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Rasputin: Mystic, Sinner, Healer, or Spy?

In 1907, Czar Nicholas II and his empress Alexandra, desperate to help their hemophiliac son and only male heir, Alexy, turned to a wandering healer named Grigory Rasputin. The decision was to have consequences for the whole country. The facts around Rasputin's life remain clouded in contradiction and controversy, but his influence on the royal household in the years leading up to the Russian empire's demise are indisputable. Nicholas and Alexandra remained loyal to him for his apparent success in easing Alexy's suffering, which they were trying to keep from the Russian public. But Rasputin's personal life -- including energetic sexual exploits and drunken binges -- sullied his reputation as an Orthodox mystic, especially among the czar's advisers and aristocracy. Some claim Rasputin was a member of the khlisty sect, who believed in salvation through sin (the name comes from the Russian word for "whip").

The royal couple's increasing alienation from Russian reality was blamed on Rasputin's twisted advice, and he was accused of acting as a German spy during World War I. Nicholas's inner circle grew so worried about Rasputin's influence on national policies that they murdered him in 1916. Even his death is steeped in legend: His killers reported that they poisoned him, shot him, and beat him before tossing him into an icy canal -- and that he was still kicking underwater. Alexandra, devastated, ordered his remains dragged out a few days later. Within 2 years, Nicholas's rule had collapsed and his whole family had been executed.

Selected List of Russian Leaders

Rurik 862-79 Viking prince who founded state of Rus, based in northern city of Novgorod and populated by eastern Slavs.

Vladimir I 978-1015 Prince who chose Orthodox Christianity as the Russian state religion, launching widespread cathedral construction. Oversaw emergence of Kievan Rus as major European state.

Ivan III (The Great) 1462-1505 Ended 3 centuries of Mongol dominance over Russian lands, expanded Russian territories east and north, ordered construction of the Kremlin's greatest cathedrals.

Ivan IV (The Terrible) 1533-84 First Russian crowned "czar." Initially a reformer, he later introduced Russia's first secret police force and terrorized political opponents.

Boris Godunov 1598-1605 Boyar (nobleman) elected czar by a national assembly amid a power vacuum in the Kremlin. His death led to another crisis of succession.

Mikhail I 1613-45 Son of noble Romanov family, elected czar. Romanov dynasty would stay in power for the next 300 years, until Soviet rule. His coronation ended the "Time of Troubles."

Peter I (The Great) 1698-1725 Moved Russian capital to St. Petersburg, a city he built on a delta on the Baltic Sea. Turned Russia westward, introducing European architectural styles, art, and attitudes to his isolated nation. Founded Russian navy.

Elizabeth I 1741-61 Built many of Petersburg's greatest palaces, including the Winter Palace that houses the Hermitage.

Catherine II (The Great) 1762-96 A German princess who married into the Romanov dynasty and became one of Russia's most influential leaders. Expanded Russian territory south and west, oversaw construction of many crucial Petersburg buildings and institutions.

Alexander I 1801-25 Led Russian army against Napoleon, eventually driving the Grande Armée back to Paris.

Nicholas I 1825-55 Suppressed uprising by reformist generals (later dubbed "Decembrists") soon after his coronation; maintained hard line against dissent.

Alexander II 1855-81 Abolished serfdom, freeing the majority of the population and allowing land ownership. Later grew more conservative and was assassinated by an anarchist.

Alexander III 1881-94 Reactionary leader whose reign was fraught with revolutionary activity that he sought to suppress.

Nicholas II 1894-1917 Russia's last czar. Resisted increasing calls for reforms until 1906, after disastrous war with Japan and striking workers led to creation of Russia's first parliament. Led Russia against Germany in World War I; abdicated amid revolutionary activity in 1917; was executed along with his wife and five children in 1918.

Vladimir Lenin 1917-24 Founder of Soviet state. After years abroad studying Marxist theory and plotting revolution, returned to Russia to lead Bolsheviks. Led "red" Communist forces during civil war; established Soviet secret police. His embalmed body is on Red Square.

Josef Stalin 1924-53 Seminary-student-turned-dictator who forcibly collectivized Soviet land, purged Soviet leadership of purported enemies in "The Great Terror," and executed or repressed millions of Soviet citizens for real and imagined crimes. Led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II at the cost of 27 million lives.

Nikita Khrushchev 1955-64 Congenial leader who denounced many of Stalin's policies and oversaw period of "thaw" in arts and political life. Nearly came to nuclear conflict with U.S. in Cuban Missile Crisis. Deposed by conservative Communist Party colleagues.

Leonid Brezhnev 1964-82 Long-serving leader who came to embody stagnation of late Soviet period. Oversaw crackdown on "Prague Spring," expulsion of dissidents. Launched war in Afghanistan.

Yuri Andropov 1982-84 Influential former KGB chief who sought to stem corruption and introduce minor reforms.

Konstantin Chernenko 1984-85 Conservative Brezhnev protégé who escalated Cold War military spending.

Mikhail Gorbachev 1985-91 Last Soviet leader. Reformer who introduced glasnost and perestroika but later tried to rein in the independence movements spawned by these policies. Briefly ousted by hard-liners in failed coup attempt; 3 months later the Soviet Union collapsed.

Boris Yeltsin 1991-99 First Russian president. Orchestrated end of USSR, freed prices, and oversaw privatization of state companies. Launched war in Chechnya; sent tanks against recalcitrant lawmakers; opened Russia to foreign investors.

Vladimir Putin 2000-08 Second Russian president. Former KGB agent who assumed power when Yeltsin resigned. Oversaw economic boom, suppressed free media, and squeezed out political rivals.

Dmitry Medvedev 2008-Chosen Russian president after being anointed by Putin in an election with no serious opponents. Real power rests with Putin, named prime minister after Medvedev's election.

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