The line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne traditionally followed the male line, as it had for most of its history. The Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies by 1903, each of them a girl. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1904 she labored to deliver her fifth. That August, the country waited and hoped for an heir to the throne. All of Russia prayed for a boy.
The prayers of the nation were answered on August 12 (July 30 Old Style calendar), with the birth of a son. The Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich. The public was informed of the happy news with a 301 gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Those hopes would be dashed in less than a month, when the infant’s navel began to bleed. It continued to bleed for two days, and took all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal to stop it.
The child suffered from hemophilia, a hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria, who had lost a son and a grandson to the disease, both at the age of three.
The early years of any small boy are punctuated by dents and dings and Alexei was no exception. The bleeding episodes suffered by the Tsarevich were often severe, despite his parents never ending attempts to protect him. Doctors’ efforts were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men” for a cure.
“We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary in 1905, “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”. “Grigory” was Grigory Efimovich Rasputin. Born on this day in 1869, Rasputin was a strange man, a peasant wanderer and self proclaimed “Holy Man”, a seer of the future proclaiming the power to heal.
The scandals seemed never-ending, involving Rasputin’s carryings-on with society ladies and prostitutes alike. Rumors of sexual trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that postcards depicting these liasons were openly circulated. What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed the man had the power to make her boy better. Many around her openly spoke of this man ruining the Royal Family, and the nation.
Influential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen. According to the Royal Couple, Rasputin was the only man who could save their young son Alexei. By 1916 it was clear to many in the nobility. The only course was to kill Rasputin, before the monarchy was destroyed.
A group of five nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace on December 16, 1916, using the possibility of a sexual encounter with Yusopov’s beautiful wife, Irina, as bait. Pretending that she was upstairs with unexpected guests, the five “entertained” Rasputin in a basement dining room, feeding him arsenic laced pastries and washing them down with poisoned wine. None of it seemed to have any effect.
Panicked, Yusupov pulled a revolver and shot Rasputin, who went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors. Rasputin then tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell. At last, his hands and feet bound, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was thrown from a bridge into the icy Malaya Nevka River.
Police found the body two days later, with water in the lungs and hands outstretched. Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.
In the end, the succession question turned out to be moot. A letter attributed to Rasputin, which he may or may not have written, contained a prophecy. “If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia…[I]f it was your relations who have wrought my death…none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”
The stresses and economic dislocations of WWI proved too much. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months. Bolshevik forces murdered the Russian Imperial family: Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and all five children, less than a year later.