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He was also known as the 'Mad Monk', although he was not actually a monk, but a starets, or religious pilgrim. He was believed to have been a faith healer. He can be considered one of the more controversial characters in 20th century history, although Rasputin is viewed by most historians today as a scapegoat. He played a small but extremely pivotal role in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty that finally led to Bolshevik victory and the establishment of the Soviet Union.
Rasputin played an important role in the lives of the Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra and their only son, the Tsarevich Alexei, who was a hemophilia patient and suffered from a lot of pain.
The name Rasputin in Russian does not mean "licentious", as is often claimed. However there's very similar Russian adjective "rasputnii" which does in fact mean "licentious". Name Rasputin may also bear the connotation of "mud", as in rasputitsa -- "mud season" (i.e., "rainy season"). However, most historians agree that his name signifies, roughly, a place where two rivers meet, which describes the area from which the Rasputin family originates. It is said that Rasputin tried to have his name changed to the inconspicuous "Novykh" ("New Man") after his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but this is a subject of dispute. In fact, "Rasputin" is a not-uncommon surname, and does not have a "disgraceful" meaning, as the contemporary Russian writer, Valentin Rasputin, would be quick to explain.
Rasputin, whose date of birth is a matter of dispute (generally ranging from 1869 to 1871), was born into a Siberian peasant family in the Tyumen district. He was regarded as the last resort of the desperate Tsar and Tsarina. They had tried everywhere to find a cure for their son and in 1905 asked the charismatic peasant healer for help. He was said to possess the ability to heal through prayer, and he was indeed able to give the boy some relief. Skeptics have claimed that he did so by hypnosis, though during a particularly grave crisis, Rasputin, from his home in Siberia, apparently eased the suffering of the tsarevitch (in Saint Petersburg) through prayer. Since this was not the first time that he healed the tsarevitch, it does not prove that the healing resulted from prayer rather than from a psychosomatic effect, but it does cast grave doubt on the hypnosis hypothesis.
He was called "Our friend" by the tsar, a sign perhaps of the trust the family put in him. Especially on Alexandra he had a considerable personal and political influence. They considered him to be a man of God and a religious prophet. Their relationship can also be viewed in the context of the very strong, traditional, age-old bond between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian leadership.
Rasputin in the meantime became a controversial figure, leading a scandalous personal life with his mostly female followers from the Saint Petersburg high society. Furthermore, he was frequently seen picking up prostitutes and often drank himself into a stupor. According to Rasputin's daughter, Maria, Rasputin did "look into" the Klysthy sect, and rejected them. While the Western world is particularly interested in the sexual aspects of this sect (supposedly tied to a belief that one can obtain humility only by debasing oneself), Rasputin was particularly appalled by the belief that grace is found by harming one's body. Like most Orthodox Christians, Rasputin was brought up with the belief that the body is a sacred gift from God. (Attaining divine grace through sin seems to have been one of the central secret doctrines that Rasputin preached to (and practiced with) his inner circle of society ladies). The idea that one can attain grace through sin is not secret. It is also understood that sin is an inescapable part of the human condition, and the responsibility of a believer is to be keenly aware of his sins, and willing to confess them, thereby attaining humility.
During World War I he became a focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court; the unpopular Tsarina was of German descent, and her confidante Rasputin was accused of being a spy in German employ. Nobles in influential positions around the tsar as well as some parties of the Duma, the Russian parliament, clamoured for his removal from the court of the tsar.
Prince Felix Yussupov, an important member of the elite of Saint Petersburg, finally took the lead in the decision to murder Rasputin. On the night of December 29/December 30, 1916 (16 December according to the Julian calendar that was still used in Russia at the time), Yussupov invited Rasputin to his palace on the pretext of his wife Irina needing his attentions as a healer. In a dining room in the palace basement, the Prince plied his guest with poisoned wine and cakes; when the Siberian peasant failed to die, he and his co-conspirators repeatedly shot Rasputin in the chest, back and head, and beat him around the head with a dumb-bell handle. They then tied the purported corpse into a sheet and dropped it through a hole in the ice into the river Neva, where the sturdy peasant finally drowned, having drifted under the ice, still fighting to free himself.
The contemporary press as well as sensationalist articles and books that were published in the 1920s and 1930s (one of them even by Yusupov, Rasputin's main murderer) turned the charismatic peasant into something of a 20th-century folk myth. To Westerners, Rasputin became the embodiment of the purported Russian backwardness, superstition, irrationality and licentiousness, and an object of sensational interest; to the Russian Communists, he represented all that was evil in the old regime and had been overcome in the revolution. Yet to the ordinary Russian people, he remained a symbol of the voice of the peasantry, and many (Russians) to this day reject the myths, honoring the man. In fact, after the fall of the Communist government, key documentation was discovered, and the Church considered canonizing Rasputin as a martyr. This, obviously, is in conflict with what is stated by the writer of the paragraph below, presumably written about certain documents that were written for the express purpose of demonizing Rasputin to justify his murder. Unfortunately, a number of things will remain in dispute until all the documentation is verified and released.
Since the end of Communism in Russia in the 1990s, some Russian nationalists have tried to whitewash Rasputin's reputation and use the powerful 20th century archetype that he has become for their own end. New evidence that has surfaced since the end of the Soviet Union, however, clearly refutes their claims of his saintliness.