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To say that Grigori Rasputin was a controversial figure in pre-revolutionary Russia is an understatement. His perceived talent as a spiritual healer and religious counsel made him famous among Russian nobility and indispensable to the Romanov’s, the Russian royal family. His critics saw him as an insidious force and were embarrassed by his association with the czar and czarina. It was this influence that eventually got him killed. Although the gruesome story of Rasputin’s murder is a mix of fact and folklore, the autopsy report and written records have helped historians separate truth from fiction. 

Dolly Stolze

Rasputin was born in a Siberian village in 1869. It was here that he met his wife and where the couple raised three children. Rasputin spent some time in a Russian Orthodox monastery but left before taking formal vows. He took what he learned from his religious studies and traveled all over Russia earning a reputation as a spiritual healer. Word of his abilities reached Saint Petersburg, the seat of the Russian royal family and where the Romanov’s hosted their court.

Czar Nicholas II Feodorovna and Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna, the emperor and empress of Russia, had trouble producing a male heir early in their marriage. Although they had four daughters, Russian law required that male members of the Romanov dynasty inherit the throne. So it was a relief when the empress gave birth to a son, named Alexei, in 1904. Their happiness was short-lived when they discovered that Alexei inherited hemophilia. Hemophilia is an incurable genetic blood disorder characterized by a missing protein needed for clotting.

Alexei was prone to nosebleeds and any minor injury caused him intense pain and bruising. The czar had access to the best medical care to help his son, but early 20th century doctors were ill equipped to treat or ease the symptoms of this severe medical condition. Nicholas and Alexandra were desperate to relieve their child’s discomfort, even if it meant putting him in the hands of a faith healer with questionable credentials.

In 1905, the czar and czarina were introduced to a pale man with dark hair, a long beard and an intense gaze. The man, Rasputin, had gained notoriety for his talent as a spiritual healer. It’s not clear when exactly the mystic started “treating” Alexei. We know that the empress was asking Rasputin for help by 1912, when Rasputin’s prayers purportedly saved the boy after a life-threatening injury.

In “The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg,” historian Helen Rappaport writes that in 1912, when the Romanovs were on vacation in Poland, the boy was playing around when he stumbled and injured his groin.1 The swelling and internal hemorrhaging lasted for more than two weeks. Because Alexei was barely conscious and had a high fever, his doctors were not sure he would survive.1 That’s when Alexandra sent a telegram to Rasputin, who was visiting his family in Siberia at the time, for advice and prayers.

Rasputin’s response was a bit shocking. He said that the doctors should stop what they were doing and that “the little one will not die.”1 Within an hour, the internal bleeding ceased and the worst of the medical crisis was over.1 The doctors could offer no scientific explanation for the boy’s recovery, which could easily be attributed to luck and timing. But this miracle was all Alexandra needed as evidence of Rasputin’s powers. 

From then on whenever Alexei experienced discomfort, Rasputin was brought in to ease his pain. The czar’s sister reported that she watched as Rasputin prayed over the boy and was able to calm him down and alleviate his symptoms.2 Although there are no medical reasons for Rasputin’s ability to help the young heir, some believe Rasputin used hypnosis or folk medicine.2, 3

The empress allowed Rasputin into her inner circle and he became one of her most trusted advisors. This elevated his social status and gave him immense power at court and a large following. And he reportedly enjoyed his newfound fame very much. Rasputin was known to have had numerous affairs, indulged in prostitutes, and was quite the drinker. 

Rasputin’s critics thought he was nothing more than a charlatan who had Svengali-like control over the royal couple. Many of his political enemies believed that his influence over the monarchs diminished their standing with the public. These people started calling Rasputin the “Mad Monk” and “Holy Devil” due to his tenuous association with the church, his wild appearance, and the many stories of his debauchery. 

The rumblings of discontent turned to attempts on Rasputin’s life starting in 1914. A woman stabbed Rasputin in the stomach when he was visiting his home in Siberia. Although he was seriously wounded, he survived. But he would not be so lucky a second time.

A murderous plan

In the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1916, five conspirators set a plot in motion to kill Rasputin. Among them were Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to the czar’s niece, and Vladimir Purishkevich, a Duma deputy, as well as Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert. The most common version of events from that night comes from Yusupov’s memoirs. It should be noted that historians believe Yusupov’s tale has many discrepancies and embellishments.4

Knowing the Mad Monk was a womanizer, Yusupov lured him to his home at Moika Palace with the promise of an introduction to his beautiful wife. Rasputin took the bait and arrived shortly after midnight on Dec. 30. The prince ushered him into the basement and served him cake and wine, which were supposedly laced with cyanide by Lazovert. Yusupov watched incredulously as the debauched mystic consumed both but showed no signs of pain or weakness. A frustrated Yusupov ran upstairs to where his accomplices were hidden to give them an update. That’s when they decided to just shoot him. The prince returned to the basement with a revolver and shot Rasputin in the abdomen. 

Rasputin fell over, and thinking he was dead, Yusupov left the basement. When Yusupov and the others returned a few hours later, Yusupov wrote in his autobiography that he witnessed “the reincarnation of Satan himself.”4

He says Rasputin sat up and he “saw both eyes—the green eyes of a viper—staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred. The blood ran cold in my veins . . . then a terrible thing happened: with a sudden violent effort Rasputin leapt to his feet, foaming at the mouth.”4

Rasputin ran up the stairs and into the palace courtyard. That’s where Purishkevich shot him a few more times. They tied the body up, wrapped it in a fur coat, and dumped it in the Neva River.5 

The autopsy 

Rasputin’s corpse was soon discovered, on New Year’s Day in 1917, and autopsied by Professor Kossorotov. Andrew Cook, author of “To  ,” commissioned Derrick Pounder, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Dundee, to review the autopsy report. Kossorotov noted three gunshot wounds: the fatal shot to his head was fired with the barrel pressed against his forehead; two others were fired from about 20 centimeters away into his abdomen. Pounder confirmed that Rasputin was killed with a gunshot wound to the head.5 

Kossorotov also noted blunt force trauma and cuts all over his body, indicating that his killers beat him shortly before his death.5 Although he did not find any traces of cyanide, at the time of the autopsy there were no precise tests for the poison. Medical examiners typically relied on being able to smell cyanide in the stomach contents. Since only about half the population is able to smell the bitter almond odor of cyanide, Kossorotov not being able to detect the odor does not mean it was not in Rasputin’s system.5

If Rasputin was poisoned at all it was completely botched. Twenty years after the assassination, as he lay dying, Lazovert confessed that he did not put poison in the food and drink because of his Hippocratic Oath.6

It was one peculiar finding during the autopsy that caused some to think that Rasputin had survived a beating, poisoning and a bullet to the head only to drown in the river. Kossorotov found a small amount of fluid in the lungs, also known as pulmonary edema, that some people took as proof that the hard-to-kill spiritualist took his last breaths in the water.5 But Vincent and Dominick DiMaio point out in their textbook “Forensic Pathology,” that there are no specific findings for drowning, including fluid in the lungs.7 This is because pulmonary edema can also be found in other manners of death, including drug overdoses and pneumonia. 

Czarina Alexandra arranged for the funeral and burial of her trusted confidant. Yusupov and Purishkevich were quickly arrested for the murder. Both men were reportedly proud of their actions because they believed they were saving their country from a sinister force. Yusupov was eventually exiled and he and his wife spent the rest of their lives in Europe. Purishkevich avoided prison and exile, but was sent to fight on the front lines of World War I. 

Czar Nicholas II, Czarina Alexandra and their five children were slaughtered after the Russian Revolution in July 1918. The location of their mass grave was revealed in 1989 but the remains were not exhumed for forensic analysis until 1991.

Rasputin’s assassins turned him into a demonic revenant, a supernatural creature capable of returning from the dead, as evidence of his evil nature and to excuse their grisly actions. This is illustrated through one more bit of folklore about Rasputin’s powers of resurrection. Rasputin’s grave was dug up after the Russian Revolution and his corpse set ablaze in a bonfire. Legend says the Holy Devil sat up in the flames and gazed into the crowd. His ashes were then scattered in a secret location. 

References
1)    Rappaport, H. (2010). The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
2)    Harris, C. (2016). The Murder of Rasputin, 100 Years Later. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/murder-rasputin-100-years-later-180961572/
3)    Massie, R. (2000). Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks
4)    Rappaport, H. (2016). Lost Splendour and the Death of Rasputin by Prince Felix Yusupov. Retrieved from: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lost-splendour-and-the-death-of-rasputin-by-prince-felix-yusupov-2tlz2t2lp
5)    Cook, A. (2007). To Kill Rasputin: The Life & Death of Grigori Rasputin. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.
6)    Lenoir, A. (2016). The Murder of Rasputin: The 100-Year –Old Mystery That Won’t Die. Retrieved from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/90379/murder-rasputin-100th-anniversary-mystery-wont-die
7)    DiMaio, D. and DiMaio, V, MD. Forensic Pathology, Second Edition (Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

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