Rasputin, the charismatic “holy man” who rose from peasant upbringing to become the confidant of the last czar and czarina of Imperial Russia, had many enemies, but only one who (for some reason) laid claim to Rasputin’s nickname “The Mad Monk.” That was Iliodor, nee Sergei Trufanov, a one-time ally who turned against Rasputin in their later years. Who would have thought such a dubious moniker would be in dispute? Well, it actually wasn’t much disputed between the parties, since by the time Iliodor claimed it, in the unambiguous title of his 1918 memoir “The Mad Monk of Russia, Iliodor”, Rasputin was dead, the victim of assassination, and Iliodor was far from his native land, in New York City, where he would later work as a janitor in the Met Life Building, like the maddest of mad monks do.
What? Okay, we need to build up to that.
Back to pre-Revolutionary Russia we go. The Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, sit precariously atop an unstable empire. Coming off a humiliating defeat to the underdog Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War, the citizens are restless. The peasants are complaining (again), the workers are striking, and the military is mutinying. Nicholas answers with gunfire in the streets and the occasional anti-Semitic pogrom. There are more factions active than you’d find in an Italian Parliament, and palace intrigue is thicker than anything dreamed up by George R.R. Martin. Progressives and socialists, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The Union of the Russian People, the Black Hundreds, the Octobrists. (Just about everything except The Very Silly Party.) All while a World War brews abroad.
Iliodor was ordained as a hieromonk – a rare priest/monk hybrid – in 1903 and soon set to stirring crowds with his fiery oratory, an inflammatory concoction of religious orthodoxy, extreme nationalism, anti-capitalism and anti-intellectualism. He was seen by some, including himself, as a peasant preacher waving the banner for the dispossessed masses. To the elders in the Russian Orthodox Church, which was generally expected to remain above the partisan fray, he was a firebrand and a troublemaker. He was repeatedly investigated, disciplined, and transferred, and he repeatedly fought back, with threats, intransigence, and a steady stream of vitriol aimed at landowners, foreigners, and Jews.
The peak of Iliodor’s power and notoriety came between 1908 and 1911 when he preached to crowds of thousands in the city of Tsaritsyn (since renamed Stalingrad and now Volgograd), a dirty, poverty- and cholera-stricken industrial city on the banks of the Volga River. After a series of particularly incendiary rabble-rousing, the Church Synod tried to transfer him to Minsk. He petitioned Czar Nicholas for support and secured a sit-down with the czarina, after which – on the advice of Rasputin – the czar interceded on Iliodor’s behalf.
At this time, Iliodor considered Rasputin if not a mentor, then at least an ally. They had met years earlier. Rasputin was never ordained a monk, or in fact anything. His influence with the royal family was earned primarily on his self-made reputation as a mystic whose healing powers alleviated the czar’s son Alexei’s hemophilia. (Some suspect that he used hypnosis, others that by simply defying the doctor’s orders, he ended the child’s heavy ingestion of aspirin, the blood-thinning qualities of which were not known until many years later.)
Both monks had their vocal critics. After Rasputin visited Iliodor in Tsaritsyn in 1909, his support for the younger man was used against him. Amongst other things, Rasputin was whispered to be a lascivious sex maniac. Iliodor defended Rasputin, perhaps partly because he was also, at this time, seen to be suspiciously popular with the ladies.
Iliodor’s downfall began when he turned against Rasputin. The causes are not clearly known, but sometime around 1911, Iliodor had gone from considering Rasputin a “holy elder” with an “angelic soul” to a “sinful angel” and a “holy devil”, responsible for the torture of innocents. He contributed to the perpetual whisper campaign swirling around the capital, bolstering rumors that Rasputin relationship with the czarina Alexandra was not strictly platonic.
In his Mad Monk memoir, Iliodor describes the moment when, together with his church patron Archbishop Hermogen, he confronted Rasputin, the pair of churchmen accusing the self-styled holy man of leading a dissolute lifestyle. At this meeting, Hermogen delivered a serious beating to Rasputin, in retrospect an inadvisable way to treat a guy with a free pass in the czar’s palace. Sure enough, Rasputin went running, figuratively speaking, to Principal Nicholas’s office where Hermogen was immediately suspended, i.e. exiled to a rural monastery in Belarus. Lacking support from Rasputin or the czar, Iliodor’s erratic behavior and unhinged zealotry were no longer tolerated. His critics in and out of the Church were emboldened and his influence waned. In 1912, he renounced his vows and was defrocked.
The next few years were notable mainly for the campaign waged by Iliodor against his erstwhile ally. He fled Russia for Scandinavia. Encouraged by the writer Maxim Gorky, he penned a tell-all expose of Rasputin’s general nefariousness. In 1914, an early follower of Iliodor came close to assassinating Rasputin (disembowelment by blade) though she claimed Iliodor had nothing to do with it. Deemed crazy, she was institutionalized.
A few years later, in December, 1916, a few princes succeeded where the crazy lady had not, enticing Rasputin to a St. Petersburg palace, feeding him cyanide-laced petit fours, then shooting him in the gut.
By this point, Iliodor was in New York, where we can imagine him cocking a forearm and shouting, “Yes!” Though his rival was deceased, it was hardly a vote in his favor, of course. The Great War’s end was imminent, the Bolsheviks were on the rise, and all monks, not least the maddest, were not seen as especially critical to the communist enterprise (cf. Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses.”) No, the dispute with Rasputin was mainly personal now, more important in shaping legacies than destinies.
To that end, Iliodor sought to make his case. He appeared as himself in the silent film, since lost, called The Fall of the Romanovs (with Edward Connelly as Rasputin and Alfred Hickman as the czar!) And in 1918, he published his memoir, in which he wrote in a characteristic passage contrasting himself and his rival: “My character represents the secret energies within the human body which drive toward truth. Rasputin, on the other hand, was the ‘Holy Devil’ in a body that was revered by all. He represents the darkness, corruption, the source of the evils of Russia. He was, in short, a devil clothed in the garments of an angel.”
What Happened Next?
Iliodor returned to Russia in 1918 and lived for a few years in his old preaching grounds in Tsaritsyn. He offered his services to Lenin, who declined, later describing Iliodor’s power, ominously, as “dark, peasant democracy of the crudest but deepest kind.”
He returned to New York in 1922 where he lived out the remainder of his life in relative obscurity. In 1936, he sued a pair of publishers for $100,000 for defamation of character accusing them of accusing him of anti-Semitism and plotting to kill Rasputin. The suit went nowhere.
He was said to have worked as a janitor at the Met Life building in his later years. If true, there will be no mystery as to the true author of any graffito found by a modern day cleaning crew etched on a rusty pipe in the building’s deepest sub-basement along the lines of “Rasputin Sucks.”
Iliodor died of heart attack, aged 71, in 1952.