A Book Review by Charlotte Zeepvat

THE MURDER OF GRIGORII RASPUTIN: A Conspiracy That Brought Down the Russian Empire, by Margarita Nelipa
[Gilbert’s Books, Canada, 2010] paperback; 639 pages, 142 black and white illustrations in text. $39.00
This review is reprinted from the No. 3, 2010 issue of Royalty Digest Magazine, published by Ted Rosvall

The first time I visited the Yusupovs’ Moika Palace in St Petersburg, where Rasputin was murdered, the guide sat our party down in a circle in the murder room and told us Felix Yusupov’s account of the murder with relish, sparing no details – the poison, the gunshots, the victim with superhuman strength who refused to die, the body not allowed to rest in earth. It was a powerful performance and by the time she had finished we were ready to jump at our own shadows. The last time I visited, some six years later, the mood had changed beyond recognition. Another guide described a historic crime. She reacted with horror to suggestions that the murder might have been necessary, and to suggestive comments about Rasputin’s sexual exploits: that Western visitors could believe such terrible things about the man was as distressing to her as it was totally baffling.

Between the chilling drama and the cold crime scene, the ‘Holy Devil’ and the saintly victim, lies an intense and ongoing re-evaluation of imperial Russia and its end. Russians are reclaiming their own history, with the aid of documentary evidence long forgotten or concealed, and many of their conclusions stand in stark contrast to the received view built up by generations of writers in the West. The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin is a case in point. Margarita Nelipa is of Russian extraction and has delved deeply into Russian sources, from the findings of historians working today on the last Tsar’s Russia to obscure material published in the country in the years between the murder and 1924, when the Soviets closed the archives. She draws on a formidable range of Russian-language material to present an account and an interpretation of Rasputin’s murder which is quite different from anything that has gone before, in English at least. She also adds her own perspective as a trained pathologist with a background in legal studies, These elements combine to make this a book which no reader with an interest in the period can afford to ignore, however challenging they may find it.

After an introduction setting out her sources, her approach to the subject and her reasons for writing, Margarita Nelipa begins the text proper with a 100-page examination of Rasputin’s life and career. Her account is clear, factual and supported at every stage with references; when she wishes to insert a comment of her own it appears in square brackets. This seems a little strange at first but it makes the point that in a field so beset with claim and counter-claim, sensationalism and downright invention, the author has been at pains to stay within her sources and evaluate the information they present, without placing her own construction on them.

The Rasputin who emerges from her pages is a man with no education, brought up on the land by parents who were decent – by Siberian peasant standards – but not wealthy. Unlettered, he showed himself from boyhood to have a sharp memory for Bible verses and in his teens began to make pilgrimages to religious sites, an accepted part of the Orthodox tradition. On a visit to the Abalak Monastery, about 150 miles from home, he met a girl from the next village to his own and after a six-month courtship they married (Grigorii was then 18). They lived with his parents and would go on to have seven children, only three of whom survived.

What must immediately strike any reader familiar with other accounts of the Rasputin story is the ordinariness of this one. There is no horse stealing in this version, no piercing, hypnotic eyes and no sex (apart from an unremarkable marriage). Later – and I find this very telling – Margarita Nelipa also denies that Rasputin had any mysterious powers of healing. The man she describes could have been any man, and in view of where she is taking her reader, this is important. She explains how, at 23 years old, Grigorii’s curiosity about religion took over from his mundane life on the land and he set off on foot for the Svyato-Nikolayevskii Monastery, a distance of some 300 miles, where he was to spend several months learning to read, and engaged in discussion, study and prayer.

Grigorii Rasputin had become a strannik – not a staretz: Nelipa is clear on about this. To be a staretz, she explains, involved withdrawal from the world into a life of prayer. A strannik was a wanderer valued in Russian peasant villages for his knowledge of scripture, his wisdom and his high moral standards, and a strannik, she says, is all Grigorii Rasputin ever claimed to be. He returned to his village pious, vegetarian and, for a time, teetotal, and pilgrimage became his way of life, taking him to religious sites all around Russia and as far afield as Greece; on the way he gained insight and experience and a fund of stories. His returns home saw him becoming increasingly popular in his village, where people would seek him out for advice or just to listen. In 1904 he set out for St Petersburg with a recommendation from a Bishop in Kazan, hoping to meet Father John of Kronstadt and to raise money for a new village church.

The clergy in the capital were impressed by Rasputin’s simple faith and his scriptural knowledge. Father John singled him out for a special blessing – an unusual gesture, stories of which spread around the capital – and a secret council of Bishops selected him as a suitable person to be introduced to the Empress, to answer her questions on the church. Hence Rasputin’s meeting with the Montenegrin sisters, Grand Duchesses Militsa and Anastasia, and through them, with the imperial couple. The Tsar and the Empress took to him. There were few meetings between them to begin with: six months passed between the first and the second, then another three months, but steadily over the years the strannik gained an ease of access to the imperial family that others could only envy.

With his rise came the rumours. Nelipa describes a series of enquiries into claims that Rasputin belonged to the forbidden Khlyst sect whose worship included group sexual activity. The Bishop of Tobolsk launched an investigation in 1907 and found no evidence whatsoever. The Empress sent a cleric to Siberia in 1908 (so she was not so blinded to her favourite as some have said). He examined the findings of the Bishop’s enquiry, asked questions of his own and returned with the reassurance that Rasputin was a true believer. In 1912 a new Bishop of Tobolsk reopened the enquiry, met Rasputin in person and still returned the same verdict. His report concluded that in launching the initial enquiry his predecessor had taken the part of ‘enemies of the Throne’. He also examined Rasputin’s financial affairs and showed that all the gifts and donations the strannik received were used to benefit the church and community in Pokrovskoye, his home village.

This flies in the face of everything we have been told or read about Rasputin but supposing, just supposing it is true. What complexion does this put on the other familiar elements of the unfolding drama? On the attitudes and actions of those members of the imperial family who tried to warn the Tsar and Empress against Rasputin and would later speak out in defence of the murderers? On the murderers themselves? Every other account of events I can think of, even in books sympathetic to the imperial couple, is written on the assumption that Rasputin was a bad lot who needed to be removed, by violence if necessary, in order to save Russia. So his detractors were right to be alarmed, they were right to warn, and Nicholas and Alexandra were inexplicably obstinate in their refusal to listen. Time and again we have been told that the couple clung to Rasputin simply because the Empress believed that only he could keep her son alive, and in doing so they sealed their own fate.

But supposing the truth lies elsewhere? Margarita Nelipa traces a history of attacks on Rasputin which began with the jealousy of a few individuals – the village priest in Pokrovskoye, for example, who conceded to the 1912 enquiry that his charges of Khlyst activity were untrue; Rasputin’s first patrons in the capital, the Montenegrin Grand Duchesses and the monk Iliodor, who were annoyed to lose control of their protégé. Despite the enquiries that proved them false, these attacks continued and would later play into the hands of political opponents whose real target was the throne. Nelipa quotes a comment from the family’s doctor Evgeny Botkin, written in 1913; ‘If Rasputin did not exist, then the adversaries of the Imperial Family and the preparationists of the revolution would have created him with their own babble from Vyrubova, if no Vyrubova from me, from whomever you want.’ Sexual innuendo is still one of the most effective ways to destroy an opponent; it tends to be believed and, once aired, its taint never really goes away. If Rasputin was innocent as Nelipa argues, then it was his detractors within the imperial family and outside it who were wrong and were playing into the hands of those bent on destroying the throne, while the Tsar and Empress understood who was driving the campaign against the strannik and saw where it was likely to lead.

The conspiracy of the book’s title draws in all those in the higher echelons of Russian society who resented Rasputin and spread and believed the gossip about him. At its heart, Nelipa argues, were those who used him to serve their own political ends and the members of the Tsar’s own family who allowed themselves to become involved. Their involvement moved steadily from urgings and warnings to the conviction that Rasputin must be removed at all costs. Margarita Nelipa is particularly critical of the Dowager Empress for swallowing the accounts presented to her of Rasputin – a man she had never met – rather than believing the word of her son; for continuing to press for Rasputin’s removal and for her rising hatred of her daughter-in-law. And Nelipa singles out another figure as having masterminded the whole sorry business: Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich. Margarita Nelipa believes that he was behind the murder plan, and another, similar one, earlier, which was foiled before it could happen: she claims that he drew Felix Yusupov and Dmitri Pavlovich into his plans and persuaded them to act.

The existence of some form of Grand Ducal plot against the imperial couple is not new, of course, it has been discussed for decades. The new element introduced by this book is Rasputin’s innocence, and that, if we are prepared to accept it, stands the whole subject on its head. Felix Yusupov’s account of the murder has gone substantially unchallenged ever since it was written. Looked at from the perspective of this book it is shown up all too clearly as a clever piece of folklore – the handsome prince overcoming a demon. Its details are well-known: the cakes and wine laced with cyanide which had no effect; the bullet fired directly at the heart which appeared to have killed Rasputin – until he revived and attacked his attacker, after which he was able to climb the stairs, run out across a courtyard, and, despite four more shots, still appeared to be alive. ‘’I realized now who Rasputin really was. It was the reincarnation of Satan himself. . . .’ This de-humanizing of the victim effectively blunted the sensibilities of the murderers, their relatives and generations of readers to the awfulness of the crime.

But the account Margarita Nelipa pieces together from police photographs of the body and from an article written by the pathologist, Professor Kosorotov, in 1917 (his actual autopsy report has not been found) is altogether different. First, there was no poison in Rasputin’s body but only alcohol. Second, there was no bullet to the heart. A gun had been fired within millimetres of the body on the left side, the bullet passing right through and causing severe damage to the stomach and liver. Nelipa uses this evidence to suggest that Felix had actually made Rasputin drunk, fired the gun while he was insensible and left him for dead. And as Rasputin was no Satan, but simply a defenceless man, he would have died from this wound alone but had a brief window of opportunity – perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes – when he was still capable of walking. Once alone he was able to drag himself up the stairs and open the courtyard door before his killers heard and caught up with him, but there was no dash across the courtyard: a second bullet, fired into Rasputin’s back from a distance, damaged his right kidney and lodged in his spine: police photographs of the scene show a large amount of blood on and around the doorstep which was tested and found to be his. This bullet would have incapacitated Rasputin and, again, would have led to his death. But even this was not enough. Rasputin was carried back indoors and badly beaten about the head with a blunt instrument – perhaps a boot – while still living, then a gun was fired into his head at point-blank range. This would have finished him instantly so, contrary to popular belief, he was dead long before his body was thrown into the river.

The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin is a long, dense, closely argued book, offering a day-by-day examination of the police investigation and a description of the burial place and funeral, the political aftermath of the crime, the Tsar’s response, the public’s, the family’s… There is a detailed account of the exhumation of Rasputin’s body after the first Revolution and the disposal of his remains: at one point, apparently, they were held in a goods wagon on the Tsarskoselsky railway station: the newly-abdicated Tsar, returning under guard to his palace, would have passed them close by.

The text ends with a summing-up and conclusion, then the author offers no less than eight appendices: summaries of Rasputin’s circle of acquaintances, his addresses in the city, his meetings with the imperial family and his meetings with the family in the Tsar’s absence; a list of minsters appointed by the Tsar in 1915-16 (Nelipa argues that neither Rasputin nor the Empress played any part in these appointments); a series of compromising letters and telegrams given to the Tsar by the Minister of Internal Affairs shortly after the murder; an assessment of the forensic evidence; contemporary impressions of Rasputin and a summary of the main characters and what became of them. There are over fifty pages of source notes and a closely-printed bibliography occupying almost twelve pages and one howling, horrible omission. No index. A book of this size and complexity, a work of scholarship, intended and deserving to be taken seriously, should never have been published without an index. This is the only real criticism I have to offer.

As to the rest, well, the book contradicts a lot of things we knew or thought we knew about Rasputin and his life and death. Many readers will find its conclusions hard to take and some may not even try. I was sceptical at first, but I have to say that Margarita Nelipa’s account works for me in a way that other versions of the story never have. History is a matter of evaluating evidence and making choices: few things are set in stone. If you have an interest in imperial Russia and its fall you should at least read this book. What you make of it is up to you.

-- Charlotte Zeepvat

Charlotte studied medieval and modern history at Birmingham University and completed an MA thesis which explored the curious links between diplomacy, espionage and art collecting in the mid-seventeenth century.

Charlotte's writing career began in 1991 with Royalty Digest (a magazine to which she was principal contributor throughout its 14-year existence before moving on to its successor, Royalty Digest Quarterly). She is the author of five books:

(1999) Prince Leopold: The Untold Story of Queen Victoria's Youngest Son

(2006) From Cradle to Crown: British Nannies and Governesses at the World's Royal Courts

(2001) Queen Victoria's Family: A Century of Photographs 1840-1940

(2007) Romanov Autumn: The Last Century of Imperial Russia

(2004) The Camera and the Tsars: The Romanov Family in Photographs

She is currently working on a photographic study of royal dress in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Gilbert's Books (A Division of Royal Russia)
6 November, 2010


New Book on Rasputin Rewrites the Final
Days of Nicholas II and the Russian Empire


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