February 20, 2004

The Death of Rasputin

By now, essentially everyone knows the story of how Grigorii Rasputin died. In 1917, soon before the Russian Revolution, a group of Russian nobles became upset at the influence that the "mad monk" was exerting on Tsar Nicholas II 's family and decided to kill him; Rasputin was given cakes and wine laced with poison, and when that didn't kill him, he was shot and beaten. Even that wasn't enough to finish him off, so the conspirators finally tied him up and threw him into the river Neva, where he finally drowned.

I've always assumed that this story was apocryphal, since it seems too good to be true. Nevertheless, plenty of reputable historians repeat this story as if there were no reason to doubt it. I've always been too lazy to look into its accuracy, but now--thanks to an article in the bizarre Russian periodical The Exile--I have a better sense of whether the traditional story of Rasputin's death is believable.

The Exile article in question is a review of the memoirs of Prince Feliks Yusupov, the man who's usually credited with killing off Rasputin. The review is a little on the weird side, but it doesn't exactly make Yusupov sound like an upstanding subject of the tsar:

Like many of the finest literary narrators of the early twentieth century, he was an exhibitionistic, androgynous brat whose early interests were terrorizing guests and servants. He describes with an indulgent chuckle the music teacher “…whose finger I bit so savagely that the poor woman was unable to play the piano for a year.” Aiming higher, the little prince's next victim was Grand Duke Michael, who liked to watch Youssoupoff and his brother play tennis. With his uncanny instinct for doing the greatest harm possible, Youssoupoff hit a return which “…struck the Grand Duke in the eye with such violence that one of the greatest specialists in Moscow had to be called in to save the eye.”

Little Felix grew up in one of the wealthiest families in Russia. His great-great-grandfather, Prince Nicolas Borissovitch, was a classic Russian aristocrat who used his thousands of Serfs as breed stock for concubines. Choosing only the best stock, the Prince outfitted an entire corps de ballet, which was trained to respond to his every gesture: “…when the whole ballet was on stage the Prince waved his cane and suddenly all the dancers appeared completely naked.” No wonder ballet was so much more popular in those days.

Youssoupoff has a charming pride in the family's vampiric past, ending his account of great-great-grandfather's career with the boast that “his last intrigue was with a girl of eighteen. He was then eighty.”

Yusupov's book sounds amusing, but is it reliable? The Exile's reviewer notes that Yusupov was a "wild drama queen" who wrote his memoirs long after the other participants in the plot to kill Rasputin were dead. The reviewer's take on Yusupov is rather harsh:

After 200 pages of Prince Felix's chatty, entertaining, but utterly mindless memoirs, he finally begins setting the stage for his one great deed, the murder of Rasputin. After such extended exposure to his featherbrained picture of the world, it's difficult to believe that this pampered, preening idiot could do anything of significance—or at least, anything good.

There's a lot of fun and fascinating stuff in this memoir, most notably its portrayal of the superstitition that bedeviled the Russian nobility long before Rasputin came to prominence. Its main lesson, however, seems clear: Yusupov was both a fool and a liar. After reading this review, I don't know if Yusupov's memoir was the only source for the fantastic story of Rasputin's death, but I'm even more inclined than before to doubt the story's accuracy. Some stories from history are just too good to be true.

Posted by Ed at February 20, 2004 01:14 PM

Post a comment

Remember personal info?