Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born January 21 (Old Style/OS January 9) 1869, and died December 30 (OS December 17) 1916. He was a mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who was infamous for his actions in life as well as the manner of his death - he became a faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II's son Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia, and became very close to Empress Alexandra - too close, for many people. Eventually, a group of nobles felt that things had gone too far and that Rasputin held too much power and influence over the royal family, and so arranged a plan to assassinate him. Which, by all accounts, they set about doing with great determination.
Rasputin was born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye, in Tyumensky Uyezd in Tobolsk Govemorate (modern-day Yarkovsky District in Tyumen Oblast), one of eight or nine children born to a peasant farming family, although seven of those children died in infancy or early childhood. Very little of Rasputin's childhood and early adulthood is known, as there are few surviving records of that time period. What is known is that, like the majority of Russian peasants of the time, Rasputin was illiterate and barely educated. He married at age 19, to Proskovya Fyodorovna Dubrovina, and the couple had a total of seven children, although only three of them survived. Proskovya (or Preskovya in some records) remained devotedly loyal to her husband throughout the years, despite everything he was reported to have done.
At some point in his 20s - the exact time is disputed, but some time between 1892 - 1897 - Rasputin developed an interest in religion and made a pilgrimage to a monastery in Verkhoturye (Verkoture). The monastery was allegedly part of the Khlysty, or Flagellants, sect, although some reports state that a lot of Rasputin's religious teachings actually came from a hermit who lived outside the monastery. Regardless, Rasputin came away from his pilgrimage with the belief that one could be closest to God via the sexual exhaustion that came from prolonged debauchery. It was likely during his time at the monastery that Rasputin was also taught to read and write; he also became a vegetarian and a teetotaller.
After his religious conversion, Rasputin became something of a wandering hermit who would spend months or even years wandering the country. He also started to grow a small circle of followers, as Rasputin had an almost uncanny ability to charm people into feeding him and giving him a bed for the night. Just how occupied those beds were is, of course, a matter of debate. It was around this time that people also started to talk about Rasputin's supposed ability as a mystic healer, and Rasputin was happy to go along with this. He started to lay hands on sick farmers, utilising a combination of faith healing and actual good, if basic, medical advice about resting and drinking plenty of fluids.
Rasputin also developed some... unusual habits during his time as a traveling hermit, however. He would talk to himself, and he developed facial and body tics, that would manifest particularly when he was preaching. If he felt that people were mocking him while he preached, he would wade into the gathered crowd, screaming and punching whoever he could. His personal hygiene was hardly the best either, although that didn't stop women from falling for him.
Despite this habit of trying to beat the stuffing out of anyone who disagreed with him, Rasputin kept gaining followers. At first, he held services at his home in Pokrovskoye; when the crowds got too big for that, he started wandering again and ended up in Kiev (now Kyiv), where he stayed at another monastery for a year. After that, he moved to Kazan, where he managed to talk his way into running a seminary there. It was around this time that he started to garner attention from bishops and aristocrats, including Archimandrite Andrei and Bishop Chrysthanos, who arranged for Rasputin to travel to Saint Petersburg.
By 1905, Rasputin had become friends with several members of the aristocracy, including Militoa and Anastasia of Montenegro, who were married to Tsar Nicholas II's cousins, Grand Duke Peter Nikolaevich and Prince George Maximilianovich Romanowsky, and it was through them that he was soon introduced to the Tsar himself. It is said that he won over Tsarina Alexandra with some flattering prophesies about the child she was pregnant with at the time - Alexei Nikolaevich - something that did not go down too well with his detractors, who were concerned about Rasputin's appearance, his tics, and his "little ladies"; a cult of women who would go so far as to fight with each other over who would get his leftover food, as well as sleep with him - despite the fact that Rasputin would go for months without bathing.
(Yes, the Boney M song is remarkably historically accurate. Who said pop music can't be educational?)
But for the Tsar and Tsarina, the humble yet charismatic holy man could do no wrong - particularly after Alexei was born and diagnosed with hemophilia. They begged Rasputin to heal their only son, and miraculously his prayers for the young prince actually seemed to work - although why they worked depended on who you asked. Some of his more ardent supporters believed it was simply his prayers and holy touch that healed Alexei; others believed that Rasputin was using Siberian folk medicine, normally used to treat farm animals, to treat the young prince. However, the most likely reason for Rasputin's success is that he ordered the doctors to stop giving Alexei aspirin. Aspirin, as we know now but didn't then, is an anti-clotting agent, which would only have exacerbated any bleeding the hemophilic prince would have suffered.
However he did it though, the fact remains that Nicholas and Alexandra were so grateful to Rasputin that he was soon invited into their inner circle and considered a most trusted friend and confident to the Royal Family. Such was his level of power and influence over the Tsar and his family that whenever rumours of his bad behaviour unbecoming of a "holy man" came to the palace - from stories about his many mistresses and affairs, to accusations of heresy, to at least one accusation of rape - they were brushed aside and his accusers stripped of their power or banished.
By the time World War I had broken out, both the amount of power that Rasputin held in the Russian court and the rumours against him had both grown to what some might have considered ridiculous levels. While Nicholas was leading the Russian troops on the front line, Rasputin served as Alexandra's personal advisor as she dealt with the country's internal and domestic affairs, which meant that Rasputin had the power to appoint church leaders and cabinet ministers. Meanwhile, his detractors claimed that Rasputin had seduced Tsarina Alexandra and was carrying on an affair with her while the Tsar was away - which might very well have been true, considering Rasputin's history. Considerably less plausible were the rumours that Rasputin was working with Germany in secret and was trying to start a cholera epidemic in the capital with "poisoned apples imported from Canada".
On July 12 (OS June 29) 1914, a 33-year-old peasant woman stabbed Rasputin in the stomach outside his home in Pokrovskoye. The would-be assassin, Chionya Guseva, was a follower of a former priest named Iliodor, who had been banished and defrocked for speaking out against Rasputin's behaviour. Rasputin survived the attack, Guseva was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and Iliodor fled the country.
By 1916, however, things were not going well for Russia. Whether it was the effects of the war, the struggles the country was facing because of the collapse of feudalism, the mismanagement of the country by Alexandra and Rasputin, or a combination of the three, is unclear. But Russia was struggling, and the Great War certainly wasn't helping. But the majority of the royal court felt that they would win the war, and anyone who said otherwise was committing treason.
Rasputin, surprisingly enough, was one of the few in the court who wanted to press for peace and had begun to work with a few like-minded individuals to work out a way to convince the Romanovs of this. Unfortunately, one night they were discovered by Prince Felix Yusupov, and from that point on Rasputin's fate was sealed.
On December 30 (OS December 17) 1916, Rasputin was lured to Moika Palace. There, the story says, he was given cakes and wine that had been laced with cyanide and consumed them all but seemed unaffected by the poison. Yusupov then took a revolver and shot Rasputin once in the chest. Thinking he was dead, Yusupov left to make arrangements for an alibi, but when he returned Rasputin jumped up and attacked him. After a surprisingly difficult struggle, Yusupov managed to escape to the palace courtyard, where Rasputin was shot twice more, including in the forehead. His body was then wrapped in cloth and dumped in the Malaya Nevka River.
Even being dead couldn't stop the rumours about Grigori Rasputin, however. The most well-known one, of course, was that when his body was found, frozen in the ice of the river, Rasputin had managed to half-claw his way out of the cloth he had been wrapped in, and he had in fact drowned. Another rumour said that he had been castrated, either pre- or post-mortem, possibly at the request of Grand Duchess Tatiana, who had allegedly been raped by him and was also present at his execution. And finally, there were some who said that he just woke up and walked out of the morgue, presumably with one hell of a headache.
In reality, no water was found in Rasputin's lungs, so he could not have died from drowning. The autopsy did show that Rasputin's body had suffered multiple injuries, but the surgeon who performed the autopsy, Dmitry Kosorotov, believed most of the injuries were inflicted post-mortem when he was carried and flung into the river. He was not castrated (the "member" in a jar said to be his was almost certainly a geoduck). And there was no traces of cyanide - or any other poison - in his system; his daughter Maria later stated that her father did not like sweet things and would not have eaten a whole tray of cakes. The autopsy report states that Grigori Rasputin's cause of death was a close-range bullet wound to the head.
Grigori Rasputin was buried at a small church in Tsarskoye Selo. The royal family wanted to build a church over his gravesite; however, his remains were dug up and burned after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne in March 1917, to prevent his grave from becoming a rallying point for supporters of the Tsar and the old regime.
Grigori Rasputin is dead (probably). But even in death, the rumours that followed him everywhere turned him into a legend - an unkillable mystic whose assassination foretold the eventual fate of the aristocrats of Russia, which could be seen as especially ironic considering his peasant origins.
Grigori Rasputin (Wikipedia)
"The Bizarre Life And Death Of Grigori Rasputin, The ‘Mad Monk’ Of Tsarist Russia" (All That's Interesting)
Grigori Rasputin (Britannica)
"The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later" (Smithsonian Magazine)