The myth of the mad monk
I love the Russian Revolutionary period in the early twentieth century, Buzzkillers. It’s one of those exciting and dramatic episodes of modern history that has everything: an out-of-touch and strange royal family, fiery politicians of various stripes trying to reform things, oppressed people rising up, and a mad, but highly influential monk thrown in the mix to make it spicy and more unusual.
That monk’s name was Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916), and he wasn’t really a monk. Rasputin had trained to be a monk and a priest but failed. He became a wandering mystic and faith healer, gaining a relatively large following in the early years of the twentieth century. He even became well known in the highest social circles in St. Petersburg, including the royal Romanov family. Rasputin convinced Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra in 1906 that he could heal their son Alexei’s hemophilia. The Romanovs had tried all kinds of treatments for their son and none had worked. Mysticism and faith healing were fashionable in upper class St. Petersburg circles during the decade leading up to World War I. Rasputin was able to make it appear that he was helping young Alexei’s condition, and there was rampant speculation that he had become an overly strong influence on the Tsarina and perhaps even the Tsar when it came to some aspects of government policy. Russian politicians at the time didn’t like the idea of a crazy mystic having any influence on the royal family and there was a lot of talk about getting rid of Rasputin by 1916.
In December 1916, Prince Felix of the House of Yusupov (a Russian aristocratic family) cooked up a plan to kill the mad monk. Prince Yusupov got some of his pals together and they invited Rasputin over for late night drinks at the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg on the night of December 16-17. According to the accounts later given by Yusupov and his group, and according to the myth that persists to this day, they fed Rasputin cyanide-laced cakes and plied him with colossal amounts of wine, trying to kill him. After an hour it was obvious that the poison wasn’t working, so they shot him in the chest at close range. The bullet went through Rasputin’s stomach and liver and would have been fatal if left long enough, but Rasputin got up and stumbled out of the palace. One of Yusupov’s friends shot at him again four times. Three of the shots missed, but the fourth went through Rasputin’s kidney and lodged in his spine. He fell in the snow, and the conspirators dragged him back inside. When the body suddenly convulsed, Yusupov put a pistol to Rasputin’s forehead and pulled the trigger, placing the fourth successful shot in the mad monk’s brain.
Nearby policemen heard the shots and came to investigate. The conspirators wrapped Rasputin’s body in broadcloth and dragged it outside, eventually dumping it through an ice hole in the Malaya Nevka River. According to the standard story, Rasputin was still not dead and he tried to claw his way out from under the ice. Eventually, Rasputin drowned while trying to get out of the freezing river.
I like a dramatic story as much as the next Professor, but, Buzzkillers, there’s no evidence that Rasputin was some kind of super-stud who could survive poisoning, shooting, beating, and being thrown in the river. The story I just told you comes from Yusupov and his comrades, who spent the next few decades in relatively comfortable exile bragging about how they killed the Chuck Norris-esque mad monk and tried to save the Russian people from his pernicious meddling. Yusupov especially dined out on this story for years in and around Paris. But his story changed a great deal over the years and even he eventually intimated to a few close friends that Rasputin’s death was a good deal less dramatic than he had originally said.
No one knows why the poison didn’t kill Rasputin, but it is entirely possible that Yusupov and his crew either didn’t spike the cakes correctly or screwed it up some other way. What’s not in doubt is that the bullet shots were fatal. Either of the first two shots would have killed Rasputin in a relatively short time anyway. They damaged essential organs. No human could have survived very long without immediate treatment. Rasputin’s alleged convulsions after the second shot would not have been all that unusual in a dying body. But even if he was still alive, the bullet in the brain certainly killed him. He was dead long before being dumped in the river. There was no water found in his lungs, so he didn’t drown while trying to scramble out from under the ice.
Other legends about Rasputin may be true. He may indeed have been well-equipped in the manhood department. He may have been a big hit with the ladies, and he almost certainly had a mesmerizing personality that was able to influence weak-minded people who were already disposed to believe in spiritualism. But he wasn’t bullet-proof.
The Russian Revolutionary period is chock full of drama. Political drama, social drama, international drama, it had it all. What it didn’t have was hocus-pocus. Stick to the facts, Buzzkillers, and leave the mad monk myths out of it.
Andrew Cook, “To Kill Rasputin: The Life and Death of Grigori Rasputin” (2007)
Edvard Radzinsky, “Rasputin: The Last Word” (2000)
Richard Cullen, “Rasputin: Britain’s Secret Service and the Torture and Murder of Russia’s Mad Monk” (2010)