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Welcome to Dan Snow's History Hit to listen to all of our episodes ad-free, get bonus content, and watch hundreds of history documentaries. Download the History Hit app or go to historyhit. Com/subscribe. If you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad-free episodes within the Apple app. Hi, everybody. Welcome to Dan Snow's History Hit. Gregory Rasputin, one of the most fascinating, the most bizarre and extraordinary characters in modern European history. The peasant who became a mystic, the mystic who became an essential, indispensable advisor to the Czar of all Russia, the man who almost changed the course of world history, the fate of Russia and the outbreak of the First World War before his grizzly assassination in 1916. Who was Resputin? Did he have magical powers that stopped the bleeding of the young Russian prince? Was he the lover of the Russian Queen? All your questions will be answered here by the very brilliant Douglas Smith. He's an award-winning historian, author of six books on Russia, including the biography, Rasputin, faith, power, and The Twilight of the Romanoffs. This is a man who has visited St. Petersburg to pour over the crime scene photographs of the night on which Rasputin met his fate.


It is a truly extraordinary tale. And here's Douglas meant to tell it? Enjoy. T minus 10. The tommy.


Bomb dropped on Hiroshima. God saved the game. No black, white unity till they're dispersed in black unity. Never to go to war with one another again. And lift off. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.


Douglas, thanks so much for coming on the show.


My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


Do we know much about Raskibbeton, how he grew up? What was his life like as a child?


No, the outlines of those first, actually, decades of his life are a bit murky, to say the least. We know he had a general peasant upbringing in Siberia, church, work in the fields, helping his father, no schooling whatsoever. But beyond that, we know really almost nothing. And as he became famous, all sorts of myths and legends took hold about his wild, untamed, rather corruptible youth. But much of this, I think we just have to dismiss as gossip.


So how does a peasant from a middle of a forgotten spot in Russia rise to prominence? I mean, what's his first step on that journey?


Well, that was something that I tried to figure out when I started my research for the biography. It almost doesn't seem possible. When you really step back for a minute and say, How does this person end up in the Imperial Palace in Petersburg? I think first of all, you have to admit that he was a truly remarkable individual in terms of his character, personality, his insight into human psychology. And he had incredible drive and ambition, and he had a thirst to, I think, try to understand the world. That's what led him on this journey was he had some a religious crisis, if you will, in his late 20s, and he set off as a holy pilgrim in search of enlightenment, going from church to church and monastery to monastery, trying to better understand God and scripture and man's place in the world. And this must have come from some deep-seated longing and desire. I don't think you could fake this. This was an actual part of his personality.


And was young men going from church to church seeking things, was that normal? Were there other mystics doing that at the time? Was this something that ambitious or certainly highly motivated young men might do?


Actually, it's not as unusual as you would think for the time, late 19th, early 20th century Russia. You had literally hundreds of thousands of these typically men who were known as, which are like holy wanderers, if you will. Not monks, not priests, never ordained, but these folks that would literally just wander across the vastness of the Russian Empire in search of God, in search of enlightenment. And so he fits into a larger pattern at the time and is in many ways an expression of the seeking that was going on within Russian culture at the time.


And I guess if you're going to do that, you had to be pretty charismatic. The wanderer comes through your village, you want to hear a story, you want to feel like you're in the presence of holiness. You've got to have a pretty good game.


Definitely. And he had game full on. And now whether it came to him immediately or he developed it over the years of wandering. We don't know. I'm thinking it's something he built up as time went on and gained more and more followers. There was an electricity about him. There was an energy about him. Even his enemies admitted he had incredible charisma and a power and a magnetism that no one could deny, both obviously his followers and his detractors. So it was this weird combination, I think, of who he was just as an individual combined with the lived experiences that he had gained from all of these years wandering throughout the Russian countryside, which in a sense was his university, if you will. He mixed with all levels of society, from aristocrats and bishops and higher ups in the government to street criminals and thugs and begars. And he developed this encyclopedic knowledge of the vast social sweep of Russian society.


Actually, if you're out of touch, Russian Czar is looking for someone who knows Russia quite well in an era before online polls and polling companies. Actually, this guy, he'd walk to walk. He'd seen a lot of Russia. He sat at a lot of different tables and for a lot of different halfs.


Definitely. I think that was one of the big attractions that Nicholas and Alexandra found in Resputne. You got to remember they lived in a golden cage. There was so much fear of assassination that the royal family lived completely cut off from this vast empire that they ruled. And this was, if you will, their connection to the people. Resputon came to personify in his own single one person, the larger Russian as they call it, the people. And they felt that when he came to them and sat down and talked to them, that through him, they gained some profound, deep, personal connection to the people over which they ruled.


I love it. The Never Ended Quest are very rich, out of touch people to have authentic experiences with, quote, real people. I love it. This is the best example.


Ever of that. Some things never go on our style.


Yeah. So he does have a wife and kids. There are rumors at this stage out there of orgies and sex stuff going on. Did he abuse the trust that people put in him, the charisma, the excitement people had about his religious aura? Was he making money? Was he enjoying sexual favors? Is there any truth to that?


There is truth to that. First of all, the money question, definitely not. I mean, one thing that is very clear, he was never motivated by averest and greed and a desire to enrich himself. And he never possess palaces and he didn't live a high life. Whatever money he tended to get would pass right through his hands to go into someone who would come to him asking for help. So it was never about money, more about women, I would say. I mean, he would definitely have failed the me too moment. He was a lach, he was a creep. He was possibly a rapist. We can never really say that for certain. But he couldn't resist clawing women, stroking them, taking lovers, mistresses, what have you. Apparently, when someone brought this up to his long suffering wife back in Siberia, she said, well, Grigory has enough love in him for more than just one woman. I think there was a certain acceptance on his wife's part. But yeah, there was definitely an element of the creep in him that I think there's enough there that we can't deny that. One thing, though, that's interesting, there was never ending waterfall of rumors, washing over Russia then about Resputin and all his evil deeds.


But what's interesting is no one ever came forward claiming to be bearing his child. No one claimed to have been made pregnant by Resputin, which I find interesting, which suggests to me maybe the actual amount of love making with his mistresses is perhaps not as great as we might have thought.


Where does he first meet the Roman office? Where does he first meet the Czar?


So he comes in contact with them at this really remarkable and powerful moment in Russian history. It's the fall of 1905 during the Revolution, one of the first Revolutions to try to overthrow the Romanoffs. And Nicholas and Alexander are terrified about what's happening in the country, and they're getting conflicting advice about what they should do, whether or not they should put in a constitution and introduce all sorts of reforms. And they meet Resputin at that moment. And they literally look to him again as the voice of the people like, What should we do? What do the people want? And he's someone that tells them basically, Hold back on reform. Hold on to power. All will be well. And this is an element that I think has long been overlooked in the story of Resputin. We typically hear that our Resputin's power over the royal couple sprang from his ability to keep the Carevich, Alexey, who had hemophilia safe. In other words, he prevented him from dying from this horrible disease. But what's interesting that I found in my research is that from the moment they meet him, his role as a political advisor is hugely important and will remain so until his murder in 1960.


If you listen to Dan Snow's history, we're talking Resputim, we're coming up. So he helps the Czar through that moment of existential crisis, the 1905 revolution, he then part of their inner circle. He's a close advisor. What's the nature? We'll come onto this, Rayshir with the kids in a minute, the Alexis, the Czarovitch, but what's the nature of his advice? Was he small? Is he conservative? Did he side with liberals? What was he doing with his influence?


He was very much a monarchist. He was very much committed to the traditions of the Russian autocracy to the Romanoff family. And generally throughout the years that he was part of their life, he would counsel them against what we would call Western reforms. He very much believed in the need for a single autocratic power in Russia and the need to be strong. This definitely comes to the fore during World War I, I would say, when Nicholas goes off to take charge of the Russian Army in 1915 and and Resputin and Alexandra are often meeting alone together in the palace having these political conversations about things. But his advice was very much stay the course, don't introduce radical reforms. Russian people need a strong ruler like you. That was generally the nature of his counsel, I would say.


It must have been so nice for them because, of course, we all like hearing advice that attunes to our preconceived ideas. And here's this genuine Russian peasant, a mystic, a holy man who's walked all over the country telling them, but no, don't worry, the peons all love you. You're doing a great job. I mean, that must have been soothing for them.


In a way it was. But one of the things that I found that was really striking is there's a couple of moments in Rosputan's history where he gives advice that Nicholas did not listen to and that had Nicholas listened might have changed the course of history. Just one example is the summer of 1914. Europe is on the edge of massive world war. And Resputin is back at home in his village, Pakrovskaya in Siberia, and he is attacked by a mad woman, Hionya Guseva, this strange woman with no nose who stabbed him in the stomach claiming she's killed the antichrist. Miraculously, he survives. He ends up in a hospital nearby, and he is counseling Nicholas from there in telegrams and in letters, do not listen to the war-mongerers. Do not listen to your ministers and your generals. Do not go to war. I see nothing but seas of blood, an eternity of darkness, and the collapse of all Russia. And again, you think, What if? What if Nicholas had listened?


He nailed it. He nailed it. Yeah, and he was right.


And he was totally right. Yeah, he was totally right. He also knew that the people that were going to mostly die were peasants like him, right? They were the backbone of the Russian Army. He thought it was easy for aristocrats in Petersburg to say, Yes, let's go fight a war, when it really was going to be the Russian peasant who was going to bear the front of that.


What about his time in St. Petersburg when he's not in Siberia? He's with the royal family. He's intimate with the royal family. Let's talk about the Czarovitch, Nicholas's son, the heir to the throne. He's a hemophiliac. And it does seem like Sputin was able to bring his bleeding under control, some calming presence, lowering his blood pressure. What do we think that is?


Yeah, that's a central mystery in the whole story of Resputin and his relationship with the royal family is what influence did he exert over the health of the Zarevich, Alexey? And there's all sorts of different theories about this. I think Robert Massey, the late Robert Massey, brilliant historian who wrote Nicholas and Alexander, the book that initiated everybody's interest in all this stuff. He argued that basically what what Resputon did was, first of all, tell Alexandra to have the doctors leave the boy alone. Just let the doctors leave him alone, which I think was important because they were constantly poking and prodding and turning him over and doing all sorts of things, which made it that much harder for the boy to heal because the blood wouldn't coagulate and the bleeding would just continue. So that was one thing that I think was really important that he did. Another thing was he, and this gets into a murky region of the mind, body, body, connection and health and healing, which is stuff where it's only really I think as experts in medical field are starting to peel back and understand is the degree to which Resputin gave Alexandra confidence and belief that her son would survive and how this was a calming influence on her, and in some ways maybe calmed the young boy as well, gave him the hope, gave him the confidence.


And again, this is stuff, it's hard to come to any definitive answer on this, but I think those are two elements that were important. Another theory is that he told the doctors not to give the boy aspirin. Obviously, that could have helped, again, because aspirin obviously makes it harder for the blood to coagulate. So I think these are some of the key elements that we can look to as possible explanations.


What about with the rest of the family, the kids? Well, also there's Zarena. He was very intimate with them. And is that where the rumors, the gossip all sprang out? People must have been jealous of that access he got to the raw family, were they?


I think you're completely right when you talk about jealousy, because what's interesting is, is Nicholas and Alexandra and their children lived this completely isolated life. They did not allow close contact between themselves and the members of the aristocracy, the leading pillars of society. Yet at the same time, they were allowing this unknown, unwashed, in quotation marks, dirty peasant into the palace. And not only into the palace, but they allowed him into the nursery where the children were, and he would help them prepare for bed and things like that. And so there was a good deal of jealousy among the elite that said, Wait a minute, we are the ones that should have access to the palace, not this peasant from Siberia. And that was a source of much of the rumor and the gossip. There was talk that, Resputin was taking liberties with the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. And obviously then one of the biggest rumors that got going was that Resputin was sleeping with the Emperor herself, that Alexandra was in fact, Resputin's lover. And these were rumors that spread throughout the salon culture of Petersburg and then made their way around the country and were hugely important in tarnishing the image of the throne, which was vital in understanding the forces that then helped lead to the downfall of the Romanoffs.


Are you able to judge, is there any truth to any of these rumors? Did he abuse the position of trust that he had within the family?


No, I think there's nothing to speak to this at all. This was simply gossip that was generated by jealous folks who wish they had that access that Resputin did. There's this whole class element that you can't ignore. The Russian elites looked down their nose at the Russian peasantry, at the vast masses, and this really drove them up the wall the fact that this was the person that their rulers looked to for counsel, for advice, for support, and they simply could not wrap their minds around this.


Tell me the extraordinary tale of the night that Resputin was eventually assassinated.


Yeah. There's one moment in Resputin's biography that everybody's heard of. It's the story of his murder in December of 1916. It gets getting told and retold and retold, and it's like the telephone game. Every time it gets retold and retold, it gets exaggerated and distorted. I think that one of the things that's most important to remember is that what we know chiefly of that murder was the account written by the man who organized the murder, Prince Felix Yusupov, who came from one of the most powerful and wealthiest aristocratic families in Russia. And in his memoir, he recounts killing Resputin. And basically every page is full of lies and self-justification. The only thing that's honest in his memoirs is when he he admits that, in fact, what he did carry out was, quote-unquote, a cowardly crime. They lured Resputin to the Yusuf Palace on the Moika in Petrograd, saying that they were going to introduce him to Prince Yusuf's beautiful young wife. All along, though, they had a plan to try to murder him in the cellar down in the wine cellar, which they did. Now it's recounted in Yusuf's memoirs that they tried to poison him and that didn't work and they tried to shoot him and that didn't work.


And it was only when they finally threw his body into one of the arms of the of our river threw a hole in the ice that he drowned, making the sign of the cross as the cold, dark waters suck him under the ice. All of this is fascinating and fanciful and interesting, but none of it is really true. The best I could recreate is that basically when he arrived there, they probably did try to poison him, but the person who was going to supply the poison at the last minute got cold feet and gave them ground aspirin instead. So the poison never worked. And then they shot him twice in the midsection. He managed to go up a stairway and out into the courtyard, fall down in the snow, and then they administered what the Russians call the control, the vistral, the control shot with a bullet right through the middle of the forehead. I went to a museum in Petersburg during my research, and they have all the crime photos from the investigation, and they have all the photographs of Resputin's body after it was fished out of the branch of the Nieval River.


And there you can see two bullet holes through the midsection, and then they have a closeup photo of his head. And there you can see a bullet that went in directly basically in between his eyes. So I think it was not as exciting as history would like us to believe, although it is an amazing story. But he was clearly dead by the time they threw his body into the river.


Why did they kill him? The people that were effectively jealous of his closeness to the Czar?


Well, by the time the murder took place at the end of 1916, it was no longer just jealousy about Rosputin's place in the Royal Palace, but the belief took hold during World War I that Russia's defeats in the war against Germany and Austria could only be explained by treason. That the only way to understand why Russia has not been victorious in the war was the notion that someone was selling out the Russians to the enemy. And the fact that the actress, Alexandra, was German by birth, led many to believe that Alexandra was actually a spy working on behalf of the Kaiser in Berlin, together with Resputin. And this idea took hold that if we kill Resputin, Alexandra will go to pieces, will be locked up in a convent, and then Nicholas can exercise full power again and thus win the war for Russia. It's an utterly ludicrous idea, but it was this idea that by killing Resputin, they were saving Russia, which greatly exaggerated Resputin's power and influence. And is also something I think that became typical of thinking of Russian political culture, this idea that the way we move society forward is through murder, right?


Murdering Resputin is somehow going to save Russia. Murdering the royal family during the Revolution is somehow going to save Russia. Murdering all those people under Stalin is somehow going to save Russia. And now under Putin, Killing all my enemies is somehow going to save Russia. There's a through line of political murder I would say that you could argue begins with Resputin in 1916 and is still sadly ongoing in Russia today.


Thank you very much there for drawing that through line. That's fascinating. Douglas Smith, tell us what the name of the book is.


The name of the book is Resputin, Faith, Power and the twilight of the Romanoffs.


Thank you so much for coming to the pod and talking.


About it. Thanks. It was great talking to you.


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