Rasputin warned that his death by members of the imperial family would lead to the end of Romanov rule, yet the plot went forward with intriguing results.
The Yusupov Palace sits serenely on the Moika River in St. Petersburg and is today a museum and concert venue. Yet almost one hundred years ago, the palace achieved its greatest notoriety when in the early hours of December 17, 1916 conspirators with ties to Russia’s imperial family assassinated Grigorii Rasputin. The story of Rasputin’s murder still intrigues, in part due to the nature of his death.
Rasputin and the Empress
Tsar Nicholas II’s only son was born in 1905 with the dreaded “royal disease” hemophilia, so named because it was most probably traced to England’s Queen Victoria whose children spread the then incurable disease to other dynastic houses in Europe. Soon after his birth, the Empress Alexandria, a “religious fanatic” according to Virginia Cowles, was introduced to an itinerant holy man named Rasputin who seemed to possess the power to control the boy’s bleeding. This forged an unhealthy relationship, resulting in the Empress’ “neurotic dependence” on Rasputin. When war broke out in 1914 and Tsar Nicholas eventually assumed full command of his troops, leaving his wife to conduct affairs in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the influence of Rasputin on Alexandra became acute. W. Bruce Lincoln writes that, “By late 1916, it would have been difficult to find anyone of consequence in Petrograd who did not think that Rasputin should be done away with or that, because they had such total confidence in him, Nicholas and Alexandria were unfit to rule.”
The Plot and Assassination
An uneasy Rasputin had prophetically stated in a letter to Nicholas that if members of the imperial family succeeded in killing him, “then no one of your family…will remain alive for more than two years.” The plot to kill Rasputin was hatched by Vladimir Purishkevich, an ardent nationalist, and Prince Felix Yusupov, heir of one of Russia’s most important and wealthy families. The Tsar’s nephew, Grand Duke Dmitrii Pavlovich, became the the third member of the triumvirate.
On the night of December 16th, Felix lured Rasputin to his palace with the promise of introducing him to his beautiful wife Princess Irina. In the basement of the palace, Dr. Lazovert had laced pastries and wine with potassium cyanide, enough to kill several men instantly. Rasputin ate several of the cakes, washing them down with Madeira and Marsala wine, also containing cyanide. The poison, however, had no affect on the man who then asked the prince to entertain him with guitar and song. Eventually, Felix left, returning with a revolver. As Rasputin turned to look at a crucifix, the prince shot him. Although pronounced dead by the doctor, Rasputin shortly revived and lunged after Felix.
Exiting the palace, Rasputin ran toward the gate. Vladimir Purishkevich, however, fired several shots at the fleeing man, eventually bringing him down as Felix proceeded to beat Rasputin with a rubber club. The conspirators covered the body with a blanket and dropped it into an opening of the ice covered Neva River. The body was recovered three days later and an autopsy report declared that Rasputin had died from drowning.
Nicholas II and his immediate family were shot on July 17, 1918 in Ekaterinburg on direct orders of Lenin. Nicholas had abdicated on the Ides of March, three months after Rasputin’s death. Their bodies are today entombed in St. Petersburg’s Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, alongside other Romanov rulers.