Traditionally, the line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne descended through the male line. By 1903 the Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies, each of them girls. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1904, the Tsarina 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 happy news was announced with a 301-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress, and all of Russia rejoiced.
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 required all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal, to stop it.
The child suffered from hemophilia, an hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria. She’d already 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 the Tsarevich was no exception. Bleeding episodes were often severe, despite the never-ending efforts of his parents, to protect him. Doctors’ remedies were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men”, for a cure.
Born on this day in 1869, Grigori Efimovich Rasputin was a strange man, a Siberian peasant wanderer and self-proclaimed “holy man”, a seer of the future claiming the power to heal. Rasputin would leave his home village of Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time, wandering the countryside and visiting holy sites. It’s rumored that he once went as far Athos in Greece, at that time a center of monastic life in the Orthodox church.
The precise circumstances are unknown, but the monk came into the royal orbit, sometime in 1905. “We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary , “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”.
Alexei suffered an internal hemorrhage in the spring of 1907, and Grigori was summoned to pray. The Tsarevich recovered the next morning. The royal family came to rely on the faith-healing powers of Rasputin. It seemed that he alone was able to stop the boy’s bleeding episodes.
The Tsarevich developed a serious hematoma in his groin and thigh in 1912, following a particularly jolting carriage ride. Severely in pain and suffering with high fever, the boy appeared to be close to death. Desperate, the Tsarina sent a telegram, asking the monk to pray for her son. Rasputin wrote back from Siberia, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” The bleeding stopped, within the next two days.
The British historian Harold Shukman wrote that Rasputin was “an indispensable member of the royal entourage”.
As the royal family became more attached to the monk Rasputin, scandals followed the peasant holy man like the chains of Jacob Marley. Rumors abounded of sexual peccadillos, involving society ladies and prostitutes alike. Gossip describing trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that pornographic postcards were openly circulated, depicting these liaisons.
What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian 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. Those around her openly spoke of Rasputin ruining the Royal Family, and the Russian nation.
Influential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen. Rasputin was indispensable according to the Royal Couple. He was the only man who could save the Tsarevich.
By 1916 it was clear to many in the Nobility. The only course was to kill Rasputin, before he destroyed the monarchy.
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 the monk. Rasputin went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors. He tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell. At last, with 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 the Great War proved too much to handle. The Imperial Russian state collapsed in 1917. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months of the death of Rasputin. Members of the Ural regional Soviet shot, bludgeoned and bayoneted the Russian Imperial family to death: Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, all five children, the Grand Duchess Olga, the Romanov family physician, their footman, maid, and their dogs.
A coded telegram was sent to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov. “Inform Sverdlov”, (Communist party administrator Yakov Sverdlov ) “The whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation”.