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Ola Cichowlas

Russia’s Greatest Love Machine

One of history’s most mysterious figures, Rasputin, was sensationalized as a playboy, mystical healer, political meddler and virtually immortalized by Boney M’s 1978 hit disco single “Rasputin”. In his native village of Pokrovskoye in Western Siberia, he is remembered as “Uncle Grigoriy”.

A figure of Rasputin in the museum dedicated to him in his native village of Pokrovskoye, author: Ola Cichowlas, source: Eastbook.eu

Pokrovskoye - Rasputin's native village, author: Ola Cichowlas, source: Eastbook.eu

Grigoriy Efimovich Rasputin was a Russian Orthodox mystic brought to cure Tsar Nicholas II’s son from hemophilia, widely accused of influencing the Russian royal family both politically and psychologically, and eventually stabbed, poisoned, shot, beaten and drowned by assassins who found him difficult to kill…

A year ago, I visited the Siberian cities of Tobolsk and Tyumen. At Tobolsk bus station, a woman told us that – if we are interested – Rasputin’s native village is roughly 80 km away. A graduate of Russian history and Boney M apologist – this was an irresistible offer.

Two hours later we are standing in front of the road sign “Pokrovskoye” in half a meter of snow (in mid-April) and feel like we have been duped. We head through the snow towards the couple of houses we see in the distance. We are aware of the address of the house: 79 Soviet Street.

Little remains in the sleepy village of under 2000 people from Rasputin’s times, where he spent 30 years of his life. The Soviet authorities tore down the village church in the 1950s and levelled Rasputin’s house to the ground in Febuary 1980 – when Boris Yeltsin was in charge of the region.

Rasputin native village - Pokrovskoye, Tyumen Oblast, Russia, author: Ola Cichowlas, source: Eastbook.eu

Just as he proved difficult to get rid of in 1916, surviving several assassination attempts, poisoned, shot, beaten and eventually burned in Saint Petersburg before his body was dumped in a well –  so too did the Soviet authorities struggle in their strange decades-long campaign attempting to erase his memory. The Communists exiled his relatives, razed his house and even burned down the small dacha in Pokrovskoye where he apparently „entertained” women. When the local Soviet authorities destroyed his house in 1977, they reputedly discovered boxes containing hair (after Rasputin conquered a virgin, he was known to cut off some locks of her hair and bury them in the garden).

Paradoxically, it was a Western pop group who shot Rasputin back to fame on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In 1978, Boney M became the first Western band invited by Brezhnev to the the USSR. The group was flown into Moscow from London on a Soviet plane, where they played to 2,700 Russians on the Red Square. In 1979, during the Eastern Bloc’s version of Eurovision in the Polish sea-side city of Sopot, Boney M performed the still banned song „Rasputin” – Polish state TV edited the song out of its transmission. In the West, the German band’s single remained at the top of the charts for quite some time.

In the 1990s, a married couple from Tyumen (Vyacheslav and Marina Smirnov) opened a private museum – the first of its kind in Russia, apparently – in honour of Rasputin. It is housed opposite his destroyed home in one of the village’s remaining historic houses, which in reality belonged to the monk’s brother-in-law.

Museum of Grigoriy Rasputin, author: Ola Cichowlas, source: Eastbook.eu

In front of the house, the couple placed a stone where they inscripted words from the diary of Russia’s last Tsar Nicholas II: „In the village of Pokrovskoye there was a horse station, people stood for a long time in front of Grigoriy’s house…” 14th of April 1918. (Of course, by that time, Rasputin was no longer alive).

Stone outside the museum with an inscription from Tsar Nicholas II diary, author: Ola Cichowlas, source: Eastbook.eu

Vyacheslav Smirnov guides us around Rasputin’s house – who he refers to as „Grigoriy Efimovich” or „Father Grigoriy”. Rasputin is a man he has dedicated his life to, and he sincerely believes Father Grigoriy is watching us. We learn that crowds of children always greeted „Grandaddy Grisha” when he returned to Pokrovskoye, that he loved cats, was charitable to the poor and befriended Jews and prostitutes.

Over the years, Smirnov collected thousands of memorabilia pieces somehow connected to Rasputin: all sorts of private items, icons, Tsarina Alexandra Romanova’s belongings, family photographs, letters from apparent relatives in the United States… The most prized item, however, is Rasputin’s chair which, according to the legend, heals men who sit on it from male diseases and infertility. Smirnov tells us that men from all over Russia have travelled here to be cured by sitting on the old chair.

Best of all, was to hear that Boney M actually travelled to Pokrovskoye, visited Smirnov’s museum and played their famous song in the village. If I could choose where and when to go back in time, top of my list would definitely be attending a Boney M concert in a tiny Siberian village.

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Born in London to Polish parents, finished a French school and Scottish university. Studied History and Russian Studies at Edinburgh Uni. Spent a year in the Ural city of Perm and utterly fell in love with it. Speaks fluent English, French, Russian and Polish. Currently attempting to live in Warsaw.

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