Russian aristocrat Felix Yusupov (1887–1967) claimed responsibility for the mysterious death of Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian mystic and monk who had forged an unusually close relationship with imperial Russia's ruling Romanov family. Rasputin's murder in December of 1916 inadvertently triggered a cascade of events leading to the end of 300 years of Romanov rule and the onset of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Felix Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston, was the sole heir to what was said to have been the largest private fortune in pre-revolutionary Russia. Yusupov was married to a Romanov princess, and after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, he and his wife escaped Russia and lived the remainder of their years in exile in England and France. The prince first claimed responsibility for his involvement in bringing down the tsar's regime in November of 1923. “We who wanted to save our country actually assisted in its ruin,” he explained to a journalist for the Paris newspaper Le Matin, according to a report in the New York Times dated November 25, 1923.
Yusupov was born into Russian nobility on March 23, 1887, at the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg. One of the grand edifices in the imperial city, the Moika had been given to an ancestor by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Yusupov's title and surname derived from the maternal line through his mother, Zinaida Yusupova. In his 1953 memoir Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin, Yusupov traced his family line back to the powerful khans, nomadic rulers whose roots were in Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia and had links to Islamic Arabic dynasties. The Yusupov family's position as influential courtiers in imperial Russia dated back to the era of the first tsar, Ivan the Terrible, a Muscovite prince who dealt ruthlessly with potential challengers before his death in 1584. Both Yusupov and his older brother Nikolai carried their mother's surname as well as their secondary title as the counts of Sumarokov-Elston due to their father's links to minor German and Austro-Hungarian nobles with longstanding ties to Russia.
One of Yusupov's childhood homes was Archangelskoe, a magnificent neoclassical palace near Moscow that housed three ballrooms, a full-scale private theater, and over 2,000 place-settings of Śvres porcelain, the last a gift from King Louis XVI of France to a forbearer who served as a minister to Catherine the Great. Yusupov's older brother Nikolai was named for that notable ancestor and died in a 1908 duel with Count Arvid Manteuffel, with whose wife he was allegedly involved. This death by duel, which occurred on one of the park-islands created by St. Petersburg's network of canals, was reported in major European newspapers of the day and even merited a mention in the New York Times.
In February of 1914, Yusupov married Princess Irina Alexandrovna Romanova, daughter of Tsar Nicholas's sister, Xenia Alexandrovna. This marital connection to the Romanov family provided him with links—through his wife and also through the tsar's marriage—to all the major royal families of pre–World War I Europe. The wife of Tsar Nicholas II, for example, was the former Princess Alix of Hesse, a German royal and granddaughter of the longreigning British monarch Queen Victoria. Yusupov's bride was close to her first cousins Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, the four daughters of Nicholas Romanov and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, who converted to the Russian Orthodox faith before marriage.
The Yusupovs' lavish wedding in St. Petersburg in early 1914 seemed to signal a secure and auspicious future. The couple moved in fashionable European circles, possessed enormous wealth, and were clearly besotted with one another. Unfortunately, viewed in retrospect, it marked the beginning of the end of the Russian aristocracy. On their honeymoon and visiting Yusupov's vacationing parents in Germany during the late summer of 1914, the prince and his bride became stranded by the outbreak of World War I. The German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, personally attempted to prevent their return, but Yusopov's impressive connections enabled them to escape via Denmark and Finland and make their way back to St. Petersburg.
Lasting for four years, World War I pitted Russia—then in alliance with Britain and France—against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Both Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas proved to be disastrous leaders during a crisis, and the tsar's decision to personally command Russian forces has been judged the most grievous of many poor decisions and blunders he made during this period.
Nicholas and Alexandra's quartet of grand duchess daughters doted on their only brother, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich. Born in 1904 with hemophilia, an often-fatal disease prevalent among the grandchildren of England's Queen Victoria, Alexei and his ailment provoked a state of ceaseless anxiety in his parents. A peasant monk from Siberia, Grigori Rasputin, had arrived in the Russian capital city a few years earlier. The empress was familiar with the claims among some well-born St. Petersburg ladies that Rasputin possessed faith-healing powers, and she drew increasingly on his counsel following a near-fatal incident in 1912, where the monk had interceded and the tsarevich made an astonishing recovery.
While Tsar Nicholas was away from home, commanding Russian troops in the field at the height of World War I, Tsarina Alexandra became overly reliant on Rasputin. In fact, courtiers feared that the low-born monk—a canny social climber who was not immune to accepting payouts in rubles, precious jewels, or material goods—was influencing foreign policy and working to prevent a Russian victory in the war against Germany. A long-simmering virulence against the German-born empress also found expression in the efforts of some to prevent Rasputin's access to the Romanov family.
After revealing his role in the murder of Rasputin, Yusupov spent nearly 50 years reiterating the details of his involvement. According to his claim, he spearheaded a group of conspirators that also included his longtime friend Grand Duke Dmitri as well as army officer Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin and Vladimir Purishkevich, the last a member of the ineffective Russian governing body known as the Duma. “I proposed to shoot him down in his apartment, but the majority was against this proposal, because it was believed—and rightly—that any public disturbance might be considered the signal for a revolution,” Yusupov would write in his 1923 letter to Le Matin. Purishkevich recruited Stanislaus de Lazovert, a physician who was said to have procured the potassium cyanide intended for use on the cakes and wine to be served to Rasputin at Yusupov's home.
At some point during the evening, Rasputin was shot and his body dumped in a hole in the ice in the partially frozen Nevka River, a tributary of the larger Neva River. His body was found two days later, having not been pulled out to the Baltic Sea by the river's current as Yusupov and his co-conspirators had planned. In initial reports of the murder circulating outside of Russia, Rasputin was said to have been handed a revolver and ordered to shoot himself. The monk instead fired the weapon at one of the conspirators and killed a wolfhound dog before attempting to flee. When a St. Petersburg police inspector arrived after hearing shots fired, he surveyed the Moika Palace perimeter and noticed blood near the stairs of a rear entrance. Yusupov claimed it was that of the dog, whose body was found on the premises.
Yusupov was immediately suspected of involvement in the death of Rasputin, and both he and Grand Duke Dmitri were placed under house arrest. The Russian Empire disintegrated into chaos several weeks later, on March 8, 1917, and the tsar was forced to abdicate. Yusupov and Irina took advantage of this upheaval and fled from St. Petersburg to the Yusupov family hunting lodge in Rakitnoye in central Russia. They made a daring sortie back to the Moika Palace to retrieve a cache of jewels and other valuables, including two paintings by the Dutch Old Master Rembrandt van Rijn. The couple then fled south to Crimea, where a British warship, the H.M.S. Marlborough, was stationed near Yalta.
Yusupov and his wife, along with their daughter, Irina's mother, and Grand Duke Dmitri, were among the highest-ranking Russians and the only immediate members of the Romanov family to escape the revolutionary terror that was now unleashed upon Russia. The tsar and tsarina, together with their five children, were placed under house arrest and moved to a secret location. Their situation became dire in the autumn of 1917 when hard-line Bolshevik revolutionaries seized control in St. Petersburg and Moscow and began the process of remaking Russia into the world's first Communist Party–ruled state. Eventually relocated to Yekaterinburg, Siberia, all six members of Russia's royal family, along with four servants and a dog, were executed in the early morning of July 18, 1918.
The murder of Rasputin and the slaughter of the Romanovs generated a steady stream of rumors, allegations, conspiracy theories, lawsuits, and insurance claims over the next quarter-century. In 1919, while living in London, Yusupov reported to Scotland Yard detectives that hundreds of loose diamonds had been stolen during a party at his Knightsbridge apartment. In 1923, after the couple and their daughter Bébé relocated to France, Yusupov was permitted to enter the United States using his imperial Russian passport in order to petition a court for the return of the two Rembrandt paintings he had spirited out of the Moika Palace.
Although his legal efforts to regain his stolen paintings proved unsuccessful, the Russian royal had better luck with his claim to Château de Keriolet, an estate in Concarneau, France, which his great-grandmother had built before her death in 1897. Yusupov and his wife also gained some satisfaction in their case against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, producer of the 1932 film, Rasputin and the Empress, which depicted a prince named Chergiaeff as the ringleader behind the monk's murder. The film defamed Irina Yusopov's character by depicting Chergiaeff's on-screen bride-to-be as successfully pressured by Rasputin into an affair. As a result of this 1934 lawsuit, U.S. film studios began appending a boilerplate “All persons fictitious” legal disclaimer at the end of every feature film.
In addition to detailing his role in Rasputin's death, Yusupov's memoir Lost Splendor offered a remarkably candid account of his youthful adventures as a cross dresser as well as his bisexuality, which he admitted caused some concern when he proposed to the tsar's niece. He died in Auteuil, near Paris, on September 27, 1967. Irina died in Paris three years later, and their daughter Bébé died in 1983. All properties belonging to Yusupov were seized during the Russian Revolution and eventually transferred to the state, among them the villa in Koreiz, Crimea, where Josef Stalin stayed during the Yalta Conference of 1945.
Among the jewels taken from Yusupov at the time was a fabled black pearl necklace that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. The Rembrandt paintings at the center of the 1923 lawsuit eventually became the property of an heir of the Widener family, of Harvard University library fame. Russian-émigré cellist Mstislav Rostropovich owned a striking portrait of Yusupov dating from 1909 by Valentin Serov, which depicts the handsome teenager and his beloved dog, Gugusse. The prince's closest friend from those years, Grand Duke Dmitri, eventually married an American heiress with whom he had a son, Paul Ilyinsky, who served as mayor of Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1990s.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag, The Romanovs: 1613–1918, Knopf, 2016.
Yousoupoff, Prince Felix, Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin, translated by Ann Green and Nicholas Katkoff, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1953.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 2, 1934, “Prince Describes Rasputin's Dying Struggle in Cellar,” p. 6.
New York Times, November 25, 1923, “Shot Monk to Save Russia, Says Prince,” p. 22.□