There is perhaps no man shrouded in more mystery and mythology than Grigori Rasputin.
Born in an obscure Siberian peasant village in 1869, a religious conversion and career as a traveling holy man and healer led Rasputin to the court of the Russian royal family, where he became their closest confidant, chief advisor, and one of the most powerful men in the empire.
But as mysterious a man as Rasputin was, there was something about him that fascinated and repulsed, even during his lifetime. As a result, media both home and abroad used him as a handy weapon to push their own agendas, leading to him becoming the most hated man in Russia and his assassination in 1916. The stories spun, ranging from exaggerations of the truth to the outright fictitious, have become so commonplace that they are still believed over a century later.
Related: 10 Dark Secrets of the Russian Empire
10 He Was the Empress’s Lover
The famous Boney M song goes like this: “Ra Ra Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen.” It is an accusation started by the anti-monarchy media in Russia, who regularly drew cartoons of Empress Alexandra and Rasputin canoodling. These were designed, of course, to discredit the pair, who were both hated by the public by 1916. Indeed, even films and plays were written suggesting the pair enjoyed an illicit affair as if it was an unquestionable fact.
But there is no evidence to suggest Rasputin and Alexandra’s relationship was anything but platonic. Rasputin gave Alexandra spiritual companionship during a challenging time. World War I raged, and her husband, Emperor Nicholas II, was commanding the forces near the front lines, and letters between husband and wife show a passionate romance that never fizzled. For all the criticisms aimed at Alexandra, she was without question a deeply religious and loyal woman, madly in love with her husband. Rasputin, for his part, knew which side his bread was buttered on and was smart enough to know such an act would be the end of him.
9 He Was a Sexual Deviant
Okay, so he certainly did sleep around a bit—we aren’t denying that. His wife, ever patient and understanding, said of this that his affairs were “his crutch to bear.” Most of Rasputin’s followers were female; he spent a lot of time in the company of women and was known (from official police reports tracking his movements) to visit brothels.
However, this sort of behavior is far from that of a sex-crazed maniac who, on more than one occasion, is said to have exposed himself in public when drunk. The reality of the situation was that Rasputin found himself led into temptations: plenty of well-off, bored women became some of his most devoted followers, and some threw themselves at him. Of course, he was as much to blame as they, but like much in his life, the actual reality was grossly exaggerated by the media as part of their campaign against him. The idea of a mystical Russian peasant arriving in well-to-do Russia, exposing himself in public, and sleeping with the wive’s of the upper classes was a too powerful weapon. However, it was certainly only based partly on truth.
8 He Had a 13-Inch Penis
Going hand in hand with tales of his sexual prowess was the tale that his tail was 13 inches long and, when he made love, he caused women to faint. Adding to this myth, his penis was supposedly severed after his corpse was found in the Little Nevka River in December 1916 and displayed in a museum for years. It has disappeared and reappeared frequently—not what you’re thinking—in history, with the most talked-about being one that appeared in 1994, but after it was tested, it turned out to be a dehydrated sea cucumber.
Still, for some reason, people like the idea of Rasputin’s penis being monstrous in size—a manifestation of his supposed sexual appetite—and the myth that it was removed from his body at some point is a commonly believed one. Even today, the Russian Museum of Erotica holds an exhibition that claims to display the real penis of Rasputin.
7 He Was a Spy for the Germans
As Nicholas II rushed off to take control of his army, Alexandra (a German by birth) was left behind to govern. Although Nicholas still wrote home, Rasputin stepped in regularly to give advice and recommendations, often suggesting who should be appointed for various governmental positions. Even before Nicholas left for the front, Rasputin regularly gave political advice in the guise of visions and dreams coming directly from God, which often influenced the deeply religious royals.
But one commonly spread story (again, started by the Russian media of the time) was that Russia’s failures on the battlefield were because of Rasputin. And not by accident—he was intentionally misadvising the Emperor and Empress to help the Germans win. Some even claimed Alexandra was on the German payroll as well. Considering he was followed constantly for the last few years of his life, including by British intelligence, there is no evidence of him working for the Germans or anyone for that matter. While the information on spies is usually kept under a tight lid, there is nothing linking him to the German Kaiser. There is no suggestion from the various intelligence networks watching him that anyone ever seriously believed this.
6 He Was a Spiritual Healer Who Kept the Heir Alive
Now, this is technically true, but the myth surrounding how he did it, which is still not known for sure today, is often wrapped in hocus pocus and mysticism.
Nicholas and Alexandra’s only son was Alexei, a weak boy who inherited hemophilia from his mother’s side and wasn’t expected to live long into adulthood. The disease stops blood from clotting, meaning a simple tumble (as young boys are wont to do) could result in almost fatal internal hemorrhaging. More than once, the priest was called in to read Alexei his last rights.
Yet Rasputin would always come to the rescue, sometimes in person, sometimes with just a letter. Known throughout Russia as a faith healer, even before he first met the royal family, Rasputin became indispensable to Nicholas and Alexandra: their heir could seemingly only be kept alive by the mystic and no one else. But this was certainly not spiritual healing. Some say it was simply a matter of Rasputin sending the doctors from his side and ordering them to leave Alexei alone. This makes sense considering the common treatment for hemophilia at the time was aspirin, which today we know thins the blood, about the worst thing to give a hemophiliac. By insisting the doctors leave Alexei alone, he probably saved the boy’s life—not spiritual healing.
5 He Was a Monk
The moniker of “mad monk” sure is catchy, but Rasputin was not mad and certainly wasn’t a monk.
His religious career began after a pilgrimage to a monastery when he was 27 years old. He returned a changed man, a man of God, but he was never ordained by the Russian Orthodox Church. Walking the Siberian wilderness from village to village as a “strannik” (basically a holy wanderer), his popularity soared. It brought him to the attention of local church leaders and eventually Saint Petersburg.
In the capital, he was seen as something of a curiosity, personifying the sentimental idea of the God-fearing peasant. The often bored and spiritually hungry aristocracy were entranced by this crude peasant, who stood amongst them confidently wearing the robes of a monk. Rasputin had no desire to ever enter the church formally, but yet again, that troublesome Russian media said otherwise.
4 He Came Back from the Dead
We do not know for sure what happened that fateful night in late December 1916 when Rasputin was murdered. All we have is the unreliable account by the murderer himself: Prince Felix Yusupov, whose memoirs recount a story of evil, dark forces, and a noble and selfless act to rid the world of Rasputin.
Yusupov claims Rasputin was brought to his house and fed cakes and wine laced with cyanide. When Rasputin was unaffected, the Prince grabbed a gun and shot him in the heart. Then, thinking the job done and, in some stories, checking for a pulse and finding none, he went upstairs to tell his co-conspirators. When he returned, Rasputin supposedly leaped up back to life, throttled Yusupov, and tried to escape before being gunned down for good in the courtyard.
Although we will likely never know exactly how it happened, suggesting Rasputin came back from the dead can quite obviously be discredited, even more so when we consider the source. Indeed, the autopsy discredits Yusupov’s story immediately, detailing multiple gunshots, one to the head, and various bruises around the body, suggesting he was beaten. Yet even in death, the myth of the devil incarnate within Rasputin was too appealing to pass up.
3 He Actually Died of Drowning
Another common misconception of his death, although a little lesser-known, is that Rasputin was still not dead when his body was disposed of.
Yusupov and his co-conspirators drove to the Little Nevka River, weighed his body down, and tossed him over the railing into a hole in the ice. When his body was found just a little way downstream, however, false rumors quickly spread that water was found in his lungs, proving that he must have still been breathing when he was tossed in the water, making his cause of death drowning.
Again, this was simply another feather in the bow of the Rasputin myth, a further way of highlighting that the mystic man was a force of evil with supernatural powers of almost invincibility. In reality, the autopsy report said nothing of the sort. He died of a gunshot wound at point-blank range to the forehead. No one is surviving that.
2 The British Were Involved in His Assassination
This one we can’t discredit entirely, but there are parts of it that we certainly can.
The British were eager to prevent the crumbling Russian Empire from pulling out of the war and leaving them high and dry. They saw Rasputin as a threat due to his calls for belief in him, his influence over the royals, and the ill-feeling he distilled in the Russian population, which then transferred to the Emperor by proxy.
Rumor has it the British intelligence agency advised on, and even participated in, the murder of Rasputin, recognizing he wouldn’t be missed. And with Rasputin out of the picture, any doubt about the war would be gone from Nicholas’s mind, and his rule (and therefore Russia’s stability in the war) would be strengthened. One thing we can’t disprove is them advising on it and possibly encouraging it. Still, considering the amateurish, botched assassination itself, there is no way the British intelligence agency played an active part in it.
1 He Was Pure Evil
Probably the most commonly accepted “fact” about Rasputin, even to those who know nothing about him, is that he was an evil man. Popular culture has played a big part in this, especially in the West, with Rasputin always playing the bad guy with evil powers and bad intentions.
But while indeed a flawed man, and certainly no saint, at heart Rasputin’s intentions were at best quite noble, and at worst self-serving (often for reasons of protecting himself). While visiting prostitutes and sleeping with the wives of the elite, he did so with the genuine belief that sin was a necessary step to bring one closer to God (an idea shared by the celebrated authors Tolstoy and Dostoevsky). He loved his fellow man (particularly the peasants) and wasn’t afraid to show it, which led to rumors of his indecency and affairs. He loved Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s children dearly, and they loved him. And while the nation spiraled toward inevitable war, he begged Nicholas to relent, grieving at the idea of generations of Russian men being slaughtered and children becoming fatherless.
He was certainly a complicated man, but to call him evil is to believe the propaganda from 100-year-old anti-monarchist Russian newspapers. This propaganda is the basis of all the modern-day Rasputin mythology, from a media who saw him as nothing more than a tool to bring down the establishment.