Rasputin dispute: Did Oxford alumnus really kill him? Rasputin in 1916

By Chris Danziger

In life, Prince Felix Yusupov (1887–1967) was the object of universal fascination. His fabulous wealth, his exhibitionism, his impossibly good looks, his sexual escapades, and his proximity to the Russian Imperial family all ensured he was never far from the public eye. In death, it seems that he is no less so.

In the Michaelmas issue of Oxford Today’s print magazine, I published an article, ‘The prince, the spy and the Mad Monk’, outlining his association with Oxford University as an undergraduate from 1910 to 1912; his involvement in the assassination of Rasputin; and the possible links between the two. In December the article was reproduced online by Oxford Today under the headline ‘The Oxford alumnus who helped to assassinate Rasputin’.

Readers of Oxford Today are drawn from a wide pool both chronologically and geographically, and this article generated some fascinating correspondence. Perhaps the most fruitful is from David Harrison, whose grandfather Eric Hamilton (1890–1962, later Dean of Windsor and Bishop of Shrewsbury) was one of the closest Oxford University friends of Prince Felix Yusupov. Eric was invited to visit the Yusupovs in Russia in 1910, and subsequently holidayed with Felix in Venice. In Russia he took some remarkable photographs, which Oxford Today online will shortly publish (along with their Oxford matriculation photograph) for the first time. The collection forms a unique record of a vanished way of life.

Another fascinating letter comes from Jenny Hughes CBE, friend and colleague of the late Kyril Zinovieff (1910–2015), a man who was himself for many years a close personal friend of Felix’s. Ms Hughes counters the suggestion that Rasputin had malignantly influenced state policy through the Empress. She writes that Zinovieff had examined the Tsarina’s letters to the Tsar and compared them with the decisions the Tsar actually took, proving ‘to his own satisfaction’ that the Tsar ‘never took [Rasputin’s] advice in political or military matters’.

Ms Hughes also points out the dangers of placing too much weight on Felix’s account of Rasputin’s assassination. Zinovieff recalled that Felix rarely spoke the truth about his own role in any matters, great or small: he was essentially a delightful fantasist. She and others rightly propose that Yusupov was temperamentally incapable of the violence needed to commit murder.

In The Companion Guide to St Petersburg (2003, co-written with Ms Hughes) Zinovieff gave his own account of what ‘really’ happened on the night of Rasputin’s assassination. But it has to be said his details are almost as speculative as Felix Yusupov’s.

Another interesting letter comes from Chicago-born Tsaims Luksus, an American artist and fashion designer. He reinforces our previous correspondent’s verdict on Felix as ‘a very theatrical personality’ living in ‘a world still steeped in medieval Russia’, amid ‘lavish splendour of great wealth, privilege and irresponsibility’. Luksus poses the possibility that Felix was not even in the building when Rasputin was assassinated, and that the actual deed was carried out either by Bolshevik agents or by British Secret Service agents dressed as Bolsheviks. In this account, Felix took the blame for the murder to protect his valet, who certainly was implicated in the crime. Felix, as a relative of the Tsar, knew he himself was immune from prosecution.

We have no idea whether we are getting nearer or further from the truth. One is more and more inclined to support Anatol Lieven’s assertion that ‘more rubbish has been written on the subject of Rasputin than any other figure in Russian history’.

Rasputin dispute: Did Oxford alumnus really kill him?I was interested to note that articles on Felix Yusupov — and whether his Oxford connections were central to Rasputin’s assassination on 30 December 1916 — appeared around the time of the centenary in various other national and local papers. However, it will give satisfaction to many that they read it first in Oxford Today last October.

Meanwhile in November, at the Hotel Drouot in Paris, some Yusupov memorabilia was sold at auction. The objects had been given to Victor Manuel Contreras, a Mexican sculptor whom Felix adopted or befriended in Paris in the 1960’s. The best-known item in the sale was the famous costume Felix wore at the Eglinton Ball in London in 1912, when evading his obligations as an Oxford University student.  It fetched 62,500 Euros, about 50 per cent higher than the auctioneer’s estimate.

And, finally  the Chair of the Botley Historical Society, which interests itself in the west Oxford suburb, showed me a photograph of Oswald Rayner, in his garden in Botley, to which he retired and where he died in 1981, six years before his friend Felix.

Doubtless in due course many more Yusupov-related items and claims will see the light of day. I am less convinced that the same can be said about the truth of Rasputin’s assassination, or of the involvement of Felix Yusupov or the British Secret Service or any Oxford connection.

Chris Danziger is an Oxford-based writer and teacher

[Editor’s note: Further to the correspondence seen by Chris Danziger, a letter from John Penycate is also appended below.]


From Jenny Hughes CBE

I find it unexpectedly distressing to read such a very unacademic article in your October issue. I realise that Oxford Today is not a learned journal and that its prime purpose is to entertain rather than inform. But it should surely be accurate and its journalism should surely be nearer the quality of The Guardian and the Daily Mail.

Mr Danziger may or may not be correct in his suggestion that the British Secret Service was privy to the assassination of Rasputin. I don’t know about that. But he is certainly wrong to suggest:

  • that Yusupov’s own description of events could be relied upon;
  • that Rasputin was mad (does he have any evidence for this? Bad, possibly, but mad? Rasputin was one of the few people in Russia who realised from the outset how disastrous it would be for the country to become involved in another war);
  • that it was Yusupov who fired the fatal shot (he almost certainly didn’t) or was even the prime mover;
  • that Rasputin influenced anything important in the political world (he certainly attempted to, but there is no evidence that Nicholas II actually took his advice).*

And a minor matter: ‘his [Yusupov’s] family was so close to court circles’. Really Daily Mail stuff. Why not be precise? Yusupov’s wife was the niece of Nicholas II.

Rasputin dispute: Did Oxford alumnus really kill him?Rasputin, second left, with his followers

If Mr Danziger wanted to write about Yusupov at Oxford, that’s one thing. But to try to write history on the strength of it is another.

Kyril Zinovieff, a close personal friend of Felix Yusupov for many years (and whose grandfather was Governor of St Petersburg Province in 1916), made a meticulous comparison of the letters written by the Tsarina to the Tsar based on Rasputin’s advice, and the decisions that the Tsar actually took. He proved, to his own satisfaction and others’, that the Tsar consistently refused to be influenced in matters of state by the Tsarina (he was well aware of the dangers). Though he was personally grateful to Rasputin for help with the Tsarevich’s haemophilia, Nicholas never took his advice in political or military matters.

Kyril, also, was absolutely clear that Yusupov rarely spoke the truth about his own role in things — anything, great or small. He was rather a delightful fantasist.

Kyril’s own attempt to describe what really happened on the night that Rasputin was killed is contained in The Companion Guide to St Petersburg (2003), which, because Kyril was by that time blind, I helped him write.

Jenny Hughes CBE


From Tzaims Luksus FRSA

For the sake of the honour of the Yusupov Family I feel it necessary to comment. The only real truth in Danziger’s account is his summation that ‘we will probably never know the truth’.

My research concerning this event and the Yusupov Family has been an important part of my life. Over many decades I have collected all details published or related, as part of my book Striking with the Sword of Heaven.

Rasputin dispute: Did Oxford alumnus really kill him?We have all kinds of hearsay concerning Prince Felix’s association with Rasputin. Felix Yusupov himself (pictured right) claimed he had plotted and managed the whole thing; he made his career from the case. Circumstances were in his favour and he doted on elaboration, intrigue and fantasy. A very theatrical personality, he lived in a world still steeped in medieval Russia. The lavish splendour of great wealth, privilege and irresponsibility, together with his ego, added denial to the mixture.

How fascinated most young men at Oxford would have been in this wealthy and high-profile Russian prince among them! Rumour and invention spreads like Greek Fire through Oxford. One can be certain everyone had something to relate concerning what Prince Felix Yusupov might have said or implied, or even didn’t say or imply — like stories about Guy Fawkes.

But did he murder Grigory Rasputin? All the facts long kept secret (at least in the English speaking world) point to No!

In Paris in 1968, Prince Serge Obolenski and Prince Basil (or Vladimir) Yurievski told me Felix Yusupov was totally ignorant of any plot, or of Rasputin being invited to his family Yusupov Palace. Obolenski, confirmed by Yurievski, said Felix was not even at the palace that night.

He had gone for dinner and not expected to return until late. Knowing this in advance, his personal valet sent Rasputin an invitation to the palace on his master’s stationery. This valet was secretly a Bolshevik and planned to meet other Bolsheviks there while the prince and all other palace residents were elsewhere.

According to John Browne, a commander of the Grenadier Guards and author of Hidden Account of the Romanovs — whom I heard speak at a St George’s Society dinner in Palm Beach, Florida — some of these Bolsheviks were disguised British Secret Service Agents. This at least fits into all stories related thus far.

In a lead-lined basement room, the valet greeted Rasputin and served him with poisoned cakes and Madeira, claiming the prince would join him shortly. The Bolsheviks and Secret Service agents meanwhile played a phonograph record in a room above, as if the prince were actually in residence. When Rasputin failed to die from the poison, he was shot by one of the Bolsheviks or, according to John Browne, a British Secret Service agent.

Shortly before the shooting, Prince Felix and his friends returned to the palace unexpectedly, but were far away from either the basement room or the room occupied by the assassins. Hearing several shots and a commotion from below, the company went down to see what was happening.

Rasputin had managed to get out into the courtyard, where Felix and his group found him bleeding on the ground. The Bolsheviks and valet were in a panic because police were on their way, alerted by the sound of gun shots and the loud barking of dogs.

Quickly everything was explained to Prince Felix. He told the police that the company had been shooting for sport, and the satisfied officers left. The Bolsheviks then threw Rasputin’s body into the Moika Canal. It later resurfaced, and an investigation followed.

To save his valet, who would have been executed without trial, Felix claimed responsibility for shooting Rasputin. As a Russian prince, Felix was immune to such treatment and could get away with the shooting — murder, in fact.

The Bolsheviks, and possibly the British Secret Service agents as well, had convinced Felix that if he took the blame he would become a hero of the people and they, after deposing Nicholas II, would make Felix tsar of Russia. Felix was gullible and fell for this ruse. As it turned out a trial was held, but Felix was exonerated and freed.

Rasputin dispute: Did Oxford alumnus really kill him?Moscow’s Yusupov Palace as it was in the 1890s when Prince Felix was growing up

Having boasted of killing Rasputin, Felix elaborated his involvement in detail. Though totally invented, his story was acceptable to all governments involved. It spread throughout the world but was later used in film scripts, an opera and historical documentaries. After a failed couture venture in exile in Paris, litigation over his claims was Felix’s only income. The lie became the truth.

Prince Serge Obolenski claimed that actually Felix couldn’t hurt a fly and certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t ever kill any man. He loved to dress up as a woman and had often engaged a private dining room at The Bear in Moscow where he plied Imperial Guards with vodka. With his brother Nicholas, he regularly attended the opera dressed as a woman. One night the Tsar noticed them and later asked Nicholas: ‘Who was that beautiful woman I saw you with at the opera?’

Tzaims Luksus FRSA
St Edmund Hall, 1961

From John Penycate

May I do a ‘pedantry corner’ on Christopher Danziger’s enthralling piece on Felix Yusupov?

Rasputin was not the Mad Monk. He was never a monk, and far from being mad was cunning. But his great enemy the monk Iliodor (real name Sergei Trufanov) entitled his memoirs The Mad Monk of Russia, referring to himself – ‘mad’ most probably in the American sense of angry. The book was published in New York in 1918.

Danziger quotes an autopsy report saying Rasputin drowned. Professor Dmitri Kosorotov of the Russian Imperial Military Medical Academy, who carried out Rasputin’s autopsy, wrote that he was killed by a bullet to the forehead. You can see the bullet hole in the photograph of Rasputin post mortem. Kosorotov adds that the three bullets that struck Rasputin came from three different guns. Felix Yusupov and Vladimir Purishkevich, the conspirator who was a member of the Duma, described in their memoirs firing the first two shots, but not the coup de grace.

This led to the rumour that Yusupov’s old Oxford friend, the SIS officer Oswald Rayner, shot Rasputin. The former ‘C’ of MI6, Sir John Scarlett (Magdalen, 1966), assured me that he didn’t – the official line now for a century, but probably true. Personally, I suspect it was Yusupov. For he went on to attack the dead body with a dumb-bell, in particular the genitals, in an uncontrollable frenzy of sexual revenge – the evidence of which Professor Kosorotov vividly described, and which is more or less confirmed in both Yusupov’s and Purishkevich’s memoirs.

Rasputin was a plausible and manipulative rogue. Oxford graduate and murderer Yusupov appears to have been, to say the least, seriously weird.

John Penycate
Christ Church, 1962

Photographs: Rasputin in 1916 is reproduced under IWM Non-Commercial Licence; Rasputin and his followers and Felix Yusupov are both from Wikimedia Commons.


By Tim Saunders

There's an interesting echo to all this in the highly-entertaining case of Youssoupov v MGM - including some perceptive dicta from the CA on the nature of the cinema.

By Jens Ulstrup

A 100th Anniversary – continued
Organic Chemistry of Cyanide in Rasputin’s Murder

By David Ackland Tanner and Jens Ulstrup

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the celebrated murder of the (in)famous Siberian peasant mystic Rasputin, Oxford Today has published several exciting articles lately. The pre-syllable “ras-“ in Russian, by the way means “dis-“or “un-“ and the word “putnyj” (путный) “orderly”, or sensible. Rasputin thus means “the disordered” or “debauched one”. The word putin must therefore mean the opposite, an “orderly” person (!). The murderer was the Oxford University College alumnus Felix Felixovich Yusupov, one of the many Oxford eccentrics through the ages, and his group of fellow conspirators. The story is very well told in Oxford Today and many times elsewhere. Wikipedia is here a good introductory source. A question that remains from the gloomy 30th December evening in 1916 is, why the cyanide sprinkled over the cakes and dissolved in the Madeira wine served had no effect on Rasputin in the first murder attempt, and Yusupov therefore had to resort to tougher means. Rasputin’s physical stamina has been suggested as a reason, but the chemistry of cyanide and carbohydrates may hold another clue.

The so-called Kiliani-Fischer synthesis (1885) is a well-known process in carbohydrate (sugar) chemistry, also at the time of the murder. The process offers routes (highly innovative at the time3) to synthesize carbohydrates which are difficult to obtain from natural sources. In this process cyanide, CN- binds to an available carbohydrate to form what is known as a cyanohydrin. This cyanohydrin molecule is brought to further reaction by heat and acid, leading to the desired new carbohydrates, and converting bound cyanide to harmless ammonia, NH3 as in the scheme

Potassium cyanide may not have reacted with the solid cake, but dissolved in the sweet Madeira it is likely to have been converted from lethal cyanide form into harmless ammonia by the Kiliani-Fischer process already before the Madeira was drunk, and left Rasputin unharmed (unless he had eaten the cake). In other words, had Felix and his conspirators known their organic chemistry better and used instead dry wine and savory snacks, the job might have been much easier, and cleaner, and Rasputin would have passed away peacefully.

1. Articles in Oxford Today Weekly, 16th December, 2017 and 21st April, 2017.
2. Article in Wikipedia, Kiliani-Fischer Synthesis.
3. Fischer won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1902, and later received an honorary doctorate form the university which won the Boat Race that year.

By Dmitri Ognev


Whether or not Rasputin was "mad" is of course debatable, however, for anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of Russian history it should be obvious that he never was a "monk" - at least, in the strict meaning of that word.

Further, all multiple sources (among those the killers' own memoirs) provide an unanimous record which suggests that those infamous cakes had been poisoned just before they were served to R. Therefore, the cyanide was not one "ingredients" used to make the cakes and couldn't possibly be destroyed in the oven.

Not all types of Madeira wine are sweet. Even if R was drinking its sweet variety, it seems unlikely that the amount of sugar it typically contains could possibly neutralise one of the most potent poisons in existence.

In my view, the most likely explanation to this mystery would be the simplest: possibly one of conspirators jusr experienced tje last minute cold feet and either didn't pour the poison into the wine and/or cakes or switched the poison for something harmless, such as sugar.

The idea that the Bolsheviks murdered R is even more ridiculous that the suggestion that tjat was done by the British secret service. I cannot think of any other historical figure who would done more for discrediting and embarrassing the Imperial family and the state it symbolised. In other words, ironically, R has been serving the revolution, which indeed happened just few months after his death. The Russian monarchists who tried to save the Empire were behind the murder. Their names are well known - even if the Prince Yusupoff wasn't one of them.

Finally, the origin of the name "Putin" has nothing to do with "order" or "ordery". In Russian, the closest word would be "путь" which simply means a road - albeit in a slightly old-fashioned manner.

Yours faithfully,

Dmitri Ognev