Even casual Russophiles know of Grigory Rasputin: the mystic monk, advisor of the last Romanovs, and Russia’s greatest love machine (per Boney M.). Fewer, however, are aware of the American life of Rasputin’s middle daughter: Matryona, or Maria, Rasputina.
Born in provincial Pokrovskoye, Siberia, in 1898-1899, Maria was the middle child of the three Rasputin children that survived to adulthood. Her father’s work took the family to St. Petersburg in 1910. And even after her father’s heavily-mythologized assassination in 1916, her family remained influential, and she grew up in and around the tsar’s court.
Following the Revolution, Maria and her husband escaped to Vladivostok, then pinballed through the Middle East and Europe before finally settling in France. Maria found work in a cabaret before joining the circus, where, in a case of macabre irony, she danced to a dramatic interpretation of her own father’s death. She continued work for multiple European circuses into the 1930s.
In 1935, Maria Rasputina came to America to join the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus as a lion tamer; at the time this troupe was second in size and grandeur only to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. She arrived in New York by steamer on March 8, speaking little English and relying instead on German.
Rasputina joined the troupe in their winter quarters in Peru, Indiana, about an hour by car north of Indianapolis. Once there, she set about her work under the supervision of two instructors, training large, carnivorous beasts, apparently quite fearlessly. In her own words: “You wave your arm swiftly, like this, and you say, ‘Sweetheart, hup!’”
On April 10, while in the arena with two lions, two tigers, three bears, two leopards, and two pumas, Maria lost her footing and was mauled by a Himalayan black bear, injuring her legs. Her colleagues were able to fend off the animals, and she convalesced in Peru.
The indefatigable Maria rejoined the circus for its summer tour in Chicago, traveling there by ambulance only a couple weeks after the incident. According to an account in the Peru Republican, the news of Maria’s “encounter with the bear spread widely” and “when it was announced that she would appear in person in the Grand Entry, the [Chicago] Stadium was packed to the roof with people who gave her an ovation as she waved to them from her bed upon a beautifully decorated wagon.”
Maria spent the rest of her life in the States, leaving the circus when it stopped in Miami later in the year and getting a job as a riveter during the Second World War. She then lived the rest of her life in the Los Angeles area, dying in 1977. Besides two daughters, she cared for a pair of dogs: Yussou and Pov, named with a whiff of humor for the duke that murdered her father.
That a girl who grew up playing with the children of the tsars should end up in small-town Indiana, spurred by revolution and political convulsions far beyond her control, is ironic, bizarre, even Kafkaesque. Her story is a fascinating tidbit of American and Russian history, and one that is too often overlooked.
This article originally appeared in Indiana University's Russian and East European Institute "REEIfication" Newsletter for Spring 2020, and has been adapted for RussianLife.com. It can be viewed here.
Special thanks to Tim Connor for his research and documents pertaining to Maria Rasputina.
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