If the popular (but wildly inaccurate) children’s film Anastasia, the based-on-a-real-person character Grigory Rasputin finally dies of drowning when the eponymous Anastasia stomps upon his magic crystal. As gruesome as he is in the animated movie, the death of Rasputin is far more spooky. The man just didn’t wanna go.

Rasputin has been tied in the immortality of history to the ill-fated Romanov family. Some may even say that he was the cause of their destruction. Whatever one may think about him: powerful mystic or drunken fruitcake, he wormed his way into the hearts of the imperial family and stuck there like a tick on a camel.

You might think it odd that a family rich and powerful would welcome as a close adviser and friend someone as coarse and odd as Rasputin. He prayed with the family, referred to the Tsar and Tsarina as “Papa” and “Mama”. He fraternized with all their friends. His every need was provided for. Why the love?

In Russia, even as recent as the first part of the 20th Century, certain people were given misplaced respect and honor. One group was called the yurodivie. They were insane or handicapped and wandered around talking or screaming to themselves. The other type were called startsi (singular: starets). Both were considered holy people. Rasputin was considered the latter.

He was adored by the royal family, loved or endured by their friends (especially if one wanted to remain a friend), and hated by the extended family, government, and religious leaders. Rumors about him ran wild throughout the country. He allegedly dabbled in prophecy, could heal the Tsarovich’s (Tsar’s son) hemophilia, influenced policy, dictated government appointments and sackings (directly or indirectly), and there were even rumors of him canoodling with the Tsarina and daughters. What is truth and what is fiction is a matter for deep speculation, but what follows seems to be the most accurate depiction of his death.

In any case, the extended family was really sick of his meddling and dangerous influence. Therefore, some of them decided to take matters into their own hands. On the night of 30 December 1916 (it was 17 December on Russia’s “old style” Julian calendar at the time, but 30 December in the modern Gregorian calendar), the Great Duke Dmitri Romanov, Prince Felix Yussupov, Vladimir Purishkevich (a member of the Russian Parliament), and Dr. Lazaret invited Rasputin to the Yussupov palace under the pretense of meeting (and according to one historian, to heal) Felix’s wife Irina. Upon arrival, Rasputin was taken to a dining room in the basement. He was told that Irina had some guests, and Rasputin was to rest and drink tea until the guests left.

Rasputin was offered pastries and wine which he initially refused. This somewhat threw the Prince into a panic. He told the other conspirators (who were waiting in another room off the stairs), “…that animal is not eating or drinking.” When Felix returned, however, Rasputin had opened the wine and began to drink. After drinking a couple of glasses, he showed ill effects from the deadly poison lacing the wine. After a while, he may have started feeling something, because he asked for tea. He then stood, walked around the room, then asked Felix to play the guitar and sing. For two hours this “nightmare” continued.

When Felix checked in with is co-conspirators next, he was pale. He said that Rasputin had drank the poisoned wine and snacked on the poisoned pastries, with no obvious ill effects. When Felix again returned to his “guest,” he complained of burping and had some excessive salivation, but nothing more. Nerves of the co-conspirators were beginning to fray. Felix decided to take a more direct approach. He took a revolver, and while Rasputin was distracted by a fancy cross, Felix shot him in the back. Rasputin gave a bestial cry and fell to the floor.

Dimitry and the doctor allegedly went for the car to destroy Rasputin’s coat and boots⁠—though they never completed their task for reasons unknown. In the meantime, Felix wanted to see Rasputin again, so he went and took another look. The body was still warm with small drops of blood coming from the wound. He lifted the body by the shirt and shook it and dropped it again to the floor. He then noticed that the left eye started to open, then the right eye. Suddenly the Rasputin leapt from the floor with a “devil’s look” in his eyes and a wild cry and attacked Felix. Felix struggled for a moment and broke free. Wounded Rasputin fell again to the floor.

The prince ran, calling for the revolver again. When the co-conspirators returned, Rasputin was crawling up the stairs. He made it outside and began to run through the snow near the fence crying, “Felix, Felix…I’ll tell everything to the tsarina!” In a panic, Purishkevich shot twice with the revolver, missing both, then bit himself on the wrist to make himself concentrate. He fired and struck Rasputin in the back. Then again in the head. Rasputin fell, holding his head.

Felix began to beat Rasputin with a rubber truncheon. Finally Purishkevich had him pulled off the body. They took the body back into the house and discovered that Rasputin was still alive. He wheezed with each breath and was able to look at them through one eye. Finally Dimitry and the doctor returned. The body was wrapped in a cloth and taken by car to the Niva river and dumped in.

Rasputin post-mortem
Rasputin post-mortem

That, at least, is the version that Felix Yusupov gave in a book he wrote from exile in Paris in the 1920’s. Some historians throw doubt on a few points of this version:

  1. The reason the wine did not poison him was that it was a weak mixture.
  2. The poison in the pastries did not affect Rasputin because he NEVER ate meat or pastries or other sweets.
  3. It was not Purishkevich who shot Rasputin, but Great Prince Dimitry. Purishkevich and Yusupov covered for the Great Prince. Everyone believed it was Dimitry, but the fact could not be argued with the other two pleading guilty. Even then, Dimitry was exiled to Paris.

When the body was retrieved two days later from the river, it appeared as if the Rasputin had tried to claw is way out from the ice. He died from drowning after being unsuccessfully poisoned, shot three times and beaten. He was buried in secret to avoid desecration. Thus ended Grigory Yefrimovich Rasputin.