How Exactly Did Rasputin Die? The Real Answer (And The Weird Theories)
In the winter of 1911, a group of high-ranking Russian priests gathered in secret to lay a well-planned trap. Their target was none other than the notorious Siberian mystic Grigori Rasputin, who seemed to have established a mysterious hold over the Tsar. Rasputin had been lured to the meeting by his former friend, the Archimandrite Iliodor. But as soon as he breezed into the room, he was rushed by Iliodor and the “holy fool” Mitka Kolyaba, a one-armed epileptic who had been a previous favorite of the royal family. They grabbed hold of Rasputin’s penis and squeezed it, demanding that he confess his sins, while a hysterical bishop began beating him around the head with a huge crucifix, screaming “Devil!” with each blow. After all, it’s like the old saying goes: “Problems with a mad monk? Try crushing his junk!”
With his dick being mangled like a tube of toothpaste, Rasputin was in a tough spot, and he lacked the penile jiu-jitsu skills to throw off his attackers. Instead, he agreed to leave Saint Petersburg and never contact the Tsar again. But once released, he simply scurried out of the room, jammed a chair under the doorknob, and escaped into the streets. From the safety of the palace, he had his enemies exiled. But perhaps he should have listened to them, or at least learned some lessons about attending mysterious meetings alone. Because five years to the day after the priests’ attack, Rasputin agreed to pay a late-night visit to Prince Felix Yusupov, the richest man in Russia. His body was pulled from a frozen river the next day.
It’s generally agreed that Rasputin was killed at Yusupov's palace, but despite his notoriety, nobody seems to agree on exactly how and why he was killed. You’ve probably heard the conventional version of the story, where he survived being poisoned, shot, beaten, stabbed and castrated, before finally drowning clawing at the ice of the frozen river Neva. That story actually has more problems than that math textbook Jay-Z wrote, but don’t worry! Everyone at Cracked is dressed in the full Lara Croft outfit, archaeology shorts included, and we’re ready to solve this historical mystery.
Who Was Rasputin?
Rasputin is one of the most famous figures in modern history, but there are a lot of misconceptions about his life. For example, he was not “Russia’s greatest love machine,", nor was he the “lover of the Russian queen." And no matter what a certain animated movie may have claimed, he definitely did not rise from the dead to lead the Russian Revolution. Basically, he was a Siberian peasant who left home to live as a strannik, a type of “holy wanderer” who walked across Russia, seeking communion with God. His reputation as a holy man grew until 1905, when he was invited to Saint Petersburg and introduced to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.
There was nothing unusual in this. Nicholas and Alexandra were huge believers in the occult and constantly sought the wisdom of gurus and magicians. Before Rasputin, one of their closest confidants was a French miracle-worker named Nizier Anthelme Philippe, who could supposedly summon lightning and turn invisible. But Rasputin established a special bond with the couple by treating their son, Crown Prince Alexei, who was tragically suffering from not having a creepy old faith healer lurking around at all times. Alexei also had hemophilia and Rasputin was apparently able to improve his condition through prayer (or more likely through keeping his incompetent doctors away).
Unfortunately, none of this was apparent to the general public, since the tsar had decided to keep his heir’s illness a closely guarded secret. As far as most people could tell, a mysterious black-clad mystic appeared at court one day and somehow became the tsar’s beloved adviser, traveling everywhere with the family. It was as if the president suddenly appeared with a guy in a goat mask and was just like “oh, this is Obsidian, he’s my ... good friend. No more questions!” To make things worse, Rasputin became known for sexually harassing female courtiers, cavorting with prostitutes, and was accused of several rapes. But the tsar refused to punish him, mysteriously telling his prime minister “everything you say about Rasputin may be true. At any rate, I can do nothing about it.” In private, he wrote that he would tolerate “ten Rasputins” rather than risk his family’s health.
Naturally, rumors flew, claiming that Rasputin had hypnotized the tsar, that he was the queen’s secret lover, that he actually ran the government. All of Russia’s misfortunes soon came to be blamed on him, particularly once it became clear that the country was losing the First World War (ironically, he was one of the few figures at court to consistently oppose the war). In 1914, he was stabbed by a noseless follower of the mad priest-monk Iliodor. In 1916, the Interior Minister tried to send a hitman to kill him. Meanwhile, another plot was being hatched by an immensely wealthy 21-year-old named Prince Felix Yusupov, who had made himself unpopular at court by weaseling out of serving in the army. And that’s when things get weird.
According to Prince Yusupov’s autobiography, he redecorated his basement with the specific plan of murdering Rasputin in it. Then he invited the mystic around for tea and cupcakes. This meeting was scheduled for midnight, as all the most delightful tea parties are. To set Rasputin at ease, Yusupov invited Russia’s most famous silent movie star and made sure “lively tunes” were playing on the gramophone. This apparently involved playing “Yankee Doodle” on repeat, because tsarist Russia had the worst goddamn DJs.
In fairness to Yusupov, he may not have had time to pick another record because he was preparing for his exams and kept interrupting the murder planning to dash upstairs and do some studying. But please do remember that all the horrifying events to come were accompanied by a tinny speaker blasting “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni!”
Rasputin arrived after midnight, wearing a rather fetching silk blouse embroidered with cornflowers, which is perhaps not quite the black-clad sorcerer look Hollywood tends to prefer for him. Yusupov showed off his new furniture for a while, then offered Rasputin some extremely poisoned cakes, followed by some poisoned wine for good measure. Later sources like to claim this had no effect, but Yusupov specifically says that Rasputin became drowsy and had difficulty swallowing. Appalled that enough poison to kill an orca was failing to finish off the strannik, Yusupov had to think on his feet to come up with a new plan. So he dashed out of the room and came back with a massive gun hidden behind his back. He then poured Rasputin another glass of wine (presumably awkwardly edging around with one hand behind his back the whole time) and pointed out a nice crucifix on the wall. When Rasputin turned to pray, Yusupov shot him.
The other conspirators came in and a doctor checked Rasputin for signs of life. Finding none, he certified the death, at which point Rasputin popped up like a jack-in-the box and started choking Yusupov (hey, we’d be annoyed too). He then crawled up the stairs like the girl from The Ring, burst through a locked door, and ran screaming into the night. The conspirators ran after him and finished the job with a volley of gunfire. Then they threw the body in the river, shot a dog to explain the gunshot noises, and casually confessed everything to a nearby police officer. Seriously! They swore him to silence, insisting that the murder was for the good of Russia, but the cop immediately ratted them out. Because of course he did.
We should probably also point out that neither Yusupov nor the autopsy report claimed that Rasputin was castrated (although the autopsy did suggest he was kicked in the crotch several times). So unfortunately for various purveyors of pickled dongs in jars, his severed penis probably isn’t floating around out there somewhere.
Or Maybe They Just Shot Him
Let’s be honest here, Yusupov’s story has more holes than the septic tank at Latvia’s worst rodeo. It contains more bullshit than Bonnie and Clyde’s colander. It’s as mixed-up as those last two metaphors. For one thing, Rasputin reportedly disliked sugary foods and tried to avoid eating them. So why was he suddenly stuffing down cyanide cupcakes like a depressed Willy Wonka? Yusupov described shooting Rasputin once in the chest, then a long gap before he suddenly sprung to life and escaped the basement, at which point the conspirators fired four more shots as they ran after him. However, a nearby policeman described hearing five shots in quick succession.
The autopsy report found no evidence of poison, but did find Rasputin had been shot twice in the chest at close range, followed by an execution-style shot to the forehead. Unless a bunch of playboy aristocrats somehow learned to bend their bullets like Angelina Jolie in Wanted, it’s hard to see how any of those shots could have been fired while chasing after a fleeing Rasputin. Later in life, Yusupov juiced the story a little more by claiming Rasputin was found with ice under his fingernails and water in his lungs, meaning that he was still alive when he went into the river. But the autopsy report doesn’t mention anything of the sort, concluding that the bullet to the forehead would have been instantly fatal.
On top of all that, the Prince’s story is just so, so dumb. He never properly explained why Rasputin would agree to visit his house past midnight, or why he insisted the other conspirators fake a party upstairs by playing “Yankee Doodle” and laughing loudly. After the first shot, one of the conspirators supposedly dressed up in Rasputin’s clothes and returned to the palace, waving to the secret police to convince them Rasputin had returned home. And that must have been pretty easy, since Rasputin was not a distinctive looking person. You probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup if you tried! As a result of these problems, numerous historians have concluded that the plotters (probably not even Yusupov personally) just attacked and shot Rasputin the second he entered the basement.
Or Maybe Yusupov Was Telling The Truth (But Too Dumb To Realize He Messed Up)
Yusupov’s account strongly implies Rasputin had supernatural powers, allowing him to repeatedly avoid death. At one point, he apparently tries to hypnotize the prince, who heroically fights through this epic psychic attack to slip the old man more poison. Seriously, it reads like Dr. Strange is about to burst into the room at any moment. Because of how ludicrous the story is, many people assume Yusupov was just lying to boost sales of his autobiography (which is otherwise immensely tedious). But it’s also possible he was telling the truth and that Rasputin’s apparent indestructibility had more to do with the bungling assassin than the mad monk himself.
According to Yusupov, he first served Rasputin cakes packed with cyanide crystals. When that failed, he turned to some cyanide-laced Madeira wine. However, there’s some evidence that cyanide is much less effective in sugary foods and drinks, since the sugar crystals bind to the cyanide and prevent it being absorbed into the body. Rasputin’s daughter later said that he disliked sweet foods due to problems with his stomach. Potassium cyanide needs to react with an acid to become toxic, so if Rasputin had low levels of stomach acid the poison would have been less effective. And finally, potassium cyanide actually degrades into harmless potassium bicarbonate if you store it in damp conditions, and not one thing about this plot leads us to believe that anyone involved was smart enough to store poison correctly.
The autopsy report found that the bullets in Rasputin’s chest would have been fatal after about 20 minutes, so it’s possible that he survived the initial gunshot and tried to escape before a shot to the forehead finished him off. But why would Rasputin agree to visit Yusupov in the middle of the night? Well, Yusupov told the police he had first met Rasputin seeking treatment for a “chest ailment,” which the faith healer curiously suggested could be solved by visiting some beautiful “gypsy women.” However, Rasputin’s daughter and secretary later said that Yusupov had actually been ordered by his family to seek a cure for his homosexuality (Yusupov had recently caused a scandal by wearing his mother’s dresses to flirt with soldiers at a local club). Yusupov was unenthusiastic about the whole thing, but continued to visit Rasputin for some time -- half the royal family were wrongly convinced they were sleeping together -- and whatever weird conversion therapy the strannik was proposing probably explains the late-night visit better than any of the weak reasons Yusupov later offer.
So it’s possible to construct a version of events where Yusupov was telling something close to the truth. But you have to work really hard at it. We can only speculate that Rasputin had high stomach acid, or that the poison was stored incorrectly, and the whole “sugar makes cyanide less effective” thing has really only been proven in mice. Plus Yusupov never mentions that fatal shot to Rasputin’s forehead. And his co-conspirators also never mentioned it in their testimony to police. So what’s that all about?
What If The British Did It?
Almost as soon as the murder happened, rumors began flying that it had been carried out by British intelligence. And there might be something to that. Yusupov was extremely close friends with an MI6 agent named Oswald Rayner, who was in Russia at the time (if there’s one thing history has taught us it’s that you always want to keep an eye on a guy named Oswald). British spies definitely had foreknowledge of the plot, reporting it to London well in advance of the actual murder. Two recent books claim that the fatal shot fired into Rasputin’s forehead came from a British Webley service revolver. Yusupov and Rayner spent most of the week after the murder together. And there’s this cryptic letter from a British attaché in Russia to an MI6 officer.
“Although matters here have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ has been well received, although a few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement. Rayner is attending to loose ends and will no doubt brief you on your return.”
That’s about as incriminating as you can get without writing and staging an original musical called “The Day We Killed Rasputin.” But there are also problems with the theory. The idea that the fatal shot came from a Webley comes from analyzing grainy photos of Rasputin’s corpse and isn’t much better than a guess. It’s the equivalent of looking at the JFK assassination video and going “aha, I’d recognize a Soviet T-34 tank round anywhere.” Also, Rayner had actually left MI6 long before the murder and there are no British records of his involvement in intelligence work in Russia. On balance, if Rayner was involved in the murder it was probably in a private capacity of Yusupov’s buddy, rather than as a spy acting on orders from London. Still though ... that is a really weird letter.
The Final Theory: He Was Defeated By Hellboy
Oh, yeah, it's this one. Case closed guys.