Rasputin's Daughter Literally Ran Away And Joined The Circus
Imagine this scenario: Your father is a high-profile mystic, purported to be impossible to kill. Your friends are empresses. Not what most people consider a normal existence. Then, with the flip of a political switch, the rug is swept out from under you: Your mother and brother "disappear," your sister dies under mysterious circumstances, and after you're forced to identify your father's body, he speaks to you from beyond the grave. What do you do? If you're Matryona Grigorievna Rasputina, A.K.A. Maria Rasputin, you join the circus (among other things).
So, Where'd It All Start?
In the interest of letting Rasputina speak for herself:
I was born in 1899 in the village of Pokrovskoe in the county of Tobolsk. My parents are peasants, simple people. Our family consists of: father, mother, grandfather (my father's father), my brother, sister, and myself. We all live happily together, but sometimes I get cross with my brother and sister, but with my sister, I get cross all the time. My father plays an important role because the Sovereign knows him and loves him.
Though her year of birth was disputed (some sources say 1898), it's true that Maria Rasputina was born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye. The infamous Grigori Rasputin was, in her eyes, a pious, generous starets who actively encouraged his children's prayer and fasting. Her good-natured jokes about tucking her heels rather than kneeling the entire time reveal a sense of humor that stayed with her all her life.
Grigori Rasputin (left); his wife, Praskovia Fedorovna Dubrovina (middle); and Maria (right). (Source: All Russia)
Sailing Into Society
In 1906 in St. Petersburg, Rasputin was introduced to the royal family, whom you might recall from such serious documentaries as Anastasia (1997). Just a few years later, Matryona and her sister, Varvara, went to live with dear old dad in the age-hold hope that introducing them to society might turn them into "little ladies." It was at this time that she changed her name to Maria, presumably thinking "New town, new me!"
Writer Vera Zhukovskaya went pretty hard on 16-year-old Maria, describing her as "having a wide face with a square chin and bright-colored lips that she frequently licked in a predatory movement. Her strong body seemed about to burst out of its cashmere dress and smelled of sweat." Being sweaty and flirty sounds about on par for the behavior of a teenage girl, and it didn't seem to deter other society ladies, who affectionately referred to her as "Mara" and "Marochka," presumably while pinching her cheeks.
Due to Rasputin's role within the tight-knit royal family, Maria became friends with the four daughters, self-declared as OTMA (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, in birth order). Perhaps due to self-consciousness about her "strong, tall" body, Maria recalls wistfully the grace of the grand duchesses, who she said entered rooms so quietly that you couldn't hear their feet touch the ground.
During WWI, Maria was briefly engaged to a Georgian offer named Pankhadze. Thanks to her father's intervention, he avoided the front by performing his service in the reserve battalions, but despite this initial show of favor, the two ultimately split.
When It All Went Sideways
You could say that Rasputin was a controversial figure, an understatement that was underlined by multiple assassination attempts over the course of two years. By all accounts, being almost-murdered stressed Papa Rasputin out, and he began drinking highly alcoholic dessert wine as a method of handling, you know, being almost-murdered. His behavior began to change, and he told his children that he wouldn't hold with "people uttering the filth about you that they do about me."
In 1916, dear old dad was tricked into another assassination attempt, this one, ultimately, successful. Though the popular story is that Rasputin was impossible to kill, having been poisoned, shot, and drowned, he (spoiler alert) definitely did die. In a particularly morbid coming-of-age moment, Maria was rumored to have been chosen, along with her sister, to identify his body, icy from his watery grave in the Malaya Nevka River (although some sources say it was only his boot).
So, What Does One Do Next?
While initially supported by the royal family, the Romanovs urged the remaining Rasputins to run once the Revolution began. They went with their mother to Pokrovskoe, where Maria married Boris Soloviev on October 5, 1917. Soloviev was a real gem who supported Romanov impersonators, stole money and jewels, operated as a mystic, and once described his new wife as "not even useful for sexual relations" because he found other women more attractive. In her diary, Maria wrote a more polite equivalent of "You're not so hot yourself, Jack" and added that she didn't understand why so many of his séance sessions, purportedly with her father, urged her to "love Boris." You know, the guy who was running the sessions.
Despite their odd pairing, Maria and Boris stayed together. At one point, she even got him out of jail by bribing the guard. As things in Russia heated up, they fled to Europe and had two children together, both named after the duchesses Maria had found so graceful, Tatiana and Maria. The rest of the Rasputins weren't so lucky: Maria's mother and brother were lost to the Siberian gulags, and her sister died in Moscow in 1924. The jury is out on whether Varvara died of starvation, disease, or poison, but like her father, she was irrefutably deceased. Boris and Maria opened a restaurant, but it ultimately failed, and not two years later, Boris died of tuberculosis, leaving Maria an expatriate single mother.
With her family and country lost to her, Maria did what women in a tough spot have done since the beginning of time: dancing for money. Back at it with her characteristic humor, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said she received an "absolutely unexpected" offer from a cabaret in Bucharest "because of my name, not because of my dancing." Capitalizing on tragedy, she was billed as "the daughter of the mad monk." Like many performers, Maria danced through her tears. "Every time I have to confront my father on the stage, a pang of poignant memory shoots through my heart, and I could break down and weep," she told The Advertiser in 1929.
In 1928, when Prince Felix Yussupov published a memoir detailing her father's death, she sued both him and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich for damages totaling $800,000 and decried them both as murderers. Parisian courts, however, more or less said "Nope, not touching that one" and dismissed the case. A year later, Maria published The Real Rasputin, a novel in which she attempted to restore the image of her father as she knew him rather than through the eyes of the men who disliked him enough to really, really kill him.
When a combination of cabaret dancing, publishing royalties, and tutoring weren't enough to pay the bills, Maria turned to the favorite career dream of any child in the '30s (and, let's face it, ever since): running away and joining the circus.
She Joined The What Now?
Though the exact year is up for debate, in the early 1930s, Maria joined the circus. In fact, she joined a few: She performed with the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, the Hagenback-Wallace Circus of Indiana, and the famous Ringling Brothers as "Daughter of Imperial Russia's World-Famous Mad Monk and Confidante to the Late Czar." She did so well with the Ringling Bros. that she literally ended up on the Wheaties box. When asked if she minded working with such dangerous creatures, Maria quipped "Why not? I have been in a cage with Bolsheviks." Her daughters chose to stay in Europe rather than hitch themselves to their mother's circus wagon, freeing her up to write a second book, Rasputin, My Father, in step with a cookbook filled with such delicious recipes as cod soup (her dad's fave) and jellied fish heads (nobody's fave).
Maria gained a reputation for stopping any wild animal in their tracks simply with the force of her stare, having a particular affinity for lions. Her tactics seemed, unfortunately, not to work quite so well on bears. After only a few years as a circus performer, she understandably left the circus after being mauled by one of the ursine jerks. She settled in Florida, where she happened to link up with an old friend, Gregory Barnadsky. They married in 1940 and left Florida for Los Angeles, but by 1946, they were divorced. Like Boris, Greg had little respect for Maria. In court, she told the judge that he had called her names, beaten her, and bailed, cooly explaining "He just deserted me. That's all."
Where Do You Go From "Lion Tamer"?
In Los Angeles, Maria worked as a jane-of-all-trades machinist in the San Pedro shipyards, boasting "Lathe, drill press–I operate them all. You name it, I do it." Despite her quiet life as a tradeswoman, however, her name remained in the headlines. In 1948, she was so sick of being called a communist that she wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Times vehemently denying any such proclivities. It hardly seemed necessary, as communists killed all her family and friends and forced her to flee from her homeland, but she stated unequivocally that she loved the United States "from the bottom of [her] heart."
One tough son of a mystic, she remained in factory work until age forced her out of it in the 1950s, but she was (clearly) not one to slow down. After retirement, she kept busy with babysitting, teaching Russian, and more writing and media appearances. She even got involved in the case of Anna Anderson, the famous Anastasia impersonator, initially supporting the imposter before eventually concluding that Anderson was not, in fact, her old friend. She got a couple of dogs that she hilariously named Youssou and Pov after her father's assassin. All in all, Maria Rasputin's golden years were about as rich as any of us can hope for.
A Very Exciting Life
In the 1960s, Maria saw Betty Ford in a dream and decided that was enough to declare herself psychic. Apparently, it ran in the blood, although whether "it" refers to mystical abilities or the willingness to fake them remains to be determined. She lived around the Silverlake/Los Feliz/East Hollywood triangle until her death on September 27, 1977. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times shortly before her death, she understated "I have a very exciting life."
To the end, Maria was adamant that the frightening image of Rasputin was false. The man who had encouraged her to always have something in her pocket to give to the poor and called her his "Little One," she insisted, could never be anything other than a generous, simple man who loved his country and his God. "I love my father," she said. "As much as others hate him. I have not the strength to make others love him."
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