The end of December marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Rasputin, the “mad monk of Russia”, or “lover of the Russian queen” if you believe the Boney M song, though you probably shouldn’t. While the song is undoubtedly a floor-filler, unsurprisingly it is not exactly a reliable historical account of Rasputin’s life.
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a mystic and spiritual healer born in Pokrovskoe in Siberia, wielded huge influence over the Russian royal family, particularly Alexandra, the Tsarina, who looked to the spiritual healer to cure her haemophiliac son, Alexei. The life of Rasputin was certainly pretty strange but it is the stories surrounding his death that are the strangest of all.
What is known is that one evening Rasputin went to the Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg at the invitation of Prince Felix Yusupov. Rasputin’s his dead body was recovered from the frozen Neva River days later. No one is completely sure what happened in between these two events.
The most well-known account of the events comes from Prince Yusupov himself in his memoirs Lost Splendour. This autobiography reads more like a boy’s own adventure story than a reliable historical document and many doubt the authenticity of what he wrote. According to Yusupov, when Rasputin arrived at the palace he was taken down to the cellar where he was given cake and madeira wine. Upstairs, a gramophone played Yankee Doodle Dandy to fool the monk into believing there was a party in full swing.
Yusupov and his accomplices had planned things carefully. The cakes offered to Rasputin had been laced with enough potassium cyanide to slay a monastery full of monks. But Rasputin just kept eating them. Incredulous at the monk’s survival, Prince Yusupov poured madeira into a cyanide-laced wine glass and handed it to Rasputin. Instead of collapsing into unconsciousness within seconds, as would be expected from a massive dose of cyanide, Rasputin continued to sip the wine like a connoisseur. A second lethal glass disappeared into the monk’s mouth with little apparent effect other than some difficulty swallowing. Asked if he was feeling unwell he replied “Yes, my head is heavy and I’ve a burning sensation in my stomach.” A third glass of tainted wine only seemed to revive him. Having ingested their whole stock of cyanide, the group of assassins were somewhat at a loss as to what to do next.
The bullet appeared to have entered the body near the heart – certain death, or so they thought. But, soon after, Rasputin’s eyes opened and, clearly upset at the turn of events, he attacked Yusupov. There was a ferocious struggle before the prince could free himself and run away up the stairs. Rasputin followed.
The group finally emerged into a courtyard, where four more shots were fired into Rasputin’s body before he slumped to the ground. To make sure they wouldn’t be troubled again, the assassins wrapped and tied the body with a piece of heavy linen, bundled it into a car and drove to Petrovski Island, where it was dropped from a bridge into the frozen river below.
The whole account sounds fanciful from start to finish, but remarkable things do happen. Human beings have achieved incredible physical feats in spite of horrible injuries. During a duel in the sixteenth century one man received a stab wound directly to the heart but still managed to run 230 yards to chase down his opponent before collapsing. Maybe Rasputin really was still alive after the first shot and capable of a fight. But what about the poison? Surely no one could eat so much cyanide with so little effect?
The theories as to why the cyanide didn’t kill Rasputin are almost as numerous as the theories of how he really died. What is surprising is that the theories are scientifically credible.
The first theory is that the poisoners were simply rubbish at their job. Either they didn’t use enough, or the cyanide they had was old stock that had decayed into something far less toxic. Though plausible, a century after the events it is impossible to tell if this is true.
The second theory is that Rasputin, aware that someone might be trying to kill him (he had survived at least one assassination attempt already), had decided to protect himself against poison. Perhaps he was inspired by Mithridates, king of Pontus in the first century BC, who, fearful of poisoners, concocted an antidote or preventative. By ingesting sub-lethal amounts of every known poison he developed an immunity. When Mithridates was under threat from the local populace he tried to kill himself with poison, but the attempt failed and he had to request that a guard kill him with a sword.
It is true that the body can develop a natural immunity or tolerance to some very toxic substances by administering very small doses over a period of time (this is definitely not a recommendation for DIY poison prevention). Some of these toxic compounds include snake venom, ricin and opiates, to name but a few. Unfortunately, cyanide isn’t one of those substances. You simply cannot build up a natural tolerance to cyanide by using this method.
The third theory is that Rasputin had alcoholic gastritis, which can lead to having less stomach acid. Without acid in the stomach, the potassium cyanide can’t be converted into hydrogen cyanide, and is therefore considerably less toxic. It’s another plausible explanation, but no one really knows if Rasputin suffered from this complaint or not.
The fourth theory is that his poisoners unintentionally gave him the antidote along with the poison. Studies have shown that rats fed sugar with cyanide fare a lot better than those fed cyanide without it. The theory, though not proven, is that the sugar binds to the cyanide in a way that allows its excretion before it can be fully absorbed into the body. The assassins therefore may have chosen poorly when they elected to deliver the cyanide in sugary cakes and wine.
The final theory is that Yusupov made the whole thing up, and Rasputin was simply shot shortly after he arrived at the palace by a person or persons unknown. This is probably much nearer the truth – but it isn’t nearly as interesting as stories of an “unkillable” monk.