Richard Herring: how I ra-ra-rescued Rasputin from myth and falsehood
You might think Boney M told you all you need to know about the sex-mad monk. But it wasn't until wrote my Edinburgh fringe play I Killed Rasputin that I realised his enemies were just as flawed.
I've long been obsessed with the fantastical and sometimes unbelievable story of the life and death of Rasputin. As a child, I was intrigued by his supernatural indestructibility: he was poisoned, shot, beaten, maybe castrated and then shot again before supposedly drowning in an icy river. As a teenager, I was impressed by his boozing and womanising. But now I am more interested in the way that this historical figure had become mythologised, less than a century after his death.
You might think you know everything there is to know about Rasputin from listening to Boney M. He was, of course, the lover of the Russian queen (and remember, in 1916 it wasn't so easy to shag a member of the royal family), Russia's greatest love machine and a cat that really was gone. It was a shame how he carried on, to be quite honest.
It turns out that Boney M's historical research was not as good as one might have hoped from a 1970s silver platform-booted disco combo. His first name wasn't even Ra-Ra – it was Grigori. But even the official historical account is shrouded in myth and blatant falsehood. I had previously written a knockabout stage show and sitcom pilot called Ra-Ra Rasputin, which imagines the Holy Man as the world's first pop star. But my play I Killed Rasputin, while not leaving comedy behind entirely, is a more serious attempt to get to the bottom of what really happened in this confused and mendacious story. The colourful and not entirely pleasant character of Felix Yusupov seemed the most interesting way to come at this familiar story from a fresh angle.
Yusupov was born into the richest family in Russia: they had so many palaces that they actually forgot about one of them, only discovering it, in ruins, 80 years after it was last visited. He had a wild and hedonistic youth. His youthful pranks included dressing up his dog as a prostitute, feeding it chocolates and champagne and then introducing it to the minister of religion, whom the dog promptly urinated on. Yusupov liked to dress up as a woman himself and head out on the town. He looked so convincing that he attracted admiring enquiries from an oblivious Edward VII.
Of course, his part in the murder of Rasputin was what would make him infamous, and his somewhat dubious tale of what occurred that night has been accepted as fact. However, a rational analysis suggests that the conspirators were trying to cover something up, but also trying to make their victim seem demonic and unsympathetic. Yet would we even remember Rasputin if he hadn't been so difficult to kill? Did Yusupov make him immortal?
Incredibly, Yusopov not only escaped Russia after the revolution, he lived until the late 1960s, half a century after Rasputin and most of Russia's aristocrats had perished. His crime had failed to save the tsarist regime. Yet he could never escape Rasputin, though this wasn't always a negative association. Yusupov made a fortune suing MGM for their portrayal of his wife in the film Rasputin and the Empress (it's because of him that all films now end with the "Any similarity to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental" disclaimer), and in 1967 collaborated on his own version of the story for a film also called I Killed Rasputin.
My play is set during a promotional interview for that project with the US journalist EM Halliday, who came tantalisingly close to making the supposed assassin reveal the truth about that night. In April, I flew to St Petersburg to see the Yusupov Palace and the cellar where Rasputin died (the first time). The most striking thing was the impossible luxury that aristocrats were living in, and the sharp and sickening juxtaposition with the horrific struggles of ordinary people. It seems we haven't come too far in the last century, but maybe the super-rich today should have a read of their history books. It didn't work out so well for them last time.
I didn't get visited by the ghost of Rasputin, or feel a chill as I went down into the infamous cellar, but I did get a thrill when I was taken to the house he had lived in and climbed the same stairs as he would have done to get to his front door. I feel history has been unkind to this flawed but fascinating figure. But his murderer is just as flawed and intriguing. Both men struggled with their religious faith and physical desires, their lust for power and charitable inclinations. Yusupov claimed to be disgusted by Rasputin, but he was clearly attracted to him on some level. In the end I felt an unlikely sympathy for this repressed man and left him, as Halliday did, wishing I knew the truth.
• I Killed Rasputin is at the Assembly George Square until 24 August. Richard Herring is also performing in Lord of the Dance Settee.