To Kill Rasputin, by Andrew Cook.

  Stroud: Tempus, 2005

   287 pages; black and white illustrations

A review by Greg King

The December 1916 murder of Russian peasant Gregory Rasputin by a group of disaffected aristocrats, politicians, and hangers-on, has always been shrouded in myth.  Like the 1918 execution of the Russian Imperial Family or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it has been endowed with layer upon layer of hearsay, untruths, and outright lies masquerading as history.  Getting at the truth of what may have happened in the Yusupov Palace on the Moika Canal that December night nearly a hundred years ago has often involved attempting to strip away these encircling legends and rumors.


I have something of a vested interest in this search.  Not only have I long been interested in Rasputin’s life but in 1996 my book “The Man Who Killed Rasputin” (UK title: “The Murder of Rasputin”) was perhaps the first full historical account to seriously and openly question the “accepted” versions of the murder left by self-confessed assassin Prince Felix Yusupov and by ultra-right-wing Duma member Vladimir Purishkevich.  In the decade following its publication, others have followed, adding to the narrative.  Some of what I included in my book has now been shown to be less than reliable, while recent revelations have substantiated other points calling into question the accuracy of the usual story of Rasputin’s death.  But the trend itself has only grown.  In short, it has now become fashionable to question the veracity of the traditional account of Rasputin’s murder.


Now comes “To Kill Rasputin,” by British author Andrew Cook.  The book is less concerned with Rasputin’s story than with the manner of his death-in this case, a hypothesis that members of British intelligence in Petrograd were involved in the assassination.  This is an intriguing idea, possible, perhaps, and entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of intrigue and conspiracy that surrounded the last years of the Romanovs.  Unfortunately, Cook’s case-though it remains an interesting premise-ultimately remains just another unsubstantiated theory.


Cook’s credentials seem suited for the task he has given himself.  For many years, he worked as a specialist in foreign affairs and defense operations, which gave him both ties to those who guarded Britain’s most important secrets and to some of those secrets themselves, the documentation of which he certainly utilizes in this book.  His previous books include “Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly” (2002) and “M: MI5’s First Spymaster” (2004), both of which took him inside the shadowy world of intelligence, and undoubtedly contributed to the re-investigation of the murder of Rasputin.


“To Kill Rasputin” presents a rather quickly sketched portrait of the main story’s mise en scene, presenting a faltering Imperial Russia presided over by a thoroughly overwhelmed and often incompetent Nicholas II.  There are a few gems of insight: Cook’s depiction of what he terms the “dysfunctional” marriage of Nicholas and an extremely dominant Alexandra rings true, as does his rather cynical take on Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the “saintly” Ella who, he notes, was not above “privately fomenting anger” and, even as a respected religious figure, had no qualms about congratulating Yusupov and Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich for their apparent cold-blooded murder of the peasant.  He also points out a fascinating aspect of the Rasputin story that has thus far largely been ignored: that much of the money the peasant received in bribes was, in fact, channeled back to the Empress for use in funding her charities during the First World War.   Rasputin and the Empress


The relationship between Rasputin and the Empress, as their critics saw it

Alongside such interesting explorations, however, Cook’s book includes a number of annoying errors when he discusses people and events.  Nicholas and Alexandra, Cook writes, were married shortly before Alexander III’s death, when in fact their wedding came a week after his funeral.  He identifies the Empress’s friend Lili Dehn several times as an actress-maybe, but certainly news to me.  Alexandra’s brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse is erroneously referred to as “Prince Ernst of Hesse;” Kaiser Wilhelm II, Alexandra’s cousin, is called her uncle; and Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich is said to have been shot by an assassin in 1905 when, in fact, he was blown apart by a terrorist bomb.


Despite what was apparently extensive research in Russia and in St. Petersburg, Cook offers some puzzling and confused descriptions of the murder room in the cellar of the Yusupov Palace on the Moika Canal.  The Palace is located at No. 94 Moika Canal; to the east was an annex, No. 92.  Cook places the murder room in the cellar of No. 92, but then declares that this wing was set back from the Moika Canal by some fifty feet, separated from it by a courtyard.  In fact, the murder room is in the basement of the eastern end of the main structure, its windows edging the street along the canal.  Such errors don’t make or break Cook’s book, but they do underline one of its basic problems.  Knowledge of late Imperial Russian history does not appear to be Cook’s strong point, and the basics of the story of Nicholas and Alexandra-so well known-are often wrong, as above, or are presented in a confusing manner.


Cook’s book presents two main points of consideration: possible British involvement in Rasputin’s murder (and therefore, as a result, an automatic rejection as gospel of the accounts left by Yusupov and by Purishkevich), and the forensic analysis of the murder, which again conflicts with the “accepted” versions of the participants.  Each of these two spheres deserves exploration.


There is substantial evidence that Britain may have feared for the stability and reliability of Russia as its ally in the First World War.  Ambassador George Buchanan in Petrograd frequently expressed his worries over the internal situation in the country, including one uncomfortable meeting with Nicholas II shortly after Rasputin’s murder.  The fact is, as Cook rightly points out, while Nicholas II does not actually appear to have ever seriously considered the idea of brokering or accepting the offer of a separate peace with Germany, he also did little to discourage such talk and, indeed, allowed his government officials to engage in such discussions in Scandinavia, at the same time assuring the allied representatives that Russia would continue to fight on.  Such actions clearly worried the British.  There exists considerable evidence that suggests Britain and Buchanan were certainly aligning themselves with conspiratorial members of the Duma and with like-minded members of the Imperial Family before the February Revolution, perhaps in an effort to hedge their bets should the worst happen and the leadership in Russia change.


The important point is not so much the fact that we know Rasputin wasn’t a German spy or working for a separate peace, but rather what the perception was amongst those who may have worried about the possible consequences.  In short, what Britain feared, whether true or not (and there was certainly enough evidence to bolster their fear), may have been enough to propel such an assassination into reality.  They may have believed Rasputin guilty of promoting the idea of a separate peace, which in turn may have given impetus to any British plot to kill the peasant.


After some analysis, Cook declares that the British Secret Service ordered the assassination, and states that the man who was behind it all and who fired the fatal shot that night was Oswald Rayner.  Rayner had befriended Yusupov when the latter was at Oxford, and who most certainly was in Petrograd as a member of British intelligence when the murder took place.  Additionally, Oswald Rayner translated Yusupov’s first book on the murder of the peasant, sparking an interesting possibility that the pair may have shaped the story to suit their own ends.

Yusupov title page

The title page of Felix Yusupov's 1927 account of the murder, which gives equal prominence to Rayner, the translator.  Andrew Cook finds this fact significent to his thesis

The evidence of British involvement, though, is less concrete than Cook would have it.  It is certainly true that, after the murder of Rasputin, according to the memoirs of Anna Vyrubova, both Nicholas and Alexandra harbored strong suspicions against Ambassador Buchanan and his coterie.  Buchanan himself recalled that, after the peasant’s murder, Nicholas II received him-for the first time-coldly, standing, in his formal audience room in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo rather than sitting in his private study, as had been usual before.  Then there are deciphered cables that Cook quotes, sent by Buchanan, which confirm that Nicholas II directly asked him if Rayner had been involved in the peasant’s murder, an indication that such talk was certainly current in Petrograd.  With his own Okhrana agents and police reports, the Emperor would certainly have been well informed of any such developments.  On top of this, Cook quotes a memo written January 17, 1917 (New Style) in which a British intelligence official presumably discusses Rasputin’s murder at length: “Although things have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved.  Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ has been well received by all, although a few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement.  Rayner is attending to loose ends.”


This cable seems to support the idea of British involvement.  “Dark Forces” was a code used for Rasputin, Cook argues.  What “thing” had not proceeded “entirely to plan” but the murder, if the cable is accepted as discussing the peasant’s death?  Use of the word “plan” indicates that the British were involved, as does the line about “our objective.”  And further, the line that “awkward questions” and “wider involvement” were being asked and that Rayner was trying to attend to “loose ends” again indicates a degree of British involvement that, if Cook’s interpretation is correct, cannot be lightly dismissed.  Why, one must ask, would the British be worried about “awkward questions” as to “wider involvement” in Rasputin’s murder if they themselves were not involved?  And what possible role would Rayner have had in tying up “loose ends” if he himself was not involved somehow with all of this?


The problem is that the cable is subject to interpretation.  Rasputin is not mentioned by name at all, although it does seem obvious that he is indeed the subject of discussion.  If the cable does refer to Rasputin, as seems likely, then we have to accept that British intelligence may have been involved somehow in events surrounding his death.  The cable does not provide evidence, in and of itself, of precisely what that involvement may have been.  Cook includes some circumstantial evidence-hearsay and second and third-hand statements-that support his argument, but this is the bulk of his case.


Was Oswald Raynor really involved in the murder?  Perhaps.  Cook’s evidence and theories are interesting, and certainly call for further exploration, but cannot, as of now, be considered definitive in this respect.  Taken together, what the evidence does certainly show is the possibility of British involvement.

Oswald Rayner


Oswald Rayner

Cook’s second focus is on a re-examination of the murder itself.  Using the original autopsy report and photographs, he manages to successfully tear hole after hole in the “accepted” versions of the peasant’s death left to us by Yusupov and Purishkevich.  There is no evidence that Rasputin was poisoned: the “brownish” liquid mass found in his stomach could indicate that an attempt was made, but the evidence on the poison is very contradictory.


Rasputin was shot three times.  The first shot entered the left chest and penetrated the stomach and the liver; a second entered the left back and penetrated the kidneys; and the final shot was fired at close range into Rasputin’s forehead.  The 1917 autopsy report says that the first two were fired when Rasputin was standing or upright: if true, this completely undermines the Yusupov/Purishkevich version, since Yusupov says he fired only once and Rasputin fell over onto a bearskin rug.  The third shot also contradicts Purishkevich who says he shot Rasputin as the peasant was running away in the courtyard; obviously, the shot to the head was in the form of a coup de grace when Rasputin was lying prone on his back and was fired at close range directly into his head.  The alternative is that Yusupov fired shot No. 1 when Rasputin was standing/sitting, and Purishkevich fired No. 2 and No. 3-the first when Rasputin was fleeing (to the back) and then shot No. 3 directly into the forehead.


The evidence indicates that shot No. 1 (entering the left chest) was on a downward trajectory to penetrate the stomach and the kidneys, though there is no angle given in the autopsy report, which makes it difficult to determine how sharp the trajectory may have been; in any case, this shot had to have been fired either while Rasputin was at a lower level than the shooter, or else the shooter would have had to have angled the gun somewhat unnaturally down at an angle to make the bullet pass from the upper chest down to the stomach and the kidneys.  It is not impossible that this is correct as Yusupov says Rasputin was examining the cabinet when he shot him, and the peasant could have been in a slightly bent position; if Yusupov was above standing, his shot may have been slightly angled down and could have caused this trajectory, though it contradicts Yusupov’s account that he shot Rasputin while the peasant had his back turned.  To make this work Yusupov would have had to have been standing to the left front of Rasputin, not behind him.


The problem of the second shot to the left back is complex.  Assuming shot. No. 1 to have been fired in the cellar by Yusupov, Rasputin would have been unlikely to have been up on his feet running about; Kossorotov, in his original autopsy report, concludes that shots No. 1 and No. 2 were fired roughly simultaneously when Rasputin was upright, which certainly conflicts with the versions left by Yusupov and Purishkevich and again raises questions as to their reliability.  It is, of course, possible, that Rasputin had the wherewithal to run away having been shot in the stomach and the kidneys from shot No. 1, though just how debilitating such a wound would be is something that Cook should perhaps have explored in greater depth.


Cook offers several modern assessments of Kossorotov’s original autopsy.  Russian Professor Zharov concludes that three different weapons may have been used, which would mean a third shooter if we are to believe the Yusupov and Purishkevich versions, since neither man changed guns according to their own accounts.  However, this is analysis derived from study of the report and from photographs, which is not as reliable as first hand observation.  Still, it is a view supported by the other forensic specialist, Derrick Pounder, who also suggests three different caliber weapons were used.  An additional point that somewhat undermines their contention is that neither modern man had access to the actual bullet recovered from the body, so their conclusions are speculative, though founded in their scientific and forensic experience.


The issue of the one bullet recovered is also problematic because the original autopsy report does not specify from which wound this was recovered.  Cook alleges that there was an exit wound on the back of the head, but the autopsy report makes no mention of this, and there are no photographs depicting the rear of Rasputin’s head.  It is probable, therefore, that the bullet retrieved by Kossorotov was indeed from the head shot, and that there was no exit wound to the head.  Additionally, he mentions that there was a large wound made by a blunt object observed on the occipital parietal area of the head (the rear) which means he did note any damage to the rear of the head-thus, no exit wound.


This, however, also raises questions about Pounder, who suggests that the head wound was from an unjacketed bullet fired from a British Webley; such an unjacketed bullet should have exited and left significant trauma to the rear of the head.  Clearly there was no exit of the bullet fired to the head.  An unjacketed bullet should have lacerated the brain into a soupy mass, whereas Kossorotov makes specific mention of examination of the lobes of the brain.


“To Kill Rasputin” is less conclusive proof of a British plan to assassinate Rasputin than it is an important step in deconstructing the myth of the peasant’s death based on the accounts of Yusupov and Purishkevich.  It thoroughly shows that these versions are, at the very least, flawed and inaccurate in their details and often unreliable; at worst, they may be fabrications to cover up what really took place.  Cook also shows that the “diary” by Purishkevich is not a diary at all but a later memoir, subject to manipulation.  Substantial evidence exists that Russian officials, with Nicholas II’s knowledge, were actively discussing the idea of a separate peace while Nicholas II himself was assuring his allies that such was not the case.  Cook shows through an examination of this evidence that Britain, at least, was greatly worried about Russia’s reliability in the war, and probably suspected that Rasputin was involved in attempting to force a separate peace, thus providing a possible motive for the peasant’s murder, a position supported by cables from Buchanan, British intelligence memos, and other secondary evidence.  In particular, the cable from Buchanan, in which he reveals that Nicholas II raised Oswald Rayner’s name in connection with the peasant’s death, and the January 1917 memo about “Dark Forces” can be interpreted as an unstated admission of British involvement in Rasputin’s murder; at the very least, it indicates that the British were highly worried about the reaction, outcome, and questions arising from any investigation.


The forensic evidence surrounding the murder is also important in undermining the accounts of Yusupov and Purishkevich.  Some of Cook’s contentions based on modern forensic re-analysis are certainly open to question, and should be investigated at greater length; others-such as his statement that there was an exit wound in the rear of Rasputin’s hand-are flatly contradicted by the original autopsy report and not supported by any modern analysis.


In the end, Cook’s book is less definite than his claims would make it.  There is no irrefutable proof that British intelligence ordered Rasputin’s assassination, nor that Rayner was himself involved, and some of the modern forensic interpretations contained in the book are certainly either open to debate or are contradicted by the autopsy report itself.  But the basic premise presented in the book cannot simply be ignored.  The evidence offered at the very least offers a tantalizing explanation of what may have happened at the Moika Palace in December 1916; further investigation-and evidence-is needed before the story of Rasputin’s death can be conclusively re-written, but Cook is to be commended for opening a new avenue of exploration that may indeed one day bear fruit.


copyright Greg King, 2007

book cover

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