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Rasputin: The Untold Story by Joseph T. Furhmann

December 20, 2015

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I had heard of Rasputin before, but didn’t know much about him until I listened to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History on World War I. As Carlin says, Rasputin is a character made for Hardcore History. Wanting to get a little deeper into his story, I found this book.

Grigori Rasputin was a Russian peasant, born in 1869 in a small Siberian village. He was a religious mystic, a healer, an interpreter of scripture. He believed he had seen visions of Our Lady of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox icon. He liked to prophesize future events. He was intelligent and incredibly engaging, even mesmerizing. Although it is hard to prove a century later, it’s hard not to think he sounds like a complete charlatan.

But what makes Rasputin more than just some weirdo from the sticks, forgotten by history, is that he was able to worm his way into the innermost circle of Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia during World War I. Rasputin was a tabloid curiosity around St. Petersburg, where the occult and mystical religions were in vogue among the elites. But to Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina, he would become much more.

Their son, Alexei, suffered from hemophelia B, a blood disorder that can make even minor injuries life-threatening. Doctors had been unable to heal the boy, so the desperate Tsarina turned to Rasputin. By all counts, Rasputin did help the boy, though how he helped was (and still is) debated. Theories ranged from true mystical powers to hypnotism to Tibetan herbs. More recent historians speculate that Rasputin’s success may have been simply a lucky coincidence. Doctors were likely administering aspirin, with blood-thinning effects that would have worsened Alexei’s hemophelia. So Rasputin’s advice that doctors leave the boy alone may have indeed improved his condition. Regardless of the reason, Rasputin’s ability to help their son made his indispensable to the royal family.

In the eyes of St. Peterburg’s ruling elite, Rasputin was no longer just a curiosity. With his strange beliefs and newfound influence, he was potentially dangerous. He was also an embarrassment. Lewd, alcoholic and sexually uninhibited, Rasputin’s social impropriety was a common theme at almost every royal event. It would be like the President and First Lady inviting Ozzy Osbourne to live with them in the White House. The press launched a publicity campaign against him. Officials tried unsuccessfully to have him exiled. There were even failed assassination attempts against him.

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In August of 1915, with Russia getting crushed on the Eastern Front of the Great War, Nicholas took control of the military to try to change the tide. This made it even more dangerous to have a charlatan like Rasputin whispering in the ear of the Tsar. In December of 1916, in what was a crazy scene regardless of which account is correct, Rasputin was assassinated by Duma (Russian government) officials and their conspirators.

Rasputin’s is the kind of story that only works as non-fiction—a fictional Rasputin would be too unbelievable. Furhmann does little to embellish the story. No embellishment is required. As a figure touched by madness or brilliance (likely some of both), Rasputin is interesting. What makes him fascinating is how much control he had over the movements of a major nation at a pivotal moment of history. His story serves as a reminder that, particularly in a hereditary monarchy but really in any system, the leaders who decide the fates of nations are only human—susceptible to charlatans and magical thinking just like the rest of us.

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