How was Russian mystic Rasputin murdered?

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Image caption,
The Siberian mystic, said to have healing powers, was a confidant of Empress Alexandra

Grigory Rasputin, a mystic peasant who captivated the Russian imperial court, met his death at the hands of aristocratic enemies 100 years ago.

Artem Krechetnikov of BBC Russian examines the grisly murder of Rasputin and finds that some details are more myth than reality.

Few characters in Russian history are as well-known as the mystic from Tobolsk in Siberia, whose name is forever linked to scandal.

He has been called a "sex machine" and "lover" of the Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna. The first description is probably an exaggeration, and the second is simply false.

Russians' opinions of him, at the time and later, ranged from "holy man" to "reptile". The latter was how the reformist prime minister of the time, Pyotr Stolypin, contemptuously spoke of him.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 there was hysteria about "dark forces around the throne".

The Empress Alexandra, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, believed Rasputin had mystical healing powers that could help her haemophiliac son Alexei, the heir to the throne.

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Romanov royal family: (L to R) Olga, Marie, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, Anastasia, Tsarevich Alexei and Tatiana

Supporters of Russia's alliance with France, keen to see Germany defeated militarily, suspected Rasputin of undermining Russia's foreign policy.

In early 1914 Rasputin told an Italian journalist: "God willing there won't be a war, and I'll get busy on that score."

Night rendezvous

Mystery still shrouds Rasputin's last moments.

Why did he go to the palace of Prince Felix Yusupov in St Petersburg?

According to two of the assassins - Prince Yusupov and Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of parliament - Yusupov collected Rasputin on the night of 30 December 1916 on the pretext that his wife Irina wanted to meet him.

But Irina was actually away at the Yusupovs' estate in Crimea.

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Prince Felix Yusupov and his wife Princess Irina Alexandrovna (circa 1925)

Yusupov claimed that he took Rasputin into a basement where he fed him cakes laced with poison. But Rasputin allegedly did not succumb, and kept asking to meet Irina upstairs.

Yusupov's co-conspirators made lots of noise on the floor above, faking a party, and played the American song Yankee Doodle on the gramophone.

But this version of history seems improbable.

Political intrigues

Rasputin was uneducated, but no fool. The Yusupovs were fabulously rich - Irina was a member of the royal family - so Rasputin could hardly have thought she would let herself be seduced so easily.

According to Rasputin's daughter Maria, Russian Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov had warned Rasputin that there was a plot to kill him. He advised him to avoid socialising for a few days, but Rasputin told him "it's too late".

So it remains a mystery why he visited the Yusupovs. It cannot have been just for the Madeira and jolly music.

Image source, yusupov palace
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The Yusupov Palace is a landmark on the Moika River in St Petersburg

There were rumours that the Empress Alexandra and Protopopov were planning to dissolve parliament - the Duma - introduce a state of emergency and sue for peace.

It was quite feasible for Yusupov to lure Rasputin by promising a meeting with allies of the empress.

The rest of the assassins' account of what happened reads like the screenplay of a horror movie.

After the poison allegedly failed to work, Yusupov had to open fire, but Rasputin rose up again, like a monster. Even blows to the temple failed to stop Rasputin, who pursued Yusupov out across the courtyard.

Then allegedly Purishkevich fired four shots into Rasputin's back, felling him.

So, what of the poisoned cakes? People who knew Rasputin well said he always refused sweet things, believing them to be harmful to his special powers.

Guards questioned about the murder reported hearing about four shots, in quick succession.

A pathologist determined the cause of death to be a shot to the stomach, causing heavy blood loss.

No drowning

There were contradictory testimonies about the shirt Rasputin was wearing. He may well have been killed before taking off his fur coat.

The assassins probably killed him as soon as he stepped inside, shooting him at point-blank range. Five aristocrats, led by Prince Yusupov, were involved, though some speculate that even more participated in the plot.

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Rasputin (centre) with admirers: His powers of seduction became the stuff of legend

According to another myth, Rasputin's defiance of death was such that the plotters had to drown him in icy water.

But the autopsy said: "No evidence of drowning was found. Rasputin was already dead when he was thrown into the water."

Yusupov went into exile in Paris after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and lived to 80.

Purishkevich was arrested in Petrograd in 1918, then released on the orders of secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. He died of typhus in 1920, during the Russian civil war.

The violence and chaos of the revolution and Bolshevik terror make Rasputin's words sound prophetic: "Without me everything will collapse."

He had also predicted his own murder, in a letter to Nicholas II. If nobles did it, he warned, it would bring down the monarchy.

Communist revolutionaries murdered the royal family in 1918.

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