The Murder of Rasputin: The 100-Year-Old Mystery That Won't Die

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

On the morning of December 29, 1916, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was startled by a phone call that turned out to be yet another death threat. His daughter, Maria, later remembered that it put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day. That night, at 11 p.m., he gave her a final reminder before she went to sleep: He was going to the Yusupov Palace that evening to meet an aristocrat. It was the last time she saw him alive.

Two days later, a search party found a body trapped beneath the ice of the frozen Malaya Nevka River. It was Rasputin: missing an eye, bearing three bullet wounds and countless cuts and bruises. The most infamous man in Russia was dead, assassinated at age 47.

A hundred years after his murder, the legend of Russia’s “Mad Monk” has only spread, inspiring films, books, operas, a disco song, and even his own beer, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Described by early biographers as “The Saint Who Sinned” and “The Holy Devil,” he remains a difficult man to define. He spent less than a decade in public life, was barely literate, and published only two works. Even within the Russian Orthodox Church, the debate continues: Was Rasputin a charlatan, a holy man, the czarina’s secret lover, Satan himself, or just a simple Siberian peasant?

Above all, one question refuses to rest: What exactly happened to Rasputin in the early hours of December 30, 1916?

Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was the last absolute monarchy in Europe, and Czar Nicholas II had proven to be an unpopular ruler. Fearful of revolution and mired in corruption, the Romanovs also suffered from another significant problem: Czarevich Alexei, the young heir to the throne, had hemophilia, an incurable and then-deadly blood disease. When doctors failed to cure the boy, Nicholas II turned to alternative methods. Around 1906, he and the Czarina Alexandria were introduced to a Siberian holy man. Neither a monk nor a priest, but a peasant pilgrim turned preacher and faith healer, Rasputin made a good impression on the royal couple, and by 1910 was a regular at the Romanov court.

Although the czar, czarina, and even the royal doctors (begrudgingly) believed in Rasputin’s healing abilities, his proximity to the throne inspired suspicion and jealousy among the church, nobles, and the public. Rough in manners, fond of drinking, and prone to flirting and even sleeping with his married female followers, Rasputin’s brazen disregard for social norms caused some to speculate about his intentions. A few people even called him a heretic.

Soon, treasonous rumors began circulating that Rasputin was sleeping with the czarina, had fathered Alexei, and held total control over the czar. With World War I raging, Nicholas II’s departure for the front only increased the sense that it was Rasputin who was really ruling Russia. According to his self-confessed murderer, if the country and the czar were to be saved, Rasputin’s malevolent influence had to be erased—Rasputin had to die.

Prince Felix Yusupov—Rasputin’s self-confessed killer and the czar’s cousin—first published his account of the murder, Rasputin, while living in exile in France in 1927. According to his version of the evening, Yusupov walked Rasputin into the Moika Palace at a little after 1 a.m. Upstairs, Yusupov’s four accomplices—Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, conservative member of the Duma Vladimir Purishkevich, Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, and army officer Sergei Sukhotin—lay in wait, passing the time listening to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a gramophone. Yusupov accounted for their noise by explaining that his wife had a few friends over, then led his victim down into the basement. He’d spent all day setting the scene, and had prepared two treats for Rasputin: a bottle of Madeira and several plates of pink petit fours—all laced with cyanide by Dr. Lazovert.

As Rasputin relaxed, eating multiple cakes and drinking three glasses of wine, Yusupov waited. And waited. The “Mad Monk” should have been dead in seconds, but the cyanide seemed to have no effect. Growing worried, Yusupov excused himself to the other room. He returned with a gun, promptly shooting Rasputin in the back. The other accomplices drove off to create the appearance that their victim had departed, leaving Yusupov and Purishkevich alone at the mansion with what appeared to be Rasputin’s corpse.

A strange impulse made Yusupov check the body again. The moment he touched Rasputin’s neck to feel for a pulse, Rasputin’s eyes snapped open. The Siberian leapt up, screaming, and attacked. But that wasn’t the worst part. As Yusupov wrote in 1953, “there was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die. I realized now who Rasputin really was … the reincarnation of Satan himself.”

To hear Yusupov tell it, Rasputin stumbled out of the cellar door into the snow. Purishkevich fired four shots before their victim finally collapsed in a snow bank. Yusupov fainted and had to be put to bed. When the others returned, the body was tied up, wrapped in a fur coat, thrown in a sack, and dumped off the Large Petrovsky Bridge into the river below. In the end, Yusupov said, it had been the first step to saving Russia.

As if Yusupov’s account of Rasputin’s seemingly superhuman strength wasn’t strange enough, another detail from the murder provided by Maria Rasputin and other authors goes farther. When Rasputin’s body was found, his hands were unbound, arms arranged over his head. In her book, My Father, Maria claimed this was proof Rasputin survived his injuries, freed himself in the river, and finally drowned while making the sign of the cross. Although Maria and Yusupov’s accounts had opposing motives, together they inspired the mythic perception of Rasputin as a man who was impossible to kill.

Despite the popularity of Yusupov and Maria’s stories, they have more than a few problems. According to the 1917 autopsy, Rasputin did not drown; he was killed by a bullet. (While accounts of the autopsy differ, according to the account cited by historian Douglas Smith in his new book Rasputin, there was no water in the Siberian's lungs.) Although it might seem strange that Maria embellished the events of her father’s murder, she had motives to do so: Rasputin’s legend protected her father’s legacy, and by extension her livelihood. The image of his almost-saintly final moments helped turn her father into a martyr, as Rasputin is currently designated by an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the same way, Yusupov’s story had its own audience in mind.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
When Yusupov published the first version of his “confession,” he was a refugee in Paris. His reputation as “The Man Who Killed Rasputin” was one of his few assets, and it proved so profitable that he became very protective of it. In 1932, while living in the U.S., Yusupov sued MGM for libel over the film Rasputin and The Empress, winning the sole right to call himself Rasputin’s killer. Not only did this lawsuit inspire the mandatory "this is a work of fiction" disclaimer that appears in every American film, it made Yusupov’s claim that he killed Rasputin a matter of legal record. However, even this is a lie. In his memoir, Yusupov admits that Vladimir Purishkevich fired the fatal shot—a fact confirmed in the other man’s account as well.

When one examines Yusupov’s account critically, it’s clear he remade himself the hero in a fantasy battle between good and evil. Comparing the original 1927 account and an updated version published in Yusupov’s memoir Lost Splendor (1953), Rasputin goes from being merely compared to the devil to being the actual biblical anti-Christ. Even the description of Rasputin’s “resurrection” appears to be a deliberate invention, borrowing elements from Dostoyevsky’s 1847 novella The Landlady.

By making Rasputin into a monster, Yusupov obscures the fact that he killed an unarmed guest in cold blood. Whatever guilt or shame this framing helped ease, some writers suspect it was also a smokescreen to hide the murder’s real motive. The argument goes, if Yusupov’s reasons (saving Russia from Rasputin's malign influence) were really as pure as he claims, why did he keep lying to both investigators and the czarina—claiming he’d shot a dog to explain away bloodstains—long after he was the prime suspect?

A few days after Rasputin’s body was found, the Russian World newspaper ran The Story of the English Detectives, claiming English agents killed Rasputin for his anti-war influence on the czar. The story was so popular that Nicholas II met with the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan that week, even naming the suspected agent—Oswald Rayner, a former British intelligence officer still living in Russia. In addition to his government ties, Rayner was also friends with Felix Yusupov from their student days at Oxford. Although intelligence reports the czar had received named Rayner as a secret, sixth, conspirator in Rasputin’s murder, whatever explanation Buchanan gave was convincing enough that Nicholas never asked about British involvement again.

Others, then and now, are less certain. The same day The Story of the English Detectives was published, one British agent in Russia wrote headquarters, requesting his superiors at what would become MI6 to confirm the story and provide a list of agents involved. Other oft-cited evidence for British involvement is the claim that Rasputin’s bullet wounds came from a Webley revolver—the standard sidearm for WWI British soldiers. This is far from certain, however: The autopsy could not identify the gun, and surviving photographs are too grainy to make definitive claims about powder burns on the corpse’s skin. Finally, there is the (unauthenticated) letter dated January 7, 1917, from a Captain Stephen Alley in Petrograd to another British officer, which reads: “Our objective has been achieved. Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ has been well received.” The letter goes on to name Rayner specifically, saying he is “attending to loose ends.”

Rayner was in fact renting a room at 92 Moika at the time of the murder, and had been in contact with Yusupov. He was not, however, listed as an active agent in an official list dated December 24, 1916. Rayner could have been at the Moika Palace during the murder, and the only certain assertion would be his friendship with Yusupov. Perhaps the best evidence against British involvement, however, is the comment of the Saint Petersburg Police chief that the murderers showed the most “incompetent action” he’d seen in his entire career.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Incompetence might answer more questions about Rasputin’s murder than spies or the supernatural. In the rush to ditch his body, the killers forgot to weigh the sack down. Instead, as Smith points out, the fur coat they’d wrapped Rasputin in worked like a natural flotation device, pulling his body up and trapping it under the frozen surface. According to the 1917 autopsy, the body’s various cuts were produced as the corpse dragged against the rough ice. This dragging may have even broken the ropes off Rasputin’s frozen, outstretched wrists.

Incompetence would also explain the last problem with Yusupov’s story. In their memoirs, both Yusupov and Purishkevich wrote about Rasputin’s apparent immunity to poison, which allegedly allowed him to consume the cyanide-laced wine and pastries. But no traces of cyanide were found in the 1917 autopsy. As early as 1934, author George Wilkes said in an issue of The British Medical Journal that Yusupov’s description left only one possibility: Rasputin was never given the cyanide. Wilkes wrote, “If Dr. Lazovert tried to poison Rasputin, he bungled his job.” Nearly 20 years later, Lazovert confirmed these suspicions. He confessed on his deathbed that last-minute conscience and his Hippocratic oath made him switch the powder for a harmless substance.

In the end, Rasputin’s killers got off lightly: Dmitri Pavlovich was sent to serve at the front, while Yusupov was put under house arrest at his Siberian country estate. Lazovert’s confession opens an interesting possibility, however. Did Yusupov, unaware of the missing poison, think he had witnessed Rasputin survive cyanide, planting the seed that inspired his later supernatural additions? If so, it would seem fitting—time and again, the reactions Rasputin received were based largely on others’ beliefs and expectations. Even in his own time, the myths that surrounded Rasputin eclipsed—and even sometimes created—the reality.

Sources:

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, by Douglas Smith. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2016.

The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin, by Alex de Jonge. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1982.

My Father, by Maria Rasputin. Carol Publishing Group, 1970.

Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs, by Colin Wilson. Arthur Barker Ltd., 1964.

"Cyanide Poisoning: Rasputin's Death," by R. J. Brocklehurst and G. A. Wilkes. The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 3838. Jul. 28, 1934. p. 184.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, event though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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