Now there’s a question – and it’s one that has been explored extensively by historians much more learned than me. However, in the light of my reading Orlando Figes, who only very briefly touches on Rasputin – and only then to discuss his assassination – I thought it one worth considering out loud.
First of all, who was he? Again, we’re back to loaded questions. Grigori Rasputin seemed to be some kind of orthodox mystic who was noticed by the Tsar after visiting the Prime Minister’s son, who had been injured in a terrorist attack (yes, they had such things even in those days). Impressed by the speed of the boy’s recovery, Rasputin was invited to the Winter Palace to attend the Tsarevich, Prince Alexei, who was at that time seriously ill with a haemophiliac crisis. The Tsarina was greatly impressed by Rasputin’s charisma, as was a number of her ladies in waiting and other senior Royals. The Tsarevich survived his crisis and Rasputin was allowed to stay at Court as an unofficial healer, mystic and advisor.
It was in this latter capacity that Rasputin’s reputation came under fire. Whether or not he did give the Tsarina advice on state matters, we may never know; the fact is that it was rumoured that he did and that she followed it. When the Tsar was ill or otherwise indisposed, the Tsarina took charge and it was clearly felt by many that Rasputin had an unnecessarily undue influence. It was also rumoured that he was the Tsarina’s lover (as well as that of a number of her ladies in waiting) which obviously didn’t go down well at all. The increase in popular discontent combined with the Tsar’s apparent lack of empathy with the needs of his populace did not help prevent the rise of the Bolsheviks and did a lot of damage to the Imperial image.
But Figes asserts – and I think he has a point – that it was the fact that the Tsarina was German by birth which really sealed the fate of the Imperial family. By the time of the October Revolution in 1917, Russia was doing badly in the First World War and anti-German sentiment was very high. Men did not want to fight for a Tsar who did not care about their welfare and who was married to a woman who was going to allow her countrymen to win the war. Certainly, the Bolsheviks used the Tsarina’s nationality to fuel the revolutionary fires and promote uprisings during the early years of the war and the Revolution itself. Rasputin was, if you like, a convenient side show. Interestingly, he was assassinated by Russian noblemen who were more concerned with protecting their positions and estates than defeating the revolutionaries or winning the war.
Grigori Rasputin is an undeniably interesting character but I think it is giving him a bigger role than he actually had to suggest that he was instrumental in the downfall of the Russian Imperial family. There were many causes, but Rasputin was by no means the main one.