When Prince Felix Yusupov offered his guest, Grigori Rasputin, refreshments at his palace in St Petersburg on the evening of 29 December 1916, the glass of red wine and Rasputin’s favourite cakes were laced with enough poison to kill five men. Rasputin, however, seemed totally unaffected as he gulped back the wine and wolfed down the cakes.
Despairing, Yusupov shot Rasputin in the back and then, satisfied, left to join his fellow conspirators. Returning a little later to check on the body, Rasputin sat up and lunged at the prince. The prince’s friends came to his rescue, shooting the ‘mad monk’ a further three times, once in the forehead. But still refusing to die, Rasputin’s attackers resorted to clubbing him senseless then wrapping his body in a blue rug and throwing him in the icy waters of the River Neva.
The subsequent autopsy found that Rasputin had died by drowning, implying he had survived the huge dose of poison, four bullets, and the severe clubbing.
At least, this is the story that has filtered down through the decades.
The Russian people will be cursed
Rasputin had a sense of his coming demise, warning the tsar, Nicholas II, weeks before his death:
‘I shall depart this life before January first. If one of your relatives causes my death, then none of your children will remain alive for more than two years. And if they do, they will beg for death as they will see the defeat of Russia, see the Antichrist coming, plague, poverty, destroyed churches, and desecrated sanctuaries where everyone is dead. The Russian tsar, you will be killed by the Russian people and the people will be cursed and will serve as the devil’s weapon killing each other everywhere.’
One of Prince Yusupov’s conspirators, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, was indeed a cousin of the tsar, and the tsar and his family would be murdered by the Bolsheviks within 18 months of Rasputin’s murder.
I have killed the Antichrist
Two years earlier, on 28 June 1914 (the very day that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo), Rasputin had survived another assassination attempt. Visiting his family in Siberia, Rasputin was almost killed by a woman named Khionia Guseva. Guseva, who, apparently, lacked a nose, may have been urged on by a former friend of Rasputin’s, an anti-Semitic monk called Iliodor. Waiting for him outside a church, Guseva stabbed Rasputin in the stomach, crying out, ‘I have killed the Antichrist!’ Rasputin recovered but became dependent on frequent doses of opium to relieve his pain. Declared insane, Guseva was later committed to an asylum.
Born Grigori Yefimovich Novik in a remote Siberian village on 22 January 1869, Rasputin’s adopted name is Russian for ‘debauched one’, a nickname he earned by his reputed womanizing and drunkenness, which he defended by claiming he was driving out sin with sin. As a boy, he was known for his psychic powers leading some to believe he was possessed by the Devil.
As a young man Rasputin began his pilgrimages, going as far as Greece and Jerusalem, sometimes walking days on end without food or water and wearing shackles to amplify the pain. He reputably practised flagellation as a further means of purification.
Rasputin and the Tsarevic
In 1903, Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg, his reputation as a holy man preceding him. Summoned by the Royal Family, Rasputin was able to stem the bleeding of the tsar’s youngest child and only son, the heir to the throne, the haemophiliac Alexei. Only Rasputin, it seemed, could treat the poor boy. Thus, he formed a bond with the royal couple and enjoyed their patronage. The tsar dismissed reports of Rasputin’s drunkenness and promiscuity as gossip and found the mystic’s presence ‘calming’, stating that he felt at peace whenever Rasputin spoke with him of God.
Rasputin was certainly victim of malicious rumourmongers – newspaper cartoons portrayed him as devilish and the nobility sought every opportunity to discredit him. The scandals relating to his debauched behaviour would have been passed off as nothing unusual had Rasputin been an aristocrat. But he wasn’t, and Rasputin’s sympathy for Russia’s Jews certainly riled St Petersburg’s anti-Semitic nobility.
Russian nobility certainly felt that Rasputin had too much influence on royal affairs, especially during the Great War with Nicholas away at the front. The tsarina hired and fired ministers on a disconcertingly regular basis, based entirely on Rasputin’s recommendations. But Rasputin’s influence only went so far – he had tried to persuade the tsar not to go to war in the first place and to halt the regular pogroms initiated against the Jews – all to no avail.
Did the British kill Rasputin?
The above story on how Rasputin was killed, accepted as fact for almost a century, has come under increasing scrutiny. The account relies entirely on Felix Yusupov himself, who was keen to take the glory for having killed Rasputin. Prince Yusupov and his pro-monarchist friends believed they were acting in the best interests of the monarchy. (Yusupov was a transvestite, who once appeared as a cabaret singer dressed as a woman.)
However, more recent evidence points increasingly to the involvement of a British spy, Oswald Rayner. Rayner and Yusupov had met at Oxford, where the Russian had lived and studied for three years. If British involvement had come to light, it would have severely damaged Anglo-Russians relations – the murder had to be seen as the work of Russians committed in the best interests of Russia.
The British were alarmed by reports that Rasputin was trying to persuade the tsarina to use her influence to remove Russian troops from the war. The consequences of this would have allowed Germany to transfer 350,000 troops and equipment from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, greatly bolstering its forces against the Allies – an alarming prospect for the British and the French.
Rayner, working for the Secret Intelligence Bureau, was present at Yusupov’s palace on 29 December, where the prince had lured Rasputin with the promise of women and sex. Rasputin was heavily tortured as his tormentors tried to ascertain what links he had with Germany. His testicles were ‘crushed flat’.
Yes, Yusupov did try to poison and shoot Rasputin but it was Rayner, it is now believed, that fired the fatal shot. Of the four bullets found in Rasputin’s body – one was significantly different, having been fired from a revolver that was standard British issue. This bullet, shot from point blank into the centre of Rasputin’s forehead, was the work of a professional killer and would have killed him instantly.
The story of is chronicled in a 2010 book by Richard Cullen, Rasputin: The Role of Britain’s Secret Service in his Torture and Murder.
In 1932, Prince and Princess Yusupov successfully sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in an English court over the MGM film Rasputin and the Empress for portraying the princess as having been seduced by Rasputin. They won and were awarded the sum of £25,000 (about £1.5 million / US$2.5 million in 2015). (The case set a precedent thereby introducing the ‘all persons fictitious disclaimer’.) Appearing in the witness stand, Yusupov was asked whether he’d killed Rasputin. Knowing he was free from prosecution, he freely admitted it: ‘Yes, I killed Rasputin. It was my duty to kill him. So I killed him’.
Following his murder in December 1916, the distraught tsarina, Alexandra, had Rasputin buried in the grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, the royal residence, south of Petrograd.
In 1917, after the overthrow of the tsar, a number of Petrograd workers removed Rasputin’s corpse and burned it in a nearby forest. Alarmingly for the workers, Rasputin’s body sat up in the flames causing them to flee in panic. The men had failed to cut the tendons thereby as the corpse heated, the tendons contracted, making his limbs twist and the torso bend at the waist. The episode may have had a logical reason but of course the workmen were not to know and it cemented Grigori Rasputin’s demonic reputation.
During Stalin’s rule, the autopsy report into Rasputin’s death vanished and Stalin ensured that all those associated with it vanished as well.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.