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The First World War brought numerous empires of the Old World crashing to ruin, and none more catastrophically than that of Russia. The fall of the Romanov dynasty in the popular imagination is inextricably bound up with one man, perhaps moreso even than the Tsar who gave up power - Grigori Yefimovitch Rasputin (1869 - 1916).
Rasputin's early life is lost to history. Born to a peasant family in Siberia, at age 28 Rasputin experienced an religious awakening, and left on an extended pilgrimage. He traveled to monasteries around the Orthodox world, and developed a reputation as a starets (elder or holy man). Despite his famously disheveled, unbathed appearance, he gathered a small following and began holding prayer meetings in a makeshift chapel in his father's cellar. As early as 1904, rumors circled that Rasputin was engaging in sexual affairs with his female acolytes, but he continued to win the favor of commoners, clergy, and, by 1905, members of the aristocracy. In November of that year, he first met Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, in St. Petersburg.
Russia at the turn of the century was a nation still awash in medieval superstition; the imperial court was no exception. Rasputin secured the devotion of the Tsarina in particular when he appeared to 'heal' the young hemophiliac heir to the throne, Alexei, through prayer. The cessation of the Tsarevich's bleeding probably had more to do with Rasputin's admonition to not let the doctors see Alexei, for whose pain they often prescribed aspirin - an antiaggregant that would have worsened his bleeding fits. With every healing, Rasputin's hold over the imperial family grew, as did his following in St. Petersburg. Women in particular were drawn to the healer, and he to them - the security detail assigned to Rasputin by the Tsar reported almost daily visits to prostitutes, and frequent drunkenness. Word of the mystic's sinful lifestyle spread, and as his influence at court grew, so did the public's disdain for him.
After war broke out in 1914, Rasputin was responsible for advising Nicholas to dismiss his commander and take control of the Army himself - a disastrous decision, but one that allowed the true power in Russia to rest with Alexandra - and, by extension, Rasputin. Government ministers came and went according to Rasputin's whim, causing massive instability and a precipitous drop in the already-low popularity of the regime. It was during this time that his reputation as the "Mad Monk" took shape, with Rasputin accused of numerous baseless charges including being a German agent or having an affair with the Tsarina or her daughters - all of whom referred to him as "Our Friend." Despite these rumors, neither Alexandra nor her issue ever lost faith in Rasputin. When the deposed Tsar and his family were executed in 1918, all of the children were found to be wearing lockets containing Rasputin's picture.
The rest of the Russian aristocracy had a very different opinion of Rasputin. It was men from among their ranks who would be responsible for Rasputin's death, an event more distorted by legend than any other in his life. The popular version of the story, a grisly ordeal in which the murderers were unable to kill the Mad Monk despite numerous administrations of cyanide, gunshots, and beatings, is almost certainly a total fiction devised by the lead conspirator, Felix Yusupov. Yusupov, a prince himself, cited preservation of the dynasty as his motive, and thus would have benefitted greatly by the public perception that Rasputin was an unkillable monster in league with the devil. Rasputin's autopsy revealed no trace of poison, and no water in his lungs as an urban legend attests (the murderers disposed of his corpse in the frozen Malaya Nevka River, but failed to weigh it down).
Though most popular accounts of Rasputin's powers are mere fiction, at least one prophecy he made did come true: shortly before his death, Rasputin told the Tsar in a letter that, if one of Nicholas' relations caused his (Rasputin's) death, none of the Romanovs would survive more than two years. Less than two months after Rasputin's murder, the Tsar was forced to abdicate, and he and his family lived in captivity until their murder by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Most of the other Romanovs still in Russia were rounded up and executed around the same time; one notable exception was Yusupov, who escaped to France with his wife.
One hundred years later, Rasputin is a figure of fascination both in Russia and abroad, with numerous cultural depictions casting him as everything from a well-meaning but misguided fanatic to an outright monster with real supernatural powers. With his life and motivations forever shrouded in mystery and distorted by propoganda, the only certain picture we can assemble of Rasputin today is of a man who came from nowhere and, through what he believed was divine guidance, helped destroy the monarchy he had hoped to rescue.