Growing up, I only had one set of grandparents as my father’s mother and father died when he was only ten years old, and he was raised with his siblings in an orphan’s home. So the grandparents I knew were my mother’s parents, Esther and Kalman Kalloff, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, until they came to live with us in Indianapolis in around 1950.
My grandfather Kalman was my grandmother’s second husband, and I never did learn anything about her first husband, and for that matter, almost nothing about Grandma herself. All I knew was that she had immigrated from Russia via Darby, England, with her three children, one of whom was my mother, to the United States.
Grandpa Kalman was born in Turkey and came to the United States in his late thirties. Somehow, he made his way to Cleveland, where he worked lastly as a night watchman at an ice cream factory. Grandpa Kalman was a big man, well over six feet tall and probably at least 200 pounds. Growing up, I learned from him that he had been a bandit in Turkey and had killed two men with his bare hands in a brawl, and he had fled Turkey to avoid prosecution.
You would think with that background, Grandpa would have been my ideal candidate to write about as my most significant ancestor, but what I learned later about Grandma Esther and her first husband makes his background seem pale in comparison.
I grew up in a very contentious household, and when my mother’s parents came to live with us in Indianapolis if anything, it made things worse. My grandmother was a nasty and mean old lady. She never had a nice word to say about anyone or anything. She continually seemed to be cussing one of us out in Russian and always accused my father of trying to poison her. I think we all reached the point where we wished he would. My grandfather was the opposite. He was a nice guy, and being so much bigger than Grandma, why he put up with all the crap she gave him, I never could understand.
My father always said that Grandma was the way she was due to her first marriage and her lousy husband, but I never received any information about the husband and why that might be true. It seemed to be a big family secret that we kids would not learn about somehow when we were much older.
I hate to admit it, but Grandma Esther was such a nasty person that I had no love whatsoever for her and was not interested in delving into her past, and when she died while I was in the Marines, I made no effort at all to come home for her funeral.
Fast-forward to a few years ago when I decided to have my DNA tested by Ancestry.com on an impulse. Unfortunately, when I received the results, they were pretty boring as I learned I was over 90% Middle European with a scattering of a few other ethnic groups thrown in. Nothing exciting or interesting at all, or so I thought.
A few months afterward, I received a formal letter from a Russian attorney living in London asking me to please have my DNA re-tested by another company CRI Genetics and that they had already pre-paid for my tests.
The explanation they gave is that they believe I might be related to a notable Russian and that the tests performed by CRI Genetics are much more extensive and accurate than those by Ancestry.com
Included with the letter were a business card from a geneticist at CRI Genetics they asked me to contact, Alexei Fedorov, and three crisp one-hundred-dollar bills with a note saying “For your time and efforts.”
Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, and I wondered if this had something to do with the family secret I had never learned. Maybe I was a lost grandchild of Tsar Nicholas? But, hey, they didn’t need to give me $300 to get tested again; I would be happy to do it for free.
Later that afternoon, I sent an email to the geneticist identifying myself and asking what I needed to do.
In the morning, there was a response back to my email asking me to confirm my address, which I immediately did.
Two days later, a FedEx package was delivered to my house with instructions, a return mailing FedEx box, and swabs for me to use on the inside of my cheeks. No further explanations were included.
I followed the swabbing instructions as requested and then dropped the return package off at the FedEx counter in our nearby Staples store.
As you can imagine, by now, my mind was going wild with all kinds of scenarios about what this was all about. Maybe it has nothing to do with Tsar Nicholas. Perhaps I was the heir to some deceased super-rich Russian oligarch and am about to inherit millions of dollars, maybe even billions of dollars?
Five weeks went by without a word from the attorney or the laboratory, and I was sleeping poorly with my mind continually running at one hundred miles an hour, playing all sorts of wild scenarios in my mind. Then, finally, I received a registered letter from the attorney, and I waited impatiently for Barbara to come home from playing bridge so we could open the letter together.
Again, the letter started with his saying that they suspected I was related to a notable Russian and that they wanted to confirm it for a biography they were completing for the Russian Ministry of Culture. Damn, no mention of money!
They then stated they had confirmed the lineage and that I was a grandson of the infamous Russian Mad Monk, Rasputin. Further, my grandmother had been married to Rasputin, and her name before she changed it in England was Praskovia Fyodorovna Dubrovina. She was born in Russia in 1872 and married Grigori Rasputin in 1887. She had disappeared from Russia with her three children in 1916, shortly after Rasputin was murdered. There were rumors that she went to England and had then immigrated to the USA with her children, and they had been seeking confirmation.
In England, to help preserve her anonymity, they now know she had also changed the names of her three children: Dmitri, the oldest, who I knew as uncle Albert, Maria, who became my aunt Sally, and Varvara, the youngest who was my mother, Gertrude. I know Varvara is a weird name, but why would anyone deliberately pick Gertrude?
I only remembered only a little about Rasputin from school and knew I needed to do some research to find out more about this renowned ancestor. I was sure it was not going to be good.
So here is some of what I found in my search:
Firstly, the basics are that Rasputin’s name is symbolic of the word debauchery as the stories of his continual and flagrant sexual escapades were renowned, as were the tales of the oversized organ he possessed, which is now actually preserved in a museum in St. Petersburg.
The stories go that when Rasputin was approached by someone wanting to know if it were him, he would reportedly yank his outsized penis out of his pants to prove his identity.
Grigori Rasputin was born in Siberia in 1869. His family was well off but were peasants, and his life wasn’t particularly well documented in his early years. There were stories of him being somewhat of a troublesome boy, someone who was prone to fighting and had spent a few days in jail due to his violent behavior, but otherwise, there isn’t much to know about him in his early days. He might have been illiterate because he had no formal education, and most Russian peasants could not read or write.
In 1886, Rasputin traveled to the town named Abalak, where he met a peasant girl named Praskovya Dubrovina, my grandmother. After a courtship of several months, they married in February 1887. Praskovya remained in Pokrovskoye throughout Rasputin’s later travels and rise to prominence and remained devoted to him until his death. After that, she immigrated to England. The couple had seven children, though only three survived to adulthood: Dmitry, my Uncle Albert (b. 1895), Maria, my Aunt Shirley (b. 1898), and Varvara, my mother.
Rasputin had a forceful personality that easily allowed him to affect those around him, usually making them feel quite at ease and safe around him. Whether or not he was indeed a man gifted with magical talents is a matter for the theologians and philosophers to argue about. However, it can be said that Rasputin commanded a certain aura of respect wherever he went.
Eventually, he reached Saint Petersburg in 1904. The capital of Russia was in a state of disrepair and unrest due to many of the poor decisions made by the ruler, Tsar Nicholas, who had to deal with labor strikes, war, revolutions, and governmental reform. During this time, Rasputin found himself inside the courts of the Imperial family.
Rasputin managed to integrate himself into the court, gaining the trust of the Imperial family one day by ministering to their sick son. Alexei, the heir to the Russian throne and a young boy, was quite ill because he had incurred an unfortunate injury to his foot. Alexei suffered from hemophilia, a disease characterized by anemia and increased bleeding, which can be fatal. Rasputin was called forth to attend to the boy, and the man had a profound effect on the kid, causing him to calm down to the point where the blood flow ceased. He also stopped the use of aspirin by the court physicians, something that would have made hemophilia even worse because it made his blood thinner and was the new wonder drug at the time. How Rasputin calmed the boy down is disputed, some say it was mystical power, and others believe it was because he had a very warm and reassuring personality. Finally, many believe it was because Rasputin learned hypnotism, enabling him to put the boy into a trance and reduce his bleeding.
After that point, Rasputin was invited to stay with the Imperial Family long-term. His influence on the child seemed to be the only thing that could calm his health issues down, and his reassurance and purported frequent sexual encounters with the Tsarina, Alexandra, proved helpful as well. He never had any significant role within the Romanov’s regime; after all, he was a healer and a mystic, but he generally gave advice when asked upon and was held in a high level of trust by both the Tsar and his wife.
The public’s perception of Rasputin grew suspicious, however. The nobles and elite within the courts began to view Rasputin with envy because he had such easy access to the Tsar. Soon, they began to spread vicious rumors about the man’s sexual excesses and debauchery.
Still, Rasputin was a political force to be reckoned with. As a result, many who sought to preserve the Romanovs and prevent the impending revolution began to look at Rasputin with murderous intent. They reasoned that his influence was running the show. And so, a conspiracy was hatched, a plot ending in the brutal murder of the Mad Monk.
Rasputin was invited to dine and enjoy some wine at the Winter Palace. It was there that Rasputin consumed a copious amount of wine and food. The food was heavily poisoned with arsenic. However, it didn’t seem to affect Rasputin at all. The man ate and drank quite happily, unaffected by the potent poison that should have been coursing through his veins. When it became clear that the poison wasn’t doing its job, one of the men drew out his gun and shot Rasputin through the chest, causing him to fall to the ground. Moments passed, and the man seemed dead, but he was not. Rasputin came to his senses a few minutes later and stood up, his wound from the bullet not as bad as it had looked. He made an exit but was caught by several conspiracy members who opened fire upon him. One bullet shot him in the spine, dropping him immediately. Upon reaching him, they saw that he was still moving, so they shot him in the head. Then, they bundled his corpse up in an abandoned carpet and threw him in the icy Neva River.
Eventually, his body was found, and an investigation began. Still, those who had murdered the man were able to get away without paying any kind of price due to the perception that Rasputin had caused immeasurable damage to the country.
Rasputin will forever live on in history as a controversial figure, to some a holy man, to some a political entity, and to others, just a sexual deviant.
So, aren’t I lucky to have the infamous Rasputin as my grandfather? I wonder now how many of my idiosyncrasies I inherited from him? Unfortunately, nothing physically.