Gregory Rasputin, the son of a Russian peasant, was born in Pokrovskoye, Siberia, on 10th January 1869. Although he briefly attended school he failed to learn how to read or write. Rasputin entered the Verkhoture Monastery but decided against becoming a monk. He returned to Pokrovskoye and at the age of 19 married Proskovia Fyodorovna. Over the next few years the couple had three children. Rasputin also had a child with another woman.
Rasputin eventually left home and traveled to Greece and the Middle East. He claimed he had special powers that enabled him to heal the sick and lived off the donations of people he helped. Rasputin also made money as a fortune teller.
Soon after arriving in Saint Petersburg in 1903, Rasputin met Hermogen, the Bishop of Saratov. He was impressed by Rasputin's healing powers and introduced him to Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna. The Tsar's only son, Alexis, suffered from haemophilia (a disease whereby the blood does not clot if a wound occurs). When Alexis was taken seriously ill in 1908, Rasputin was called to the royal palace. He managed to stop the bleeding and from then on he became a member of the royal entourage.
In September, 1915, Nicholas II assumed supreme command of the Russian Army fighting on the Eastern Front. As he spent most of his time at GHQ, Alexandra Fedorovna now took responsibility for domestic policy. Rasputin served as her adviser and over the next few months she dismissed ministers and their deputies in rapid succession.
Profiting by the Tsar's arrival at Tsarskoe I asked for an audience and was received by him on March 8th. "I must tell Your Majesty that this cannot continue much longer. No one opens your eyes to the true role which this man (Rasputin) is playing. His presence in Your Majesty's Court undermines confidence in the Supreme Power and may have an evil effect on the fate of the dynasty and turn the hearts of the people from their Emperor". My report did some good. On March 11th an order was issued sending Rasputin to Tobolsk; but a few days later, at the demand of the Empress, the order was cancelled.
Throughout Russia, both at the front and at home, rumour grew ever louder concerning the pernicious influence exercised by the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, at whose side rose the sinister figure of Gregory Rasputin. This charlatan and hypnotist had wormed himself into the Tsar’s palace and gradually acquired a limitless power over the hysterical Empress, and through her over the Sovereign. Rasputin’s proximity to the Tsar’s family proved fatal to the dynasty, for no political criticism can harm the prestige of Tsars so effectually as the personal weakness, vice, or debasement of the members of a royal house.
Rumours were current, up to now unrepudiated, but likewise unconfirmed, that the Germans were influencing Alexandra Feodorovna through the medium of Rasputin and Stürmer. Haughty and unapproachable, she lacked popularity, and was all the more readily suspected of almost anything, even of pro-Germanism, since the crowd is always ready to believe anything that tends to augment their suspicions.
The Tsarina's blind faith in Rasputin led her to seek his counsel not only in personal matters but also on questions of state policy. General Alekseyev, held in high esteem by Nicholas II, tried to talk to the Tsarina about Rasputin, but only succeeded in making an implacable enemy of her. General Alexseyev told me later about his profound concern on learning that a secret map of military operations had found its way into the Tsarina's hands. But like many others, he was powerless to take any action.
Count Witte never swerved from his conviction, firstly, that Russia must avoid the war at all costs, and secondly, that she must work for economic friendship with France and Germany to counteract the preponderance of England. Nicholas detested him, and now more than ever; but on March 13th Witte died suddenly.
The other formidable opponent still remained. Rasputin was opposed to the war for reasons as good as Witte's. He was for peace between all nations and between all religions. He claimed to have averted was both in 1909 and in 1912, and his claim was believed by others.
The aristocrats can't get used to the idea that a humble peasant should be welcome at the Imperial Palace. They are consumed with envy and fury. But I'm not afraid of them. They can't do anything to me. I'm protected against ill fortune. There have been several attempts on my life but the Lord has always frustrated these plots. Disaster will come to anyone who lifts a finger against me.
I'm terribly busy working on a plan to eliminate Rasputin. That is simply essential now, since otherwise everything will be finished... You too must take part in it. Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov knows all about it and is helping. It will take place in the middle of December, when Dmitri comes back... Not a word to anyone about what I've written.
The bell rang, announcing the arrival of Dmitrii Pavlovich Romanov and my other friends. I showed them into the dining room and they stood for a little while, silently examining the spot where Rasputin was to meet his end. I took from the ebony cabinet a box containing the poison and laid it on the table. Dr Lazovert put on rubber gloves and ground the cyanide of potassium crystals to powder. Then, lifting the top of each cake, he sprinkled the inside with a dose of poison, which, according to him, was sufficient to kill several men instantly. There was an impressive silence. We all followed the doctor's movements with emotion. There remained the glasses into which cyanide was to be poured. It was decided to do this at the last moment so that the poison should not evaporate and lose its potency. We had to give the impression of having just finished supper for I had warned Rasputin that when we had guests we took our meals in the basement and that I sometimes stayed there alone to read or work while my friends went upstairs to smoke in my study....
I looked at my victim with dread, as he stood before me, quiet and trusting. What had become of his second-sight? What good did his gift of foretelling the future do him? Of what use was his faculty for reading the thoughts of others, if he was blind to the dreadful trap that was laid for him? It seemed as though fate had clouded his mind. But suddenly, in a lightening flash of memory, I seemed to recall every stage of Rasputin's infamous life. My qualms of conscience disappeared, making room for a firm determination to complete my task.
"Grigory Yefimovich," I said, "you'd better look at the crucifix and say a prayer." Rasputin cast a surprised, almost frightened glance at me. I read in it an expression which I had never known him to have: it was at once gentle and submissive. He came quite close to me and looked me full in the face.
I realized that the hour had come. "O Lord," I prayed, "give me the strength to finish it." Rasputin stood before me motionless, his head bent and his eyes on the crucifix. I slowly raised the crucifix. I slowly raised the revolver. Where should I aim, at the temple or at the heart? A shudder swept over me; my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger. Rasputin gave a wild scream and crumpled up on the bearskin. For a moment I was appalled to discover how easy it was to kill a man. A flick of a finger and what had been a living, breathing man only a second before, now lay on the floor like a broken doll.
On hearing the shot my friends rushed in. Rasputin lay on his back. His features twitched in nervous spasms; his hands were clenched, his eyes closed. A bloodstain was spreading on his silk blouse. A few minutes later all movement ceased. We bent over his body to examine it. The doctor declared that the bullet had struck him in the region of the heart. There was no possibility of doubt: Rasputin was dead. We turned off the light and went up to my room, after locking the basement door.
Our hearts were full of hope, for we were convinced that what had just taken place would save Russia and the dynasty from ruin and dishonour. As we talked I was suddenly filled with a vague misgiving; an irresistible impulse forced me to go down to the basement.
Rasputin lay exactly where we had left him. I felt his pulse: not a beat, he was dead. All of a sudden, I saw the left eye open. A few seconds later his right eyelid began to quiver, then opened. I then saw both eyes - the green eyes of a viper - staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred. The blood ran cold in my veins. My muscles turned to stone.
Then a terrible thing happened: with a sudden violent effort Rasputin leapt to his feet, foaming at the mouth. A wild roar echoed through the vaulted rooms, and his hands convulsively thrashed the air. He rushed at me, trying to get at my throat, and sank his fingers into my shoulder like steel claws. His eyes were bursting from their sockets. By a superhuman effort I succeeded in freeing myself from his grasp.
"Quick, quick, come down!" I cried, "He's still alive." He was crawling on hands and knees, grasping and roaring like a wounded animal. He gave a desperate leap and managed to reach the secret door which led into the courtyard. Knowing that the door was locked, I waited on the landing above grasping my rubber club. To my horror I saw the door open and Rasputin disappear. Purishkevich sprang after him. Two shots echoed through the night. I heard a third shot, then a fourth. I saw Rasputin totter and fall beside a heap of snow.
Rasputin was in a gay mood. We drove rapidly to the home of the Prince and descended to the library, lighted only by a blazing log in the huge chimney-place. A small table was spread with cakes and rare wines - three kinds of the wine were poisoned and so were the cakes.
The monk threw himself into a chair, his humour expanding with the warmth of the room. He told of his successes, his plots, of the imminent success of the German arms and that the Kaiser would soon be seen in Petrograd.
At a proper moment he was offered the wine and the cakes. He drank the wine and devoured the cakes. Hours slipped by, but there was no sign that the poison had taken effect. The monk was even merrier than before.
We were seized with an insane dread that this man was inviolable, that he was superhuman, that he couldn't be killed. It was a frightful sensation. He glared at us with his black, black eyes as though he read our minds and would fool us.
And then after a time he rose and walked to the door. We were afraid that our work had been in vain. Suddenly, as he turned at the door, some one shot at him quickly.
With a frightful scream Rasputin whirled and fell, face down, on the floor. The others came bounding over to him and stood over his prostrate, writhing body.
It was suggested that two more shots be fired to make certain of his death, but one of those present said, "No, no; it is his last agony now."
We left the room to let him die alone, and to plan for his removal and obliteration.
Suddenly we heard a strange and unearthly sound behind the huge door that led into the library. The door was slowly pushed open, and there was Rasputin on his hands and knees, the bloody froth gushing from his mouth, his terrible eyes bulging from their sockets. With an amazing strength he sprang toward the door that led into the gardens, wrenched it open and passed out.
As he seemed to be disappearing in the darkness, F. Purishkevich, who had been standing by, reached over and picked up an American-made automatic revolver and fired two shots swiftly into his retreating figure. We heard him fall with a groan, and later when we approached the body he was very still and cold and - dead.
We bundled him up in a sheet and carried him to the river's edge. Ice had formed, but we broke it and threw him in. The next day search was made for Rasputin, but no trace was found.
Urged on by the Tsarina, the police made frantic efforts, and finally a rubber was found which was identified as his. The river was dragged and the body recovered.
I escaped from the country. Purishkevich also escaped. But Prince Yusupov was arrested and confined to the boundaries of his estate. He was later released because of the popular approval of our act.
Russia had been freed from the vilest tyrant in her history; and that is all.
These were my recollections as I sat in the rear of the car, with the lifeless corpse of the "venerable old man", which we were taking to its eternal resting place, lying at my feet. I looked out of the window. To judge by the surrounding houses and the endless fences, we had already left the city. There were very few lights. The road deteriorated and we hit bumps and holes which made the body lying at our feet bounce around (despite the soldier sitting on it). I felt a nervous tremor run through me at each bump as my knees touched the repulsive, soft corpse which, despite the cold, had not yet completely stiffened. At last the bridge from which we were to fling Rasputin's body into the hole in the ice appeared in the distance. Demitrii Pavlovich slowed down, drove onto the left side of the bridge and stopped by the guard rail....
I opened the car doors quietly and, as quickly as possible, jumped out and went over to the railing. The soldier and Dr Lazovert followed me and then Lieutenant S., who had been sitting by the grand duke, joined us and together we swung Rasputin's corpse and flung it forcefully into the ice hole just by the bridge. (Dmitrii Pavlovich stood guard in front of the car.) Since we had forgotten to fasten the weights on the corpse with a chain, we hastily threw these, one after another, after it. Likewise, we stuffed the chains into the dead man's coat and threw it into the same hole. Next, Dr Lazovert searched in the dark car and found one of Rasputin's boots, which he also flung off the bridge. All of this took no more than two or three minutes. Then Dr Lazovert, Lieutenant S. and the soldier got into the back of the car, and I got in next to Dmitrii Pavlovich. We turned on the headlights again and crossed the bridge.
The body is that of a man of about fifty years old, of medium size, dressed in a blue embroidered hospital robe, which covers a white shirt. His legs, in tall animal skin boots, are tied with a rope, and the same rope ties his wrists. His dishevelled hair is light brown, as are his long moustache and beard, and it's soaked with blood. His mouth is half open, his teeth clenched. His face below his forehead is covered in blood. His shirt too is also marked with blood. There are three bullet wounds. The first has penetrated the left side of lhe chest and has gone through the stomach and the liver...
Examination of the head: the cerebral matter gave off a strong smell of alcohol. Examination of the stomach: the stomach contains about twenty soup spoons of liquid smelling of alcohol. The examination reveals no trace of poison. Wounds: his left side has a weeping wound, due to sonic sort of slicing object or a sword. His right eye has come out of its cavity and falls down onto his face. At the corner of the right eye the membrane is torn. His right ear is hanging down and torn. His neck has a wound from some sort of' rope tie. The victim's face and body carry traces of blows given by a supple but hard object. His genitals have been crushed by the action of a similar object...
Haemorrhage caused by the wound to the liver and the wound to the right kidney must have started the rapid decline of his strength. In this case, he would have died in ten or twenty minutes. At the moment of death the deceased was in a state of drunkenness. The first bullet passed through the stomach and the liver. This mortal blow had been shot from a distance of 20 centimetres. The wound on the right side, made at nearly exactly the same time as the first, was also mortal; it passed through the right kidney. The victim, at the time of the murder, was standing. When he was shot in the forehead, his body was already on the ground.
On the night from the sixteenth to the seventeenth the point duty policeman heard several shots near 94 Moika, owned by Prince Yusupov. Soon after that the policeman was invited to the study of the young Prince Yusupov, where the prince and a stranger who called himself Purishkevich were present. The latter said: "I am, Purishkevich. Rasputin has perished. If you love the Tsar and fatherland you will keep silent." The policeman reported this to his superiors. The investigation conducted this morning established that one of Yusupov''s guests had fired a shot in the small garden adjacent to No. 94 at around 3 a.m. The garden has a direct entrance to the prince's study. A human scream was heard and following that a sound of a car being driven away. The person who had fired the shot was wearing a military field uniform.
Traces of blood have been found on the snow in the small garden in the course of close examination. When questioned bv the governor of the city, the young prince stated that he had had a party that night, but that Rasputin was not there, and that Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich had shot a watchdog. The dog's body was found buried in the snow. The investigation conducted at Rasputin's residence at 64 Gorokhovava Street established that at 10 p.m. on 16 December Rasputin said that he was not going to go out any more that night and was going to sleep. He let off his security and the car in his normal fashion. Questioning the servants and the yard keeper allowed police to establish that at 12:30 a.m, a large canvas-top car with driver and a stranger in it arrived at the house. The stranger entered Rasputin's apartment through the back door. It seemed that Rasputin was expecting him because he greeted him as somebody he knew and soon went outside with him through the same entrance. Rasputin got into the car, which drove of along Gorokhovava Street towards Morskava Street. Rasputin has not returned home and has not been found despite the deployed measures.
During the march an orderly came to inform me that General Krymov, who was marching at the head of our column, wanted me. I found him with our General Staff busily reading a letter which had just come. Whilst I was still some way off he called out to me: "Great news! At last they have killed that scoundrel Rasputin.!"
The newspapers announced the bare facts, letters from the capital gave the details. Of the three assassins, I knew two intimately. What had been their motive? Why, having killed a man whom they regarded as a menace to the country, had they not admitted their action before everyone? Why had they not admitted their action before everyone? Why had they not relied on justice and public opinion instead of trying to hide all trace of the murder by burying the body under the ice? We thought over the news with great anxiety.
The key link between the British secret service bureau in Petrograd and the Russians plotting Rasputin's demise was Rayner through his relationship with Prince Yusupov, the leader of the Russian plotters. Yusupov enticed Rasputin to his family's palace on the banks of the river Neva in Petrograd for a "party", with the prospect of sex apparently high on the agenda. Yusupov told his wife Princess Irina, the Tsar's niece, that she was to be used as "the lure" to entice Rasputin to attend the party, a suggestion that appears to have persuaded her to extend a holiday in the Crimea so she was not in Petrograd at the time. Those known to have been present for the "party" in the Yusupov palace, apart from Rasputin, include Yusupov himself; the Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, the Tsar's second cousin; Purishkevich; Lieutenant Sergei Sukhotin, a friend of Yusupov's; Dr Stanislaus de Lazovert, the medical officer of Purishkevich's military unit, who was recruited as the driver; plus Rayner.
Once there Rasputin was plied with drink and then tortured in order to discover the truth of his alleged links with a German attempt to persuade Russia to leave the war. The torture was carried out with an astonishing level of violence, probably using a heavy rubber cosh - the original autopsy report found that his testicles had been "crushed" flat and there is more than a suspicion that the extent of the damage was fuelled by sexual jealousy. Yusupov, who is believed to have had a homosexual relationship with another of the plotters, the Grand Duke Dimitri, is also alleged to have had a previous sexual liaison with Rasputin. Whatever Rasputin actually told the conspirators, and someone in his predicament could be expected to say anything that might end the ordeal, they had no choice then but to murder him and dispose of the body. He was shot several tunes, with three different weapons, with all the evidence suggesting that Rayner fired the final fatal shot, using his personal Webley revolver. Rasputin's body was then dumped through an ice hole in the Neva.
Yusupov's account details not only his own role in the murder, but also that of Grand Duke Dmitri, Vladimir Purishkevich and Dr Lazovert, as well as Captain Sergei Soukhatin. However, in the days that followed, there were rumours of a sixth conspirator in the palace. Someone else was said to have been present that night - a professional assassin who was working in the shadows.
What Yusupov was at pains to conceal was that Oswald Rayner, a key member of the Russian bureau's secret inner circle, had also been there that night. His critical role in the killing might have remained a secret for all time had it not been for a fatal mistake on the part of the murderers.
The mistake occurred in the aftermath of the murder, when the plotters were disposing of the body. Yusupov and his friends had assumed that the corpse would sink beneath the ice and be flushed out into the Gulf of Finland. There, trapped under the ice for the rest of the winter, it would be lost forever. What they had never expected was that Rasputin's corpse would be found and plucked from the icy waters.
Rasputin's corpse was spotted in the Neva River on the second full day after his death. A river policeman noticed a fur coat lodged beneath the ice and ordered the frozen crust to be broken. The body was carefully prised from its icy sepulchre and taken to the mortuary room of Chesmenskii Hospice. Here, an autopsy was undertaken by Professor Dmitrii Kosorotov.
The professor noted that the corpse was in a terrible state of mutilation: "his left side has a weeping wound, due to some sort of slicing object or a sword. His right eye has come out of its cavity and falls down onto his face... His right ear is hanging down and torn. His neck has a wound from some sort of rope tie. The victim's face and body carry traces of blows given by a supple but hard object: These injuries suggest that Rasputin had been garrotted and repeatedly beaten with a heavy cosh.
Even more horrifying was the damage to his genitals. At some point during the brutal torture, his legs had been wrenched apart and his testicles had been "crushed by the action of a similar object." In fact, they had been flattened and completely destroyed.
Other details gleaned by Professor Kosorotov suggest that Yusupov's melodramatic account of the murder was nothing more than fantasy. Yet it was fantasy with a purpose. It was imperative for Yusupov to depict Rasputin as a demonic, superhuman figure whose malign hold over the tsarina was proving disastrous for Russia. The only way he could escape punishment for the murder was to present himself as the saviour of Russia: the man who had rid the country of an evil force.
The story of the poisoned cakes was almost certainly an invention: the postmortem included an examination of the contents of Rasputin's stomach: "The examination," wrote the professor, "reveals no trace of poison."
Professor Kosorotov also examined the three bullet wounds in Rasputin's body. "The first has penetrated the left side of the chest and has gone through the stomach and liver," he wrote. "The second has entered into the right side of the back and gone through the kidney." Both of these would have inflicted terrible wounds. But the third bullet was the fatal shot. "It hit the victim on the forehead and penetrated into his brain."
It was most unfortunate that Professor Kosorotov's post-mortem was brought to an abrupt halt on the orders of the tsarina. But the professor did have time to photograph the corpse and to inspect the bullet entry wounds. He noted that they "came from different calibre revolvers."
On the night of the murder, Yusupov was in possession of Grand Duke Dmitrii's Browning, while Purishkevich had a Sauvage. Either of these weapons could have caused the wounds to Rasputin's liver and kidney. But the fatal gunshot wound to Rasputin's head was not caused by an automatic weapon: it could only have come from a revolver. Forensic scientists and ballistic experts agree that the grazing around the wound was consistent with that which is left by a lead, non-jacketed bullet fired at point-blank range.
They also agree that the gun was almost certainly a British-made .455 Webley revolver. This was the favourite gun of Oswald Rayner, a close friend of Yusupov since the days when they had both studied at Oxford University.
Keith Jeffery (official MI6 historian) said he found no evidence to support recent claims that MI6 was involved in the assassination in 1916 of Rasputin, the notorious "mad monk" who had insinuated himself into the Russian royal family. "All I can tell is what I found in the archives… If MI6 had a part in the killing of Rasputin, I would have expected to have found some trace of that," Jeffery said. The book does, however, refer to a colourful account of the murder by MI6's man in Moscow, Sir Samuel Hoare – a future government minister – who said he was "writing in the style of the Daily Mail" because it was "so sensational that one cannot describe it as one would if it were an ordinary episode of the war".
Hoare wrote: "True to his nickname ('the rake') it was at an orgy that Rasputin met his death." Jeffery notes simply that Rasputin "was murdered in the early hours of the morning of Saturday 30 December". In his recently published book Six, the author and journalist Michael Smith refers to a number of claims that Rasputin was shot several times with three different weapons "with all the evidence suggesting that (MI6 officer Oswald) Rayner fired the fatal shot, using his personal Webley revolver".
Questions for Students
Question 1: Explain the meaning of sources 3, 6 and 9.
Question 2: Use the information in sources 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8 to explain why some people wanted Rasputin removed from power.
Question 3: It is claimed that Felix Yusupov, Vladimir Purishkevich, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov, Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert and Lieutenant Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, were involved in the killing of Gregory Rasputin. Three of the men, Yusupov (source 11), Lazovert (source 12) and Purishkevich (source 13), later wrote confessions admitting the killings. (i) What role did the three men play in the killing? (ii) Why did they admit to the killing of Rusputin?
Question 4: How does the post mortem report (source 15) contradict the testimonies of the men who killed him? (i) Can you give any reasons for this? (ii) The post mortem report also suggests that Rasputin had been shot by three different guns. Why is this information important?
Question 5: Michael Smith, in his book, Six: A History of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (2010) suggests that MI6 were involved in the killing of Rasputin. Giles Milton the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013), agrees with this claim. Why would the British government want Rasputin to be killed?
Question 6: In source 20, Richard Norton-Taylor, points out that Keith Jeffrey, MI6's official historian and the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence (2013) claims that he found no evidence in MI6's files, that their agents had anything to do with the death of Rasputin. (i) Does the absence of evidence in the files prove that MI6 officers were not involved in the killing? (ii) What evidence does Michael Smith (source 18) and Giles Milton (source 19) provide to suggest that MI6 was involved in the killing.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.