The Murder of Rasputin

Without a flicker of emotion, Russian aristocrat, Prince Felix Yussupov, declared on the witness stand that he killed Russia’s “Mad Monk,” Rasputin. Yussupov described in detail how he helped poison, shoot, beat, and drown him, as part of a larger conspiracy to murder the mystical “holy man,” who had gained powerful influence over the Imperial family. 

“MYSTIC PEASANT WHO RULED CZAR,” The Sun (New York, NY), January 7, 1917.

Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a Siberian-born peasant who underwent a religious conversion as a teenager and later became a wandering holy man and a self-proclaimed mystic and healer. His religious fervor combined with his personal charisma brought him to the attention of some of the Russian Orthodoxy and senior members of the Imperial family, who introduced Rasputin to Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra in 1906. By 1908, he had won favor with the Czar and Czarina through his ability to stop the bleeding of their son Alexi, who suffered from hemophilia. 

“Rasputin and the Empress of Russia,” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), October 20, 1917.

Despite being widely condemned by the public as a charlatan for his drunkenness and debauchery, Rasputin wielded great power and influence over the ruling family, particularly with the Czarina, who was convinced of his mystical healing abilities and rumors swirled that the two were lovers. When Nicholas left to lead Russian forces during WWI, Rasputin effectually ruled the country through Alexandra, which only added to the perceived corruption and chaos of the Romanov regime. As the war continued, outlandish stories about the monk expanded to include a treasonous plot with Germany, an effort to start a cholera epidemic in St. Petersburg with poisoned apples, and lurid tales about Rasputin and the Czar’s young daughters

Many within the Russian nobility and the church orthodoxy became fearful of Rasputin’s growing power and control, and there was a demand to have him removed by any means necessary. In an effort to rid the court and the country of Rasputin’s influence, a group of nobles, led by Prince Felix Yussupov, the richest man in Russia and the husband of the Czar’s only niece, and Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, the Czar’s first cousin, plotted the monk’s demise.

“NOBLES SLEW MONK?,” The Knoxville Independent (Knoxville, TN), January 6, 1917.

On the night of December 29, 1916, Yussupov and Pavlovich lured Rasputin to Moika Palace in St. Petersburg. The would-be killers first gave the monk food and wine laced with cyanide, however, when Rasputin seemingly failed to respond to the poison, they shot him at close range and left him for dead. In spite of these murderous measures, Rasputin revived shortly thereafter and made an attempt to flee the palace grounds, only to be intercepted by his assailants who shot him again and viciously beat him. They then bound Rasputin, who was remarkably still alive, and threw him into the freezing Neva River. His battered body was found several days later and it was reported that there was water in his lungs, indicating that he finally died by drowning. 

Yussupov wrote the most well-known account of Rasputin’s murder in his memoir, originally published in 1928. He wrote, “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.” Before the murder, Yussupov had lived a relatively frivolous life of privilege. Plotting Rasputin’s death had given him the opportunity to reinvent himself as a patriot, determined to protect the throne and restore the reputation of the monarchy. 

Yussupov 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. 

“RASPUTIN HASTENS DOWNFALL OF ROMANOFFS SAYS TUTOR IN STORY OF RUSSIAN COURT LIFE,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 9, 1921.

“WHO IS RASPUTIN,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 3, 1916.

Years later, in 1934, Yussupov coldly recounted how he helped slay Rasputin when he testified in the suit of his wife against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which charged she was libeled in a film in which one of the characters representing her was seduced by Rasputin. 

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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