Rasputin—The Real Story

By Lincoln Steffens

[Everybody's Magazine, September 1917]

Mr. Steffens has brought out of Russia the inside story of what really happened to that amazing figure of terror and power—Rasputin. This month Mr. Steffens tells of the rise of Rasputin and the fall of the Tsar—with some astonishing parallels from our own American life. In the October number Mr. Steffens will tell the true story of Rasputin's mysterious killing, as given to him by the assassins.—THE EDITOR.

The assassins' own story of the killing of Rasputin, was told me first in confidence, "not for publication," and I had no thought of printing it. I meant to keep it, as they did in Petrograd, for the elect, my friends. But I found that their friends were many; scores of the Russian elect knew it and told it. I heard it several times; six times in all detail, and four times without any restriction, except one; the sole purpose of the suppression.

Everybody wished to protect the good name of the lady in the group.

I shall do that, and I'll do it better than they do it in Petrograd. There they name the prince who led in the doing of the deed; they have printed his picture on penny post-cards, and, since "everybody" knows the names of the actors who played the leading roles in this historical drama and their relationship one to another, the name .of the beautiful young noblewoman who is its heroine is well known, too, and freely spoken. It is spoken with respect; with gratitude, with patriotic appreciation of her purpose, courage, and nobility; and I could not err there. The facts present a heroine.

And the fiction story of the assassination—the story which was invented on the spot to protect the lady, and which was published at the time and is coming to be accepted as true—that story does not show a heroine, but only a lay figure. It does the true heroine a wrong; more, it does a wrong to the heroic part Russian womanhood has performed throughout the whole heroic history of the struggle for Russian liberty. Wherefore that false story does an injustice to all womankind.

When the secret history of Free Russia has been written and the service of Russian women to it is known to all the world, then, women may rank in all the world as they rank in New Russia to-day; and no man (and no woman) could say or wish more for women (or for men) than that.

But never mind. I shall respect the Russian respect for the Russian woman who drew on Rasputin and drove on his slayers.; I shall protect her name by naming neither her, nor the prince, nor any other of the high-born Terrorists who, in terror themselves, felled, in Rasputin, the Terror of the Tsar; and so, with their courage, blazed the way for the calm courage of the Revolution, the fall of the Romanoff dynasty, and, let us hope, of tsars the world over.

One icy day in Petrograd last spring, some Americans made up a little party to go to Tsarskoe-Selo to see the late Tsar in his prison-garden. When they came back that night, they shouted joyously:

"Vegetables! We'll, soon have vegetables! We saw the Russians working in their truck-gardens all along the road."

They were hungry: we all were, all the time. St. Petersburg was "the best place to eat in all the world." That was before the war and the Revolution. Russia still was fat with abundance, but the machinery of life—transportation, industry, commerce—had broken down completely.

Petrograd in the spring was short of every kind of food and drink, and we who were there felt the want of everything, and especially of vegetables. So the news from Tsarskoe-Selo was good news and no news.

But how about the Tsar?

They hadn't seen the Tsar.

They had seen his palace-prison; the garden he worked in; the soldiers of his revolutionary guard. They had seen, too, the half-built, never-to-be-finished tomb which the Tsarina had ordered for Rasputin, and they had seen the obscene drawings the peasant-soldiers had scratched on its walls to illustrate the gossip about the relations of the Tsar and Tsarina with that strange "pilgrim" who came to them from Siberia with the prophecy that his fate and theirs were one.

"While I live, you will reign," he said. "When I am killed, the House of Romanoff will fall."

Before it happened, it was said that he said this: and before it happened, the Russians laughed at the prophecy, but, superstitious all, they all half-believed it; and as for the Tsarina, she believed it wholly. That was Rasputin's hold on her; not what the gossip illustrated by the soldiers insinuated.

Not true, this gossip; probably not. Men and women who knew the Court and hated the Tsarina and all her works, said it wasn't. But, believed all over Russia, these tales had deposed the Tsar from the hearts, from the reverential souls of his people as well as from the throne. It broke the spell—that and the death of Rasputin. That gossip makes "the Little Father's return to power," like those pictures on the wall, almost unmentionable in Russia.

The party of Tsarskoe-Selo had seen not only the conditions of Russia, they had seen why the Tsar can not come back.

And they heard that he doesn't want to come back. They saw people who had seen the Tsar—afar off through the fence and the trees—breaking ice in his garden, and these marveling witnesses testified that the royal gardener made not an unhappy figure. On the contrary, they and everybody else that has seen him, those who stared from a distance and the few we met who had access to his presence, all agreed that Nicholas Romanoff seemed to be "happy at last." He likes his garden. He hums at his work there. He meant what he said when he was arrested: that "now he would have time to 'tend to his flowers." He loves flowers; he did not care for power.

The extraordinary story of Tsar Nicholas is, at bottom, only the very ordinary story of all those many, many men and women who happen into a position or duty which they hate, but which they think they can not give up. I knew a professional lobbyist who, having acquired conscientious scruples against bribery, was too conscientious to leave his clients to do their own bribing. We all know veteran captains of industry, political bosses, and other leaders, who stick to their thrones, holding back their juniors and progress, dutifully, while their heart's desire is to retire to the country and work a bit of a garden.

We have no princes in American politics, no inheritors of political power. It is only in business now that the sons of great men succeed by right of birth to the places and possessions of their fathers; but the business world knows business princes who, with a taste for art or sport or flowers, wabble around unhappily but heroically in the thrones of their fathers.

Nicholas Romanoff inherited the throne of Russia, so he sat in it for the sake and in the service of "his people," though his passion was to tsar it over flowers. And now, as he hums over his pick and shovel, he shows no interest, they say; asks no questions to indicate that he knows or cares how it is going with Russia and the world outside. That it goes on at all is curious, but—that's all.

"A weak man," they call him now in Petrograd, and the stories they tell to prove it show that he is not only weak; as a ruler, he was soft. He was born soft; he was brought up soft; and, soft, he was brought down. His race, the Romanoffs, strong once, had gone down by bad breeding, by inbreeding, by the systematic selection of wives from among the "very best families of Europe," the families most weakened by possession of the most power, riches, and privileges; the "Royal Houses." For riches, privileges, and power are a wrong not only to the people who pay for and support them, but still more to the "beneficiaries" of these "good things." And the process of degeneration is swift and natural. We see it all around us here in the United States.

Once, when it seemed time to hear the railroad's side of a great railroad controversy, I called upon the chief attorney for one of the greatest railroad systems in the United States. He approved heartily my idea that it would be fair and fine to let the railroads speak. But when he learned that my specific proposition was to have him arrange for me an interview with the grand old man who was the president of his road, he was shocked.

"What!", he said, "you interview Mr. ——? Certainly not. That would not be fair. He is not your equal; you'd put it all over him."

I thought he was joshing me, and maybe he was, but he said he wasn't, and he went on to explain; and his explanation of the weakness of his president is an explanation of the softness of kings—all kings, whether of railroads or of kingdoms.

"Look," he said. "Mr. —— was a railroad man once, and he was a man. He came up from the bottom of the service, fast, because of his, nerve, power, and ability to handle men. But when he got to the top, we, his friends, his fellow-directors, and our clique of bankers and lawyers—-we wanted to share with him his power, his labor, and his responsibilities. So we made him 'go 'way back and sit down' in a back room, a grand, big, beautiful office, but it was 'way back. Of course we told him, it was to save his time and strength for the big things, but we set him a private secretary to be with and watch and protect him; and—other secretaries. If somebody wanted to see him, the caller had to pass a guard at the front door, and a clerk in the front room, the secretary to his private secretary in the second room, and his private secretary in the third room. Flanking him, were his attorneys, his staff, his heads of departments, his ministers—his court. See?"

"No," I said; I didn't "see." I was being cheated out of an interview; that's all I could see.

"Why, look," he said, "for years that great, strong railroad man has had no contact with the world. He is closed off from it. All men that get in to him, have been studied, passed upon, they and their business, and he has been told what they want and what to do and say about it. He is soft. He is like a girl that has been brought up by hand, protected, guarded, done for. He sees only his friends. (or ours); he never meets the enemy. We, his attorneys, do the fighting; his vice-presidents run the railroad; his bankers attend to the finance; I do the politics; and, as for the rest, his secretary and that little woman stenographer in there—they do the rest. No, sir, you can't interview Mr. ——. You'd get him in bad, you, with your practise in dealing with men; but—" as it occurred to him I might be swelling up under his flattery, he closed his eyes down hard and tight—"but," he said, "you may interview me. I'm not afraid of you."

The Tsar was a child once, a Tsarevitch. His parents and his parents' ministers realized that he was to come into their great power. It was preposterous. How could he, that baby there, wield such power? No. They must wield it for him; they must prepare him to let them wield it for him. So they surrounded his tender little years with nurses, governesses, servants, guards, to bring him up, protected, safe, soft; and the ministers of the Crown, and the grand dukes, the great landlords and all the interests, sensible of the trouble they were having all the time with the Tsar, his father, did more thoroughly to the son what they had tried to do to the father, the grandfather, and his great-grandfather. They taught him, as "they" teach all princes in Europe, the princely vices: wine, women, song, etc., so as to divert his growing interest from affairs of state to the undermining of his body, his mind, and his character.

Lenine, the veteran radical, who came back to Russia for the Revolution, took, you remember, for his residence in Petrograd, the private palace of the Tsar's mistress; the mistress of a prince who didn't care very much about women; who preferred flowers; but who was bound to do the conventional princely things!

The Autocrat of all the Russias was not an autocrat. No autocrat is. Autocracy is impossible, even in the United States. Peter the Great and the great Catherine of Russia came the nearest to exercising absolute power individually. But look back in the ''books to their days and you will see what the history of every absolute monarch shows; what the stories of the original great conquerors bring out best: that there are always what we call special interests; that these interests have power; that their power is rooted deep in custom, by possession and privilege, and that every ruler, every autocrat, every boss, has to gather back of, around, and under him and his throne, the support of these powerful interests.

To get them, he has to pay the price: a division of his power, privileges, and his graft. The autocrat must grant the powers that be the right to advise with him and to draw with him wealth from his kingdom and his subjects. Peter the Great did it; so did Catherine; so did all the Romanoffs down to the happy little Tsar in the garden at Tsarskoe-Selo. He didn't, and that's why he is in the garden.

Nicholas the Soft fell because he believed literally and actually the theory that he, the Tsar, was the Autocrat of all the Russias. He ceased to represent the interests. He did not take advice from the grand dukes, from the great landlords and the great concessionnaires. He consulted only with the Tsarina and Rasputin; he gave them all his power, and so there were no backers, there was no support for his throne. The special interests, the land-barons, the gentry, the banks, the business men, the church—they all had turned against or 'away from him, and when the Revolution rose like a storm and beat upon his throne, it washed out from under him like a structure of sand.

Boss Cox of Cincinnati, Ohio, U. S. A., made the same blunder and suffered a similar penalty once. He had been called an autocrat so much that he came to believe that he was. He forgot that he was boss because he represented the banks, the public service corporations, privileged business, vice, and persons. He told me himself that he was "it," he and he alone, and I found upon sounding the heads of those interests, which in all cities (and in all states and in all nations) are the sources of corruption and the supports of thrones, that Cox was right. The interests in Cincinnati were dissatisfied with him; they were "mad." "Cox has started a bank of his own," they said.

I told the reformers of Cincinnati that Cox was weak and could be beaten. They didn't believe it at first; they believed with Cox that the political boss was really the boss; and it was hard to persuade them to make a fight. But they were persuaded to try it; they organized a reform campaign and, to their amazement, Cox went down—as the Tsar has just gone down, and for the same reason: the real powers did not stand for him because he did not stand for them.

Cox came back, and he came back in the way the Tsar could come back: The "provisional government" of the political reformers of Cincinnati also did not fully represent the privileged interests of the city, and when, before the next election, Cox had promised to "be good," he received the financial and "moral" support which elected his ticket and restored him to (apparent) power. The hope for Russia lies in these differences: that the Tsar does not want to come back; that his people are so disgusted with him that he is not a popular figure for the reactionaries to use; and, best of all, that the Russian revolutionists, unlike our reformers, understand what political power really is.

"We have killed off enough tsars," they say, "to have learned that the Tsar makes no difference. The trouble is not with the man."

The Soldiers' and Workmen's Committee are not "taking office." They refused the crown when Miliukoff offered it to them. They proposed to keep the Provisional Government on the throne to do the political governing, while they, the embodiment of democratic sovereignty, backed by the army, navy, and all the force there is, are plotting and planning to communize the land and all natural resources, to publicly own and administer all the public services and chartered privileges, and so abolish the economic sources of plutocracy, which corrupts government, destroys democracy, and forms the foundation of thrones whether in empires, limited monarchies, or republics.

That's what they mean when they say in Russia that they are "going to have a republic; yes, but not like the United States. A democracy is what we are proposing to begin to found here; a democracy, not a plutocracy."

Russia, the Tsar's Russia, was a plutocracy. All countries are plutocracies. There are no monarchies, no aristocracies, no democracies. The Tsar was the richest man in Russia. He had all the wealth his ancestors had taken and not squandered, and he had, as Crown property, all the undeveloped lands, mines, forests, and about half the developed wealth of all the Russias. And he and his family had been the sources of titles, powers, positions, lands, mines—in brief, of properties and privileges, from which the aristocracies and the rich drew their nobility and their riches. But he was also "the Little Father" of the Russian peoples, all of them: the great Russians and the little Russians, the Poles, the Finns, the Lithuanians, the Cossacks, and all. And with the land and the mines, he gave also the labor of his people to work these things for the owners of them; his family, friends, and backers.

One of the first acts of the Russian Revolution was to declare that all the property of the Crown was to become the property of the people; not the state, but the Russian peoples.

Nicholas II., the gardener, did not start this system in Russia; he found it going. He accepted, as we have seen, as a duty, the burden of administering all these properties, and the army and navy, police, and the Government generally, which the proper defense of these things required. But he got out of the work of it all as much as he could; he gave it over to whomsoever he found ready to take it. He didn't see many people, only the few who were admitted to his presence, and they, the grand dukes and the nobility, were forever quarreling among themselves, wanting things that couldn't be divided. He had to decide between them. The flowers were blooming in the garden, and there was a row in the palace to referee. The Tsar hated it all, and indeed it was sordid; as sordid as the daily business of an American boss.

The Tsar let his wife do as much of it as she would. He was giving his power to her; he didn't know it; and it wasn't for love that he did it. It was for peace. He thought he was ridding himself of trouble, not power, and the Tsarina liked trouble, and power. She was strong. She was too strong for him. When he was arrested, his one request was that they would take him "to prison, not home." He was afraid to go home to the Tsarina.

The Tsarina reigned during the reign of Nicholas II., and at first she deferred to the high-placed persons who represented the actual powers in Russia; but it was not in wisdom that she did it. She didn't know, either, what the Soldiers and Workmen know, that that was necessary under the system. She did it by force of custom, as the Tsar had done it, and all the while her heart's desire was, like his, elsewhere. She loved religion as the Tsar loved flowers.

The Tsarina and the Tsar were ready for Rasputin when he came, ready and waiting to give him all.

There's no mystery about it; it isn't, as the foreigners say in Petrograd, "so Russian." Richard Croker tried to give his boss-ship to Lewis N. Nixon in the same misunderstanding way. He was through with it; he preferred to breed horses, and Lewis Nixon was a good man. The people of New York didn't revolt, it is true—they looked on helpless; but the interests did. When Nixon failed, and Croker appointed a committee of three to take his place, the interests picked Francis J. Murphy, one of the three, went to the seashore with him, and came back to New York with an understanding that Murphy was boss. And Murphy was boss, therefore, and nobody thereafter, not even Croker himself, could undo him.

Rasputin was a pilgrim. He was not a monk or a priest; he wasn't even a lay-priest. He came to make priests and he appointed bishops and archbishops, but he was never more himself than a pilgrim. And a pilgrim in modern Russia is just what he was in medieval days in the rest of Europe: a sinner who goes forth on a pilgrimage to do penance for his sins. Rasputin was a great pilgrim, and he did a great pilgrimage: from Tiumen, a village in distant Siberia, to Jerusalem, to Moscow, and to Petrograd; but, then, he was a great sinner, too.

When the Tsarina received him, and he received from her the powers of the Tsar, the Court and the interests put detectives on Rasputin's track to get his record, and they were able to show the Tsar proofs that Rasputin's early sins, the sins which started him out of his home town for Jerusalem, were horse-stealing and rape. The Tsar was impressed, but the Tsarina was not. She knew all about it; Rasputin had told it to her himself; and so she knew what it was so hard for the plutocracy about her to understand—that was Rasputin's religion:

"Sin." "Except ye repent"—he quoted, and he reasoned that since you can not repent unless you have sinned, you must sin. And he reminded men and women, and especially women, that "there was more rejoicing over the one sheep that had gone astray" than over the ninety-nine that stayed with the flock. "Therefore," he said, "stray. Stray, and let me find you and bring you back, so that there may be more rejoicing in heaven."

Devilish? That's what they say in Petrograd. Quoting, themselves, the line about "the devil quoting Scripture," intelligent Russians declared that Rasputin was a devil, and they said it with a shudder and a look of fear, which showed that they believed it very literally. His knowledge of the Bible and the church service; his perversion of doctrines and phrases all to his beastly uses; the power he developed over not only the Court, but women of high degree and culture; and the way he eluded or defied the vengeance of gallant husbands, brothers—yes, and sons—cast a spell of superstitious dread of the man.

Reckless dandies who set out to kill him came back innocent and appalled. They couldn't tell just what he did to them, but he prevented them from doing anything to him. They said he waved his hands over them, fixed them with his miraculous eyes, and they left their honor with him, unavenged.

This superstitious horror of Rasputin is a dramatic fact in his story; without a realization of the fear of him, that permeated Petrograd, one can not understand what happened. So we must know, but we needn't have this horror. Rasputin's knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Greek service was good and it was acute, but the Russian peasants are devout, and almost every village has its "peasant theologian" who is to the church what a "sea-lawyer" is to the crew of a ship: the people's own authority on the wording of the law. His misreadings of his texts seem purposeful, and they are ridiculous, but it is not the devil alone that misapplies the Scriptures.

Rasputin's "lost sheep" and his doctrine of sinning in order to repent, are no more preposterous than the texts upon which certain sects of the Christian religion have been started; and we all have heard men reason that since Jesus said the poor would probably always be with us, it is wrong to try to abolish poverty; and that His "Render to Caesar" means that we must not depose kaisers, tsars and—trusts. The depth and the breadth and the heights of the Christian doctrine of love form a conception so big that the minds and hearts of men can not grasp it wholly, so each one or each group of us picks out our little bit of it, a word or a phrase, which falls well within the limits of our comprehension and of our disposition, and upon that we build a religion or a church.

That's all Rasputin did, and if we set him aside as a devil or even as a deliberate, intelligent rascal, we'll miss the meaning of him to Russia and his use to us in America. I think Rasputin was sincere, like all of us, a large part of the time. He had moments of cynicism, but in the main he meant emotionally what he said. How else can you account for his power?

He did steal and he did rape as a young man, but also he did pray and he did repent. He was both religious and sensual, both selfish and loving. He was run out of Tiumen, but there is no doubt at all that he did make the long, weary pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He sinned on the way, as his diary shows, but it shows, too, that he sorrowed and suffered and prayed. And, in his struggle with himself, in his poor mind's fight to bring into some sort of union his strong lusts and his strong religious emotion, he hit upon his final interpretation of the doctrine of love. He made it mean his kind of love, and taught it so. "Let us love one another," he said. And then, discovering the ecstasy of it, he taught his followers to "Come, let us sin together, so that we may pray together and forgive one another." He used innocent language in the Greek service to this end.

Now his followers were mostly women, and he, the pilgrim, with a pious but sensual aspect, in his peasant, pilgrim garb, took refuge in the nunneries in the towns he passed through. He began to make a quiet sensation; his fame went ahead of him; he was welcomed with a thrill of awe and fascinating fear. And he was not always the same. He was never the same. If there was any genius in the man, it was his gift of divining the thoughts, the expectations toward him of others, and his intuitive ability to meet these expectations. He really was all things to all men and all women: pious to the pious, pure to the pure, an animal to the weak who secretly yearned for strength. And that's the explanation of his relations with the Tsarina.

The most mysterious question about Rasputin's rise is, "How did he get into the Court at Petrograd?" Nothing could be simpler. In a nunnery at Moscow he met the Tsarina's sister. Like the Empress, the sister was a devotee of the church, of charity and humane service. Rasputin met her, and he met her every thought and longing. He expressed her, satisfied her, and so she recommended him, to her sister in the Court. He was summoned to Petrograd, and, happening to arrive at a time when the little Tsarevitch was ill, he stroked and wished him, well. And the child happened to get well.

The Tsarina is a good mother, and a very superstitious, almost a fanatically religious woman. She called this a miracle, and the performer of it an angel of goodness. Rasputin could come up to that expectation, too. He played that part. Whenever after that the Tsarevitch was ill, Rasputin waited a while and then, when the sickness had had time to run its course, he would lay on his hand. The story that he had a woman who made the child ill is pretty generally believed in Petrograd, and it may be true, but medical men there who knew something of the circumstances said it wasn't necessary to accept this explanation. The more probable one I have suggested is sufficient. But if he did use drugs on the child and even, as it is also said, on the Tsar himself, we may be sure, from our knowledge of ourselves, that he did it for a good purpose. Threatened and plotted against, he had to defend himself and protect the policies he was using the Tsar and his power to work out.

It is a fact that Rasputin could go in and out of the Tsarina's private apartment, whenever he pleased, and that he went in and sat with her when she was in her bed; but when a jealous lady-in-waiting reported this to the Tsar and put her own interpretation upon it, the Tsar dismissed the woman, saying that she evidently did not and could not understand. And what she, and many others, could not understand was what the best observers at the Court will tell you:

It was the piety and, if you please, the superstitions of the Tsarina that Rasputin appealed to; that he had to be to her what she was and what she expected of him—pure. And one reason why he had to play that part with her was because he was playing the other part with so many other women that there was a scandal at court, in the city, and all over Russia. He had to have the Tsarina believe, not only that these reports were not true, but that there was another explanation of these "lies." The all-powerful Empress must know that that unconventional but perfectly innocent and deeply religious intimacy which he had with her, was what he "had to have with other women to do for them the pious service he was doing for her and her family and her poor distracted Russians."

The Tsarina was the clean center from which Rasputin radiated his conquest of Russian women and, through them, of Russia. It was monstrous. After he had at his feet most of the ladies of the Court, he moved out into "society" and spread everywhere his practical doctrine of ecstatic sinning and repenting together. There was raging and gnashing of teeth among the men, and there was reason for it. Rasputin spared no one he could reach: he took not only wives, but mothers and daughters. It became a sort of craze, a sickness; it was a panic of virtue.

But the real sin of Rasputin, the crime that caused his death and the fall of the Tsar, was that he took the powers of the Tsar which the Tsarina gave over to him, to sell them out for bribes. His price was not only money; it was sometimes women and always it was more power; but he took money.

Bribery was, common in Old Russia; it was worse than it has ever been in the United States. Bribery was well-nigh universal in the political government. But Rasputin violated the law and order of bribery and corruption. He sold for bribes offices and acts which belong by right to the field of what we call honest corruption. He sold out the interests.

That is to say, this peasant-pilgrim-statesman was corrupting the foundations, not only of Russia, but of the corruption of Russia. He was a traitor to the system.

Also he was a traitor to his country in the popular sense. It is believed by the Russians of all degrees, of all classes at the capital, that Rasputin sold out to the Germans. The truth of this will come out in the trial of some of the ministers he appointed, on the charge of treason which they stand accused of in prison. Sufficient for the present is it that the Russians generally believed for a year before he was killed that he was the agent through whom the Germans managed to have one kind of ammunition go to a battle-front where there was another kind of guns; and to have whole armies marched into positions where the German army could annihilate them.

No wonder, then, that for a year before his assassination, all Petrograd—fathers, brothers, and sons, mothers, sisters, and daughters—all the upper classes, were speaking of "It." They've talked of "It" as the Germans used to talk of "Der Tag." "It" was the killing of Rasputin. "It is to be done next week." "I know who is going to do it." "General —— will do it; he said so himself." "Prince —— swore he'd do it." And yet "It" wasn't done, not for a year; and the fear grew, the crazy, superstitious horror. "It" was attempted, but miraculously "he" escaped. He looked out of his beautiful blue eyes, and his would-be assassin didn't strike. It took a woman to get it done, a lady who loathed and feared Rasputin, but who was not afraid.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury