War and Conflict
Who was Rasputin?
Grigory Rasputin (1872–1916) was a Russian mystic and quasi-holy man who rose from peasant farmer to become adviser to Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918) and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra (1872–1918). Sometime in 1905 or shortly thereafter, Alexandra had come into contact with Rasputin, and, showing he was able to effectively treat Nicholas’s and Alexandra’s severely hemophiliac son Alexis (1904–1918), Rasputin quickly gained favor with the Russian rulers. But the prime minister and members of the legislative assembly, the Duma, could see Rasputin was a disreputable character, and they feared his influence on the tsar. They even tried to exile Rasputin, but to no avail.
By 1913, one year before the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), the Russian people had become acutely aware of Tsar Nicholas’s weaknesses as a ruler—not only was his government subject to the influence of a pretender like Rasputin, but the events of Bloody Sunday had irreversibly marred the tsar’s reputation. That year the Romanov dynasty was marking its 300th anniversary: members of the royal family had ruled Russia since 1613. But public celebrations, intended to be jubilant affairs, were instead ominous, as the crowds greeted Nicholas’s public appearances with silence.
Russia’s entry into World War I proved to be the beginning of the end for Nicholas, with Rasputin at the front and center of the controversy that swirled around the royal court. During the first year of fighting against Germany, Russia suffered one military catastrophe after another. These losses did further damage to the tsar and his ministers. In the fall of 1915, urged on by his wife, Nicholas left St. Petersburg and headed to the front to lead the Russian troops in battle himself. With Alexandra left in charge of government affairs, Rasputin’s influence became more dangerous than ever. But in December 1916, a group of aristocrats put an end to it once and for all when, during a palace party, they laced Rasputin’s wine with cyanide. Though the poison failed to kill Rasputin, the noblemen shot him and deposited his body in a river later that night. Nevertheless, the damage to Nicholas and Alexandra had already been done: By that time virtually all educated Russians opposed the tsar, who had removed many capable officials from government office, only to replace them with the weak and incompetent executives favored by Rasputin. The stage had been set for revolution.