Sunday, 9 January 2011

Urals Federal District - was Rasputin bi-curious?

So much has been written about Rasputin and his murder that it's hard to find a new angle on the events surrounding his life and death. In his book, The Murder of Rasputin Greg King focuses on Rasputin's most famous assassin, Prince Felix Youssoupov and speculates on the nature of their relationship, adding a new theory that Rasputin and Felix Youssoupov may have had a physical relationship of some kind.

Greg King has written several books about the Romanovs and seems to have a fascination with the shadier or more eccentric royals, also having written about Ludwig II of Bavaria and Wallis Simpson, the divorcee from Pennsylvania who married Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII. He's certainly found an interesting subject in the Youssoupovs and, although I'd known a bit about Rasputin before I started researching for this blog, I'd never heard of Felix Youssoupov and his involvement in Rasputin's murder.

The mad monk from Siberia

Grigori Rasputin was born into a peasant family in a small village called Pokrovskoye in Tyumen region, which is now part of the Urals Federal District. In one of those strange ironies of Rasputin's life and death, the Romanov family were also killed in the Urals, just outside Ekaterinburg, fulfilling a prophecy he'd made that they would pass through his village of birth before they died. If Rasputin were alive today, he would, no doubt, have his own cult, like the modern-day Vissarion, ex-policeman turned Messiah, who heads up the Church of the Last Testament in Sun City near the Siberian town of Minusinsk.

As Rasputin discovered religion and his newfound role of prophet, he was influenced by fringe sects in the Orthodox Church, such as the Skopsty, who believed that man could, through prayer, become equal to God and the masochistic Khlysty who believed in spiritual enlightment through humiliation of the flesh, by whipping (the Russian for whip is хлыст khlyst) or through sexual humiliation in group orgies.

Rasputin is probably most (in)famous for his immense sexual appetite (and, by all accounts, the size of his 'talent'!). I suspect that his involvement with the Khlysty sect was a way of reconciling his genuine religious fervour, with the carnal desires that he found so hard to control. Something I didn't know about Rasputin was that he claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to walk to the Orthodox Holy Land of Mount Athos in Greece, which he did, a distance of about 2,400 miles!

Although Rasputin's name is believed to have been a genuine birth name, it's interesting that the word распутье rasputye means 'a fork in the road' - also распущенность raspuschenost' from the same root, is the Russian word for 'debauchery'.

Rasputin and the Romanovs

Rasputin must have known that he'd hit the big time, when he found himself being invited to the Russian Imperial Court in St Petersburg, using his spiritual powers to heal the ailing son of the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. After the trauma of Catherine the Great, her son Pavel I changed the succession rules of the Russian Tsars, which meant that only male offspring could claim the throne of Russia. Although Nicholas and his German-born Tsarina, Alexandra, had had four daughters, their fifth child, Alexei was their only son and heir to the Russian throne. Not widely publicised at the time was the fact that Alexei had hemophilia, a hereditary disease that is passed through the maternal line, in this case from his mother and grand-mother, Queen Victoria.

As a result of his illness and the fact that he was the only one of their children who could inherit the throne, the Tsar and Tsarina became obsessive about Alexei's health. The fact that Rasputin seemed to have the ability to control Alexei's bleeding secured his place at the centre of the royal household and led to the situation where a Siberian peasant appeared to have so much influence over the Tsarina, to the point where the Tsarina's enemies accused her of letting him make political decisions that were detrimental to Russia's involvement in the First World War. Greg King's position on this, in his book, is that Rasputin's influence on the government of Russia was widely exaggerated and that the real 'issue' with the government of Russia during the First World War was that Nicholas II was a weak ruler and left too many important decisions to the caprices of his wife.

Enter Prince Youssoupov

The Youssoupov family were wealthy beyond belief in the pre-Revolution period. Of Tatar origin, they had their traditional home in Crimea and through centuries of tussles with the ruling Russian dynasties, they eventually converted from Islam to Christianity and threw their lot in with the Russian state. Although they were incredibly wealthy and part of the aristocracy, the Youssoupovs weren't royals and would not be considered eligible to take or marry into the Russian throne.

Felix's mother had wanted a girl and, when he came along, she dressed him as a girl until he was five years old, a common practice in Victorian Europe. She no doubt spoiled him as well, as he grew up to be an impossible child and went through a series of governesses and tutors, none of them being able to tame him. His first governess was discreetly packed off to a mental asylum, after she'd had a nervous breakdown.  A subsequent governess hit the bottle, before being dismissed from her post!

F Youssoupov by Vladimir Surov

He certainly had an interesting life, perhaps typical of rich young men, with nothing else to worry about apart from their own pleasure! He liked to cross-dress and didn't hide his relationships with men. He was known for his extravagence and his love of parties, but he also attempted to change his life, by studying at Oxford and marrying a Romanov princess, Irina - a marriage that would span decades until his death in 1967. How Felix got caught up in the assassination of Rasputin is still a mystery to me, despite King's attempts to explain. I can only assume that he was impulsive and that he somehow felt the need to redeem himself in the eyes of the Russian public, by murdering the person that was deemed to be Public Enemy number one.

The murder of Rasputin

Felix always said that he wanted to be remembered for something more than the murder of Rasputin, but that's hardly been the case. As one of the few eye-witnesses to the event, his account of the murder has entered modern folklore as fact. The most famous aspect of Rasputin's murder was that, despite being poisoned, shot and bludgeoned until he lost consciousness - he still somehow managed to stay alive and is only believed to have died when Youssoupov and his co-conspirators dumped his body into the icy River Neva, thereby drowning him. An autopsy showed water in Rasputin's lungs, which meant he was still breathing when they threw him in the river, but it's interesting to note that death by drowning meant Rasputin would never be canonised as, according to the Russian Orthodox tradition, a true saint could never die by drowning. I wonder how much of Youssoupov's account of Rasputin's death was made up? As King says, in his book, we'll probably never really know the truth.

Were Rasputin and Felix Youssoupov lovers?

So much of Rasputin's reputation was bound up in his pursuit of women, that it's hard to imagine him having an interest in men. Nevertheless, King points to some interesting evidence that Prince Youssoupov and Rasputin were closer than people believed. How else did Felix manage to convince Rasputin to come to his palace on the night of the murder? Perhaps it somehow explains part of Youssoupovs fascination with Rasputin and his motivation for killing him? Rasputin's daughter, Maria, certainly claims that Youssoupov tried to seduce her father, by appearing naked on a visit to him. My instinct tells me that there was nothing really physical between them. I think Felix had plenty of other, younger and more attractive, men at his beck and call. Plus, Rasputin just doesn't seem the type - my gaydar is deathly silent.

Felix Youssoupov has gone down in history as Rasputin's murderer and the notoriety that went with that, despite all of his protests of being something more than a murderer, ensured that Felix would remain in the spotlight for years to come.

The revolution and after

Rasputin's claim that, after his murder, the Romanovs would be dead within six months, proved eerily accurate. A series of revolutions came to St Petersburg, resulting in the Tsar's abdication and, in July 1918, the murder of the Tsar's family in Ekaterinburg. The Youssoupovs fled to Crimea and later Europe, settling in Paris, like many of the former Russian aristocracy and managing to spend excessive amounts of money, leaving themselves on the verge of financial ruin.

Felix went on to write a book about his involvement in Rasputin's death and he and his wife successfully sued MGM when they brought out a film version of the events, Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. As the only living survivors of those depicted in the film, Irina and Felix were able to claim damages for invasion of their privacy and libel. The case hung around a claim the film had made, which said it would depict persons who were still alive. Whenever you see the disclaimer on movies that says this movie is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, this is as a direct result of the Youssoupovs court case.

I'm going to leave you with the Boney-M song, Rasputin, one of my favourite retellings of the Rasputin murder!

Image credits:

The photo of the book cover was taken by me and is a first Arrow edition, published in 1997.  The image on the book cover is from the author's private photo collection and I'm using this to illustrate my blog and promote his book. 

The portrait of Felix Youssoupov is by the famous Russian painter, Valentin Serov and now hangs in the Russia Museum in St Petersburg. It is in the public domain.

There is an amazing image of Prince Youssoupov dressed up for a costume ball in the Albert Hall, which I can't share with you, as it's copyrighted, but if you can find this picture on the Internet, it's well worth a look, to see the confidence and glamour of Prince Youssoupov in his younger days.
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