The legend of Grigori Rasputin, commonly referred to as simply, “Rasputin,” has a significant reach.  Even before I was aware of the tsarist government in Russia that allowed his rise to power, before I know who Tsar Nicholas II was, pop-culture had left me acutely aware of the Russian mystic that proved so difficult to kill, his death became the stuff of legend.  Like Aleister Crowley, those heavily involved with the occult look to men like Rasputin as undeniable proof of the power available to human beings if they could only master a twisted and darkly real version of Harry Potter’s spells.

Little is known about the early life of Rasputin, though there’s plenty of conjecture.  What we can surmise for sure is that he was likely born in January of 1869, and by 1897 he converted and joined the Russian Orthodox Church.  Despite holding no official position within the church, he managed to captivate church and social leaders while on a pilgrimage sometime between 1903 and 1905, and by November of 1905, he met the man who would be the final Tsar of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II.

Nicholas II had only one heir to inherent the throne, but the child’s hemophilia threatened to leave the Russian nation without a dynastic replacement for its leader.  Enter the mystic healer Rasputin, who captivated both the Tsar and his wife, Alexandra.

Soon, Rasputin had developed a powerful rapport with the Russian Tsar, and with many others in the nation.  Russians far and wide saw him as a powerful mystic, a magician, and even a prophet.  Still, many others within the Russian elite saw him as something else entirely: a charlatan, and more importantly, a threat.

Grigori Rasputin in 1916, shortly before his death.

The story of Rasputin’s death was relayed by the powerful Russians that claimed to have killed him, and seemingly eager to demonstrate their own power, they painted a picture that was in keeping with Rasputin’s reputation.  A group of Russian nobles, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and the politician Vladimir Purishkevich lured the mystic to Yusupov’s Moika Palace with an invitation from Moika’s wife.  According to their tale, they led the man to the cellar, where they fed him cakes and red wine laced with what should have been more than enough cyanide to kill “five men;” yet he remained unaffected.

Prince Yusupov grew concerned that the poison may be taking too long to take effect, allowing the man to survive the night and potentially to reveal their crime, so he spoke to his co-conspirators before coming back downstairs and shooting Rasputin in the back with a revolver.  After the shooting, the group chose to leave the palace for a bit, but Yusupov claimed that he returned to the basement for his jacket – only to have Rasputin’s body regain consciousness and lunge at him in an attempt to strangle his killer.  The other conspirators, apparently nearby, leapt into action, firing three more shots into his back.  Rasputin fell to the floor, and as they approached him to confirm he was finally dead, they were shocked to find him awake and struggling to get back to his feet.  They clubbed him repeatedly until he stopped moving, and according to some legends, they severed his penis for good measure, before binding him and wrapping him in a carpet like the victim in a poorly written movie.

The group of conspirators then, per their own accounts, tossed Rasputin’s body into the icy Neva River.  When his body was recovered days later, doctors claimed to find more than enough poison to kill a man in his system – but more interestingly – water in his lungs, suggesting that the Russian magician had survived the poison, shootings, beatings, and possible even the penis-severing, only to finally succumb to drowning when he couldn’t escape his carpeted prison.

Of course, the story was corroborated by those involved, eager to secure their own places in Russian history amidst a revolution that would end the Romanov Dynasty and the rule of Rasputin’s benefactor, Tsar Nicholas II… but can we really believe this account of events?  Could Rasputin truly have been immune to poison, maybe even to gun shots and blunt force trauma?  Could he really have possessed some kind of other-worldly power?

Chances are… no.  In fact, Rasputin’s death likely played out more like the end scene of a Bond movie, rather than something written by J.K Rowling.

“I am 99.9 percent certain of this,” claims Richard Cullen, a retired Scotland Yard commander who studied the case alongside Andrew Cook, an intelligence historian.

“There is a fair weight of evidence to show that Rayner was the man. We have conclusive proof that the previously accepted versions of events are fabrications.”

See, although Rasputin’s magical abilities are subject to doubt, his ability to manipulate people certainly wasn’t.  A religious “pilgrim” that somehow managed to secure a seat as the Russian Tsar’s most trusted advisor didn’t get there with card tricks, after all, and there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that Rasputin was brokering a deal on behalf of the Tsar with Germany – and it being 1916 meant such a deal could be disastrous for the Allied powers in the first World War.  Peace between Russia and Germany would free up hundreds of thousands of troops, and make the Western front of the war effort dramatically more difficult to win.

Oswald Rayner was a member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Bureau and was working at the Russian court in St Petersburg, not far from the location of Rasputin’s murder.  Forensic analysis of Rasputin’s body, and of images taken at the scene seem to contradict the legend, showing only three bullet holes in the magician’s body – each from different caliber firearms; one of which, was fired at close range, and directly to the forehead.

As it would turn out, Prince Yusupov, who did have real motive to kill the advisor to the Tsar, was also close friends with Rayner thanks to studying together in college years prior.  According to Cullen, that third and final shot that killed Rasputin came from the British spy’s gun.

By piecing together the evidence, Cullen and Cook were able to surmise that Rasputin was indeed shot in the back by Yusupov and his co-conspirator Purishkevich (accounting for the first two, different caliber, bullet holes in his body).  As they carried Rasputin’s body across the courtyard to the car, Rasputin likely began to twitch, which was when Rayner promptly dispatched the last remnants of life from the unconscious man via close range shot to the head.

Rayner’s cover was maintained by the British government, and on the Russian side by the conspirators that helped conduct the assassination, as their involvement made them heroes within the revolution.  This account of the events that took place that fateful night is supported by a memo on file that was sent between Rayner’s two superiors in St. Petersburg, John Scale and Stephen Alley, which read:

“Although matters have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ [a codename for Rasputin] has been well received by all, although a few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement. Rayner is attending to loose ends and will no doubt brief you on your return.”

If Rayner truly was responsible for the bullet that killed the very-mortal Rasputin, he never fessed up.  After leaving Russia prior to the end of the war, he took a job at The Daily Telegraph and served quietly as a Finnish correspondent until retiring to Botley, Oxfordshire to serve as a fund-raiser for his church until his death in 1965.  He was survived by one son, John Felix Rayner.  By Rayner’s own accounts, his son’s middle name, “Felix,” was in honor of Rayner’s good friend, Prince Felix Yusupov – whom history credits with the Russian wizard’s demise.

Rasputin’s final trick, however, has managed to take hold in the minds of many… as he continues to be revered by occultists around the world, and there’s something to be said for that.


Feature image courtesy of Getty Images

Additional image courtesy of the Millennium Report, DamnInteresting