Though the dance is fun and the 1978 Boney M song slaps, there’s a real man behind the song. Yes, Rasputin was real, and his story is more bizarre than you could possibly imagine.
The Myths from Music and Movies
You’ve likely heard of Rasputin from the viral TikTok trend, and you’re probably also familiar with him as the villain in the 1997 animated version of Anastasia.
Some of the lyrics from the Boney M song describe Rasputin as the “lover of the Russian Queen” and “Russia’s greatest love machine.” They also describe his cult-like popularity among high society women (He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow / Most people looked at him with terror and with fear / But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear / He could preach the Bible like a preacher / Full of ecstasy and fire / But he also was the kind of teacher / Women would desire), his involvement with the Russian royal family and Russian government (He ruled the Russian land and never mind the Tsar / But the kazachok he danced really wunderbar / In all affairs of state, he was the man to please / But he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze / For the Queen he was no wheeler-dealer / Though she'd heard the things he'd done / She believed he was a holy healer / Who would heal her son), and his bizarre death (They put some poison into his wine / Ra, Ra, Rasputin / Russia's greatest love machine / He drank it all and he said, "I feel fine" / Ra, Ra, Rasputin / Lover of the Russian Queen / They didn't quit, they wanted his head / Ra, Ra, Rasputin / Russia's greatest love machine / And so they shot him till he was dead).
In Anastasia, Rasputin is portrayed as a “holy man” who was a fraud and betrayed the royal family, the Romanovs. He put a curse on the Romanov family, saying that they will die within a fortnight, and sells his soul to help destroy them. After Grand Duchess Anastasia survives, he’s stuck in limbo. When he discovers that she’s still alive, he tries to kill her to fulfill his prophecy.
Rasputin obviously didn’t have evil powers or sell his soul to destroy the Russian royal family, and historians believe that he was never the Tsarina’s lover (and there was no adorable talking bat named Bartok, sorry for ruining your childhood). Some of these rumors are true, some are false, but the truth is much more bizarre than the myths behind one of the most mysterious and controversial historical figures of all time.
Rasputin’s “Mystical Healing Powers”
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye in 1869. Born to an impoverished peasant family, Rasputin wasn’t expected to live up to much beyond the borders of his village, but he proved himself to be unique at a young age. It’s rumored that he was able to "read minds and heal the sick" through healing animals when he was 10 years old, and he developed a reputation for being the town rebel. He was known for committing petty crimes like theft, as well as for his heavy drinking and promiscuous sexual appetite.
He married Praskovya Dubrovina in 1887, and they had seven children together. Despite Praskovya’s devotion to Rasputin, he never let go of his promiscuous ways. In 1897, he left Pokrovskoye and his family behind after a religious conversion and was set on a pilgrimage. It’s widely believed that he joined a religious sect outside of the Russian Orthodox Church during his travels known as the Khlysty, which believed “that the best way to be closer to God was through sinful actions, especially those of the flesh.” It’s also believed that he practiced his “mystical healing powers” during his travels and spread the word of the Khlysty.
How Rasputin Became the Most Powerful Man in Russia
Rasputin’s travels eventually lead him to St. Petersburg, Russia’s Imperial capital. His reputation as a mystical healer reached all the way up to the royal family, landing him a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, in 1905.
Rasputin learned the dark secret that the royal family had been hiding from the public. Their only son and heir (due to the Pauline Laws of Succession, the tsar and tsarina’s four daughters could not inherit the throne), Tsarevich Alexei, had hemophilia, a genetic disorder that prevents blood from clotting normally.
This was a problem for the royals for several reasons. The first was that the tsarina wasn’t particularly popular with the people for her German roots (it didn’t matter that she was also half-English), and hemophilia being a disease that’s usually passed from mother to son wouldn’t be a good look for Alexandra. Another reason was that the monarchy was fragile after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the last thing they needed was for Alexei to appear weak or to succumb to his disease. Nicholas and Alexandra were desperate for someone who could help their son, and Rasputin’s healing powers did the trick.
Rasputin’s presence appeared to heal Alexei and alleviate his symptoms. Though it’s now known that this is because Rasputin told the doctors to stop giving Alexei his medicines, one of them being aspirin, which lessened Alexei's bleeding. Since the royal family didn’t have this medical knowledge in the early 20th century, they (mainly the tsarina) believed that Rasputin had healing powers.
This made the royal family trust Rasputin and made him one of the most powerful people in Russia, and he wasn’t afraid to abuse this trust or power. Rasputin earned a reputation in St. Petersburg high society as a womanizer. Many high society women were drawn to him by his “hypnotic eyes,” as one noblewomen wrote, “What eyes he has! You cannot endure his gaze for long. There is something difficult in him, it is like you can feel the physical pressure, even though his eyes sometimes glow with kindness, but how cruel can they be and how frightful in anger.”
The Two Sides of Rasputin
It’s important to remember that there were two different sides of Rasputin. To the royal family, he was believed to be a “saint” who helped heal the ailing tsarevich and was kind to the four daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, the Grand Duchesses. It’s widely believed by historians that Rasputin was never Alexandra’s lover or seduced the Grand Duchesses because he had to retain his “saintly” image within the family. He may have been an illiterate peasant, but he was no fool — he knew that he had to keep up his holy image to retain trust and power.
Outside of the palace, he was everything but a saint. Known for heavy drinking and promiscuity (it’s widely believed that he was spreading the ideas from Khlysty that one who sinned more was closer to God), he once allegedly “pulled down his trousers and, as one eyewitness put it, waved his ‘reproductive organ’ in a restaurant.” Since very few outside of the Romanovs inner circle knew of Alexei’s condition, many Russians began to question why such a crude man was in the presence of the royal family. This mystery is what led to rumors about Rasputin seducing Alexandra and the Grand Duchesses.
His influence grew after World War I began, and Tsar Nicholas II left the palace for the front, leaving Alexandra in charge with Rasputin as her personal advisor. As millions of Russian men died in the war, the distrust for the royals and Rasputin grew throughout the empire. Convinced that Rasputin was the cause of everything wrong in Russia, Prince Felix Yusupov, a Russian nobleman and husband to the niece of Nicholas and Alexandra, decided to take matters into his own hands.
The Murder That Ended an Empire
This is where the story grows from bizarre to almost unbelievable.
On December 29, 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov invited Rasputin over to his palace for dinner. Yusupov was also joined by Nicholas’ cousin Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and three close friends of theirs, including a doctor. They treated Rasputin to poisoned wine and cakes and were surprised when they seemed to have no effect on him. Annoyed that the poison wasn’t working, Yusupov, Pavlovich, and the other men shot him, but he still refused to die. In his memoirs, Yusupov wrote, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”
They shot him several more times until he passed out, then wrapped him in a rug, and disposed of his body in the river. Mysteriously, the autopsy revealed that water was in Rasputin’s lungs, revealing that his ultimate cause of death was drowning.
Though the royal family was furious with Yusupov and Pavlovich for killing Rasputin, the rest of Russia rejoiced in his murder. The peace was short-lived, however, as revolution was about to descend on Russia.
What Happened after Rasputin’s Death
Historian and author of Nicholas and Alexandra famously wrote, “There would be no Lenin without Rasputin.” Since Rasputin helped sow division between the royal family and the Russian people, it made it easier for the Russian Revolution to begin in March 1917 and for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to take power in October 1917. The rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks led to the Russian Civil War and creation of the Soviet Union, one of the deadliest and most cruel regimes in history.
The most haunting consequence of Rasputin’s murder can be seen in a letter he left for Nicholas and Alexandra shortly before his death. Believing his murder was inevitable, he wrote, “If I am killed by common men, you and your children will rule Russia for centuries to come; if I am killed by one of your stock, you and your family will be killed by the Russian people!”
15 months after Rasputin was murdered by Russian nobles, the Romanov family were brutally murdered by Bolsheviks alongside their friends and servants on July 17, 1918. Contrary to popular belief and folklore, there were no survivors.
There’s a real man behind the viral TikTok trend, and to say he was weird would be an understatement.
Over a century after Rasputin’s murder, some of the most captivating mysteries behind him have logical answers. How did he heal Alexei? He simply told the doctors to stop giving him medicine, one of which was a blood thinner. How did he survive the poisoning? It’s believed that he was never poisoned in the first place. However, there’s no logical explanation behind how Rasputin knew of how the royal family would meet their end, which allows Rasputin to remain one of the most mysterious figures in history.