THIS year is the 80th anniversary of the death of Rasputin, the Russian mystic and libertine, who was murdered on December 16th, 1916. Rasputin did not die easily. Many stories recount how huge doses of lethal poison failed to have any effect on him thus forcing his assassins to shoot him several times.
Even the shooting failed to kill Rasputin, so they beat him, tied up his body and threw it into the freezing waters of the Neva River. The police recovered the dead body from the river a couple of days later.
Why was it so difficult to kill Rasputin? Did he protect himself with supernatural powers? An American forensic scientist, Ms Nina Rooks, has recently produced a simple and straight forward explanation for this bizarre footnote to history.
Rasputin's real name was Grigory Yefimovich and he was born in 1872 in a small Siberian village. By the time he had reached the age of 15, his profligate behaviour had earned him the nickname Rasputin, which is Russian for debauchee. While ploughing one day, he had a vision of a saint, which he interpreted as a sign that he should devote his life to matters of the spirit.
The self proclaimed monk was not popular with the local clergy, but he was very influential with the peasants. He had a magnetic personality and a very striking appearance - a course oval face with a long nose and a heavy black beard, thick eyebrows and small close set grey eyes in deep sockets.
People became convinced that he possessed unusual powers, from clairvoyance to magical healing. His fame spread quickly as far as St Petersburg where the Czarina Alexandra became fascinated by his reputed supernatural abilities. She soon had a chance to personally test these powers.
Alexandra's son, Alexy, was a haemophiliac. He suffered a small accident in which he bruised his hip. In a normal individual this would quickly clot. The blood clotting mechanism is deficient in haemophiliacs, who can bleed to death as a result of even minor accidents such as this.
Within a couple of weeks, Alexy was at death's door. The internal bleeding produced a large swelling on his hip and his doctors could do nothing `but monitor progress, which they did by painful feeling of his hip and groin. In desperation, Alexandra wrote to Rasputin and begged his help.
Rasputin immediately cabled a reply - "God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do no grieve. The little one will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much."
Rasputin's advice was followed and Alexy improved and recovered. Alexandra now had absolute confidence in Rasputin and he became the most influential person in her entourage. He became a powerful influence in the government and many high offices were filled by his appointees, most of whom were of very poor quality.
Rasputin's advice to call off the physicians was sensible. Their frequent physical probing of the boy probably served only to dislodge any tiny clots that would form and thereby prevent coagulation going to completion.
Also, Alexandra is reported to have become very calm on receiving Rasputin's cable. In seeing his mother's anxiety decrease, the boy would have gained confidence and this would have speeded the healing process by reducing his blood pressure.
Rasputin made many political enemies is St Petersburg and the reports that he was romantically involved with Alexandra did not enhance his popularity. His famous orgies scandalised the people. Things came to a head when Rasputin publicly opposed the decision of Czar Nicholas that Russia would join the war against Germany and Austria.
Rasputin argued that this course would be very costly in terms of peasant blood. His views were rejected as treasonous. Alexandra supported Rasputin. It was decided that Rasputin must be killed and a small band of men led by Prince Felix Yusupov took the matter in hand.
Yusupov befriended Rasputin and invited him to visit his home late one evening, ostensibly to meet Yusupov's wife (she was actually away on holidays). The plan was to poison Rasputin with potassium cyanide.
Rasputin ate two cakes containing the poison (enough to kill a dozen men) but showed absolutely no ill effect. He was then handed a glass of wine - laced with the poison, which he drank with no evidence of distress. In consternation, Yusupov fetched a Browning pistol from an adjoining room and shot Rasputin in the chest. The monk fell to the floor, but when Yusupov leaned over him to examine the body he grabbed the Prince by the shoulders and spoke his name over and over again.
Yusupov broke free and ran, with Rasputin following on all fours. Rasputin then made for the door and ran outside. One of the Prince's accomplices pulled a gun and shot Rasputin several times. He fell on a heap of snow. The gunshots attracted the attention of a local policeman who came making inquiries.
Yusupov made some excuse and got rid of the policeman, but found to his horror that Rasputin was moving on the snow. Yusupov ordered Rasputin's body to be carried back into the house and laid on the floor. He now set upon the body with a frenzy and beat it with a blackjack. Yusupov and his accomplices then stripped the body, tied it up and threw it into the river.
The body was found by the police a couple of days later. An autopsy showed three bullet wounds, one in the chest and two in the back. The body had lost a lot of blood. There was water in the lungs showing the cause of death almost definitely to be drowning.
Why did the poison not kill Rasputin? Potassium cyanide is a deadly poison. It acts by inhibiting respiration (energy production) in cells. There is no way that one can acquire an immunity against this poison, or build up a tolerance to it.
Therefore, if one discounts supernatural powers, the only explanation for the lack of effectiveness of the poison is that the chemical had been converted to an inactive form. Prior to its use the potassium cyanide must have been stored for a considerable time in air and sunlight. Under these conditions it can react with carbon dioxide and decompose to cyanocarbonate, an inert and harmless substance.
Why did the bullets fail to kill Rasputin? This is easier to explain. The type of pistol available at the time, and the calibre of bullet used, were very ineffective at producing lethal wounds. Indeed, in the early 1900s, death from gunshot was rare; more often than not what proved fatal was the infection that set in, days later. Even a direct shot to the heart from the Browning pistol would probably not have been fatal.
Why did the beating not finish off Rasputin? Apparently, it is quite difficult to inflict fatal injury by beating, unless the blows are carried out with planning and deliberation. Pounding a body in a frenzy is a very inefficient way to cause serious injury.
It appears therefore that, despite the very considerable efforts made to kill Rasputin before he was thrown into the River Neva, he died, after entering the water, by drowning. He was buried on December 22nd in a village near Moscow.
Rasputin was at least partly responsible for the discontent that led to the revolution the following year. Three months after his burial, a band of revolutionary soldiers, resentful of the monk's association with the monarchy, disinterred Rasputin's body and set it on fire.