Historian Chris Danziger considers the Oxford connection to an extraordinary event that took place exactly one hundred years ago in December 1916.
By Christopher Danzinger
It seems like an episode from medieval legend, but it was actually only 100 years ago, in December 1916, that one of history’s most celebrated assassinations took place. The victim was Grigory Rasputin, the so-called ‘Mad Monk’ who had acquired a Svengali-like influence over the Russian royal family. The perpetrator was Felix Yusupov (right), heir to the richest private fortune in Imperial Russia. It was a major step on the road to the Russian Revolution. It is time that the vital but little-known role that Oxford University played in the gestation of this event was aired.
How Yusupov and Rasputin’s arcs came to intersect is a highly complicated story which will be well known to some and unknown to others. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the Tsarina Alexandra. After giving birth to four girls, in 1904 she produced a boy. This was particularly significant because Tsar Paul had so hated his mother, Catherine, that in 1797 he had decreed that henceforth only males could succeed to the imperial throne.
Jubilation was soon succeeded by tragedy when it was discovered that the Tsarevitch had haemophilia, for which there was then no cure or treatment. However, hope reappeared when it seemed that a slovenly, debauched peasant mystic from Siberia could stop the attacks of bleeding. Alexandra fell totally under the spell of this miracle worker. He soon began to influence matters which had nothing to do with healing. If he told Alexandra that anyone was ‘a bad man’ she would immediately have him dismissed. In 1916 he was responsible for dismissing four prime ministers, five ministers of the interior, three foreign ministers, three war ministers, three ministers of transport, and four ministers of agriculture.Siberian peasant Rasputin apparently had the ability to improve the condition of the hemophiliac heir to the Russian throne, making him popular with the Tsar and his wife
His machinations began to disrupt Russia’s already faltering war effort. The combination of Rasputin’s known anti-war sentiments and the Tsarina’s perceived pro-German sympathies made him a natural target for accusations of treachery. Plots began to proliferate to assassinate him in order to preserve Russia’s ability to wage war. One of them was hatching in the head of the heir to Russia’s richest private fortune.
Felix Yusupov could trace his descent to Tartar Khans who, it is said, had achieved power through murder, rape and pillage. One member of the family gained huge land grants from an alliance with Ivan the Terrible, and his grandson, Khan Yusuf, was created Prince Yusupov when he converted from Islam to Christianity. In the mid-19th century, Princess Zenaida became the sole heir to the family fortune. She could have had her pick of any suitor in Russia but chose a handsome but dull cavalry officer from an undistinguished family, Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston, and married him in 1882. The Tsar gave the family a special dispensation to pass the Yusupov title through the female line.
Felix and Zenaida had four sons, of whom only two, Nicholas and Felix fils, survived infancy. Nicholas was killed in a duel over an officer’s wife in 1908, leaving his 21-year-old brother as the sole heir to the Yusupov fortune. The younger Felix Yusupov has been the object of fascinated scrutiny for over a century.
Both Nicholas and Felix recorded that their relationship with their father was limited to kissing his hand every morning and evening. Instead they developed an unhealthily close relationship with their mother. Felix later claimed that his mother had been so disappointed that her second child was a son that she had dressed him in girl’s clothes until he was five. That was not exceptional at the time. However, in his teens Felix went on dressing as a girl, allegedly to gain access to places like the opera which would have been barred to a teenage boy. Predictably he is said to have taken the fancy of Edward VII – but then what good-looking young woman did not? Felix recorded that he began to live a double life: by day he was a schoolboy and by night an elegant woman. Not surprisingly, young Felix became increasingly unmanageable. He exhausted teams of tutors. He developed a heterodox taste for the company of gypsies. It became harder and harder to keep his sexual escapades with partners of both sexes out of the press. Sending him away seemed an obvious solution, but Felix claimed later that his parents fought tooth and nail to prevent him leaving.
In London he stayed at the Carlton Hotel. There he was taken in hand by a sister of the Tsar’s and by the Bishop of London. They urged Felix to study at Oxford University. Where else would he call, therefore, but at University College, on the assumption that it was the oldest college in the University?
Felix records that the Master received him kindly. It so happened that at this point, 1909, there was a vacant set of ground-floor rooms, the largest of which – no matter who occupied it – was known as ‘the club’ because the undergraduates were in the habit of meeting there to drink their whisky. It is hard to know whether Felix would have seen this as an attraction or a deterrent, but he signed on for the following winter.
Felix later admitted that ‘studying was never my strength’ and finding a suitable degree course for him posed an obvious problem. Eventually, on the college rolls, ‘Elston, Count F.’ was enrolled to read Forestry and English. Later his course listing was emended to Fine Arts. The name ‘Elston’ has been variously attributed but was possibly a contraction of Elphinstone, a Scot who may have married into another fabulously wealthy family, the Soumarokoffs (as the surname was then spelt).In 1905 Rasputin was introduced to the royal family, and in 1908 he was summoned to the palace of Nicholas and Alexandra to help with one of their son's bleeding episodes
Felix reported that his day at Oxford began with a cold shower, which he hated, and a hearty breakfast, which was apparently ‘the only decent meal of the day’. There was no heating in his bedroom and the temperature was the same indoors as outdoors. Water froze in his washbasin, and in the morning his carpet was so damp that it was like ‘walking through a marsh’. He advised Prince Serge Obolensky, also due to come up to Oxford: ‘No one pays any attention to you.’
It may come as a surprise therefore to read that Felix wrote, ‘The three years I spent among the English were perhaps the happiest of my youth.’ He liked the outdoor life, not the ‘violent’ games but hunting, polo and swimming. He rowed and even applied himself to learning cricket. He told Obolensky: ‘After the first term they get accustomed to seeing you around and then you will get to know them.’ He was even elected to the Bullingdon Club.
After a year in college, undergraduates were allowed to move into digs, and Felix set up in what he called ‘a very ordinary and unattractive little house in the town’. Ordinary it may have been, but it seems to have had room for the ‘good chef’ he had brought from Russia as well as an English valet, a married couple who kept house for him and tended his three polo ponies, and a French chauffeur to drive the Delaunay-Belleville car – possibly the first car owned by an Oxford undergraduate. There are stories that he used to scatter coins on to the street from an upstairs window because he enjoyed watching the ensuing scuffles.Yusupov enrolled to read Forestry and English at University College, later changing to Fine Arts
However, Felix admits: ‘Although I went on studying at Oxford, I became more and more absorbed in the amusing and frivolous life I led in London.’ He was a regular guest at London’s most fashionable occasions. Diana Cooper, the pre-eminent London socialite and diarist, met him frequently and described him as ‘breathtakingly beautiful’. Another socialite recorded: ‘Seldom have I met such a wonderful figure, such extraordinary eyes and a mouth that turned up at the corners. Certainly he was the best-looking man I have seen.’
Undergraduates were expected to spend every night of the term in residence. Felix had no problem circumventing this regulation. His friend Sebastian Earl reported that he had two macaws which his valet would take into his bathroom for his morning bath, where they immediately started screeching so loudly as to be heard up and down George Street. If Felix were detained in Mayfair overnight, ‘his valet would run a bath and bring in the macaws, whose screeching provided the owner of the digs with sufficient evidence that the Count had been present the previous night.’
However, even Felix reported ruefully that ‘for a few months’ he had to abandon his ‘frivolous life’ to prepare for finals. ‘How I succeeded in passing them is still a mystery to me,’ he said. In fact he asked Sebastian Earl’s brother Austin to coach him for his schools as ‘other interests had interfered with his reading’. Austin agreed, but after a fortnight respectfully asked Felix if he should not start doing some reading. Felix replied, ‘I do not think so, my dear Austin. I shall do what I do in St Petersburg. I shall invite the examiners to breakfast, and I shall put an envelope with £100 on each one’s plate.’
Felix returned to Russia in 1913. He was not really a political animal but his family was so close to court circles that he could not help becoming involved.
Within 18 months Russia was at war with Germany. From the start it went very badly for Russia, resulting in a search for scapegoats. The likeliest culprits were the Tsarina, widely known as ‘the German woman’, and the Mad Monk at her side.The palace of Felix Yusupov, heir to the richest private fortune in Imperial Russia
The Tsarina was implacably resistant to any suggestion of removing Rasputin. Two converging views arose. In Russian court circles, the feeling grew that the only way to save the Romanov dynasty was somehow to eliminate Rasputin. The Allied secret services, meanwhile, began to think that to keep Russia in the war, Rasputin might need to be killed.
Rasputin was not unknown to Felix. In 1909 Felix recorded that Rasputin had walked up to him, said ‘Good morning, my dear boy,’ and attempted to kiss him. Felix drew back instinctively. ‘There was something about him which disgusted me,’ he said. In 1912 an Oxford friend who had been invited to stay with Felix wrote that his host had to pay ‘a visit to a mysterious hypnotist whose power Felix is trying to defeat in a very clever way of his own’. We can only guess that this was Rasputin.
However, by the time Felix returned to Russia from Oxford, he noted: ‘Rasputin has much changed since the time I had first seen him. His face had grown puffy and he had become quite flabby. He behaved in a highly familiar manner. He kissed me.’ This time he does not say that he recoiled.
The prince and the monk, whose sexual appetites were notoriously eclectic, began to see more of each other. Felix recorded that in a drunken rant, Rasputin once said to him, ‘Enough of this war. It’s time to end the slaughter. When we’ve settled this matter, we’ll make Alix regent during Alexei’s minority. As for him, we’ll send him to [the Crimea] for a rest. The Tsarina’s a second Catherine the Great. She’s promised to begin by sending away those chatterboxes in the Duma [parliament].’ One of the grand dukes commented that Rasputin was ‘growing ever more infatuated with Yusupov’. It put Felix in a unique position to win Rasputin’s trust.
Felix now rose to the call of tsar and country. ‘It was no longer a matter of whether Rasputin ought to disappear but only of whether I was the right person to kill him,’ he later said. Eventually Felix was persuaded. Two others were co-opted, a vehemently anti-Rasputinist member of the Duma and the Grand Duke Dimitri, a cousin of the Tsar’s. A plot was hatched to lure Rasputin to the fabulous Yusupov Palace on the Moika Canal. They settled on 30 December because that was the first night on which Dimitri was free of social engagements. What happened that night a hundred years ago has long lain in the borderlands between history and legend. Rasputin was first administered enough poison to kill a hundred men, then shot three times, then clubbed with chains, and finally tipped into the canal. An autopsy recorded the cause of death as drowning.
What claim can Oxford make to have influenced the Russian Revolution? When Felix returned to Russia, his Anglophilia was well known. It made him an obvious contact should the British Secret Service take an interest in Russian politics. Naturally the British have always denied that they had any part in Rasputin’s murder, However, one of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agents in St Petersburg at the time was Oswald Rayner, who had been a close Oxford friend of Felix’s when reading modern languages at Oriel. After leaving school Rayner had spent a year in Finland – then part of the Russian Empire – and they probably met through the Oxford University Russian Club which Yusupov founded in 1909, and which still flourishes today as the Russian Society. Rayner’s deputy, Stephen Alley, had actually been born in one of the Yusupov palaces, where his father had been one of Felix’s tutors.Grigory Rasputin survived massive doses of poison and three bullets at the Yusupov Palace in St Petersburg
The diary of Rayner’s chauffeur confirms that in December 1916 he took Rayner and Alley to the Yusupov Palace on six occasions, the last being the day after Rasputin’s murder. Some witnesses report that Rayner had been at the Palace on the night of the murder. Rayner himself is said to have later shown some cousins a bullet acquired at the murder scene.
No one seriously doubts that there was communication between Felix and the SIS. What is not known is whether the SIS positively approached Felix or whether they heard about his plot and sought to exploit it for their own ends. Was British interest merely to observe discreetly that the job had been satisfactorily completed? A week after the murder, Alley wrote to another SIS colleague: ‘Although matters have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has been clearly achieved.’
Even if British involvement amounted to no more than stiffening Felix’s resolve, it was certainly an important ingredient, and at the roots of that lay Felix’s association with Oxford. Rayner christened his only son John Felix Rayner, and made the first English translation of Felix Yusupov’s book Rasputin: His Malignant Influence and Assassination, published in 1927. There is clearly more than an incidental connection to all these links, but Rayner burned all his papers before he died in 1961, so we will probably never know the truth.
The causal link between Rasputin’s death and the Russian Revolution is infinitely debatable. Asked by a journalist if Rasputin’s murder had brought on the revolution, Felix replied unhesitatingly: ‘The revolution happened because I didn’t kill him in time to stop it.’ Whether Oswald Rayner played a part in the assassination will probably never be known for sure. If indeed he was involved, then Oxford University – by introducing him to Felix Yusupov – has the ambiguous honour of unwittingly forging a link in the chain which led to Rasputin’s death.
Chris Danziger is an Oxford-based writer and teacher.