Grigori Rasputin

Ra Ra Rasputin – The Most Famous Russian in the World

The first I heard of Grigori Rasputin was in the really famous Boney-M song from 1978. It’s a fantastic song, and if you haven’t heard it, I recommend going and listening to it right away. It will certainly help you appreciate this passage more!

There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear

These are the opening lines of the song, and they present to us a picture of Rasputin as a monstrous man whose animal physical nature was irresistible to women. This is the commonly presented image of him that is part of popular culture, and contributed immensely to the legends that have grown up around him.

He could preach the bible like a preacher
Full of ecstasy and fire
But he also was the kind of teacher
Women would desire

So who was this man who holds such prominence in our minds and is so big in popular culture? If you look at him from a historical perspective, he pretty much had no impact. He was a healer from Siberia who had gained undue influence in the court of the Tsar of Russia, and was killed by some noblemen because of it. Coming as it did right at the end of the second World War and at the dawn of the Russian Revolution that resulted in the abolition of the monarchy, Rasputin’s life or his influence over the Tsar does not have much historical importance. But, the fact remains that he is one Russian who is very well known. The reason for his fame is very interesting, and we will talk about it later.

What we do know about his early life is quite tame. He was born in 1869, a farmer’s son who led an unremarkable early life. When he was 18, he got married and had seven children. All of this was pretty much run-of-the-mill for a Russian peasant of that time. Around the turn of the century, Grigori went on a pilgrimage, and had a transformative experience. This led him to go on several other pilgrimages, and form his own prayer group in his village. This was the first time he was at loggerheads with the Russian Orthodox Church. But, he was a small-time preacher in a small village, so nothing much came of the rivalry, except for the church spreading rumors that his prayer group was indulging in hanky panky.

Rasputin with a group of his ‘admirers’.

In the following years, he grew in prominence, primarily because of steadfast friends he made within and outside the Russian Orthodox Church. It was these contacts who introduced him to members of the royal family, who ultimately introduced him to the Tsar and his wife. Rasputin must have been a charismatic man. He came from a very rural part of Russia, had grown up illiterate and had learned to read and write only in adulthood, and had no grasp of the niceties of the Romanov court and its ‘civilized’ ways. He seems to have made friends readily within the circles of influence within courtly Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was called then), and as he made powerful friends, he made powerful enemies as well.

Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was goneRA RA RASPUTIN
Russia’s greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

The way Rasputin was viewed at court was as a mystic and a holy man from a far and strange land, and who possessed healing powers. Hemophilia was the royal disease, and the prince was particularly susceptible to it. The Tsar and his wife were particularly worried about him, and they put a lot of faith in Rasputin, especially when the prince was cured by following his instructions at least on two well-documented occasions. It is rather obvious that the royal couple would not hear a word against a man who had given back their son to them from the dead.

He ruled the Russian land and never mind the Czar
But the kazachok he danced really wunderbar
In all affairs of state he was the man to please
But he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze
For the queen he was no wheeler dealer
Though she’d heard the things he’d done
She believed he was a holy healer
Who would heal her son

A caricature showing Rasputin as being all powerful and controlling the Tsar and the Tsarina

This led to a great deal of resentment among the nobles in the court. They saw an outsider, with no noble lineage behind him, gaining more importance and influence in the affairs of the court than them. Rasputin did not make it any easier – he wielded his influence to extract favors from whoever he wanted, and he had no time for the politics of the court. Because of this, the nobles at court started all kinds of whispers, including one that Rasputin was having an affair with the queen, and the Tsar was powerless to do anything about it. These rumours also made Rasputin out to be a magical devil with mystical powers that had to be destroyed for the good of Russia.

But when his drinking and lusting and his hunger
for power became known to more and more people
the demands to do something about this outrageous
man became louder and louder.

“This man’s just got to go!” declared his enemies
But the ladies begged “Don’t you try to do it, please”
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms

It is this image of the man that has made it into popular culture – a man from a small village in the middle of nowhere became this strong and magical brute of a person who had come to control the fate of Russia!

The nobles did not stop with the whispering. They made a plot to kill Rasputin. He was invited to a party at one of the nobles’ palaces, and we know he arrived there. The next thing we know is that his body was fished out of the river a few days later with a single gunshot wound to his forehead. This is history.

Felix Yusupov, Rasputin’s self-confessed killer

Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they’re not to blame
“Come to visit us” they kept demanding
And he really came
Lover of the Russian queen
They put some poison into his wine
Russia’s greatest love machine
He drank it all and he said “I feel fine”
Lover of the Russian queen
They didn’t quit, they wanted his head
Russia’s greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead
Oh, those Russians…

The popular version of the death of Rasputin is much more glamorous. On arriving at the palace, he was fed tea and cakes, both filled with cyanide. Rasputin ate and drank, the poison having no effect on him. After he polished off the poisoned offering, he asked for wine, and his host gave him wine with cyanide in it. He drank all of it without any effect. Finally, his host shot him with a revolver in the chest. Then his host, along with two of his co-conspirators, got into a car and drove to Rasputin’s apartment, wearing his coat and hat – to make it appear that Rasputin had left the palace. When they returned to the palace after that, Rasputin leapt up from the floor where he had fallen and attacked them and then ran outside, where he was shot again and he died. After that, the assassins wrapped up his body in a cloth and threw it off a bridge into the river.

The Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was shot and killed
The room where Rasputin was killed

This fantastic account of his death was written by the man who shot him, and is clearly an effort to present Rasputin as this monster who had to be killed. Medical reports as well as a photograph show clearly that Rasputin had just one bullet wound, and no trace of any poison in his body. Clearly, the legend was built up around the story rather than the medical report!

And thus ended the life of one of the most mysterious charlatans ever to walk this Earth!

And now – how did Rasputin become so famous? Well, the credit to that goes to Frank Farian, George Reyam and Fred Jay. These were the three guys who wrote the Boney M song that became a massive hit in 1978. And so, Rasputin went from being an obscure Russian mystic who was killed as part of court intrigue to this international megastar! As the Boney M song went big across many countries, interest grew in Rasputin, and soon he was firmly established in pop culture as the maverick monk who controlled Russia!