Who Was Rasputin and Why Is He Famous?

Rasputin was a mysterious figure who held significant influence over Russia’s final royal family.

Jun 1, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

who was rasputin why famous


With no shortage of accusations and rumors of vile and depraved actions, Grigoriy Yefimovich Rasputin was a very controversial figure. He was a mysterious man with many secrets; some even accused him of being in league with the devil.


Even if he had been living among commoners, his reputation would have garnered significant attention, but Rasputin was a friend and confidant of the most powerful family in Russia – that of Tsar Nicholas II. It was his reputation and activities in this lofty position that garnered him the fame that he has maintained till today, over a century after his violent death.


This is the story of one of Russia’s most unusual figures and why he became so famous.


The Life of Rasputin

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The Rasputin Museum in Pokrovskoye, built over the site of the house where Rasputin grew up. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Grigoriy Yefimovich Rasputin was born on January 21, 1869 in the small peasant village of Pokrovskoye along the Tura River, deep in the heart of rural Russia and very far removed from the centers of power. He was just one of the many millions of Russians born into a life of serfdom in a vast country ruled by an absolute monarchy.

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The records of his early life are incomplete. His father was named Yefim, a church elder, and his mother was Anna Parshukova. He was one of many children, probably eight or nine, and he was the only one to survive childhood. It’s possible a ninth child was born when Grigoriy was already in his late childhood. The child’s name was Feodosia, and it is suggested that Grigoriy was close to her as he was named her godfather.


Of his siblings, it is known that a younger sister, Maria, possibly had epilepsy and drowned after falling into a river. An older brother, Dmitri, died of pneumonia after almost drowning and being saved by Grigoriy.


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Colorized image of Pokrovskoye in 1912. Source: Library of Congress


Records suggest Rasputin had a few incidents where he was caught engaging in petty crime and disrespecting authority. Records also suggest these infractions were aided by alcohol consumption, which, given the place and the circumstances, was not unusual at all.


It is also claimed that during his youth, Rasputin developed what many took to be supernatural abilities. The story behind this is that he was able to correctly identify a man who had stolen one of his father’s horses. Grigoriy gained a reputation for being able to identify thieves easily.


Like virtually all his peers, he was likely illiterate and would only have the opportunity to learn later in life upon his trajectory towards the royal family.


At the age of 18, Rasputin left his village and traveled to the town of Verkhoturye to the northeast, which was considered a center for religious learning. Why he went there is subject to debate, but it is possible that he was ordered there to pay penance for theft. He spent three months there, during which it is claimed he saw the Virgin Mary in a vision.


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Book cover of The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky. Source: Rakuten Kobo


During Rasputin’s time spent in a monastery, he was influenced to become a more religious person, and upon his return to Prokrovskoye, he turned to a life of a religious mystic. His religious conversion, however, was anything but orthodox. He had met members of an outlawed Khlysts (Flagellants) sect, and he interpreted their doctrine into his own beliefs. He came to believe that closeness to God could only be achieved through what he described as “holy passionlessness,” a state of sexual exhaustion fuelled by debauchery.


Created in the 17th century, the Khlysts were an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church and were known for their unusual behavior. They rejected the priesthood and the holy texts, but these weren’t the most unusual things about them.


They often attended church on Sundays, but afterward, would go into the forest and hold secret ceremonies. They practiced asphyxiation to the point of almost passing out, believing that the rush of being able to breathe again brought them closer to God. They would speak in tongues and dance themselves into an ecstatic frenzy. Some groups within the sect were believed to then engage in orgies, an argument supported by leading historians such as C.L. Sulzberger and Edvard Radzinksy, with the former pointing out that sinning was done in order to repent. The belief was that salvation could only be achieved through total repentance, and this becomes easier only when one has truly sinned.


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Rasputin and his children from left to right, Maria, Varvara, and Dmitry. Source: Public Domain via Meister Drucke


In his book The Fall of the Eagles, published in 1977, C.L. Sulzberger claimed that Rasputin adopted the philosophy of the Khlysts, but regarding the issue of membership to the sect, nothing was ever proven. Investigations were conducted in 1903 and 1907, but the cases were closed both times for lack of evidence.


In 1889, Rasputin married a peasant woman, Praskovia Fyodorovna Dubrovina, and the couple had three children together. He named them Dmitri, Maria, and Varvara. Dmitri and Maria were named after his siblings, who died in childhood.


It is rumored that he had a child with another woman during the next few years. Unfaithfulness, whether true or not, would come to be a huge part of how Rasputin would be portrayed in the future.


Rasputin the Strannik

Rasputin would later write how life was as happy as could be for a peasant during this time, but in his writings later on, there is a clear feeling of persecution. He recounts how, while working on farms, he did a lot of hard work but was mocked, and if anything went wrong, he was blamed.


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Portrait of Grigory Rasputin by Yelena Klokacheva, 1914. Source: State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


He yearned for a different life and decided to become a pilgrim, but his grief followed him. In 1907, Rasputin wrote of his earlier travels, which he undertook in 1897, “Evil people planned to kill me and chased me but God saved me each time. Many lies were told against me.” Whether his paranoia was justified is unknown, but if not, there seems to have been a clear case of persecution complex.


Upon his pilgrimage, Rasputin traveled to Greece, where he visited the holy Mount Athos, and to Jerusalem. He proclaimed that he was a strannik (holy wanderer) and was said to have the power to heal the sick. He returned to Russia and his fame grew to the point where he accrued a small group of followers.


He still lived in his father’s residence at the time and built a chapel in the cellar where he held secret prayer meetings with his followers. What went on is a mystery, but rumors of debauched behavior drew the ire of the local villagers and the village priest. Investigations over links to the Khlysts, however, came to naught.


In 1903, he traveled to Saint Petersburg, where the royal family resided. At the time, the holy community and circles of religious power were going through a phase of occultist research. Rasputin became an instant interest for the people in this realm. His look and demeanor fascinated them. He was wild and unkempt with piercing eyes. Rasputin only stayed in Saint Petersburg for a few months before returning to Pokrovskoye.


The Romanovs

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Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich Romanov. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1904 or 1905 (the exact date is unknown), Rasputin traveled to Kazan, which is known for its well-established religious community. Although he had a questionable reputation, he made a good impression on the local clergy, and like in Saint Petersburg, he was welcomed. While in Kazan, he earned the reputation of a stranets, a wise, holy man, and it was rumored that he had the ability to cure the sick.


In 1905, he returned to Saint Petersburg, and his fame shot to new heights. Rasputin was introduced to prominent church leader Archimandrite Theofan, the inspector of the local seminary, who in turn introduced Rasputin to the upper circles of nobility. Through discussions in salons, Rasputin gained many followers.


On November 1, 1905, Rasputin was introduced to Tsar Nicholas II. This was the catalyst for subsequent meetings in which Rasputin would meet the rest of the family, including Tsarevich Alexei, the child of Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. Alexei had hemophilia, and doctors were convinced that he would not survive childhood. A simple cut or a bruise could be a life-threatening event for the child.


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Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna. Source: Library of Congress


Rasputin was called upon and, on several occasions, eased the pain of young Alexei Nikolayavich. Alexandra came to believe that Rasputin’s gifts were real, and he quickly became a vital part of the royal retinue. Rasputin, however, was not kept on a leash. He was free to come and go as he pleased.


On one occasion, Alexei suffered a severe hematoma from a bumpy carriage ride while Rasputin was in Siberia. Alexandra asked her friend and devout supporter of Rasputin, Anna Vyrubova, to send a telegram to Rasputin asking him to pray for the Tsarevich. Rasputin responded with the words that Alexei would not die and that the doctors should not bother him too much. The doctors feared the worst, but to their surprise, Alexei recovered.


Rasputin’s relationship with the other children in the family was friendly and, by all accounts, innocent. There were those, however, who viewed his presence with suspicion due in no small part to his supposed connection to the Khlysts.


Employees who spoke out against him were dismissed from their posts. A nursery governess, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova, even went so far as to claim Rasputin had raped her, but upon investigation, she was apparently caught in bed with one of the imperial guardsmen. Her allegations lost weight as a result.


Whether Rasputin was forceful or not is unknown, but he was certainly not chaste and did not view sex in the same reserved way as most other holy men. It is claimed that his newfound power and standing led him to accept bribes and sexual favors.


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Tsar Nicholas II. Source: Wikimedia Commons


His new position in the higher echelons of Russian society also came with significant danger and political intrigue. Many were suspicious of him, including the Prime Minister, Count Stolypin, who warned the tsar that Rasputin was a fraud. Nicholas initially dismissed Rasputin, but Alexandra insisted that he be reinstated, and Nicholas acceded to his wife’s request. Afterward, Stolypin met privately with Rasputin, and an argument occurred. After the altercation, Stolypin recounted in his writings how Rasputin had hypnotized him with his intimidating glare.


Stolypin was assassinated several days later.


Rasputin stuck out in the royal court of Russia. He did not observe the mincing etiquette nor the bathing habits expected of nobility, and his language was coarse, shocking those with whom he did not agree. He presented himself as a humble monk in the presence of the nobility, but away from court, he engaged in scandalous behavior. He told his followers that touching his body had a spiritual, healing effect. He acquired many mistresses and led wild parties of drunken sex.


Reports of his activities were ignored by the tsar, and those who posed a danger to Rasputin were removed from court and often found themselves ordered to new, back-breaking lives in Siberia.


Plots Against Rasputin

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A scale diorama of Rasputin and Yusupov the night of Rasputin’s murder. Source: Ninara / Wikimedia Commons


Rasputin’s wild behavior drew widespread criticism. The Orthodox Church officially branded him a heretic. In 1909, he was once again accused of rape, his time by one of his early followers, Kehioniya Berlatskaya, who received assistance from Theophan, who had also turned against Rasputin.


During the First World War, Tsar Nicholas left the courts of the royal family to join the troops on the front line in their fight against the Germans. He left his wife and Rasputin in charge. This move garnered widespread condemnation, especially from the state Duma (parliament), with many opposing the move. Alexandra, who had been born a German princess, came under suspicion as well, and the duo of Rasputin and Alexandra in charge of the country while its economy suffered from wartime defeats caused great consternation.


Some even accused Rasputin of being an evil mastermind who had usurped the throne and controlled the tsar’s ministers like “marionettes.”


On July 12, 1914, Rasputin was stabbed in the stomach by Chionya Guseva, a peasant woman. It is believed she had been instructed by a former priest named Iliodor, who had been banished and defrocked for opposing Rasputin’s involvement in the royal family. Rasputin survived, Iliodor fled the country, and Guseva was never punished as it was determined she was insane.


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The corpse of Rasputin shortly after being recovered from the icy river. Source: Public Domain via lenta.ru


Another assassination attempt, however, would be more successful. Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Prince Felix Yusupov were the main conspirators in the plot, and Rasputin proved to be a difficult person to kill. After being lured to Yusupov’s residence at midnight on December 29/30, 1916, Yusupov fed the man cake and wine, both of which had been laced with cyanide. These had no effect on him, and Yusupov retrieved a revolver and shot Rasputin in the chest before leaving the room.


When Yusupov went back to retrieve the body, Rasputin leaped up and attacked him. Yusupov freed himself and fled into the courtyard, and Rasputin followed, only to be shot again by one of Yusupov’s co-conspirators.


His body was then wrapped in a cloth and dumped in the Neva River.



Basement of the Yusupov Palace on the Moika in St Petersburg, where Grigori Rasputin was murdered. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Even after his death, rumors grew of Rasputin’s mystical powers. It was claimed that when his body was retrieved, there were signs that he had struggled in the water and had eventually drowned. These myths and the original account of Raspuin’s death are likely exaggerated. His autopsy showed that his death was the result of a single bullet to the head.


Whatever the truth, Rasputin is still seen as a man with mystical and magical powers. He is seen as an evil manipulator with suggestions that he was even in league with the devil, and he is portrayed as such in fictional adaptations in film and other media.


Like Rasputin, the influence of the royal family would disappear just as quickly when in the following year, the Bolsheviks took control of Russia, and the Romanov dynasty was destroyed.


Rasputin’s Legacy & Depictions in Pop Culture

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Soviet film Agony (1981) about the life and death of Rasputin. Source: TMDB


History has judged Rasputin very harshly. He may not have been very pious, at least not by the standards held by the church, and he may have been lacking a moral compass in good working order, but many of the rumors against him were unfounded, rumors that persist to this day. Even his death was exaggerated, creating the image that he had powers to resist things that would kill any other average person.


Without these rumors and accusations, however, it is unlikely that Rasputin would ever have achieved the level of infamy he enjoys in our collective imagination.


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Fox Animation Studio’s version of Rasputin in Anastasia (1997). Source: IMDb


While some historians suggest that his scandalous activities brought the Romanovs into disrepute and facilitated the fall of the dynasty, it remains clear that change was already on the cards, and a revolution was likely to happen whether Rasputin existed or not. Rasputin did, however, not help the situation. He was charismatic and manipulative, using his influence to further his own position and those of his followers, but he alone cannot be blamed for the rising tide of the working classes who wished to change their country.


With his fame (or infamy) already entrenched, he had become a popular subject for film and television, with him representing a villain in both fiction and non-fiction. He became a popular figure in part due to the fact that he was so unique and interesting, and to be sure, he is set to remain a mysterious character for study and representation well into the future.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.