The Killing of Rasputin
By Lincoln Steffens
[Everybody's Magazine, October 1917]
The name of Gregory Rasputin is linked for all time with the great drama of revolt in Russia. Much has been written of the weird career, the evil power, and the destruction of this real ruler of the last of the Romanoffs. But the true story of Rasputin was never told until Lincoln Steffens brought it out of Russia only a few weeks ago. In last month's EVERYBODY'S Mr. Steffens recounted the growth of this sinister figure's power over Tsar and Tsarina. In the following pages he tells for the first time the full story of the killing of Rasputin and the part it played in the birth of democracy in Russia. The story was confided to Mr. Steffens by the assassins themselves. For sheer dramatic force, the bald facts as Mr. Steffens has set them down here have never been excelled in fiction.— THE EDITOR.
Gregory Rasputin picked with his own hands the woman to put him to death.
One evening, at a little party of the elect of Petrograd, he was attracted by the beauty and grace of a joyous young Grand Duchess who was enlivening the dull company with her wit and her playfulness. He watched her every move. She noticed it; everybody there did, and there was no mistaking the meaning of that peasant's fixed eye and moving mouth. His gaze meant what the look of a king means, or a beast of prey; it meant what the lust of any creature means that has the power to force its satisfaction.
Rasputin had power; his own and the Tsar's. He could win a woman, win her wholly, and he could give her husband a fleet to command or a term in prison. One of the exiles brought back by the Revolution was an officer of the guard who dared protest to the Tsar that his wife loved the favorite. Most dreadful of all, however, was the power which the primitive imagination of a superstitious public gave Rasputin, with his fame as a sacred healer, a religious devotee, and a satanic hypnotist. That's what drew the women and disarmed their men.
The Russians were afraid of Rasputin; men and women alike, they were hypnotized by their fear of his powers, natural and supernatural.
The gay young Duchess felt the danger. The wonder-worker's choice of her that evening filled her with terror. But she was full of courage, too, and pride, and strength. She went on with her merrymaking. Flushed and excited, she became even more wonderful, and the other guests, nervously aware of the possibilities of the situation, joined anxiously or cynically in the play. Only Rasputin was still. There was laughter, romping, applause, till suddenly he stopped it all. Rasputin rose from his place and, amid the startled silence of the company, crossed the room to the Duchess, and—"it was a way he had"—he laid his hands upon her. He laid them on her arm and shoulder, to caress her.
Rasputin's hands were not clean. Neither was he. A muzhik, he wore always the peasant's garb: a simple blouse over a simple shirt; breeches tucked in high boots. Ladies of the Court made him garments of silk and fine linen, and he wore their gifts, if they cut them peasant fashion. But he wore them too long at a time. And his long black beard and his long black hair were not carefully kept. Rasputin was a bit "greasy." He was so coarse and untidy that fine men wondered how fine women could stand him; and his specialty was fine women. Rasputin's career was a court career, and his victims were ladies.
The ladies declared it was his "fascinating, mesmerizing eyes'," and there is male, testimony to the effectiveness of his gaze. But it was his hands that he used most, and they were unclean, physically and spiritually; both to sight and touch. He used them, as the savages do, for everything. He ate with them. A glutton, he discarded knife, fork and spoon; he took up meat, fish—whatever he had to devour. He seized it with his two fists and, tearing it with his white teeth, like a wolf, got away with it lustily and aloud. Speechless while he fed, he would turn, when filled, and with those same half-wiped hands, paw the lady his ravenous eyes had been openly picking out all through the meal. It was indeed a way he had.
"The Fate of Rasputin"
The woman he had picked for this evening, the Duchess, felt the horror of all this. She froze at his touch. And the other guests, horrified at her horror, froze. They were Rasputin's friends. It was his circle, and most of the people there feared, revered, or loved him. They sensed the irreverence of her shock, of her loathing for him. And Rasputin got it, too. He took off his hands. He grimaced, laughed a little nervous laugh, but he took his hands off that woman.
She stood there a moment. "She stood there like a marble statue of Horror," as one narrator expressed it, "and then," he said, "she went on to pose for the 'Fate of Rasputin.'"
She went on with her gaiety. Recovering her self-possession, she pretended to be merry again, and she was fascinating. And she was fascinating to Rasputin. She meant to be. She threw him, glances, gestures, smiles to tempt him to think that, the first shock of surprise passed, she was feeling his lure and was sorry for her rebuff. Her purpose was forming. And Rasputin, vain and not proud, smirked, watched, and then, when he began to respond, gloating and munching, to her lure, she ran away.
She ran to the Prince. She told him about it. He was enraged and he was alarmed. He said he would kill the beast, and he started up to go and do it. But he trembled; he feared Rasputin. The Duchess knew he did. The Prince is an educated gentleman, trained in the best schools of Russia and finished at Oxford, England. But he shared the aristocratic Russian superstition about Rasputin.
The Prince believed that Rasputin was inviolable; that he could not be killed, and that whoever attempted to injure him would, certainly be cursed and probably sent to Siberia. And yet the Prince meant what he said, and the Duchess knew he meant it.
Wise men do all their acts, big and little, with much the same measure of wisdom and efficiency, but when a foolish woman undertakes a serious thing, she is apt to put into the doing of it more sense and power than her friends thought she had. The Duchess realized that her Prince intended to shoot or cut Rasputin down; and that he had the courage to try it. But she knew also that several equally gallant gentlemen of her class in Petrograd, impelled by similar affronts to their women, had gone forth to do this very same thing, and—they hadn't done it. This woman meant that, this time, it should be done. Her knight would not only prove his courage and attempt the vindication of his honor-—her Prince would do it.
So when he rose in his violent male rage to go straight away upon his mission, she stayed him.
"Yes, yes," she said in effect, "you shall go, but not now; not so."
She reminded him that Rasputin was carefully guarded. After the last attack upon his life, the Tsarina had ordered him to be surrounded constantly by detectives; and, to make assurance doubly sure, her detectives and his servants were to be foreigners, mostly English.
"You can't go to him and shoot or stab him," the Duchess told the Prince; "not just like that."
The impulsive man saw that the intelligent woman was right, and he was balked.
"But," he said, "it must be done."
She agreed. It must be done; yes, she said, and the Prince must do it. How? She told him how:
Since the Prince could not go to Rasputin and kill him, Rasputin must come to the Prince and be killed.
But how? How could that be brought about?
She told him that too:
Rasputin must be brought to her house to get her.
Rasputin could be brought to her house to get her.
The Prince, astonished and shocked, protested: "No!" But the woman reasoned it out for him.
She was what Rasputin wanted, wasn't she? Very well, then. Let the beast come there to get her. "And," she incited, "let him get me—or his death."
In a word, the lady offered herself for the lure; and as for the Prince and his motive: they would hint to Rasputin that the Prince aspired to a high command in the army or a portfolio in the Government, or anything that would cover and account for the lure. That was the main thing.
And there we have the reason why, in Petrograd, they speak with pride, but do not print, the name of the Duchess. They do not want it known abroad.
The Russians seem to think that we foreigners do not obey the injunction to "judge not," as they do in Russia; that we are prone to punish, not, like them, to understand; and they fear that, since we do not know all the justifying circumstances, we might condemn this woman for an act which struck the shackles from their minds and so released the spirit of Russian freedom.
But we Americans ourselves disobey that other commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." We say that "murder is murder," but we permit the practise of "justifiable homicide." And as for the Prince and his pretended price, we Americans do not all know it, but the trade of a man's wife or daughter for business or social promotion occurs among us also; it isn't common, and neither is it done often in Europe, but it happens in high society in all countries. It was a familiar phenomenon to Rasputin.
I am leaving out, as I promised, the name of this noble Russian woman who lured the Pilgrim to his fate; for good measure I am omitting the names of all the well-known assassins, and I have stated the circumstances which "justify" the crime; but to satisfy completely the Russian patriots, and make sure that their act is understood, I will sum up their view of it in their terms:
Why She Did It
The lady loathed the dirty peasant that put his possessing hands upon her. She felt about him as any upstanding creature feels about a crawling snake which has struck and will strike again. She had a human impulse to step on and crush Rasputin. She counted the fools he had made of women, the cowards he had made of men, and she wanted to save them. This, too, was human. And she had a class consciousness about him. A grand duchess by birth, she hated the low-born interloper who had crept into the imperial family and pulled the ears of the Tsar and the Tsarina—down to his whispering lips and away from those of the grand dukes and grand duchesses; turning them and the aristocracy out of the Court to whine and tremble, his slaves, in the courtyard.
She heard and she shared the indignation and the dread which the plutocracy wasted on Rasputin. She had seen it grow and spread till, from craven mutterings, it had ventured out into open, formal resolutions of the Council of Empire and even in bourgeoisie speeches in the Duma. And these denunciations, which demanded that the Tsar get rid of Rasputin, were all explicitly for "the good of the Tsar," "of the House of Romanoff," "of the dynasty," "of the monarchical form of government." Yes, the Russian Conservatives, all the Tory groups and parties—-Privilege—feared and, in plain speech, said that the influence and the scandal of Rasputin at Court was a menace to Things as They Are in Russia.
This class-fear was big in the mind of the little Duchess when she offered herself as the bait to bring her enemy to the point of the Prince's pistol. And she resented his perversion of religion and his degradation of her Church. But there was one other, more democratic motive at work in her. She accepted the common belief that Rasputin was the agent through whom Germany was designating or purchasing generals in the Russian armies, mismaking and misshipping ammunition, and directing millions of Russian troops into V-shaped swamps where von Hindenburg's Germans could slaughter them in blood and mud!
The lady believed, in short, that her beast was a traitor to God, man, and the Tsar; to her kind, to her class and to her country. And upon that conviction she acted deliberately; not impulsively, like the gentlemen, but slowly, surely, like the able woman she is.
When the Prince had stated his dainty scruples against her part in their purpose, she set them aside with her rude reason; and when he had bowed to her rude reasoning and proposed to proceed, he and she alone, she again said:
"No, not so fast. This must be planned."
They must decide just when to do it, and just where, and just how; whether to poison or shoot or both. And in order to provide against every contingency and make the end certain, there must be others in the plot.
They called in a few of "their friends; a very few; not more than half a dozen; all aristocratic, but each one chosen for a specific service. Two or three were there because of their power; they were men whose political and social influence was practically irresistible. They were a guarantee that, once Rasputin was dead and gone, there would be no indictments, no vengeance by the state. Others were called in for more active work. One of these was a doctor of medicine. He was to prepare the poison. For it was decided to use both poison and pistols; several pistols. The Prince was to do the shooting, but——
The Fear-Proof Plan
The Prince and the man of science, the doctor, all the men scoffed at the notion that Rasputin could not be killed. The woman's fear of the men's fear of the miracle-man, the men waved aside as womanly superstition. The doctor said he knew a concoction that would kill any normal human being and he averred that it would even lay a ghost. He would mix it with his own hands, and the Prince would administer it.
The Duchess rejoiced to hear the men all talking so bravely, and she counted on their courage, of course; but there was that deadly fear of Rasputin and it did set the men a-trembling. She had to count on that, too. She kept the plotters plotting till every possibility of failure had been considered and provided for. The Prince was to serve the poison, but he was to be prepared to shoot if, for any reason, the poison wasn't taken or didn't work; and then all the men were to be armed and ready to shoot if the first shot failed.
In other words, the woman's was the practical mind in this remarkable case. The plan was developed by all; everybody contributed to its perfection and it was worked out to careful completeness; but it was not put into execution until the determined young Duchess was satisfied that it would not merely express male rage and jealousy, but go through to a result. As it did.
On the night of December 20 (old style: our December 31), 1916, there was an illumination in the house of the Grand Duchess. It looked as if there were a ball within. There wasn't; only a few persons were present, a very few, the few who had planned the plot to kill Rasputin; and a very anxious few they were. Rasputin had been invited to call upon the Duchess. He had accepted the invitation. And the lady was there to see him. She had no intention of meeting her distinguished caller. The plan was to let the Prince go down to receive Rasputin and, explaining to him that there was a party above, entertain him till the Duchess could "free herself from the other guests." While he waited, poisoned cakes and wine were to be offered to the glutton. Since the Prince might be expected to partake also of the food and drink, the glasses were marked to distinguish the clean one from that which was poisoned, and there were to be red cakes and white cakes; the red were poisoned. And, to complete the illusion of a ball upstairs, they had brought in a music-box and a record—one record.
"I think," said one of the noble assassins, "I really believe that if I should ever again hear that, record played, I should collapse and I might go mad."
The Dance of Death
He wouldn't, but his hyperbole gives some indication of the state of mind of that group that night. Rasputin came late; he had trouble escaping his detective guards. Invited for about midnight, he didn't appear till after one o'clock. His enemies, ready beforehand, sat there waiting. It was terrible, they say. All primed to murder, anxious about their plan and fearful, not only of a slip, but secretly in dread of the uncanny powers of their supernatural prey, the suspense was an agony. There was nothing more to do, nothing more to say, and their part was to play they were at a ball. They must dance or make the sounds of dancing—-and since the guest must hear the music as he approached the house and afterward, that record had to be played and played and played, from eleven-thirty to midnight, from midnight till he arrived, and—afterward.
Accounts differ as to just what happened when Rasputin came. The published story had it that the whole group of men met him and, forcing from him a confession of his crimes, ordered him to kill himself. This is not true. Another tale has it that they gave Rasputin an opportunity to boast his political and social conquests; that they drew him thus into a complete confession and then, as if in high indignation, they fell upon; and slew him. There's truth in all this, but the fact is that the group did not receive Rasputin. The Prince alone did that, and just what took place between them, the Prince seems never to have told in detail, All the stories I heard, the stories which are essentially alike and undoubtedly authentic, were told from the point of view of the group up-stairs. But there's a difference between the facts and the truth; and the truth will help us here.
Rasputin was forever bragging. An eyewitness tells how once Rasputin pointed out a pretty Court dame and declared with a leer that she was one of his disciples. Receiving a polite expression of incredulity, he said he would "prove it." He called the lady to him.
"You wear my dirty old undershirt next your skin, don't you,?" he said. "Show it to me." And he made her reach into her bosom and draw forth the hem of his "old shirt."
Some day the Prince will tell his story, and we shall be sure. Meanwhile, however, those who know most about the action and the persons of this nature-made melodrama, agree that the probabilities are that Rasputin boasted and that the Prince listened to the history of the pilgrimage from Tiumen, Siberia, to Jerusalem, to Moscow, to Petrograd; while the Pilgrim drank wine, ate cake and waited for the Duchess to get rid of her guests up-stairs; while the Prince waited for the poison to work; and while the guests up-stairs waited for the Prince to come back and report Rasputin poisoned—or for the crack of his revolver.
The Terrible Hour
He had the weapon with him. They had asked him when Rasputin was announced, and he had tapped it to assure them and himself, as he left the room to go below. They had watched him go, pale, but determined; trembling, but nerved up to do his part. They watched, and they tried to listen, but couldn't hear. That record! It clamored, and their dancing feet shuffled. And then when the music ceased, and they could harken, there was silence down there. They couldn't catch even the murmur of voices; nothing, nothing but the silence. Their imagination sickened.
Maybe the visitor was a supernatural monster. He could read the mind. Had he divined the Prince's purpose? He hypnotized people. Had he hypnotized the Prince? Wasn't he holding the Prince in his power right-now?
"Start the record," and the music, the crazy music danced. And they made their feet dance. Their spirits would not, could not dance. Mad for silence, mad to listen, they had to make a noise. Charged for action, they had to wait, minute by minute, for a quarter, for half an hour; for—
"He Still Lives!"
They don't know how long it was they waited, for it terminated suddenly. But they do remember that it was long enough for the poison to work—if it was going to work. The doubt about that, the uncanny fear that gripped their minds, came out upon their faces. Could Rasputin be killed? They looked to the doctor for the answer. He declared again that his mixture would cause "instant death," but his face betrayed him; his fellow-conspirators read his fearful doubt and they quailed. They were in a panic, when they heard the Prince coming.
He. came running; quietly, very softly, but as swift as flight he fled up those stairs into that room.
"God! oh, God!" he whispered. "He has eaten all the cakes and drunk all the wine, and he lives. He lives!"
The doctor fainted. They were all struck sick by the conviction that felled the doctor.
Rasputin was inviolable; he really was. He could not be poisoned. He could not be shot.
They fluttered over the doctor, and he came to. And he came up repeating that the poison he had mixed was certain death to any normal being, certain and quick. The Prince pointed down the stairs.
"He lives," he said. "He took it all, and—he lives."
The doctor was appalled. They all were appalled. And they had to go on. The Duchess said they must, and they nodded. They must go on with their plot. They turned to the Prince. He was to shoot, if the poison failed; that was the plan. He remembered.
"Da, da," he said, "yes, yes, I'll do it. I'll go back down there, and—yes, but give me a moment, one minute——"
And he was gone. He cut himself short and he went "back down there" to do the terrible thing he was sure now could not be done!
The others watched him go. They, too, were sure now. They crowded to the door to see him go down those stairs, and then when, erect and bold, he disappeared, they listened for the shot or-—. Not long. They had barely time to recover, and had just started the record, the maddening dance-music, when they heard the shot—a crack, and again a crack.
They don't agree as to the number of the shots. All they are sure of is that they heard "something fall," and that there was another wait, another long silence below, before the Prince reappeared. He came slowly, climbing heavily up to them. Had he?
"Yes," he said wearily. "It's done. He's dead. He's on the big rug. He bled down the leg, out of one boot. I put his feet up on a chair. He is lying on the rug with his feet up on the chair."
They waited. They heard; they pictured it, but they waited till the Prince said dully:
"You must all come and help me get it away."
That was the plan. They knew. Somebody repeated it:
"We must all help get it away."
They started together down to help get the body away. They kept together all the way down the stairs, watching the door to the room where it was. It was a long flight of stairs; at the rate they crept down it took them an age, and all the way they fixed their eyes on the door. They stared at that door as if they feared that the dead would rise and come out and——
It did. Rasputin came out. They stood still in their tracks and they saw him walk out of that door. He didn't look at them. Head down, mournfully, he moved into the hall, turned evenly and walked away from them toward the front door. For a huddled moment the frozen group shuddered there, watching with starting eyes the silent figure floating toward the closed front door.
And—as they watched, the door swung open!
"Stop!" screamed a voice. "Stop it. Shoot. Everybody shoot. Quick!"
Everybody fired. That was the plan, the well-conned plan. Somebody had remembered it, and everybody responded. There was a crackety-crack of many revolvers; a scattered volley. The figure in the doorway paused, turned quietly toward them, bowed and then, majestically, fell. It fell in the vestibule across the door-sill, and lay still. By-and-by the assassins went together up to it, the doctor bent over and laid his hand upon it. "Dead," he said.
Rasputin was dead.
Such is the story, as the noble assassins tell it out of the state of mind in which they did it. Explanations followed. The poison, which failed, is said to have been found at the autopsy intact, undigested in the stomach. Rasputin was undoubtedly a man of great vitality, and the Prince, brave but trembling, probably shot wild and hit the leg or foot, causing the bleeding which he noticed "from the boot." Rasputin, bowled over by the shock, was able to get up and walk away. If he limped, nobody there was cool enough to observe it. As for the opened door, a servant may have done that unseen. Nobody seems to have inquired into this incident, but it is likely that some attendant, attracted by the Prince's shots, came up to the door outside and, seeing the guest of the evening approaching, quietly opened it. They all remembered that when they had gathered about the body, the hall and front steps filled with people; servants and passers-by, among them a policeman.
None of the principals had noticed him till one of them began to caution the servants to keep the secret of that night. They were to know nothing; to say they had seen nothing, heard nothing, and they promised.
"But," said one, "there's a policeman here."
The most powerful member of the group, a distinguished man of high position, bade the policeman also keep the secret, and he promised, "unless," he said, "I am questioned under oath." He refused a bribe of five hundred rubles, and the briber appealed to his patriotism. He told him, and he told the servants, who the dead man was; reminded them that Rasputin had disgraced the Court of the Tsar, threatened the empire, and betrayed the army. The whole crowd, servants, spectators, and police, were sworn there and then to silence. And they all kept faith, except the policeman. After awhile he reported to his superiors all that he knew.
The conspirators put the body into an automobile, took it off and pitched it over a bridge through the ice into the river. The Tsarina, in frantic distress, ordered a search. One of Rasputin's rubbers was found on the bridge and a bloody spot over the side where the body struck in falling. These showed the searchers where to look; they discovered the body, and the Tsarina had it embalmed and laid away till the tomb she started near her palace could be finished. There was no vengeance. There were arrests; all the group were arrested, excepting only the Grand Duchess. She was not "suspected." There were hearings, but the hints as to the nature of the evidence to be offered by the defense—a warning that the "truth" about Rasputin and the Court would be laid bare, quashed the proceedings.
In vain. The death of Rasputin, "the inviolable," was too sensational to be passed over in silence. All Russia heard of and discussed it, and since he was certainly dead, all fear of him vanished and everybody laughed at that fear, at the man and at the Court. The gossip about him was passed along and improved upon. Rasputin's prestige went fast and with it went that of the Crown. Reverence for the "Little Father" could not survive when the very people were telling one another obscene stories about him, and his wife and his Court, and obscenely laughing. It was tragic.
'The Solitary Mourner
There is no doubt that the Tsarina mourned deeply the loss of her friend, the healer of her son and the savior of her family. She believed sincerely in Rasputin and she believed in his prophecy: that while he lived, the Romanoffs would live and reign, and if anything happened to him, they would fall. Hysterically she prayed and labored to save his memory clean and to keep his remains intact. And the world laughed. Her suffering was a crushing triple weight of sincere sorrow, superstitious fear and a lonely sense of an unsympathetic, nay, of a grinning, vicious, malevolent world. She drew away from it, herself and her child and the Tsar, her husband.
And thus the poor empress helped to bring about the realization of the prophecy of Rasputin.
The grand dukes and the land barons, the aristocracy, the plutocracy and the hierarchy of the Church—all the interests were "not received." In death, Rasputin's influence still cut them off from the Court. And that cut off the Court from the sources of power. When the Revolution broke upon him, the Tsar had no "friends;" none; no interests defended him; neither his class, nor his family; neither the aristocracy, nor the business men, nor "his people." Only the police and the bureaucracy were "loyal," and they were corrupt and incompetent.
The power of the Autocrat of All the Russias was slain with Rasputin, the Siberian Pilgrim, who took it away from the special interests and made it—autocratic.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald