The Rise and Death of a ‘Mad Monk’: Who Was Grigori Rasputin?

Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant mystic, heavy drinker, and predator, was revered by Russian royalty as a prophet. Undue political influence ultimately led to his murder.

Jul 8, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology


Grigori Rasputin rose from humble origins as a peasant holy man in Siberia to become the de facto power behind the throne of Imperial Russia. A charismatic mystic and advisor to Russian royalty, the “Mad Monk” was notorious for his poor hygiene, high ambitions, and insatiable taste for women and vodka. Tall and burly with a long unkempt beard, straggly hair, and piercing blue eyes, Rasputin cast an unsettling figure. Yet he was one of the most enigmatic figures of the twentieth century –  his life and death are veiled in rumor and myth. In 1916 he was murdered by Felix Yusupov – a Russian aristocrat who had married into the Romanov dynasty – under mysterious circumstances.

The Rise of Rasputin

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, Siberian peasant turned advisor and confidant to the Tasar and Tsarina of Imperial Russia, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born in the small Siberian village of Pokrovskyoe in 1869. He was the only one of seven siblings to reach adulthood. At age 18, he married, fathered three children, and seemed destined for an average life. 


Little is known about his early years apart from his reputation for unruly behavior, a local doctor who once treated him for smallpox described him as “the terror of the district.” However, in 1892, his life took a dramatic turn. He left his family to live in a monastery for several months and underwent religious conversion. Henceforth, though he was never ordained, he became a wandering peasant holy man. 


By the early 1900s, Rasputin had attracted a small group of followers. His unique blend of religious intensity and personal charm soon drew the notice of the Russian Orthodox clergy. In 1906, he was introduced to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandria. 


The Healing of Alexei Nikolaevich

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family, Source:

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The Tsar and Tsarina were deeply impressed with Rasputin. His reputation as a wise starets (elder) capable of resolving spiritual and physical crises and ailments preceded him. He solidified his position within the Russian court after supposedly alleviating the suffering of Alexei their only son, and heir, who suffered from haemophilia. 


Though the details of Alexei’s recovery remain debated, the only person who seemed able to stop the bleeding and alleviate the boy’s suffering was Rasputin. During his bleeding episodes, Rasputin would pray at his bedside, soothe him, and tell him stories, possibly helping to lower his blood pressure.  


In 1907, after being summoned to pray for Alexei following an internal hemorrhage, the boy recovered the next morning. Some claim he used hypnosis, while one of Alexandria’s ladies-in-waiting alleged that he employed peasant folk medicine. Regardless of the method, for the Tsar, and especially the Tsarina, Rasputin was a holy man ordained by God.  


Rasputin at Court

Rasputin (center) surrounded by his admirers, 1914. Source: Deviant Art


After Rasputin performed a “miracle” on Alexei, everything that he did was considered holy. His alleged healing powers granted him influence at Court and regular access to the Imperial family. At the same time, he began operating out of his St. Petersburg apartment as a healer and fixer, accepting payment in cash and intimate favors. Rasputin’s true nature – as an uninhibited drinker, arch-manipulator, and erotic predator – soon became known. He faced opposition from the Eastern Orthodox Church, which denounced him as a heretic. In St. Petersburg, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and the Okhrana – the secret police – denounced him, investigated his activities, and considered him a danger to the monarchy. 


His heavy drinking and frequent visits to brothels – contradicting his claims to religious piety – symbolized, for many, everything wrong with Imperial Russia. Despite mounting evidence of his arrogance and predatory behavior, the Romanovs continued to embrace him. For many in the upper echelons of Russian society, something had to be done. 


The Murder of Rasputin

A picture of the murdered of Grigori Rasputin released by Russian authorities in 1916, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1915, Nicholas II’s reign plunged into crisis when he took charge of Russia’s ailing World War I military campaign and left the government in the hands of his wife – and by proxy, Rasputin.  Rasputin’s privileged position at the Imperial Court had already earned him many enemies. The perceived ascendancy of the Mad Monk to the top was the last straw. 


On 30 December 1916, Felix Yusupov, an aristocrat who had married into the Romanov family took action. Yusupov claimed that he invited Rasputin to his palace and poisoned him with cyanide-laced cakes and wine. When the Mad Monk was miraculously unaffected, a panicked Yusupov shot him several times, yet still failed to kill him. Ultimately Rasputin was thrown into the Neva River and drowned. 


This lurid tale of Rasputin’s death quickly entered popular culture. Yet, in reality, his murder was likely less dramatic. Official autopsy reports released after the fall of the Soviet Union claim that he was shot in the head at point-blank range. He would have almost certainly died instantly.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.