We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
It was well after midnight on December 29th, 1916, but the staff of the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was preparing for a party.
The Palace’s wine cellar had been temporarily redecorated for their expectant visitor. Furniture and carpets had been moved in, along with a gramophone playing “Yankee Doodle” on a continuous loop. Several bottles of wine had been set aside for the occasion, in addition to a variety of sweet petit fours. The number of attendees were unknown – only a few key members of Russia’s nobility and their assistants would later amid to being present. The host, Prince Felix Yusupov, was attempting to entertain his guest of honor – Grigori Rasputin. Yusupov had sought out the supposed “mad monk” weeks earlier to attempt to learn some of the controversial holy man’s healing techniques.
What followed was a mixture of partial facts blended with mysticism and politically-motivated exaggeration. Popular legend states that Yusupov fed Rasputin treat after treat laced with potassium cyanide to no effect. Re-interpretation suggests that one of the night’s conspirators, a doctor, couldn’t violate his Hippocratic Oath to poison the famed mystic. Reality suggests the food was either never poisoned or was administered before being baked, evaporating the cyanide in the process.
After an hour, an exasperated Yusupov had tired of playing guitar and listening to an increasingly drunk Rasputin. The Prince would retrieve his gun and, according to his testimony years later, “a shudder swept over me; my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger.” Rasputin was seemingly dead – only to reanimate himself and stumble out the door where he kept moving despite four more shots. Only a following head shot supposedly slayed the infamous corruptor of the House of Romanov.
In reality, Yusupov’s first shot had passed through Rasputin’s mid-section without major damage. One of the Prince’s co-conspirators, politician Vladimir Purishkevich, had fired multiple times at Rasputin and connected only once – a bullet to his spine. The body was dumped in the Malaya Nevka River with such haste that one of Rasputin’s galoshes was stuck in the bars of the bridge. Unsure of how to react, the participants dismissed the police sent to investigate the gunshots heard at the Palace, only to re-invite them back to brag about killing Rasputin…all the while insisting the officers keep the incident quiet.
Grigori Rasputin had been an enigma in life – his role in Tsarist Russia a subject of heated debate then and now. In death, the man from the Siberian Plain would become a legendary indictment of Russia’s nobility and government in the First World War.
By the winter of 1916, St. Petersburg had become a national paradox – the seat of government for Tsarist Russia, yet a capitol increasingly void of political power.
Tsar Nicholas II had long since left the capitol for Moghilev, some 400 miles away, after appointing himself Commander-in-Chief following the Russian army’s rout in the summer of 1915. Left behind in St. Petersburg to manage the domestic affairs of state were Nicholas’ wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, and a deeply divided State Duma with little actual authority. Continue reading