The Death of Rasputin
The legend started almost as soon as the cold, lifeless body was fished out of the water. Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a man who claimed powers from God but whom many saw as the Devil himself, did not die easily. Legend says that his assassins first poisoned him, then shot him, then shot him again, then beat him, and then finally dumped him into the Malaya Nevka River where he drowned only after struggling out of his bonds. Is this unlikely story true? Let's see if the history agrees with the legend.
Rasputin was born in early January, 1869, in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye. As a young man he developed a strong interest in religious mysticism.He eventually abandoned his family and went to stay at a nearby monastery, where he read theology and debated Scripture with the monks, though he never became a monk himself. In 1890 he claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary which marked him as someone chosen by God for a greater purpose. Eventually, he began to claim the powers of a spiritual healer, saying that through prayer he could cure illness.
Rasputin's reputation as a healer grew, eventually bringing him to St. Petersburg, where he came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the reigning couple of the Romanov line. You see, they were keeping a dark secret: their only son Alexis had been born with hemophilia. The next Tsar of Russia was fated to bleed to death long before he could take his father's place. When the boy became very ill in 1907, and no doctor was able to bring him back to health, a desperate Alexandra decided to place the fate of the royal line in Rasputin’s hands. Rasputin visited the palace and prayed for the boy; to the Tsarina's surprise, Alexis improved.
Over the next decade Rasputin developed an increasingly influential relationship with the royal family and a complex yet undeniable place in Russian high society. Alexandra became convinced that Rasputin had been sent by God to save her son, and he eventually became a close confidant of the Tsarina. Rasputin, in turn, used his new favor to wield both social and political influence. Getting into all of the subplots and side stories of Rasputin's life amongst the Russian elite would be an episode unto itself. Suffice it to say that Rasputin quickly became a noted, sometimes notorious figure, and in doing so made both political and religious enemies, some of whom eventually decieded to remove the bothersome peasant.
The first attempt on Rasputin's life came in the summer of 1914, when he was stabbed in the abdomen in his home village of Pokrovskoye. He survived the attempt, but his recovery was long and it seemed to change him. He began to drink heavily, he claimed that it was harder to focus his healing powers, and he became extremely suspicious of his enemies. His suspicion was justified, for in 1915 a second assassination plot against Rasputin was uncovered, this one before it could be carried out.
By 1916, Rasputin's reputation was waning. Russia's part in World War I was not going well, and part of the blame, rightly or wrongly, fell on Rasputin. His political enemies railed against the undue influence he had in the court and began to spread salacious rumors about his relationship with the Tsarina. The Russian press demonized him, the extended royal family couldn't stand him, and even the common folk tired of him. Aware of his sinking reputation, Rasputin fretted to colleagues over the possibility of another assassination attempt. He should have, for in December 1916 the third and final assassination plot against Rasputin succeeded where the first two had failed.
The primary conspirator was Prince Felix Yusupov, husband of the Tsar's niece. Yusupov, along with four other men, decided to lure Rasputin to Yusupov’s Palace in St. Petersburg and murder him under cover of darkness, in the hope that Rasputin's death would reverse the fortunes of the Romanovs. In his memoirs, Yusupov described the plan:
We have three sources of information on what transpired in that basement apartment. The first two are the written accounts of Yusupov and Vladimir Purishkevich, another of the conspirators. These generally agree with each other about the events of the evening. The third source is the result of Rasputin's autopsy, conducted by candlelight on the evening after his body was recovered. That source tells a different story.
Everything began in the wee hours of December 30, when Rasputin arrived at Yusopov's palace and was shown to the basement apartment. There, Yusupov offered him tea, cakes and alcohol laced with the cyanide. This is where the sources first diverge. The story told by Yusupov is that Rasputin consumed both poisoned cake and wine but failed to succumb to the poison. He merely began to complain of a heavy head and a burning stomach. The story told by Puriskevich agrees, though Puriskevich was not in the room and so could only have known by way of Yusupov.
The findings of the autopsy do not support this part of the narrative. The autopsy found no trace of cyanide in Rasputin's stomach, though it did discover a large quantity of undigested alcohol. They knew to look for the poison because Yusupov had already confessed to the crime. While it's possible that early 1900s autopsy techniques simply failed to detect the poison, the autopsy surgeon insisted it wasn't there. If not, why not?
That's impossible to say. Maybe the conspirators simply failed to use the proper dosage. Maybe the substance they had was not cyanide and had been misidentified. Maybe Yusupov is embellishing the tale to make the assassination more harrowing. We will never know for sure. One could go out on a limb and suggest that some spiritual power was protecting Rasputin and cleansed the poison from him; but if that were the case than the protector did a poor job shielding him from what followed.
As 1 a.m. became 2 a.m. the conspirators grew impatient. If they did not kill Rasputin soon they would have no time to dispose of the body before morning. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., their excuses for detaining Rasputin running as thin as their patience, they acted. Yusopov returned to the basement with a revolver and fired a single bullet into Rasputin's stomach at close range. Rasputin fell over, presumably dead. The story told by the conspirators, however, insists the bullet was not enough. Rasputin lay in the basement for nearly an hour, but then something happened.
After attacking Yusupov, Rasputin pushed past him and fled out of the building. The conspirators fired shots at the fleeing man. This time Rasputin was shot first through the back and then through the head at a distance.
The autopsy paints a different picture. While three bullet wounds were found, the autopsy surgeon determined that the two bullets to the torso, one that penetrated the left side and the other that penetrated the lower back, were both likely fired from behind while Rasputin was standing. The third bullet wound was in the center of Rasputin's forehead, and it penetrated from the front, not the back as the story implies. There was gunpowder residue around the wound as well, suggesting that the gun was less than a foot away when it was fired. The autopsy surgeon also declared that the angle of the shot was more consistent with someone lying down. In other words, the autopsy suggests that Rasputin was shot from behind, collapsed, rolled onto his back, and then shot through the head as he lay dying.
If the autopsy report is accurate, how do we explain the discrepancy with Yusupov's account? Again, it's hard to say. Perhaps the autopsy surgeon simply misinterpreted what they found. Or perhaps Yusupov made up this part of the story to make Rasputin out to be more menacing. Perhaps what really happened was that they put a bullet through Rasputin's brain to finish him off after shooting him in the back. It seems a more reasonable story than that of a drunk, mortally wounded, possibly poisoned man leaping up and running away from his attackers. Unfortunately, there's no additional source to correct this historical contradiction. Regardless of the specific circumstances of the head shot though, both the conspirators' story and the autopsy report say that Rasputin died when the bullet penetrated his brain.
At this point, in a fit of anger, Yusupov reportedly grabbed a club and began to attack Rasputin's body with it. This is the "beating" that Rasputin supposedly survived, if you assume that the headshot was not actually fatal. That he may still have been alive at this point is hard to believe given the primary documentation, but some websites and casual history books insist that he was, because it is vital to the Rasputin legend. According to those sources, when the conspirators dumped Rasputin in the Malaya Nevka river he was still breathing, and it was the icy water that finally did him in. As evidence, some have long claimed that the autopsy discovered a large amount water in Rasputin's lungs, proof that he was still breathing. Others claim that when his body was found his hands were held up in a way that suggested he had been making the sign of the cross, clear evidence that he lived on after being dumped in the river.
In fact, the autopsy did not find water in his lungs. And while photographs of the frozen corpse do show Rasputin's arms had been floating free, they're not actually making anything remotely cross-like. These embellishments have instead been added to the story over the years to support the "hard to kill" narrative.
Legend says that Rasputin was poisoned, shot, beaten, and drowned. History says that he was possibly never poisoned, that he died from a bullet to the head, and that neither the beating nor the river played a part in his death. It's an interesting story either way; but more interesting than either story is the story of Rasputin's life. This Siberian peasant played a key role in the last days of the Romanov dynasty leading up to the Communist revolution of 1917. He has held the fascination of historians and laypersons for nearly a century. He doesn't need a crazy death story to be memorable.
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