For nearly a century, Grigory Rasputin, spiritual advisor to Russia’s last Tsar and Tsarina, has been unjustly vilified simply because history is written by the politically powerful and not by the common man. A wealth of evidence shows that Rasputin was discredited by a fanatically anti-Semitic Russian society, for advocating equal rights for the severely oppressed Jewish population, as well as for promoting peace in a pro-war era. Testimony by his friends and enemies, from all social strata, depicts a spiritual man who hated bigotry, inequity and violence.
In order to understand why the aristocracy depicted Rasputin as mad, or demonic, it is necessary to understand Russia’s attitude toward its Jewish citizens. At the end of 18th century, Catherine the Great indicated that Jews would only be allowed to settle in an area called The Pale of Settlement, encompassing the general region of Poland, the Ukraine and parts of Latvia. Jews were not permitted to leave the Pale, with few exceptions, depending on one’s occupation and many professions and occupations were off limits to Jews. Only a small percentage of the Jewish population was permitted to attend schools and universities. A female Jewish teacher or student, for example, could not leave the Pale to pursue those endeavors, but she could travel to any region if she were a prostitute. Consequently, a number of women posed as prostitutes while they studied or taught in secret.
Generations of tsars, including the last one, Nicholas II, sanctioned regular raids, called ‘pogroms’, on the villages in the Pale. In the course of these raids, homes and properties were ransacked and burned. Entire families would be tortured and slaughtered. Rasputin was horrified by this and, on many occasions, tried to persuade the Tsar to grant equal rights to the Jews. He categorically refused. Rasputin even stated, “instead of organizing pogroms and accusing Jews of all evils, we would do better to criticize ourselves.” His position was that if a man believed in God, that was enough. The way in which he chose to worship was, to his mind, personal and it was a sin to try to convert him or discount his way of believing.
There were many incidents where Rasputin intervened to help the Jews. He alerted them whenever he knew of plans for a pogrom, even warning the Tsar to call them off. He also interceded in legal cases, such as one where over 300 dentists were imprisoned and accused of becoming dentists just to have the right to reside outside the Pale. He succeeded in freeing them. He also tried to have the Mendel Beilis case dropped. The latter was accused, in a blood libel case, of killing a young Christian boy to use his blood to make matzo. Rasputin regularly petitioned the Tsarina to allow Jewish students to attend university or pursue certain professions, above and beyond the allowed quota, to allow Yiddish theater, and to free innocent men and families from prison or Siberia. These are but a few examples of his many interventions.
Rasputin was also anti-war and advised the Tsar not to become involved in World War I, but to no avail. He attempted, also, to have Cabinet ministers appointed who had promised him to advocate for the Jews and against war. Many of these did not have the courage to adhere to their promises.
He made many other recommendations to the Tsar, regarding not sending men to war before the harvest, not sending them into battle without ammunition, and regulating the high black market prices on food. The Tsar listened to none of these, demonstrating how little influence Rasputin had on him. The Tsar’s only interests in Rasputin were as a healer for the hemophiliac tsarevitch and as a spiritual advisor, stating that he felt at peace whenever Rasputin spoke with him of God.
The clergy were often jealous of the number of people who attended his dynamic sermons which he made relevant to their everyday lives. His hometown priest began the rumor that Rasputin was a Khlysty, a secretive sect of flagellants, in order to discredit him, and even had him investigated. Several investigations, then and by the post-revolutionary Extraordinary Commission, cleared him of any association with that sect. It is notable that political cartoons in the newspapers of his era portrayed Rasputin as demonic and evil, in the very same way Jews were portrayed in the media, in an obvious attempt to influence public opinion.
The aristocracy was rabidly anti-Semitic and, because of his widely known sympathy for the Jews, spread numerous rumors about him. It is ironic that they chose to foster gossip about him being a womanizer and a drunk. Russian society was extremely decadent and, as evidenced in newspaper ads for cures, venereal disease was rampant among them due to their own promiscuity. With regard to alcohol, the nobility consumed French champagne and vodka by the case. A number of historians and biographers assert that, had Rasputin been an aristocrat, the rumors of promiscuity and drunkenness would have been dismissed as normal behavior. The Extraordinary Commission’s investigation declared that assertions of womanizing were unfounded and they could find no witnesses or complainants to substantiate these.
As many as 200 people a day lined up at his door for favors. They included the poor and the Jews, as well as bureaucrats and military personnel seeking promotions. He took the Jews and the poor first, announcing loudly to the others that since these people were treated so poorly, they deserved to be first in line. He never took money for himself, but often had the rich empty their pockets to disperse the funds among the poor. Sometimes these funds were used to bribe officials to grant a favor, or circumvent the restrictive laws.
Among his recommendations was a plan he proposed to the Tsar to buy land from the nobility, to give to the peasants to farm, creating an abundant food supply for the country. In addition, he thought the nobility should invest the money from their real estate into factories, in order to join the industrial revolution and create jobs. A number of scholars have suggested that, had Rasputin’s recommendations been followed, the 1917 Revolution might not have occurred. In fact, after the Revolution, Jews were no longer required to live in the Pale and were granted equal rights; land was given to the peasants to farm; and an era of industrialization began.
It is ironic that, today, Tsar Nicholas II is deified while Rasputin is vilified. The Tsar’s hands were tainted with the blood, based solely on hatred, of thousands of innocent people, while Rasputin was a healer and equal rights activist who never harmed nor killed a single soul.