This Day in History

January 1, 1917: 
Rasputin Found Dead
The following comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern WorldFor ordering information on Light to the Nations II and our other books, please click here.
OJanuary 1, 1917, the mangled corpse of the peasant, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, was found in the frozen waters of the Neva River, in Petrograd — the Russian city that until September 1914 had been called St. Petersburg. News of the finding spread quickly through the capital and cheered the hearts of all who heard it. Many Russians believed Rasputin had been the cause of the empire’s sufferings and defeats during the war.
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin in 1915

Rasputin already had the reputation of a holy man when he first came to St. Petersburg in 1903. Clad in monk’s robes and with a Russian monk’s long hair and beard, Rasputin was dirty, unkempt, and he stank. He was said, however, to be a healer. His dark, intense eyes seemed to hypnotize many on whom they fixed their gaze. He was first introduced to the family of Tsar Nikolai II and Tsarina Aleksandra in 1905. In 1908, Aleksandra summoned him to the royal palace when the Tsarevich Alexei had become desperately sick. The child suffered from hemophilia and was bleeding internally. With his seemingly mysterious powers, Rasputin calmed the boy. The bleeding stopped. As Rasputin left the palace, he warned the royal couple that in his hands lay their son’s life and the very future of the Romanov dynasty.

The “healing” of the tsarevich convinced Aleksandra that Rasputin was indeed a holy man and miracle worker. He soon became a powerful influence on the royal family. But Rasputin was not a holy man; while appearing devout, he lived a most immoral life. Moreover, Rasputin’s influence on the royal family won him many enemies. One of these enemies was Prime Minister Stolypin, who presented the tsar with a dossier of Rasputin’s immoral activities. After reading the report, Tsar Nikolai sent Rasputin from the capital. But he was soon to return, with disastrous consequences.
Rasputin (center) with the imperial
 family. Tsarina Aleksandra is to 
his left; Tsarevich Alexei, to his right.
In 1912, Tsarevich Alexei suffered an injury and began bleeding internally. The doctors were powerless to help the boy, and his screams of pain filled the royal palace. The desperate Aleksandra wrote a letter to Rasputin, and soon received this reply: “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The little one will not die.” The day after Aleksandra received Rasputin’s letter, Alexei’s bleeding stopped. The tsar allowed Rasputin to return to St. Petersburg, and the period of his power over the royal family began.
In September 1915, Nikolai II left Petrograd to take command of the Russian army. Aleksandra was left to rule Russia in his place – but it was Rasputin who became the real ruler. At his command, Aleksandra removed officials in the government and the Orthodox Church, replacing them with venal and incompetent men — the friends of Rasputin. He even had a say over the conduct of the war, for Nikolai, fearing to displease his wife, followed Rasputin’s advice. Rasputin’s immoral life was no secret in Petrograd, and stories of his evil influence over the tsarina spread among the nobility and down to the common people. He was believed to be a secret German agent and at the bottom of the Russian people’s sufferings and the defeats of their armies.
Though the Russian army was of an immense size (said to number 14 million men), it was badly equipped and poorly trained. By 1916, Russian soldiers, discouraged by their defeats, were discontented and mutinous. The Russian poor in the cities and countryside suffered from food shortages and high prices. The winter of 1916-1917 was extremely cold, but there was not enough coal for heating. The Russians were not only losing the war, but Russia itself seemed near to collapse. The nobility, the people, and the soldiers suspected treason, and they thought the arch traitor was the tsarina’s confidant, Grigori Rasputin.
A cartoon, 1917, lampooning Rasputin’s
 reputed control of the tsar and tsarina

At last, five conspirators, including Prince Felix Yusupov (married to the tsar’s niece) and Vladimir Mitrofanovich Purishkevich, plotted to assassinate Rasputin. On the night of December 29, 1916, Rasputin was invited to Yusupov’s palace on the Neva River. In the library, Yusupov served Rasputin cakes and wine laced with potassium cyanide, a deadly poison. Rasputin devoured the cakes and drank the wine, but the poison had no effect on him. Yusupov and his co-conspirators were surprised and frightened. “We were seized with an insane dread that this man was inviolable, that he was superhuman, that he couldn’t be killed,” wrote one of them later. “He glared at us with his black, black eyes as though he read our minds and would fool us.”

Prince Felix Yusupov

Yusupov left the room and returned with a pistol. He fired one shot and then another into Rasputin’s side. Rasputin fell, writhing in agony, but soon lay still. Thinking him near death, the men left the room; but when they returned, Rasputin was on his hands and knees. He sprang at them and then ran through the door and into the garden. As Rasputin stumbled into the darkness, Purishkevich fired several more shots. Rasputin fell, groaning. Frantic with fear, Yusupov kicked the head of the prostrate man and beat it with a rubber club. When it seemed that Rasputin was at last dead, the men wrapped his body in a sheet and carried it to the river’s edge. Breaking the ice, they threw the body into the bitter-cold water. But when the body was found two days later, its lungs were filled with water. Rasputin had not been dead when he was thrown into the river. He had died by drowning.

Rasputin was gone, but the evil he had wrought remained. The Russian people could not forget his association with the royal family. Their father, the tsar, had allowed a dissolute fraud to prey on his people, and they would not forget or forgive. Whatever love or loyalty the Russian people had felt for Nikolai had been washed from their hearts as if by the freezing waters of the Neva, the river that had killed Rasputin.
A Russian Plays Russian

The following is the Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19, by the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, performed by the great Russian violinist, David Oistrakh. Prokofiev composed the concerto in 1916/1917.