January 16, 2017History of Medicine
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was a Russian peasant, an experienced traveler, a mystical faith healer, and trusted friend of the family of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of the Russian Empire. He became an influential figure in Saint Petersburg, especially after August 1915 when Nicholas took command of the army fighting in World War I.
Advising his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, in countless spiritual and political issues, Rasputin became an easy scapegoat for Russian nationalists, liberals and aristocrats. There is uncertainty over much of Rasputin’s life and the degree of influence that he exerted over the extremely shy Tsar and the strong-willed Tsarina. Accounts are often based on dubious memoirs, hearsay, and legend. While his influence and position may have been exaggerated by society gossip and his own drunken boasting his presence played a significant role in the increasing unpopularity of the Imperial couple. It is believed that Rasputin was murdered by monarchists who hoped to save Tsarism by ending his sway over the royal family. The end of December 2016, marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Rasputin, the mad monk of Russia, or lover of the Russian queen.
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a mystic and spiritual healer born in Pokrovskoe in Siberia, wielded huge influence over the Russian royal family, particularly Alexandra, the Tsarina, who looked to the spiritual healer to cure her hemophiliac son, heir, Tsesarevich Alexei.
On 13 October 1906, Rasputin paid a visit to the Imperial family and presented an icon. On request of the Tsar, he then visited the next prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin. A few weeks before, 29 people had been killed on Aptekarsky Island in a bomb attack by the Maximalists and two of Stolypin’s children were wounded. Rasputin was invited to pray. On 6 April 1907, Rasputin was invited to Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, this time to see Tsesarevich Alexei, the heir. The boy had suffered an injury which caused him painful bleeding. By then, it was not known that Alexei had a rare form of hemophilia. The doctors could not supply a cure, and the desperate Tsarina invited Rasputin. He was able to calm the parents and their son, standing at the foot of the bed and praying. From that moment, Alexandra believed Rasputin was Alexei’s savior. Pierre Gilliard, the French historian Helene Carrere d’Encausse, and journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys speculated that Rasputin’s healing practice included halting the administration of aspirin, a pain-relieving analgesic available since 1899. Aspirin is an anticoagulant and has blood-thinning properties; the mechanism of action of aspirin is that it prevents clotting and promotes bleeding, which could have caused the hemarthrosis at the root of Alexei’s joints swelling and pain. On September 1912, the Romanovs were visiting their hunting retreat in the Bialowieza Forest; on 5 September, the careless Tsesarevich jumped into a rowboat and hit one of the oarlocks. A large bruise appeared within minutes. Within a week the hematoma reduced in size. In mid-September, the family moved to Spala (then in Russian Poland). On 2 October, after a drive in the woods, the juddering of the carriage had caused still healing hematoma in his upper thigh to rupture and start bleeding again. Alexei had to be carried out in an almost unconscious state. His temperature rose and his heartbeat dropped, caused by a swelling in the left groin; Alexandra barely left his bedside. A constant record was kept of the boy’s temperature. On 10 October, a medical bulletin appeared in the newspapers, and Alexei received the last sacrament. His condition then improved at once, according to the Tsar. The positive trend continued throughout the next day. According to Nelipa, Robert K. Massie was correct to recommend that psychological factors do play a part.
It is not exactly clear on which day, either 9, 10, or 11 October, the Tsarina turned to her lady-in-waiting and best friend, Anna Vyrubova, to secure the help of the peasant healer, who at that time was out of favor. According to his daughter, Rasputin received the telegram on 12 October. If Maria Rasputin was right about the day, the telegram was sent the longstanding claim that Rasputin had somehow alleviated Alexei’s condition is simply fictitious, according to Nelipa. The next day he seems to have responded, with a short telegram, including the prophecy: The little one will not die. Do not allow the doctors [c.q. Eugene Botkin and Vladimir Derevenko] to bother him too much. On 19 October, Alexei’s condition was considerably better and the hematoma disappeared, but he had to undergo orthopedic therapy to straighten his left leg. The court physician, Botkin, believed that Rasputin was a charlatan and his apparent healing powers arose from his use of hypnosis, but Rasputin was not interested in this practice before 1913 and his teacher Gerasim Papnadato was expelled from St. Petersburg in 1914. Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s enemies, suggested that he secretly drugged Alexei with Tibetan herbs which he had obtained from a quack doctor. For Fuhrmann, these ideas on hypnosis and drugs flourished because the imperial family lived such isolated lives. For Moynahan, There is no evidence that Rasputin ever summoned up spirits, or felt the need to; he won his admirers through force of personality, not by tricks. For Maria Rasputin and Vladimir Sukhomlinov, it was magnetism. For Shelley, the secret of his power lay in the sense of calm, gentle strength, and shining warmth of conviction.
What is known about the death of Rasputin, December, 1916, one hundred years ago, is that one evening Rasputin went to the Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg at the invitation of Prince Felix Yusupov. Rasputin’s dead body was recovered from the frozen Neva River days later. No one is completely sure what happened in between these two events. The most well-known account of the events comes from Prince Yusupov himself in his memoirs Lost Splendour. This autobiography reads more like a boy’s own adventure story than a reliable historical document and many doubt the authenticity of what he wrote. According to Yusupov, when Rasputin arrived at the palace he was taken down to the cellar where he was given cake and madeira wine. Upstairs, a gramophone played Yankee Doodle Dandy to fool the monk in to believing there was a party in full swing. Yusupov and his accomplices had planned things carefully. The cakes offered to Rasputin had been laced with enough potassium cyanide to slay a monastery full of monks. But Rasputin just kept eating them. Incredulous at the monk’s survival, Prince Yusupov poured madeira into a cyanide-laced wine glass and handed it to Rasputin. Instead of collapsing into unconsciousness within seconds, as would be expected from a massive dose of cyanide, Rasputin continued to sip the wine like a connoisseur. A second lethal glass disappeared into the monk’s mouth with little apparent effect other than some difficulty swallowing. Asked if he was feeling unwell he replied Yes, my head is heavy and I’ve a burning sensation in my stomach. A third glass of tainted wine only seemed to revive him. Having ingested their whole stock of cyanide, the group of assassins were somewhat at a loss as to what to do next. So they shot him. The bullet appeared to have entered the body near the heart – certain death, or so they thought. But, soon after, Rasputin’s eyes opened and, clearly upset at the turn of events, he attacked Yusupov. There was a ferocious struggle before the prince could free himself and run away up the stairs. Rasputin followed. The group finally emerged into a courtyard, where four more shots were fired into Rasputin’s body before he slumped to the ground. To make sure they wouldn’t be troubled again, the assassins wrapped and tied the body with a piece of heavy linen, bundled it into a car and drove to Petrovski Island, where it was dropped from a bridge into the frozen river below.
The whole account sounds fanciful from start to finish, but remarkable things do happen. Human beings have achieved incredible physical feats in spite of horrible injuries. Maybe Rasputin really was still alive after the first shot and capable of a fight. But what about the poison? Surely no one could eat so much cyanide with so little effect? The theories as to why the cyanide didn’t kill Rasputin are almost as numerous as the theories of how he really died. What is surprising is that the theories are scientifically credible. The first theory is that the poisoners were not the supposed strength. Either they didn’t use enough, or the cyanide they had was old stock that had decayed into something far less toxic. Though plausible, a century after the events it is impossible to tell if this is true. The second theory is that Rasputin, aware that someone might be trying to kill him (he had survived at least one assassination attempt already), had decided to protect himself against poison. Perhaps he was inspired by Mithridates, king of Pontus in the first century BCE, who, fearful of poisoners, concocted an antidote or preventative. By ingesting sub-lethal amounts of every known poison he developed an immunity. When Mithridates was under threat from the local populace he tried to kill himself with poison, but the attempt failed and he had to request that a guard kill him with a sword. It is true that the body can develop a natural immunity or tolerance to some very toxic substances by administering very small doses over a period of time. Some of these toxic compounds include snake venom, ricin and opiates, to name but a few. Unfortunately, cyanide isn’t one of those substances. You simply cannot build up a natural tolerance to cyanide by using this method. The third theory is that Rasputin had alcoholic gastritis, which can lead to having less stomach acid. Without acid in the stomach, the potassium cyanide can’t be converted into hydrogen cyanide, and is therefore considerably less toxic. It’s another plausible explanation, but no one really knows if Rasputin suffered from this complaint or not. The fourth theory is that his poisoners unintentionally gave him the antidote along with the poison. Studies have shown that rats fed sugar with cyanide fare a lot better than those fed cyanide without it. The theory, though not proven, is that the sugar binds to the cyanide in a way that allows its excretion before it can be fully absorbed into the body. The assassins therefore may have chosen poorly when they elected to deliver the cyanide in sugary cakes and wine. The final theory is that Yusupov made the whole thing up, and Rasputin was simply shot shortly after he arrived at the palace by a person or persons unknown. This is probably much nearer the truth – but it isn’t nearly as interesting as stories of an unkillable monk.
Rasputin was an extraordinary but minor figure. He contributed little to the tragedy that engulfed Russia in the first two decades of the 20th century. Far more important were a grossly incompetent monarch in the shape of Nicholas II, a ruthless revolutionary in the form of Lenin, and a world war that the Russian government was no more able to avert than any other. All combined to bring down a nation that, if left to itself, might perhaps have become what so many Russians have hoped for, a normal and prosperous country.