Rasputin. Photo: wikipedia Rasputin. Photo: wikipedia

Dominic Cummings has been compared to another powerful, dangerous and despised political adviser: Rasputin. John Westmoreland recounts the story of Russia’s ‘mad monk’

Grigori Rasputin was what we might call today a weirdo and a misfit. He is famous for exerting a mysterious hold over Tsar Nicholas II, a weak and cowardly ruler.

Rasputin had a profound and perplexing influence on government. This antagonized the Russian ruling class and led to murder and revolution.

Becoming Rasputin

Rasputin was born in Pokrovsk, Siberia, in 1869. But his humble origins in one of the most backward districts of Imperial Russia were to prove an advantage.

Rasputin’s father was an elder in the church. Magical thinking and the Russian Orthodox Church went hand in hand. The villagers of Pokrovsk thought Rasputin had mysterious healing powers. It was said that he could heal sick animals by touching them.

Rasputin seems to have spent some time in a monastery as a young man, after a run-in with the law, and there he was influenced by the ascetic lifestyle. Pursued to extremes – through self-isolation, fasting and suffering – this would lead to adherents becoming entranced. From the trance, visions would appear and ‘powers’ would be gained.

Rasputin soon gained a band of followers in Pokrovsk and started holding prayer meetings in the cellar of his father’s house. Strange songs were sung. Strange chanting could be heard. And women were reputed to take part in sexual rituals. Rasputin was perfecting the image of a religious medium who was acting on God’s orders.

By 1904 Rasputin, having become a minor celebrity in Siberia, travelled to Kazan. The disastrous war with Japan was about to start and anyone who could fascinate the peasants with religious magic was worth investing in. Two bishops recommended Rasputin to the Bishop of St Petersburg and the scene was set for scandal and intrigue.

Nicholas II: ‘our most august dimwit’

Trotsky appraised his Royal Highness Nicholas II:

“Nicholas II inherited from his ancestors not only a giant empire, but also a revolution. And they did not bequeath him one quality which would have made him capable of governing an empire or even a province or a county.”

Nicholas is portrayed by apologists as being painfully shy, a family man, not suited to the role of tsar. But the way in which Nicholas infuriated his ministers by being almost supernaturally reserved in times of crisis, cannot be understood as a personality trait.

Russia was a giant and backward empire tottering in the face of onrushing modernity. Capitalist countries expanding their empires in pursuit of markets and resources threatened in the east with the rise of Japan, and in the west from Germany, France and Britain.

Autocratic government was hopelessly exposed by war. Revolution would be provoked by the ensuing chaos. Nicholas was reserved precisely because there was nothing he could do. His reserved manner was a fatalistic acknowledgement of his doom.

The tsar was fearful of intellect, science and talent. True, he used talented people to solve some crises – but got rid of them as soon as he could. After the outbreak of war in 1914 Russia’s wealthy capitalists would have been the best people to organise the war effort. But Nicholas dreaded admitting that the tsar, anointed by God, could be replaced. The capitalist class were equally impotent, dreading the revolutionary forces at their back.

The tsar’s diary and his correspondence reveal, as Trotsky puts it, his “spiritual emptiness.” While the great events which spelled his end thundered around him, Nicholas forever drank tea. His diary entries show Nicholas never committed so much as one word about his thoughts on the great issues of the day.

‘Our Friend’

Alexei, the only son of Nicholas and Alexandra, was a haemophiliac. The incurable condition afflicting the male heir to the throne provided the morbid fear that was the backdrop to Rasputin’s introduction to the royal circle.

Rasputin’s religiosity delighted the female aristocratic circles of St Petersburg well before he made the royal family’s acquaintance. As a man imbued with ‘the Spirit’, Rasputin was keen to grapple with Satan.

And where was Satan to be found? In the evils of alcohol and lust.

The St Petersburg gendarmerie spied on Rasputin throughout. Their records show that Rasputin was an energetic drinker and womaniser. He was forever in one of three states: pretty drunk, very drunk, or completely drunk. From leaving a wild party he might be seen stopping off to visit one, two or three prostitutes on his way home.

Aristocratic women who thought the devil might be in them sought Rasputin’s advice on how to drive him out. Drinking helped the Devil to show himself and then he might be engaged. Personal memoirs of these encounters suggest that Rasputin provided an intense religious experience. This man of Christ came to the attention of the Tsarina.

Well before the arrival of Rasputin in court there were already a number of hysterics, mediums and fakers, selling potions and holy relics that might cure Alexei, the ailing Tsarevich. Rasputin was probably more successful than the others because of his mystique, confidence and the coincidence of his arrival in court with an improvement in the health of the boy.

For the Tsarina Rasputin was deemed ‘our Friend’, sent by God.

Growing influence

“With prayers and the help of our Friend – then all will be well,” the Tsarina wrote to her husband. “If we did not have Him, all would have been over long ago. I am absolutely convinced of that.”

During the war years while Nicholas was away from the capital, the Tsarina would write to him with the advice of Rasputin. Astonishingly Rasputin became an adviser on military campaigns and the appointment of Ministers.

Protopopov was the minister in charge of supplying the front. Appointed at the suggestion of Rasputin, Buchanan the British ambassador thought him insane. On his desk was an icon with which Protopopov conversed. The icon, as we might expect, gave some disastrous advice for the war effort.

How could this illiterate peasant, lecher and drunkard gain such influence? Trotsky explains it thus:

“The comparison of Rasputin and Christ was customary in that circle, and by no means accidental. The alarm of the royal couple before the menacing forces of history was too sharp to be satisfied with an impersonal God and the futile shadow of a Biblical Christ. They needed a second coming of “the Son of Man.” In Rasputin the rejected and agonising monarchy found a Christ in its own image.”

The palace coup that never was

To those outside the court of a doomed autocracy the alarm bells were ringing. The ruling class was perhaps more sensitive to the signs of approaching revolution than were the revolutionaries.

In ruling circles a palace coup was being talked about. The army high command, the wealthy Duma Deputies and the aristocracy were all hotbeds of gossip about the ‘German’ Tsarina, her devilish lover Rasputin, and her cuckolded husband Nicholas.

Each group suggested to the other that they act. Each group had their own reasons not to be seen as traitors. Each group thought the other was better suited to regicide.

Concerned friends of the Tsar wrote to him offering warm feelings and their best advice to put his house in order, but between the lines, as Trotsky puts it, “was the barely concealed snarl and the gnashing of teeth.”

None dared to act. The inner circle of the Court heard the rumours but it only served to strengthen their resolve to change nothing.

Sometimes historians speculate that the Russian Revolution might have been negated by a revolution from above. But the divisions in the ruling class could not be overcome.

There was no agreed political solution available. There were only three completely separate options – a replacement and continuity tsar, a military dictatorship or a bourgeois democracy. The impasse increased the mutual distrust and hatred between aristocrats, generals and capitalists.

A violent end

The climax of shared impotence found an outlet in the murder of Rasputin. He was lured by a clique of aristocrats to the Yussupov palace, poisoned, shot and finally drowned. His body was pushed through the ice in the hope it would be washed out to sea, only for it to resurface a day or so later.

As Rasputin had predicted to the Tsarina, his murder would be followed by the liquidation of the Romanovs within two years.

Rasputin no doubt had some remarkable qualities but the part he played in Russian history is best explained by the weakness of the Tsar and redundancy of the autocracy. Rasputin’s power was generated by the willingness of a weak and cowardly ruler to seek magical answers to insuperable political problems.

Johnson and Cummings, take note.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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