This visual essay was created for my undergraduate thesis project and certain elements intentionally mirror the layout of The Atlantic magazine.
“…Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld acted as a modern day Rasputin by manipulating the adolescent emotions and exploiting the evangelical beliefs of George W. Bush. Rumsfeld utilized some Rasputin-like techniques to manipulate Bush’s more mystic beliefs. That includes delivering highly classified intelligence briefings to Bush that featured, “triumphant, color images from the previous days’ war efforts” and “a quote…from the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him…To deliver their soul from death.”
~Allison Kilkenny, The Huffington Post May 17, 2009
Writers like Kilkenny frequently use Rasputin as an archetype to describe controlling and venomous politicians. But who was Rasputin and how did he become the posterboy for political manipulation?
Rasputin was Born to Siberian peasants in 1869. He spent his teenage years roving the streets of Pokrovskoye with a group of street toughs that extorted money from local clergymen to ensure peaceful Sunday worship. Later, Rasputin entered the Verkhoturye Monastery where the Virgin Mary spoke to him and transformed him from a thug into a devoutly spiritual person. He began a new life as a travelling holy man. In 1889, Rasputin took a wife and fathered three children.
Rasputin embraced a single dogma: salvation could not be achieved without sin. He was well suited to exploit the idea, which allowed him to convince naïve peasant women that he could be their sin. His theology allowed him to drink excessively. It allowed him to abandon his wife and children. It allowed him to nearly inhabit the brothels. It allowed him to scheme and dupe and rape and destroy. It allowed Rasputin to be, well, Rasputin.
In the early twentieth century, the Russian Empire was ruled by the Romanov dynasty, a family that had become fascinated by mystical and spiritual things. They put their belief in anything they could get their hands on – or anything the church could put in their hands. Ouija boards and dubious prophecies prevailed in the palace.
Wandering holy men, or starets, and faith healers were well respected. Against a faltering economy and unstable political climate, those with divine authority promised enormous power.
In 1903, Rasputin’s stench announced his not-so-grand entrance to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. After travelling the continent on a mission of God, the holy man was utterly bedraggled. He smelled of the food and dirt trapped in his beard. An animal walking among the civilized, Rasputin still managed to jam his foot into the Romanovs’ door.
The tsarevich, Alexei, heir to the throne, suffered from hemophilia. Even the slightest pinprick would unleash uncontrollable bleeding. The hysterical empress, Alexandra, in her pursuit to try anything to combat Alexei’s condition, consulted Rasputin, a starets popular among the peasants.
Rasputin was first called into the palace during one of Alexei’s hemophilic episodes. He brought great calm to Alexei’s bedroom and quickly made his bleeding subside. Relief washed over the tsarevich and his panicked mother. Whether Rasputin had channeled the power of God, or merely slipped some aspirin into the tsarevich’s mouth was of little concern to Alexandra, who, from then on, requested the holy man’s aid every time her son’s condition worsened. When Rasputin somehow healed Alexei by telegraph from across Russia, he became a permanent fixture in the royal palace.
Rasputin became ubiquitous in the capital, showing his many different faces around the court. Though Rasputin’s kind words charmed the empress, others, like Prince Yusupov, were immediately “repulsed” by the “wandering expression in his small pellucid grey eyes”.
The brothels of St. Petersburg also became quite familiar with a drunken Rasputin. He sexually assaulted and harassed countless women all over St. Petersburg, including princesses and nuns. The empress refused to believe the ensuing complaints and accusations. To her, Rasputin was “a saint, and all saints are persecuted.”
From above: Eventually, Rasputin gained the unwavering trust of the Empress – in addition to her son’s savior, he was her advisor and confidant. As an advisor, Rasputin gained political power. He used it to flood the government with incompetent political appointees, while they flooded his wallet with bribes.
Pyotr Stolypin became prime minister in the midst of rumors and myths and complaints about Rasputin, from politicians, nobles, and commoners alike. Rasputin had plagued the government with corruption and humiliated countless politicians. Resolving to correct these evils, Stolypin collected a massive file evidence against the debauched holy man and presented it to the empress. Alexandra disregarded the file, stubbornly defending Rasputin, as always. Stolypin was murdered soon after.
From above: World War I erupted in 1914 and took a devastating toll on Russia, which was ill- equipped to fight against the advanced weaponry of Germany. The following year, Rasputin had a vision. The emperor, Nicholas II, must join his troops on the front lines of World War I, if they hoped to succeed. Lacking any military experience, the emperor joined his troops, leaving Alexandra alone in the capital with Rasputin. While Nicholas’ troops suffered disastrous defeats in the West, Rasputin’s influence grew in the absence of the emperor. Scandal rocked St. Petersburg and the economy plummeted. Russia crumbled.
Prince Felix Yusupov was one of the richest men in Russia and a staunch enemy of Rasputin. He distrusted the monk, believing he was pro-German and repulsive. By 1916, Yusupov decided that Rasputin must be stopped. He conspired to kill the demon that had terrorized the royal palace for a decade.
Promised a meeting with a beautiful woman, Rasputin was easily lured to Yusupov’s palace. In the parlor, Yusupov offered him poisoned cakes and wine, and left him to wait. Everything was going perfectly…until the poison had no effect on the hapless holy man. Horrified, Yusupov decided to try a more surefire method: firing his revolver, point blank, into the monk’s side. Rasputin was dead.
Or so Yusupov and his conspirators believed. As they checked his pulse, Rasputin’s left eye crept open. He rose from the ground, up to his full stature, and lunged at Yusupov, thrashing like a trapped beast. Screaming, Yusupov freed himself from the monster’s grip, while Rasputin crawled up the stairs, desperate to escape. Yusupov followed, revolver in hand. He took aim. He fired. With multiple gunshot wounds, Rasputin fell to the ground, still alive. He was surrounded and beaten by Yusupov and his men. Finally, still breathing, the monk was bundled in a carpet and thrown into the freezing Neva River. He was found dead – truly dead – days later.
Within months of Rasputin’s death, the Romanov dynasty collapsed, as the Russian Revolution erupted. Alexandra and Nicholas II, soon after mourning the death of their dear Rasputin, succumbed to the vengeful justice of their people. With Russia in pieces, crowds converged to burn the body of Rasputin. His tendons (which should have been cut) constricted in the heat of the fire, making his corpse sit up, terrifying the crowd before finally burning away. Russia’s demon was gone.
Donald Rumsfeld served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006. He personally offended and bullied almost every staffer he worked with, but more importantly, Rumsfeld helped lead the United States into two costly wars, denied immediate aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and condoned the torture at Abu Ghraib. He manipulated George W. Bush with misleading, religiously-charged intelligence. It took countless complaints from citizens, pundits, generals, and White House staff to finally force the President to confront the monster whispering in his ear. Rumsfeld had no choice but to resign from his position on December 18th, 2006.