­ter, while they stand on the path of wor­ship in the spir­it. In real­i­ty, this “wor­ship in spir­it” con­sists of unhealthy ecsta­sy and dark mysticism.

Rasputin in Popular Culture

Today, thanks to the activ­i­ty of pseu­do-eccle­sial media orga­ni­za­tions and sev­er­al uncon­sci­en­tious “his­to­ri­ans” and writ­ers, the cam­paign for the reha­bil­i­ta­tion and can­on­iza­tion of Rasputin is becom­ing increas­ing­ly wide­spread and stri­dent. It should be not­ed that Rasputin’s sup­port­ers attempt to con­duct the debate over their hero’s right­eous­ness not on schol­ar­ly grounds, so as not to attract the atten­tion of seri­ous his­to­ri­ans, but in the pages of lit­er­a­ture, both fic­tion and non-fic­tion. The bright image of a man from among the peo­ple, a bright elder, and friend of the Roy­al Fam­i­ly is being urgent­ly craft­ed. Of such a char­ac­ter are the com­po­si­tions of A.N. Bokhanov, O.A. Platonov, S.V. Fomin (author of the sev­en-vol­ume series Rasputin: An Inves­ti­ga­tion), the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned Tatiana Groy­an,8 who wrote Mar­tyr for Christ and Tsar, the Man of God Grig­o­ry. Man of Prayer for Holy Rus­sia and Her Most Bright Youth.9

A fea­ture film and a tele­vi­sion series have been pro­duced — Rasputin, with Gérard Depar­dieu in the title role, and Grig­o­ry R., where the title role is played by the famous Russ­ian actor Vladimir Mashkov. The some­time pop­u­lar singer of folk songs and city romances, Zhana Bichevska­ia, has joined this com­pa­ny by ded­i­cat­ing a song to Rasputin.

It is always worth not­ing that works of art are not schol­ar­ly research. The artist express­es in them his own sub­jec­tive view of this or that event or char­ac­ter. One should not expect objec­tiv­i­ty and impar­tial­i­ty from such works. Rather, the main com­pass for us, Ortho­dox Chris­tians, must be the voice of the Church. No book, no mat­ter how well-writ­ten, no strum of the gui­tar, not even the most spec­tac­u­lar and grip­ping film should out­weigh in our minds the view of the pas­tors and arch­pas­tors of the Church.

Canonization or Ecclesial Peace?

No group of peo­ple has the right to inde­pen­dent­ly declare some­one a saint, paint icons and com­pose a ser­vice. In so doing, they per­form dis­obe­di­ence. In order to sup­press sim­i­lar works, the Syn­od of Bish­ops of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church Out­side of Rus­sia approved a deci­sion on Sep­tem­ber 20th, 1978 regard­ing the ven­er­a­tion of un-can­on­ized new mar­tyrs and ascetics and regard­ing their icons, in which is stat­ed: “Icons even of the most revered peo­ple are not allowed either in the church nor at home, until they are glo­ri­fied accord­ing to the deci­sion of the Supreme Church Author­i­ty.” If icons of un-can­on­ized mar­tyrs and ascetics are not even allowed, then it is all the more inad­mis­si­ble to pos­sess icono­graph­ic images of such per­sons as Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible.

But the main dan­ger is that pro­po­nents of Rasputin’s can­on­iza­tion pro­voke dis­cord in the Church and set them­selves against the Church hier­ar­chy. The head of the Com­mis­sion on Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Yuve­naly of Kru­tit­sy and Kolom­na, fair­ly notes: “The ini­tia­tors of this can­on­iza­tion can­not but admit that even the con­sid­er­a­tion of such a glo­ri­fi­ca­tion may call forth (and already has caused) con­fu­sion among the Ortho­dox faith­ful, leads to temp­ta­tion and the dis­cred­it­ing even of the idea of can­on­iz­ing saints. Our com­mon task and respon­si­bil­i­ty is not to allow the Ark of the Church to break apart.” We also should be watch­ful and not gullibly trust all sorts of rumors, dia­logues, films, or even “his­to­ri­ans” and “writ­ers,” but rather be con­formed to the mind of the Church. 

Beloved, do not believe every spir­it, but test the spir­its, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

About the Author

Dmitri Pavlovich Anashkin is a research fel­low at the St Tikhon’s Ortho­dox Uni­ver­si­ty of the Human­i­ties in Moscow. He pre­vi­ous­ly taught Church His­to­ry at Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary in Jor­danville, NY. He is the edi­tor of a com­pendi­um of ROCOR laws reg­u­la­tions titled Законодательство Русской Православной Церкви Заграницей.

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