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Did Smethwick-born spy murder Mad Monk Rasputin?

By dan shaw  |  Posted: August 19, 2010

Rasputin's body, showing bullet wound to the forehead. Did Smethwick-born Oswald Rayner fire the fatal shot?

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GRIGORI Yefimovich Rasputin is one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. The so-called ‘mad monk’, whose malign influence over the Russian royal family led to his dramatic murder at the hands of a cabal of patriotic Russian nobles, has become the stuff of popular legend. This peasant-born holy man became the closest advisor to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, through his mystic ability to apparently heal their haemophiliac son Alexei, but he was also a drunkard and a womanizer and some claimed he was the devil incarnate. Perhaps the most spectacular legend of Rasputin is the nature of his death — poisoned, shot and finally drowned — but a new book sets forth a much more prosaic account of his murder and claims that the fatal shot was fired by a British spy born in Smethwick.

Rasputin was born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye in January 1869. Little is known of his early years but he had a brother and a sister who both died at an early age. When he was around 18, Rasputin spent three months in the Verkhoturye Monastery, possibly as a penance for theft, transforming his life. From then on he became a wandering religious mystic.

In 1889 he married Praskovia Fyodorovna Dubrovina and they had three children, Dmitri, Varvara and Maria, and Rasputin fathered a fourth child by another woman. In 1901 he left Pokrovskoye to wander through Russia as a ‘strannik’, a pilgrim. He visited Greece and the Holy Land before returning to Russia and establishing himself in St Petersburg in 1903 as a ‘starets’, a holy man with the powers of healing and prophecy.

In St Petersburg Rasputin attracted a coterie of influential women which allowed him to first meet the Tsar on 1st November, 1905. He was invited to the royal palace in October 1906 and presented the royal family with an icon. From that time he began to ‘heal’ young Alexei through the power of his prayers.

Rasputin was, apparently, able to stop the Tsarevich’s bleeding and make him feel better, something professional doctors had been unable to do.

How Rasputin did this is not clear. Some claim he hypnotized Alexei, while others claim that Rasputin had no knowledge of hypnotism.

His advice to Alexandra seems remarkably straightforward, telling her to let her son rest and not let the doctors overtax him, and a more relaxed regime may have allowed Alexei’s body to heal itself. But it could be that Rasputin’s visits to the boy happened to coincide with natural improvements of the boy’s condition. Whatever the reason, Alexandra was convinced of Rasputin’s healing powers and on one notable instance, when Alexei injured himself while the royal family was visiting Poland in 1912, Rasputin sent a telegram which the Tsarina believed eased her son’s suffering.

From around that time Rasputin appears to have become Alexandra’s personal confidant and advisor, much to the chagrin of Russian nobility and the Orthodox Church. While Rasputin was a pious holy man in front of the Tsarina, away from her he did little to hide his drunkenness, sexual promiscuity or willingness to accept bribes and he dabbled in court politics, using his influence over Alexandra to manipulate official appointments.

Alexandra was unpopular too; born Princess Alix of Hesse and Rhine, she was the Protestant daughter of a German grand duke (and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and was never truly accepted by her Russian subjects.

With the outbreak of the First World War, resentment of her grew and she was accused of being a German spy. In September, 1915, Nicholas II took personal command of Russian forces fighting the Germans, with disastrous results, and while he was away at the front Alexandra was left isolated in St Petersburg.

Accusations against Alexandra and the malign influence of Rasputin continued, even in the Russian parliament. It was believed that Rasputin and Alexandra were trying to engineer surrender to the Germans and at the end of 1916 a plot was hatched to do away with the Rasputin once and for all.

Two of Rasputin’s murderers were very close to the royal family, they were Prince Felix Yusupov (1887-1967), heir to the richest family in Russia, a flamboyant, cross-dressing playboy (a member of the Bullingdon Club during his Oxford days) who had married the Tsar’s niece, and his one-time lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (1891-1941), first cousin of Nicholas II and another playboy, mooted as a possible successor to the Russian throne should Alexei die. The third conspirator was Vladimir Purishkevich (1870-1920), a member of the Russian parliament and an ardent monarchist.

The accepted story of Rasputin’s murder is based on the accounts published by Yusupov and Purishkevich in later years. On the night of 16/17th December, 1916, Rasputin was lured to the Yusupov palace in St Petersburg on the pretext that he would be introduced to Yusupov’s wife. In a basement dining room Rasputin was plied with cakes and wine laced with potassium cyanide, several times the lethal dose. When the massive amount of poison had no apparent effect on Rasputin, the conspirators began to panic.

Several reasons have been put forward for why the poison did not kill Rasputin. The poison had gone off; it was negated by the large quantity of alcohol he had drunk or by the sugar in the cakes; he had developed a resistance to poisons; or his ‘supernatural powers’ made him immune. Yusupov took a gun and shot Rasputin. Satisfied that the evil monk was dead they left the body only to be disturbed some time later when he came back to life.

Rasputin was apparently able to make his way out of the basement into the gardens of the palace where he ran towards the gate to escape. Purishkevich fired twice at the fleeing monk and missed. He fired twice more and this time hit Rasputin in the back and in the rear of his head. To make certain, Yusupov took a rubber cosh and beat the body. It was then wrapped in cloth and tied up and taken in Grand Duke Dmitri’s car to the Petrovski Bridge, where it was dumped through a hole in the ice into the Malaya Nevka river, from where it should have been carried out to the Baltic Sea and lost forever. However, the current took the body to the riverbank, where it was found, frozen in the ice, three days later.

When Rasputin’s body was pulled from the ice it was clear that he had escaped his bonds and had tried to free himself from the icy water — he had still been alive wh en thrown into the river and having survived poison and shooting, he drowned.

For 90 years that has been the accepted version of events but ‘Rasputin: The Role of Britain’s Secret Service in his Torture and Murder’ by Richard Cullen is the new book that debunks the myth, claiming that Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri and Purishkevich, were joined in the murder of Rasputin by a British spy named Oswald Rayner.

Richard Cullen first presented this theory in a BBC documentary broadcast in 2004 but his new book contains his latest findings from a forensic re-analysis of the case. Cullen joined the Metropolitan Police in 1971, rising to the rank of Commander and was Director of Advanced CID and Forensic Training before he retired in 2001. With colleagues in the Russian Ministry of Interior he developed forensic training at the St Petersburg MVD University and is currently a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice.

By reviewing the findings of Rasputin’s original post mortem in 1916, and a later re-examining of the report by leading Russian pathologists in the 1990s, analysing witness statements and photographs of the crime scene Cullen has established that the accounts published by Yusupov and Purishkevich, the main source of information on the murder of Rasputin, both contradict each other and are a tissue of lies.

The post mortem findings utterly contradict their version of events.

The post mortem was carried out by Professor Dmitri Kosorotov, leading Russian pathologist of the day. His examination was cut short, on the orders of the Tsarina, but he was able to carry out a satisfactory examination. Firstly, he found no evidence of poison, there was none in Rasputin’s stomach, only a large amount of alcohol, and there was no evidence of his drowning either, no fluid in his lungs.

Rasputin had been beaten about the head with a flexible, blunt instrument, like a cosh, and his genitals had been completely crushed too, probably by the same weapon. And he had been shot three times at close range, within 20cm or less. The first bullet had entered Rasputin’s chest on the left hand side, passing through his stomach and liver and out through his chest on the right hand side. The second bullet entered Rasputin’s back, destroying his right kidney. Either of these wounds would have proved fatal but it was the third shot, to the forehead at point-blank range, destroying much of Rasputin’s brain, which was the coup de grace that killed him.

Thus Rasputin was most definitely dead when he was dumped in the freezing river and the statements of the police that recovered his body and the photographs taken at the time show that he was still tied up when found.

Why did Yusupov and Purishkevich make up such an elaborate story about Rasputin’s murder? Cullen claims that it was to cover up the involvement of the British intelligence service.

The three shots that killed Rasputin were fired from three different calibre guns and the shot to the head was probably fired from a British service revolver. Cullen claims that the man most likely to have fired that shot was British spy Oswald Rayner.

Rayner was born on 29th November, 1888, in Smethwick, the son of Thomas Rayner, a draper, and his wife Florence. The 1891 census has the family living at 89 Soho Street, Smethwick.

Are there any relatives who may be able to provide more information on Rayner? Is he related to the drapery firm of Rayner and Oakes that was operating in Bearwood Road, Smethwick, in the 1920s? He studied at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1907 to 1910 and while there met Felix Yusupov, the two becoming lifelong friends. In 1910 Rayner was called to the bar and in 1915 he became a barrister at the Inner Temple.

On 15th December, 1915, Rayner was commissioned into the army and sent to the St Petersburg Secret Intelligence Service station, where he acted as a censor.

Cullen claims that Rayner, like Yusupov, was convinced that Rasputin had links with the Germans and was trying to arrange an end to the war on the Eastern Front. Peace between Russia and Germany would have had disastrous consequences for the British, freeing thousands to German troops that would have transferred to the Western Front, giving them a definite numerical advantage over the Allies.

So the British, Cullen’s theory goes, intervened to remove the threat by killing the Tsarina’s favourite. Naturally, this would have had terrible consequence for relations between the British government and the Tsar, and so the conspiracy was disguised to appear to be the act of the group of Russian patriots defending Mother Russia from the evil that had crept into her heart. Rasputin was lured to his fate by Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitri, Purishkevich and Rayner, he was tortured to reveal his non-existent contacts with the Germans and then shot.

It seems that Nicholas II was aware of British involvement in Rasputin’s murder.

He told George Buchanan, British ambassador to the Romanov court, that he suspected a young Englishman, one of Yusupov’s Oxford university friends, played a part in the murder. Buchanan denied any British involvement, despite that fact that Rayner was with Yusupov when he had been detained at the railway station, trying to flee St Petersburg.

In December 1917, Rayner was promoted to captain and in 1918 he was sent to the British spy base in Stockholm. He returned to Russia in 1919, touring Siberia and staying in Vladivostok. The same year he was awarded an MBE and he left the army in 1920, returning to Moscow in 1921 as part of a trade mission.

In 1927 he translated into English Yusupov’s book “Rasputin: His Malignant Influence and His Assassination”.

Rayner later became the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Finland. He died in Botley, Oxfordshire, in 1961, after burning all his documents and leaving no personal account of his activities in Russia, but his family were always convinced that he had been in the Yusupov Palace on the night of Rasputin’s murder.

As for the other murders, Grand Duke Dmitri was exiled by Nicholas II to the Persian Front, which later saved his life.

While his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks, Dmitri fled Russia with British help, making him one of the few senior Romanovs to escape the Russian Revolution. He died from tuberculosis in Switzerland in 1941. Felix Yusupov was put under house arrest but following the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917 he was able to flee to the Crimea where he boarded a British warship and escaped Russia. He died in Paris in 1967.

Vladimir Purishkevich remained in Russia during the revolution and in 1917 became the first person tried at the Bolshevik’s Revolutionary Tribunal. He was imprisoned but released in an amnesty, fleeing to Southern Russia, and died from typhus in 1920.

Rasputin was buried, on the orders of Alexandra, at Tsarskoye Selo, the imperial palace south of St Petersburg. Following the revolution of 1917, his remains were dug up and destroyed by fire.

Cullen’s book is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in Rasputin, a monster-figure of the 20th century. The majority of the book is given over to his effective refuting of the accounts of Yusupov and Purishkevich and his clear presentation of the forensic details of Rasputin’s autopsy. In his final chapter he asserts Oswald Rayner’s involvement in the murder, but it is only an assertion and firmer evidence to link him to the crime is needed. But, given the facts as Cullen presents them, Rayner is a highly plausible suspect.

Rasputin: The Role of Britain’s Secret Service in his Torture and Murder by Richard Cullen (ISBN 978-1-906447-07- 6) is published by Dialogue, an imprint of Biteback Publishing Limited, priced £18.99.

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