Death of a Salesman

Grigori Rasputin (1880-1916).

Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916).

Grigori Rasputin was one of history’s most infamous, improbable influences, a degenerate Siberian peasant who contributed enormously to the implosion of Russia’s three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty. A self-styled “holy man,” Rasputin presented himself as a miracle worker to Alexandra Feodorovna, the last tsarina, by preying on her penchant for mystics and her bouts of nervous hysteria. Combining coincidence with curative talents, he convinced the empress that he alone could ease the pain of her hemophiliac son and heir to the throne, Alexei. Asked why he allowed the famously unwashed and lecherous intruder in his family’s midst, Tsar Nicholas II replied, “Better one Rasputin than ten hysterical scenes a day.” Rasputin’s influence soon spread beyond the prince’s sickroom, and when Russia’s war with Germany took the tsar to the front and left Alexandra in charge, Rasputin sold the vulnerable empress a fatal bill of goods by telling her how to run the country. While the world watched in disbelief, one buffoon after another was given control over the largest empire on earth. It was plain that Rasputin had to be stopped, but the reality of his inevitable fate has been obscured by censorship and discolored by fanciful legend.

Tsarina Alexndra was obsessed with protecting her hemophiliac son, Alexei.

Tsarina Alexandra was obsessed with protecting her hemophiliac son, Alexei, at all costs.

The most oft-told tale is that in 1916 Russian Prince Felix Yusupov acted to save the imperiled dynasty by assassinating Rasputin at the Yusupov Palace. When teacakes heavily laced with cyanide had no effect, Yusupov shot his drunken victim and left him for dead. After celebrating with his fellow conspirators, including Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a politician named Vladimir Purishkevich and others, Yusupov returned to the scene of the crime only to see the “corpse” spring miraculously to life and rush outside. Purishkevich gave chase and shot at Rasputin until he fell, after which the body was beaten, stabbed, kicked, bound with rope and thrown into a hole in the frozen Neva River. Instead of sinking and being swept into the Gulf of Finland, Rasputin caught an air bubble made by his clothing and remained afloat to be found the next day. When the public learned he had survived so many murderous attacks only to end up drowning, rumors swirled that Rasputin’s superhuman constitution made him almost impossible to kill. The myth deepened when his remains were dug up and burned by revolutionaries who reported that, in the midst of the fire, the corpse sat up in a final denial of death. So what really happened?

Prince Felix Yusupov costumed for a ball. Did he mastermind the plot to assassinate Rasputin?

Prince Felix Yusupov costumed for a ball. Did he mastermind the plot to assassinate Rasputin?

The police rarely meddled in royal affairs, meaning, unless an investigation was requested, events inside Russia’s imperial residences were off-limits. As a result, few questions were asked. Official details are scant as most records were destroyed by the Bolsheviks, but it was reported that, after hearing “three or four shots” in the palace courtyard, a policeman went to investigate and was told by Purishkevich that Rasputin was dead and that if the cop loved Mother Russia he would “keep his mouth shut.” As with so many things in Russia, the autopsy was a secret, and not until recently were some stunningly revelatory details made public.

The opulent Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was the unlikely crime scene.

The opulent Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was the unlikely crime scene.

Yusupov, whose account of the murder vacillated over the years, claimed he shot Rasputin in the chest and that Purishkevi’s shots hit Rasputin in the back and back of the head from a distance of “twenty paces.” The autopsy showed that those wounds did not kill Rasputin and indicated that the fatal shot was from a bullet to the forehead made at close range from a revolver with a caliber differing from Yusupov’s Browning and Purishkevich’s Sauvage pistols. Why was this shot not reported and, more importantly, who fired it? According to the Firearms Department of the Imperial War Museum in London, the forehead wound came from a non-jacketed bullet belonging to a Webley revolver, a type used almost exclusively by British officers. This dovetails with witness reports that one Lieutenant Oswald Rayner was present at the scene and, as a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service, packed a Webley revolver. After the murder, Tsar Nicholas, who knew Rayner and Yusupov became friends in their Oxford days, shared his suspicions with British Ambassador George Buchanan. Confirmation of contact between the two men is found in the diary of Rayner’s chauffeur, William Compton, who recorded that Rayner met with Yusupov in the weeks prior to Rasputin’s assassination. Compton’s last entry, made the day after the murder, stated, “It is a little-known fact that Rasputin was shot not by a Russian but by an Englishman.” Compton added that the killer was a lawyer hailing from the same part of England as himself. He and Rayner were in fact born some ten miles apart, and even though Rayner never practiced law, he often gave his profession as barrister.

A poster showing Rasputin  manipulating the weak-willed tsar and his hysteria-prone tsarina.

A Bolshevik poster shows Rasputin manipulating the weak-willed tsar and his domineering tsarina.

If the assassin were in fact British, what was his motive? Intelligence reports dispatched in 1916 between London and St. Petersburg reveal that Britain was deeply concerned when the troubled tsarina allowed Rasputin to replace pro-British ministers with his ineffectual, sycophantic cronies. The British were equally alarmed by Rasputin’s insistence on withdrawing Russian troops, thereby freeing Germany to mount a massive advantage on the western Allied front. Whatever Rasputin’s strategy, if he even had one, the British considered him a grave threat to the war effort. Many also believe the British were propelled to action because political chaos and palace intrigue were leading Romanov Russia toward collapse and withdrawal from the war.

An exhibit in the Yusupov Palace exhibit recreates the crime with Prince Yusupov and Rasputin in the basement room where the crime occurred.

An exhibit in the Yusupov Palace depicts Prince Felix and Rasputin in the basement room where the crime occurred.

While speculation and theorizing continue, the only indisputable given is that Rasputin was killed on December 17, 1916. So what about his “superhuman” resistance to attempts to kill him? The lethal teacakes were most likely neutralized in the baking process because no poison was found in the victim’s stomach, and the amount of water found in his lungs is consistent with what lingers in submerged bodies. The flaming corpse reacted because its tendons had not been cut, a standard cremation procedure. (Tendons shrink when heated, causing a body to contract and, in this case, appear to sit upright.) The cause of death was, quite simply, a bullet to the brain, meaning Rasputin was dispatched like any other human being. Regardless of which version of his demise you believe, there’s no denying Russia’s so-called “mad monk” is still stirring controversy almost a hundred years after his death.

Rasputin appears in my novel, Past Time, set in tsarist St. Petersburg, to be published summer, 2015.





  1. Yves Fey
    Jun 19, 2015

    Thanks for the fascinating update on a fascinating figure.

  2. Scott
    Jun 20, 2015

    Rasputin’s theories are alive and well. If you frequent modern literature, you’ll see how most people are influenced. It is certainly not by history, but by the most influential writers and speakers of the time. And they cater not to remembrance, but to forward thinking, whatever that may be. I constantly look forward to that sort of writing. And yours.

  3. Liz
    Jun 20, 2015

    Fascinating story, Michael. I had no idea it was a Brit what done him in!

    And now I’m off to read a very special novel… soon to be published.

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