An version of this, edited for space, appeared in Fortean times issue 196.
Legend has it that Rasputin had to be poisoned, then shot, then stabbed and later drowned before he could be killed - proof to many that he was under demonic influence. The myth of the indestructible holy man has a certain basis. He was poisoned, but without effect. The autopsy found no poison in the blood stream, three bullet wounds and a small amount of water in the lungs(1).
The “poisoned, shot, stabbed and drowned” version of Rasputin’s murder comes from Prince Felix Felixovitch Yusupov (or Yousoupoff) who, as an exile in America, dined out for the rest of his life as Rasputin’s murderer (2). A more objective account was written by Rene Fulop-Miller (3)who was granted access to files of the Tsar's secret police by the Bolshevik government immediately after the Revolution. Access to these files was later withdrawn by successive governments.
The recent re-release of these secret files has confused the matter since each murderer gave a different story to the police who themselves carefully avoided any detailed investigation since one of the conspirators was the Grand Duke Dimiti. As a member of the royal family his presence guaranteed that the murderers would not be prosecuted. The other conspirators were members of the right-wing Pan-Slavists, a loose grouping that had the support of Buchanan, the British Ambassador(4). They were alarmed by Rasputin’s desire for a separate peace with Germany. Rasputin had long been an opponent of war and believed that Russia's involvement in a European war would lead to a defeat followed by a revolution, similar to the unsuccessful 1905 revolution, but this time resulting in the overthrow of the royal family. That prediction did not require psychic skills - it was the opinion of the political left and most liberals, only the conservatives were in denial.
Members of the Pan-Slavists faction had made other attempts on Rasputin’s life including two made by Khvostov when he was Minister of the Interior. So when Purishkevitch, the director of a hospital train and spokesman for the extreme Right, made a particularly impassioned speech against Rasputin in the Duma, he was not surprised to be approached by Yusupov. The Prince had frequently expressed his contempt for Rasputin, and alarm at his relations with the Tsar and Tsarina. Despite this, Yusupov had recently begun to cultivate a friendship which may have had a sexual element. Some writers have identified Yusupov in drag as the mysterious "Sister Masha" who had become an occasional visitor to Rasputin and who last visited him on the evening of his murder then left thirty minutes or so before Yusupov appeared to drive Rasputin to his fatal appointment.
Yusupov was gay and a cross-dresser who used to cruise the nightclubs of St Petersburg(2) . His wife was a fashionable beauty who regularly entertained her own set of friends, often in her private rooms. Yusupov believed that an invitation to a discrete meeting with his wife was a plausible bait for Rasputin. Once at the Yusupov palace the prince enticed him to consume some slices of chocolate cake (some versions call them pastries) and wine which had been laced with potassium cyanide, but with no effect. The poison had been provided by Colonel de Lazovert, one of Purishkevitch’s doctors. All testimonies describe him donning rubber gloves to crush the cyanide crystals, but some add an interesting detail: the cyanide had to be crushed because it came in glass phials – the cyanide capsules used by secret services(4).
Three years earlier, at the assassination at Sarajevo that had started the war, cyanide capsules provided to the two assassins of Arch-Duke Ferdinand of Austria had also proved ineffective. Both men were working for Ujedinjenje ili Smrt ("Union or Death" - union of Boznia-Herzogovina with Serbia) better known as the Black Hand, a terrorist organization controlled by the head of Serbian military intelligence, Colonel “Apis” Dimitrijevic(5). The capsules seem to have been provided by the assistant Russian military attaché to Belgrade, Captain Verkhovsy who was later Kerensky’s Minister for War in the short-lived government that followed the abdication of the Tsar and before the bolshevik revolution(6). The Russian government had brought a batch of cyanide capsules from a German chemist some years before . Potassium cyanide is highly reactive and would quickly break down if a phial had an unseen leak.
Was the poison for Rasputin provided by the Russian secret service? Did those who provided it know that it was ineffective? Was there a connection between the assassination of the Arch-Duke (the trigger for the war) on 28th of June, 1914 and the attempted murder of Rasputin (an opponent of the war) on 29th of June 1914 by Khionia Guseva?
When the poison failed, Yusupov obtained a military revolver from one of the conspirators and fired point blank at Rasputin who collapsed but later regained consciousness and made a run for it.
Even shot at close range a large man like Rasputin would not have immediately died. The Russian army issue revolver of the period, the Model 1895 Nagant 7.62mm, had a high muzzle velocity(7). At close range the bullet could pass straight through a human body giving a fatal wound but with the victim in shock and expressing no pain. Rasputin's bulk would also have buffered him against blood loss.
Now panicking, Purishkevitch with his Colt automatic (or was it the Grand Duke with his Savage revolver?) shot Rasputin twice. His body was mutilated, wrapped in chains and then dropped off the Great Petrovsky Bridge into the Neva. Typical of the murderers' incompetence was that they dropped the body off the upstream side, so that instead of being swept out to sea, it became lodged on a pier of the bridge. The corpse was found with the hands raised and some water in the lungs so it was concluded that although mortally wounded Rasputin was still breathing when he entered the water.
Rasputin’s murder was a bungled and panicky affair, but it suited Yusupov to dramatise it, changing a squalid political killing into an heroic struggle against the spawn of Satan. That was his attempt to build a legend. But the story has entered the oral tradition with Rasputin as the hero - “All those women he had, all that grog he drank, and then they couldn’t kill him!” Proving that you’ve got to be careful when you create a legend.
(1) Moynahan, Brian. Rasputin: The Saint Who Sinned. New York: Aurum Press, 1998.
(2) Youssoupoff, Prince Felix Lost Splendour.New York Putnam 1954.
(3) Fulop-Miller , Rene Rasputin the Holy Devil New York Putnam 1928
(4) Horne, Charles F (ed) Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, National Alumni 1923
(5) Cowles , Virginia The Russian Dagger London Crawley 1969
(6) The Orange Book of the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Service – Vienna 1916
(7) Smith WHB et al.Small Arms of the World Galahad New York 1969