by Douglas Smith
The Yusupov household was staunchly anti-Rasputin. Felix Yusupov’s father could not bear even to hear the name spoken in his presence, and his mother let the empress know of her hatred for the man, which poisoned their relations for good. Felix’s attitude toward Rasputin was profoundly shaped by his parents, and by Ella, too, and so it is something of a surprise that he seems to have sought out an introduction to Rasputin. The woman who brought the two men together was a dear friend by the name of Munya Golovina.
Golovina had known Felix and his brother for years, and she had harbored a secret love for the older Yusupov at the time of his death. In her memoirs, Golovina writes how the three of them, always ready for new experiences, went one dark day late in 1907 to visit a mysterious new magician-occultist by the name of Chinsky. Disguised to hide their identities, they visited Chinsky’s small studio and had him tell their fortunes. He told them they stood on the precipice of a large catastrophe,but they could avoid it if they would return and permit him (for a fee) to instruct them in the ways of the occult. Nikolai was thrilled by Chinsky and they continued their visits, telling Chinsky of their lives, passions, desires, and fears, and permitting him to offer guidance and instruction.
Munya was terribly grieved by Nikolai’s death. She asked her mother, Lyubov Golovina, to take her to Italy so she could try to put it behind her. Upon her return to Moscow, Felix picked her up in his automobile and drove to Arkhangelskoe, where Munya prayed over Nikolai’s grave. She continued her engagement with spiritualism and the occult, seeking answers to her suffering. She later wrote that she had made great strides in her mental powers: by asking herself questions and then concentrating all the energy of her mind on the answers, she was able to practice the art of “automatic writing,” words mysteriously appearing on the page with no one holding the pen. Still, she was not fulfilled, her life nothing but pain and confusion. She considered entering Ella’s convent.
It was then she heard from her cousin Alexandra (Sana) Taneeva, the sister of Anna Vyrubova, about a mysterious holy pilgrim who had come to Petersburg and won the trust of the emperor and empress. She went to Sana’s one day to meet him. From the moment she saw him Munya was moved by his person. He seemed to her “full of mystery and drawn to the supernatural.” It was crowded, and so Munya was not able to tell him of her plight, but he put his hand on her head and told her she would be one of the chosen and that he would see her again.
Munya was distraught. She needed his advice on whether or not to join the convent, and so she prayed God to lead her to him. Her prayers were answered. She next saw him with a group of followers in the Kazan Cathedral. She went up and spoke to Rasputin, and together they left the cathedral for the Golovins’ home so he could meet her mother and discuss her problems. “For me this was a door into a new world,” Munya confessed, “I found my spiritual guide in the person of a Siberian peasant who already in our first conversation amazed me with his insight. The authoritative look of his gray eyes equaled, in their power, that of his inner will that utterly exposed people before him. It was for me a great day.”
Rasputin made Munya promise to stop attending spiritualist séances and practicing automatic writing under the influence of spirits. He told her these things they called spirits were in fact demons, tricking us into thinking we were in contact with the souls of our departed loved ones. Only those rare persons with pure souls free of the sins of the world could make contact with these true spirits, Rasputin told Munya and her mother, and for others to even try was to engage in sin. As for joining Ella’s convent, here again Rasputin instructed her to stop and follow his advice:
“The vows we make to the Lord are not always to be found in convents [. . .] they are in fulfilling our daily duties, in the joy of life, such as loving to praise God and in experiencing the happiness of feeling His presence, the secret buried essence of which is to always keep your heart open to every good deed, and to have an affectionate word for everyone.” From that day Munya and Lyubov remained devoted to Rasputin for the rest of their lives.
In a later draft of her memoirs written many years after this description, Munya added a few more words that she claimed Rasputin had spoken that day: “She will bring me greater evil than all the others, for she will be the cause of an inevitable event.” This event was, of course, his own murder. It seems unlikely that Rasputin uttered such words that day. What Munya was expressing here was not Rasputin’s prophecy, but her own guilty conscience for having introduced Yusupov to Rasputin. Having been cured of her existential anguish by Rasputin, Munya desperately wanted to introduce him to Felix to help him cope with the loss of his brother.
Felix Yusupov interest in Rasputin
As for Felix, he told investigators after Rasputin’s murder that “Rasputin interested me as a personality, famous to all at the time and having enormous hypnotic powers.” He mentioned nothing about the trauma of his brother’s death (involvement in which some suspected him), but only certain undisclosed “ailments,” and so with Munya’s insistence, he agreed to meet. When and where this happened is not clear. Felix stated more than once that he met Rasputin at the Petersburg home of the Golovins, but his testimony about when this was varies, from Christmas 1909 to as late as 1911, a date also mentioned by Munya in her testimony to the police following Rasputin’s murder.
Felix wrote in his memoirs that he was immediately irritated by Rasputin’s “self-assurance.” This seems quite plausible. The aristocratic Felix would have expected nothing less than subservience from a peasant, something, however, foreign to Rasputin’s character. In his first lines on Rasputin, Yusupov lies, claiming he spotted on his head a “great scar,” which he writes was the result of a wound “received during one of his highway robberies in Siberia.” Rasputin’s face, so Yusupov said, was “low, common,” his features “coarse,” his eyes “shifty,” his overall impression that of a “lascivious, malicious satyr.” To read Yusupov on Rasputin is to be presented with a man more animal than human.
Munya told police after Rasputin’s murder that following this initial meeting the two men met about twice a year at her home for the next several years. Yusupov visited Rasputin only on a few occasions, and then always together with Munya. They would take the back stairs to avoid the Okhrana agents, as Rasputin recommended, and Yusupov would dress in such a way so as not to attract attention. Maria Rasputina confirmed the secrecy that Yusupov adopted when visiting her father. She found him “lithe and elegant, and with rather affected manners,” but never imagined he was capable of murder.
Given the unreliability of Yusupov’s memoirs (more on this later),the letters Munya wrote to Yusupov about Rasputin provide the best evidence on the men’s relations. It is clear that Munya not only helped make the introduction, but, as Rasputin’s disciple, was intent on opening Felix’s eyes to what she believed to be the truth about him and not the gossip he had heard so much of at home and in society. On 20 August 1910 she wrote:
Dear Felix Felixovich
I am writing you to ask that you don’t show anyone that piece of paper I handed you at Ala’s [Alexandra Pistolkors]. Your new acquaintance visited us today and requested this, and I, too, think that the fewer conversations about him the better. I do so want to know your opinion of him; I think you were not able to take away an especially good impression, for this you need a special mood and then you get used to a different way of relating to his words, which always imply something spiritual and do not relate to our ordinary, everyday life. If you have understood this then I’m terribly happy, happy too
that you saw him, and I believe that it was good for you and for your life, just don’t abuse him, and if he is not pleasing to you—try to forget it.
In early September 1910, as Yusupov was preparing to return to Oxford, where he had been studying since the previous year, Munya wrote to him from her family’s home in the countryside:
Upon arriving home I found your letter that was forwarded to me from Petersburg. Having read what you wrote about our friend, I recalled that he had written a few words on the back of your photograph that was among a series of others I showed him and he wrote on the back of several of them. He wrote you something very nice, and I do not even have the right to hold on to something for so long that belongs to you. [. . .] I was not in the right temper for prayer without our friend here—in his presence I pray so joyfully, so easily, and I was sad that he was not here and that we did not meet him and pray together at least once, I had no one to share my impressions with even though the people taking part in this religious experience were spiritually together.
The photograph and Rasputin’s inscription are reproduced in Yusupov’s memoirs. Felix, standing alone on an empty city street, dressed nattily in a dark suit and tie, sporting a straw hat and walking stick, a small black case in his left hand, looks every inch the wealthy, polished, and confident young aristocrat about town. On the back, in his usual scrawl, Rasputin has written: “Bless you my child live not in delusion but in the joy of pleasure and light Grigory.” Typical of Rasputin’s utterings, the precise meaning is vague, but his use of the word zabluzhdenie delusion or error—might refer to Yusupov’s sexual habits that Rasputin would have deemed sinful.
From Munya’s letters it is clear Felix was struggling over just what to think of Rasputin. From his family he had only heard the worst rumors, but here was his old friend insisting these were all lies, that he was not the man people thought. Munya loved them both, and she was adamant that she make them love each other. Felix was being torn in two directions. Rasputin sensed Yusupov was wary, if not worse, and Munya did her best to try to encourage a friendship between them:
“Our Friend has departed,” she wrote while away in the Crimea, “he knows, but he too is not pleased that you did not tell me. I asked him to pray for you, so that all will be well for you, and he instructed me to tell you that ‘he ran from society, and then crept right back in,’ but I try to convince him and others that you are a very, very kind and good person, so do prove this and come soon—Yalta is not far from us. May God protect you. Maria.”
Sometime around the middle of June 1911, Munya, while visiting Boulogne sur Seine, wrote a long, angry letter to Felix in England about how he had been saying mean things about her and Rasputin to others:
How could you say so many unjust and cruel things! I read your letter several times in order to understand under what sort of influence you wrote it.
Some day, another time, I do hope we will talk all this over in detail, and for now I will only say that you have accused me for no good reason—I have done nothing wrong. If you think that I am ruining myself as a result of my acquaintance with G. Yef. and my respect for him as a man of prayer and fellow believer—then so much the worse for you; I cannot change my opinion of a man whom I know just because of some second-hand gossip, for if I were to believe in all the things people say then I’d be forced to be disappointed with you! But I only want to always believe my inner feeling and that feeling tells me that G. Yef. pleases God.
As for my making myself into his slave, that is not true. Everything I do I do it consciously and voluntarily. One needs a leader to grow spiritually, but this does not mean to enslave oneself,but only to recognize his spiritual experience as greater than yours, maintaining for yourself the freedom to perfect yourself on your own and to analyze your own feelings. He wrote me recently and asked me to tell you not to forget him when you are not well, and together with him to think about Our Creator and then all will be well! Don’t sin against him any more, I don’t like hearing from you those words I hear others speak. [. . .]
I am glad you wrote me everything that you have been thinking, but it hurt me that youthink that way. Those are not your ideas, at least not those that you had when you visited me last. You yourself wanted to see him, you wrote that, and even said that you were going to convince your mother to meet him, and were disturbed by the lies that pursued him and now such a sudden change! From all this I might think you don’t even know him!
What great significance you give to society! Do you really still not know that today it despises you, tomorrow extols you, and is always happy to judge anyone no matter how lofty their position! What disappoints me most of all, of course, is the attitude of your mother to everything that has happened, it’s so painful, nonetheless, I ask myself whether your mother is angry only because you met G. Yef. or is it your friendship with me (what a good friendship!) that she finds so unpleasant? I’d like to get to the bottom of all this, to know what I’m being accused of, why you were not allowed to see or speak with me? Can it really be you never do the least thing that might upset your mother were she to find out? [. . .]
I simply can’t believe that you so easily gave up your own view as an adult and did not defend me, and then so mercilessly judged me your very self [. . .] It’s natural for you to love your mother more than anyone on earth, especially such a mother as yours, but are you expected to do something nasty, evil, against your own nature out of this love for her? I myself love and respect your mother too much to allow the thought that she would consciously insult someone, particularly me, toward whom she was always so kind, even after she learned of my acquaintance with G. Yef. [. . .] I worship my mother, but if it seems to me that she is mistaken, I will use all the power of my love to convince her to change.
Munya never gave up trying to convince Felix of Rasputin’s goodness and to reconcile the two men closest to her heart. Sometime after the above letter she wrote again to Felix Yusupov:
Why is it that when whole masses practice spiritualism, and our entire youth makes use of every method to over excite their nerves, ruin their health and soul, no one’s concerned, and the only danger people are able to see is one poorly educated man reminding them about God, about the spiritual life of prayer, about reading more religious books, about going to church and keeping the fasts all while not hating anyone, and gathering to talk more often about God and the life to come. For me all the rest is so ridiculous that I don’t even understand it, and I’ll forever grieve should people’s empty gossip have any influence on you and should you believe it [. . .]
God bless you, I am sending you a little book in which I wanted to copy down for you the thoughts of your “new acquaintance” and one letter, sent to you, that I have rewritten; I’ve not managed to rewrite all the rest. Read it all and write to me your opinion—beneath the naive form are profound thoughts and much truth.
On 3 October 1913, Munya wrote Yusupov from her room in Yalta’s Hotel Russia:
My Dear Felix Felixovich,
I would not have written to you for anything in the world if it weren’t for our friend who wants me to send you his letter, and I simply cannot ignore or disobey him, all the more so since you, perhaps, might want to see him and take advantage of his short stay in Yalta? He is leaving soon [. . .]
Munya’s opening words suggest the anger and hurt she was feeling toward Felix after years of failing to get him to see Rasputin as she did. As for Rasputin, it seems he had not given up on trying to win Felix over. What was it about the prince that continued to interest him? Rasputin, after all, had the trust of not just many other well-born and rich Russians, he had the love of the royal family, so what would Yusupov’s friendship have meant to him?
To this question there are no clear answers, but Rasputin’s good disposition toward Yusupov does help explain why he would later embrace the man who would kill him after he had appeared to have changed his opinion of Rasputin and come back into his life. Munya never did manage to turn the two men into honest friends. Felix met Rasputin a few more times after 1913, but then broke off all contact with him in January 1915.
He would not meet Rasputin again until he had decided he was going to kill him.
Excerpted with permission from RASPUTIN: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs by Douglas Smith. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2016.
Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator and the author of Former People and other books on Russia. Before becoming a historian, he worked for the U.S. State Department in the Soviet Union and as a Russian affairs analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.