A MOTHER'S AGONY - RASPUTIN
After the Moscow centenary celebrations, the Imperial Family went to Poland-the first visit for several years. At the shooting box at Belovege, their first stop, the little Tsarevich injured himself while jumping out of a boat. Internal haemorrhage set in, heralding the most severe and dangerous attack he had ever had. His parents were greatly alarmed, but, as usual, his illness was at first made light of, and no one suspected that it was serious. Recovery was slow, but, by early September, Alexei Nicolaevitch was well enough for the family to go on to the other Imperial shooting lodge at Spala. A further fall, however, caused a bad relapse; the inner bleeding began again, and a large tumour in the groin developed, which caused the most excruciating pain and the risk of blood poisoning and peritonitis. No operation was possible. His temperature rose alarmingly and the swelling pressed on all the inflamed nerves of his leg. At first the poor child cried loudly, but as his strength gave out, this was followed by a constant wailing, which grew hoarser and hoarser. He could take no food and could find no restful position in bed. Sometimes his sailor servant, Derevenko, would carry the wasted little creature for hours in his strong arms when the child thought that movement might ease the pain. Sometimes he lay back in the pillows, growing thinner and more deathlike every day, as the weakness increased, his great eyes looking like coals in his little, wan, drawn face. Even now his condition was hidden from the public for fear that he might be considered a permanent invalid. His parents still hoped for an improvement, and to hide their anxiety and prevent gossip about the child's illness they continued to lead their ordinary lives. Visitors were invited and the Emperor received the Ministers, who came from St. Petersburg. Princess Henry of Prussia was on a visit to her sister at this time, and was a particular comfort to her, as she had lost a son from the same dreadful illness. The Empress was in an agony, seeing him and being unable to relieve his intolerable suffering. The little boy cried for death to release him: until then no one had realised that the child, just eight years old and shielded from all sorrow, could know the real meaning of the word. He would beg to be buried "in the light" with the blue sky over him.
"When I am dead, it will not hurt any more, Will it ?" he would ask his mother. "Mamma, help me! " was his continual cry; for the Empress had always been able to soothe him and ease his pain in his earlier attacks. But now she was powerless. She could only hold him in her arms, like a baby, caressing him, trying to find some position in which he could for a moment feel easier, while his terrible, heartbreaking wailing went on.
Celebrated doctors had been called in, but their science could do nothing, and Professor Fedoroff warned the Emperor (through Count Freedericsz) that the case seemed hopeless. Bulletins were issued; the Tsarevich was prayed for in church. A chapel was arranged in a tent in the grounds at Spala, and all the Household took part in daily prayers, the Cossacks of the escort singing the service. Throughout the whole country there was great alarm. The little boy had a winning personality; the country was Proud of him. Even the guarded bulletins did not conceal his danger; indeed Professor Rauchfuss told me that the doctors worded the evening bulletin on the worst day in such a manner as to be able to follow it by an announcement of the child's death. That same evening, Princess Henry asked the Household to disperse at an unusually early hour, saying that the news was bad. The Empress sat with her boy, stroking his forehead and pressing his hands ; he was too weak to return the caress. The Emperor went in and out, with a man's helplessness in illness, his face literally ageing with anxiety.
It was at that moment that the Empress turned in despair to a wonder-worker, a faith-healer, whom she had seen before when she had been anxious about her son. He had prayed, and his words had greatly impressed her, and it had seemed to her that there was an improvement in the boy when he came during his attacks. The doctors had told her that they could do nothing more. She telegraphed to the healer, asking for his prayers. His answer came that same evening and was consoling. He told her the child would not die, and the next morning, October 22nd, Alexei Nicolaevitch was better.
From that day the improvement continued. The doctors pronounced him out of danger, and in November he was moved to Tsarskoe Selo, where he ultimately completely recovered from the attack, though he had a contraction of the muscles of the leg that made him very lame for more than a year. The Empress felt that she had witnessed a miracle. The child had been dying, and Rasputin's prayers had called him back from death. She was too humble a Christian to attribute anything to her own supplications. Rasputin was a saint, and as such she thereafter treated him: indeed, it seemed almost blasphemy to her to speak of him otherwise.
"Why should humanity nowadays," she said to me, be deprived of the comfort and support given to former generations ? " St. Seraphim of Sarofv had not lived so very long- ago and the Church had canonised him. Thus she reasoned, in her conviction that to her, too, had been vouchsafed the blessing of seeing a wonder-working saint walk upon this earth.
The story of Rasputin and of the Empress's introduction to him has been told so often, and so inaccurately, that I think it right to give the correct version of the facts, as I know them to have been. To those who say that it is incredible that the Empress of Russia could pin her faith to such a person, it is necessary to point to the followers of Mme. Blavatsky, Mrs. Besant, Dr. Steiger, and the many staunch believers in Christian Science. In the case of Alexandra Feodorovna, mysticism was combined with a blind clinging to anything that might save her child, easily understood by some Russian minds, in whom religion is curiously mixed with superstition. An English, German or French brain cannot quite understand her mentality, which was a mixture of Western mysticism and her newly-acquired, somewhat narrow Orthodoxy; and, like many converts, Alexandra Feodorovna surpassed even the usual Russian attitude to religion. Her faith was pure and ingenuous; coupled with this were her love, as a mother, for her child and her longing, as an Empress, to save the life of the heir to a vast Empire. She had often previously begged for Father John of Kronstadt's prayers for herself and her child. When the Empress received Rasputin, she was convinced that the path she had chosen was the right one -that the criticisms and obstacles were only the thorns in the path of those who strive to follow, righteousness.
When, through her friendship with the Grand Duchesses Militza and Stana, she became interested in mystical questions, she developed a belief in the existence of people in the world, who, by their saintly lives, can become links between humanity and God. These beings are chosen by Providence to help and sustain their weaker brethren. Their prayers work miracles and the gift of knowing the future is vouchsafed to them. The wise men, the "Yogi" of India, were people of this kind; they were called, in Russia, the Staretz or Stranniki. A Staretz is a layman who has renounced the world and, without entering any special order, leads a monastic life. Some spend their time going from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, praying for the salvation of mankind; some live the lives of hermits : the ecclesiastical authorities look upon them most benevolently. Educated Russians of the old fashioned type treat them with respect. Peasants go to them for help and advice. They admonish, pray, doctor sometimes, though, as a rule, they minister only to spiritual needs, exhorting those who come to them to penitence and confession, preparing them for absolution at the hands of a priest. Peasants believe these Starzi to have the gift of prophecy, given them as a recompense for their ascetic lives, and consider them almost saints and on the high road to canonization. They are generally old men, as was the revered Staretz of Optina Poustin, to whom Leo Tolstoy went for counsel before his death. Many have been worldly in youth. As Count Keyserling says in his preface to Der Russische Christ, to the average Russian mind, the just, the Blameless do not seem so near in heart as those who have known human frailty and temptation and have conquered and repented.
A venerated, saintly Staretz often has more influence with the people than a village priest. The Starzi have no official standing in the Church; they are a survival of the early apostolic teaching, which still prevails in remote parts of Russia. They wander on foot through the country, speaking of the holy places they have seen: the Holy Land, Mount Athos, or the great Russian monasteries. They quote whole pages of Holy Scripture and prayers. The Russian peasant is too poor to own a Bible ; he knows the prayers that he has learned in his childhood and those that he hears in church, but except for this, his religious knowledge is small. He listens with delight to the pious talk of the pilgrims, who recount the lives of saints and stories of marvellous healings and miracles, all the semi-mysticism that an uneducated Russian loves.
As early as 1901 the Empress had made the acquaintance of a French mystic, M. Philippe, a kind of clairvoyant as well as a faith-healer. He had preached to her that, if she submitted to the decrees of Providence and strove for spirituality, she would always find teachers who would strengthen her faith. Philippe had studied medicine and had adapted theosophical ideas to his practice, treating his patients by prayer. He told the Empress in 19o2 that she would have her longed-for son. This prediction was not fulfilled at that time, for in September a bulletin was issued, stating that the hopes of the Empress had suffered disappointment.
Philippe's teaching bore fruit. When he left, the Empress was prepared for him to be replaced by another teacher. Again the Grand Duchesses heard of a man with wonderful gifts of prayer, and introduced him to the Empress. This was Gregori Rasputin. He was one of the wandering pilgrims, who are often Starzi in the making, and, some time before, his piety had attracted the notice of Hermogene, Archbishop of Saratov. Rasputin was a Siberian peasant from the village of Pokrovskoe, in the far-away province of Tobolsk. His youth had been wild. There were stories of horse-stealing and of other unedifying things. He married, had children, and then, quite accidentally, fell under the influence of a priest, who so much impressed him with the error of his ways that he left his home and started on a pilgrimage, intending to devote his life to repentance and prayer. Thereafter he went from monastery to monastery with quotations from the Gospels on his lips, dressed as a pilgrim, and loaded with the heavy iron chains of the penitent. He had the gift of sincere and impassioned prayer; his faith was increased by his pilgrimages, and he soon gained the reputation of a saintly man and a healer among the Siberian people. In 1905 he appeared in St. Petersburg, was received with respect in pious circles, and patronized by the Archbishop Theophane, rector of the Ecclesiastical Academy, a universally revered prelate and at that time the Imperial confessor. When the Empress heard of him, it is probable that her first idea was that he might do something for her boy; for she was just beginning to realise the nature of Alexei Nicolaevitch's illness. The Emperor asked his confessor's advice, and, according to M. Paleologue, the Archbishop even advised the Imperial couple to receive the pilgrim.
Father Alexander Vassiliev, the Emperor's other confessor, also looked with favour on Rasputin at first. He thought him sincere, and tried to gain an influence over him. Father Vassiliev was an honest man, and when, in the course of time, he began to doubt whether Rasputin was, as he was said to be, "fighting the evil in him enough," he was much troubled about his own course of action.
The opinion of a confessor is so important to a Catholic or an Orthodox mind that the judgment of mere laymen cannot compare with it. In July 1906 the Emperor and Empress saw the healer for the first time. The Emperor mentions the date in his diary, simply noting, "Have seen Boji Tcbelovek - the man of God, Gregori."
He was "Gregori Effimovich" to the Emperor and Empress, "Father Gregori" to other believers ; but he had with the Imperial couple the respectful manner of the peasant before his sovereign. There was something in the Emperor, simple as he was, that made any familiarity in his presence unthinkable; but Rasputin kept his gruff way of speech and spoke as authoritatively to the Emperor as he would have spoken to a commoner. The Empress saw him solely with religious eyes, neither the uncouth peasant, nor the man, but the helping spirit sent in her hour of need. She trusted, from the first, that his prayers might cure her son. She, who disliked all publicity, hid both the fact of the child's illness and of her meeting with the Staretz. She wanted the world to believe in the boy's
health. She knew that Court circles had criticized her interest in Philippe, and she felt that a storm of talk and bitter comment would be aroused if it were known that she was interested in Rasputin. She knew the conservatism of the people around her, and thought that class prejudice would make Rasputin, a moujik, seem even more objectionable than Philippe, as a visitor to the Palace. She did not realise that there were other reasons that alarmed her devoted entourage, and that anything that might give rise to misinterpretation is dangerous to one in a high position.
Everything that concerned her religion "her soul," as she expressed it-had been hidden jealously by the Empress since her childhood. She felt that in this, at least, she had a right to "privacy." Unfortunately, this word cannot exist for sovereigns. Every word, every gesture is seen or heard and remarked on. The most insignificant details of their lives can take on a vast importance. The story that a wandering pilgrim, a faith healer, had been received by the sovereigns was spread abroad and widely commented on.
The Empress forgot, when she imagined that these visits of Rasputin were not known, that every person who passed through the gates of the Palace had his name written down several times by police and officials. Every step the Imperial Family took, every person they saw, were noted by the police and also in the minutely-detailed Court Circular seen by the Master of the Household every evening. Leaf by leaf, this was eventually bound, to form large volumes, recording every single day of their lives, as the lives of all their predecessors had been recorded. Every visit of Rasputin to the Empress was known to dozens of people, and the mystery which surrounded these audiences aroused much curiosity and gave rise to many tales. At first Rasputin saw their Majesties very seldom, not more than three or four times a year, but later the Empress saw him oftener, but never more than once in a couple of months.
Nevertheless, the appearance of such a personage in the precincts of the Palace was bound to make a stir. The Emperor and Empress had by this time realised that anyone to whom they showed any special mark of favour would be immediately pecked at and intrigued against. They imagined that this was the cause of the feeling against Rasputin. When rumours against him were reported to the Empress, she supposed them to be due to jealousy and class prejudice.
By 1912 Rasputin had established himself in St. Petersburg, where he began to find many disciples. People of all sorts came to his modest flat: mothers - and wives asking for his prayers for their children and husbands; love-sick maidens seeking for his advice in their love affairs; drunkards imploring him to cure them; the sick, beggars and petitioners of every kind, ultra-pious people as well as those interested in mystic questions. He was one of those men who create fanatics. Knowing what sin was, he always preached repentance, always upbraided his hearers, roughly, in his imaginative peasant language for their sins and weaknesses. He gave advice to everyone; and to the poor he gave all the money that his admirers gave him, keeping only enough for his simple needs. He remained a peasant, with a peasant's tastes. To the last day of his life he wore peasant's clothes, dressing like the small elegants of his class, in silk shirt and fine glossy boots. Women were his particular admirers. They came in great numbers and treated him almost as a god. This was his undoing. He gave up his pilgrimages through the country and stayed in St. Petersburg, going from house to house, visiting his admirers. He was now only a man of about fifty. Real Starzi were always very old men, who had left worldly temptation far behind. With the opportunities he had of better living, he soon began to drink more than was good for him. This led him on, it is said, to worse excesses, in which the inborn coarseness of his nature made itself apparent. After each bout his contrition was equally extreme and was followed by a renewal of religious ardour. His soul seemed to be divided into two parts : the one a kind of heaven and the other a kind of hell, in each of which he seemed to dwell in turn. His lapses caused his ecclesiastical patrons, the Archbishops Hermogene and Theophane, to renounce him. The Grand Duchesses Militza and Stana Nicolaevna also gave up seeing him and warned the Empress of the rumours against him. The only result of their intervention was their loss of the Empress's friendship. Alexandra Feodorovna believed that intriguers had influenced her cousins and the Archbishops. It seemed to her a plot to rob her of the man who had given her peace of mind. She repeated all the praise of Rasputin that she had heard from his early and now disillusioned admirers.
One must remember that at his rate and short appearances in the Palace Rasputin never forgot that he was a peasant before the Tsar and Tsaritsa; he showed them only his good side, and that so convincingly that they would not believe that any bad side existed. He could always find the right word to allay their anxieties for their boy: apt quotations from the Gospels or from the lives of the saints, or a short, earnest prayer. The Empress would become tranquil again, with the conviction that all would be well. Had he only once tried to strike another note, Rasputin would not have kept his power, for the Empress was very easily shocked by human weaknesses.
It is perhaps worth noting that Alexandra Feodorovna was always a believer in faith-healing. Once in the course of conversation I mentioned a case I had read of in the papers concerning some children who had died of diphtheria, and whose parents were prosecuted for not sending for a doctor, but trusting to a faith-healer's prayers. I expressed my indignation at such folly being possible with all the resources of science within reach. The Empress astonished me by saying " My dear, they did not pray hard enough. Had their prayers been fervent, the children would have recovered" The Empress was never a great believer in doctors; which perhaps is not surprising, seeing how little is known of hemophilia or its cure. Rasputin was sent for only when the Tsarevich fell ill. He always managed to come when there was a tendency to improvement, which the Empress believed to be due to his intercessions. It is more likely that he had his own sources of information, and contrived to come in time for the recovery of the child to be attributed to him. By this means he kept the Empress's faith: she came to look on him as a kind of guardian angel to her idolised boy. Nonsense has been written about Rasputin's drugging the Tsarevich or hypnotizing the mother and son. Nothing of the kind ever happened. The story that Anna Vyroubova gave "potions" to the Tsarevich on the advice of a Tibetan doctor, Badmaieff, a friend of Rasputin, is also pure invention. Badmaieff never came to the Palace, and the Empress would not have countenanced anything of the kind.
In 1911 Rasputin went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which he returned more deeply venerated than ever by his admirers. After 1912, when, as she believed, he had saved the Tsarevich's life at Spala, the Empress pinned all her faith upon him. She would not entertain a doubt as to his sanctity. The Emperor was less credulous, and had inquiries made by the police as a result of warnings from his Ministers. Unfortunately, though the main charges against Rasputin, accusing him of immoral conduct with women, were probably true, he was able in one case to prove an alibi, having been at Tsarskoe Selo, when he was supposed to have been at St. Petersburg. That was enough to disprove the whole report in the Emperor's eyes. The enemies of Rasputin were believed to be working simply in order to oust the man of the people from. the Palace. Still, in 1912, Rasputin, as a result of a direct appeal from the Prime Minister, Kokovtzev, to the Emperor, was told to go back to his native village, as Kokovtzev pointed out to the Emperor that the stories of Rasputin's visits were damaging to the Imperial prestige.
Rasputin at that time was much in the public eye. He had quarrelled with a former friend of his, the monk Iliodor, who had broken his vows and gone abroad. Iliodor threatened to publish some letters belonging to Rasputin, which had come into his possession. Among these there were a few unimportant notes from the Empress to Rasputin. It was this threat that led to the Prime Minister's representations to the Emperor. The book of letters was not published in Russia, but the harm. was done. Garbled accounts of the tenor of the Empress's letters were quoted on all sides, and Rasputin was falsely believed to have great influence at Court. When he returned to St. Petersburg, his clientele increased, Professional political intriguers, unscrupulous senior officials, who hoped that he might casually mention their names to the authorities, junior officials, who hoped that he might speak of them to their chiefs, all came to Rasputin's flat. Society women, as well as many of his own class, came to him, some from curiosty, others with the hope (which was not realised) that it might bring them into contact with the Court.
At the time of the outbreak of the war Rasputin's unpopularity had become extreme. Notwithstanding this, many distracted mothers and wives came to ask for his prayers, hoping that he might enlighten them as to the future in store for their dear ones. Women were doing this in every war country in those dark years. If Rasputin had not been there, the wives and mothers of Petrograd I would have gone to some other seer. The danger was, in this case, that he gave all these people an impression that his influence in the Palace was far greater than it was.
I was told that he was a great boaster and would interrupt an interview in order to answer a pretended telephone call from the Palace. General Ressine, who had all the Palace telephone conversations noted down in his police reports, told me that Rasputin did ring tip Tsarskoe Selo on occasions, but spoke to his private friends there, while his listeners believed him to be talking with some member of the Imperial Family.
Alexandra Feodorovna's most intimate friend, Mme. Vyroubova, was a staunch believer in Rasputin. After disasters in her married life she turned to religion. She had met him before, and now he found the right note with her, and she became his strong adherent. She was firmly convinced that Rasputin was the one person to give peace of mind to the Empress, whom she idolised , and so she became the willing and ever-ready link between Alexandra Feodorovna and the healer. She carried messages from both sides and would always fan the flame of the Empress's faith when it seemed to be waning. It was generally at her house that the Empress saw Rasputin. He very seldom came actually to the Palace. I lived in the Alexander Palace from 1913 to 1917, my room being connected by a corridor with the apartments of the Imperial I never met Rasputin during all the time that I was constantly in the company of the Grand Duchesses. M. Gilliard, who also lived there for several years, never saw him either.
Neither the Empress not her children ever spoke of Rasputin to those whom they knew to be disbelievers. Contrary to general opinion, the majority of the Empress's household were all among that number. The Empress was always invariably kind in her manner to those who, like Countess Hendrikova and myself, did not share her beliefs. It did not influence her conduct towards us in the least; it was only a subject she thought we did not understand, and she never tried to force her opinions on us. Anna Vyroubova was the only one in the Empress's entourage who shared them. This, naturally, strengthened her position with the Empress, for who else could be her messenger? Rasputin, moreover, was always ready to point out Mme. Vyroubova's devotion to the Empress, who was grateful to her friend for risking the world's censure by going to the persecuted Saint to bring her his sustaining messages.
Alexandra Feodorovna spoke of herself as a "great worrier," and this was true, but when her anxieties gained the upper hand, Rasputin's pious outpourings and her faith in his prayers and prophecies gave her confidence. The Emperor found a certain peace of mind in the hopeful assurances that in the end all would go well, and was glad to see the comfort the Empress derived from her trust in Rasputin's healing powers. Believing as she did in his heaven-sent powers of divination, the Empress passed on to the Emperor Rasputin's casual judgments of people. She also quoted everything he said about the needs of his own peasant class, to which he always remained true. It must be said that, in such things, his opinions were those of a very shrewd peasant and often quite sound. But they did not seem to have much effect on the Emperor, who generally passed them over, or agreed in some small, unimportant thing so as not to hurt his wife's feelings by refusing what had become her request. In general politics Rasputin never had any influence.
Rasputin was certainly too careful to start any political conversations himself. He believed that his pilgrimages had made him an authority on Church matters, and he seems to have spoken on ecclesiastical affairs to the Empress, who listened to the authority of the "Saint "; but even in this, the Emperor does not seem entirely to have adopted her point of view.
As it was, Rasputin was artificially made into a, power by the people who came to him in search of material advantages. These visits created in the public an ever increasing idea of his importance. If a Cabinet Minister was said to have called on a man like Rasputin, as some are supposed to have done, even if it were only out of curiosity, Rasputin's position became stronger. The public did not believe in a personal or unofficial motive for such a visit. They imagined that Rasputin really had an influence on affairs of State.
At the beginning of the war, when the Tsarevich was in good health and the Empress was wholly engrossed in her charities, she saw Rasputin very seldom. Mme. Dehn writes in her book that she was even commissioned by the Empress to suggest to Rasputin that he should return to his native village. This his female followers would not allow, and he did not carry out the Empress's wish.
Mme. Vyroubova's railway accident, followed by the serious illness of the Tsarevich in December 1915, again brought him to the fore. In that year Mme. Vyroubova and Mme. Dehn went with Rasputin on a pilgrimage to the shrine of a newly-canonised saint at Tobolsk. They did this at the Empress's request, as she had made a vow to go on that pilgrimage herself, or to send a substitute. On the way, both ladies visited the village where Rasputin's family lived. Rasputin's wife received them, and they were much impressed by everything they saw. Their account of the visit strengthened, if possible, the Empress's disbelief in all stories reflecting on the object of their veneration. The testimony of these two ladies did not carry weight with anyone but the Empress. Mme. Dehn, as the Empress's friend, was naturally shown only the spiritual side of Rasputin's character. Mme. Vyroubova knew him better, but his influence over her was so strong that she was not likely to look below the surface. To sum up the question: Rasputin was not the political power pulling the strings of a political game in which Ministers were his pawns ; nor the sectary and the dissolute "monk " that he was sometimes, mostly in novels, described as being. But he certainly was not anything like the saint that the Empress imagined him to be. Had he remained in his native village, he would perhaps have kept his reputation of a pious man "with weaknesses." His fellow-villagers would have condoned his sins. He had great faith, and knew how to kindle it in others. He was really indifferent about money. He honestly believed in himself, so Father Vassiliev, the Emperor's confessor, told me. Rasputin thought it right that people should ask for his prayers. His success in St. Petersburg was his undoing; temptations were put in his way to which his weaker side surrendered. He revered his Tsar, peasant-fashion, but, through his presumed political influence on the Empress, he helped to bring about the sovereign's unpopularity.
Contrary to the general impression, Rasputin did not wholly engross the Empress's thoughts. He was but one of the many pages that formed the book of her life. When she wanted a fresh stimulus to her faith, when her son was ill and the doctors' help unavailing, then she opened the page of Rasputin.
Legends of Rasputin sprang up outside the Palace and grew and spread far beyond Russia, where a grossly distorted version of Rasputin's personality and the part played by him was generally accepted. Nothing is so hard to kill as a legend, but, perhaps, in time, the truth will be realised, and the whole pitiful drama understood.
Rasputin never had any official position in the Palace. He was never "lampadary," a nonexistent post, not did he ever get any pecuniary assistance from either the Emperor or the Empress. Had he ever hinted at help of this kind, his power with them would have gone, for they had the greatest contempt for mercenary motives. He died in the same position with regard to money as he had lived.
Next chapter: The Empress and Her Family
Website © Bob Atchison 1997, 1998, 1999 | Comments on the website | Search all Alexander Palace sites by Keywords | Website built by Pallasart Web Design.