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Photographer's Notebook: Finding Rasputin

  • Amos Chapple

Viktor Prolubshikov says he is a descendant of Rasputin. He was born in the same village and claims to share Rasputin's healing abilities, but some locals dispute his lineage. 

Viktor Prolubshikov says he is a descendant of Rasputin. He was born in the same village and claims to share Rasputin's healing abilities, but some locals dispute his lineage. 

POKROVSKOYE, Russia -- "Rasputin? Sure, just a few doors down. He's in the house with the smoking chimney."

It had been the shakiest of leads, but the women in the little grocery store in Pokrovskoye village had no hesitation when I asked after a relative of Siberia's most notorious peasant. It was here that Grigory Rasputin, the debauched mystic who bewitched Russia's doomed royal family, was born in 1869 and lived, and where one Viktor Prolubshikov, whom many locals simply refer to as "Rasputin," lives today.

A knock on the door of the old log cabin draws a grunt from within, followed by a voice, suspicious and close. "Who's there?"

When the door is pushed open, it's a shocking moment of recognition. The hair and the beard are affectations, styled deliberately after the "mad monk." But the nose, described by a Rasputin contemporary as looking "like it had been slapped on with a trowel," and the bulging, hypnotic eyes are the same.

Grigory Rasputin (fourth from left, front row) surrounded by admirers. With his infamous appetite for sex, Rasputin reveled in the attention of society ladies when he wasn't chasing prostitutes in St. Petersburg/Petrograd (date unknown).

Grigory Rasputin (fourth from left, front row) surrounded by admirers. With his infamous appetite for sex, Rasputin reveled in the attention of society ladies when he wasn't chasing prostitutes in St. Petersburg/Petrograd (date unknown).

It was 100 years ago this month that Grigory Rasputin was murdered. His unlikely rise from Siberian farmhouse to the drawing rooms of Russia's royal family was largely due to his ability to ease the suffering of Aleksei, the heir to Russia's tsarist throne. The boy suffered from hemophilia, a genetic disease that prevents blood from clotting. For Tsar Nicholas II's only male heir, even a nosebleed could be life-threatening. Rasputin's repeated success where medical doctors failed gained him the unwavering trust of the tsarina, Aleksandra, and Nicholas, the last tsar of Russia.

Thirst For Booze And Sex

But with his "barnyard" table manners and thirst for booze and sex, Rasputin's access to the royal family outraged Russian society. After Russia waded into World War I, the idea that Rasputin had influence over critical matters of state was further eroding the credibility of the ruling family in a country buffeted by near constant crises. Rasputin was putting the entire social order of Russia at risk. One way or another, he had to go.

Viktor Prolubshikov is open and conspiratorial as we smoke a cigarette at a corner of his old wooden table. "My great grandmother was Rasputin's maid," he says, slapping a palm against his fist to illustrate the illicit sex. "I think she sinned with him."

Locals in Pokrovskoye are split as to whether Viktor is a relative of Rasputin.

Tatyana Pshenichnikova, one of the shopkeepers who directed me to Viktor's house, is in no doubt that he is: "Some of us take clippings of his beard -- for luck."

But the owners of the Rasputin museum in the village say Viktor is nothing more than a lookalike.

Pokrovskoye village photographed in 1912, when Rasputin was becoming a trusted confidante of the Russian royal couple. The church was later demolished by the Soviets, as was the former home of Rasputin.

Pokrovskoye village photographed in 1912, when Rasputin was becoming a trusted confidante of the Russian royal couple. The church was later demolished by the Soviets, as was the former home of Rasputin.

It's evening when I find Viktor, and my Russian isn't competent enough for a full interview, but when I return the next morning with a translator Viktor is staggering drunk and a video conversation I attempt to record is hopeless. After he mumbles enigmatic snatches about his abilities as a healer ("It's in my genes"), I take Viktor up on his offer to "cure" my back. It's theatrical and unsettling -- he waves a hand over my spine, muttering at some devil lurking between my shoulder blades before slapping his hands together and snarling, "Get out of there! Go!"

Afterward, I feel a kind of post-meditative lightness and Viktor collapses into an armchair, apparently spent by the performance. But when the conversation moves on to Rasputin's murder, he comes angrily to life. "They [Russian high society] were dressing like him and inviting him to their parties, then at the same time they were plotting to kill him. It wasn't right.... He was a kind man."

At 67, Viktor is now decades older than Rasputin, who was 47 when he died. Viktor says he once had similar success with women but now has problems. "These days, the only thing rising is my blood pressure."

At 67, Viktor is now decades older than Rasputin, who was 47 when he died. Viktor says he once had similar success with women but now has problems. "These days, the only thing rising is my blood pressure."

On the night of December 29, 1916, Prince Feliks Yusupov and two other conspirators, including a nephew of Nicholas, lured Rasputin to a late-night meeting with the promise that Yusupov's beautiful wife would be there. The details of what followed are disputed. According to Yusupov's own account, poisoned cakes and wine had no effect on Rasputin so Yusupov resorted to shooting him through the chest. Then, like some "reincarnation of Satan," Rasputin lurched back to life, attacking Yusupov and fleeing out into the snow "roaring like a wild animal." The murderers caught up with the wounded man and pounded him with more shots, including a bullet through the brain.

Shades Of Dostoevsky

There is no evidence for theories that the final bullets were delivered by a British secret-service agent. Yusupov's account has entered popular culture, but the likelihood that he was inspired by making money from his story throws some doubt on his extraordinary account of what was, in effect, the murder of an unarmed man in cold blood. Historians have pointed out the similarity of Yusupov's version of the killing, with The Landlady, a novella by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. No one will ever know exactly what happened in that cellar 100 years ago, but Viktor knows some of the most nefarious details of the murder by heart.

"And they beat him! Even after he was dead, they beat his face!" He shakes his head, a sense of wrongfulness made deeply melancholic by Viktor's drunkenness.

The body of Rasputin after it was retrieved from the frozen River Neva in St.Petersburg/Petrograd in December 1916.

The body of Rasputin after it was retrieved from the frozen River Neva in St.Petersburg/Petrograd in December 1916.

Soon our visit to Viktor is at an end, but we need to arrange some kind of payment for my therapy session. The three of us make our way to the nearby shop, where I spend around $20 on groceries. But Viktor is unhappy.

"Where's the vodka?"

Nervous about breaching some unwritten journalistic rule by buying a drunken man more booze, I try to talk him around, emphasizing the quality of the fish and cheese in the bag he's holding. But there's a rising sense of crisis. He won't look me in the eye. He paces. "No, no, no! I need vodka!"

I try to explain; my tone is wheedling and pathetic "Viktor, I'm a journalist. It's not...."

He stamps his boot into the snow and raises a hand above us, eyes flashing with occult threat. "I'll curse you! You will crash on the road home!"

The day is saved by my panicked young translator, who spits out, "I'm not a journalist," and dashes back into the store. When he emerges with a half-liter bottle of vodka, Viktor lightens immediately, clutching my arm in reconciliation. He bids us farewell, then walks back to his house with his treasure, free to live out the rest of his life however he sees fit.

  • 16x9 Image

    Amos Chapple

    Amos Chapple is a New Zealand photojournalist with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R. For story ideas, write to him at amos.chapple@gmail.com

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