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

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Wikimedia // Public Domain

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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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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