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?
Prince Felix Yusupov seemed an unlikely murderer. Not only was he the heir to a vast family fortune, he was married to the tsar's niece, Irina, a beautiful young woman. Felix 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, most especially, transvestism and homosexuality. It is believed that these attributes helped Felix ensnare Rasputin.
Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich was Tsar Nicholas II's cousin (he was the son of Pavel Alexandrovich who was the son of Tsar Alexander II). Dmitry was once engaged to the tsar's eldest daughter, Olga Nikolaevna, but his continued friendship with the homosexually-inclined Felix (after forbidden to continue the friendship) 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 November 19, 1916, Purishkevich made a rousing speech in the Duma in which he stated, "the tsar'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 tsar . . . who has remained a German on the Russian throne and alien to the country and its people."1 Felix Yusupov attended the speech and afterwards contacted Purishkevich, who quickly agreed to participate in the murder of Rasputin.
Lieutenant Sukhotin was a convalescing, young officer of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
Dr. Lazavert was a friend and the physician of Purishkevich. Dr. Lazavert was added as the fifth member because they needed someone to drive the car.
The plan was relatively simple. Felix Yusupov was to befriend Rasputin and then lure Rasputin to the Yusupov palace to be killed.
When would the murder take place? Since Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich was busy on every night until December 16 and Vladimir 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 December 16-17. As for what time, the conspirators wanted the cover of night to hide the murder and the disposal of the body. Plus, Felix noticed that Rasputin's apartment wasn't guarded after midnight. It was decided that Felix would pick up Rasputin at his apartment on Gorokhovaya ulitsa at half past midnight.
How would they lure Rasputin to the Yusupov palace? Knowing Rasputin's love of sex, the conspirators would use Felix's beautiful wife, Irina, as bait. Felix would tell Rasputin that he could meet Irina at the palace with the innuendo of a possible sexual liaison.2 Felix 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 stating 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 to fake her presence.
Where in the palace would the murder take place? Felix 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. Felix was having the basement refurbished as a cozy dining room.
What weapon would they use for the murder? 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.
How would they kill Rasputin? 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 Irina, Felix's wife, were entertaining unexpected company. Felix would tell Rasputin that Irina would come down once her guests had left. While waiting for Irina, Felix would offer Rasputin potassium-cyanide laced pastries and wine.
How would they make sure they were not implicated? They needed to make sure that no one knew that Rasputin was going with Felix to the Yusupov palace. Besides urging Rasputin not to tell anyone of his rendezvous with Irina, the plan was for Felix to pick up Rasputin via the back stairs of his apartment. And 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.
What would they do with the body? 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 Petrograd 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.
In November, about a month before the murder, Felix contacted Maria Golovina, a long-time 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 Felix knew she would. Maria arranged for them both to meet at her apartment. The contrived friendship began and Rasputin began calling Felix by a nickname, "Little One."
Rasputin and Felix met a number of times between November and December. Since Felix had told Rasputin that he didn't want his family to know about their friendship, it was agreed that Felix 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.3
At some point, Felix 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 on the night of December 16-17 at 12:30 a.m. It was also agreed that Felix 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 Petrograd is uncertain. Even on Rasputin's last day alive, he was visited by several people who warned him to stay home and not go out.
Around midnight, Rasputin changed clothes into a light blue shirt, embroidered with cornflowers, and blue velvet pants. He couldn't get the top button on his shirt fastened so his maid helped him button it. He rested on his bed until the caller came. Though he had agreed not to tell anyone where he was going that night, he had actually told several people, including his daughter Maria (who was living with him at the time) and his close friend Maria Golovina (who had introduced him to Felix).
Near midnight, the conspirators all met at the Yusupov palace in the newly created basement dining room. It was a cozy room separated into two parts, a dining room and a small living room. Two small windows opened to the courtyard at ground level. A fire was ablaze in the large fireplace and in front of the fire lay a polar bear skin. Pastries and wine adorned the table. Dr. Lazavert 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 wineglasses. They left some pastries unpoisoned so that Felix could partake. After lacing the pastries with poison, Dr. Lazavert removed his gloves and threw them in the fire, causing a large amount of smoke which then had to be aired out. After everything was ready, Felix and Dr. Lazavert went to pick up the victim.
Around 12:30 a.m. the visitor arrived at Rasputin's apartment via the back stairs. Rasputin greeted the man at the door; the maid was still awake and looking through the kitchen curtains, she saw that it was the Little One. The two men left in a car driven by a chauffeur (Dr. Lazavert).
When they arrived at the palace, Felix took Rasputin to the side entrance, across a marble entrance hall, and down the stairs to the basement dining room. As Rasputin entered the room he could hear noise and music upstairs, "Yankee Doodle Dandee" was playing. Felix explained that Irina had been detained by unexpected guests but would be down shortly. The other conspirators waited until after Felix 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; that didn't last much longer.
While supposedly waiting for Irina, Felix offered Rasputin one of the poisoned pastries. Rasputin refused, saying they were too sweet. Rasputin wouldn't eat or drink anything. Felix started to panic and went upstairs to talk to the other conspirators.4 When Felix went back downstairs, Rasputin for some reason had changed his mind and agreed to a few pastries. Then they started drinking the wine.
Though potassium cyanide was supposed to have an immediate effect, nothing happened. Felix continued to chat with Rasputin waiting for something to happen. Noticing a guitar in the corner, Rasputin asked Felix 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 Felix was worried. Again he made an excuse and went upstairs to talk with the other conspirators. The poison obviously wasn't working. Felix took a gun from Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and went back downstairs. Rasputin didn't notice that Felix had returned with a gun behind his back. While Rasputin was looking at a beautiful ebony cabinet, Felix said, "Grigory Efimovich, you would do better to look at the Crucifix and pray to It."5 Felix raised the pistol and shot.
The other conspirators rushed down the stairs to see Rasputin laying on the ground and Felix standing over him with the gun. They moved Rasputin's body off the bear rug so that the seeping blood wouldn't stain it. Rasputin was still breathing. After a few minutes, Rasputin "jerked convulsively" and then fell still.6 Since Rasputin was dead, the conspirators went upstairs to celebrate and to wait for the night to get later so they could dump the body with no witnesses.
There is some conflict in the story at this point. Some accounts claim that Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and Dr. Lazavert drove off in the car to get rid of Rasputin's fur coat. Other accounts suggest they never left the palace.7
About an hour later, Felix 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 Felix starting turning away, he noticed Rasputin's left eye start to flutter open. He was still alive!
Rasputin sprang to his feet and rushed at Felix, grabbing his shoulders and neck. Felix 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 Felix come back up shouting. Felix was crazed with fear, "[h]is 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."8
Purishkevich rushed down the stairs only to find that Rasputin was running out across the courtyard. As Rasputin was running he yelled, "Felix, Felix, I'll tell everything to the tsarina."[su]9
Purishkevich was chasing after him. While running, he fired his gun, but missed. He fired again, but 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.
Policeman Vlassiyev, while he was standing on duty on Moika Street, heard what sounded like "three or four shots in quick succession."10 He headed over to investigate. Standing outside the Yusupov palace he saw two men crossing the courtyard whom he recognized as Prince Yusupov and his servant Buzhinsky. He asked them if they had heard any gunshots to which 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 which led to the basement dining room. For some reason, Rasputin's mutilated face put Felix into a rage. Felix grabbed a two-pound dumbbell and began indiscriminately hitting Rasputin with it. When Felix was finally pulled off, he was splattered with blood.
Felix's servant Buzhinsky then told Purishkevich about the conversation with the policeman. They were worried that he might tell his superiors what he had heard and seen. They must have bit quite a bit drunk when 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."
And then they let the policeman go. Vlassiyev waited about twenty minutes and then told his superiors everything that he had heard and seen.
It was amazing and shocking, but after being poisoned, shot three times, and having been beaten with a dumbbell, Rasputin was still alive. They bound his arms and legs with rope and wrapped his body in a heavy cloth.
The Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and Dr. Lazavert returned, unsuccessful in their errand.
Since it was almost dawn, the conspirators were now in a hurry to get rid of the body. Felix stayed at home to clean himself up. The rest of them placed the body in the car, sped off to their pre-chosen location, and heaved the heavy body over the side of the bridge. They forgot to weigh it 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 on December 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 Maria Golovina to say that her uncle had not yet returned. Maria called Felix but was told he was still sleeping. Felix 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 and it worried them greatly.
The police officer who had talked to Felix and Purishkevich had told his superior, who in turn told his superior, about the events seen and heard at the Yusupov palace. Felix realized that there was a lot of blood outside, 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 there was more than one shot heard. Plus, Purishkevich had told the policeman that they had killed Rasputin.
The tsarina was informed and an investigation was opened immediately. It was obvious early on to the police and to everyone else who the murderers were. There just wasn't a body yet.
On December 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, making everyone believe 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:12
Alcohol but not poison was found
Three bullet wounds (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 December 22. A small funeral was held.
What Happened Next?
While the murderers were under house arrest, many people went to visit or wrote them letters in order to congratulate them. The murderers were hoping for a trial because that would insure that they become heroes. Trying to prevent just that, the tsar stopped the inquiry and ordered that there be no trial. Though it was their good friend and confidante that had been murdered, it was their relations that had been the murderers.
Prince Felix was exiled. Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich was sent to Persia to fight in the war. Both survived the revolution and the war.
Though Rasputin's relations with the tsar and tsarina had weakened the monarchy, the killing of Rasputin 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, Tsar Nicholas would abdicate and about a year later the entire Romanov family would also be murdered.