In an effort to determine my first hero I made a list of figures that were important to me as a child. On that list were many dubious luminaries such as Don Quixote, the deceased Mummar Gaddafi, and Fidel Castro. Looking at my list I realized that all my early heroes had two things in common: 1) a penchant for world domination and 2) authoritative facial hair. As I come from a long line of sparsely bearded women, world domination seemed the more attainable course of emulation.
Among the ranks of the morally ambiguous bearded men my early self was fixated on, one figure stands above the others. The character I was perhaps most obsessed with was the spooky eyed Russian charlatan Rasputin; pilgrim, partier, healer, snake-oil salesmen and at a reported height of 6’5, he also literally stands above the others. The legend of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, was endlessly fascinating to me, the tale of an outsider, an uneducated peasant who through sheer force of will and charisma managed to become one of the most influential people in early 20th century imperial Russia.
There are many things I still admire about Rasputin and the outrageous tale of his life. He was resourceful, bold, charming, and determined. Despite coming from a mostly illiterate village he found ways to educate himself through religious and medical texts. He sought out learning, mastered several musical instruments, and travelled widely. Looking back on my life now I see many places where my story is similar to his. I’m a traveller, a dedicated autodidactic, and have tried my hand at many professions. Rasputin was also known for his love of food and drink and ribald shenanigans. He was frequently thrown out of bars for brandishing his genitals, another thing we have in common.
It was Rasputin’s famed determination and resilience that elevated him from interesting character to personal hero. My life as a child was not particularly stable and I often felt the rust flavored press of poverty, violence, and uncertainty. Though I look back on things now with more humor than bitterness I can admit to feeling like a scared outsider a lot of the time. Behind his charismatic beard and affectations of spiritual power, I always imagined that Rasputin also felt like an outsider, an uneducated country bumpkin playing sage in the Tzar’s court. However, he was never daunted. He never allowed the system to tell him where he did and didn’t belong. I like to think that is another thing we share.
Perhaps the most well known portion of Rasputin’s story was his uncanny ability to dodge death. In 1914 he was attacked by a leprosy disfigured female assassin. She assaulted him in the street with a large blade and stabbed him in the stomach. The wound was reportedly so grievous that loops of bowel were exposed and protruding. Rasputin miraculously survived this attack and recovered. Surviving a major gut wound without antibiotics is pretty legendary in my book. One also imagines that keeping hygienic weapons would not have been a priority for a leprotic assassin, they would have other things to worry about, like the tip of their nose falling off.
There were many attempts made on Rasputin’s life. He was a controversial figure, incredibly popular with some people while hated by others. As a child I felt that this part of the story might be a cautionary tale about the dangers of popularity. One should endeavor to be only moderately well liked by everyone. Though perhaps the safest position is to be not liked by anyone, but not truly disliked either. No one ever sends disfigured assassins after the kind-of-nice-but-mostly-boring-guy.
On the night of his eventual assassination, Rasputin was lured to the palace by his enemies. These rouges sent Rasputin a message saying that the beautiful princess Irina was pining for his lute playing, could he come straight away? As most of us know, beautiful young women do not lay around dreaming of bearded lute players. If you ever receive such a summons, you can be reasonably certain that you are about to be murdered. However, Rasputin, convinced of the irresistibility of his stringed instrument prowess, fell into this trap. First, these evil doers tried to poison my hero with cyanide laced cookies. When this failed the impatient murderers shot him in both the lung and kidney. Rasputin played dead after being shot but then lunged at the attackers when they drew close to check his pulse. He pushed them to the floor and escaped into the night. His enemies pursued. When he finally succumed to blood loss and collapsed on a bridge, they threw him into the frozen waters of the Malya Nevka river. After being stabbed, poisoned, shot, and drowned, Rasputin finally died of Seasonal Affective Disorder (it was reportedly a very dark winter).
As First Heroes go, Rasputin is perhaps an odd choice. I thought about making something up in order to use this opportunity to sing the praises of some deserving female monolith – Simone De Beauvoir, Marie Curie, Louise Bourgeois. These women are certainly heroes to me now. But the truth is, I didn’t know about these incredible women when I was a child. I knew about dictators and spiritualists and windmill tilters. What all these characters had in common, the feminist heroes and the bearded wonders, was the resolute determination to follow their dreams and defy any system that tried to limit them. While that description may be closer to the definition of belligerence than heroism, I salute them all, for their passion, their determination and yes, their belligerence.
Siolo Thompson is a visual artist and freelance troublemaker who lives and works in Seattle, WA. She is passionate about visual art, literature, and the black magic of marketing. She is part of the team that published The Better Bombshell and The Survival Girls and is currently promoting the exhibition Ex Libris: 100 Artists, 100 Books. Siolo lives online at www.siolothompson.com. You should visit her there.