December 30: the death of Rasputin and the beginning of the Russian Revolution

December 30th is the centennial of the death of Rasputin.  This is the story that you are most likely to remember from Russian history; years from now  you will be able to recount to your friends the death scene in minute detail, and you will be able to provide all of the salacious details regarding his life and hold over the female members of the aristocracy, but will you remember anything about the historical significance of this man?  And, if necessary, could you provide a good reason to include him in an essay regarding the causes of the Russian Revolution?

According to the Fox animated movie, Anastasia, it was the curse of Rasputin that caused the revolutions and led to communism in Russia.  Is there any validity to this claim?  This might seem like a silly question, but let’s be open-minded for a moment (hello Learner Profile) and consider how Rasputin is related to the onset of revolution in Russia.

Many of you are well aware of the long- and short-term causes of the revolution and can probably list them off in your sleep: war; economic downturn; ineffective leadership; desire for land distribution; archaic political system …

Let’s consider the latter for a moment: archaic political system; and let’s add in ineffective leadership and the war.  And here we can return to Rasputin.

While Rasputin’s curse may not have caused the revolution, Rasputin’s influence on the royal court and his assassination can be seen as signals to the sickness of the system.  Although Russia ostensibly became a constitutional monarchy in 1905 with the October Manifesto Tsar Nicholas II still had direct control over the governance of the country, and whomever had influence had control as well.  In Endurance and Endeavor JN Westwood made the point that Nicholas did not object to Rasputin but neither did he see him as a confidant.  Instead, Rasputin appeared to ameliorate the effects of Crown Prince Alexei’s hemophilia and provided succor to the Tsarina, and thus he was accepted at court.  At times Rasputin did appeal to Nicholas, especially with regard to the treatment of the peasantry, but he was not a close advisor and his advice was rarely taken.  In this way, we can see that Rasputin did issue some warnings about the future of Russia, probably as someone who lived a long time in the Russian periphery, but his views were not compatible with the aristocracy or the goals of the monarchy.

Rasputin as immortalized in cartoon form

Rasputin as immortalized in cartoon form

Once Nicholas II took over as commander in chief of the army and left the home front in the hands of Tsarina Alexandra, many aristocrats feared Rasputin’s influence.  The relationship between Alexandra and Rasputin might have been innocent, but the outward appearance was far from that, and he clearly had unparalleled access and influence with regard to Alexandra.  At a time when war weariness was setting in, and the commoners were beginning to question the relevancy and adequacy of the system of government and members of the aristocracy felt that the monarchy could not afford any type of scandal.  And Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina was certainly scandalous.

In that frame, the assassination by members of the Russian aristocracy is not that surprising.  Due to war, ineffective leadership and a system of governance that was increasingly challenged, Rasputin’s murder can be seen as an attempt of those in power to keep the existing system afloat.  The fact that he was poisoned, stabbed, shot and eventually thrown into the Neva River is astonishing and gives rise to the idea that he was superhuman.  That his body was not found until much later helps with the myth.  The story is fascinating, and any novelist who tried to write about a similar death would be seen as unrealistic, yet there it was.

Rasputin’s death may not have cursed Romanovs but it did signal the decline of the system and a last grasp at maintenance of the imperial regime.

NB: This the first in a series of reflections on the Russian Revolutions as the centennial of these events approaches.

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