In 1916, an American reporter named Lucian Swift Kirtland was in St. Petersburg. He had crossed the ocean on a mission to meet Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the most fascinating man in Russia.
Rasputin was perhaps best known for his unkempt appearance. He had long light-brown hair and a long beard. One article described him like this: “Rasputin holds attention at first sight by his remarkable nose and eyes. His gait and dress are those of the devout, humble lay brother and Scripture reader.
“But his large, strong, well-set nose is that of a man of commanding will and authority, and he has the large, blue-gray eyes of the seer who will not be drawn into discourse on the plane of ordinary mundane affairs…. He has a quiet, well-modulated, warm voice, and uses at all times the archaic ‘thee’, ‘thou’ phraseology of the Bible.”
Another article, which called the monk “Russia’s real ruler” described Rasputin’s “strange, quiet personality, unobtrusive and yet conspicuous.” But all of this paled in comparison to the way he appeared to direct the czar and alter history.
It took a long time and a lot of effort but Mr. Kirtland managed to arrange a dinner with the mad monk. However, despite all of his coordination, the planned meeting fell through.
Kirtland instead dined with Rasputin’s friend–his only friend, perhaps. The reporter refused to name his source, sensing it would place the man in danger. But he wrote in detail about what Rasputin’s friend said about him. The article was published on December 3, 1916 in the Evening Star.
“Where the trail of Rasputin reaches there is always clandestine slyness,” Kirtland’s story began. “The man himself came to the door. He… led us through some rooms until we came to an inside office, a musty place crowded with heavy, rich furnishings. Above the desk hung a picture of Rasputin. Our host reached up his hands to each side of the frame and looked into the eyes.
“The eyes are of fire,” he said, “living fire! Look at those lips–the thin lips of a master. No; you see, they are not thick, stupid, sensual lips. And now look at his eyes. Look deeply, and maybe you will understand something of the man.”
Rasputin’s friend replaced the picture and sat down across from Kirtland. “How could an ignorant peasant born in the heart of Siberia rise in proud Russia to be a power greater even than the throne? I tell you again: it was his fire, his sensuous bursting passion of life…His presence rekindles dead ashes.”
Everyone knew Rasputin was a peasant, the man said, but all of the speculation was wrong. “They think he is young. He is not. He was born fifty-two years ago. He was born in a little village in the province of Tobolsk. He lived in a house of one room, where they all slept in reeking sheepskins on the stove in winter, and in new-cut hay above the cattle in the summer.”
“Rasputin was big and strong, but he didn’t like to work. He liked to talk and quarrel, and he stirred up his inspiration for talking and quarreling at the vodka shop.” The man described Rasputin’s vain quest for intellectual stimulation, which led him to rebel and make trouble. “He amused these vokel aristocrats by his boisterous revelries and strange moods, but they couldn’t manage him.” Rasputin wasn’t going to be anyone’s buffoon. “He made a mockery of his superiors, and victims of the women,” the man claimed.
When he left the village, Rasputin was ill-equipped for the larger world. He had never been to school. “He had the direst ignorance of anything that he might find in the outside world.”
This changed a little in St. Petersburg, where Rasputin shed some of his awkwardness and learned to read and write. Despite this, the monk found the city to be a disappointment. “Rasputin told his friends that the church lacked passion.”
The church was eager to rid themselves of Rasputin. They told him the St. Petersburg church had been crushed beneath the weight of materialism and commercialism. If he wanted religious purity, he ought to go to Kief.
“At Kief he found another great city; but the atmosphere was narrow and bigoted,” the host told Kirtland. “But a man of Rasputin’s keen senses can not long be fooled… Possibly this hot-blooded, intemperate, riotous, desirous wanderer was honestly seeking some unfaltering purity of religion as a salvation outside himself against the raging fires within, the very fires which later were to carry him to the pinnacle of power and might.”
The man was proud of his friend, but Kirtland’s instinct to protect his source’s identity proved to be correct. Twenty-seven days after the article ran, Rasputin was murdered.