The Death Of Grigori Rasputin, History’s Most Unkillable Man

Published July 11, 2021
Updated April 13, 2023

During the murder of Grigori Rasputin on December 30, 1916, his killers poisoned him, shot him, and drowned him — but the "Mad Monk" simply refused to die.

The death of Grigori Rasputin, a man who proved to be seemingly unkillable, is one of the most astounding stories in human history.

On the night of December 29, 1916, a group of nobles who feared the powerful holy man’s influence with Russia’s royal family summoned him to the home of conspirator Prince Felix Yusupov and began to execute their murderous scheme.

First, they poisoned him with tea and cakes that had been laced with cyanide, but he showed no signs of distress. Then he drank three glasses of wine, which had also been poisoned, and yet he carried on unfazed. By 2:30 AM, his dumbfounded killers huddled up in astonishment to figure out a new plan.

Death Of Rasputin

Wikimedia CommonsThe murder of Grigori Rasputin has become the stuff of legend.

Yusupov then took out a revolver, told Rasputin to “say a prayer,” and shot him in the chest before leaving him for dead. When the assassins returned to the body later on, Rasputin suddenly sprang up and attacked Yusupov before chasing his entire band of attackers into the courtyard where they bludgeoned him and shot him several more times — but still he wasn’t dead.

Finally, they had to wrap him up and toss him into a freezing river where he eventually succumbed to hypothermia. And that’s not even the whole story of how Rasputin died.

Grigori Rasputin’s Rise To Power

Grigori Rasputin

Wikimedia CommonsGrigori Rasputin in a Russian Orthodox monastery after his religious “awakening.”

Born in 1869 in relative obscurity to a peasant family in Siberia, Grigori Rasputin didn’t show much inclination to religion early on. His spiritual awakening came after visiting a monastery at 23.

Though he never took the holy orders, he rose to prominence as a mystical religious figure; more like an Old Testament prophet than a Russian Orthodox priest.

Dressed in dirty monk’s robes and unconcerned with personal hygiene, Rasputin would be the last person you would expect to be invited to attend the aristocratic events of St. Petersburg’s elite, but he was a singularly unique figure in the then-capital of the Russian Empire.

Employing a legendary force of will — some called Rasputin’s personality hypnotic, while others thought he wielded some dark, sinister magic — Rasputin climbed his way up the social ladder very quickly.

After Rasputin managed to charm some of the extended relations of the ruling Romanov family, he then used these connections to be introduced to the Tsar and Tsarina themselves, beginning a relationship with the Romanovs that would help bring down the Russian Empire and continue to affect events long after Rasputin’s death.

The Mad Monk Bewitches The Romanovs

Alexandra Feodorovna And Nicholas II Of Russia

Wikimedia CommonsThe Romanov family, last ruling dynasty of the Russia Empire: Tsarina Alexandra, Tsarevich Alexei, and Tsar Nicholas II.

When Tsarina Alexandra gave birth to her only son, Alexei, doctors discovered that he was a severe hemophiliac. The Russian people — already hostile to the German-born Tsarina — learned of the new heir’s debilitating condition and blamed the Tsarina for the boy’s affliction, causing the Tsarina considerable mental and emotional distress for the rest of her life.

Unable to find doctors who could cure her son’s condition, or even alleviate his symptoms, the Tsarina put her faith in Rasputin when he stepped forward and promised that he could treat the sickly child’s symptoms through prayer and faith-healing.

To this day, no one knows what Rasputin did to treat Alexei. Whether it was folk medicine, magic, or some sort of placebo effect, it appeared to work. While Alexei’s condition wasn’t cured, Rasputin — and only Rasputin — was able to moderate the boy’s symptoms.

Rasputin’s ability to treat Alexei’s hemophilia made him indispensable to the Romanovs and Rasputin knew it, exploiting his position to gain greater control over them.

Anxiety Grows Among Russia’s Aristocracy

Political Cartoon About Rasputin

Wikimedia CommonsA political cartoon mocking Grigori Rasputin and his relationship with the Tsar and Tsarina.

As enthralled as the Romanovs were, the Russian people were not, and soon pinned every calamity on Rasputin’s scheming — and it was largely justified. Rasputin had no idea how to run a country and the advice he gave to the Romanovs was dutifully followed as if it were religious instructions, which usually ended in disaster.

It wasn’t long before rumors were published in the press that Rasputin was the Tsarina’s lover and that he was bewitching the Romanovs with some form of dark magic.

Soon, the Tsar’s nephew-by-marriage, Prince Felix Yusupov, came to the conclusion that only Rasputin’s death would end his control of the Romanovs and restore the legitimacy of the Russian monarchy, which was quickly being destroyed by Rasputin’s actions.

Conspiring with other prominent monarchists — including the Tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, and Vladimir Purishkevich, a deputy in the Duma, Russia’s powerless legislative body — Yusupov set out to kill Rasputin and save the Russian monarchy from collapse.

The Death Of Grigori Rasputin

Rasputin's Assassins

The principal assassins of Grigori Rasputin: Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, and deputy of the Duma Vladimir Purishkevich.

In a memoir written many years after the fact, Yusupov provides a riveting first-hand account of the protracted assassination of Rasputin at his estate in St. Petersburg.

Having arranged to meet together for pastries and wine at his estate, Yusupov picked up Rasputin from his home and brought him to his palace.

To justify eating in the cellar, which had been soundproofed for the occasion, his hidden co-conspirators played records in a closed-off room on the main floor to convince Rasputin that Yusupov’s wife was hosting a small party.

This ruse worked, and the two went down to a furnished cellar to eat, drink, and converse about politics.

Yusupov offered Rasputin pastries and soon Rasputin began gorging himself on cakes that had been laced with cyanide, chosen specifically because they were known to be Rasputin’s favorite so were the most likely to be eaten by him.

Felix Yusupov's Cellar

Wikimedia CommonsThe cellar of Felix Yusupov’s estate on Moika, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the murder of Rasputin began.

Worried that the cyanide, which typically kills almost instantly, didn’t seem to be working, Yusupov invited Rasputin to have a glass of Madeira, pouring the wine into one of several glasses that had also been laced with cyanide.

Rasputin declined the glass at first, but Rasputin’s gluttony for wine quickly won out and he drank several glasses of wine from poisoned glasses.

One of Yusupov’s co-conspirators, a doctor, had prepared each dose of cyanide very carefully to ensure that everyone was strong enough to kill not just one but several men.

Yusupov began to panic as Rasputin appeared to consume enough cyanide to kill scores of men while. As Rasputin started to have some difficulty swallowing his wine, Yusupov feigned concern and asked Rasputin if he was feeling ill.

“Yes, my head is heavy and I’ve a burning sensation in my stomach,” Rasputin replied, before saying that more wine would be an adequate cure.

Using a noise upstairs as an opportunity to excuse himself, Yusupov left the cellar to confer with his co-conspirators who were shocked that Rasputin had resisted the effects of the poison.

Though they offered to go down as a group in order to overpower and strangle Rasputin to death, Yusupov decided that he should return alone and shoot Rasputin with a revolver instead.

Upon returning, Yusupov found Rasputin slumping in his chair and struggling to breathe. Soon, however, Rasputin appeared to recover and become more energetic.

Murder Of Grigori Rasputin

Ninara/Wikimedia CommonsA recreation of the cellar of Yusupov’s palace on the night of Rasputin’s assassination.

Fearing that the poison had failed, Yusupov stood up and paced the room to work up the nerve to shoot Rasputin. Rasputin stood up as well and appeared to admire the furnishing that Yusupov had brought down into the cellar.

Seeing Yusupov stare at a crystal crucifix on the wall, Rasputin commented on the cross, then turned away to look at an ornate cabinet on the other side of the room.

Yusupov told Rasputin, “You’d far better look at the crucifix and say a prayer.”

At this, Rasputin turned to Yusupov for several tense moments of silence.

“He came quite close to me and looked me full in the face,” Yusupov recalled. “It was as though he had at last read something in my eyes, something he had not expected to find. I realized that the hour had come. ‘O Lord,’ I prayed, ‘give me the strength to finish it.'”

Yusupov pulled out the revolver and firing one shot, hitting Rasputin in the chest. Rasputin cried out and collapsed onto the floor, where he laid in a growing pool of blood but did not move.

Alerted by the gunshot, Yusupov’s co-conspirators rushed downstairs. The doctor checked for Rasputin’s pulse and found none, confirming that Rasputin was dead, shot close enough to his heart to be immediately fatal.

After A Long Night, This Is Finally How Rasputin Died

How Did Rasputin Die

Wikimedia CommonsThe courtyard at the Moika embankment of Yusupov’s estate, where Vladimir Purishkevich shot Grigori Rasputin to death after earlier attempts failed to kill him.

The conspirators quickly set about establishing their cover story and separated into two groups, with Yusupov staying at Moika with the Duma deputy, Purishkevich.

Before long, however, Yusupov started feeling uneasy. He excused himself and went back down into the basement to check on Rasputin’s body.

It laid motionless exactly where they had left it, but Yusupov wanted to be sure. He shook the body and didn’t see any signs of life — at first.

Then, Rasputin’s eyelids start to twitch, just before Rasputin opened them. “I then saw both eyes,” Yusupov wrote, “the green eyes of a viper – staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred.”

Rasputin lunged at Yusupov, snarling like an animal and digging his fingers into Yusupov’s neck. Yusupov was able to fight Rasputin off and push him away. Yusupov ran up the stairs to the first floor, yelling up to Purishkevich, to whom he had earlier given the revolver, “Quick, quick, come down! … He’s still alive!”

Rasputin's Corpse

Wikimedia CommonsGrigori Rasputin’s body after it was pulled from the Neva River in St. Petersburg, after news of his death had already started becoming mythologized.

Reaching the landing on the first floor, Purishkevich joined him, revolver in hand. Looking down the steps, they saw Rasputin clawing his way up the stairs on his hands and knees, heading toward a side door leading out into the courtyard.

“This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil,” Yusupov wrote. “There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”

Rasputin shoved the door open and ran out into the courtyard. Terrified of what would happen if Rasputin got away and returned to the Tsarina, the two men gave chase.

Bolshoi Petrovsky Bridge

Dr.bykov/Wikimedia CommonsThe Bolshoi Petrovsky Bridge where Grigori Rasputin’s body was dumped into the Neva River.

Purishkevich was the first out the door, and he immediately fired two shots at the fleeing Rasputin. He missed, but then Purishkevich chased down the wounded Rasputin and from just feet away, fired two more shots.

One of the shots struck Rasputin in the head and he collapsed to the ground.

Yusupov had two loyal servants wrap Rasputin’s body in heavy carpets and tied with heavy chains. The conspirators then brought the body to a bridge over the Neva River and dumped it into an unfrozen patch of water below. After everything that had happened, he ultimately died of hypothermia in the freezing water.

The Fallout From Rasputin’s Death And The End Of The Russian Monarchy

Grigori Rasputin's Grave

Wikimedia CommonsThe supposed site of Grigori Rasputin’s grave, near St. Petersburg, where Tsarina Alexandra had him buried after his assassination.

Shortly before he was shot in Yusupov’s cellar, Rasputin — maybe knowing he was about to die or maybe just boasting — told Yusupov that he would ultimately prevail against his enemies who were plotting to kill him.

“The aristocrats can’t get used to the idea that a humble peasant should be welcome at the Imperial Palace … they are consumed with envy and fury … but I’m not afraid of them. …Disaster will come to anyone who lifts a finger against me.”

Rasputin’s words would be prophetic.

Grigori Rasputin Portrait

Wikimedia Commons; colorized by Matt LoughreyA colorized portrait of Grigori Rasputin.

In the hours after the assassination, Yusupov was filled with hope. Rasputin’s death was being openly celebrated in the press, violating the emergency censorship restrictions barring mention of the murder, and publicly celebrated in the streets.

“The country was with us, full of confidence in the future,” Yusupov wrote, “The papers published enthusiastic articles, in which they claimed that Rasputin’s death meant the defeat of the powers of evil and held out golden hopes for the future.”

The Tsarina knew that Yusupov, Pavlovich, and Purishkevich had killed Rasputin — even before Rasputin’s body was found, confirming that he was actually dead — but she couldn’t prove it. With their connections to the Imperial family, the Tsarina’s suspicions weren’t enough to prosecute the men. All the Tsarina could do was convince the Tsar to exile the Yusupov and Pavlovich from St. Petersburg.

February Revolution In March 1917

Wikimedia CommonsStudents and soldiers fighting with police in the streets of St. Petersburg in March 1917, three months after Rasputin’s death.

Yusupov soon grew disillusioned, however, when the restoration that Rasputin’s death was supposed to inspire never materialized.

“For many years,” he realized, “Rasputin had by his intrigues demoralized the better elements in the Government, and had sown skepticism and distrust in the hearts of the people. Nobody wanted to take a decision, for nobody believed that any decision would be of any use.”

Without Rasputin to blame for the mismanagement and failures of the Russian state, the public could only blame the one person who was ultimately responsible for their suffering: Tsar Nicholas II.

When the Russian people finally rose up in March 1917, it would not be in patriotic defense of the Tsar, as Yusupov has anticipated. Instead, it was to reject the very idea that there should be a Tsar at all.

After reading about how Grigori Rasputin died, read about Rasputin’s daughter, Maria Rapsutin, who became a dancer and a lion tamer in the United States. Then, check out these other theories about Rasputin’s place in the royal family.

Andrew Milne
Andrew Milne holds a Bachelor's in journalism from Fordham University and his work has appeared on Bon Appétit and Food Network.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Milne, Andrew. "The Death Of Grigori Rasputin, History’s Most Unkillable Man.", July 11, 2021, Accessed June 23, 2024.