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The 100th Anniversary of a Mystery That Won't Die

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On the morning of December 29, 1916, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was startled by a phone call that turned out to be yet another death threat. His daughter, Maria, later remembered that it put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day. That night, at 11 p.m., he gave her a final reminder before she went to sleep: He was going to the Yusupov Palace that evening to meet an aristocrat. It was the last time she saw him alive.

Two days later, a search party found a body trapped beneath the ice of the frozen Malaya Nevka River. It was Rasputin: missing an eye, bearing three bullet wounds and countless cuts and bruises. The most infamous man in Russia was dead, assassinated at age 47.

A hundred years after his murder, the legend of Russia’s “Mad Monk” has only spread, inspiring films, books, operas, a disco song, and even his own beer, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Described by early biographers as “The Saint Who Sinned” and “The Holy Devil,” he remains a difficult man to define. He spent less than a decade in public life, was barely literate, and published only two works. Even within the Russian Orthodox Church, the debate continues: Was Rasputin a charlatan, a holy man, the czarina’s secret lover, Satan himself, or just a simple Siberian peasant?

Above all, one question refuses to rest: What exactly happened to Rasputin in the early hours of December 30, 1916?

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At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was the last absolute monarchy in Europe, and Czar Nicholas II had proven to be an unpopular ruler. Fearful of revolution and mired in corruption, the Romanovs also suffered from another significant problem: Czarevich Alexei, the young heir to the throne, had hemophilia, an incurable and then-deadly blood disease. When doctors failed to cure the boy, Nicholas II turned to alternative methods. Around 1906, he and the Czarina Alexandria were introduced to a Siberian holy man. Neither a monk nor a priest, but a peasant pilgrim turned preacher and faith healer, Rasputin made a good impression on the royal couple, and by 1910 was a regular at the Romanov court.

Although the czar, czarina, and even the royal doctors (begrudgingly) believed in Rasputin’s healing abilities, his proximity to the throne inspired suspicion and jealousy among the church, nobles, and the public. Rough in manners, fond of drinking, and prone to flirting and even sleeping with his married female followers, Rasputin’s brazen disregard for social norms caused some to speculate about his intentions. A few people even called him a heretic.

Soon, treasonous rumors began circulating that Rasputin was sleeping with the czarina, had fathered Alexei, and held total control over the czar. With World War I raging, Nicholas II’s departure for the front only increased the sense that it was Rasputin who was really ruling Russia. According to his self-confessed murderer, if the country and the czar were to be saved, Rasputin’s malevolent influence had to be erased—Rasputin had to die.

Prince Felix Yusupov—Rasputin’s self-confessed killer and the czar’s cousin—first published his account of the murder, Rasputin, while living in exile in France in 1927. According to his version of the evening, Yusupov walked Rasputin into the Moika Palace at a little after 1 a.m. Upstairs, Yusupov’s four accomplices—Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, conservative member of the Duma Vladimir Purishkevich, Dr. Stanislaw Lazovert, and army officer Sergei Sukhotin—lay in wait, passing the time listening to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a gramophone. Yusupov accounted for their noise by explaining that his wife had a few friends over, then led his victim down into the basement. He’d spent all day setting the scene, and had prepared two treats for Rasputin: a bottle of Madeira and several plates of pink petit fours—all laced with cyanide by Dr. Lazovert.

As Rasputin relaxed, eating multiple cakes and drinking three glasses of wine, Yusupov waited. And waited. The “Mad Monk” should have been dead in seconds, but the cyanide seemed to have no effect. Growing worried, Yusupov excused himself to the other room. He returned with a gun, promptly shooting Rasputin in the back. The other accomplices drove off to create the appearance that their victim had departed, leaving Yusupov and Purishkevich alone at the mansion with what appeared to be Rasputin’s corpse.

A strange impulse made Yusupov check the body again. The moment he touched Rasputin’s neck to feel for a pulse, Rasputin’s eyes snapped open. The Siberian leapt up, screaming, and attacked. But that wasn’t the worst part. As Yusupov wrote in 1953, “there was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die. I realized now who Rasputin really was … the reincarnation of Satan himself.”

To hear Yusupov tell it, Rasputin stumbled out of the cellar door into the snow. Purishkevich fired four shots before their victim finally collapsed in a snow bank. Yusupov fainted and had to be put to bed. When the others returned, the body was tied up, wrapped in a fur coat, thrown in a sack, and dumped off the Large Petrovsky Bridge into the river below. In the end, Yusupov said, it had been the first step to saving Russia.

As if Yusupov’s account of Rasputin’s seemingly superhuman strength wasn’t strange enough, another detail from the murder provided by Maria Rasputin and other authors goes farther. When Rasputin’s body was found, his hands were unbound, arms arranged over his head. In her book, My Father, Maria claimed this was proof Rasputin survived his injuries, freed himself in the river, and finally drowned while making the sign of the cross. Although Maria and Yusupov’s accounts had opposing motives, together they inspired the mythic perception of Rasputin as a man who was impossible to kill.

Despite the popularity of Yusupov and Maria’s stories, they have more than a few problems. According to the 1917 autopsy, Rasputin did not drown; he was killed by a bullet. (While accounts of the autopsy differ, according to the account cited by historian Douglas Smith in his new book Rasputin, there was no water in the Siberian's lungs.) Although it might seem strange that Maria embellished the events of her father’s murder, she had motives to do so: Rasputin’s legend protected her father’s legacy, and by extension her livelihood. The image of his almost-saintly final moments helped turn her father into a martyr, as Rasputin is currently designated by an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the same way, Yusupov’s story had its own audience in mind.

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When Yusupov published the first version of his “confession,” he was a refugee in Paris. His reputation as “The Man Who Killed Rasputin” was one of his few assets, and it proved so profitable that he became very protective of it. In 1932, while living in the U.S., Yusupov sued MGM for libel over the film Rasputin and The Empress, winning the sole right to call himself Rasputin’s killer. Not only did this lawsuit inspire the mandatory "this is a work of fiction" disclaimer that appears in every American film, it made Yusupov’s claim that he killed Rasputin a matter of legal record. However, even this is a lie. In his memoir, Yusupov admits that Vladimir Purishkevich fired the fatal shot—a fact confirmed in the other man’s account as well.

When one examines Yusupov’s account critically, it’s clear he remade himself the hero in a fantasy battle between good and evil. Comparing the original 1927 account and an updated version published in Yusupov’s memoir Lost Splendor (1953), Rasputin goes from being merely compared to the devil to being the actual biblical anti-Christ. Even the description of Rasputin’s “resurrection” appears to be a deliberate invention, borrowing elements from Dostoyevsky’s 1847 novella The Landlady.

By making Rasputin into a monster, Yusupov obscures the fact that he killed an unarmed guest in cold blood. Whatever guilt or shame this framing helped ease, some writers suspect it was also a smokescreen to hide the murder’s real motive. The argument goes, if Yusupov’s reasons (saving Russia from Rasputin's malign influence) were really as pure as he claims, why did he keep lying to both investigators and the czarina—claiming he’d shot a dog to explain away bloodstains—long after he was the prime suspect?

A few days after Rasputin’s body was found, the Russian World newspaper ran The Story of the English Detectives, claiming English agents killed Rasputin for his anti-war influence on the czar. The story was so popular that Nicholas II met with the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan that week, even naming the suspected agent—Oswald Rayner, a former British intelligence officer still living in Russia. In addition to his government ties, Rayner was also friends with Felix Yusupov from their student days at Oxford. Although intelligence reports the czar had received named Rayner as a secret, sixth, conspirator in Rasputin’s murder, whatever explanation Buchanan gave was convincing enough that Nicholas never asked about British involvement again.

Others, then and now, are less certain. The same day The Story of the English Detectives was published, one British agent in Russia wrote headquarters, requesting his superiors at what would become MI6 to confirm the story and provide a list of agents involved. Other oft-cited evidence for British involvement is the claim that Rasputin’s bullet wounds came from a Webley revolver—the standard sidearm for WWI British soldiers. This is far from certain, however: The autopsy could not identify the gun, and surviving photographs are too grainy to make definitive claims about powder burns on the corpse’s skin. Finally, there is the (unauthenticated) letter dated January 7, 1917, from a Captain Stephen Alley in Petrograd to another British officer, which reads: “Our objective has been achieved. Reaction to the demise of ‘Dark Forces’ has been well received.” The letter goes on to name Rayner specifically, saying he is “attending to loose ends.”

Rayner was in fact renting a room at 92 Moika at the time of the murder, and had been in contact with Yusupov. He was not, however, listed as an active agent in an official list dated December 24, 1916. Rayner could have been at the Moika Palace during the murder, and the only certain assertion would be his friendship with Yusupov. Perhaps the best evidence against British involvement, however, is the comment of the Saint Petersburg Police chief that the murderers showed the most “incompetent action” he’d seen in his entire career.

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Incompetence might answer more questions about Rasputin’s murder than spies or the supernatural. In the rush to ditch his body, the killers forgot to weigh the sack down. Instead, as Smith points out, the fur coat they’d wrapped Rasputin in worked like a natural flotation device, pulling his body up and trapping it under the frozen surface. According to the 1917 autopsy, the body’s various cuts were produced as the corpse dragged against the rough ice. This dragging may have even broken the ropes off Rasputin’s frozen, outstretched wrists.

Incompetence would also explain the last problem with Yusupov’s story. In their memoirs, both Yusupov and Purishkevich wrote about Rasputin’s apparent immunity to poison, which allegedly allowed him to consume the cyanide-laced wine and pastries. But no traces of cyanide were found in the 1917 autopsy. As early as 1934, author George Wilkes said in an issue of The British Medical Journal that Yusupov’s description left only one possibility: Rasputin was never given the cyanide. Wilkes wrote, “If Dr. Lazovert tried to poison Rasputin, he bungled his job.” Nearly 20 years later, Lazovert confirmed these suspicions. He confessed on his deathbed that last-minute conscience and his Hippocratic oath made him switch the powder for a harmless substance.

In the end, Rasputin’s killers got off lightly: Dmitri Pavlovich was sent to serve at the front, while Yusupov was put under house arrest at his Siberian country estate. Lazovert’s confession opens an interesting possibility, however. Did Yusupov, unaware of the missing poison, think he had witnessed Rasputin survive cyanide, planting the seed that inspired his later supernatural additions? If so, it would seem fitting—time and again, the reactions Rasputin received were based largely on others’ beliefs and expectations. Even in his own time, the myths that surrounded Rasputin eclipsed—and even sometimes created—the reality.

Sources:

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs, by Douglas Smith. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2016.

The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin, by Alex de Jonge. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1982.

My Father, by Maria Rasputin. Carol Publishing Group, 1970.

Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs, by Colin Wilson. Arthur Barker Ltd., 1964.

"Cyanide Poisoning: Rasputin's Death," by R. J. Brocklehurst and G. A. Wilkes. The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 3838. Jul. 28, 1934. p. 184.

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Space
NASA Is Posting Hundreds of Retro Flight Research Videos on YouTube
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If you’re interested in taking a tour through NASA history, head over to the YouTube page of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located at Edwards Air Force Base, in southern California. According to Motherboard, the agency is in the middle of posting hundreds of rare aircraft videos dating back to the 1940s.

In an effort to open more of its archives to the public, NASA plans to upload 500 historic films to YouTube over the next few months. More than 300 videos have been published so far, and they range from footage of a D-558 Skystreak jet being assembled in 1947 to a clip of the first test flight of an inflatable-winged plane in 2001. Other highlights include the Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight over Los Angeles and a controlled crash of a Boeing 720 jet.

The research footage was available to the public prior to the mass upload, but viewers had to go through the Dryden Aircraft Movie Collection on the research center’s website to see them. The current catalogue on YouTube is much easier to browse through, with clear playlist categories like supersonic aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. You can get a taste of what to expect from the page in the sample videos below.

[h/t Motherboard]

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History
15 Fascinating Facts About Amelia Earhart
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Amelia Earhart was a pioneer, a legend, and a mystery. To celebrate what would be her 120th birthday, we've uncovered 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking aviator.

1. THE FIRST TIME SHE SAW AN AIRPLANE, SHE WASN'T IMPRESSED.

In Last Flight, a collection of diary entries published posthumously, Earhart recalled feeling unmoved by "a thing of rusty wire and wood" at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. It wasn't until years later that she discovered her passion for aviation, when she worked as a nurse's aide at Toronto's Spadina Military Hospital. She and some friends would spend time at hangars and flying fields, talking to pilots and watching aerial shows. Earhart didn't actually get on a plane herself until 1920, and even then she was just a passenger.

2. SHE WAS A GOOD STUDENT WITH NO PATIENCE FOR SCHOOL.

After working with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Toronto, Earhart took pre-med classes at Columbia University in 1919. She made good grades, but dropped out after just a year. Earhart re-enrolled at Columbia in 1925 and left school again. She took summer classes at Harvard, but gave up on higher education for good after she didn't get a scholarship to MIT.

3. ANOTHER PIONEERING FEMALE AVIATOR TAUGHT EARHART HOW TO FLY.

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Neta Snook was the first woman to run her own aviation business and commercial airfield. She gave Earhart flying lessons at Kinner Field near Long Beach, California in 1921, reportedly charging $1 in Liberty Bonds for every minute they spent in the air.

4. EARHART BOUGHT HER FIRST PLANE WITHIN SIX MONTHS OF HER FIRST FLYING LESSON.

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She named it The Canary. The used yellow Kinner Airster biplane was the second one ever built. Earhart paid $2000 for it, despite Snook's opinion that it was underpowered, overpriced, and too difficult for a beginner to land.

5. AMY EARHART ENCOURAGED HER DAUGHTER'S PASSION. HER FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS AFRAID OF FLYING.

Earhart's mom used some of her inheritance to pay for The Canary. She was a bit of an adventurer herself: the first woman to ever climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.

6. EARHART HAD A LOT OF ODD JOBS.

In addition to volunteering as a nurse's aide, Earhart also worked early jobs as a telephone operator and tutor. Earhart was a social worker at Denison House in Boston when she was invited to fly across the Atlantic for the first time (as a passenger) in 1928. At the height of her career, Earhart spent time making speeches, writing articles, and providing career counseling at Purdue University's Department of Aeronautics. Oh, and flying around the world.

7. SHE WASN'T SURE ABOUT MARRIAGE, BUT SHE DEFINITELY BELIEVED IN PRE-NUPS.

When promoter George Putnam contacted Earhart about flying across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, it was her first big break ... and the beginning of their love story. The two began a working relationship, which soon turned into attraction. When Putnam's marriage to Dorothy Binney fell apart, he eventually proposed to Earhart. She said yes, albeit reluctantly.

Earhart wasn't worried about safeguarding financial assets so much as she wanted the two of them to maintain separate identities. Earhart asked Putnam to agree to a trial marriage. If they weren't happy after a year, they'd be free to go their separate ways, no hard feelings. He agreed. They lived happily until her disappearance.

8. SHE WROTE ABOUT FLYING FOR COSMOPOLITAN.

In 1928, Earhart was appointed Cosmopolitan's Aviation Editor. Her 16 published articles—among them "Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?" and "Why Are Women Afraid to Fly?"—recounted her adventures and encouraged other women to fly, even if they just did so commercially. (Commercial flights date back to 1914, but they wouldn't really take off until after World War II.)

9. FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT WAS SO INSPIRED BY EARHART THAT SHE SIGNED UP FOR FLYING LESSONS.

The two became friends in 1932. Roosevelt got a student permit and a physical examination, but never followed through with her plan.

10. EARHART WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO GET A PILOT'S LICENSE FROM THE NATIONAL AERONAUTIC ASSOCIATION (NAA).

That was in 1923, when pilots and aircrafts weren't legally required to be licensed. Earhart was the sixteenth woman to get licensed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which was required to set flight records. Still, the FAI didn't maintain women's records until 1928.

11. SHE ACCOMPLISHED A LOT OF "FIRSTS."

Earhart eventually became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger (1928) and then solo (1932) and nonstop from coast to coast (1932) as a pilot. She also set records, period: Earhart was the first person to ever fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, Los Angeles to Mexico City, and Mexico City to Newark, all in 1935.

What do John Glenn, George H.W. Bush, and Amelia Earhart have in common? They all earned an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. But only Earhart was the first woman—and one of few civilians—to do so.

12. SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CELEBRITIES TO LAUNCH A CLOTHING LINE.

Amelia Earhart Fashions were affordable separates sold exclusively at Macy's and Marshall Field's. The line's dresses, blouses, pants, suits, and hats were made of cotton and parachute silk and featured aviation-inspired details, like propeller-shaped buttons. Earhart studied sewing as a girl and actually made her own samples.

13. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT SPENT $4 MILLION SEARCH FOR EARHART.

At the time, it was the most expensive air and sea search in history. Earhart's plane disappeared July 2, 1937. The official search ended a little over two weeks later on July 19. Putnam then financed a private search, chartering boats to the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

14. THE SEARCH ISN'T OVER.

There are several theories about what happened to Earhart's plane during her last flight. Most people believe she ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Others believe she landed on an island and died of thirst, starvation, injury, or at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Saipan. In 1970, one man even claimed that Earhart was alive and well and living a secret life in New Jersey.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has explored the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan lived as castaways before dying on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific. Over the years, they've found a few potential artifacts, including evidence of campfire sites, pieces of Plexiglas, and an empty jar of the brand of freckle cream that Earhart used.

In early July 2017, a photo surfaced that seemed to confirm the theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and were captured by Japanese soldiers, but that photo was quickly debunked.

15. TODAY, ANOTHER AMELIA EARHART IS MAKING HISTORY.

In 2014, another pilot named Amelia Earhart took to the skies to set a world record. The then-31-year-old California native became the youngest woman to fly 24,300 miles around the world in a single-engine plane. Her namesake never completed the journey, but the younger Earhart landed safely in Oakland on July 11, 2014. We think "Lady Lindy" would be proud.

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