The article that needs no introduction! Following up on her previous pieces on World War One, including the spark that caused World War One to break out here, Rebecca Fachner tells us the 10 reasons why we are still fascinated by the Russian Revolution.

The Bolshevik  by Boris Kustodiev. 1920.

The Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev. 1920.

 1.     It is Bogo (Buy One Get One).

The Russian Revolution is the ultimate historical bargain; you get 2 for the price of 1. There were actually 2 revolutions inside of a year, the February/March revolution, which deposed the Tsar, and the October revolution that toppled the Provisional Government and brought the Bolsheviks to power.

 

2.     It was so much larger than life.

The Russian Revolution is all about contrast, which is what makes it so fascinating and unbelievable. The extreme opulence of the upper class and the Tsarist court, the wretched poverty of everyone else. There was such a huge gap between the “haves” and the “have not’s” that its actually staggering. Of course there was royalty and wealth in other countries, but the Russians cornered the market on royalty, excess and flamboyance. And the poor were just so overworked, starving and helpless. Poor is poor everywhere, but the poor in pre-Revolutionary Russia seem so much worse off than elsewhere.

 

3.     Rasputin.

Enough said.

 

4.     How did the Tsar and his government not see what was going on?

The Tsar himself represents another fascinating aspect to this entire historical episode. Has there ever been a man less suited to his position in life than Nicholas II?  He was not a ruler; he was indecisive, small minded, family oriented and lacked any forcefulness. His wife was similarly poorly placed in history, being unstable, hysterical and incredibly stubborn. Both were hugely lacking in self-awareness, which is the only explanation for how both Nicholas and his wife managed to completely ignore the unrest and unhappiness of their population. It takes a special kind of blindness not to see how the Tsarist government was teetering. In the ultimate historical irony, Nicholas would have been a perfect constitutional monarch, like his cousin George V in England, had he not been so dogmatically opposed to any constitution of any kind. 

 

5.     There is something for everyone.

The Russian Revolution is an incredibly accessible historical event, easy to understand and yet dense and scholarly all at the same time. It has fascinated popular historians, Hollywood and serious scholars because there are so many layers and so much going on. Movies have been made about the revolution (even cartoons), scholars have devoted entire careers to studying the Russian Revolution, and books of all types: popular history, memoir, even historical fiction have been written en masse about the Russian Revolution.

 

6.     Those poor, beautiful, doomed kids.

Everyone has seen one of the photos of the Tsar and his family, with the four beautiful daughters in their long white dresses and pearls, standing almost protectively around their parents and their little brother. There are so many pictures of the family, and as the girls get older they seem to look increasingly tragic and haunted. Maybe it is because we know what is coming for them, and we just can’t help but look at those pictures with a sense of foreboding. The revolution cost many lives, not to mention those killed in the first years of the Soviet government, but these four girls seem to represent the passing of an age and the lost potential not only of their young lives, but their parents entire reign.

 

7.     How did the Provisional government make the same mistakes their predecessors did?

The Provisional government took power in the chaotic and incredibly confused first days after the Tsar was deposed, and had the unenviable task of trying to form a new government under the absolute worst conditions: in the middle of a war, with almost no experience, and a population that was starving, sick and desperate for change. Many of the members of the new government had been in the Duma before the revolution, the very limited elected body that the Tsar had reluctantly allowed ten years earlier. Even those who had not been in the Duma were familiar with the problems of the Tsarist government, so how is it that the Provisional government proceeded to immediately make the exact same mistakes as the Tsar had? The new government continued Russia’s involvement in World War One, and spent their entire tenure fighting among themselves, rather than addressing the problems that had put them there in the first place. It is telling that the Provisional government was only in power for about six months before Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over with their promises of peace and bread. Russia wanted peace, and it is a mystery how the Provisional government failed to heed this.

 

8.     What other revolution ends with a street gang taking over an entire country?

The Bolsheviks were essentially a street gang, when you come right down to it. Both before the Tsar was toppled and after there were larger, far more prominent revolutionary groups in Russia, on every end of the political spectrum. The Bolsheviks were a relatively small-scale operation, until they suddenly took over St. Petersburg and then the rest of the country. How did they actually do that?  How did a gang of criminals and street thugs take over a country and then consolidate their power so quickly?

 

9.     We all know what comes next.

Part of the reason the Russian Revolution is so interesting, even now, is that we all know what comes next: Lenin, Stalin, the Bolsheviks and 70 plus years of Soviet rule. The revolutionary moment is so interesting because it is one of the great pivots of the twentieth century, and perhaps the greatest what-if.  Think about how different everything might have been if the Tsar could have saved his reign, or if the Provisional government could have transitioned smoothly into a more permanent democratic government. Had things happened even slightly differently, the twentieth century could have been a totally changed place.

 

10.  If it were fiction, no one would read it.

The Russian Revolution proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.  There are so many bizarre circumstances surrounding the Russian Revolution, the story is on such a grand scale and so completely unbelievable, that it has to be true. No fiction writer would ever invent a story this grandiose and farfetched, and if they did, no one would buy a book this preposterous. It HAS to be a true story.

 

Now, you can find out more about Rasputin here.

 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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Grigori Rasputin was an enigma of his age. He rose from obscurity to become a key friend of the Russian royal family. He was also said to have mystical powers. Following our previous article, we finish the story of a group who wanted to kill him – and Rasputin’s almost super-human powers to resist death.

 

We pick up the tale after Rasputin survived a cyanide attack…

 

Rasputin was observing a cabinet inlaid with ebony in the corner of the room when Yusopov returned with the gun concealed behind his back. He is reputed to have exclaimed, “Grigori Efimovich, you would do better to look at the crucifix and pray to it,” before shooting him in the chest. With his silk shirt stained with blood, Rasputin lay dead upon a bearskin rug. Yusopov informed the others of his success, but was ‘suddenly filled with a vague misgiving; an irresistible impulse forced me to go down to the basement.’ What followed next could be plucked straight from the pages of a horror story. According to Yusopov, ‘Rasputin leapt to his feet, foaming at the mouth. A wild roar echoed through the vaulted rooms, and his hands convulsively thrashed the air. 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. And all the time he called me by name, in a low raucous voice.’ Such claims should be taken with a pinch of salt, however: it is important to note that Yusopov was seeking to justify his actions by portraying Rasputin as a demonic monster from whom he had saved Russia. 

Mythical powers? A book "Rasputin, the black monk."

Mythical powers? A book "Rasputin, the black monk."

As Rasputin attempted to escape through the garden, Yusopov called for assistance from Purishkevich. The latter seized a revolver and felled Rasputin with two shots. Together, they bound his body and drove to the Malaya Nevka River, where they cast it off a bridge into an ice-hole. Two days later, a frozen corpse was dredged up, and, to the amazement of onlookers, Rasputin’s arms were raised as though he had been struggling to escape from his bonds. Some press reports even suggest that a few people rushed to the site clutching pots and buckets, believing that the water surrounding this individual might instill in them a measure of his mystical power.

Whilst the murderers’ accounts are compelling, they are flawed and inaccurate, and do not stand up to close scrutiny. The autopsy carried out on the thawed corpse refutes many of Yusopov’s exaggerated statements. It revealed that Rasputin had been hit three times: once in the left side of his back, once in the left side of his chest, and once at close range in his forehead. The pathologists confirmed this final shot to be the cause of death, yet Purishkevich never mentioned firing a bullet into Rasputin’s head from such a short distance. The final contradiction of Yusopov’s testimony was the absence of poison in the body.

As if the historian’s role is not challenged enough by excavating the past for gems of truth amongst the rubble of legend, let us now introduce Lieutenant Oswald Rayner to the list of dramatis personae. There is considerable evidence that the British viewed the situation in Russia as increasingly precarious and unstable: a mercurial compound jeopardised by the oxygen of revolution. The ambassador at the time, Sir George Buchanan, gave voice to these concerns in a meeting with the Tsar himself, in which he implored him to make some concessions regarding the constitution. “If I were to see a friend walking through a wood on a dark night along a path which I knew ended in a precipice, would it not be my duty, sir, to warn him of his danger? And is it not equally my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you?”

Rayner was a British officer employed by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in St. Petersburg. He was also a contemporary of Felix Yusopov, for the two men had formed a close relationship when studying together at Oxford. The British were worried that Rasputin’s significant influence over the royal family would result in his directing them to withdraw troops from the war. This would have been catastrophic for the Allies. Russia’s conflict with Germany in the East provided a crucial buffer, as it meant that the Germans could not concentrate all their forces on one front.

Rayner visited the Yusopov residence on several occasions around the time of Rasputin’s death, leading some to suspect the SIS of instigating the assassination. Was it Rayner who shot Rasputin in the head with the precision of a trained killer? There were certainly persistent rumours that he had somehow been involved; even the Tsar and his family became wary of Buchanan and his supporters. The intelligence historian, Andrew Cook, uncovered an incriminatory message sent by a British intelligence officer in the aftermath of Rasputin’s death. If Rasputin is the ‘Dark Forces’ to which he refers, then this memo is most damning indeed: ‘Although matters here have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. Reaction to the demise of “Dark Forces” has been well-received by all… Rayner is attending to loose ends.’

Historians can dissect documents and posit theories, but, ultimately, the true events of that night will continue to elude them. Instead, they must sift through the pile of myths and reach their own conclusion. Should Yusopov’s account take precedence over others? Was the SIS complicit in the murder, or, indeed, can a different explanation altogether be justified? The most compelling aspect of Rasputin’s story is the aura of mystery surrounding his death: the truth has been swept away by time, with only a few fragments of the past remaining, half-glimpsed through the prism of the years.

 

By Julia Routledge

 

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Julia's recently published book on George Orwell. You can view the book here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

 

References

  • Lost Splendour: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin – Felix Yusopov
  • My Mission to Russia, and Other Diplomatic Memories – Sir George Buchanan
  • How To Kill Rasputin: The Life and Death of Grigori Rasputin – Andrew Cook

Grigori Rasputin was an enigma of his age. He rose from obscurity to become a key friend of the Russian royal family. He was also said to have mystical powers. Here, we start to tell the story of a group who wanted to kill him – and Rasputin’s almost super-human powers to resist death.

 

The Moika Palace, resplendent in yellow hues, stretches like a supine lion beside the river in St. Petersburg. The residence of the Yusopov family from 1830 to 1917, it was the site of a gruesome murder that continues to mystify and intrigue today, for the details of the night read like a vividly-imagined crime story. No definitive and coherent narrative exists; indeed, the only eyewitness accounts are those of the assassins themselves, and these are, of course, biased. They do, however, provide a starting point from which strands of fiction and truth can be separated and ordered.

The beaming eyes of Rasputin in a photo taken in c. 1905.

The beaming eyes of Rasputin in a photo taken in c. 1905.

Grigori Rasputin’s stratospheric rise to power – akin, perhaps, to Thomas Cromwell’s – transformed him from an illiterate peasant to the trusted confidante of the Russian royal family. This association was divisive, at times scandalous, and ultimately destructive: his presence at court and sway over them – in particular the Tsaritsa – contributed to increasing resentment towards the royal Romanovs in the months preceding the February Revolution of 1917, and precipitated their downfall. An enigmatic figure, much of Rasputin’s life is obscured by conflicting accounts of his character and actions. He was portrayed by his followers as a ‘starets’ or mystical ‘elder’, who possessed supernatural powers to heal the heir to the throne. His critics, on the other hand, regarded him as a licentious and decadent charlatan with a propensity for excessive drinking. He was despised by many in the highest echelons of society, who believed that their bête noire was corroding the popularity of the Romanov dynasty. In the winter of 1916, this resentment became overwhelming.

Prince Felix Yusopov, heir to a vast fortune and husband to the Tsar’s niece, arrived at Rasputin’s house in the middle of the night of December 16 in order to escort him to the Moika Palace. The invitation had been extended at an earlier date: the prince had decided to entice Rasputin to his home by indicating that his beautiful wife, Irina, would be present. In fact, Irina was staying in the Crimea with his parents. Rasputin seemed to have taken particular care over his appearance that evening, donning a silk shirt embroidered with cornflowers, velvet breeches and polished boots. Even his unkempt, matted beard had been combed. Yusopov led Rasputin outside, where a car driven by Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert was waiting to take them to the palace.

A basement in the east wing had been specially prepared for the occasion. There was a convivial atmosphere: the room was sumptuously furnished with a thick Persian carpet on the floor, and a fire crackled in the background. A gramophone in the adjoining study played ‘Yankee Doodle’, and tempting cakes were laid out on the table. To avoid suspicion, tea had been poured into cups to give the impression that a meal had taken place there recently. The mise-en-scène was set. Unbeknown to Rasputin, Yusopov and his fellow disaffected conspirators had laced the cakes with enough cyanide ‘to kill several men instantly.’ These collaborators, who included the Tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, and a forthright politician, Vladimir Purishkevich, were waiting elsewhere for the deed to be executed. When Rasputin enquired after Irina, he was informed that she would be joining them shortly. Yusopov then proceeded to offer him the sweet pastries and poisoned wine. At first, Rasputin declined, citing reasons of health: had he detected that treachery was afoot? Eventually, however, he relented and sampled a few of the delicacies. They had crossed the Rubicon: Yusopov’s work was complete.

Several hours later, the poisoned wine and pastries had had no effect on Rasputin. One can only imagine Yusopov’s disquiet as that inviolable gaze continued to bore into him with unnerving intensity. Rasputin’s face is almost simian in photographs, with a feral, hypnotic glint in his eyes suggesting a simmering madness. Yusopov recalled in his memoirs: “Under Rasputin's heavy gaze, I felt all my self-possession leaving me; an indescribable numbness came over me, [and] my head swam.” In desperation, Yusopov retreated upstairs to seek the counsel of the other men, who were shocked at Rasputin’s apparent immunity to the poison. It was agreed that Yusopov should go back armed with a revolver to put an end to the fiend, for who could survive being shot?

 But equally, Rasputin had just survived eating cakes laced with cyanide? Was Rasputin as immune to shooting as he was to poison? We’ll continue this story in our unique style next week!

 

By Julia Routledge

 

Read on! Part 2 of this article is available by clicking here!

 

 References

  • Lost Splendour: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin – Felix Yusopov
  • My Mission to Russia, and Other Diplomatic Memories – Sir George Buchanan
  • How To Kill Rasputin: The Life and Death of Grigori Rasputin – Andrew Cook
Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones