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Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

by Douglas Smith

Hardcover, 817 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $35 |


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Douglas Smith

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On the centenary of the death of Rasputin comes a definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure. A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin's life and death has remained shrouded in myth.

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NPR stories about Rasputin

Worshipful female followers fought for the Mad Monk's leftover bread crusts. His infamous sweet tooth led to his death. Or did it? A century later, rumors about Grigori Rasputin, Russia's czarina whisperer, still swirl. RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux hide caption

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RGALI/Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Rasputin


Faith, Power, And The Twilight of the Romanovs

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Douglas Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-24084-4


Bordered on the north by the Arctic Ocean and on the south by the vast Central Asian steppe, Siberia stretches nearly three thousand miles from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The train from Moscow to the Urals travels roughly a day and a night and another five days from there to reach the Pacific. Were one to place the entire contiguous United States at the center of Siberia there would still be nearly 2 million square miles of extra space. It is a land of pine and birch forests, of lakes and marshes, drained by a series of powerful rivers flowing north to the Arctic. It is a land of extremes: temperatures can swing a staggering 188 degrees, from lows of –95 Fahrenheit (–71 Celsius) in the winter to 93 degrees (34 Celsius) in the summer. It is a severe, unforgiving place.

From earliest times, this vast, isolated land has conjured up fantastical images in the minds of outsiders. Parents were said to slaughter and eat their children. There were tales of Siberians dying when water trickling from their noses ran down their bodies and froze them to the ground. Some claimed the people of Siberia had no heads; their eyes were located on their chests, their mouths between their shoulders. Even as late as the eighteenth century, the manners and morals of Siberia were held in disregard by many. After his visit in 1761 to Tobolsk, Siberia's historic capital not far from the village of Rasputin's birth, the French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche wrote that, "Among the common people, men, women, and children lie together promiscuously, without any sense of shame. Hence their passions being excited by the objects they see, the two sexes give themselves up early to debauchery." Siberia has long been synonymous with suffering owing to the untold thousands of prisoners sent there by the tsars and later commissars, whether into exile — ssylka — or he much harsher regime of katorga — penal servitude. For centuries ommon criminals, revolutionaries, and other subversives arched along the so-called "road of chains" that led from Russia over the Urals.

But not everyone who left Russia for Siberia went unwillingly. For many, Siberia meant a chance at a better life. Russian expansion into Siberia, begun in the sixteenth century, was driven by economic reasons, and by the hunger for "soft gold," animal furs, and particularly sable, which seemed as inexhaustible as it was profitable. The fur trade made many men fabulously wealthy and was the economic engine that drove expansion. Siberia, paradoxical though it might seem, also meant freedom, for there was no serfdom east of the Urals and the hand of the state was light, if not to say just. As the burdens on Russia's serfs increased during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, escaping to Siberia attracted ever increasing numbers of peasants. Between 1678 and 1710, the number of peasant households in Siberia grew by almost 50 percent, at the same time it dropped by over 25 percent in Russia. On the far side of the Urals, there were no lords to whom one owed the fruits of his labors. With freedom also came a wild, lawless nature to life on the Russian frontier. For centuries Siberia was the Russian empire's Wild East. The tsars' military governors were venal, corrupt, and violent, as were many of the traders and trappers. Not only was fur traded, so, too, were women and liquor. Violence was a common fact of life.

The Russians who dared to escape to Siberia were among the country's most industrious subjects. Observing the local peasants, an English traveler crossing Siberia in 1861 on his way to China commented on an unmistakable "independence in their bearing." It was not like what he had seen in Russia, with its "poverty, negligence, and misery." He added that "The condition of their families evinces a certain amount of self-respect." Their villages had a "rude comfort," and one sensed these were people willing to take a risk in the hope of some better life. They possessed a certain pride and dignity and a sense of responsibility for their lives lacking among the Russian peasant serfs west of the Urals.

* * *

Izosim, son of Fyodor, was one of the Russian pioneers who ventured into Siberia in the seventeenth century. A poor, landless peasant from the village of Palevitsy on the River Vychegda, a tributary of the Northern Dvina River, roughly eight hundred miles northeast of Moscow, Izosim, together with his wife and three sons — Semyon, Nason, and Yevsey — crossed the Urals and settled in the frontier outpost of Pokrovskoe around 1643.

Pokrovskoe had been founded a year earlier by order of the local archbishop, and by the time Izosim arrived it was home to some twenty peasant families. Pokrovskoe lay along the west bank of the undulating Tura River on the post road connecting the towns of Tobolsk and Tyumen and was used as a halting place where the coachmen could rest and change horses. The town took its name from the church of the Virgin Mary — consecrated on the holy day of the Pokrov Presviatoi Bogoroditsy — the villagers built there. The local peasants lived by hunting fox, bear, wolf, and badger in the surrounding woods and fishing the Tura and the area's many lakes for sterlet, pike, and sturgeon. They also farmed, raised livestock, and tanned leather. The people in this part of Siberia lived relatively well, in comfortable wooden homes — many of two stories. By 1860, around the time Rasputin was born, Pokrovskoe had roughly a thousand inhabitants living in some two hundred houses. It boasted a few dairies and stables, bakeries, taverns, inns, and markets, timber mills, a smithy and a small schoolhouse.

The old village records do not list any surname for Izosim, but his son Nason had adopted "Rosputin" by 1650. The reason why he chose the name is not clear. Perhaps he had a second name or nickname of Rasputa (Rosputa) that gave way to Rasputin (as it came to be spelled in the nineteenth century), then a common surname in Siberia. Regardless, only some of Nason's descendants adopted and held the name Rasputin down through the generations. It was from this Nason Rosputin that Grigory would descend, eight generations later.

Rasputin's name has been the subject of endless discussion, most of it ill-informed and incorrect. Many have tried to link it to the Russian word rasputnik, a reprobate, or rasputnichat' — to behave with wanton debauchery — as if Rasputin's name either derived from his moral depravity or was later given to him due to his wicked fame. The spurious assertions dogged him during his lifetime. The Evening Times, for example, published a story in December 1911 stating he had been given the nickname of "Rasputin" due to his immorality as a youth and it was then made official when it was written down in his passport. And even now, some historians continue to assert that Rasputin's name was meant to reflect the age-old depravity of his family.

The origins of the name are obscure. If it indeed started with an ancestor who was a rasputnik, then Rasputin's family was far from unusual, given how many people in Siberia bore the name. But there are other more likely sources. Rasputa or rasput'e mean crossroads and long ago these places were seen as the haunt of evil spirits and, perhaps, the name was given to persons believed to be in contact with such forces. There is also the old Russian saying about the fool who was let go at the crossroads, meant to refer to an indecisive person. And then there is the untranslatable Russian word rasputitsa that refers to the wet, muddy, spring season when Russia's roads became unusable. It is possible a child born during this period might have been called Rasputa. Whatever its origins, Rasputin was the surname Grigory, and the rest of his family, was born with, and it was never given as a signifier of his character.

Yefim Rasputin, Grigory's father, was born in Pokrovskoe in 1842. Sources describe him as "a thick, typical Siberian peasant", "chunky, unkempt and stooped," while a political exile who met Yefim around 1910 called him "a healthy, hardworking and sprightly old man." He scraped by working at a number of things — fishing, farming, cutting hay. For a time he labored as a stevedore on the boats plying the Tura and Tobol rivers, and then he landed a job for the state conveying people and goods between Tobolsk and Tyumen. Money was usually tight; once Yefim was jailed for not paying his taxes. Sources as to his character are somewhat contradictory. He served as an elder in the village church, and one local spoke of Yefim's "learned conversations and wisdom," while others noted his fondness for "strong vodka." Regardless of his drinking, Yefim slowly managed to rise up in the village. He acquired a plot of land and a dozen or so cows and almost twenty horses, not great wealth, but prosperous by the standards of the Russian peasantry.

Church records state Yefim married Anna Parshukova, from the village of Usalka, on 21 January 1862. She was two years his senior. The coming years saw several births and just as many deaths. Between 1863 and 1867, Anna bore four children — three girls and one boy — none of whom lived more than a few months. The first child to survive was a boy born on 9 January 1869, almost seven years to the day after their wedding. He was christened Grigory on the tenth in honor of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth-century Christian mystic, whose feast was celebrated that day in the Russian Orthodox Church. At the church with Yefim and Anna and their baby boy were his godparents — Yefim's older brother Matvei and a woman by the name of Agafya Alemasova.

Two or three more children followed. In 1874, Anna gave birth to twins, both of whom died within days of their birth, and then there was possibly a ninth child, a girl named Feodosiya, born in 1875, who did survive to adulthood. While the extant records are not clear whether she and Grigory were siblings, or more distant relations, they were, however, close. He acted as a witness at her wedding in 1895 and then later became the godfather to Feodosiya's two children. The oft-repeated story that Rasputin had a brother, or cousin, named Dmitry who drowned, and in whose death Rasputin foresaw his own demise is pure fabrication.

Rasputin's entire youth, indeed the first thirty years or so of his life, is a black hole about which we know almost nothing, a fact that helped to make possible the invention of all sorts of tall tales. In 1910, at the height of one of the early scandals surrounding Rasputin, the newspaper Morning of Russia published a story claiming that researchers had uncovered shocking details about the life of Rasputin's parents. Yefim, so the article asserted, was a "very lecherous voluptuary" who insisted on having sex with his wife during her pregnancies. Once when Anna tried to resist, he screamed at her, "Push it out, hurry up and push it out!" And so the villagers came to call the little boy Pushed-Out Grishka. Another story was told that toward the end of her pregnancy with Grigory when Anna's belly became quite enlarged, Yefim insisted she allow him to have anal sex with her, something purportedly witnessed by a man working in the home who told the story around the village. Stories like these were fabricated to suggest sexual perversion was something that ran in the Rasputin family.

We do know Rasputin was never formally educated and remained illiterate into his early adulthood. This was not unusual. Most peasants who worked the land rarely attended school, and the literacy rate was about 4 percent in Siberia in 1900, and a mere 20 percent nationally. Nor had Rasputin's parents been schooled either. According to the 1897 census, no one in the Rasputin household was literate. Little Grigory, like other boys in Pokrovskoe, helped his father as soon as he was able. He learned to fish, to care for the livestock, to work the fields. On Sundays, he attended church with his family. This was the life of the average peasant, and it does not seem that there was anything in his youth, from what the original sources tell us, to suggest Rasputin was bound for any other life than that of his forefathers.

It is in large part because so little is known about this period that others have been free to create their own versions of life in the Rasputin home. Typical is this description from the Petrograd Leaflet from December 1916:

The holy man's village was poor and forsaken. Its inhabitants had a particularly bad reputation, even by Siberian standards. Do- nothings, crooks, horse-thieves. And the Rasputins were just like all the rest, and he would be the same once he grew up a bit.

In his youth Rasputin was uncommonly hapless. With a foul mouth, inarticulate speech, driveling, dirty as can be, a thief and blasphemer, he was the fright of his native village.

The Petrograd Leaflet called him a ne'er-do-well whose laziness provoked beatings at the hands of his father. The most serious charge, however, was that young Rasputin had been a thief and that the records of the local administration held the proof that he had been tried on charges of horse thieving and bearing false witness.

Pavel Raspopov of Pokrovskoe told the Commission in 1917 something similar about Rasputin's person and habits. They had fished together in their youth, he said, and none of the other young men wanted to even be close to Rasputin. Snot was forever running down his nose at meal time, and when he smoked his pipe, saliva dribbled from his mouth. Rasputin was eventually kicked out of the artel, so Raspopov stated, after he was caught stealing the group's vodka. There are also reports of Rasputin's stealing hay and firewood, although most widespread was the claim of his stealing horses, a particularly grave offense in prerevolutionary Russia. Like so much about Rasputin, the story grew with each retelling. If at first mention was made of Rasputin's stealing horses on one or two occasions, it later was said he came from a long line of horse rustlers. The Swedish composer Wilhelm Harteveld, who met Rasputin more than once, said after Rasputin's death that he had been born into a family of horse thieves. Yefim supposedly taught him the family business, as it were, and took great pride in his son when he became known by the age of sixteen as one of the best rustlers in the area. Prince Felix Yusupov made a similar comment in his influential memoirs. Had any of these stories been true, they would have left some trace in the archives in Tobolsk or Tyumen, but despite historians' best efforts not a single reference to Rasputin having been brought up on any charges has ever been found.

But there is evidence that proves Rasputin was an unruly youth. Details gathered from Pokrovskoe locals for a Tyumen gendarmes' report in 1909 confirm that Rasputin had "various vices," namely that he "liked to get drunk" and committed a number of "small thefts" before disappearing and returning a changed man. The date of the document is important, for it comes well before Rasputin's notoriety took off and so is more likely to reflect the truth — or some aspect of it — and not villagers simply giving the gendarmes what they assumed the officials hoped to hear.

And then there is a series of documents that have languished unnoticed in the archives in Tobolsk until now. According to an official investigation, in late June 1914 a journalist and his secretary arrived from the capital at the district administration (volostnoe pravlenie) in Pokrovskoe claiming to be agents of the St. Petersburg governor-general sent to collect official proof of Rasputin's youthful horse thieving. The clerk, a man named Nalobin, too frightened to ask for proof of their identity, checked the village's "Book of Previous Convictions" and told them that Rasputin had never been caught or punished for any such crime. He did mention, however, that he had documents showing that in 1884 the district head (volostnoy starshina) had sentenced fifteen-year-old Rasputin to two days in jail for his "rude attitude" to him. This, he told them, was the only mention of Rasputin's criminal past. Nalobin asked the men to sign the log for receipt of the information, but they refused and hurried off. When Rasputin learned of what Nalobin had done he was furious and insisted the governor of Tobolsk look into the matter. The investigation revealed that Nalobin had indeed shown the two men the village book with the incriminating details. For his failure to demand valid proof of the men's identities, Nalobin was fined five rubles.

It is a remarkable discovery, for it puts to rest the stories of Rasputin's horse thieving once and for all, as well as reports of other crimes. If there were "small thefts," as the villagers and Raspopov claimed, then they truly were "small," so small as not to warrant the attention of the village authorities. It is also remarkable for it offers the most irrefutable proof ever of the rebellious, and perhaps even wild, nature of Rasputin's youth, something that has long been surmised, and even vaguely hinted at by Rasputin himself, but never reliably documented. Of course, such youthful indiscretions are quite common, even among Christian holy men such as St. Augustine. Yet whereas Augustine stole and fornicated as a youth, he changed his ways for good after his conversion to Christianity. The same could not be said of Rasputin, who would struggle with his vices for the rest of his life, frequently failing and giving way to sin, something he himself, it ought to be noted, never denied.