According to legends, Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was first poisoned with enough cyanide to kill ten men, but he wasn’t affected. So his killers shot him in the back with a revolver. Rasputin fell but later revived. So, he was shot again three more times, but Rasputin still lived. He was then clubbed, and for good measure thrown into the icy Neva River.
The mysterious Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, a peasant who claimed powers of healing and prediction, had the ear of Russian Tsarina Aleksandra. The aristocracy could not stand a peasant in such a high position. Peasants could not stand the rumors that the tsarina was sleeping with such a scoundrel. Rasputin was seen as "the dark force" that was ruining Mother Russia.
To save the monarchy, several members of the aristocracy attempted to murder the holy man. On the night of December 16-17, 1916, they tried to kill Rasputin. The plan was simple. Yet on that fateful night, the conspirators found that Rasputin would be very difficult to kill.
The Mad Monk
Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Aleksandra (the emperor and empress of Russia) had tried for years to give birth to an heir. After four girls were born, the royal couple was desperate. They called in many mystics and holy men. Finally, in 1904, Aleksandra gave birth to a baby boy, Aleksei Nikolayevich. Unfortunately, the boy who had been the answer to their prayers was afflicted with "the Royal disease," hemophilia. Every time Aleksei began to bleed, it would not stop. The royal couple became frantic to find a cure for their son. Again, mystics, holy men and healers were brought in. Nothing helped until 1908, when Rasputin was called upon to come aid the young tsarevich during one of his bleeding episodes.
Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was a peasant (muzhik), born in the Siberian town of Pokrovskoye on January 10, probably in the year 1869. Rasputin underwent a religious transformation around the age of 18 and spent three months in the Verkhoturye Monastery. When he returned to Pokrovskoye he was a changed man. Though he married Proskovia Fyodorovna and had three children with her (two girls and a boy), he began to wander as a strannik ("pilgrim" or "wanderer"). During his wanderings, Rasputin traveled to Greece and Jerusalem. Though he often traveled back to Pokrovskoye, he found himself in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1903. By then he was proclaiming himself a starets, a holy man, who had healing powers and could predict the future.
When Rasputin was summoned to the royal palace in 1908, he proved he had a healing power. Unlike his predecessors, Rasputin was able to help the boy. How did he do it? That is still greatly disputed. Some people believe Rasputin used hypnotism; others say Rasputin didn't know how to hypnotize. Part of Rasputin's continued mystique is the remaining question as to whether or not he really had the powers he claimed to have.
Having proven to Aleksandra his holy powers, Rasputin did not remain just the healer for Aleksei; Rasputin soon became the confidante and personal advisor of Aleksandra. To the aristocrats, having a peasant advising the tsarina, who in turn held a great deal of influence over the tsar, was unacceptable. In addition, Rasputin was a lover of alcohol and sex - both of which he consumed in excess. Though Rasputin appeared a pious and saintly holy man in front of the royal couple, others saw him as a dirty, sex-craved peasant who was ruining Russia and the monarchy. It didn't help that Rasputin was having sex with women in high society in exchange for granting political favors. Nor that many in Russia believed Rasputin and the tsarina were lovers and wanted to make a separate peace with the Germans (Russia and Germany were enemies during World War I).
Everyone was talking about the need to get rid of Rasputin. Attempting to enlighten the royal couple about the danger they were in, many influential people approached both Nicholas and Aleksandra with the truth about Rasputin and with the rumors that were circulating. To everyone's great dismay, they both refused to listen. So who was going to kill Rasputin before the monarchy was completely destroyed?
Rasputin was wandering as a pilgrim in Siberia when he heard reports of Tsarevich Alexei's illness. It was not publicly known that Alexei had haemophilia, a disease that was widespread among European royalty descended from the British Queen Victoria, who was Alexei's great-grandmother. When doctors could not help Alexei, the desperate Tsarina looked for help; she had lost her brother, a sister and her mother when she was young. She turned to her best friend, Anna Vyrubova, to secure the help of the charismatic peasant healer. Rasputin was said to possess the ability to heal through prayer and was indeed able to give the boy some relief, in spite of the doctors' prediction that he would die. The boy had an injury which caused him internal or external bleeding, and to everyone's surpise the Tsarevich got better the next day.
Others have claimed that he did so by hypnosis, which, in one study, actually has proven to relieve symptoms because it lowers stress levels and therefore diminishes the symptomatology of haemophilia. However, during a particularly grave crisis at Spala in Poland in 1912, Rasputin sent a telegram from his home, which is believed to have contained advice to ease the suffering of the young prince. His pragmatic tips included suggestions such as "Don't let the doctors bother him too much; let him rest." This was thought to have helped Alexei to relax and allow the child's own natural healing process some room. Others have made the less likely suggestion that he used leeches to attempt to treat the boy. As leech saliva contains anticoagulants such as hirudin, this treatment would most likely have exacerbated his haemophilia instead of providing relief. Diarmuid Jeffreys has pointed out that Rasputin's healing suggestions included halting the administration of aspirin, a then newly available (since 1899) pain-relieving (analgesic) "wonder drug". Since aspirin is also an anticoagulant, it would have worsened the hemarthrosis causing Alexei's joints' swelling and pain.
The Tsar referred to Rasputin as "our friend" and a "holy man", a sign of the trust that the family had placed in him. Rasputin had a considerable personal and political influence on Alexandra Feodorovna, and the Tsar and Tsarina considered him a man of God and a religious prophet. Alexandra came to believe that God spoke to her through Rasputin. Of course, this relationship can also be viewed in the context of the very strong, traditional, age-old bond between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state leadership. Another important factor was probably the Tsarina's German-Protestant origin.
Rasputin soon became a controversial figure, becoming involved in a paradigm of sharp political struggle involving monarchist, anti-monarchist, revolutionary and other political forces and interests. He was accused by many eminent persons of various misdeeds, ranging from an unrestricted sexual life (including raping a nun) to undue political domination over the royal family.
Even before his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1903, the city was wildly fascinated with mysticism and aristocrats were obsessed with anything occult. While fascinated by him, the Saint Petersburg upper class did not widely accept Rasputin. He did not fit in with the royal family, and he and the Russian Orthodox Church had a very strained relationship. The Holy Synod frequently attacked Rasputin, accusing him of a variety of immoral or evil practices. Because Rasputin was a court official, though, he and his apartment were under 24-hour surveillance, and, accordingly, there exists some credible evidence about his lifestyle in the form of the famous "staircase notes"—reports from Ochrana spies, which were not given only to the Tsar but also published in newspapers. In 1913 Alexander Guchkov charged him with being a member of this illegal and orgiastic sect. The Tsar was preoccupied with the very real threat of a scandal, and ordered his own investigations but did not, in the end, remove Rasputin from his position of influence. On the contrary, he fired his minister of the interior for a "lack of control over the press" (censorship being a top priority for Nicholas then). He then pronounced the affair to be a private one closed to debate.
According to Rasputin's daughter, Maria, Rasputin did "look into" the Khlysty sect, but rejected it. One Khlyst practice was known as "rejoicing" , a ritual which sought to overcome human sexual urges by engaging in group sexual activities so that, in consciously sinning together, the sin's power over the human was nullified.Rasputin is said to have been particularly appalled by the belief that grace is found through self-flagellation.
Like many spiritually minded Russians, Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also maintained that sin and repentance were interdependent and necessary to salvation. Thus, he claimed that yielding to temptation (and, for him personally, this meant sex and alcohol), even for the purposes of humiliation (so as to dispel the sin of vanity), was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation. Rasputin was deeply opposed to war, both from a moral point of view and as something which was likely to lead to political catastrophe. During the years of World War I, Rasputin's increasing drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes (in return for helping petitioners who flocked to his apartment), as well as his efforts to have his critics dismissed from their posts, made him appear increasingly cynical. Attaining divine grace through sin seems to have been one of the central secret doctrines which Rasputin preached to (and practiced with) his inner circle of society ladies.
During World War I, Rasputin became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular Tsarina, meanwhile, who was of German descent, was accused of acting as a spy in German employ.
When Rasputin expressed an interest in going to the front to bless the troops early in the war, the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, promised to hang him if he dared to show up there. Rasputin then claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the Tsar personally took command. With this, the ill-prepared Tsar Nicholas proceeded to take personal command of the Russian army, with dire consequences for himself as well as for Russia.
The Moika Palace, along the Moika River, where Rasputin was supposedly lured and murdered.
The murder of Rasputin has become something of a legend, some of it perhaps invented, embellished or simply misremembered by the very men who killed him, which is why it has become so difficult to discern the actual course of events. The date of Rasputin's death is variously recorded as being either the 17th of December, 1916 or the 29th of December, 1916. This discrepancy arises due to the fact that the Gregorian calendar (New Style) was not introduced into Soviet Russia until 1918. Using the Gregorian calendar the initial attempts to kill Rasputin probably began after midnight and he died in the early hours of December 30, 1916. What is known is that having decided that Rasputin's influence over the Tsarina had made him a threat to the empire, a group of nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich apparently lured Rasputin to the Yusupovs' Moika Palace by intimating that Yusupov's wife, Princess Irina, would be present and receiving friends (in point of fact, she was away in the Crimea). The group led him down to the cellar, where they served him cakes and red wine laced with a large amount of cyanide. According to legend, Rasputin was unaffected, although Vasily Maklakov had supplied enough poison to kill five men. Conversely, Maria's account asserts that, if her father did eat or drink poison, it was not in the cakes or wine because, after the attack by Guseva, he suffered from hyperacidity and avoided anything with sugar. In fact, she expresses doubt that he was poisoned at all. It has been suggested, on the other hand, that Rasputin had developed an immunity to poison due to mithridatism.
Determined to finish the job, Prince Yusupov became anxious about the possibility that Rasputin might live until the morning, leaving the conspirators no time to conceal his body. Yusupov ran upstairs to consult the others and then came back down to shoot Rasputin through the back with a revolver. Rasputin fell, and the company left the palace for a while. Yusupov, who had left without a coat, decided to return to get one, and while at the palace, he went to check on the body. Suddenly, Rasputin opened his eyes and lunged at Yusupov. He grabbed Yusupov and attempted to strangle him. At that moment, however, the other conspirators arrived and fired at Rasputin. After being hit, he fell once more. As they neared his body, the party found that, remarkably, he was still alive, struggling to get up. They clubbed him into submission. Some accounts say that his killers also severed his penis (subsequently resulting in urban legends and claims that certain third parties were in possession of the organ). After binding his body and wrapping him in a carpet, they threw him into the icy Neva River.
Two days later, Rasputin's body, poisoned, shot four times, badly beaten, and drowned, was recovered from the river. An autopsy established that the cause of death was drowning. It was found that he had indeed been poisoned, and that the poison alone should have been enough to kill him. There is a report that after his body was recovered, water was found in the lungs, supporting the idea that he was still alive before submersion into the partially frozen river.
Subsequently, the Tsarina Alexandra buried Rasputin's body in the grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, but after the February Revolution, a group of workers from Saint Petersburg uncovered the remains, carried them into the nearby woods, and burned them. As the body was being burned, Rasputin appeared to sit up in the fire. His apparent attempts to move and get up thoroughly horrified bystanders. The effect can probably be attributed to improper cremation; since the body was in inexperienced hands, the tendons were probably not cut before burning. Consequently, when the body was heated, the tendons shrank, forcing the legs to bend and the body to bend at the waist. This final happenstance only further fueled the legends and mysteries surrounding Rasputin, which continue to live on long after his death. The official report of his autopsy disappeared during the Joseph Stalin era, as did several research assistants who had seen it.
Post-mortem photograph of Rasputin showing the bullet wound in his forehead.
The details of the killing given by Felix Yusupov have never stood up to scrutiny. He changed his account several times; the statement given to the St. Petersburg police, the accounts given whilst in exile in the Crimea in 1917, his 1927 book, and finally the accounts given under oath to libel juries in 1934 and 1965 all differ to some extent, and until recently no other credible, evidence-based theories have been available.
According to the unpublished 1916 autopsy report by Professor Kossorotov, as well as subsequent reviews by Dr. Vladimir Zharov in 1993 and Professor Derrick Pounder in 2004/05, no active poison was found in Rasputin's stomach.
It could not be determined with certainty that he drowned, as the water found in his lungs is a common non-specific autopsy finding. All three sources agree that Rasputin had been systematically beaten and attacked with a bladed weapon; but, most importantly, there were discrepancies regarding the number and caliber of handguns used.
This discovery may significantly change the whole premise and account of Rasputin's death. British intelligence reports, sent between London and Saint Petersburg in 1916, indicate that the British were not only extremely concerned about Rasputin's displacement of pro-British ministers in the Russian government but, even more importantly, his apparent insistence on withdrawing Russian troops from World War I. This withdrawal would have allowed the Germans to transfer their Eastern Front troops to the Western Front, leading to a massive outnumbering of the Allies, and threatening their defeat. Whether this was actually Rasputin's intent or whether he was simply concerned about the huge number of casualties (as the Tsarina's letters indicate) is in dispute, but it is clear that the British perceived him as a real threat to the war effort.
Professor Pounder states that, of the four shots fired into Rasputin's body, the third (which entered his forehead) was instantly fatal. This third shot also provides some intriguing evidence. In Pounder's view, with which the Firearms Department of London's Imperial War Museum agrees, the third shot was fired from a different gun from those responsible for the other three wounds. The "size and prominence of the abraded margin" suggested a large lead non-jacketed bullet. At the time, the majority of weapons used hard metal-jacketed bullets, with Britain virtually alone in using lead unjacketed bullets in their officers' Webley revolvers. Pounder came to the conclusion that the bullet which caused the fatal shot was a Webley .455 inch unjacketed round, the best fit with the available forensic evidence.
There were two officers of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in St. Petersburg at the time. Witnesses stated that at the scene of the murder, the only man present with a Webley revolver was Lieutenant Oswald Rayner, a British officer attached to the SIS station in St. Petersburg. This account is further supported by an audience between the British Ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, and Tsar Nicholas, when Nicholas stated that he suspected a young Englishman who had been an old school friend of Yusupov (Rayner certainly had known Yusupov at the University of Oxford). The second SIS officer in St. Petersburg at the time was Captain Stephen Alley, born in the Yusupov Palace in 1876. Both families had very strong ties, so it is difficult to come to any conclusion about whom to hold responsible.
Confirmation that Rayner met with Yusupov (along with another officer, Captain John Scale) in the weeks leading up to the killing can be found in the diary of their chauffeur, William Compton, who recorded all visits. The last entry was made on the night after the murder. Compton said that "it is a little-known fact that Rasputin was shot not by a Russian but by an Englishman" and indicated that the culprit was a lawyer from the same part of the country as Compton himself. There is little doubt that Rayner was born some ten miles from Compton's hometown and, throughout his life, described himself as a barrister-at-law, despite never having practised in that profession.
Evidence that the attempt had not gone quite according to plan is hinted at in a letter which Alley wrote to Scale eight days after the murder: "Although matters here have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. ... a few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement. Rayner is attending to loose ends and will no doubt brief you."
On his return to England, Oswald Rayner not only confided to his cousin, Rose Jones, that he had been present at Rasputin's murder but also showed family members a bullet which he claimed to have acquired at the murder scene. Conclusive evidence is unattainable, however, as Rayner burned all his papers before he died in 1961 and his only son also died four years later.
Newspaper reporter Michael Smith wrote in his book that British Secret Intelligence Bureau head Mansfield Cumming ordered three of his agents in Russia to eliminate Rasputin in December 1916.