“I stood watching him drink, expecting any moment to see him collapse. But he continued slowly to sip his wine like a connoisseur. His face did not change, only from time to time he put his band to his throat as though he had some difficulty in swallowing. He rose and took a few steps. When I asked him what was the matter, be answered: ‘Why, nothing, just a tickling in my throat ‘The Madeira’s good,’ he remarked; ‘give me some more.’” - Prince Felix Yusupov, recalling the night he murdered Rasputin.
In December 1916, at this palatial home in St. Petersburg, the young Prince Yusupov, heir to the greatest fortune in Russia and married to a cousin of the Romanov imperial family spent a frustrating and probably terrifying night, trying desperately to kill the nearly un-killable Grigory Rasputin.
Rasputin was a Siberian religious mystic who had become attached to the Tsar’s family as a healer to their young hemophiliac son, Alexei. His particularly close relationship with the Tsarina Alexandra coupled with his eccentric appearance and reputation for lewd and lascivious behavior in public fueled scandalous rumors. As World War I dragged on, the country and government teetered on the brink of collapse. To make matters worse, it appeared that Tsar Nicholas II, already in trouble for botched and brutal responses to internal turmoil and general incompetency on the battlefield, was taking advice from Rasputin.
By the end of 1916, a group of nobles led by Prince Yusupov decided to take matters into their own hands. Yusupov, along with conspirators Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and politician Vladimir Purishkevich invited Rasputin to Moika Palace on the pretense of meeting his lovey young wife Irena, who was conveniently out of town. Once at the palace, Rasputin was left in a room laid out with a spread of cyanide-laced baked treats, tea, and wine. The conspirators were relieved to see Rasputin down several glasses of the poisoned wine. They became increasingly concerned, however, when the poison seemed to have no effect on the man.
In the end it took four bullets, a sound beating, and a final drop into the icy River Neva to kill Rasputin. His autopsy showed that his death was ultimately caused from drowning or hypothermia, indicating that he survived all but the final dunking.
Yusupov and his conspirators never faced charges for the murder that so many knew they had committed, but just three months later the February Revolution forced the abdication of Nicholas II, and Yusupov fled the country. He later published several, sometimes conflicting, memoirs detailing the death of Grigory Rasputin, including a book titled “Lost Splendor.” Rasputin’s surviving daughter Maria unsuccessfully attempted to sue Yusupov and Pavlovich for damages related to the murder, but her claim, filed in Paris, was dismissed.
Over the years the Moika Palace has served as an educational center and now as a cultural museum, notable for having survived the Revolution and Soviet years relatively intact. In the basement room where the Mad Monk was killed, wax figures recreate his final moments. A visit to the room is included in the afternoon tours. The rest of the building is a showpiece in itself, including a rococo theater, and many elegantly appointed rooms.
Rasputin’s body, fetched from the river, was originally buried on the ground of Alexander Palace, but was removed and cremated in the February 1917 uprising. Legend holds that when the flames touched his corpse, Rasputin sat upright on the pyre.
Know Before You Go
NOTE: if you show up at the palace and just buy a ticket, you will NOT get a ticket to the Rasputin exhibit. You will get a ticket to the palace interiors, which are lovely, and totally worth visiting. But if it's Rasputin you're after, and you don't speak Russian: go INSIDE (not the ticket booth outside) and just keep repeating 'Rasputin' like a simpleton until someone takes you money, hands you a ticket, and points you down the right hallway. Metro: Sennaya Ploshchad.
- Lost Splendor: The Moika Basement - The Night of December 29: http://www.alexanderpalace.org/lostsplendor/xxiii.html
- Wikipedia: Moika Palace: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moika_Palace
- The New York Times: "Holiday on Ice in St. Petersburg, With a Shot of Vodka on the Side" (December 2006): http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/12/31/travel/31petersburg.html