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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rasputin Update: A Pretty Nice Guy

POKROVSKOYE, Western Siberia -- He was one of this century's most bizarre characters -- a wild-eyed, wilder-living mystic who started out as a horse thief and became a royal adviser blamed for the downfall of Russia's last tsar.

But in the dusty Siberian village where he was born, Grigory Rasputin is still remembered fondly as a great guy.

"Uncle Grigory'' was a generous benefactor who helped his neighbors, gave gingerbread to children and got a bad rap from history, residents of Pokrovskoye say.

"This image as an evil fool is not at all the way he was described to us,'' says Raisa Zaborovets, a pensioner. "He may have been a strange person, but he was clever and he sympathized with the common people.'' The last living Pokrovskoye resident to have known Rasputin died two years ago.

But just as he proved difficult to kill off in 1916, when nobles poisoned, shot, beat and mutilated him in St. Petersburg before dumping his body in a river, his legend survived a decades-long Soviet campaign to erase his memory. The Communists exiled his relatives, razed his house and even destroyed the small dacha down by the placid Tura River where Rasputin reputedly entertained female admirers.

The spirit of the infamous starets, or self-styled holy man, endures in the form of a local lookalike, Rasputin tales that no longer must be whispered, even a very popular chair said to be imbued with his mystical force.

Rare visitors to the farming village of 2,000 people, a sleepy settlement of log cabins and small wooden houses, are stopped cold by the sight of Viktor Prolubshikov and his flowing mane.

A handyman who says his great-grandmother was Rasputin's maid, he bears a startling resemblance to the mystic in his rough cotton tunic and tall black boots, with slicked-down hair parted in the middle.

With Rasputin no longer taboo, Prolubshikov, 45, enjoys shocking the handful of tourists who find their way to the village 1,900 kilometers east of Moscow. He is eager to improve the healer's battered historical reputation.

"There was no evil in him,'' Prolubshikov says. "My grandfather told me he was a kind man who loved working on the land. And everyone agreed he had special powers.''

By the way, Prolubshikov adds earnestly, "I also have special powers. I, too, can heal.''

Rasputin's strange powers, real or imagined, propelled the semi-literate peasant from hard-drinking petty criminal to adviser to Tsar Nicholas II.

After acquiring a reputation as a healer in St. Petersburg, he somehow stopped the hemophiliac hemorrhaging of the tsar's young son Alexei, heir to the throne. Tsarina Alexandra, convinced that Rasputin was an emissary from God, brought him into the royal family's inner circle and prompted widespread, published speculation that the two were lovers.

Acceding to his wife's wishes and ignoring reports of Rasputin's debauchery, Nicholas allowed the healer to appoint unscrupulous allies to high posts and gain undue political influence. Historians say his disastrous decisions doomed the monarchy and helped set the stage for the Bolsheviks to seize power in 1917.

Oddly, it was pop music that revived Rasputin's name throughout the Soviet Union.

A catchy song, "Rasputin,'' by the Western group Boney M, was allowed airtime in the late 1970s and became a huge hit with silly lyrics like "Rah rah Rah-spoo-teen, Russia's greatest love machine.''

Among those taken by the snappy tune was a teenager from the nearby oil town of Tyumen, Vladimir Smirnov, who grew up to become a historian.

Hoping to lure tourists to Pokrovskoye, Smirnov opened a small Rasputin museum last year in a green-shuttered log house across the broad dirt road -- Soviet Street -- from where Rasputin's home stood until 1980.

The holy man himself held religious gatherings in the cabin, which was his brother-in-law's house. Now it contains such memorabilia as photographs, his birth certificate, an icon from his church, his old table and the chair that locals swear cures the impotence of men who sit in it.

"He gave money to build a school, he built a church, he helped people in need -- that's what he'll always be remembered for here,'' says Smirnov, 33.

Facts about Rasputin are becoming increasingly blurred with time. His known descendants have died or disappeared, and the communists' penchant for erasing evidence leaves researchers a limited trail to follow.

"Who knows, maybe there are even some illegitimate children or grandchildren of his living in our village,'' says Serafima Yegorova, 71. "With Rasputin, it's always been hard to separate truth from gossip.''