The Murder of Grigori Rasputin

The 'healer' and friend to Tsar Nicholas II was killed on 17 December 1916.

Court lecher: Rasputin, 1908

Born into a peasant family in Siberia in 1869, Grigori Efimovich Rasputin grew up as a drunken, illiterate narcissist, who seems to have eagerly cherished a delusion that he was the most important being in the universe. He joined an eccentric Russian Orthodox sect, the Khlysty, which believed that through flagellation they achieved a state of mind in which the Holy Spirit spoke to them. He decided that a better way to that end was through exhaustion after prolonged sexual activity and prompted people to remember that rasputnik in Russian meant ‘lecher’. At 18 he married Praskovia Fedorovna Dubrovina, with whom he had three children, but he spent much time wandering restlessly about. Travelling in Greece and to Jerusalem, living on charity, he built up a reputation as a holy man who could heal the sick and see the future. Dirty and shaggy, with blazing eyes, he evidently had a powerful presence and patients who believed in him claimed that he had healed them.

In 1903 Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg, where he attracted much attention. The event that would make him an important figure came the following year, when a son was born to Tsar Nicholas II and his German wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. They already had four daughters and were ecstatic to have a son and heir, but the child, Alexis, had haemophilia and so suffered from episodes of severe bleeding, threatening an early death. The medical attention available was ineffective and is now thought to have been positively dangerous. Rasputin had met the tsar and tsarina and made a good impression. When Alexis suffered a dreadful bleeding attack in 1907 Alexandra in desperation summoned Rasputin to the royal palace to help. He prayed at the bedside and somehow was able to calm both the boy and his parents. Calming the parents may perhaps have helped to calm the boy. From then on, he came to help whenever needed.

Loving his wife and treasuring his son, the tsar mostly ignored reports of Rasputin’s persistent drunkenness and sexual exploits with numerous women who were drawn to him. Things grew worse when Russia became involved in the First World War, in alliance with the French and British against the Germans and Austrians. In 1915 Nicholas decided it was his duty to take personal command of the Russian army. He left for the front, putting Alexandra in charge of the administration at home. Nicholas was not a competent leader and he hampered his generals far more than he aided them.  

With Alexis still suffering attacks of bleeding and with the added burden of running the country, Alexandra made Rasputin her principal adviser. He was criticised as an incompetent upstart and a threat to the monarchy. His fiercest opponents believed that he secretly wanted the Russian army to be defeated by the Germans and there were unsuccessful attempts to murder him.

The attempt that succeeded was led by Prince Felix Yussoupov, husband of the tsar’s niece. Also involved were Vladimir Purishkevich, a right-wing member of the Russian parliament, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, the tsar’s cousin, an army officer called Sukhotin and Dr Stanislaus Lazovert, a close friend of Pavlovich. Their accounts of exactly what happened varied.

Yussoupov, who knew Rasputin, invited him to his palace that December evening. It was freezing cold and the man who Lazovert called ‘the blackest devil in Russian history’ arrived and was treated to wine and cakes that had been poisoned beforehand. The others stayed quietly upstairs. Rasputin grew ever more cheerful as he swallowed more and more of the wine and cakes without any ill effects, while Yussoupov played the guitar and sang songs to him. Eventually the astonished Yussoupov produced a gun and shot Rasputin. He gave a hideous shriek and fell writhing, but then struggled to his feet and attacked Youssupov. The others rushed down and Purishkevich, it seems, fired at Rasputin several times, hitting him in the shoulders and the head. Rasputin collapsed and Lazovert pronounced him dead. They tied him up with a rope, wrapped him in a thick cloth and took him to the frozen River Neva nearby, where they found a hole in the ice and pushed him in. When his corpse was found days later it was discovered that he had still been alive at that point and had struggled hard to free himself, but drowned.

Rasputin was dead, aged 47, but so, after centuries, was the Russian monarchy. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate a few weeks later and he, Alexandra, Alexis and other members of the family would be murdered in 1918.