Aleksandar Gatalica

A Small Gift from the Isles in the Third Year of the Great War

the fetid air of disaster, fateful decisions, and desperate hopes hung heavy over the streets and canals of Moscow, Kronstadt, and Petrograd in those last days of 1916 like the smell of decay and the taste of transience. Apparitions flitted past beneath the streetlights: half human, half idea. The collapse of the system was accompanied by the downfall of its faithful, so responsible figures discharged their duties with furrowed brows and pursed lips, praying that their labors would make the difference between triumph and disaster. Everything hung by a thread from early morning till night. It was either victory or total defeat. The light of Christian Orthodoxy on the eastern marches of Europe or the darkness of Asia and Levantine degradation. Tomorrow was another day. Demons lurked behind every corner, and the obstacles on the path ahead were so numerous that even the staunchest defenders of the Russian monarchy could not foresee its future.

The most persistent troublemaker, the most blatant menace and negator, was Rasputin, or “Our Friend,” as the Tsaritsa called him. “Our Friend,” however, was only a friend of the German-born Tsaritsa, and perhaps the Tsar. For all others he was a deathly threat and had to be eliminated. Orgies, immorality, the pretence of healing Tsarevich Alexei’s hemophilia, the disgracing of the royal court, and poor counsel in addition to all that, were pushing the Empire from the Kievan gate of Europe straight toward the postern of Asia. A handful of loyalists therefore decided to kill Rasputin. The decision was taken. Their brows were furrowed. Again, the outcome would determine the difference between triumph and disaster.

December 16, 1916, was set as the decisive day. A lot of sixes in one date—three, even, if you consider the nine an upside-down six. But the job had to be done because, as with so many urgent matters, there was no one to accomplish it other than the brave conspirators. Their group was headed by Prince Felix Yusupov, a strange man, who often went around his house wearing women’s clothes. Yusupov was the sole surviving son of Russia’s richest woman, Princess Zinaida, and he lacked for nothing. He had already tried to poison Rasputin once, but the cyanide did not affect him. It turned out that the “man of God” had the habit of taking a little cyanide with his dinner. Starting in 1909, he took grain after grain of the poison and gradually became immune to the greatest murder weapon the nineteenth century had known.

Therefore, in Yusupov’s second attempt, Rasputin would be killed four times over. All this was possible in Russia—and more: someone could be killed five or six times for symbolic or ritual reasons. But Yusupov received a visit from an old Oxford friend who explained that the British crown wished to participate in at least one of the four killings of Rasputin in order to strengthen the two countries’ alliance in the Great War. Yusupov agreed, and his “old Oxford friend” sent the requisite instructions to London. He asked that an accomplished assassin be sent, and everything went according to plan.

In history, this tale begins one cold night with heated carriages clattering out onto the snowy crystal of the Petrograd cobblestones to take Rasputin to Yusupov’s palace by the River Neva under the pretext that Yusupov’s wife Irina urgently needed the help of the seer’s “hot hands.”

But at this point we must go back; the tale actually begins much earlier with the accomplished British agent Oswald Rayner setting off with a wicker suitcase on a journey from London to Russia—a long journey even in peacetime, and now even longer, given the need to detour the theaters of war. But Rayner was not to be discouraged. This was to be his longest journey with the least luggage. He took with him a change of winter and summer clothes, a tube of toothpaste, a bar of shaving cream and a brush, a photograph of a young woman in an oval medallion, and an “envoy” of the British crown: a Webley .455 revolver, which was to leave a souvenir from the Isles in Rasputin’s body.

He departed on December 7, 1916, without any send-off, from London’s Victoria Station, and headed by rail to Dover. He stared through the window of the carriage at the relentless rain pouring down on the meager British vegetation. No one was waiting for him in Dover. He changed from the train to a ship and started through the turquoise English Channel for the north of Spain by the same route that the Royal Navy under Nelson had taken on its way to defeat the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. In Spain he spoke Spanish. He bought a ticket to Barcelona. Again he was on a train, which slowly made its way through orange-hued España. He saw trees laden with oranges and no one to pick them. In Barcelona he took another train, for the Côte d’Azur. He lied to an elderly lady and her granddaughter fluently in Spanish. In Nice he boarded a bus. He paid the driver in cash and thanked him in French, which he seemed not to speak nearly as well as Spanish. Therefore he was silent in the bus. He stared into the mighty blue of the Mediterranean and felt nothing—neither satisfaction, nor sentimentality, nor sadness—when his gaze drowned in the expanses of the sea. He entered Italy at the little town of Ventimiglia. He boarded his third train on the Continent that took him through pleasant, rust-red Tuscany and further into the gnarled south. In Brindisi he boarded another ship and traveled on via Corfu, where he slept one night and didn’t talk with anyone, to Salonika. There Rayner finally heard English again from British diplomats. A car was waiting for him. This inconspicuous automobile with a high windscreen and folding roof had one important feature: it was equipped with two pairs of license plates, Greek and Bulgarian. He immediately set off on this next, far from easy leg of the journey. Near the city of Kavala the driver removed the license plates. While he was putting on the new ones, Rayner changed from summer into winter clothing. Neither of the men spoke a word in English or any other language. The car set off again and drove another seven hours through the night. It stopped at the coast of the Black Sea. Here at the town of Tsarevo, before dawn, Rayner boarded the Russian torpedo boat “Alexander III,” which took him to Odessa. Then, mingling with the ordinary Russian travelers, he went by bus to Kiev. He changed there and traveled on through western Ukraine, and then caught a third bus destined for Petrograd.

It was December 16, 1916, shortly before midnight, when a heated carriage brought Rayner up to Yusupov’s festively illuminated palace. Rasputin was already there. The Englishman went up to the second floor. The “man of God” had already been killed twice: he had been poisoned with cyanide again, this time with a far larger dose, and then stabbed with various sharp objects—knives, forks, and broken glass. Now it was time for the representative of the British crown to kill him the third time. Without speaking a word, Rayner took out the Webley .455 and fired one shot into Rasputin’s head. He returned the gun to the wicker suitcase. He shook hands with the small conspiratorial committee, although he didn’t know anyone. In addition to the host, those present were Great Duke Dmitri Pavlovich for the Romanov dynasty, Lieutenant Sergei Sukhotin for the Russian armed forces, the parliamentarian Vladimir Purishkevich for the State Duma, and Dr. Stanislav Lazovert, disguised as a servant, in the name of medicine.

Dr. Lazovert ascertained biological death, but Rasputin still had to be killed a fourth time. The conspirators dragged Rasputin’s body across the floor. His wild hair and beard snagged in the fringes of the heavy carpets. The killers tore out the snarls and continued to drag him along like a wild boar. They all left the building; the Russians went down to the Malaya Nevka to drown the “man of God” and thus kill him a fourth time, while Rayner immediately started on his journey home.

He left without any send-off, on December 17, 1916, through the enameled Russian night that seemed it would never see the day. Prince Yusupov’s heated carriage took him to the bus station. Mingling with the ordinary Russian travelers, Rayner caught the first bus to the Ukraine. There he changed to a second, which made its way through sleepy Ukrainian towns, and a third, which took him to Odessa. There he boarded the Russian torpedo boat “Alexander III” and was transferred over the Black Sea to Bulgaria. At the coastal town of Tsarevo he switched to a car. The inconspicuous automobile with a high windscreen and folding roof had one important feature: it was equipped with two pairs of license plates, Bulgarian and Greek. The driver started the motor and they immediately set off on this far from easy journey. Near the city of Kavala the driver removed the license plates. While he was putting on the new ones, Rayner changed from winter into summer clothing. Neither of the men spoke a word in English or any other language. The car set off again and drove another seven hours through the night to Salonika. There Rayner finally heard English again from British diplomats. He changed vehicles once more and was driven south to Vouliagmeni. From there he traveled on the second ship of his return journey, via Corfu where he slept one night and didn’t talk with anyone, to Brindisi, the “gate to the Adriatic.” Here, for the first time on the return journey, he boarded a train, which wound through the gnarled landscape of southern Italy heading toward pleasant, rust-red Tuscany and further north. He entered France at the little town of Ventimiglia and boarded the bus to Nice. He paid the driver in cash and thanked him in French, which he didn’t speak nearly as well as Spanish. Therefore he was silent in the bus. He stared into the mighty blue of the Mediterranean and felt nothing—neither satisfaction, nor sentimentality, nor sadness—when his gaze drowned in the expanses of the sea. In Nice he bought a ticket to Barcelona. Again he was on a train slowly making its way through orange-hued España. He saw trees laden with oranges and no one to pick them. In Spain he spoke Spanish. He lied fluently to a young lady and her niece. In Barcelona he took another train to the north of Spain. There he boarded the third ship of his return journey, plied the waters that the Royal Navy under Nelson had sailed on its way to defeat the Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, and entered the turquoise English Channel. No one was waiting for him in Dover. He traveled on to London by rail. He stared through the window of the carriage at the relentless rain pouring down on the meager British vegetation. At the end of his journey he arrived at Victoria Station.

It was Christmas Eve when Rayner returned to his house in Royal Hospital Road. There he opened the wicker suitcase and took out his change of winter clothes, an empty tube of toothpaste, what was left of the bar of shaving cream, a brush, the Webley .455 revolver, and the photograph of a young woman in a small, silver oval. He kissed the photograph, prepared the winter clothes for washing, cleaned the gun, and went to sleep. All was quiet in the house in Royal Hospital Road, and after his sixteen-day journey undertaken because of one single bullet Oswald Rayner slept like a stone until morning.

Translated from Serbian by Will Firth, Copyright Istros books, London