Crime History: The Almost Impossible 1916 Assassination of Grigory Rasputin, Russia’s “Mad Monk”

Main photo: Grigory Rasputin, WikiMedia Commons

Rasputin — a hyper-charismatic soothsayer, mystic healer, and close confidant of Russia’s last royal family — looms as one of the most curious and compelling icons in world history … as well as one of the hardest to kill.

The might and mystery surrounding the figure who would be nicknamed the “Mad Monk” includes his self-propelled rise from peasantry and poverty, his celebrity status as a prophet, the supernatural sway he held over those in power and, finally, the seemingly impossible circumstances of his assassination at age 47 in 1916 — after reportedly making uncanny predictions about the future of Russia, all of which came true.

Although he was born Grigory Yefimovich Novykh, early on he earned the moniker “Rasputin” — derived from the term that means “of loose morals” — due to his reputation for lust, intoxication, seductive powers, and hedonistic debauchery.

Even so, Rasputin’s path to the Tsar’s throne room began with 18-year-old Grigory’s religious conversion that led him to study at a monastery at Verkhoture. Once there, young Rasputin reportedly “perverted” traditional Khlysty beliefs for his own self-aggrandizement and personal indulgences. The young visionary developed a doctrine decreeing that a human being was closer to God in the “holy passionlessness” that could only come from the exhaustion following long periods of sexual debauchery.

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Grigory Rasputin [WikiMedia Commons]

After returning home from the monastery, Rasputin married Proskovya Fyodorovna Dubrovina, a local woman. The couple had four children. Alas, married life and fatherhood could not compel Rasputin to stay put, and he embarked on vast travels, visiting historic sites in Greece and Jerusalem. Thereafter, Rasputin declared himself a holy figure.

Rasputin then claimed he could heal the sick and foretell the future — and the public, by and large, believed him. Peasants lined up to support Rasputin and his fame spread throughout Russia.

Word of Rasputin’s power and abilities reached the Russian capital of St. Petersburg in 1903. Mystic rituals and occult studies were in vogue among the royal court at the time. As a result, Rasputin could not have more flawlessly timed his initial 1905 meeting with Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexander, along with the rest the royal Romanov family.

Rasputin’s healing powers came into play in 1908 after Alexei, Nicholas and Alexandra’s hemophiliac son, suffered an episode of severe bleeding. It’s believed that Rasputin may have used his skills as a hypnotist to alleviate the child’s anguish. Alexei survived — just as Rasputin said he would — and the Tsar and Tsarina embraced their visitor wholeheartedly.

Perhaps seeing his perfect “in,” Rasputin told the rulers that his presence would be inextricably linked to their rule and the future of the Romanov dynasty. The Tsar and Tsarina were onboard, making Rasputin a fixture of the palace. There, he played the humble, holy-man role to the hilt.

Outside of the royal court, however, Rasputin kept up his old ways, particularly in the realm of sex. He reportedly took dozens if not hundreds of lovers, and his behavior stirred up a public scandal.

Tsarina Alexandra believed none of it, though. She cherished Rasputin as a channel to the cosmic and the divine, as well as for how he continually helped to “heal” Alexei.

In 1911, a prime minister’s report on Rasputin’s voracious carnal conduct prompted Tsar Nicholas to expel the Mad Monk from the royal court. Alexandra protested, however, and Rasputin returned.

Then World War I changed everything. Nicholas departed St. Petersburg to command the Russian forces in September 1915, effectively leaving the rule of Russia in the hands of his wife. Rasputin stepped up fast as Alexandra’s personal adviser.

Grigory Rasputin, photographed by Karl Brulla, WikiMedia Commons

Grigory Rasputin, photographed by Karl Brulla [WikiMedia Commons]

 

During this period, Rasputin acted as a staunch opponent of anyone who railed against the autocracy, and even more vociferously against anyone who railed against Rasputin. His influence and reputation angered right-wing aristocrats and left-wing revolutionaries alike. A multitude of assassination attempts resulted.

Alas, it wasn’t until 100 years ago, on December 30, 1916, when one of the myriad attempts to kill the Mad Monk finally succeeded — but only after the execution itself proved to be a multitude of assassination attempts.

If all this sounds weird so far, just wait. Rasputin reportedly sent Alexandra a letter in 1916 in which he stated that he would be killed before the next New Year’s Day, and that she would only have to worry if royals were the ones to do him in. He wrote:

“If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia.

… if it was your relations who have wrought my death, then no one in your family, that is to say, none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people … 

I shall be killed. I am no longer among the living. Pray, pray, be strong, think of your blessed family.”

Royalty killed Rasputin hours before the dawn of 1917. Russian peasants rose up and killed the Tsar and his family in 1918. Everything Rasputin put down on that paper would eventually come to be.

First, though, he had to die. This proved to be no easy accomplishment.

Rasputin was a guest at the home of Prince Feliks Yusupov the night of December 29, 1916, an occasion of holiday pleasantries and celebration. While there, Rasputin indulged in wine and tea cakes that had been strongly poisoned with cyanide. Nothing happened, though. Rasputin kept consuming the toxic concoctions as though they were water and candy.

Yusupov then pulled out a gun and shot Rasputin point-blank. The Mad Monk collapsed. Those in attendance checked him for a pulse or other signs of life. There was nothing. Surely, he was dead. Like something out of a horror movie, however, Rasputin shortly thereafter opened his eyes and fled out into the courtyard.

"Rasputin the Mad Monk" (1966) movie poster, one of the many cultural touchstones inspired by the mystic and royal adviser.

“Rasputin the Mad Monk” (1966) movie poster, one of the many cultural touchstones inspired by the mystic and royal adviser.

Vladimir Mitrofanovich Purishkevich, a member of Russia’s legislative assembly who was also on hand, ran out and shot Rasputin two more times, and then beat the mystic with a rubber club. Rasputin lived through it all.

The other guests eventually tied up Rasputin in a blanket and carried him to the Neva River. Although the river was frozen almost solid on that winter’s night, the conspirators found a hole in the ice and dumped Rasputin into it.

Rasputin was still conscious and managed to free one limb from his bindings when he hit the water. Alas, he finally drowned in the freezing water.

When Rasputin’s body was recovered, his right arm was outstretched as though he were going to make the sign of the cross.

An autopsy revealed that Rasputin took at least one bullet square in forehead and, more eerily, the exam turned up no traces of the cyanide he was indisputably said to have put into his system.

Rasputin died seeming to be the very last of his kind — for now.

In 2004, BBC’s Time Watch effectively re-opened the case of Rasputin’s murder:

Read more:
Encyclopedia Britannica
How Stuff Works: How did Rasputin really die?
Atlas Obscura (Images in this article possibly NSFW)
History.com
Hogue Prophecy

Main photo: Grigory Rasputin, WikiMedia Commons