Most biographies of Grigori Rasputin focus on his reputation as a religious mystic and wanderer, philanderer, legendary lover, and friend and counsel to Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra — but don’t so much mention that he was quite the walker. Today, we’d call it “thru-hiking.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a little less common.
Rasputin walked several times across Russia, from his Siberian hometown of Pokrovskoye to Kiev, during the 1890s — a more than 1,800-mile trip, or equivalent to the Appalachian Trail. In 1900, Rasputin announced to his father that he would make a religious pilgrimage on foot to Mount Athos in Greece, a journey of about 3,100 miles. His father didn’t exactly approve, saying Rasputin aimed to be “a pilgrim out of laziness.” It probably didn’t help that he had a wife and children at home in Pokrovskoye. He walked to Greece anyway, crushing out 27- to 33-mile days, rain or shine. When he arrived at a monastery there, it wasn’t exactly what he had hoped for, so he walked back to Pokrovskoye after being gone for two years.
As he wandered about Russia, Europe and the Mediterranean, his reputation as a spiritual healer grew, along with his reputation for seducing women. Around 1905, he met the tsar and tsarina and began to grow close to the family by proving he could repeatedly stop their hemophiliac son’s bleeding. During World War I, Rasputin became unpopular through his bold political manipulation of the tsarina — unpopular to the point that several men plotted his death.
Rasputin is a badass not because of how he lived, but how he died. Or, perhaps more accurately, how much effort it took to kill him. Details of Rasputin’s assassination are muddy at best, as they sometimes are when a group of men goes to great lengths to kill someone and get away with it. What can be said is that his assassination became legend, or added to his legend. The most dramatic story goes:
Prologue: In 1914, Rasputin was stabbed in the abdomen by a former prostitute on the street in his hometown in Siberia. So many of his important organs were hanging out of his body that the woman ran away, screaming, “I have killed the antichrist!” But he recovered.
On December 29th, 1916, Rasputin was invited to the Moika Palace, home of Prince Felix Yusupov. The plan was to poison tea cakes and wine and give them to Rasputin. As Yusupov wrote in his 1953 book, Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin: “Dr Lazovert put on rubber gloves and ground the cyanide of potassium crystals to powder. Then, lifting the top of each cake, he sprinkled the inside with a dose of poison, which, according to him, was sufficient to kill several men instantly. There was an impressive silence.”
Rasputin was persuaded to eat the cakes and drink the wine, and…nothing happened. For hours. “We were seized with an insane dread that this man was inviolable, that he was superhuman, that he couldn’t be killed,” Yusupov wrote.
The men were so worried that Rasputin would live that they decided Yusupov should shoot him. So, Yusupov ran upstairs, got a revolver, and shot Rasputin in the back. Rasputin slumped to the floor, presumably dead, and the men left the palace. A few minutes later, Yusupov walked back into the palace to get a coat. He opened the door of the room where Rasputin’s body lay, and Rasputin suddenly opened his eyes, leapt up, and began to strangle Yusupov. The other men arrived just in time and shot Rasputin three more times in the back. They bound his hands and feet and rolled him up in carpet and carried his body down to the partially-frozen Moika River.
Where he wriggled out of his bindings.
But, alas, he drowned in the river. An autopsy revealed that Rasputin’s lungs were full of water, meaning the poison didn’t kill him, nor the gunshot wounds — he had actually drowned, and had still been breathing when he was thrown in the river.
Though dead, Rasputin refused to give up. He was buried by the tsarina, but revolutionaries dug him up and set his body on fire. As flames engulfed the corpse, he sat upright. The neophyte cremators didn’t know to cut his tendons, which contracted and bent his legs and body at the waist. Even in death, a badass.