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To Kill Rasputin
The Life and Death of Grigori Rasputin
By Andrew Cook
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Andrew Cook
All rights reserved.
Gorokhovaya Street was a sober sort of place – indeed, a household name for high-minded respectability because of its police station; the regulation coat worn by plainclothes men was popularly called a gorokhovayo. It was only a mile from the private palaces and vast public spaces of the fashionable centre of Petrograd (Russia's capital city St Petersburg, until the war made German-sounding names anathema). If you lived there you were prosperous enough. The residential block at number 64, a warren of high-ceilinged apartments with a huge carriage entrance, was well supplied with heat and light, which was more than could be said for a lot of dwellings in Petrograd in the freezing winter of 1916. The war at this stage had left even the middle classes short of essential supplies and most heads of household were struggling to provide their families with coal, lamp oil, food and clothing.
The head of the household at Apartment 20, 64 Gorokhovaya Street was Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, the tall, bearded spiritual advisor to Her Majesty the Tsarina, and he was a good provider. The flat was solidly furnished and even had a telephone. Rasputin himself had a motor car at his command. Wherever he went he was received with awe, and his supporters (though not his opponents) were convinced that he was a starets or holy man. Early on this Saturday morning, 17 December 1916, with the city still dark and blanketed with snow, the maid Katya Petyorkina was already up, had lit the lamps and was busying herself with the stove and the samovar when somebody knocked at the door.
The two visitors were officers of the Okhrana, the political police. The Okhrana was just one of nine separate forces working for the Tsar through Minister of the Interior Alexander Protopopov and Chief of Police Alexis Vasiliev, but it was the most feared. The Tsar, and the Tsarina in particular, insisted that the starets be protected, for they clung to him for emotional support as they struggled with their young son's bouts of ill-ness. The boy had haemophilia, an incurable disease inherited through the female line by some of the descendants of Britain's Queen Victoria. The Tsarina, who was Victoria's granddaughter, had acted as a carrier of the disease, and now lived in superstitious dread that if anything befell Rasputin her son's life would be at risk.
All the same, Katya Petyorkina, Rasputin's two teenage daughters, Maria and Varvara, and his niece Anya who also lived in the apartment, knew they should mind what they said around these people. Everything got back to the Tsar in the end and there were things he was better off not knowing.
The two agents wanted to talk to Rasputin; they didn't say why. But when Katya went to Rasputin's bedroom to wake him up she found that he had not yet come home. This was unusual.
Maria, Varvara and Anya rose hurriedly and dressed. One of the Okhrana men went off to find whoever had been in charge of the block overnight, and got hold of the yard superintendent. He confirmed that a big car with a canvas hood had rolled up after midnight. He had spoken to its passenger, had seen this passenger being welcomed by Rasputin himself at the back door, and later he had seen both Rasputin and the visitor leave in the car towards the city centre.
Back in the flat, the Okhrana men heard whispering and murmuring between the girls and the maid. When they questioned Katya, a woman of twenty-nine, she admitted that somebody had called at the kitchen door at the back of the flat at around half-past twelve the previous night, and Rasputin had gone out with whoever it was. She slept in a curtained-off corner of the kitchen, and she had heard voices. That was all she had to say.
The girls volunteered no more. They were worried. The two taciturn snoopers remained on the premises, and one of them muttered into the telephone. Other people would start turning up soon. People came every day to see Rasputin and hear him talk. These days he was at his best in the morning, before he'd had a drink.
Maria, at nineteen the elder daughter and already engaged to be married, knew her father had expected to go out with Prince Felix Yusupov (known to his friends as 'the Little One') to the Yusupov Palace in the middle of the night. He had told her so and she wouldn't forget something like that – she knew what the inside of a palace was like, having been privately presented to the Tsarina, and she had heard that Yusupov's houses were as splendid as the Winter Palace itself. She had even walked past the endless yellow and white frontage of the one on the Moika. She knew Yusupov only by sight; he was a tall, slender, epicene young man.
At about eight o'clock, Rasputin's niece Anya, a smart and resourceful girl, telephoned to Maria (Mounya) Golovina – most likely out of the hearing of the Okhrana men. Mounya was the friend who had originally introduced Rasputin to Yusupov, but Rasputin had specifically instructed his daughters not to tell Mounya where he was going the previous night because Yusupov didn't want her tagging along uninvited. Mounya was older, about thirty like Yusupov, and an educated woman who drank in everything Rasputin said. She had a pale, tight little face and was forever at the flat. A good many of Rasputin's hangers-on were well-off women like her, who wore furs and smart hats with aigrettes and well-cut, tailored suits, even in wartime. But Mounya was a good sort.
Anya asked Mounya to call the Little One and find out what was going on; she thought he might have been going out with her uncle last night. Mounya confirmed that Rasputin had said that he was going somewhere special, but she said that if he had gone out with Felix Yusupov they'd probably have gone to the gypsies. That meant going out to the Islands and dancing and drinking all night, so they would still be asleep, and there was nothing to worry about. He would be home soon. She would be over later.
Rasputin's close friends, Aron Simanovich and Father Isodor, arrived a little later. They were already concerned because Rasputin had told them where he was going and promised to telephone to say he was safe, but he had not done so. Out of consideration for the girls' feelings, they did not add that they had already made enquiries at the police station at 61 Moika and had heard rumours of trouble at the Yusupov Palace opposite. Ivan Manasevich Manuilov, another man whom the girls knew, came in, and then some ladies – it was normal for a crowd to gather at Rasputin's home. The samovar was kept steaming and conversation wandered, while anxiety increasingly nagged at Rasputin's two daughters; Simanovich was obviously on edge, and nobody would tell them why. The sisters knew their father had become important in this city. It wasn't everyone who got phone calls from the Tsarina herself. He was the peasant who consorted with royalty. Often he was called to the royal residence at Tsarskoye Selo several times in a week. At school there were girls who sneered at them behind their back for having come from Siberia and being the daughters of an unlettered muzhik (peasant), but their father had influence, and those girls were somehow wary of the Rasputina sisters.
They wished he would turn up; it was mortifying. All these women – they only hoped he would be sober when he did. The Okhrana men asked a lot of questions but nobody could tell them anything. Having made their first communication back to headquarters the two officers remained on the premises, waiting.
Fifteen miles from the city centre Her Majesty the Tsarina Alexandra was at home with her four daughters at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. It was one of many mansions on the royal estate, one of which belonged to her great friend, Anna Vyrubova, a portly woman who looked older than her thirty years.
It was Vyrubova who got a call from Mounya Golovina that Saturday morning. She learned that Rasputin, 'Our Friend' as he was known to the imperial couple, had gone out the night before and failed to return home. It is possible that something was also said about Yusupov.
Vyrubova herself had received death threats in the past. Rasputin's enemies thought that he, Vyrubova and the Tsarina made up a malevolent triumvirate of power behind the Tsar. At this time she was spending her days in her own home but sleeping at the Alexander Palace, to which the Tsarina had invited her for her own protection. Vyrubova made the Tsarina aware that Rasputin's absence was giving cause for concern.
Back in the city, the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov, had received an early-morning tip-off from the Governor of Petrograd, Alexander Balk, that Rasputin was rumoured to have been shot at the Yusupov Palace in the early hours. As a result, Protopopov made an incognito visit to Rasputin's apartment and discovered that he had not returned home.
Later that morning Protopopov signed Decree No.573 initiating an immediate and secret investigation into the 'disappearance of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin'. As chief investigator, Protopopov appointed General P.K. Popov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Corps of Gendarmes. Popov was an energetic and dedicated investigator who specialised in political enquiry. Prior to 1914 he had been head of the city's Okhrana Department. His first move was to descend on the policemen who had been called out to the Yusupov Palace and the officers stationed on the opposite side of the canal and take statements. Viewed from the police station, all arrivals and departures at the tall central doors of the palace across the canal were illuminated as on a distant stage. And how sound carries across water. Last night something had been going on all right, specifically in the courtyard in front of a house that adjoined the palace. That house was less imposing than the main building and set back from the road, but it too belonged to the Yusupovs.
Soon, a carefully worded telegram was sent to the Tsar at the Stavka, the wartime Army Command Headquarters at Moghilev several hundred miles south of Petrograd, stating that, on the night of Friday 16 December,
by house 94 on the Moika owned by Prince Yusupov, a policeman on duty heard a few revolver shots and was soon invited to the study of Prince Yusupov, where he himself was and the unknown person who introduced himself as Purishkevich. The latter said 'I am Purishkevich. Rasputin is dead. If you love the Tsar and the homeland, you'll keep your mouth shut.' The policeman reported this to his superior. The investigation conducted this morning has established that one of Yusupov's guests, about 3.00a.m., was shooting in the courtyard adjacent to building 94 that has an entrance leading directly to the Prince's study. A human cry was heard and the sound of a departing motor-car. The shooter was in a field uniform. The immediate examination of the snow revealed blood spots. When questioned at the City Governor's Office, the young prince stated that he'd had a party that night, but Rasputin was not there.
Enquiries at Rasputin's flat at Gorokhovaya 64 revealed that on the 16th December at 9.00p.m. Rasputin, as he always did, left the bodyguards attached to his flat and the motor-car, telling them he would not be going out that night and to get some sleep. The interrogation of domestic servants and the yard man established that at 12.30a.m. a big canvas-covered motor approached, in which sat an unknown person and the driver. The unknown person went through the back door to Rasputin's flat, where the latter appeared to be expecting him, since he greeted him as an old acquaintance and went out with him through the same back door. They got in the car and drove down Gorokhovaya Street towards Morskaya Street.
Rasputin has not returned home and efforts to find him have so far proved unsuccessful. There are strong grounds to assume that he was shot in Yusupov's courtyard, his body taken out of town and hidden away.
This Okhrana briefing went directly to the Tsar in person. The idea that Rasputin might have been murdered would appal him. The scenes the Tsarina would make; the blame, the resentment, the hysteria. On the other hand, he might now regain some authority in his own household ...
The naming of Vladimir Purishkevich, a well-known member of the Duma (parliament) and monarchist loudly opposed to Rasputin, would have dismayed Tsar Nicholas, but not as much as the mention of Prince Felix Yusupov, who was married to his niece. He must also have been concerned to learn that his second cousin and one-time protégé, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, had also been present at the Yusupov Palace that Friday night. But Dmitri had always been close – too close – to Felix.
That afternoon the Tsarina – German by birth, but brought up in England – scribbled a frantic note to the Tsar at the Stavka in her sometimes incoherent Russian.
We are sitting together – can imagine our feelings – thoughts – our Friend has disappeared. Yesterday A[nna Vyrubova] saw him and he said Felix asked him to come in the night, a motor wld fetch him to see Irina ...
This night big scandal at Yusupov's house – big meeting, Dmitri [Pavlovich], Purishkevich etc. all drunk, Police heard shots, Purishkevich ran out screaming to the police that our Friend was killed.
Police searching ...
Felix wished to leave tonight for Crimea, [I] begged Kalinin [Protopopov] to stop him ...
Felix claims He never came to the house and never asked him. Seems like quite a paw [a trap]. I still trust in God's mercy that one has only driven Him off somewhere ...
I cannot and won't believe he has been killed. God have mercy ...
... come quickly – nobody will dare to touch her [Anna Vyrubova] or do anything when you are here. Felix often came to him here ...
Protopopov sent a memo to the head of the Palace Guard, General Voikov. Voikov was not at Tsarskoye Selo this weekend. Protopopov's note contained more information about what Rasputin had been wearing – 'an expensive shirt and a fur coat' – and added that a party had taken place at the Yusupov Palace the night before and the Gendarmerie had now begun a full investigation.
For my part I have directed that the investigation is to be conducted according to martial law in order to have all the circumstances of the case elucidated thoroughly and without delay. In accordance with Her Majesty's orders kindly go on Monday directly to Tsarskoye Selo without calling at Petrograd on your way.
Mounya Golovina had rung Yusupov as she promised. She knew he was staying at the palace of his father-in-law Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, further along the Moika, while his own set of apartments at the Yusupov Palace was refurbished. The servants told her 'they' were still asleep; which supported her theory that Yusupov and Rasputin had been out at the gypsy encampment.
When she arrived at Rasputin's apartment on Gorokhovaya Street it was full of people, some looking concerned yet reluctant to voice fears that might distress Rasputin's daughters. The girls were very tense. Mounya made some excuse to take Maria out with her to order more refreshments, and together they made their way past snow piles down the salt-strewn street to a local fruit shop, which had a telephone. Mounya made the call, but this time the servants told her Yusupov had gone out. She left a message. They went back to the flat, hoping that he would soon ring her back.
A couple of miles north, across the wide River Neva separating fashionable Petrograd from the St Peter and St Paul Fortress and the well-wooded Islands, a bridge guard called Fyodor Kyzmin began his shift at midday. The Little Neva here separated Petrovski Island from Kristovski Island. Kyzmin had to trudge across the long, wide bridge every hour.It was covered in thick snow and any trace of recent crime would be visible. At about one o'clock, he was completing his usual round under a lowering grey sky in a temperature a couple of degrees below zero when some passing workmen told him that further back there was blood on the bridge, its barrier and its support, and a shoe lay on the ice below. He went to check and found that they were right. He hadn't noticed this before. He went to fetch a policeman, who, having checked, also found that they were right, and went to fetch an inspector, Asonov. They all came back and the inspector took measurements, made notes, and induced Kyzmin to fish about with a boat-hook and retrieve 'a man's galosh and a worn brown shoe, Size 10, manufactured by Treygolnik'.
Not wanting to stir up trouble, Inspector Asonov put in a report early in the afternoon.
The search of the water space opposite the location mentioned in the statement, where the ice had not yet covered the water and pools of water had formed, was conducted and did not reveal anything suspicious. Removed galosh and shoe were handed to the guard Fedor Kyzmin until further instructions are given.
Excerpted from To Kill Rasputin by Andrew Cook. Copyright © 2011 Andrew Cook. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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