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Shadowed by Rasputin’s Evil Reputation

Los Angeles is legendary as the land of the second chance--perhaps because our collective psyche is as naturally forgiving as our weather, perhaps because our attention spans are just too short to hold a grudge. Every once in a while, though, somebody’s reputation is so dark that it blocks the sunny absolution of even this city’s communal amnesia.

One such unfortunate was Maria Grigorievna Rasputin, daughter of imperial Russia’s notorious “Mad Monk.”

Actually, her father, Grigori Rasputin, was neither mad nor a monk, but an unconventional starets, or Russian holy man. He was a faith healer and--to some--a visionary. He parlayed his hypnotic faith healings and formidable sexual prowess into fame in turn-of-the-century Russia, only to be poisoned, raped, shot, mutilated, bludgeoned and finally drowned by aristocratic assassins alarmed by his influence over the women of the czar’s family. He since has inspired children’s horror stories, movies, songs, a secret religious sect, lawsuits and hundreds of books.

He also probably contributed to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian empire.

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Grigori Rasputin rose from being a semiliterate peasant and horse thief to a hard-drinking, intimate advisor of Russia’s last czarina, or empress. Even his last prediction came true: that if he were assassinated by aristocrats, imperial Russia would fall soon thereafter.

His followers considered him a martyr, misunderstood by an unbelieving world. But it was his daughter, Maria, who continued to suffer for her father’s sins.

After immigrating to the United States in 1937, Maria earned her keep variously as a lion tamer, baby-sitter, Russian-language teacher and, finally, as a machinist in the San Pedro shipyards. But she spent the bulk of her time and energy passionately attempting to debunk the scandalous stories surrounding her notorious father.

The back and forths of her life were unimaginable, even by Hollywood standards: from a peasant birth in Siberia to a childhood in Russia’s imperial palaces, where her father won favor, through the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, her father’s horrific death, her own two marriages and two children.

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While working in the shipyards here, she moved into what was then the Russian enclave in the Silver Lake area in 1947. Though shunned by most members of her church there--Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral--Maria remained one of the last living links to a vanished era until her death in her Silver Lake duplex in 1977.

Maria’s father was born under a “shooting star” in the dusty Siberian village of Pokrovskoye in 1871. He worked as a farmer, married and had three children. Helping his neighbors, he healed their animals and gave their children gingerbread.

Guided by dreams and what he claimed were visions of God and the Virgin Mary, he began seeking spiritual enlightenment, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and holy places in Russia.

During his journeys, he purportedly healed the sick and joined the Khlisti, a forbidden Gnostic sect that practiced that creed’s ancient rituals of group sex in the name of Jesus as simultaneous sin and forgiveness.

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Although Rasputin (which means “dissolute”) outraged orthodox believers with his heretical free-love teachings, it was his reputation for effecting miraculous cures that followed him to St. Petersburg. There, he won the confidence first of two grand duchesses and then of Empress Alexandra, after he did what doctors could not and stopped the hemophiliac hemorrhaging of her young son, Czarevitch Alexei, heir to the throne.

Obsessed with her son’s survival, Alexandra was convinced Rasputin was an emissary from God, and brought him into the imperial family’s inner circle.

Although he never learned to use a knife and fork and only later in life learned to read and write, Rasputin’s charisma was unchallenged. Women of all social stations, including a family servant who was his lifelong mistress, pursued him unashamedly from parlor to palace, with his wife’s blessing.

By 1914, when World War I erupted, Rasputin, a pacifist, was regarded as a major cause of Czar Nicholas’ isolation. His access to the imperial couple spawned rumors and propaganda that he and the empress were lovers.

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Nicholas, acceding to his wife’s wishes and ignoring reports of Rasputin’s debauchery, allowed the faith healer to appoint unscrupulous wartime allies to high posts and to gain undue political influence.

On the snowy night of Dec. 16, 1916, Felix Yussupov, husband of the czar’s niece, Irina, was determined to end Rasputin’s power and punish him for rejecting his homosexual advances. Yussupov set out with his cabal to murder the 45-year-old Rasputin.

But Rasputin didn’t die easily. When cyanide-laced wine and cakes had no evident effect, Yussupov raped him. Then he and his friends shot Rasputin at close range before shearing off his sex organ, only to have Rasputin leap up and throttle Yussupov. Then the maimed Rasputin ran into the palace courtyard and fell in the snow, where he was shot four more times. Rasputin was still alive when they kicked and beat him before finally shoving him through a hole in the ice on the River Neva, where he drowned.

Alexandra had his body buried at the imperial summer palace. St. Petersburg residents, relieved at the death of the notorious lecher, razed his house and destroyed his little love nest by the river. His assassins, whose punishment was mild at worst, enjoyed a brief celebrity.

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But the conspirators struck too late. The monarchy had been irretrievably compromised and revolution would soon topple the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty.

In the meantime, Maria and her sister, Varya, were briefly sheltered by the imperial family before fleeing to Siberia, where their mother and brother remained. At the end of World War I, Maria returned to St. Petersburg to marry a White Russian officer, Boris Soloviev, who died in France in 1926. Left with two small daughters, Maria worked as a maid for wealthy Russian expatriates before taking to the stage, dancing and working with horses.

She left her children behind when Ringling Bros. Circus brought her to the United States as a lion tamer, billing her as “The Daughter of the Mad Monk.” After being badly mauled by a bear, she left the circus and married an electrical engineer, but divorced him in 1945, the same year she became an American citizen.

In 1947, more than 20 years after a group of about 500 self-styled aristocrats and intellectual Russian-speaking immigrants had established an enclave of Russian culture and language in Silver Lake, Maria moved into a duplex on Larissa Drive and took a job in the San Pedro shipyards as a machinist.

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“Lathe, drill press--I operate them all. You name it, I do it,” she once said in an interview.

That same year the Red Scare jolted Hollywood, triggering a venomous era of guilt by association. With little foundation except her name, gossips branded Maria a Communist. It was ironic as well as irrational, in light of her father’s association with the old Russian empire.

Faced with their hostility, she became more of a recluse until she met journalist Patte Barham, the daughter of Los Angeles Herald publisher Frank F. Barham.

Together they set out to rewrite history--or overblown legend--by organizing Maria’s exhaustive diaries and memories of her father into the book “Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth,” published in 1977, the year Maria died.

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Today, the Russian Orthodox community of the Silver Lake area is a fading memory, though subsequent waves of new Russian immigrants--most of them Jews--have established a vibrant new community in Hollywood and West Hollywood.


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