There are two notable centenaries that I must note, before the ending of this Year of Grace – the one hundredth anniversary (on November 21) of the death of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary; and (on December 16/17) of the assassination of Grigorii Rasputin.
You have heard of the theory of “six degrees of separation”? It may be that you are, in that sense, closer to these events than you may imagine! But I must begin this account in late 1955.
In that year I went up to Cambridge University, as an undergraduate in Selwyn College. Within a short time there I met two other men, both of whom have now gone to their rest: David-Gordon Lumsden of Jesus College and Robert Parsons of Gonville & Caius College. Together we founded a group we called the Cambridge University Royalists. As with all such undergraduate societies, we needed to find a senior member of the University who would serve as “Senior Treasurer”. Not knowing who might be sympathetic to our project it was difficult to decide who to approach with an invitation to accept this role. Somehow – and I do not remember how – it was determined that I should go to see Dr Ivor Ramsay, the Dean of King’s College Chapel. He received me most graciously one evening, with a glass of sherry, in his beautiful College rooms.
I was quite uncertain as to how Dr Ramsay might react to my proposal; but as soon as I had outlined it he pointed to a small silver picture frame on his desk. The picture it contained can be seen here.
It shows the young Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary, with the Empress Zita in deepest mourning, and, between them, their eldest son the Archduke Otto, in procession at the funeral of the great Emperor Franz Joseph – who, having reigned for 68 years, had died on November 21, 1916. Clearly, I had come to the right person to serve as our Senior Treasurer.
So the Cambridge University Royalists came into being; and over the coming years its members met frequently to dine, to drink claret and to hear learned papers on the history and theory of monarchy. Speakers who came to give papers at our dinners included the great historian of the Jacobite cause, Sir Charles Petrie. An unforgettable guest was Eric Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, an Austrian Catholic nobleman, a polymath whose very great book Liberty or Equality should be required reading for all patrons of this blog! He remained a friend from that time until his death in 1999, and he was once our charming house-guest here in Texas. Among many distinguished guests who met with the Cambridge University Royalists were the Archduke Otto himself, on more than one occasion, with whom I was able to maintain occasional contact. Thus (at the invitation of the late Brother Nathan Cochran OSB) I was privileged to be one of the priests who, on October 4, 2004, concelebrated with Pope St John Paul II the Mass for the Beatification of Otto’s father, the Emperor Karl.
We three founders of the Cambridge University Royalists also served on the Council of the Royal Stuart Society in the late 1950s, when its Governor-General was Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, Duchess of Berwick and Alba, then (in the words of her obituary in the Royal Stuart Journal) “a young and beautiful woman, dignified and unassuming”. The Duchess had been invited to this post by another member of the Council whom I knew, Count Nicholas Tolstoy – a distant cousin of the great Russia writer, Leo Tolstoy.
I no longer remember, in any detail, the circumstances that led from these contacts to my meeting with two other people of considerable interest. I do remember visiting the London home of George Knupffer, who was born in St Petersburg in 1907 and was linked to the Russian monarchical dynasty. Knupffer fought in the Second World War after witnessing firsthand the Russian Civil War and the horrors of the Bolsheviks. He finally settled in London, where he died in 1990. In 1958 he published a fascinating book The Struggle for World Power. A reviewer wrote: “Among the more compelling and important aspects of this wonderful work is the author’s description of the truth of Imperial Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. It was, in fact, the most sane and just polity in modern history. And Holy Russia was on the way to dominance in European affairs, both economic and political. As the world’s last great Christian monarchy, Holy Russia then represented an existential threat to the revolutionary powers that now largely run our fallen world. It was for this reason alone that Holy Russia was chosen for destruction by the forces of subversion”.
It was at George Knupffer’s home in London that we met the Russian Prince Felix Yusupov who, long-previously, had studied at Oxford University, and was then living in exile in Paris. There are a number of books about the self-styled starets Gregorii Rasputin – the most recent of which has received mixed reviews (see the Spectator, Nov 15), published in this centenary year, by Douglas Smith.
The tragedy of the Russian Tsarina, looking for someone with the power to heal her ailing son – poor little Prince Alexei Nikolaevich, the hæmophiliac heir to the Russian throne — was indeed the predominant factor that raised the `terrible monk’ from the throes of the slums to the magnificence of the Russian palace. Alexandra was not fooling with Rasputin, as has been maliciously suggested. Indeed she knew the monk was artful, loquacious, indolent, coarse, pleasure-loving; but she didn’t suspect he was a sheer liar. But she firmly believed that he had great spiritual healing powers. Initially, Rasputin set himself to please the royal court by being obsequious and entertaining, reciting funny stories and acts of buffoonery. He was noted for his ponderous mumbo-jumbo, and his easy seduction of nursery-maids. Greater only than his aversion to the “commoners” of Russian society — of whom he himself was one — was his aversion to Jewish communities that mainly represented the reforming tendencies in Russia and had been the real power behind the 1905 unrests, which followed the Russo-Japanese wars. Totally immersed and absorbed by the illness of their son – and, of course, overwhelmed by the burdens and horrors of the Great War — the royal couple did not really appreciate the degree of contempt felt by the other princes of `royal blood’ for Rasputin.
The story is almost surrealistic. There are numerous versions of it, differing in detail; but I believe that the account given by Alex De Jonge in his 1982 book The Life and Times of Grigori Rasputin is generally reliable.
Everyone was talking about the need to get rid of Rasputin. Attempting to enlighten the royal couple about the danger they were in, many influential people approached both Nicholas and Aleksandra with the truth about Rasputin and with the rumors that were circulating. To everyone’s great dismay, they both refused to listen. So who was going to kill Rasputin before the monarchy — and Holy Russia itself — was completely destroyed?
There were several conspirators; and their plan was relatively simple. Prince Felix Yusupov was to befriend Rasputin and then lure Rasputin to the Yusupov palace to be killed.
Near midnight, December 16/17, the conspirators all met at the Yusupov palace in a basement dining room. It was a cozy room, with a fire was ablaze in the large fireplace. Pastries and wine adorned the table. One of the conspirators, Dr. Lazavert, put on rubber gloves and then crushed potassium cyanide crystals into powder and placed some in the pastries and a small amount in two wineglasses. They left some pastries unpoisoned so that Prince Felix could partake. After lacing the pastries with poison, Dr. Lazavert removed his gloves and threw them in the fire, causing a large amount of smoke which then had to be aired out. After everything was ready, Felix and Dr. Lazavert went to pick up the victim.
When they arrived at the palace, Felix offered Rasputin one of the poisoned pastries. Rasputin refused, saying they were too sweet. Rasputin wouldn’t eat or drink anything. Felix started to panic and went upstairs to talk to the other conspirators. When Felix went back downstairs, Rasputin for some reason had changed his mind and agreed to a few pastries. Then they started drinking the wine.
Though potassium cyanide was supposed to have an immediate effect, nothing happened. Felix continued to chat with Rasputin waiting for something to happen. Noticing a guitar in the corner, Rasputin asked Felix to play for him. The time wore on and Rasputin wasn’t showing any effects from the poison.
It was now about 2:30 a.m. and Felix was worried. Again he made an excuse and went upstairs to talk with the other conspirators. The poison obviously wasn’t working. Felix took a gun from Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and went back downstairs. Rasputin didn’t notice that Felix had returned with a gun behind his back. While Rasputin was looking at a beautiful ebony cabinet, Felix said, “Grigorii Efimovich, you would do better to look at the Crucifix and pray to It.” Felix raised the pistol and shot.
The other conspirators rushed down the stairs to see Rasputin laying on the ground and Felix standing over him with the gun. He was still breathing. After a few minutes, Rasputin “jerked convulsively” and then fell still. About an hour later, Felix felt an inexplicable need to go look at the body. He went back downstairs and felt the body. It still seemed warm. He shook the body. There was no reaction. When Felix starting turning away, he noticed Rasputin’s left eye start to flutter open. Rasputin sprang to his feet and rushed at Felix, grabbing his shoulders and neck. Felix struggled to get free and finally did so. He rushed upstairs shouting, “He’s still alive!” Purishkevich, an exotic figure in Tsarist parliamentary politics, was upstairs and had just put his Sauvage revolver in his pocket when he saw Felix come back up shouting. Purishkevich rushed down the stairs only to find that Rasputin was running out across the courtyard.
As Rasputin was running he yelled, “Felix, Felix, I’ll tell everything to the Tsarina.”
Purishkevich, who believed himself to be a great shot, was chasing after him. While running, he fired his gun, but missed. He fired again, but missed again. And then he bit his hand to regain control of himself. Again he fired. This time the bullet found its mark, hitting Rasputin in the back. Rasputin stopped and Purishkevich fired again. This time the bullet hit Rasputin in the head. Rasputin fell.
It was amazing and shocking, but after being poisoned, shot three times, and having been beaten with a heavy object, Rasputin was still alive. They bound his arms and legs with rope and wrapped his body in a heavy cloth. Since it was almost dawn, the conspirators were now in a hurry to get rid of the body. They placed the body in a car, sped off to their pre-chosen location, and heaved the heavy body over the side of the Petrovsky bridge over the Malaya Neva.
They forgot to weigh it down with weights. The accounts of the autopsy are uncertain; but traces of water in the lungs suggest that he was indeed still alive, even when he was thrown into the water.
All this just one hundred years ago.