Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Romanov á Clef

I'd like to take you back to the days when Russia was ruled by a Czar. Or Tsar. Take your pick. I prefer czar, as tsar sounds like that little electrical device that the police use to subdue unruly drunks.

However you spell the word, Nicholas II was the man who held the title at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his wife, Alexandria, had four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and one son, Alexei. Alexei was heir apparent to the Russian throne, but it looked like he might not live long enough to become Czar as he suffered from hemophilia, which ran rampant in Queen Victoria's family. What in the world does Queen Victoria have to do with Russia? Genetically speaking, the old royal families of the various European countries had much more in common with each other than they ever did with their own subjects. Such blue blood inbreeding tended to exacerbate inherited diseases such as hemophilia. The Czarina sought out doctor after doctor hoping to find a cure for the young prince, but to no avail. Finally, she turned to religion. She turned to Rasputin.

Grigori Rasputin was a priest or a monk or a mystic or a psychic or a soothsayer or--well, people then and now couldn't quite decide what exactly he was. The Mad Monk is one common moniker, but he was rarely called that to his face. Mad or not, he had a following in St. Petersburg, the Russian capital at the time, and soon came to the attention of the Czarina, who sought his help. Rasputin agreed to treat the little prince, and Alexei was soon rid of Grandma Vicky's genetic booby prize. For a while, anyway. But whenever the hemophilia flared up again, Rasputin was called, and the disease subsided. He once cured the prince by telegram! What was Rasputin's secret? Some say hypnosis. Others say the earlier doctors, well-meaning as they may have been, were quacks by today's standards, and did things such as prescribe that new wonder drug, aspirin, which we know now is the wrong thing to give a hemophiliac, as it exacerbates bleeding. Rasputin may have just given common sense advice, like get plenty of bed rest. Rasputin may have just been lucky.

If you had asked Rasputin, he would have told you it was God. If so, that same supreme being had some odd things in store for Russia in the coming years.

Rasputin soon went from being a palace doctor to a trusted advisor on all matters domestic and foreign. He became a familiar figure in the Russian court, where he spread his religious doctrine of "salvation through sin", that God couldn't very well forgive you until you've done something that needed forgiving. In Rasputin's case, this meant huge orgies with the ladies of the court, after which they all sought redemption. In layman's terms, that's having your cake and eating it, too.

Along came World War I. Russia declared war on Germany. Rasputin suggested that the leader of the Russian army, who, by most accounts, was very good at his job, be replaced by Czar Nicholas II himself, a man with no previous military experience. While Nicholas was busy losing battles abroad, Rasputin replaced all the Czar's ministers with his own handpicked cronies, whose botched-up policies increased turmoil at home. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky took notice.

Not everyone thought Rasputin was doing God's work. He made his share of enemies, and these enemies plotted to kill him, and kill him, and--Well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

A group of disgruntled nobles lured Rasputin to a house on the pretense that there would be some pretty young things there in need of salvation. Once he had arrived, the nobles served him poisoned cake and poisoned wine. I don't know about alcohol, but Rasputin could certainly hold his cyanide, consuming enough to kill five men.

Seeing this wasn't getting them anywhere, one of the nobles pulled out a gun and simply shot Rasputin.

Rasputin fell. And then got right back up.

Rasputin was shot again, fell again, and then got right back up again.

This scene repeated itself a couple more times.

Obviously, shooting wasn't getting the nobles anywhere either, so they all ganged up on him and began pounding away. Rasputin fell. And then got right back up. So they beat the hell out of him some more until he was finally unconscious, after which they castrated him (no more salvation with pretty young things for this guy.) They then tied him up and threw him into an icy river.

Rasputin's body was found three days later. His arms were untied and in an upright position. He had apparently tried to claw his way through the ice before finally drowning.

The Russian monarchy wasn't nearly as hardy. Soon thereafter it fell to the Bolsheviks. The Czar, Czarina, and their children were executed.

But our story does not end there. Let's jump ahead about fifteen years and a half a world away to a place called Hollywood. In 1932, MGM made a movie of the events I've just described called Rasputin and the Empress starring John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore (but not Drew; she wouldn't be born for another 42 years.) Lionel played Rasputin, Ethel played the Czarina, and John played Prince Paul Chegodieff, a fictional character who finally kills Rasputin. You may be wondering how someone who actually lived could be killed by someone who didn't. So did Prince Felix Yusupov.

Yusupov was the ringleader of the gang that plotted to kill Rasputin, and, in fact, it was in his house where the murder, or whatever it was, occurred. Yusupov, having escaped the revolution and now living in London, believed the John Barrymore character was based on him, and sued MGM for libel. Yusupov's beef wasn't that the film depicted him as killing Rasputin in cold blood; he was proud of that. What bugged him, and was perhaps an insult to his manhood, was that the movie showed his wife being seduced by Rasputin. The missus said it didn't happen, and he believed her. MGM lost, and the Prince and his wife were awarded $120,000, millions in today's money. Plus the scene was cut.

As a result of this lawsuit, Hollywood studios began inserting a disclaimer in the credits of every film, one that soon spread to books as well:

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Rasputin may be dead, but Prince Felix Yusupov lives on.


  1. Love that disclaimer...

    Every Law & Order, ripped from the latest headlines, starts off with the same disclaimer.

  2. Ha, Kirk ~ I actually have some knowledge and experience on THIS topic! I have read virtually every word written (in English) on the family, and have attended many presentations by Robert K. Massie. I've heard nut-jobs in the audience tell Massie they have the next generation heir apparent waiting in the wings and I've watched Massie handle that deftly.

    I want to dig up my books, which is a very good thing for me today. I want to pull all of my little Faberge egg iconical works of art and dish with you a bit.

    And I want to tell a terrible little tale on my mother about the last Massie presentation we attended together.

    Whatever your initial intent, you touched a nerve here. A first photo will appear tomorrow.

    I live on, too. You charm me, Kirk! I "get" what you're talkin' about. How'd you come up with it, given all the world's history?

  3. @Hill and Limes--I've got to leave this computer shortly. I'll address your comments in more detail tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. I knew some of this tale but not all of it...and thoroughly enjoyed it. Nothing better than good old history. By the way, tsars aren't just for criminals...I heard a cop tasered some kids in the butt at an elementary school during a classroom talk. Apparently his defense was that they wanted to know what it felt like. Maybe not at the scale as the antics in your story, but pretty darn incredible.

  5. @Hill--I don't watch Law and Order very often. I wonder if there's ever been an episode where somebody who's been rotting away in prison for years is released because the DNA proves they didn't do it. For that matter, has ANY police episode had an episode like that?

    @Limes--If the heir apparent looks like Ingrid Bergman in her prime, I'd champion her--Excuse me, that was uncalled for.

    Actually, you probably know a lot more about this, Les, because I just this week crammed myself with various facts. I'm afraid I've never heard of Robert K. Massie. Maybe you can recommend a book by him. As for Faberge eggs, my cat might knock it off the table. I'd hate to have one of those shatter.

    Tell me any terrible little tale about your mother you want, just as long as she knows YOU instigated it. I don't want her mad at me.

    How did I come up with it? Simple. I just happened to watch the movie "Rasputin and the Empress" on TCM last week. Afterwards, Bob Osborne, TCMs host, mentioned the lawsuit. I was fascinated that this strange little event in a foreign land could result in that phrase I've seen in books all my life, and felt the neeed to write about it. There was no original research involved. All I did was put other people's original research in my own words. Hey! That's more than a lot of people do on the Internet!

    @Dreamfarm--That's incredible. You'd think the policeman would know that in the eyes of the law, kids are, well, kids. They're not expected to use the best judgement in the world. Sheesh.

  6. Well, Sir, you've set me afire! I do know a lot about this and you sparked some memories. There's far too much to put on anyone's comments. I'm going to write a post. Thank you for jump-starting me. Ingrid Bergman in her prime, indeed!

  7. Hi Kirk, I'm new to your blog through LimesNow. This is such a terrific re-telling of the amazing story bits of which I've heard before but never in such a neat sequence especially when you add the continuing story of MGM being sued by Rasputin's killer.

    I look forward to reading more of your tales. Such wonderful and mesmerising writing. You have such a clear voice.

  8. @Limes--I look forward to reading your post.

    @Elisabeth--I believe this is your second visit here, isn't it? Thanks for the kind words. I'm blushing so much that the librarian just walked over and asked if I have scarlet fever.

  9. By the way, Elisabeth, Rasputin's killer suing MGM was the main thing I wanted to write about. I just needed all that other history to lead up to it.

  10. @LimesNow--If you're still out there somewhere, I've got something to tell you. In response to your comment, I told you I never heard of Robert K. Massie. Just yesterday, I read a review of a new book he has out about Catherine the Great. According to the review he won a Pulitzer Prize way back in the 1970s for Nicholas and Alexandria, a book I HAVE heard of, but never read. Didn't know the author's name for some reason. Just thought you'd like to know that.