The Murder of Rasputin

The peasant turned royal confidant proved hard to kill

Grigory Rasputin was murdered in December 1916.
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The mysterious Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, a peasant who claimed powers of healing and prediction, had the ear of Russian Czarina Alexandra. The aristocracy held negative views about a peasant in such a high position, and peasants disliked the rumors that the czarina was sleeping with such a scoundrel. Rasputin was seen as "the dark force" who was ruining Mother Russia.

To save the monarchy, several members of the aristocracy attempted to murder Rasputin.

On the night of Dec. 16, 1916, they tried. The plan was simple. Yet on that fateful night, the conspirators found that killing Rasputin would be very difficult indeed.

The Mad Monk

Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, the emperor and empress of Russia, had tried for years to give birth to a male heir. After four girls were born, the royal couple was desperate. They called in many mystics and holy men. Finally, in 1904, Alexandra 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 consulted. Nothing helped until 1908, when Rasputin was called upon to aid the young czarevich during one of his bleeding episodes.

Rasputin was a peasant born in the Siberian town of Pokrovskoye on Jan.

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 St. Petersburg in 1903. By then he was proclaiming himself a starets, or 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 he did it is still greatly disputed. Some people say that 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 he really had the powers he claimed.

Having proven his holy powers to Alexandra, however, Rasputin did not remain just the healer for Aleksei; Rasputin soon became Alexandra's confidant and personal adviser. To the aristocrats, having a peasant advising the czarina, who in turn held a great deal of influence over the czar, was unacceptable. In addition, Rasputin loved alcohol and sex, both of which he consumed in excess. Though Rasputin appeared to be a pious and saintly holy man in front of the royal couple, others saw him as a 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 czarina were lovers and wanted to make a separate peace with the Germans; Russia and Germany were enemies during World War I.

Many people wanted to get rid of Rasputin. Attempting to enlighten the royal couple about the danger they were in, influential people approached both Nicholas and Alexandra with the truth about Rasputin and 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?

The Murderers

Prince Felix Yusupov seemed an unlikely murderer. Not only was he the heir to a vast family fortune, he also was married to the czar's niece Irina, a beautiful young woman.

Yusupov was also considered very good looking, and with his looks and money, he was able to indulge in his fancies. His fancies usually were in the form of sex, much of which was considered perverse at the time, especially transvestism and homosexuality. Historians think that these attributes helped Yusupov ensnare Rasputin.

Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich was Czar Nicholas II's cousin. Pavlovich was once engaged to the czar's eldest daughter, Olga Nikolaevna, but his continued friendship with the homosexually inclined Yusupov made the royal couple break off the engagement.

Vladimir Purishkevich was an outspoken member of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. On Nov. 19, 1916, Purishkevich made a rousing speech in the Duma, in which he said,

"The czar's ministers who have been turned into marionettes, marionettes whose threads have been taken firmly in hand by Rasputin and the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna—the evil genius of Russia and the czar...who has remained a German on the Russian throne and alien to the country and its people."

Yusupov attended the speech and afterward contacted Purishkevich, who quickly agreed to participate in the murder of Rasputin.

Others involved were Lt. Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, a convalescing young officer of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert was a friend and Purishkevich's physician. Lazovert was added as the fifth member because they needed someone to drive the car.

The Plan

The plan was relatively simple. Yusupov was to befriend Rasputin and then lure Rasputin to the Yusupov palace to be killed.

Since Pavlovich was busy every night until December 16 and Purishkevich was leaving on a hospital train for the front on December 17, it was decided that the murder would be committed on the night of the 16th and in the early morning hours of the 17th. As for what time, the conspirators wanted the cover of night to hide the murder and the disposal of the body. Plus, Yusupov noticed that Rasputin's apartment wasn't guarded after midnight. It was decided that Yusupov would pick up Rasputin at his apartment at half past midnight.

Knowing Rasputin's love of sex, the conspirators would use Yusupov's beautiful wife, Irina, as bait. Yusupov would tell Rasputin that he could meet her at the palace with the innuendo of a possible sexual liaison. Yusupov wrote his wife, who was staying at their home in the Crimea, to ask her to join him in this important event. After several letters, she wrote back in the beginning of December in hysteria saying that she couldn't follow through with it. The conspirators then had to find a way to lure Rasputin without actually having Irina there. They decided to keep Irina as a lure but fake her presence.

Yusupov and Rasputin would enter a side entrance of the palace with stairs leading down to the basement so that no one could see them enter or leave the palace. Yusupov was having the basement refurbished as a cozy dining room. Since the Yusupov palace was along the Moika Canal and across from a police station, using guns was not possible for fear of them being heard.

Thus, they decided to use poison.

The dining room in the basement would be set up as if several guests had just left it in a hurry. Noise would be coming from upstairs as if Yusupov's wife was entertaining unexpected company. Yusupov would tell Rasputin that his wife would come down once her guests had left. While waiting for Irina, Yusupov would offer Rasputin potassium cyanide–laced pastries and wine.

They needed to make sure that no one knew that Rasputin was going with Yusupov to his palace. Besides urging Rasputin not to tell anyone of his rendezvous with Irina, the plan was for Yusupov to pick up Rasputin via the back stairs of his apartment. Finally, the conspirators decided that they would call the restaurant/inn Villa Rhode on the night of the murder to ask if Rasputin was there yet, hoping to make it seem that he was expected there but never showed up.

After Rasputin was killed, the conspirators were going to wrap up the body in a rug, weigh it down, and throw it into a river. Since winter had already come, most of the rivers near St. Petersburg were frozen. The conspirators spent a morning looking for a suitable hole in the ice to dump the body. They found one on the Malaya Nevka River.

The Setup

In November, about a month before the murder, Yusupov contacted Maria Golovina, a longtime friend of his who also happened to be close to Rasputin. He complained that he had been having chest pains that doctors had been unable to cure. She immediately suggested that he should see Rasputin for his healing powers, as Yusupov knew she would. Golovina arranged for them both to meet at her apartment. The contrived friendship began, and Rasputin began calling Yusupov by a nickname, "Little One."

Rasputin and Yusupov met a number of times during November and December. Since Yusupov had told Rasputin that he didn't want his family to know about their friendship, it was agreed that Yusupov would enter and leave Rasputin's apartment via a staircase in the back. Many have speculated that more than just "healing" went on at these sessions, and that the two were sexually involved.

At some point, Yusupov mentioned that his wife would be arriving from the Crimea in the middle of December. Rasputin showed interest in meeting her, so they arranged for Rasputin to meet Irina just after midnight on December 17. It was also agreed that Yusupov would pick Rasputin up and drop him off.

For several months, Rasputin had been living in fear. He had been drinking even more heavily than usual and constantly dancing to Gypsy music to try to forget his terror. Numerous times, Rasputin mentioned to people that he was going to be killed. Whether this was a true premonition or whether he heard the rumors circulating around St. Petersburg is uncertain. Even on Rasputin's last day alive, several people visited him to warn him to stay home and not go out.

Around midnight on December 16, Rasputin changed clothes into a light blue shirt, embroidered with cornflowers and blue velvet pants. Though he had agreed not to tell anyone where he was going that night, he had actually told several people, including his daughter Maria and Golovina, who had introduced him to Yusupov.

The Murder

Near midnight, the conspirators all met at the Yusupov palace in the newly created basement dining room. Pastries and wine adorned the table. Lazovert put on rubber gloves and then crushed the potassium cyanide crystals into powder and placed some in the pastries and a small amount in two wine glasses. They left some pastries unpoisoned so that Yusupov could partake. After everything was ready, Yusupov and Lazovert went to pick up the victim.

Around 12:30 a.m. a visitor arrived at Rasputin's apartment via the back stairs. Rasputin greeted the man at the door. The maid was still awake and was looking through the kitchen curtains; she later said she saw that it was the Little One (Yusupov). The two men left in a car driven by a chauffeur, who was actually Lazovert.

When they arrived at the palace, Yusupov took Rasputin to the side entrance and down the stairs to the basement dining room. As Rasputin entered the room he could hear noise and music upstairs, and Yusupov explained that Irina had been detained by unexpected guests but would be down shortly. The other conspirators waited until after Yusupov and Rasputin entered the dining room, then they stood by the stairs leading down to it, waiting for something to happen. Everything up to this point had been going to plan, but that didn't last much longer.

While supposedly waiting for Irina, Yusupov offered Rasputin one of the poisoned pastries. Rasputin refused, saying they were too sweet. Rasputin wouldn't eat or drink anything. Yusupov started to panic and went upstairs to talk to the other conspirators. When Yusupov went back downstairs, Rasputin for some reason had changed his mind and agreed to eat the pastries. Then they started drinking the wine.

Though potassium cyanide was supposed to have an immediate effect, nothing happened. Yusupov continued to chat with Rasputin, waiting for something to happen. Noticing a guitar in the corner, Rasputin asked Yusupov to play for him. The time wore on, and Rasputin wasn't showing any effects from the poison.

It was now about 2:30 a.m., and Yusupov was worried. Again he made an excuse and went upstairs to talk with the other conspirators. The poison obviously wasn't working. Yusupov took a gun from Pavlovich and went back downstairs. Rasputin didn't notice that Yusupov had returned with a gun behind his back. While Rasputin was looking at a beautiful ebony cabinet, Yusupov said, "Grigory Efimovich, you would do better to look at the crucifix and pray to It." Then Yusupov raised the pistol and fired.

The other conspirators rushed down the stairs to see Rasputin lying on the ground and Yusupov standing over him with the gun. After a few minutes, Rasputin "jerked convulsively" and then fell still. Since Rasputin was dead, the conspirators went upstairs to celebrate and to wait for later in the night so that they could dump the body with no witnesses.

Still Alive

About an hour later, Yusupov felt an inexplicable need to go look at the body. He went back downstairs and felt the body. It still seemed warm. He shook the body. There was no reaction. When Yusupov started turning away, he noticed Rasputin's left eye start to flutter open. He was still alive.

Rasputin sprang to his feet and rushed at Yusupov, grabbing his shoulders and neck. Yusupov struggled to get free and finally did so. He rushed upstairs shouting, "He's still alive!"

Purishkevich was upstairs and had just put his Sauvage revolver in his pocket when he saw Yusupov come back up shouting. Yusupov was crazed with fear, "[his] face was literally gone, his handsome...eyes had come out of their sockets...[and] in a semi-conscious state...almost without seeing me, he rushed past with a crazed look."

Purishkevich rushed down the stairs, only to find that Rasputin was running across the courtyard. As Rasputin was running, Purishkevich yelled, "Felix, Felix, I'll tell everything to the czarina."

Purishkevich was chasing after him. While running, he fired his gun but missed. He fired again and missed again. And then he bit his hand to regain control of himself. Again he fired. This time the bullet found its mark, hitting Rasputin in the back. Rasputin stopped, and Purishkevich fired again. This time the bullet hit Rasputin in the head. Rasputin fell. His head was jerking, but he tried to crawl. Purishkevich had caught up now and kicked Rasputin in the head.

Enter the Police

Police officer Vlassiyev was standing on duty on Moika Street and heard what sounded like "three or four shots in quick succession." He headed over to investigate. Standing outside the Yusupov palace he saw two men crossing the courtyard, recognizing them as Yusupov and his servant Buzhinsky. He asked them if they had heard any gunshots, and Buzhinsky answered that he had not. Thinking it had probably just been a car backfiring, Vlassiyev went back to his post.

Rasputin's body was brought in and placed by the stairs that led to the basement dining room. Yusupov grabbed a 2-pound dumbbell and began indiscriminately hitting Rasputin with it. When others finally pulled Yusupov off Rasputin, the would-be assassin was splattered with blood.

Yusupov's servant Buzhinsky then told Purishkevich about the conversation with the policeman. They were worried that the officer might tell his superiors what he had seen and heard. They sent for the policeman to come back to the house. Vlassiyev recalled that when he entered the palace, a man asked him, "Have you ever heard of Purishkevich?"

To which the policeman replied, "I have."

"I am Purishkevich. Have you ever heard of Rasputin? Well, Rasputin is dead. And if you love our Mother Russia, you'll keep quiet about it."

"Yes, sir."

And then they let the policeman go. Vlassiyev waited about 20 minutes and then told his superiors everything he had heard and seen.

It was amazing and shocking, but after being poisoned, shot three times, and beaten with a dumbbell, Rasputin was still alive. They bound his arms and legs with rope and wrapped his body in a heavy cloth.

Since it was almost dawn, the conspirators were now hurrying to dispose of the body. Yusupov stayed at home to clean himself up. The rest of them placed the body in the car, sped off to their chosen location, and heaved Rasputin over the side of the bridge, but they forgot to weigh him down with weights.

The conspirators split up and went their separate ways, hoping that they had gotten away with murder.

The Next Morning

In the morning of Dec. 17, Rasputin's daughters woke to find that their father had not returned from his late-night rendezvous with the Little One. Rasputin's niece, who had also been living him, called Golovina to say that her uncle had not yet returned. Golovina called Yusupov but was told he was still sleeping. Yusupov later returned the phone call to say that he hadn't seen Rasputin at all the previous night. Everyone in the Rasputin household knew this was a lie.

The police officer who had talked to Yusupov and Purishkevich had told his superior, who in turn told his superior, about the events seen and heard at the palace. Yusupov realized that there was a lot of blood outside, so he shot one of his dogs and placed its corpse on top of the blood. He claimed that a member of his party had thought it was a funny joke to shoot the dog. That didn't fool the policemen. There was too much blood for a dog, and more than one shot was heard. Plus, Purishkevich had told Vlassiyev that they had killed Rasputin.

The czarina was informed, and an investigation was opened immediately. It was obvious to the police early on who the murderers were. There just wasn't a body yet.

Finding the Body

On Dec. 19, police began looking for a body near the Great Petrovsky Bridge on the Malaya Nevka River, near where a bloody boot had been found the day before. There was a hole in the ice, but they couldn't find the body. Looking a little farther downstream, they came upon the corpse floating in another hole in the ice.

When they pulled him out, they found Rasputin's hands were frozen in a raised position, leading to the belief that he had still been alive under the water and had tried to untie the rope around his hands.

Rasputin's body was taken by car to the Academy of Military Medicine, where an autopsy was conducted. The autopsy results showed:

  • Alcohol, but no poison was found.
  • Three bullet wounds. (The first bullet entered the chest on the left, hitting Rasputin's stomach and liver; the second bullet entered the back on the right, hitting the kidneys; the third bullet entered the head, hitting the brain.)
  • A small amount of water was found in the lungs.

The body was buried at the Feodorov Cathedral in Tsarskoe Selo on Dec. 22, and a small funeral was held.

What Happened Next?

While the accused murderers were under house arrest, many people visited and wrote them letters congratulating them. The accused murderers were hoping for a trial because that would ensure that they would become heroes. Trying to prevent just that, the czar stopped the inquiry and ordered that there be no trial. Though their good friend and confidant had been murdered, their family members were among the accused. 

Yusupov was exiled. Pavlovich was sent to Persia to fight in the war. Both survived the Russian Revolution of 1917 and World War I

Though Rasputin's relationship with the czar and czarina had weakened the monarchy, Rasputin's death came too late to reverse the damage. If anything, the murder of a peasant by aristocrats sealed the fate of the Russian monarchy. Within three months, Czar Nicholas abdicated, and about a year later the entire Romanov family was also murdered.

Sources

  • "Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned," by Brian Moynahan; 1998 

  • "The Rasputin File," translated by Judson Rosengrant; 2000