Rasputin: Russia’s Mad Monk
Text by Max Lovell-Hoare (Illustration by Justin Ong)
The animated fairy tale Anastasia is an imaginary story inspired by the possible survival of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, a 17-year-old Romanov princess, who may or may not have survived the brutal murder of her family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The villains of this version of the story are not the Bolsheviks, however, but the sinister Grigori Rasputin, who has cursed the Romanov family and is pursuing a personal vendetta to ensure that Anastasia, the last in the Romanov line, is killed.
The story told in Anastasia is more a work of fiction than fact: Rasputin was in reality murdered in 1916, 18 months before the assassination of the Romanovs; and DNA evidence extracted from bodies in 2007 confirmed, once and for all, that all the Romanov children died together in July 1918 and their bodies were buried along with those of their parents in the woods outside Ekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast, located in the middle of the Eurasian continent, on the border of Europe and Asia. Anastasia, sadly, did not escape.
Rasputin is still a mysterious figure, though, and public opinion of him during his lifetime, and immediately after it, was deeply divided. On the one hand, he was a religious man: he had spent time studying in a monastic seminary, wore the robes of an orthodox priest and was believed to have the power to heal the sick. It was his apparent ability to stem the bleeding of Alexei, the crown prince of Russia and a haemophiliac, that brought him close to the royal family and to the Tsarina in particular.
His critics, however, felt him to be dangerously manipulative, decried him as a rapist and child molester, and believed his interference in matters of state to be a major contributing factor to the downfall of the Romanov Dynasty. And then there is the matter of his death: unlike an ordinary man, this devil just wouldn’t die.
It is Rasputin’s death that is the stuff of legend, and also where my familial connection with the story emerges: Samuel Hoare, 1st Viscount Templewood, was a cousin of my grandfather. Hoare was MI6’s liaison officer with the Russian Intelligence Service in St. Petersburg, and the man who informed the British Government of Rasputin’s demise. In his own words, the event was so unbelievable that he was “writing in the style of the Daily Mail” because it was “so sensational that one cannot describe it [as] one would if it were an ordinary episode of the war”. Some Russian sources suggest that Hoare was even involved in the murder plot, but the authorised history of MI6, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (1909–1949), does not support this claim. The truth may never be known.
What we do know is that a frozen body was pulled from beneath the ice of the river in December 1916. The policeman who pulled out the corpse instantly recognised it as Rasputin, and the body was sent to the Chesmenskii Hospice for an autopsy. The doctor who examined it recorded that the corpse had been brutally mutilated: the right eye had been torn from its cavity; an ear was partially detached; the face had been beaten with a cosh, as had the genitals; the neck showed a wound from a noose; and bullets from at least two different guns had been fired at point blank range into the stomach and liver, a kidney, and through the forehead into the brain. There was also a weeping wound in the side of the torso.
Officially, Rasputin’s murderer was Prince Felix Yusupov, who claimed to have encountered Rasputin in the palace, and given him cakes laced with cyanide before shooting him through the heart. No trace of this poison was found during the autopsy, however, and the doctor’s report suggests the murder was a far more prolonged and arduous affair: Rasputin survived multiple injuries that in normal circumstances should have killed him, and it was the final bullet to the brain that actually finished him off. Even this was insufficient for the killers to be confident that Rasputin was gone for good, though, and so they dropped his body into an ice hole in the Malaya Nevka River, the southern distributary of the Bolshaya Nevka, immediately followed by his fur coat and some chains. This time he really was dead.