Staff Favorite: Petrograd: An Account of the Death of Rasputin

Petrograd
written by Philip Gelatt
illustrated by Tyler Crook
(FIC GEL)

Petrograd is a historical fiction book full of conspiracy and edge of your seat espionage that tells the story of a British Secret Service agent and the plot to assassinate the “mad monk”, Rasputin. Sent to pre-communist tsar-ist Russia, during the height of the first World War, reluctant MI5 Agent named Cleary must navigate through the slums of working class peasants, the crooked Okhrana (police force), corrupt Orthodox priests, and the bourgeoisie ruling-class, in a crumbling and divisive Russian society, because Britain is afraid that Tsarista Alexandra, under the guidance of Rasputin, will defect to Germany’s side.

Petrograd tells a very epic story that covers a fascinating period of Russian history, beginning with the Eastern Front and ending with the February Revolution.  In it you will learn about the excess and decadence of the ruling class, the collapse of the Russian monarchy, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the beginnings of the modern British Spy business.

Gelatt manages to blend the dichotomies of the Russian nation as it struggled against the romanticism of the upper class versus the realism of the working class, the acceptance of the modern industrialized world versus the mystic medieval notions of Rasputin or the Orthodoxy, and the struggles against freedom and despotism in a time of war. At the same time, Crook, uses moody shadows mixed with a orangish-red hue to depict the dangerous time and forewarn the specter of Bolshivek Communism.

Continue reading for more background information and resources on Rasputin, Russia, and events depicted in Petrograd.

Historical People invovled in Petrograd

Rise of Rasputin

circa 1911: Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin (1871 – 1916) peasant, mystic and self styled holy man who had a magnetic influence over Alexandra and her husband, Tsar Nicholas II is in the midst of a group of his followers. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The actual facts behind the life of Gregory Yefimovich Rasputin seemed to be a jumble of myths and misinformation mixed in with facts. What is known about him is that he was born sometime between 1869 and 1872 (the most common date being Jan. 10, 1869) in the Siberian town of Pokroskoe. Growing up, Rasputin, was described as an unruly and uneducated troublemaker who possessed a mysterious gift. Through, what was considered to be psychic powers, Rasputin was able to calm spooked animals and at one time, through “clairvoyance”, identified a horse-thief. Outside of that, little is know about his childhood. His history next picks up when he was 28 years old. Either due to trouble with the law or an encounter with a revered spiritual hermit named Makary, Rasputin decided to leave his home town and take up a spiritual life. After a few months in the monastery, Rasputin became restless and decided to take a pilgrimage across Europe and Asia. In the course of his travels he came to embody his own particular brand of religion. Not to bound by the typical behavior of piety exhibited by Orthodoxy priests, Rasputin felt that drinking, parties, and women brought him closer to God, via redemption through sin.

In 1903 Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg (Petrograd), the capital of Russia and home of the Romanovs (ruling tsars). By this time he gained a reputation across the nation as gifted starets, and news of his preaching and ability to heal the sick coupled with his magnetism and charisma had made him very popular in Russian society. At the time of his arrival the Orthodox Church and it leaders had been so bogged down in corruption and the scandals that people had begun to abandon it for darker and more mystical sects. So right away, the brand of religion, professed by Rasputin became an instant success in high society, and by 1905 he was being introduced to the ruling family, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarista Alexandra. Immediately impressed by Rasputin’s candidness and ability to treat them like normal people the Romanovs took him into their inner circle. It was at this time that he met Tsarovich Alexis and what followed would forever intertwine Rasputin and fate of Russia.

Tsarovich Alexis, was the first-born heir to the Romanov family (which meant at one time he would be the ruler of Russia). Unfortunately, Alexis suffered from Hemophilia, a disease that made him vulnerable to internal bleeding at even the slightest of blows and in left him in a state of perpetual pain. At the time it was unlikely for a Hemophiliac to survive into their late teens. Alexandra, a German-born princess, was especially susceptible and interested in mysticism, called Rasputin to Alexis during what was believed to be a near fatal attack in 1906 and pleaded that he save he son, which he did through soothing words. Over the progression of three to four years, Rasputin would continue to heal young Alexis and Alexandra would begin to believe that he had been sent to her from God, not only to cure her son, but to save Russia from the deliberations of war and the gathering whirlwinds of revolution. In this, Rasputin would cement his place as royal advisor.

Tsarist Russia, World War I, and the Path to the Bolshevik Revolution

Bolsheviks, the majority in the early Russian Social Democratic Party, believed that the Russian workers needed leaders who were professional revolutionaries. It was the Bolsheviks, under Lenin, in the centre of this photograph between Stalin on the left and Leon Trotsky, who led the revolution in 1917. circa Getty Images

In 1913, WWI, threw Europe in a state of turmoil. And in 1914, Russia, who was drowning in internal conflicts, briefly capitalized on positive feelings of nationalism by adding themselves to the side of the allies. But do to the inefficiencies of government at the time those feelings quickly swept away and by 1915 the feelings of revolution were came back stronger than they had been in years.

In the summer of 1915, Germany launched a massive offensive that wiped out nearly half of Russia’s army. Seethed in conflict, Nicholas made a fateful decision to leave the capital and take his place on the Eastern front as personal commander of the troops. In his wake he left Alexandra in control of Russia, indirectly giving Rasputin nearly supreme power, and boy-oh-boy did he take advantage. Right away, Rasputin established himself by dismissing any ruling member or clergy that he felt threatened by. He then made appointments and sold off political positions to people who were woefully unqualified, unloved, or just plain incompetent. On top of these decisions, he was seen as becoming increasingly erratic and grope-y, while being in the state a perpetually drunk. These actions led to the tsarina and her mad monk making powerful enemies in the press, church, and government. A trifecta of bad which in addition to food and fuel shortages led to a popular push toward revolutionaries. Namely a small band headed by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, known as the Bolsheviks.

Prince Yusupov and the Assassination of Rasputin

Charity Bazaar in the Banquet Chamber of the Yusupov Palace (19th C.). Sadovnikov, Vasili Semenovich. Circa State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia — site of the assassination of Rasputin.

It was at this point that a group of right-wing conspirators, seeing the increasing popularity of socialist groups among the masses, decided that the only way to stave of revolt and thus save the tsar’s regime was to kill Rasputin. So on the night of December 29th, 1916, Prince Felix Yusupov, an heir to the throne, lured Rasputin to a party at his house with the promise of either Yusupov’s wife or gypsy music. From there the legend of the assassination of Rasputin began.

Initially the conspirators plan was to poison Rasputin, so they put cyanide into his wine. Easy enough, except for the fact, that the poison in no way seemed to effect the monk. They then tried plan B; feeding him cakes with enough cyanide to “kill a horse” which ended with Rasputin merrily sitting at the table enjoying the festivities. The Princes, now perplexed, tried the next best thing, and brought him down to a basement, wherein Yusupov shot him. Proud of their victory the nobles turned to go back to the party but before doing so went to double check their victim. Much to their chagrin, Rasputin was not only not dead, but had managed to escape the basement. When they finally found him in the courtyard, Yusupov ordered his guards to beat Rasputin with clubs, until he felt assured of his death. The conspirators then took Rasputin’s body and dumped him in the frozen Neva River. That was the last time Rasputin was seen alive, however, a year later when his body was fished out, it was found that he had managed to untie his ropes while underwater, but could not escape from underneath the ice.

The conspirator’s attempt to save the Romanovs eventually did not succeed. In 1917 the tsar and his family were abdicated and placed on house arrest, as Russia revolted and set up a provisional government. A year later, the Bolsheviks would seize control and execute the royal family. And the rest would be history.

*(for a great personal recap of the fall of the Romanovs, the rise and fall of the provisional government, and the eventual victory of the Bolsheviks check out this article which details Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, first hand encounters as a diplomat in Russia during the time).

Library Resources

A Vibrant Echo. (1923). Time2(14), 12.

Death of Rasputin. (1927). Time10(19), 16.

Frost, B. (1998). Rasputin: Mystical, powerful, insatiable. Biography2(6), 80.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. (2011). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1.

Lockhart, R. (1991). The February Revolution of 1917. History Today, 41(2), 34.

Lovelady, C. (2005). Rasputin. Rasputin, 1.

Rooks, N. (1989). The Coroner’s Tale. Sciences29(1), 2.

Simon Sebag, M. (n.d). His life was cloaked in legend and myth … but the truth about the ‘mad monk’ is just as bizarre. Sunday Times, The.

Bibliography provided by the book

Alexander Palace: Russian History Websites (2012). http://www.alexanderpalace.org/

Andrew, C. M. (1986). Her Majesty’s Secret Service : the making of the British intelligence community. New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking.

Cook, A. (2005). To kill Rasputin : the life and death of Grigori Rasputin. Stroud, Gloucestershire : Tempus.

Figes, O (1997). A people’s tragedy : the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York, NY : Viking.

Kurth, P. (1995).  Tsar : the lost world of Nicholas and Alexandra. Boston : Little, Brown and Co.

Spence, R (2002).  Trust no one : the secret world of Sidney Reilly. Los Angeles, Calif. : Feral House.

Vintage Nevsky Postcard Collection (2012). http://www.nevsky-prospekt.com/

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