The Death Of Rasputin, Poisoned, Shot Twice, Beaten And Drowned...Or Was He?
Updated: Sep 27
Sometime over the course of the night and the early morning of December 29-30, 1916, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, a self-proclaimed holy man, is murdered by Russian nobles eager to end his influence over the royal family.
Rasputin, a Siberian-born muzhik, or peasant, who underwent a religious conversion as a teenager and proclaimed himself a healer with the ability to predict the future, won the favour of Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra through his ability to stop the bleeding of their haemophiliac son, Alexei, in 1908. From then on, though he was widely criticized for his lechery and drunkenness, Rasputin exerted a powerful influence on the ruling family of Russia, infuriating nobles, church orthodoxy, and peasants alike. He particularly influenced the czarina, and was rumoured to be her lover. When Nicholas departed to lead Russian forces in World War I, Rasputin effectively ruled the country through Alexandra, contributing to the already-existing corruption and disorder of Romanov Russia.
Fearful of Rasputin’s growing power (among other things, it was believed by some that he was plotting to make a separate peace with the Germans), a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yousupov, the husband of the czar’s niece, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Nicholas’s first cousin, lured Rasputin to Yousupov Palace on the night of December 29, 1916.
“The holy man is he who takes your soul and will and makes them his. When you choose your holy man, you surrender your will. You give it to him in utter submission, in full renunciation.” – Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Here is where the accounts of what happened become creative and vague. First, Rasputin’s would-be killers gave the monk food and wine laced with cyanide. When he failed to react to the poison, they shot him at close range, leaving him for dead. A short time later, however, Rasputin revived and attempted to escape from the palace grounds, whereupon his assailants shot him again and beat him viciously. Finally, they bound Rasputin, still miraculously alive, and tossed him into a freezing river. His body was discovered several days later and the two main conspirators, Yousupov and Pavlovich were exiled.
But, (and it's a big but), that account was written Yusupov. It's worth knowing a little more about the Prince and what was recorded in the autopsy.
Until he murdered Rasputin, Felix Yusupov lived a comparatively aimless life of privilege. One of Nicholas II’s daughters, also named Grand Duchess Olga, worked as a nurse during the war and criticized Yusupov’s refusal to enlist, writing to her father, “Felix is a 'downright civilian,' dressed all in brown…virtually doing nothing; an utterly unpleasant impression he makes – a man idling in such times.” Plotting Rasputin’s murder gave Yussupov the opportunity to reinvent himself as a patriot and man of action, determined to protect the throne from a malign influence.
For Yusupov and his co-conspirators, the removal of Rasputin could give Nicholas II one last chance of restoring the reputation and prestige of the monarchy. With Rasputin gone, the czar would be more open to the advice of his extended family, the nobility and the Duma and less dependent on Alexandra. There was hope that he would return from military headquarters and once again govern from Saint Petersburg.
“This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.” - Felix Yussupov, 1928
The most well-known account of Rasputin’s murder was the one that Yusupov wrote in his memoirs, published in 1928. Yusupov claimed to have invited Rasputin to his palace to meet his wife Irina (who was in fact away at the time) and then served him a platter of cakes and numerous glasses of wine laced with potassium cyanide. To Yusupov’s astonishment, Rasputin appeared to be unaffected by the poison. A desperate Yusupov borrowed the revolver of the Grand Duke Dmitri, the czar’s cousin, and shot Rasputin multiple times, but was still unable to kill him. According to the memoir, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”
Yusupov’s account of Rasputin’s murder entered popular culture. The lurid scene was dramatized in numerous films about Rasputin and the Romanovs and even made it into a 1970s disco hit by Boney M., which included the lyrics “They put some poison into his wine…He drank it all and said, ‘I feel fine.’”
Rasputin’s actual murder was probably far less dramatic. His daughter Maria, who fled Russia after the Revolution and became a circus lion tamer billed as "the daughter of the famous mad monk whose feats in Russia astonished the world," wrote her own book in 1929 that condemned Yusupov’s actions and questioned the veracity of his account. She wrote that her father did not like sweets and never would have eaten a platter of cakes. The autopsy reports do not mention poison or drowning but instead conclude that he was shot in the head at close range. Yusupov transformed the murder into an epic struggle of good versus evil to sell books and bolster his own reputation.
Yusupov and his co-conspirators hoped the removal of Rasputin would make Nicholas II more open to the advice of the nobility and the Duma, giving him a final chance to save the monarchy. However, the monk’s murder did not lead to any radical changes of the Czar and Czarina’s politics, leading up to the start of the Russian Revolution in March 1917. To the Bolsheviks, Rasputin symbolized the corruption at the heart of imperial rule and they viewed his murder as an attempt by the nobility to stay in power at the expense of the proletariat.
Yusupov went into exile in Paris after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and lived to 80.
Purishkevich was arrested in Petrograd in 1918, then released on the orders of secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. He died of typhus in 1920, during the Russian civil war.
The violence and chaos of the revolution and Bolshevik terror make Rasputin's words sound prophetic: "Without me everything will collapse."
He had also predicted his own murder, in a letter to Nicholas II. If nobles did it, he warned, it would bring down the monarchy.
Not long after, the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to the imperial regime. Nicholas, Alexandra and their children were murdered, and the reign of the Romanovs was over.