Divers brought up the frozen body of Gregory Rasputin from beneath the ice of the Malaya Nevka River in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1916. The wooden supports of the Large Petrovsky Bridge, from which his body had been thrown into the water, were stained with blood where he had hit his head on the way down. For several days a crowd of women gathered on the riverbank with bottles, pots, and buckets to collect the “holy water” sanctified by contact with his flesh.
A mystical belief in the healing powers of the “holy man” brought Rasputin to a powerful position at the Romanov court in its last disastrous years. Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra saw him as a man of god and looked to him to cure their hemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexis. But tales about his scandalous behavior with prostitutes, of sexual orgies with the tsarina, and wartime rumors that he was a German spy resulted in his murder by a group of three conspirators—the tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitry, Felix Yusupov, the husband of his niece, and Vladimir Purishkevich, the monarchist cofounder of the extreme nationalist Union of the Russian People—in a desperate attempt to save the monarchy.
Luring Rasputin to the cellar of the Yusupov Palace, the killers laced Rasputin’s drink with poison, shot him in the heart, and, when the bleeding victim miraculously revived and crawled out into the courtyard, or so the story goes, fired four more times, the last from close range into his forehead. Wrapped in heavy linen, Rasputin’s body was thrown into the river with his hands tied by a cord, but it kept on coming up, and when it was discovered later, floating underneath the icy surface, his arms were strangely locked above his head. The rumor quickly spread that even in the water Rasputin was not dead: somehow he had managed to untie his hands and make the sign of the cross.
So much of this story is based on hearsay and half-truths that it is practically impossible to separate the facts of Rasputin’s life from the fictions that have fixed its meaning in the historical memory and mythology of the Romanovs’ downfall. Douglas Smith sets about the task of distinguishing between them in Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, which follows from his widely acclaimed…
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