Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 261st installment in the series.
DECEMBER 29-30, 1916: RASPUTIN MURDERED
One of the most hated men in Russia, the malign holy man Rasputin met a grisly end on the evening of December 29-30, 1916, when he was murdered by aristocratic courtiers, including one of Tsar Nicholas II’s own nephews, in a desperate bid to save the monarchy. But it was too little, too late: popular support for the regime had already crumbled, and its foundations would soon give way before the tide of revolution.
Rumors of plots to assassinate Rasputin had been circulating for years, but the idea gained traction as Russia’s losses on the Eastern Front mounted and the tsarist autocracy looked more and more vulnerable at home. Some pundits even called for his murder publicly, albeit in veiled references. For example the liberal Russian newspaper New Times hinted at extreme measures in early 1916:
How has an abject adventurer like this been able to mock Russia for so long? Is it not astounding that the Church, the Holy Synod, the aristocracy, ministers, the Senate, and many members of the State Council and Duma have degraded themselves before this low hound? The Rasputin scandals seemed perfectly natural [before but] today Russia means to put an end to all this.
For the time being, however, no one dared to defy Rasputin’s powerful patroness and protector, the Tsarina Alexandra, who used her influence over her weak-willed husband to help her beloved holy man insinuate himself into all aspects of government. One by one, Rasputin’s staunchest opponents fell to court intrigue, including War Minister Polivanov and Foreign Minister Sazonov, while Rasputin maneuvered his own favorites into top positions, including Alexander Protopopov as Interior Minister.
Meanwhile the success of the Russian Brusilov Offensive did nothing to defuse the increasingly revolutionary situation brewing in the big cities (in fact, the massive casualties incurred during the offensive, totaling 1.4 million, probably contributed to the widespread disaffection). As one of the coldest winters on records descended on Europe in late 1916, growing shortages of food and fuel across Russia reached crisis proportions—a fact made abundantly clear by wave after wave of strikes, which often turned into bloody riots. When ordinary soldiers refused to fire on strikers, turning their guns on the police instead, informed observers realized it was only a matter of time.
As 1916 drew to a close, the Russian political establishment—long subservient to the all-powerful monarch—was finally moved to open defiance out of sheer desperation. In December the Russian Duma, or Parliament, demanded more control of the war effort and more details about the country’s war aims, including the age-old dream of conquering Constantinople—as distant as ever following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign.
The appointment in mid-December of Mikhail Beliaev, the hated chief of the general staff and another Rapustin favorite, as War Minister, was hardly an encouraging sign. On December 20, 1916, the Russian Assembly of Notables, representing the aristocracy, issued a statement openly condemning Rasputin’s influence on the government, followed by the Union of Zemstvos and Union of Towns, representing local governments, which warned on December 29:
When power becomes an obstacle in the road to victory, the whole land must shoulder the responsibility for the fate of Russia. The Government, which has become the tool of occult forces, is leading Russia to her ruin and shaking the imperial throne. We must create a government worthy of a great people at one of the gravest moments of its history. In the critical struggle upon which it has entered, may the Duma come up to what the country expects of it! There is not a day to lose!
But even at this late date the royal couple were hardly prepared to compromise, judging by Alexandra’s advice to Nicholas in a letter written December 13, urging him to crush the mounting opposition without fear of consequences, because “Russia loves to feel the whip!”
With Russia in an uproar, the coup de grace was finally delivered by a cabal of aristocrats and high officials, including the young Prince Felix Yusupov, a nephew of Tsar Nicholas II by marriage; the tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri; a reactionary politician, Vladimir Purishkevich; Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, an officer from the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; and Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert, a Polish doctor and colonel. But the conspirators didn't suspect just how difficult it would be to kill the hardy Siberian peasant mystic.
According to various accounts, Yusupov gained Rasputin’s confidence by asking him to treat a minor illness, then invited the holy man to Yusupov’s palace on the Moika River on an unknown pretext in the late evening of December 29, 1916. After bringing him to a room in the basement of the palace (see photo above), Yusupov plied Rasputin with tea, red wine, and cakes laced with cyanide. When this seemed to have no effect, Yusupov then shot him twice in the back and side, penetrating his stomach, liver, and kidneys.
As Rasputin lay bleeding on the floor, Yusupov hurried upstairs to tell the other plotters the deed was done—but during that time Rasputin, still alive, managed to flee the building into the snow-covered courtyard, where he again collapsed. Alarmed he might escape, Yusupov shot Rasputin once more in the back, and the conspirators hauled him inside, where Yusupov shot him yet again, this time in the forehead.
Believing Rasputin dead, the plotters wrapped his body in a cheap blanket, secured with chains for good measure, and took him to a bridge over a branch of the Neva River, where they dumped the body into a hole in the ice. Incredibly, Rasputin was apparently still alive at this point, and with almost supernatural strength managed to undo some of the heavy chains enclosing him in the blanket before he finally drowned beneath the ice—a fact only uncovered when his body was recovered two days later.
On hearing news of the murder, the Tsarina Alexandra and her courtiers, all fervent believers in his mystical powers, were inconsolable and outraged—but the general reaction was rather different, to say the least. Maurice Paleologue, the French ambassador to Petrograd, wrote in his diary on January 2, 1917:
There was great rejoicing among the public when it heard of the death of Rasputin the day before yesterday. People kissed each other in the streets and many went to burn candles in Our Lady of Kazan … The murder of Grigori is the sole topic of conversation among the unending queues of women who wait in the snow and wind at the doors of the butchers and grocers to secure their share of meat, tea, sugar, etc. They are saying that Rasputin was thrown into the Nevka alive, and approvingly quoting the proverb: Sabâkyé, sabâtchya smerte! “A dog's death for a dog!”
By the same token, Rasputin’s death only served to confirm the empress in her increasingly paranoid and reactionary attitudes, further stoking the flames of revolution. In his diary entry on January 4, 1917, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, chief of the British military mission in Russia, recounted a meeting with a worried courtier:
He was naturally full of the Rasputin episode, and anxious as to its results. The question is: What will be done with the officers who took part in it? If they suffer in any way there will be trouble … The difficulty would be specially with the Empress, being as she is a firm believer in the good faith of Rasputin. And her influence reacts on the Emperor. I confess that even with the disappearance of the most important factor in the drama I see no light ahead yet, and the situation may develop into anything.
The final drama of the doomed Romanov dynasty was about to unfold.