I was living in Slovakia when the Soviet flag at the Kremlin was lowered for the last time. I’d celebrated Christmas 1991 with a Lutheran family which was gracious enough to host me for the day. (I’d been singing in the church choir with the father of the family. By the way, Russian Orthodox Christmas is celebrated January 7.) I came home to an apartment where I rented a room from an elderly lady, and we watched the news on her black and white. Of course we’d known it was coming, after the failed coup attempt of that August and the declarations of independence by several of the Soviet republics.
Rasputin was an fascinating character, to say the least: a coarse Orthodox faith healer with a penchant for seducing noblewomen, who gained too much influence on the Tsar’s family – at least by most accounts. But I find his principal assassin—Prince Felix Yusupov, who fired the fatal shot—to be a curious example of many things Russian, and I’ve used some facts of his life to illustrate various points in Russian culture courses I’ve taught.
One is his partly Tatar ancestry. Since the Mongol-Tatar invaders “plagued” Russia from the 13th century, and in Russophile interpretations of history were responsible for the country falling behind the West. But medieval Russian nobles often cut deals with the Tatar occupiers, and sometimes married their children off to them. Curiously, although Yusupov was Eastern Orthodox, he was responsible for the construction of a mosque in Crimea. It was apparently fashionable for members of the Orthodox Russian nobility to act as such patrons.
As a young man, it is said he often went out to fashionable restaurants in drag. Apparently this was not a question of sexual identity for him (though there are differing opinions), but rather a disguise since he was one of the richest men in the tsarist empire and would have been much sought after. He married a Princess Irina Alexandrovna a few months before the outbreak of World War I. After the Bolshevik Coup of 1917, they fled abroad, settling in France, where they apparently lived on the proceeds from artwork they were able to get out of the country.
Accounts of the murder vary, and Yusupov’s own version of the story, published in France in the 1920s, is widely considered unreliable in the details. But it’s widely agreed the prince invited Rasputin to his family’s palace, even fetched him from his apartment after midnight on December 29-30, 1916. Rasputin was taken to a cellar room where, supposedly, he was given poisoned wine and cakes. When that didn’t work—perhaps because the servant assigned the task of poisoning the food lost his nerve—Yusupov shot him several times with a revolver. There is no agreement about whether the wounds were fatal, but apparently the victim ran outside and fell in the snow, and was shot in the head by one of the conspirators. They dumped his body in a river.
Enjoy the slideshow as well as this humorous disco song by Boney M, well known in Europe.