Rasputin, My Father and Me
by David Ross
“My father told me about Rasputin's eyes - his stare seemed to go right through people”
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The 1916 murder of the notorious healer is still wreathed in mystery - now a Polish woman believes she may know the truth about the death of the 'Mad Monk'.
It was another ordinary evening as 14-year-old schoolgirl Zosia Wierzbowicz and her parents settled down to watch a television documentary about Russia and the assassination of Rasputin. By the time the show was finished, the teenager’s world had been turned upside down and the seeds of a mystery that would fascinate her for the next five decades had been sown. Moments after the music from the closing credits faded her father said: “They’ve got that wrong.” He said the programme makers were mistaken about the poison used to kill the peasant mystic, claiming within minutes that he had helped kill the man known to his enemies as the Mad Monk in St Petersburg in December 1916. It was not quite what she had been expecting when the programme began.
Now a teacher in Inverness, Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser is writing a book about her late father, but has little to go on apart from childhood memories and a scrap of A4 paper with dates and place names written on it. However, she does recall, as a young child, hiding below a table with a large white lace cover in their north London home, as her father drank vodka with other Polish and Eastern European exiles.
They would talk into the night of old times, their hatred of the Soviet system and the Bolsheviks who had established it. The flames of history that had engulfed Europe in the first half of the 20th century still smouldered in that English living room. She learned that revolutionaries had laid waste to her father’s family estates and murdered his entire family. Her father, Jozef Wierzbowicz, was a Polish aristocrat born in 1898 near Boryslaw in the Ukraine, which, at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, was under the crown of Poland. He was the son of a count who owned vast amounts of land in the Ukraine, granted by the Polish king.
“As a young count he was sent to be brought up in the court of Tsar Nicholas II,” says Wierzbowicz-Fraser. “He did tell me that at court he learned to fight with a sword and to ride, because one of the great skills you needed to protect the tsar was to be able to ride like the Cossacks. I remember seeing the Moscow State Circus when I was a child and the Cossacks in it had this great trick when they charged under fire. They were able to slide under the belly of the horse without losing their grip. My father told me he could do that.”
She recalls two conversations with her father about the murder of Rasputin when she was in her early teens.
Her father explained how, although apparently possessed of healing powers, the holy man had become a hated figure in St Petersburg because of his drunkenness, promiscuity and venality, and, more importantly, his influence over the royal family, particularly the unpopular Tsarina Alexandra. This influence had been strong because of his apparent ability to treat her son’s haemophilia successfully. Some historians believe he could hypnotise people.
Many noblemen and women felt strongly that Rasputin, who was opposed to the First World War, had to be removed if Imperial Russia was to survive. Jozef Wierzbowicz, for one, agreed.
Rasputin’s death is still shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows for certain who killed him, why he was murdered, where he was killed, or even the cause of death. What is not in doubt is that his body was found in the River Neva on December 29, 1916. He had been poisoned, shot four times and badly beaten. It’s not known whether he drowned or was dead when he entered the icy waters.
“My father told me the poison they used smelled of almonds, as it was cyanide,” says Wierzbowicz-Fraser. “But the TV programme said it was arsenic or strychnine, which he said was wrong.
“He told me about Rasputin’s eyes – about his stare, which seemed to go through people. He told me of his friend Felix, who was also involved in the murder. It must have been Prince Felix Yusupov, whose name has long been associated with the assassination. Indeed, it is supposed to have taken place in the cellar of the Yusupov family’s palace.”
Her father also recalled how Rasputin had not died from the poison, how Yusupov had returned to the cellar four times to shoot him, and how Rasputin had made a grab for his would-be killer despite the attack. Finally Rasputin was bound and thrown into the icy waters of the River Neva.
Wierzbowicz said the conspirators had separated soon afterwards. “Certainly he appears to have left Russia and joined the Polish army within weeks of the event,” Wierzbowicz-Fraser says.
There is still debate as to what happened that night. For example, there is a theory that the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – or MI6 – was involved because Rasputin was using his influence at the royal court to press for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the First World War, and that one of its agents, a Lieutenant Oswald Rayner, attached to the SIS station in St Petersburg, might have actually shot Rasputin.
Wierzbowicz-Fraser, now 63, can no more prove her father’s account than can those who would blame the SIS. “I can’t say for sure what his role was in it all,” she says. “I just remember what he told me. He only talked to me of Rasputin twice. I tried to pursue him on the subject, but without success. My father was not the sort of man who would speak if he didn’t want to. But I felt immensely proud of him, that he had been involved in something so important.”
However, other subsequent comments made by her father stayed with Wierzbowicz-Fraser for decades, particularly his apparently intimate knowledge of the workings of the Lubyanka, the KGB’s HQ and prison in Lubyanka Square in Moscow, even down to the lighting being switched on 24 hours a day in the cells and how meals were served, as well as his description of Stalin’s “yellow, cat-like eyes” and lazy movement. It all suggested he had seen the Soviet dictator face to face. Now she wants to establish who her father really was.
There is a suggestion that Wierzbowicz had made a lot of money in oil wells in central Europe during the inter-war years, but every time his daughter gets an apparent lead, it soon disappears.
“It is a big, big search because all I really have of my father’s entire life is this piece of paper,” she says. “Some of it is written in Ukrainian, some of it in Russian, and some of it in Polish – pre-war place names that are difficult, if not impossible, to trace.”
Wierzbowicz-Fraser was born in London in 1947 and brought up in the English capital. “My mother was Polish as well so Polish was always the language of the house,” she says. “My father was fiercely Polish and I have inherited that. I remember getting a Teach Yourself Russian book which he took away from me. He wouldn’t let me learn the language because of his hatred of the Soviets, which had grown out of his family’s suffering at the hands of the Bolsheviks.”
Her upbringing may have taken place in the south of England but it was in Scotland that her parents met. Her mother was a nurse at Taymouth Castle, at the north-east end of Loch Tay, which served as Polish War Hospital No 1 during the Second World War. Her father was in the Polish Cavalry in 1939 and was wounded as Panzers swept into his country.
“I have his Polish Cavalry cap and an entry [on the sheet of paper] which says: ‘1939 Polish Army.’ Then: ‘Captured on September 24, imprisoned in Hungary. Escaped 1.4 1940 to Marseilles.’ Then something called Volandre. I have no idea what that means. Is it a place? Is it a Resistance group? He would have gone underground, of course. The next entry is: ‘June 20 landed in Greenock,’ and presumably he travelled from there to Taymouth.”
Her mother had arrived at Taymouth via a French convent where she had been sent for safety by her father, who later died as a result of the German occupation of Poland. Her mother’s brother, Henry, was a priest who had been taken to Auschwitz along with many other young Polish priests. He was in the same hut as Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who offered to die in place of a family man, and who was later canonised by Pope John Paul II.
“Uncle Henry survived, fed by a villager through the barbed wire, and was released when the Russians liberated the camp,” says Wierzbowicz-Fraser. “He told me how they had made rosaries out of tiny pieces of bread on threads torn from their clothes.”
After settling in London, her parents would take her on holiday to Perthshire and their old courting grounds around Loch Tay and Aberfeldy. These holidays inspired her to apply to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, mistakenly thinking its title denoted a semi-rural setting.
She had graduated as a teacher at Jordanhill by the time her father died on Christmas Day, 1974. After the war, he had been employed by the Polish Resettlement Corps, established by the British Government in 1946 as a holding unit for the Polish Armed Forces who did not want to return to Communist Poland until they adjusted to the civilian life in Britain.
Wierzbowicz later ran a fish-and-chip shop in Brixton and worked in a factory, but was often away for long, unexplained periods, including some time in Canada. Wierzbowicz-Fraser suspects he may have been involved with the SIS. “How am I ever going to find out?” she says. “I have written to the Home Office, but didn’t get a reply. I will keep trying.”
She says it all seems so far removed from her classroom, where she teaches religious, moral and philosophical studies after moving north from Glasgow in 1980. But not perhaps from her work for the Inverness Polish Association, which she has chaired since 2006, helping those newly arrived in Scotland from a homeland she has loved, but which has never been her home.
Until 2004 she knew of only one other person who spoke Polish in the Inverness area, the widow of a Polish pilot. Then in 2004 she was called to Fort William Sheriff Court to help in the trial of a Pole who was in trouble. That was the start of a Polish migration to the Highlands which was to eventually number about 4500. After years of linguistic isolation, Wierzbowicz-Fraser started to speak her language again.
“It was liberating, but my Polish was rusty. However, it has improved. If I have difficulty getting a word they put me right in the blink of an eye. I am told I no longer speak as though I am living in the 19th century.”
Note: With regard to the above article, Royal Russia stands firmly behind the findings of Margarita Nelipa's excellent and well-researched academic study of Grigorii Rasputin, published in 2010.
Source and Copyright: Herald Scotland