“If there had been no Rasputin, there would have been no Lenin.” –Alexander Kerenskey, Premier of the short-lived Provisional Government that followed the overthrow of the Tsar
As a kid, I don’t think I ever tried arguing that going to schlocky horror films on Saturday nights was somehow furthering my education. Even I wouldn’t have believed that story. So, of course, it turned out to be true.
On the night in question, back in the late Sixties, Saturday’s triple bill was Hammer Night: three cheesy flicks from Dracula’s personal movie studio, Hammer Films. The first two films had Jacqueline Pearce turning into The Reptile (1966) and Christopher Lee beginning his sanguinolent strutting as Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965). Sandwiched in between these two pictures was another called Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1965). It, too, starred Christopher Lee, was shot on the same soundstage as Dracula (to save money!), and was my first introduction to one of history’s (and cinema’s) juiciest roles.
For an impressionable teenager, Rasputin had it all: sex, revolution, conspiracy, religion, murder, sex. The central character made Dracula seem almost restrained by comparison. When some editorial comment in Rasputin said the film was based on historical fact, I nodded my head knowingly. Yeah, right, and the National Enquirer is based on current events. We’re supposed to believe that Rasputin chowed down merrily on cyanide-laced cakes and poisoned wine, totally unaffected, while a phonograph played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” over and over and over again? We’re supposed to believe that an unwashed, illiterate, priapic peasant from Siberia controlled the Russian Imperial court during its most critical years?
Well, actually, he did.
After watching Rasputin: The Mad Monk, I headed out to the local library to get the real story. It turned out that while the Hammer people didn’t get too many of the facts right, this turned out to be one of those cases of truth being way, way stranger than fiction. In the years which followed I picked up a couple of biographies that confirmed that the life of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin didn’t leave much room for exaggeration. When I recently discovered that the Riondel Market had an HBO version of the mad monk’s story, Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny (1996), with Alan Rickman in the starring role, I jumped at the chance to renew old acquaintances.
Playing Rasputin must be, for an actor, as satisfying as playing Richard III or Iago. Although there hasn’t yet been a screenplay for Rasputin that’s up to the level of his Shakespearean forebears, Alan Rickman does Rasputin justice.
Rasputin came from a well-to-do peasant family in western Siberia, some 250 miles east of the Ural Mountains. As a young man, he established a reputation for horse stealing, hooliganism, and lechery. His name comes from a Russian word meaning “dissolute.” At the age of thirty he underwent a radical conversion. In the early part of the Twentieth century Russia in general, and Siberia in particular, was swept by a wave of religious and occult movements. During an early stay at a monastery, Rasputin may have come in contact with the Khlysty sect, which celebrated a kind of orgiastic spiritualism.
Rasputin became a starets, a wandering holy man. He likely walked the two thousand miles to the monastery of Mount Athos in Greece, and may have gotten as far as Jerusalem. Although he was probably one of hundreds who crisscrossed Siberia at that time, his powerful visions and personal charisma brought him to the notice of some of the most important leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. The sponsorship of men like Father John of Kronstad and Archimandrite Feofan would gain Rasputin entrance into the highest circles of the Imperial court in St. Petersburg. Rasputin gives a strong picture of both Grigori’s peasant youth and his early rise to power.
Once Rasputin made connections to the Russian royal family it was inevitable that he should come into contact with its heir, the young haemophiliac Alexi. There has been endless speculation on Rasputin’s influence over the young man. Theories ranging from his use of secret Tibetan drugs or hypnotism, to speculation of good timing and sheer dumb luck. What is undeniable is that Rasputin came to be seen by both Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra as their boy’s saviour. From that point on, his power became immeasurable. He would become responsible for the wholesale appointment and dismissal of the highest officials in the Russian government. He would advise Nicholas on the Russian war effort. Rasputin would destabilize and cast into disrepute a monarchy which was reeling from the outbreak of World War I, from popular unrest, and from increasingly active anarchist and communist movements. He was like oil poured on the fire.
Rasputin is at its best when showing the interactions with the royal family. Ian McKellen and Greta Scacchi are excellent in the roles of the Emperor and Empress. The voice-overs by Freddie Findlay as young Tsar-to-be Alexei also work well, and are haunting because we know the fate which awaits him. Where the film fails completely, and where there is still room for a great film biography of Rasputin, is in communicating his influence over the whole course of Russian history. We see Rasputin the unholy holy man and Rasputin the peasant drunk on power, but we never see the Machiavellian manipulator behind the throne.
Incredibly, Rasputin maintained his powerful voice within the imperial household while leading a life of unrestrained debauchery within the capital. Indeed, he used the former to ensure the latter had no limits. His only ambition was power. Once he had the Empress’s ear, that power was unlimited. He also had the peasant’s disdain for pomp and circumstance. He accepted bribes not for the sake of wealth, but just for the satisfaction of extorting them. He bedded women at the highest levels of St. Petersburg society because their debasement was his exaltation. Rasputin probably wouldn’t have had the influence he did if he hadn’t believed his own creed that to gain salvation one must first sin. Sin made one humble before the eyes of God. To be defiled was to open the gates to purification. In his own words, “With God in thought, but with mankind in the flesh.” As far as rationalizations go, sin-as-redemption verges on apocalyptic. Watching Rickman in his role, it seemed to me that Rasputin was the Jim Morrison of his time. The Lizard King. It didn’t hurt his cause that the St. Petersburg society of the time was corrupt to the core.
Rasputin is very sympathetic to the royal family. Greta Scacchi plays Alexandra quite nobly. In reality she was probably a flake, and she enthusiastically helped Rasputin destroy some of the most promising careers in the Russian government. McKellen does the same favour for Tsar Nicholas. In every movie version I’ve seen, Nicholas comes across as such a decent guy–the father, uncle, grandfather that everyone would like to have. Maybe he just seemed that way in contrast with his father, the utterly ruthless Alexander III. To my mind, Rasputin plays too much upon Nicholas and Alexandra as victims; they were also the architects of their own destruction.
One thing Rasputin conveys as well as any film I have seen is a concrete sense of the wealth and aloofness of the Tsarist court. The camera moves through gilded corridors and 3-metre-high doors, and across cold and monumental facades. The film was shot masterfully both on location at the Royal Palaces in St. Petersburg and in Budapest, by Elemer Ragalyi. One sees in sharp relief the whole astounding edifice of imperial order that was about to be smashed to pieces by the Revolution.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
You cannot make this stuff up. It’s unlikely that any single film will ever capture the full biography of Grigory Rasputin. A story that includes Siberian family life, religious fanaticism, miracle-working, Machiavellian politics, rampant seduction, secret police surveillance, the Russian Revolution, and the tragedy of a royal family leaves no room for hyperbole. Proof of this will be found in some of the biographical passages I’m including below. Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny makes a decent effort to stick to historical records. Not hard given the quality of extant biographies and the fact that Rasputin was the focus of round-the-clock watches by Tsarist agents—the records of which have been preserved in archives. Alan Rickman’s performance in the title role is convincing, and he’s strongly supported by Ian McKellan’s Nicolas II and Greta Scacchi’s Tsarina Alexandra. Notably missing from Dark Servant: any mention of Rasputin’s family, of his near death at the hands of a madwoman, an accounting of his blatant trading of political favors and Machiavellian behind-the-scenes manipulations, and his daughter becoming a lion tamer and settling in Los Angeles.
German director Uli Edel has worked mainly in television between 1971 and 2021. One of his noteworthy films in English was an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Both Alan Rickman and Greta Scacchi had their only Emmy wins (as of 2021) for Rasputin.
Rasputin, the Mad Monk takes nothing from history except the name and reputation. Christopher Lee gives a master class in scenery chewing, juiced up by Don Banks’ over-the-top musical score. Lee’s 6’ 4” frame is used to great effect. No wonder Saturday night thrill-seeking cinema kids like me loved Hammer horror films in the Sixties. To this day, I remember the adrenalin-in-the-dark in the Castle Theatre, relishing a perfect double bill with Rasputin: The Mad Monk and The Reptile (even creepier than Rasputin). Check out the original theatrical trailer here:
After seeing Christopher Lee as a clean-shaven, suavely seductive Dracula, it’s a refreshing change to watch him rock a great black beard and wild hair. The carry-over from all those Dracula films, of course, is the killer hypnotic stare that turns women into pawns. What most impressed me about Lee’s Rasputin on a recent viewing was his hands—they settled like great spiders around the faces of those on whom he was working his cures. I could really believe there was power in those hands, and how he would have been able to convince others that he was mainlining God. Unfortunately, no one else in the film can match either Lee’s gusto or Banks’s musical pyrotechnics. Even popular leading lady Barbara Shelley, while a good match for the actual lady-in-waiting who was instrumental in communicating between Rasputin and the Tsarina, is nothing more than a puppet in the mad monk’s hands.
Director Don Sharp, born on the island Tasmania, made a couple of dozen low-budget feature films as director during a thirty-year career, as well as doing some television work (he directed three episodes of The Avengers in the late 60s). Talented, Australian-born composer Don Banks was active in Hammer films during the Sixties, but died in 1980 at the age of 56 due to complications from leukemia. A consummate jazz musician, Banks was also one of the founder members of the British Society for Electronic Music.
As hinted at earlier, here’s some Rasputin history that falls in the incredible-but-true category:
From Brian Moynahan’s Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned:
Rasputin came to St. Petersburg like a projectile from the medieval past. (p. 47)
“All our thoughts belong to God,” [Rasputin] said. “But our bodies belong to ourselves.” (p. 336)
Technically, the murder [of Rasputin] changed nothing; psychologically it changed everything. It did not, as the killers hoped, restore the dignity of the throne; and Alexandra’s influence was untouched, for she kept her nerve while the tsar retreated into nervous collapse. Her mauve boudoir and her telephone beneath a picture of Marie Antoinette remained the focal point of government, and, when ministers came to report to the tsar in his study, she listened from his dressing room. In a broader sense, however, the death was what Russians call perelom, the great turning point. It left the rulers utterly exposed. To assault Rasputin was to assault the throne, and two of those who had done so were Romanovs by blood or marriage; the chains of loyalty that still bound those of lesser rank were snapped. Centuries of convention had protected the tsar and empress from outright defamation by all but the boldest and most reckless subject. Blame for catastrophe had been heaped on Rasputin; e had been their lightning rod, deflecting hatreds and contempt that now had no target but themselves. Rasputin had been their glue, too; he was “their mainspring, their toy, their fetish.” If he could be taken from them, so could their power. And the penalty for lèse-majesté, certain death or torture under previous tsars, was suddenly seen as little more than a slap on the wrist. Although the empress had shouted “Hang them!” the murderers were simply sent away—Yusupov to his estates in the Crimea, Dmitri to join the army staff in Persia. Purishkevich took his hospital train to the front, where the military police kept watch on him. (p. 345)
The warnings [about the troops’ unreliability and inability to put down disorders] fell on the deaf ear of [Interior Minister] Protopopov. He busied himself by day replying personally to the torrent of toadies and petitioners who had sent him Christmas and New Year’s greetings. By night he communed with the ghost of Rasputin at seances. With Prince Kurakin, a hook-nosed necromancer, he was locked “in secret conclave for hours every evening, listening to the dead man’s solemn words” and passing them on to Alexandra. He was to deny later that he had succeeded in raising Rasputin’s spirit but agreed under cross-examination that the had told the empress that he had, because it made her happy. (p. 347)
Rasputin’s actual and would-be assassins had mixed fortunes. Khvostov and Beletsky were shot in the Bolshevik Terror after sharing the same condemned cell. Purishkevich died to typhus while fighting for the Whites in southern Russia during the civil war. Felix Yusupov lost his colossal fortune wen he fled into exile, but his coffers were replenished by a $375,000 defamation action against MGM for the Hollywood movie Rasputin and the Empress; he died in France in 1967…..Grand Duke Dmitri was saved by his exile to Persia. In 1926 he married an American heiress in Biarritz; he was a champagne salesman in Florida in the 1930s. He died at age fifty of tuberculosis in Davos, Switzerland. In 1941, [Orthodox priest] Iliodor went to New York, became a Baptist, and worked for a time as a janitor in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square. He died in the United States in 1952….Rasputin’s daughter Maria became a lion tamer, touring the United States before settling in Los Angeles. (pp. 357-58)
In his last days—so [Rasputin’s secretary Aron] Simanovich claimed—Rasputin wrote a final and extraordinary document. He titled it “The Spirit of Grigory Efimovich Rasputin-Novykh of the village of Pokrovskoye.”
“I write and leave behind me this letter at St. Petersburg,” it began. “I feel that I shall leave life before January 1. I wish to make known to the Russian people, to Papa, to the Russian Mother, and to the Children, to the land of Russia, what they must understand. If am killed by common assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear, remain on your throne and govern, and you, Russian Tsar, will have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia. But if I am murdered by boyars, nobles, and if they shed my blood, their hands will remain soiled with my blood, for twenty-five years they will not wash their hands from my blood. They will leave Russia. Brothers will kill brothers, and they will kill each other and hate each other, and for twenty-five years there will be no nobles in the country. Tsar of the land of Russia…you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death then no one of your family, that is to say none of your children or relations, will remain alive for more than two years. They will be killed by the Russian people.” (pp. 358-59)
[Rasputin] had no one killed. Those who tried to kill him escaped with their lives; so did those who succeeded. He was not venal. He could have made millions of rubles; he lived in a rented apartment in the capital, and his only real estate, the Pokrovskoye house, was not the lair of a fortune hunter. In a society riddled with prejudice, he was not a bigot. He was not a German spy; he was not—so many nots, but this the most important—he was not a demon. At his worst he was spiteful, self-important, and dissolute. The spite came from the fear that enemies would destroy the power he so loved; the self-importance from the extraordinary journey from the medieval obscurity of the Siberian backwoods to the modern condition of superstardom; the dissolution—dependant on the observer’s own moral stance—from inner depravity or love of life.
He was, at his best, humane and perceptive. The throngs who climbed the staircase on Gorokhovaya ulitsa benefited from innumerable acts of kindliness. When he could, he healed. He had immense charisma—“spiritual force,” “magnetism,” “hypnotic strength” they called it then—and few pretensions. At a time of warmongering he had the insight to realize its dangers. Most of his political preferences—peace, land for peasants, rights for minorities, slogans successfully used if not practiced by Lenin—were the only realistic alternatives to revolution. The exception was autocracy. It made him; and those who wished to preserve it destroyed him. (p. 359-60)
From René Füllöp-Miller’s Rasputin: The Holy Devil:
Women found in Grigori Efimovich the fulfilment of two desires which had hitherto seemed irreconcilable, religious salvation and the satisfaction of carnal appetites. The old Orthodox priest of their parish had promised them the fulfilment of their yearning for purity and spiritual peace, on condition that they led a stainless, pure, and virtuous life here below; but this demand was in terrible antagonism with the desires of their sinful bodies and ardent lips. The way to God required renunciation of sensual joy; the way of sensual joy, on the other hand, led away from God.
Then Father Grigori appeared, and to all the women, tormented by the painful dissension between soul and body, preached his new doctrine that sin was not the way to damnation, but rather the quickest and surest way to salvation; and the discord between soul and body, between religious and sensual release, was thus resolved. As in the eyes of his disciples Rasputin was a reincarnation of the Lord, intercourse with him, in particular, could not possibly be a sin; and these women found for the first time in their lives a pure happiness, untroubled by the gnawings of conscience, in the arms of Rasputin, the “holy satyr.” (p. 207)
…the starets [“Holy Man” = Rasputin] had said to his disciples: “You believe that I pollute you; I do not pollute you, I rather purify you….Only by humble repentance can w attain to redemption! Man must sin in order that he may have something to repent of. If God sends us a temptation, we must yield to it voluntarily and without resistance, so then we may afterwards do penance in utter contrition….The first word of the Saviour was ‘Repent.’ How can we repent if we have not first sinned?” (p. 215)
[From the journal of Vera Alexandrova Shukovskaia, telling of her encounter with Rasputin] “’If you wish to know, only he commits a sin who seeks sin. But in him who merely passes through it, sin has no part. If you like, I will show it all to you: go next week to Communion, and then come of me; while you still have Paradise in your soul, I will show you sin, so that you will not be able to stand on your feet!’ (p. 243)
Nothing made Rasputin so happy as dancing. It was to him the most perfect expression of his inner life, as important as breathing, eating, drinking, or any other elemental human activity. Everything for which the speech of the muzhik was inadequate, his emotions, impulses, and intuitions, received in the dance their most powerful and liberating form, and the movement of the dancer expressed the incomprehensible yearning for the infinite, the immemorial melancholy, as well as the exultant, primitive joy of the creature in being alive….
When Rasputin, in his Siberian village, in the course of a sermon on the redemption of man from sin, suddenly jumped up, stamped with his feet on the floor, and began to dance, his village disciples saw nothing strange in this, and certainly nothing inconsistent with his dignity; the “dancing starets,” the saint who preached and then, when words were no longer adequate, continued his sermon in dance, was a comprehensible and natural phenomenon, nothing more than the spontaneous cry of joy at a happy event, or the wail of lament at an unexpected grief. (pp. 267-68)
If ambitious generals, in their swashbuckling way, talked of Pan-Slav ideas, and politicians and advocates eagerly seconded them, and priests blessed their designs because a new war would offer great possibilities to “true Russian” generals, politicians, advocates, and priests, Grigori Efimovich became very disagreeable and stormed, vituperated, and cursed blasphemously: “We peasants do not want war. It is you damned townsmen who want to shed the blood of the country people to further your own schemes.” (p. 291)
From Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution:
Rasputin’s status at court brought him immense power and prestige. He became a maître de requêtes, accepting bribes, gifts and sexual favours from those who came to him in the hope that he would use his influence on their behalf. During the First World War, when his political influence was at tis zenith, he developed a lucrative system of placements in the government, the Church and the Civil Service, all of which he boasted were under his control. For the hundreds of lesser mortals who queued outside his apartment every day—women begging for military exemptions for their sons and husbands, people looking for somewhere to live—he would simply take a scrap of paper, put a cross on the letter head, and in his semi-literate scrawl write to some official: ‘My dear and valued friend. Do this for me, Grigorii.’….
It has often been assumed that because he accepted bribes Rasputin was motivated by financial gain. This is not quite true. He took no pleasure in the accumulation of money, which he spent or gave away as quickly as he earned it. What excited him was power. Rasputin was the supreme egotist. He always had to be the centre of attention. He loved to boast of his connections at the court. ‘I can do anything,’ he often said, and from this the exaggerated rumours spread of his political omnipotence. The gifts he received from his wealthy patrons were important to him not because they were valuable but because they confirmed his personal influence….Above all, Rasputin like the status which his position gave him and also the power it gave him, no more than a peasant, over men and women of higher social class. (p. 31)
Politicians were no more successful in their efforts to bring Rasputin down. They presented evidence of his sins to the Tsar, but Nicholas again refused to act. Why was he so tolerant of Rasputin? The answer surely lies in his belief that Rasputin was a simple man, a peasant, from ‘the people’, and that God had sent him to save the Romanov dynasty. Rasputin confirmed his prejudices and flattered his fantasies of a popular autocracy. He was a symbol of the Tsar’s belief in the Byzantine trinity—God, Tsar, and People—which he thought would help him to recast the regime in the mould of seventeenth-century Muscovy. ‘He is just a good, religious, simple-minded Russian,’ Nicholas once said to one of his courtiers. ‘When I am in trouble or plagued by doubts, I like to have a talk with him and invariably feel at peace with myself afterwards.’….The President of the Duma got no further when he presented an even more damaging dossier based on the materials of Iliodor and the Holy Synod. Nicholas, though clearly disturbed by the evidence, told Rodzianko: ‘Rasputin in a simple peasant who can relieve the sufferings of my son by a strange power. The Tsarina’s reliance upon him is a matter for the family, and I will allow no one to meddle in my affairs.’ It seems that the Tsar, in his obstinate adherence to the principles of autocracy, considered any questioning of his judgement an act of disloyalty.
And so the Rasputin affair went unresolved. More and more it poisoned the monarchy’s relations with society and its traditional pillars of support in the court, the bureaucracy, the Church, and the army. The episode has often been compared to the Diamond Necklace Affair, a similar scandal that irreparably damaged the reputation of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution, and that is about the sum of it. By the time of Rasputin’s eventual murder, in December 1916, the Romanov dynasty was on the verge of collapse.
Available on YouTube?
Dark Servant is available at YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSxvVdseB74
The Mad Monk is available through Bing Video at https://putlockers.fm/watch/OvkQABGQ-rasputin-the-mad-monk.html