The story of the incredible life and fantastical death of Grigori Rasputin has fascinated me ever since I was a child. It has been told in books and films, though perhaps most memorably in a song by a 1970s silver-booted disco-combo. You may be surprised to discover that, despite the claims of Boney M, he was neither “the lover of the Russian queen” or “Russia’s greatest love machine”. It’s even debatable that he was “a cat that really was gone.”
The image of an insane, diabolical monk who is seemingly impossible to kill is so alluring that many serious historians have gone along with it and solemnly repeated it as if it were gospel.
Given that these events happened only a hundred years ago, it is slightly bewildering to see how quickly the man has turned into a myth and surprisingly difficult to get a balanced view of what he was really like. The person most responsible for this demonisation is Rasputin’s self-proclaimed assassin, Prince Felix Yusupov.
I realised that this colourful and not entirely pleasant character is the key to the mystery about a decade ago when I chanced across his autobiography “Lost Splendour”.
Yusupov was born into the richest family in Russia. His mother had a servant dedicated to caring for her collection of muffs, they had their own private train carriage complete with an aviary to drown out the noise of the engine and for one birthday his father gave his mother a mountain (which must have been Hell to gift wrap).
Felix was the second son and thus initially not heir to the fortune. His mother had wanted a girl, so decided to dress her son in frills and pink clothes anyway. Seemingly he enjoyed this as he carried on cross dressing in his adolescence, sneaking out of the palace to sing in local clubs and looking so convincing as a woman that he attracted admiring enquiries from an oblivious Edward VII. It seemed that Yusupov enjoyed this attention from men.
The death of his older brother in a duel propelled Felix into the limelight, making him reluctantly bound to marry and produce an heir. He did seem to have the occasional crisis of conscience about having so much when the general populace had so little, but he was persuaded by his mother not to give everything away.
Ultimately he would become infamous for the murder of Rasputin, an act which he hoped would save the monarchy, but actually probably just hastened its demise. He had to flee the country, leaving behind most of his fortune.
The rest of his life would revolve around the man he killed, not always in a negative way. He and his wife successfully sued MGM for the way they were portrayed in the film “Rasputin and the Princess” and it’s thanks to them that all motion pictures now come with the disclaimer, “Any similarity to people living or dead is purely coincidental.”
Remarkably Yusupov lived for fifty years after the revolution, long after most of the other participants were dead, living in usually comfortable exile in Paris. In 1967 he was interviewed by an American journalist called EM Halliday, partly as promotion for another film (this time made with the Prince’s blessing and participation) called “I Killed Rasputin”. Halliday is seemingly one of the first people to question the somewhat dubious story that Yusupov had told and came close persuading him to admit that there was some invention in the tale.
I realised that this meeting would serve as the perfect setting for a drama and that by treating the main players, Rasputin, Nicholas and Alexandra as peripheral characters it might be possible to explore the well-worn story from a more interesting angle. Yusupov was never punished for his crime and often profited from it, but it haunted him for the rest of his life and ensured he would only be remembered for one thing. As frustrating as that must have been he still loved recounting the story and seemed pleased that his place in history was assured.
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 poverty of ordinary people. It seems we haven’t come too far in the last century, but maybe there’s a lesson for today’s super rich.
Even though I am sceptical that anything supernatural happened during the murder I still secretly hoped that the ghost of Rasputin might visit me as I started writing the play in the Palace café (just metres from the scene of the crime). But he kept to himself. I took a “Rasputin Tour” of the city and was thrilled when our guide sneaked us into the very apartment block where the Holy Man had lived and I stood outside the front door of his rooms.
I feel history has been unkind to this flawed, but fascinating figure. But his murderer is just as flawed and intriguing. Both men struggled between 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. Some have speculated their relationship was sexual, but I think they were as much drawn to each other’s social positions: the aristocrat and the peasant. I wondered if Yusupov wanted to get rid of this man because he represented a part of himself that he was trying to repress. It’s a strange world where killing a man can make you a hero, but loving a man could get you sent to prison.
For such dark subject matter there is a surprising amount of comedy in the death of Rasputin, as there is in the oblivious decadence of the doomed Russian aristocracy.
I leave Prince Yusupov feeling tantalisingly close to a truth that is now hidden forever.