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Grigory Rasputin and the Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg

1916 was the final year when the Russian Empire still existed. On March 2, 1917, not far from the ancient Russian town of  Pskov, Nicholas II signed the abdication for himself and for his heir, son Alexei. In his diary later the same day the former emperor wrote: “All around is treason and cowardice and deceit”.

Now it’s almost impossible to imagine the severity of the feelings Nikolas faced at the moment as a person and as already an ex-monarch.  His personal tragedy and the tragedy of the Romanov dynasty began to gain strength long before the March events and they were gradually unfolding against the backdrop of the planet scale drama, the 1st World war. By that time, Russia had been participating in the war for three years already. 

There were strong anti-war sentiments in the Russian society and dissatisfaction with domestic politics. These and other complex social processes inside and outside the vast empire became a turning point at that particular history swirl, which finally lead to a radical change of the epochs in October coup 1917.

Among numerous tour places in Russia one place is definitely one of the most luxurious and somehow mysterious and «dark», we are talking about the Yusupov Palace in St.Petersburg.  

In 1916, two months before the abdication of the tzar a shocking event closely connected not only with the private life of Nicholas II and his family, but also the whole country happened in the capital city of St. Petersburg. Grigory Rasputin, a Siberian peasant who was considered a friend of the Tsar family, was killed in the palace of the Yusupov family at the Moika river on December, 16 that year. 

Who was that peasant, who later became world famous? Why was he named in the diary of Nicholas II as “a man of God” and how was his communication with the royal family developing during the 11 years when they were acquainted? Why are there are still so many disputes around Rasputin’s personality and his influence on the fate of the Russian Empire? And why there is still no single version of the reason for his death? There are too many questions about Rasputin’s personality and life but during your Russian tour you will be able know more about this person. Here we will try to give you a brief version of that part of the Russian history.

Grigory Rasputin was born in the family of a coachman in the Tobolsk village of Pokrovskoye in Siberia on January, 9, 1869. He experienced several severe illnesses as a child perhaps that influenced his further churching, strong faith in God and subsequently manifestations of the healing gift that was attributed to him.

Being still a teenager he began deep studying of the Bible, learned by heart the texts of prayers. At the age of 18, Grigory Rasputin made his first pilgrimage to the Verkhotursky monastery, which was relatively close to his home but decided not to take a monk’s vow, but to continue wandering through the holy places of the world. Later he travelled to Athos in Greece and Jerusalem. Then he managed to establish contacts with many monks, pilgrims and representatives of the clergy in Russia, which some historians associated with the political meaning of his activities in future.

ca. 1899, Pokrovskoje, Russia — Rasputin and Children — Image by © Baldwin H. Ward & Kathryn C. Ward/CORBIS Der selbsternannte Bettelmönch und spätere Gesundbeter der russischen Zarenfamilie, Grigorij Rasputin, posiert mit seinen Kindern auf seinem Bauernhof in seinem Heimatdorf Pokrowskoje in Westsibirien. Auf dem Arm trägt er seine jüngste Tochter Warwara, links neben ihm steht seine Tochter Maria, rechts sein Erstgeborener Dimitrij.

At the same time, he lived as an ordinary person. He returned back to the village he was born after his pilgrimages. In 1890 he married Praskovya Dubrovina, a peasant pilgrim, and she gave birth to three of their children, daughters Matryona and Varvara, and a son Dimitry. 

Ten years later, in 1900, he took off for a new pilgrimage to Kiev, and then lived for a long time in Kazan. In 1903 Rasputin came to St. Petersburg to see the head of the Theological Academy, Bishop Sergius. At the same time, the inspector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, Archimandrite Feofan, gets acquainted with Rasputin, and it was him to introduce Rasputin into high society later this year.

In 1904, Rasputin acquired the fame of a “wise elder”, a “holy fool” and a “man of God” from a part of the high society, which consolidated the position of a “saint” in the eyes of the St. Petersburg world or at least he was considered a “great ascetic”.

Father Feofan told about the “wanderer” to the daughters of the Montenegrin prince Nikolai Negosh — Milice and Stana. The sisters told the empress Alexandra Feodorovna about the new religious celebrity. It took several years before he began to stand out clearly among the crowd of “God’s people”. On November 1, 1905, Rasputin’s first personal meeting with the emperor took place. This event was honored with an entry in the diary of Nicholas II. 

A year before the meeting of Rasputin and the tsar, Nicholas and Alexandra became parents again. After 10 years of marriage and 4 daughters Tatiana, Maria, Olga and Anastasia, they finally got a son Alexei, a heir to to the throne.

It was so long waited event not only for the Romanov dynasty as a family but for the whole empire because under the law on succession, only a male child could inherit the throne. Prince Alexey was born in Peterhof (ссыkка) on July 30, 1904.

The Russian law on succession was passed in 1797 by Paul I. Now it is difficult to say why the tsar Nicholas II could not go against that quite old fashioned tradition and change this law, given his unlimited power. Especially since he knew that his wife, Princess Aliks or Alexandra Feodorovna, as she was baptized in Russia, a German by birth, and a granddaughter of the Queen Victoria, was a carrier of the hemophilia gene, a hereditary disease that could be transmitted by women of her family to men born by them.

Unfortunately, Alexey inherited hemophilia from his mother and it was discovered two months after his birth. The main danger of hemophilia is the uncontrolled internal bleedings, which are very difficult to stop, and this concerned any bruise, after which it could start and put the child to bed for days, as this caused him very severe pain. Of course, prince Alexey was protected day and night, but it is impossible to avoid the rise of falls and bruises, especially when it comes to a small child.

The boy was growing up, and his illness became one of the defining factors in the life of the tzar family. Sometimes the cause of hemorrhages was known, but sometimes not. Sometimes, the prince simply announced: “Mom, I can’t walk today,” or: “Mom, I can’t find my elbow today.” The best remedy to get out of this condition was constant exercise and massage, but there was always a danger the bleeding would start again. It is believed that Alexei had a severe form of the disease. 

Even now, hemophilia remains incurable today, but its course is controlled by injections of the missing blood-clotting factor. At the beginning of the 20th century, treatment consisted of reviewing the symptoms of fever, massage, mud wraps. 

But where is Rasputin, what does he have to do with it?

Rasputin’s daughter Matryona tells in her memoirs that grand duchess Anastasia of Montenegro, at court she was known by the Serbian name of Stana, offered to call her father to the palace during one of the severe attacks of hemophilia. That same Stana that Nicholas mentioned in his diary at the day he met with Rasputin for the first time. 

During the first meeting with the royal family in 1905, Rasputin, kneeling in front of the bed of a one-year-old boy, prayed for 10 minutes. The emperor and empress stood silently at first, and then also knelt down. After finishing the prayer, Rasputin said to Alexei: “Open your eyes, my son! Open your eyes and look at me.” The child immediately opened his eyes and smiled.

In addition to prayer, Rasputin used medicines. For example, when the heir once again started bleeding, he took an oak bark out of his pocket, boiled it in a boiling water, and then covered the prince’s face with this mass, leaving his eyes and mouth open.

Rasputin later explained that oak bark can stop bleeding. There is also evidence that the “elder” gave the heir herbal medicines received from Dr. Peter Badmaev, a specialist in traditional Tibetan medicine.

Sometimes, in order to help the prince, Rasputin did not even need to be near him, he just talked to Alexei on the phone. Contemporaries were surprised by the incredible medical effects that the seemingly simple actions of the Siberian peasant had.

According to Rasputin’s daughter Matryona, she believed in her father’s “holiness” and spoke about his diligent studies in Jesus prayer, although she acknowledged that Rasputin’s life combined periods of “prayerful ecstasy” with times of extreme revelry. According to Matryona, Rasputin “aspired to holiness”, and “approached” her in those moments when he healed people.

According to some modern researchers, the “elder” did not stop the bleeding of the child, but only relieved his pain with the help of hypnosis, while at the same time soothing the mother, Alexandra Feodorovna. 

This opinion is shared, for example, by the candidate of medical Sciences Mikhail Davydov. He refers to today’s hypnotherapists who manage to achieve vasoconstriction in patients with hemophilia. The hypnotic “explanation of the mystery of Rasputin’s “medicine” is apparently supported by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. Rasputin’s curse of medicinal herbs is also quite justified from a medical point of view. Mikhail Davydov explains that the herbal remedies that the heir received contained vitamins K and C, as well as, possibly, other components that strengthen the walls of blood vessels.

Now, in the 21st century, it is easier for us to talk about serious diseases because so many breakthroughs in medicine were done over the past hundred years, but the possibilities of medicine in the beginning of the 20th century were weaker. That’s was also one of the reasons of Rasputin’s phenomena. 

Also at the beginning of the XX century, Russia was experiencing a real explosion of interest in the mysterious and unknown; both the upper strata of society and ordinary people were exposed to this. Esotericism and occultism were fashionable in high society and even among the most educated intellectuals, spiritualistic séances were held. 

The request for a “miracle” exists in every century, but sometimes the power of this request increases, and then such personalities as Rasputin, under favorable circumstances, are somehow “highlighted” and become too “visible” among their own kind.

The illness of Alexey was hidden from the society, which created an additional and moreover invisible tension around the tsar family, which later resulted in the fact that many actions of the Romanovs regarding Rasputin’s “approach” to them caused discontent in the upper strata of society, and false and scabous rumors among the common people.  

The gossips about Alexandra Feodorovna having secret romantic affair with Rasputin was widely spread in the society which, of course, was false. In reality, Rasputin met with the Tsar family personally several times only, Mostly his communication with Alexandra Feodorovna and Nicolas II was via correspondence. 

Perhaps the most crucial in the story of connection between Rasputin and the tzar family was the fact that in the highest society it was openly discussed that Rasputin had influence on Nicholas II in matters of managing the country. In this regard, the first murder attempt was organized on Rasputin in 1914, he was attacked by Hioniya Guseva, she seriously wounded him.

In the pre-war situation of 1914, Nicholas II did exchange telegrams with Rasputin, who was still in the hospital in Tyumen. But in their correspondence the tsar refers to him more as a close friend, maybe as a confessor or as a person who relieved the suffering of his son during his illness, as a person who can be nearby in an exceptionally challengeable situation and who he could trust.

Below you will find an abstract from the memoires of Pierre Gilliard, a Swiss academic and author, best known as the French language tutor to the five children of Nicholas and Alexandra from 1905 to 1918. In 1921 he published a memoir «Thirteen Years at the Russian Court” about his time with the Romanov family.

«While the minds were getting hot, and the diplomatic offices were working at full speed, telegrams full of anxiety were sent from Alexandria (where the Tsar stayed) to a distant Siberia, where Rasputin was slowly recovering from his wound in the Tyumen hospital. 

They were all about the same content: “We are afraid of the war threatening Us. Do you think it’s possible? Pray for Us. Support Us with advice.” 

Rasputin replied that it was necessary to avoid war at any cost, if they did not want to bring the most terrible misfortunes on the Dynasty and on the whole country. His advice answered the cherished wishes of the sovereign, whose peacefulness cannot be questioned. One had to see Him during that terrible week of the end of July to understand what torment and moral torture He went through”.

Rasputin could not give any specific advice to Nicholas II how to manage the country, especially in the wartime, since he had no education at all. Probably for Nicholas II, at that moment Rasputin acted as a kind of “inner voice”, “vibration of time”, “mirror”, “an answer to the request” what should be done in such extraordinary situation when the country was facing war. 

By the end of 1916, Russia was bogged down in the war and it affected the socio-economic situation in the country. Prices were rising very quickly and workers’ strikes have begun. There was a situation in which Nicholas II could go to separate negotiations for peace with Germany. And some writers have suggested that agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) were involved in Rasputin’s assassination. According to this theory, British agents were concerned that Rasputin was urging the tsar to make a separate peace with Germany, which would allow Germany to concentrate its military efforts on the Western Front.

The assassination attempt on Rasputin in 1914 was not successful and he finally recovered. Nevertheless, a conspiracy against him was being formed again in high society in 1916, headed by Prince Felix Yusupov, the youngest representative of the richest family in the Russian Empire. Felix was a relative of Nicholas II, his wife Irina was a niece of the Tsar, a daughter of his sister Ksenia. 

On December, 16 Felix, together with his accomplices, invited Rasputin to visit him in the palace on the Moika river in St. Petersburg, one of the 6 palaces in the capital the family of Yusupov owned. 

First they tried to poison him with cyanide potassium, which was added to the cakes, but the poison did not work, possibly due to a reaction with glucose. Then Rasputin was shot several times but still he was not dead but wounded and unconscious. Then the killers threw his body into the Moika river which is 20 meters in front of the palace. 

Later, the investigation established that Rasputin was still alive when he was thrown into the water. Death came from the fact that he could not get out of the water due to the wounds and drowned.

An exposition dedicated to this bloody episode is located in the basement of the Yusupov Palace, where it actually took place at the very end of the final year of the empire.

And while at the individual guided tour to the Palace you will hear this story and know a lot contradictory details of this matter and several absolutely different versions why Grigory Rasputin was killed. This will help you to make your own opinion about this person who definitely was an extraordinary historical character.

The Yusupov Palace itself is one of the most beautiful places in St. Petersburg, here (ссылка) you may find more about details about the gorgeous interiors of the palace. If we talk about the Yusupov palace in the context of the history of Grigory Rasputin, then a visit there will allow you to see, as you may say 2 sides of the life of the Russian Empire – a ceremonial one, of the high-society, with luxurious halls and even an extraordinary home mini-theater in the Baroque style and a hidden one, which is dark, contradictory, “shadowy”, which embodies the exposition of Rasputin’s murder. 

Often the Yusopov palace is not the number 1 priority among tourists while visiting tour places in Russia because  the classic 2 or 3 day tour to Russia usually include more popular places like the suburban tsar residences like Pavlovsk (ссылка), Peterhoff or Tsarskoe selo. But this palace is definitely a hidden jem/ 

And if you have 3 day tour in Russia, St Petersburg we highly recommend not to miss this opportunity. For one week tour to Russia it’s an absolute must- see place because, perhaps, this is the most luxurious Russian palace open to the public inside of the city.

What happened next after the murder of Rasputin? 

The participants of this drama were later split by destiny and history forever. Nicholas II, his wife and all their children including the heir were killed in Ekaterinburg in July 1918 and only in 1991 were buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, a pantheon of the Russian monarchs in St.Petersburg. 

Felix Yusupov with his wife Irina left Russia to France in 1917. Felix wrote his memoires in 1953, and died in Paris at the age of 80 in 1967.

Matryona Rasputina also left Russia after the October coup in 1917, she wrote three memoirs about her father. The third one, The Man Behind the Myth, was published in 1977. During the last years of her life, she lived in Los Angeles

Pierre Gilliard followed the tsar family into internal exile at TobolskSiberia, following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks prevented Gilliard from joining the tsar family when they were moved to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg in May 1918 where they were murdered. He married Alexandra Tegleva, who had been a nurse to grand duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, in 1919. They left Russia in 1920 and finally reached his parents’ home in Fiez, which he had left 16 years before. He became a French professor at the University of Lausanne and was awarded the French Legion of Honor, died at the age of 83 in 1962.

Rasputin was buried on 2 January 1917 at a small church in Tsarskoe Selo (ccылка), near St Petersburg. The funeral was attended only by the imperial family and a few of their intimates. Rasputin’s wife, and children were not invited, although his daughters met with the tzar family later that day. His body was exhumed and burned by a detachment of soldiers shortly after the Tsar abdicated the throne in March 1917 so that his grave would not become a rallying point for supporters of the old regime. 

The Yusupov Place on Moika river, which somehow became also one of the main heroes of this story, was nationalized after 1917.

The richest collection of fine arts owned by the Yusupov family was distributed among the biggest museums of the USSR including the Hermitage. But the splendor, luxury and the atmosphere of the interiors hasn’t gone anywhere and we invite you to have an individual guided tour with us to this one of the most exquisite tour places in Russia. 

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