The Rasputin Conspiracy

When I was in St. Petersburg in 2001, I wasn’t able to visit the cellar where Rasputin was murdered. Who even knows why I wanted to, except that I like macabre stuff. In my travel story, I said that it’s worth seeing the rest of the Yusupov Palace even if you can’t do the separate Rasputin tour.

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Strange, because as we approached the yellow palace along the Moika River, I had no recollection of being there before. I was determined to see the cellar this time, although guide books and websites had conflicting information about how to do it. Some said you had to call in advance, others said you needed to be part of a group, and others said there was a tour every day at 1:45.

I tried calling, but the person who answered the phone spoke no English.

At the ticket counter, a sign said that the Rasputin tour indeed was at 1:45, and was in Russian only. Foreigners were required to have interpreters. No individual visits.

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I tried to buy a ticket anyway. The lady shook her head at me and summoned the “administrator,” who spoke English.

“Can we just go with the tour and look?”

“It’s just two rooms. Not very interesting.”

Hmm. Clearly there’s something about Rasputin’s murder he doesn’t want me to know.

“Aren’t there wax figures or something?”

“No. It’s all in Russian. Just history.”

Weird. All the reviews said there were wax figures depicting the attempted poisoning and successful shooting of Rasputin before his body was driven across town and chucked into the Malaya Nevka river.

I should add that I knew next to nothing about Rasputin, other than his name and that he was murdered there, but now I really wanted to see the damn cellar, even if the wax figures were gone and the room was empty.

Seeing the strength of my resolve, they sold me the tickets. Man, I never had to work so hard to give anyone $8 in India.

While we waited for that tour, we visited the rest of the palace, aide by spotty audioguides that clicked off midsentence during descriptions of the antique room, the theater, the prince’s study… It was a perfectly lovely palace, but there are lots of palaces around here. Dunno why you’d bother with this one unless you were in the neighborhood and/or could also see the cellar.

We still had more than a hour before the cellar tour, and I’d forgotten to replenish the supply of mixed nuts in my bag. I didn’t think I could last without a snack. The closest food joint appeared to be a cafeteria-style place across the Moika. As we crossed the river, Rob said he could go for some chicken soup.

“Good luck with that,” I said.

As we waited in line, I saw the counter dudes handing over bowls of soup.

“Guess it’s your lucky day.”

He had the soup, I had a piece of carrot cake, and we enjoyed the experience of eating with regular Russians, including uniformed soldiers.

Back at the palace we joined the tour to sit in nearly empty rooms while a lovely tour guide chattered away in Russian. I’d pretty much resigned myself to this possibility. Still, a murder happened here.

Then she led us into a dark room where three wax men plotted a murder around a table. One of them peered out the window. Another looked about to leap from his chair in protest. I discerned from the tour guide’s words the names of the perpetrators I’d read in the Rough Guide’s description of the murder. Who needs an interpreter when your B&B has copies of travel books to borrow?

Next we went downstairs where wax Prince Felix Yusupov stood beside a table where long-haired Rasputin sat, looking suspicious after eating cakes supposedly laced with cyanide. (The doctor who supplied the poison later made a deathbed confession that he hadn’t used real cyanide. Rasputin’s assassins wound up having to shoot him a bunch of times.) I recognized him as Rasputin despite not actually knowing very much about him. Upon reflection, maybe that’s why the Russians don’t want stupid foreigners to tour the Rasputin cellar. Isn’t that like someone wanting to visit Ford’sTheater without knowing anything about Lincoln except he wore a beard and a hat?

But look how much I learned!

The final room’s exhibit contained what looked like a newspaper photo of the body after he washed up downstream.

So yes, friends… I got what I wanted. Saw what I waited 11 years to see. Was it worth it? Would I recommend it? I don’t know, but I feel gratified. Yes it was weird to stand around for half an hour listening to a history lecture in a language we didn’t understand. We would have preferred to have an interpreter. But supposing they did allow individual visits, we happily would have paid to walk down to the cellar, look at the wax figures and be on our way.

Then we might have gotten to the Peter and Paul Fortress in time to see the Space museum before it closed. Instead we settled for the cathedral and the prison museum.

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Pinky swear with shrunken head Peter the Great

As we approached the fortress, it started to gust wind and rain, so we popped into a fancy cafe where I ate delicious bliny with smoked salmon. I thought the pancakes would be wrapped around the salmon like a blintz, but they were presented folded with the smoked salmon on the side.

Guess what else was on the menu, which Rob ordered? Chicken noodle soup!

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