A good host’s role is typically to make their guest feel comfortable and unguarded. And an offended Russian aristocrat’s dirty job, as one particular host had already decided when he sent his victim-to-be the invitation to his home, was to murder them, even if it was a dramatic breach of the laws of hospitality. It was all predetermined. Grigori Rasputin would die on a select night in 1916, and Prince Felix Yusupov, his killer, would declare the wounded dignity of the Russian elite gratifyingly avenged.
The man destined to raise his revolver and fire one of the most history-altering gunshots of all time—rivaled only by Gavrilo Princip, who would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and kickstart World War I—was born on March 23, 1887, landing right into the lap of luxury in the lavish Moika Palace in Saint Petersburg. Prince Felix Yusupov’s blood was as blue as the stripe on Russia’s national flag. His parents were Count Felix Nikolayevich Sumarokov-Elston and Princess Zinaida Nikolayevna Yusupova, who held the distinction of being the last heiress of her own bloodline, the astoundingly wealthy and noble House of Yusupov. Rather than allow the extinction of such a great Russian family, the practical Count Felix agreed to adopt his wife’s surname as his own, an unusual arrangement at the time, but one that suited both parties adequately. Through this marriage, Count Felix secured a substantial dowry of businesses and properties scattered throughout Europe, as well as an attractive and agreeable spouse with whom he could happily sire heirs. Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov was one of four children they had together.
Prince Felix was raised according to his station, with every possible luxury and advantage, though perhaps his many privileges made him a tad too reckless and self-indulgent. In his young adulthood, Prince Felix behaved wildly in the way only rich aristocrats could get away with at the time. He liked parties where he could binge-drink, dance the tango, and smoke hashish, his drug of choice. He indulged in racy crossdressing—he often filched his mother’s ballgowns and jewels for this purpose—and had passionate love affairs with both men and women, though he did enter into a marriage with Countess Irina Felixovna Sheremeteva in 1914. He annoyed his proud and dutiful cousin, Grand Duchess Olga, by using a legal loophole to dodge mandatory military service. He did not seem to have much of an intellectual side—he boozed and blundered his way through some years abroad at the University College at Oxford—though he did like flirting with the creative bohemian underworld. Prince Felix could count among his friends the pianist Luigi Franchetti, the art connoisseur and dealer Albert Henry Stopford (who would later sneak jewels out of Russia during the Revolution), and the star ballerina Anna Pavlovna Pavlova.
Yet despite Prince Felix's free-spirited proclivities, he—along with the rest of the disgruntled Russian population—reeled against the growing influence of the eccentric mystic their Empress had become so infatuated with. The seductive and cunning Grigori Rasputin had wormed his way into the confidence of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and had become an embarrassing fixture in Russia’s royal crown, which even before Rasputin’s appearance was already beginning to slip from the head on which it rested. The ambitious, social-climbing Rasputin was daring to meddle in Russia’s political affairs, an unforgivable transgression in the eyes of the nation as a whole.
It was here that Prince Felix decided to take the kind of action he had so studiously avoided before, and finally do something to serve his country (though not in the way Grand Duchess Olga would have approved of). He played the scheming royal favorite’s own game, charming him and feigning friendship to lure him into a trap, in the form of a pretend house party to celebrate the new renovations at Moika Palace. He didn’t work alone; several other treacherous Russian aristocrats involved in the plot were invited to the “party” as well, to keep up the pretext of a normal social gathering. On the night of December 29, 1916, Rasputin stepped into the glittering sphere of the royals for the very last time. Prince Felix, graciously plied him with petit fours, tea, and fine wine mixed with potassium cyanide, attempting at first a less violent method of ending a fellow man’s life. But when Rasputin, with his seemingly iron stomach, showed no signs of succumbing to the poison, a frustrated Prince Felix went to fetch his revolver.
What happened next is the stuff of legend and lends to the speculation that Rasputin really did have the otherworldly powers he claimed to possess. Rasputin simply, and stubbornly, refused to die, and an equally stubborn Prince Felix refused to let him live. Eventually, it was Prince Felix that emerged victorious in this deadly battle of wills. He shot Rasputin first in the chest and declared it a job well done as the mystic lay motionless and bleeding on the floor. But like a zombie out of a nightmare, Rasputin, to the shock of all present, arose and fled the palace, trailing blood on the snow as he made a last-ditch attempt to escape. Prince Felix fired two more times at Rasputin’s retreating back, and when Rasputin still wouldn’t die, finished the job by beating him senseless with a dumbbell. This was in the early hours of the morning, making Rasputin’s official death date December 30th, 1916. Prince Felix and his fellow conspirators, perhaps frightened by the almost-superhuman endurance of Rasputin’s body, quickly chucked the corpse off the nearby Bolshoy Petrovsky Bridge. The deed, at last, was done.
Prince Felix got off easy for the murder. Despite his crime being blaringly obvious, a combination of well-crafted lies about the evidence on his estate and his own privileged noble blood merely got him banished from the Russian court to his own property (hardly a punishment, considering his already extravagant surroundings and lifestyle). Still, the enraged Express Alexandra pushed for Prince Felix’s summary execution, not knowing that this would be her own fate in 1918 at the hands of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. Prince Felix’s “heroic” act, despite its “noble” intentions, did little to stop the uprising against the monarchy that was already underway.
When the Revolution did break out in Russia in 1917, the remaining members of the Yusupov family successfully evaded capture by the anti-royal Reds and fled to Crimea. Having rescued much of their wealth from confiscation, they managed to lead comfortable lives in exile, traveling around the great powers of Europe with periods of residency in France, Italy, and England. Utterly unrepentant and emboldened by his set of narrow escapes from persecution, Prince Felix reportedly enjoyed bragging about his assassination of Rasputin. Perhaps there was a part of him that understood that this would be his biggest contribution to the history books. He even published his memoir in 1928, to be certain that the events that took place at the end of December in 1916 would be remembered properly.
Throughout the second half of his lifetime, Prince Felix would become involved in a series of lawsuits with production companies that released theatrical adaptations of the Rasputin murder that were not to his liking. Most notoriously, the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress depicts Prince Felix killing Rasputin in revenge for Rasputin’s seduction of his wife. This was certainly not true, as Princess Irina was staunchly loyal to her husband, despite his questionable behavior as a spouse. Prince Felix and Princess Irina sued MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios) with invasion of privacy charges and were awarded £25,000 by the courts. This was a much-needed replenishment of their fortunes, which were beginning to diminish due to Prince Felix’s poor financial management.
Prince Felix died on 27 September 1967 at the age of 80, having outlived his famous murder victim by 51 years. Princess Irina followed him only three years later. Their only child, Countess Irina Felixovna Sheremeteva, lived a relatively quiet life in comparison to her parents, though like her father, she would make her own mark on Russia’s history with a single act: submitting her DNA to help identify the remains of the murdered Romanovs. Thus, the Yusupov family has continued their legacy through blood, one way or another.