The Murder of Grigory Rasputin

August 7, 2017
“Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigory has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death then no one of your family, that is to say, none of your children or relations will remain alive for more than two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”
    Grigory Rasputin


In the wee hours of 17 December 1916 (30 December 1916 according to the Gregorian calendar), a group of people kept frantically trying to murder Gregory Rasputin. They believed that his evil influence over the Russian monarchy was driving the nation to its doom. His detractors called Rasputin the ‘mad monk’.

But Rasputin was neither mad nor a  monk. He was a Siberian peasant who rose to become the close confidant of the Russian monarch Tsar Nicholas-II of the Romanov dynasty and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna. His assassins poisoned him, shot him three times at close range and viciously bludgeoned him when he fell. But he did not die. Finally, they wrapped him in a rug and threw him into the freezing waters of St. Petersburg’s Neva River. On 19 December 1916, when the police pulled out Rasputin’s dead body from an ice-hole, indications were that the man was apparently not dead when his killers dumped him into the river.  

Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was born in a Siberian peasant family around the year 1869. He received little formal schooling. Some people of his native village considered him a holy man blessed with divine powers. Rasputin entered the Verkhoture Monastery to be trained as a Christian monk.  But he left the monastery after a few months. At the age of 19, Rasputin married Proskovia Fyodorovna. The couple had seven children, out of which only three survived to adulthood: Dmitry, Maria and Varvara.  Although he was mostly away from his family, his wife apparently remained devoted to him until his death. He travelled to foreign lands and went on pilgrimages. In 1903, Rasputin entered St. Petersburg (later renamed as Petrograd) – then the seat of the Russian political power. Soon, Rasputin became a regular presence in the capital’s aristocratic circles.  
Tsar (also spelled Tzar, Csar or Czar) Nicholas II and Tsarina Aleksandra had four female children. The couple desperately longed for a son and heir to the throne.  Finally, in 1904, Aleksandra gave birth to a baby boy. But, the boy, Aleksei Nikolayevich, was afflicted with haemophilia – a disease that prevented the clotting of his blood.  The royal couple were once again in despair. The palace physicians, holy men and faith healers could not cure the child. Then the Tsarina was told about Rasputin.  In 1908, the child had another bleeding bout. And Rasputin was called in.   
Rasputin somehow succeeded in arresting the bleeding.  How he did it? Opinions differ. Some say that he used hypnotism. Some others say that Rasputin did not know how to hypnotize. Many believed that Rasputin possessed holy powers. Others scoffed at Rasputin’s claims of  supernatural powers. No wonder Rasputin remained a controversial and mysterious figure in his life as well as in his death.   

The Motive

Irrespective of what his enemies thought, Aleksandra had little hesitation in accepting Rasputin as a holy man. Rasputin soon became Aleksandra’s confidant and personal adviser. Aleksandra suggested that her husband follow the advice given by Rasputin. She sent him the comb used by Rasputin and asked him to run it through his hair before attending important meetings so that the Tsar would share the holy wisdom of Rasputin! She gave him breadcrumbs that Rasputin left after his meals, which he ate with relish and reverence. In short, the Siberian peasant soon became, ‘a maker and breaker of cabinet ministers, governor-generals, bishops, and other high officers of state and church’.
The aristocrats were appalled to see the country being run on the counsels of an unschooled and eccentric Siberian peasant.  Besides, for all his pious pretensions before the royalty, Rasputin lived a sinful life. He believed that the more one sins, the more one becomes the darling of the divine. For the Bible says, “… where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). So, Rasputin found out innovative ways to sin. He soon became an inebriate philanderer. He drank like a fish and lusted for lovely women. Of course, high society women queued up to sexually gratify Rasputin in exchange of political favours.
Many believed that Rasputin and the Tsarina were lovers. In his intoxicated states, Rasputin often boasted of his intimacy with the Tsarina and her daughters. However, many historians believe that the Tsarina was an honest and devoted wife.  The Russians thought that the Tsarina and Rasputin were secretly planning to make peace with Germany, Russia’s enemy in World War I (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918). That the Tsarina was of Anglo-German descent made people suspicious of her every move.  
As Russia entered World War I, Rasputin predicted that calamity would befall the country. Rasputin suggested that he would go to the battlefront to bless the troops.  But the Commander-in-Chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, responded by saying that he would hang Rasputin if he dared to appear in the frontline. Rasputin then claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not succeed until the Tsar personally took over its command. The Tsar obeyed. 
In 1915, when Tsar Nicholas II went out of St Petersburg to take over the command of the Russian Army, the Tsarina assumed the responsibility for domestic policy. She always went by the counsel of Rasputin. She dismissed ministers who she thought were suspicious of the “mad monk”. Government officials tried to warn her of the dangers of her over-dependence on Rasputin. But the Tsarina just did not care.  Many aristocrats feared that the pair was taking Russia to calamity. Finally, they resolved that enough was enough and Rasputin must die. 

The Men

Historians have identified the direct involvement of five people in the conspiracy to eliminate Rasputin. 
  1. Prince Felix Yusupov: A rich and handsome young man married to the Tsar’s beautiful niece Irina. His sexual fancies included cross dressing (transvestism) and homosexuality. Historians think that such perversities, perhaps, helped him ensnare Rasputin.
  2.  Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich: A cousin of Czar Nicholas II. He was once engaged to the Tsar’s eldest daughter Olga.  But his friendly relationship with the homosexually inclined Yusupov killed their engagement.
  3. Vladimir Purishkevich: An outspoken member of the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament).  In his hard-hitting speech in the Duma on Nov. 19, 1916, Purishkevich thundered: “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 Feodorovna… who has remained a German on the Russian throne and alien to the country and its people.”  
  4. Lt. Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin: A young military officer.
  5. Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert: A friend and the physician of Vladimir Purishkevich.  Lazovert was added as the fifth member to drive the car.

The Method

The plan to assassinate Rasputin was hatched in November 1916. It was a rather simple one. Yusupov would befriend Rasputin and lure him to his palace with the promise of sex with his beautiful wife Irina. They believed that it would not be difficult since Rasputin was a vile womanizer. Once Rasputin was in their custody, they would kill him and dump his dead body. However, in November 1916, Irina was away from St Petersburg at her home in Crimea. So, Yusupov wrote to her about the plan and soliciting her cooperation to save the motherland.  Irina did not respond. And Yusupov wrote more letters.
Yusupov was to pick up Rasputin after midnight when his apartment would not be guarded. Once Yusupov and Rasputin reached the Yusupov palace, they would get in through a side entrance with stairs leading down to the basement. Yusupov would convert the basement as a cosy dining room. The set up would be such that Rasputin coming into the basement would think that several guests dining there had just left.  There would be noises upstairs, which would be explained to Rasputin as Irina having some unexpected guests.Rasputin would be murdered at the basement. 
Since  there was a police station close by the Yusupov palace, they could not use a gun in the dead of the night. The killing had to be a quiet affair. So, it was decided that while Rasputin waited to be joined by Irina, Yusupov would offer him wine and pastries laced with potassium cyanide. That should kill him quietly. Or so they believed. The body would then be wrapped in a rug, weighed down and dumped into a nearby river before the break of dawn. Since it was winter,  all rivers in and around St Petersburg were covered in ice.  The conspirators decided to dump the body in an ice hole close to the Great Petrovsky Bridge on the Malaya Nevka River. 

The Setup

In November, Yusupov contacted his long-time female friend Maria Golovina who was also close to Rasputin. Yusupov told Maria that he had lately been suffering from severe chest pain. His physicians had not been able to give him any relief. As Yusupov hoped, Maria suggested a meeting with Rasputin. She arranged it at her apartment. Soon Yusupov and Rasputin became thick friends. They started meeting frequently under the pretext of the ‘healing sessions’, which were, in all likelihood, homosexual escapades.  Yusupov suggested that he would enter the apartment of Rasputin through a hidden staircase at the back to keep the relationship a secret. Rasputin agreed.

The Basement of Yusupov Palace  
In due course, Yusupov mentioned in a casual tone that his wife Irina would be arriving in St Petersburg by the middle of December and she would be rejoiced to meet him at his palace. Rasputin fell for the bait. Yusupov impressed upon Rasputin the need for keeping the meeting a secret. He promised to do so. Thus it was decided that Yusupov would pick up Rasputin after midnight, 16 December 1916. The trap was set.
But suddenly the plan developed a hitch. In the beginning of December, Irina replied to her husband’s earlier letters. She refused to be part of the seedy scheme. But, it was then too late for the conspirators to modify their plan. So Yusupov and his companions decided to stick to the original narrative. They believed that the absence of Irina in the Yusupov palace would make no difference since Rasputin would be dead before he realized it.  

 The Murder: Phase-I

Close to midnight on December 16, 1916, Rasputin dressed for the long planned rendezvous.   Although he was sworn to secrecy, Rasputin had actually told several people including his daughter Maria and friend Golovina about his tryst at the Yusupov palace.  
About the time Rasputin was dressing for the occasion, the conspirators met at the basement of Yusupov Palace that had since been converted into a grand dining room. Pastries and wine adorned the table. Lazovert put on rubber gloves and crushed the potassium cyanide crystals into a powder. The poison was sprinkled in a portion of the pastries and two wineglasses. Yusupov and Lazovert then quietly walked out of the palace and got into a car. With Lazovert at the wheel, the car roared away into that cold December night.   
Around 12.30 a. m, a man went up the backstairs and knocked at the door of Rasputin’s apartment. Rasputin’s housemaid had still not gone to bed. Looking through the kitchen curtains, she saw Rasputin greeting the man. She recognized the visitor as Yusupov. She later told that the pair had left in a car driven by a chauffeur. The chauffeur was, of course, Lazovert.
Yusupov and Rasputin entered the basement dining room of Yusupov palace. There was noise and music seeping down from upstairs. Yusupov explained that Irina had been detained by unexpected guests.  Unseen by Rasputin, the rest of the gang stood restively by the stairs, waiting for something to happen. Up to that point, everything had proceeded strictly according to the plan they had scripted. The situation was fully under control. But it wound not stay so for long.   
As Rasputin waited for Irina, Yusupov offered him one of the pastries laced with cyanide. Rasputin refused saying the pastries were too sweet. He would not touch anything on the table. Their plan was apparently unravelling. And Yusupov panicked. He made an excuse and ran upstairs to consult his partners. After a while, Yusupov returned to the basement. He was relieved to see that Rasputin had changed his mind.  He started eating the pastries and drinking the wine poured into the poisoned glasses.   
Potassium cyanide was supposed to be an instantaneous killer. Yusupov desperately waited for Rasputin to collapse and breathe his last. But nothing of the sort happened. Rasputin was only getting drunk. And he continued to chat noisily with Yusupov. It was 2.30 in the morning, 17 December 1916. The conspirators realized that they did not have the luxury of the cover of the night for long. It was perhaps their last chance to get rid of the evil influence over the monarchy and save Russia. And success was just an arm’s length away.  Yet it seemed so far away. Yusupov was once again in panic. He made another excuse and rushed upstairs to talk to his teammates.
Yusupov was soon back in the basement.  This time he had Purishkevich’s pistol hidden behind his back. It was risky to use a gun. But the situation was desperate. And ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’. Yusupov found Rasputin looking at the beautiful ebony cabinet in the room.  Yusupov said, “Grigory Efimovich, you would do better to look at the crucifix and say a prayer”. The next moment, Yusupov raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Rasputin in his chest. He fell down in a heap.
The sound of the gunshot brought his companions hurrying into the basement. Rasputin lay on the floor in a pool of blood. Yusupov stood over him with a smoking gun. As they watched, Rasputin jerked convulsively and then fell still.  Having accomplished their mission, the team went upstairs to celebrate. They did not know that Rasputin was not dead.

The Murder: Phase-II

An hour or so later, Yusupov felt an irresistible urge to go down to look at Rasputin’s body. He saw the man lying where they had left him. Yusupov felt the body. It was still warm. He shook the body. There was no reaction. But, as he turned away, he noticed a flutter in Rasputin’s left eye.  Before Yusupov realized what was happening, Rasputin leapt  across with a “devil’s look” in his eyes and a wild cry. Like a leopard jumping on its prey, he sprang at Yusupov grabbing his shoulders and neck. Yusupov struggled for life and somehow extricated himself from Rasputin’s steely grip. His face and eyes were severely mauled. Maddened by terror, Yusupov ran upstairs howling, “He’s still alive!”, “He’s still alive!”
When Purishkevich saw a distracted and shouting Yusupov rushing up, he flew down the stairs to the basement. He looked around. Rasputin was not there. The ‘dead’ man was dashing across the courtyard yelling, “Felix, Felix, I’ll tell everything to the Tsarina”. Purishkevich ran in pursuit. Yusupov had returned his gun. He took it out and fired. The first two bullets missed the target. He bit his freezing hand and fired again. The third bullet hit Rasputin in the back. He stopped on his track. Purishkevich fired again. This time, the shot went through Rasputin’s head. He swayed for a moment and fell to the ground. Yet, he was not dead.  “Purishkevich runs through the snowdrifts to the prone and twitching man and kicks him in the head. Now Yusupov joins in, beating madly at the body with a truncheon, the snow muffling the thuds” (‘October’ by China Mieville).  When Yusupov was finally pulled off, he was splattered all over with blood. Yet, Rasputin was NOT dead. He was wheezing with each laboured breath. He lay their horrifyingly staring at his assassins with his half-opened one eye.   They fastened his arms and legs with rope and wrapped him tightly in a heavy rug.
It was almost dawn.  They had to hurry. Yusupov, drenched in blood, stayed back. Others loaded the body into the car and sped off to the Great Petrovsky Bridge on the Malaya Nevka River. The car stopped on the bridge. They heaved Rasputin’s body over its side into the river. In their hurry, they forgot to weigh it down as planned. Also, one of Rasputin’s blood stained boots had come off. It fell into the ice. His killers did not notice it.
The assassins split up and went their separate ways, believing that they had gotten away with the murder of the closest friend of the Russian monarchy. But they had not.

The Corpse

Rasputin’s daughters woke up in the morning of December 17 to learn that their father had not returned from his midnight rendezvous.  Rasputin’s niece called Golovina, who called Yusupov.  She was told that Yusupov was still in bed. Later, Yusupov returned the call. He told Golovina that he had not seen Rasputin the previous night. But many people knew that it was an unmitigated lie.
Dead at last

That morning, police came to the Yusupov palace to investigate the gunshots one of the officers had heard the previous night. Yusupov said that he had shot one of his dogs. The dead dog lay in  the courtyard in a puddle of blood. The police was not convinced. There was more than one gunshot. Besides, a dog could not have shed so much blood all over the place.  They knew that Rasputin was killed. They knew who the murderers were. But, they had to find the body first.

The next day, a bloody boot was discovered near the Great Petrovsky Bridge on the Malaya Nevka River. On December 19, the police began looking for the body in the river. Close to the bridge, they found a hole in the ice. But there was no corpse in it. Eventually the police found Rasputin’s dead body floating in another ice hole further downstream. The hands of the corpse were frozen in a raised position indicating that he had struggled to get rid of the rope that had restrained his hands.
The body was taken to the Academy of Military Medicine, where an autopsy was conducted.  It found:
Ø  Alcohol but no poison in the body
Ø  Three bullet wounds. The first bullet had entered the chest on the left, hitting the stomach and liver; the second bullet had hit the back on the right, destroying the kidneys; the third bullet had struck the head, damaging the brain.
Ø  Some amount of water in the lungs. (Did he drown?)
Rasputin’s body was buried on December 22 at the Feodorov Cathedral in Tsarskoe Selo. But after the February Revolution, a group of workers from St Petersburg uncovered the remains, carried it into the nearby woods, and burned it. As it burned, Rasputin appeared to sit up in the fire, sending chills down the spine of the bystanders.


The assassins were taken into custody and held under house arrest. Many Russians visited them. Many wrote congratulatory notes to them. They hoped for a trial, which would have made them heroes in the eyes of the Russian people. But, the Monarchy ruled out a trial for fear of being exposed. Moreover, some of the people accused were members of the royal household. So, the Tsar called off the inquiry and ordered that there would be no trial.     
Yusupov was exiled. Pavlovich was sent to Persia to fight in the war. Both survived the Russian Revolution of 1917 and World War I. Within three months of Rasputin’s death, Tsar Nicholas II was made to abdicate. It brought the curtains down on the three hundred plus years of rule of the Romanovs (Tsars). Revolution had come. The imperial family was imprisoned.  
The prophesy of Rasputin was fulfilled. Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and the sick boy Alexei were brutally killedby Bolshevik troops led by Yakov Yurovsky on the night of 16-17, July 1918. Their bodies were then mutilated, burned and buried in the Koptyaki forest. Eighty long years after they were killed, five of the bodies discovered in 1979 were reburied in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg in 1998.  A second grave containing the remains of two Romanov children was discovered in 2007.

Post Script

a)    There are other versions of the story in which the details somewhat differ.
b)   Some accounts say that his killers had also severed the penis of Rasputin. This rumour led to the urban legends and claims that certain third parties were in possession of the organ. According to historian Douglas Smith “His genitals, despite various later accounts, were intact and undamaged.” (Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs).
c)    Some writers have suggested that agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service (BSIS) were involved in Rasputin’s assassination. According to this theory, British agents feared that under the influence of Rasputin, the Tsar might make a separate peace accord with Germany and withdraw from the war. That would have changed the prospects of the war.  It was essential for Britain to keep Russia in the war and force Germany to keep defending the Eastern Front too.  

Select References

October, The Story of the Russian Revolution” by China Mieville (2017)
The Murder of Rasputin” article by Jennifer Rosenberg (2017)  
Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned” by Brian Moynahan (1998)
The Rasputin File” by Edvard Radzinsky (2000)


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