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January 11, 2017

Spiked: The murder story of the 20th century

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 6:11 pm

So, more than one hundred years after the assassination of the ‘mad Russian monk’ Rasputin (dubbed the ‘murder of the 20th century’), The Times has finally decided to open its archive and reveal its correspondent’s reporting of the event. Given the close ties between the secret state and Fleet Street, this delay is perhaps not so surprising after all!

The Times’s official history had always admitted that its coverage of the killing of Grigori Rasputin, at the centre of Romanov court intrigues before the revolutions of 1917, had been censored following intervention by the Foreign Office. The then-editor decided that ‘the details, though of lurid interest, were not fit for the columns of The Times’. For the first time, on 7 January 2017, the newspaper revealed the actual despatches sent by its veteran correspondent, Robert Wilton, of the killing on 29 December 1916.(1)

Rasputin, he wrote, had been shot in the basement of the palace of Prince Felix Yusupov, an Oxford-educated aristocratic – a one-time member of the Bullingdon Club and married to the Tsar’s niece. Wilton continued: ‘Prince Yusupov did the shooting. Conjointly with other young Princes of the Blood … they had decided some time ago to “remove” Rasputin because they regarded him as the cause of a dangerous scandal affecting the interests of the dynasty.’

But still more interesting is the likely role (missed by Wilton) of British intelligence in the killing as part of its attempts to keep Russian fighting in the First World War. Samuel Hoare, the MI6 station chief in Russia, certainly believed Rasputin was endangering the Russian war effort. But MI6 still refuses to open up its archive on the assassination.

Soon after the killing, Prince Yusupov, Vladimir Purishkevich, the leader of the monarchists in the Duma, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov, Dr. Stanislaus de Lazovert and Lt Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, an officer in the Preobrazhensky Regiment, confessed to being involved in the killing.(2)

Moreover, according to Yusupov’s account, which rapidly became the accepted version, he lured Rasputin to his palace and fed him cyanide-laced cakes. When these did not take effect, he fired a shot at the monk’s heart. Returning to the murder scene an hour later he was astonished to discover Rasputin still alive. The monk leapt to his feet, attacked Yusupov, then fled into the courtyard where he was gunned down by another conspirator, Purishkevich.

But a number of researchers agree that this account is a fabrication with the chief suspect in the murder now being a certain Lt Oswald Rayner. As Ben Macintyre, the author of an excellent biography of the Soviet spy Kim Philby (2014), reported in The Times, Rayner was a 28-year-old MI6 officer and close friend of Prince Yusupov from their time at Oxford.

As early as 2004, the Daily Telegraph reported that Richard Cullen, a retired Scotland Yard commander who had been studying the case with Andrew Cook, an intelligence historian, had concluded, on the basis of a new forensic analysis, that Rayner had fired the fatal final shot to Rasputin’s head.(3)

The Telegraph also quoted a memo sent between Rayner’s two superiors in St Petersburg, John Scale and Stephen Alley, which read: ‘Although matters have not proceeded entirely to plan, our objective has clearly been achieved. Reaction to the demise of “Dark Forces” [a codename for Rasputin] has been well received by all …’

Both Giles Milton, author of Russian roulette: How British spies thwarted Lenin’s global plot (2013) and Michael Smith, author of Six: A history of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (2010), also suggest that Rayner was the killer of Rasputin.(4)

Despite all this mounting evidence, the intelligence service is still refusing to officially admit its role. As Macintyre concludes: ‘The Times has opened up its archives (including less creditable parts, such as spiking the murder story of the century). MI6 should do the same.’


(1) See Macintye, Ben (2017) British spy’s link to murder of Rasputin, Times, 7 January p. 28

Richard Lance Keeble, director of ICE and joint editor of Ethical Space

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