Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The death of Grigory Rasputin, 1916

On 30th December 1916 the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin was murdered in St Petersburg, thus depriving the Tsar and Tsarina of their last hope of finding a cure for their son Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia.

Grigory Yefimovich Novykh was born in 1872 in Siberia. He became attached to a religious sect that practised flagellation, but developed his own theories that included using sex to obtain a state of grace. Despite his unsavoury appearance – he had a long straggly beard and strong body odour that came from only washing on rare occasions – he managed to seduce dozens of women, possibly through the use of hypnosis. He gained a reputation as a mystic healer as well as a debaucher – the name Rasputin means “the debauched one”.

When Rasputin reached the imperial capital of St Petersburg in 1903 his name was mentioned at the royal palace and Tsarina Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) sent for him in desperation at being unable to find any treatment that helped young Alexei.

Whatever Rasputin did seemed to work, because Alexei’s condition, although not cured, was at least alleviated. The royal family then became dependent on Rasputin, whose future therefore seemed assured. He did not cease his previous practices and continued to hold drunken orgies and seduce high-born women to save their souls, safe in the knowledge that all stories of his misdeeds would not be believed should they reach the ears of the Tsar and Tsarina.

However, Rasputin was by no means universally popular. Things came to a head in August 1915 when Tsar Nicholas left Russia to take command of the army during World War I and Alexandra was left in charge. By this time she would make no decisions without taking Rasputin’s advice, which meant in effect that the mad monk was in virtual charge of the government and was appointing Cabinet ministers.

The opposition to Rasputin was headed by a hard-line conservative, the extremely wealthy Prince Felix Yusupov, who decided that there was only one solution to the problem, which was to engineer Rasputin’s death. He headed a small group of like-minded aristocrats (including a cousin of the Tsar) to plot and carry out the murder.

He invited Rasputin to join him for late-night drinks at his sumptuous palace, this being an invitation that he knew Rasputin would not turn down. When the monk arrived he was offered cakes, which he wolfed down with his usual lack of table manners. What Rasputin did not know was that the cakes were laced with enough cyanide to kill him several times over.

However, the poison had no effect on him at all. Yusupov then went for a less subtle approach and shot Rasputin in the back when he rose from the table. He fell to the ground but then got up again and charged out into the garden, where another plot member had stationed himself. He also had a revolver to hand and promptly shot Rasputin twice more.

Rasputin’s body was rolled up in a carpet and dropped through a hole in the ice in the nearby river. However, when the body was recovered three days later it was found that there was water in Rasputin’s lungs, thus proving that he had died as a result of drowning rather than poison or bullets.

Rasputin had predicted that, should any harm befall him, the royal family would not survive for more than two years. In this he was eerily correct, because on 16th July 1918 they were all murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries.

Prince Yusupov’s story was somewhat happier, in that, following a period of house arrest, he was able to flee the country after the Tsar abdicated in February 1917. He and his wife (a niece of Tsar Nicholas) settled in France, although the huge family fortune eventually ran out. He died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 80.

© John Welford

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