In the early hours of 17 December 1916, an automobile drove onto the snow-covered Large Petrovsky Bridge and came to a stop. Three men got out. From the vehicle they hauled the lifeless body of a middle-aged man, leaned him up against the railing, and then dumped him over the edge into the icy waters of the Malaya Nevka river on the outskirts of Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Two days later, the frozen body of Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin was hauled from the river.
The life of Rasputin was one of the most remarkable of the 20th century. A peasant born in a remote Siberian village in c1869, Rasputin spent many years wandering the vast Russian empire as a holy pilgrim in search of spiritual enlightenment, eventually making his way to the Romanov imperial palace in 1905. He impressed Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra as a true man of God and they soon came to rely on him as a confidant and friend, and the protector of their son Alexei, the sickly heir to the throne.
Yet from the beginning, Rasputin was accused of being a charlatan, a sexual deviant and a usurper who bent the royal couple to his evil will. He preached his own brand of Orthodoxy, took liberties with the women who came to him for succour, and insisted on telling the tsar how to rule. Following the outbreak of the First World War, he became the scapegoat for all of the country’s ills, and many Russians were convinced that Rasputin was in fact an agent of the Germans. Two murder plots were hatched against him, but both times he survived. And then, that fateful December night, Prince Felix Yusupov managed to lure Rasputin to his palace on the Moika river and, together with four conspirators, murdered the Siberian in cold blood.
From the beginning the killing was shrouded in rumour. Yusupov, clearly distorting what had transpired that night, claimed Rasputin had been almost impossible to kill, that his victim displayed the superhuman power of the Devil, and it was miraculous that he, Yusupov, had accomplished what no one had managed before.
Petrograders exchanged the most outlandish tales about the murder, one of which would suck in a powerful ally of Russia’s, and trigger a debate that still rages today. Rasputin, the whispers went, had been killed by an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
The story quickly spread. German agents in Stockholm cabled to Berlin that they had it on good authority that “a young Englishman” had been in the Yusupov home that night. Another secret communication, sent to the king of Bulgaria, placed this same Englishman in the car that drove off with the body.
It makes sense that the Germans would place an Englishman at the murder scene, for they, and a good many Russians, were convinced that Rasputin had been killed because of his rumoured desire to make a separate peace with Germany. The English, desperate to keep Russia in the war, had the perfect motive. As early as August of that year, a former official of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, who had observed what he considered the perfidious machinations of the British, told Empress Alexandra that the English were preparing to kill Rasputin.
Communiques from Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador to Russia, show that he had heard of a plot not long before the murder. Buchanan commented in a secret cable on 18 December that: “I was told about a week ago by a friend who is in close touch with some of the younger grand dukes that a number of young officers had sworn to kill him before the end of the year.” Who, exactly, these officers were he does not say. This is, however, the only evidence that Buchanan had prior knowledge of the murder, and there is nothing in the archives to suggest that he had anything to do with any plot.
Regardless, some in Russia undoubtedly wanted to blame the English for Rasputin’s death. On 20 December, an article appeared in the newspaper Russian Word, titled ‘The Story of the English Detectives’, claiming that Rasputin had hired agents from Scotland Yard to work alongside the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, for his protection shortly before his death. What he did not know, the article claimed, was that these imported agents had been bought off by Yusupov and so stood by outside the palace while he was being murdered.
The same day the article appeared, Samuel Hoare, head of the British intelligence mission in Russia, sent a cable to Mansfield Cumming, head of MI1(c), the precursor to MI6, asking whether the story were true, and if so, what were the names of the agents. But no list of any Scotland Yard agents operating in Russia was forthcoming – for the simple reason that there had never been any.
Hoare later came to the realisation that, in the days after the murder, Russian ‘rightists’ had been trying to frame the British for the crime, and him in particular. The rumour of his guilt, he wrote, spread so far and so quickly that Ambassador Buchanan had to request an audience with Tsar Nicholas at Tsarskoe Selo on 1 January 1917 to address it. He described the meeting that day in a secret telegram:
“At to-day’s New Year’s reception the emperor spoke to me in his most gracious and friendly manner. As reports have spread, evidently by German agents, that not only had English detectives been conducting an enquiry into Rasputin’s murder, but that English officers had been associated in it, I told His Majesty that as I should be deeply grieved were either he or the empress to believe such an infamous story, I wished to give him the most formal assurance that there was not a word of truth in it.”
Nicholas was quite specific with the ambassador that day, mentioning by name the British agent he had been hearing talk about. It was not Hoare, but one Oswald Rayner. Buchanan wrote that the story probably gained traction because Rayner, “who was temporarily employed here”, had been at Oxford with Yusupov and they had seen a great deal of each other in Petrograd. “Rayner,” he continued, “positively assures me that the prince had never said a word to him about the plot, and I need hardly tell His Majesty that assassination was a crime held in abomination by British people. The emperor, who evidently heard something about Rayner, said that he was very glad that I had told him, and expressed his warmest thanks.”
A draper’s son born into modest circumstances in 1888, Oswald Rayner entered Oxford University in 1907, and two years later met and became close friends with another young student there, Prince Felix Yusupov. The two men never forgot each other, and when, in November 1915, Rayner arrived in Petrograd to serve in the British Intelligence Service, he looked up his old university friend.
The men became close over the the next year, meeting often in the autumn of 1916. It appears that by then Rayner was no longer serving in the British Intelligence Service in Petrograd. Buchanan’s words to the emperor on New Year’s Day imply this, and a list of the active agents of a mission dated 11 December 1916 does not include his name.
In his memoirs Yusupov writes that he had told Rayner of the conspiracy and that the Briton came to see Yusupov on the night of the 17th to learn how things had gone. Vladimir Purishkevich, another member of the murder party, had informed Samuel Hoare about the plot in early December. So British agents did know about the conspiracy, but does this mean they come up with the idea, planned it, or helped carry it out?
For this there is no incontrovertible proof. But there is one intriguing letter, written by Captain Stephen Alley, then with the British military control department in Petrograd, on 25 December 1916. Addressed to Captain John Scale, an officer with the British Intelligence Service, it reads:
“Dear Scale […]
Although matters here have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ has been well received, 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 the letter is authentic it would offer the best proof of British involvement in Rasputin’s murder. Involvement, yes, but of what sort and to what extent is not clear. Since Hoare and Rayner, and presumably the rest of the mission, knew of the plot, and most likely would have endorsed it, it does seem likely they would have offered advice on how to kill Rasputin, but this does not mean they set it in motion or were there at Yusupov’s home the night he was killed.
The lack of any evidence for British agents at the murder scene has not quashed the claims that the British killed Rasputin. The latest attempt to make the case has centred on the gun that delivered the third, fatal shot to Rasputin’s forehead.
Neither Dr Dmitry Kosorotov, who conducted the autopsy, nor the chief prosecutor of Petrograd at the time, nor Dr Vladimir Zharov, a Russian forensic expert who in 1993 re-examined the surviving evidence, could determine the calibre or make of gun that had been used in the murder. Yet two recent studies of the evidence by intelligence historian Andrew Cook and former Metropolitan Police Commander Richard Cullen claim to have come to a startling conclusion. Based on the markings around the bullet wound on Rasputin’s head, as shown in the autopsy photographs, Cook and Cullen concluded that Rasputin must have been shot by a .455 calibre Webley revolver. Manufactured by Webley and Scott in Enfield, this was the standard-issue sidearm for all British troops during the First World War (the Russians used the Nagant revolver) – and so, deduced Cook and Cullen, it must have been an Englishman who killed Rasputin.
While researching my new biography of Rasputin, however, I came across a document overlooked by previous historians. Among the voluminous police files on Rasputin held in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow, I stumbled upon a receipt dated 27 January 1916, issued to one Lieutenant-Colonel Polyakov for a Webley-Scott revolver, serial number 26313. This was a remarkable and important discovery, for it proves that not only the English were carrying Webley-Scotts. Even if it was the barrel of a .455 Webley that Rasputin was staring down in the final seconds of his life, there’s no proof that a Briton had his finger on the trigger.
It’s also instructive to recall another political murder from Russia’s past once blamed on the British. In March 1801, Emperor Paul I was strangled in his bedroom by a clique of aristocrats and officers of the imperial guards. Paul had recently broken Russia’s alliance with Britain in favour of Napoleon’s France and had turned on his former ally. Great Britain fought back: just days before Paul’s murder, a British fleet sailed into the Baltic Sea heading for St Petersburg. Only after learning of the regicide, and the new emperor Alexander’s pledge of renewed friendship, did the ships turn around.
Napoleon, and many Russians at the time, were certain London was responsible for Paul’s murder. There was talk in St Petersburg that Charles Whitworth, Britain’s ambassador to Russia, had had a hand in the affair. But all of this was mere gossip, and any British involvement in the murder was a mirage.
I believe that Rasputin too was killed by fellow countrymen – men who hoped that his assassination would save the monarchy. They erred terribly in their thinking, for the murder only hastened the fall of the Romanovs. As the Symbolist poet Alexander Blok famously said, the bullet that killed Rasputin “struck the very heart of the reigning dynasty”.
Douglas Smith is an award-winning historian and translator. He is the author of Rasputin (Macmillan, 2016).
Listen to comedian Richard Herring discuss Grigory Rasputin on Radio 4’s Great Lives by clicking here.