Dr. Thomas Swan has PhDs in physics and psychology and is an avid student of world history.
Grigori Rasputin was a mystic, faith healer, and (supposed) psychic who lived from 1869 to 1916 in Imperial Russia. He rose to prominence when he was employed by Tsar Nicolas II of Russia to heal his haemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexei.
Prior to his presence at the royal court, Rasputin was a wanderer, travelling between cloisters to impart his laconic understanding of the Bible to Orthodox monks, although he was never officially affiliated with the Church.
There have been numerous legends and rumors about Rasputin’s death, including his inability to die from conventional methods of assassination. This article will address the veracity of those rumors and provide a detailed account of Rasputin's untimely demise.
Why Was Rasputin Killed?
Rasputin had managed to treat Tsarevich Alexei's haemophilia, an injury that had caused him to bleed internally. His understanding of the anti-coagulant effect of aspirin and leeches had led him to prescribe rest and hypnosis instead. Rasputin's salubrious effect on Alexei led to the royal family calling him a friend and a man of God. Tsarina Alexandra came to believe that God spoke to her through him.
Rasputin’s close relationship with the Tsar and Tsarina ultimately led to his downfall. He had a great deal of influence over them, and his status as a mystic prompted the creation of bizarre and eccentric rumors regarding his social life and his relationship with the royals. In particular, he was accused of being a member of the promiscuous Khlysty cult, which led to gossip about depraved orgies and criminal sexual activity, including the rape of a nun.
It is likely that these rumors were created by politicians and the Orthodox Church who both sought the level of influence that Rasputin enjoyed. Many politicians wanted the Tsar to give them greater power, which encouraged them to use Rasputin’s controversial reputation to discredit the royal family. To make matters worse, Rasputin often bragged about his influence, and he used his authority to have critics dismissed from their posts. He also believed that closeness to God required inner spirituality rather than adherence to the Church’s instruction, which riled Church leaders.
Nevertheless, there may be evidence to support some of the rumors. Rasputin appeared to believe that salvation could only be achieved by first yielding to temptation. It also appears that his anti-war beliefs led to him becoming clinically depressed during WW1, which culminated in drunkenness and (possibly) sexual promiscuity.
When General Nikolayevich threatened to hang him if he ever came to bless the troops, Rasputin claimed to have had a vision that the Tsar should take command of the armed forces (removing the General). This had disastrous consequences for the war effort, and it turned many powerful individuals against him at home and abroad.
With the Tsar away on the front, Rasputin was left alone with the Tsarina, leading to rumors about the extent of their relationship. As the Tsarina was of German descent, she was accused of being a German spy, and the two of them became widely hated in the halls of power.
Read More From Owlcation
With the Church, military, and political elites all turning against him, Rasputin may have made matters worse by appointing his own hand-picked candidates to political office in an attempt to consolidate his power. As WW1 took its toll on the economy, it became even easier to blame Rasputin for all that was going wrong.
Who Killed Rasputin?
The list of suspects for Rasputin’s murder was extensive. The Church craved his level of influence and was outraged by his apparent immorality. In addition, many politicians had been removed from office by Rasputin, and many more were critical of his disastrous effect on domestic and foreign policy. The armed forces were also in disarray following the Tsar’s decision to take command, and several generals would have desired revenge for their dismissal. Finally, Russia’s major allies (France, Britain, and the USA) would all have regretted Russia’s increasing ineptitude in the war and Rasputin’s desire to withdraw Russia from the conflict.
It is not unsurprisingly then that a number of culprits contributed to the murder of Rasputin. After a rousing and derogatory speech in parliament about the Tsarina and her mystic monk, Vladimir Purishkevich (a politician) was recruited by the aristocratic patriot, Felix Yusupov, to take part in the murder. Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a military man, was also present. Recent evidence suggests British secret servicemen were likewise involved, with a fatal shot being fired by SIS agent, Oswald Rayner.
How Did Rasputin Die?
Felix Yusopov's account of Rasputin's death was accepted for many decades, although in recent years it has been credibly disputed.
According to Yusupov, on the 16th of December 1916, he lured Rasputin to his Moika palace with the suggestion that Princess Irina would be present. The monk was led to the cellar by Yusupov, Purishkevich, and Pavlovich, and supposedly given food and wine mixed with enough cyanide to kill five men. Legend states that he was unaffected by the poison. It is possible that Rasputin practiced mithridatism, which might have allowed him to develop an immunity to poison by regularly ingesting non-lethal doses.
It became clear that Rasputin might survive the night, leaving no time for disposal of the corpse. The murderers supposedly panicked, causing Yusupov to shoot Rasputin in the back with a revolver. They temporarily left the scene to prepare a car to transport the body. When Yusupov came back to collect his coat, Rasputin allegedly sat up and attempted to strangle him. Pavlovich and Purishkevich heard the struggle and returned to shoot him again, but, even then, the mad monk was still struggling to his feet. The three murderers then battered him with clubs until he was motionless. They subsequently wrapped his body in a carpet and threw it into the icy depths of the Neva River.
After the body was recovered, an autopsy supposedly revealed that he died from drowning, suggesting that he was still alive when thrown into the river. The Tsarina buried his body, but it was later uncovered by Bolsheviks and burned in the woods. According to legend, the body sat up and appeared to move while being burned. Despite rumors about Rasputin's supposed supernatural powers, it is likely that his tendons were not cut before cremation, allowing for the possibility of movement from the effects of the heat.
Yusupov’s account changed significantly over the years and recent evidence suggests it may be partially false. While it was confirmed that he was beaten and stabbed, it is unclear if he was ever poisoned. However, it is possible that the cyanide evaporated when he was burned.
Rasputin was shot approximately four times and new evidence indicates that one of these was a fatal shot to the head. The bullet for this shot was lead and non-jacketed. a type used only by the British. Forensic evidence suggests a British Webley revolver was used to kill Rasputin.
The British secret service (SIS) were present in St. Petersburg at the time of the murder. They were concerned about Rasputin’s desire to see Russia withdraw from the war and his increasing influence within Russian politics. A Russian withdrawal would have seen Britain greatly outnumbered on the Western front.
The British SIS officers, Oswald Rayner and Stephen Alley, both had close ties to the Yusupov family and witnesses place Rayner at the murder. Rayner also met with Yusupov in the weeks leading up to the murder. Stephen Alley appeared to be jointly culpable. Eight days after the killing, Alley wrote about an event "not going exactly to plan" with the "loose ends" being cleared up by Rayner.
The evidence points to the assassination of Rasputin by British agents, although it should be noted that there is no mention of such a plot in the British SIS archives and the evidence is far from conclusive. Although several Russian nobles and politicians almost certainly contributed to the planning and execution of the plot, Rasputin likely died from a shot to the head fired by the British SIS agent, Oswald Rayner.
Rasputin was beaten, stabbed, and shot at least twice beforehand. Following the shooting, his dead body was thrown into the Neva River. The rumors that he was alive when dumped, or that he was poisoned with cyanide, are unsupported speculation. After being dug up and burned, it is possible that his body sat up and moved due to its improper cremation, fuelling fanciful legends about Rasputin's supposed supernatural powers.
Rasputin's History in Song
- Massie, Robert K (2012) . Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Modern Library ed.). ISBN 978-0-679-64561-0.
- Fuhrmann, Joseph T. (2012). Rasputin: The Untold Story. Wiley. ISBN 978-1-118-23985-8.
- Smith, Douglas (2016). Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-71123-8.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Thomas Swan
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 14, 2013:
Cheers SilentReed. There are certainly many questions that still surround him. Regarding your questions, remember that Rasputin had a "vision" that the Tsar should take command. The Tsar appeared to believe this vision, and did indeed take command. Mysticism was very popular among the Russian aristocracy at this time, and it's possible that the Tsar became convinced after Rasputin healed his son. The Tsarina certainly was. However, the vision story may have been concocted as an excuse should the war turn bad. That way they could blame Rasputin for it, so he may have been a scapegoat. Those culpable for the murder were loyalists to the Tsar working with British. Perhaps the Tsar ultimately ordered the murder? The Tsar's enemies were quite happy to use Rasputin to discredit the regime.
SilentReed from Philippines on May 14, 2013:
He was caricatured as a mad monk. Your article raises some interesting question about Rasputin's life and the part he played in Russian history. Was he politically astute and a power broker or merely a palace toady? Rasputin may have had a hypnotic hold on the Tzarina but it's hard to believe that Tzar Nicholas, whose reign was bloody and brutal would allow a monk to influence his decisions in domestic and foreign policy. Perhaps it was the Tzar's own desire to withdraw Russia from the conflict. There is the possibility that Rasputin was made a scapegoat for the disastrous way the war was being conducted. Was the murder of Rasputin a warning from foreign and domestic power blocs to Tzar Nicholas that he could just as easily be deposed?
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 04, 2013:
Thanks Petra, that is indeed the case, though the evidence that the British fired the fatal shot is fairly convincing, and some have called it conclusive. I was just reading that he predicted his own death (not surprising), but also said that all of the Tsar's family would be dead within two years if the murderers were related to the Tsar. Yusupov and Pavlovich were related to the Tsar, and the Tsar's family did all die within two years due to the Russian revolution. Eerie!
Petra Vlah from Los Angeles on May 04, 2013:
This mysterious man was as controversial in death as it was in life. If the circumstances of his death are still disputable and unknown, his influence at the royal court and in the intricate Russian politics, is and it has been for a long time known. Very interesting hub and a pleasure to read
helplesszealot on May 03, 2013:
It was Edvard's book that also helped fuel my interest in Rasputin and Russia as a whole.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 03, 2013:
He was a religious man with a spiritual rather than authoritarian side it seems, so I think his anti-war beliefs were genuine. I don't think he was a spy for Germany because if he was meant to be hated, he would have been pro-war.... though he did want to bless the troops, so who knows. Also, his rise to the royal court was from a completely unknown background, and depended on his being able to heal the Tsarevich. It seems to be very much down to chance, unless of course the Tsarina had a role in ascribing the Tsarevich's improved condition to Rasputin. It's clear that opponents of the Tsar created and used rumors about Rasputin to discredit the regime. I think he was an opportunist who used his position too readily, and acquired too many enemies. Thanks for commenting Elias.
Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on May 03, 2013:
Certainly one of the most enigmatic figures in history. I remember many years ago I decided to read Edvard Radzinsky's The Rasputin File mostly because I was fascinated by Rasputin's legend. By the end of the book, my fascination simply shifted towards the historical background of a period in turmoil which happens to be one of the turning points of 20th century. I think it's much more sensible to try to uncover the mystical or magical veil that dresses his legend and to seek the real Rasputin. Was he just an opportunist with his own agenda of acquiring power or perhaps there was something more in his anti-war beliefs and the way that he discredited the tsarist regime?
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 03, 2013:
Thanks Angie. It's a shame, but the legends spawned by that doubt are certainly fuel for the imagination. He seemed to have power over people as evidenced by his following. He also knew hypnosis, and that stare... is a tad creepy. Even his supposed murderers wrote that it "didn't go to plan" for whatever reason, and while Yusupov may have made things up, his account was at least partially true. There are modern day individuals like Derren Brown who understand psychology enough to appear to be powerful mystics, and perhaps Rasputin was a predecessor. He was certainly intelligent, as seen from his ability to heal the Tsarevich by understanding what can prevent the blood from coagulating. So I think it's possible to be a scientist and still buy into the legends somewhat.
Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on May 03, 2013:
Fascinating as usual, Thomas … it is such a shame the exact truth of everything will never be known but this explanation does seem plausible.
He was the sort of character about whom urban myths might arise …
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on May 02, 2013:
Cheers helplesszealot! Haha, it could be one of many claims about him. Would be a bit grotesque, but possibly interesting from an anatomical perspective. He was a giant of a man, with a very large face and hands. I read somewhere that his murderers crushed his testicles while torturing him. Yeesh!
helplesszealot on May 01, 2013:
Nice article, I have always been fascinated by Rasputin. Apparently the Erotica museum in St Petersburg has his member preserved and on display. Haven't investigated this claim though.