The frozen corpse was spotted in the Neva River on the last day of December, 1916. A river policeman noticed a fur coat lodged beneath the ice and ordered the surface crust to be broken.
The frozen body was immediately recognisable as belonging to Grigori Rasputin, ‘holy’ advisor to the tsar and tsarina of Russia.
Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, believed Rasputin to be blessed with semi-magical powers that brought temporary relief to their haemophiliac son.
Others took a rather different view. Rasputin was widely hated as a dissolute fraudster who was manipulating the affairs of state to his own advantage. Many in the Russian capital had long wished him dead.
The corpse was prised from its icy sepulchre and taken to Chesmenskii Hospice. Here, an autopsy was undertaken by Professor Dmitrii Kosorotov.
Rumours about Rasputin’s death were already circulating around Petrograd, rumours that would later be fuelled by one of the murderers. Prince Felix Yusupov, in whose palace Rasputin had died, not only admitted to being involved, but also justified the killing by arguing that Rasputin was bad for Russia.
He bragged about having poisoned him with cyanide before shooting him through the heart.
‘He rushed at me, trying to get at my throat, and sank his fingers into my shoulder like steel claws. His eyes were bursting from their sockets, blood oozed from his lips.’
From the outset there were good reasons to doubt Yusupov’s account. The professor conducting the autopsy noted that the corpse was in a terrible state of mutilation.
‘His left side has a weeping wound, due to some sort of slicing object or a sword. His right eye has come out of its cavity and falls down onto his face… His right ear is hanging down and torn. His neck has a wound from some sort of rope tie. The victim’s face and body carry traces of blows given by a supple but hard object.’
Rasputin had been repeatedly beaten with a heavy cosh.
More horrifying was the damage to his genitals. At some point his legs had been wrenched apart and his testicles had been ‘crushed by the action of a similar object.’
Other details gleaned by Professor Kosorotov suggest that Yusupov’s account was nothing more than fantasy. The story of the poisoned cakes was untrue: the post mortem found no trace of poison in Rasputin’s stomach.
Kosorotov also examined the three bullet wounds in Rasputin’s body. ‘The first has penetrated the left side of the chest and has gone through the stomach and liver. The second has entered into the right side of the back and gone through the kidney.’
Both of these would have inflicted terrible wounds, but the third bullet was the fatal shot. ‘[It] hit the victim on the forehead and penetrated into his brain.’
Professor Kosorotov noted – significantly – that the bullets ‘came from different calibre revolvers.’
On the night of the murder, Yusupov was in possession of a pocket Browning, as was fellow conspirator Grand Duke Dmitrii. Vladimir Purishkevich, also present, had a Sauvage.
These weapons could have caused the wounds to Rasputin’s liver and kidney. But the fatal gunshot wound to Rasputin’s head could only have come from a revolver. Ballistic experts now agree that the grazing around the wound is consistent with that which is left by a lead, non-jacketed bullet fired at point blank range.
All the evidence points to the fact that the gun was a British-made .455 Webley revolver. This was the gun that belonged to Oswald Rayner, a close friend of Yusupov since the days when they had both studied at Oxford University.
Unbeknown to anyone except the small group of conspirators, Rayner had also been present on the night of Rasputin’s murder. Sent to Russia more than a year earlier, he was a British agent working for the Secret Intelligence Service (now MI6).
Prince Yusupov was circumspect about Rayner when he wrote his memoirs. He mentions meeting him on the day after Rasputin’s murder but presents their meeting as a chance encounter.
‘I met my friend Oswald Rayner… he knew of our conspiracy and had come in search of news.’
Yusupov did indeed meet with Rayner after the murder, but Rayner had not needed to ‘come in search of news’ for he had fired the fatal shot.
Rayner would later tell his family that he was present in the Yusupov Palace, information that would eventually find its way into his obituary.
Surviving letters from his fellow agents also shed light on his role. ‘A few awkward questions have already been asked about wider involvement,’ wrote one. ‘Rayner is attending to loose ends.’
The tsar was quick to hear rumours of British involvement in Rasputin’s murder. Anxious to know more, he asked the British ambassador if Rayner had a hand in the murder.
The ambassador denied any knowledge of Rayner’s involvement. So, too, did Samuel Hoare, the head of the British espionage bureau in Petrograd. ‘An outrageous charge’, he said, ‘and incredible to the point of childishness.’
It may well have been ‘outrageous’, but it was also true. Indeed Hoare was so quick to learn of Rasputin’s death that he was able to inform London before it was publically known in Petrograd.
He will be speaking at CVHF 2014 on Wednesday, 25th June on this subject.