A century of legend has painted Rasputin in the broadest terms: a debauched “holy man”; a drunken lecher; the savior of the czar’s hemophiliac heir, Alexei; and the man who contributed to the fall of the Romanov dynasty. (Associated Press)

Greg King’s works on Imperial Russia include “The Last Empress,” “The Fate of the Romanovs,” and “The Court of the Last Tsar.”

The body lay on the bank of a half-frozen river: arms grotesquely extended, blue silk shirt stained crimson, right eye blackened, nose battered, hair matted with blood, and singed flesh fringing an ugly gunshot wound in the middle of the forehead. Yet the crowd lining the river was more excited than horrified: At last, the notorious Grigori Rasputin was dead.

This scene in December 1916 ended the career of Russia’s “mad monk.” A century of legend has painted him in the broadest terms: a debauched “holy man”; a drunken lecher; savior of the hemophiliac heir, Alexei; and the man who, together with a hysterical Empress Alexandra, destroyed the government of Czar Nicholas II and led the Romanov dynasty to revolution. The centennial of Rasputin’s infamous death was bound to renew interest. Thankfully, it has also brought Douglas Smith’s definitive biography of this most mysterious and controversial figure.

The bare facts of Rasputin’s life are well known. Born in Siberia in 1869, he claimed a religious vision and left his obscure village as a pilgrim. His reputation took him to St. Petersburg where, with the backing of church officials, he met Nicholas and Alexandra. His apparent ability to “cure” their only son’s hemophiliac attacks cemented his place as imperial favorite; thereafter, the peasant rampaged through the court and society with the decorum of a charging bull, bedding women, drinking to excess and dominating the weak-willed czar through constant orders to his obsessive wife. Tackling this accepted story is no easy task, but Smith does a remarkable job by drawing on a wealth of research revealing “how the myth of Rasputin was created.” Under Smith’s probing eye, archives yield up impressive detail and previously unknown accounts that place Rasputin’s life in a new, more realistic context.

The revelations in this “dark fairy tale” are impressive. Smith chronicles Nicholas and Alexandra’s obsession with various “holy men” who, in “embryonic form,” served as precursors to Rasputin. The book richly explores the background of Orthodoxy and Russian mysticism against which Rasputin appeared, setting the peasant in context as one of many “holy fools” who became fashionable with a jaded aristocracy. To Smith, Rasputin’s “religious impulse . . . was indeed sincere,” even if he strayed — and often — from the higher ideals he ostensibly espoused. Letters Rasputin wrote to Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters give a better sense of the man than any caricature, while Smith’s revelations about the peasant and one of the imperial nurses (who later accused him of rape) disclose a previously unsuspected relationship that puts her allegations in a new light.

"Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs," by Douglas Smith (FSG)

Despite the legend, Rasputin did not gain his place at court after apparently “curing” Alexei; rather, Nicholas and Alexandra “were as drawn to Rasputin for the support and wisdom he gave them about the state of Russia as about the state of the heir.” Nor did he display any “miraculous” abilities when it came to the hemophiliac boy. The question of Rasputin’s power has plagued historians, but Smith makes a convincing case that his apparent cures were probably coincidental and stemmed as much from the calm Alexandra transferred “to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health,” as they did from prayer.

Alexandra’s wartime letters to her husband leave little doubt that she was under Rasputin’s influence, but the case of Nicholas is more complex. The czar once described the peasant as “a good, simple, religious Russian man. In minutes of doubt and spiritual turmoil I love to converse with him and after such conversations my soul is always light and calm.” Yet even he tired of Rasputin’s notoriety. Nicholas, though, felt powerless to act against his wife’s wishes: “Better ten Rasputins than one of the empress’s hysterical fits,” he once candidly told his prime minister.

World War I escalated an already dangerous situation, as Nicholas took command of the army at the front and left ostensible control of the government in Alexandra’s — and thus Rasputin’s — hands. Rasputin had no discretion. He openly exaggerated his hold over the imperial couple and reveled in promoting his corrupt friends to the highest levels in the Orthodox Church. His drunken escapades with prostitutes and meddling in political affairs horrified many, but, as Smith shows, desperate officials often overplayed their hands in attempting to discredit him, which had the unfortunate effect of immunizing “Rasputin from all criticism in the eyes of the empress.”

In 1916, with revolution openly discussed, Felix Yusupov, an imperial prince, decided to act. Gathering around him a group of conspirators, he plotted Rasputin’s death as an “act of noble patriotism,” meant to save the country from ruin. The murder itself has become legend, with tales that Rasputin survived poison, numerous gunshots and severe beatings only to drown when his body was thrown into an icy river. In fact, there is no evidence he was poisoned. The first two bullets would have proved fatal, but Rasputin died instantly after being shot directly in the forehead. This hasn’t stopped a century of bizarre stories, with whispers of gay orgies and castration, and allegations that the peasant was murdered by British agents — stories that Smith demolishes through impeccable research.

Putin’s Russia has seen not only resurgent nostalgia for the Romanovs but also efforts to rehabilitate Rasputin; there was even an unsuccessful push to have him canonized in 2004. If Rasputin wasn’t the “Holy Devil” portrayed for much of the past century, neither was he a misunderstood saint. The Rasputin in this magnificent work is a complicated man, sincere in his religious beliefs but unable to resist power and temptation. He undoubtedly contributed to the fall of the czarist regime, though perhaps not in the ways history has recorded. In Rasputin’s case, as Smith shows, perception often replaced reality, spinning a narrative that fed the peasant’s vanity while undermining trust in the throne, the government and the church. In the end, Rasputin fell victim to his own propaganda.

Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

By Douglas Smith

Farrar Straus Giroux.
817 pp. $35