Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was born into a peasant family in a small town in Siberia. In early middle age, he took up the life of a "holy wanderer", undertaking several long pilgrimages to holy shrines every year. His piety was recognized by others, and soon he was associating with distinguished churchmen in St Petersburg, then acting as a spiritual advisor to a circle of aristocrats, and finally being treasured as a living saint by the tsaritsa. Meanwhile, Rasputin indulged in all manner of vices, drinking too much and sleeping with his female admirers. Eventually he was brutally murdered by a conspiracy of aristocrats who believed his influence was leading Russia to ruin.
Such are the facts. The legend is something else - the dark force at the beginning of the twentieth century, the cartoon sorceror, the mad monk who was, in reality, neither mad nor a monk. As Douglas Smith reveals, Rasputin was a legend even in his own time, and the myths surrounding him were the cause of his rise and the cause of his downfall. Indeed, according to Smith, even much of the accepted biography of Rasputin is based primarily on rumor and gossip. In this atmosphere of suspicion Rasputin became the explanation for every ill that befell Russia, simultaneously encouraging the enemies of the tsar and alienating his supporters even as crisis followed crisis.
Smith's fascinating biography of Rasputin is long but continuously interesting. He touches on many of the cultural factors that shaped the life and times of Rasputin - Russian industrialization and modernization, the mania for spiritualism, the romanticization of the narod, the paradox of a tsar who sought to be both an absolute monarch and a private citizen - while giving due respect to the complexity of events and the agency of individuals. There are a few odd moments, as when he advances the eugenicist view that the tsarevich Alexei would have been better off not being born rather than being born a hemophiliac, or when he sniffs contemptuously at the devout Grand Duchess Elisaveta's approval of Rasputin's murder, but these disagreeable passages do not affect the bulk of the book. That stands as simultaneously a corrective to the legends surrounding Rasputin and a portrait, through those legends, of Russian society at the dawn of the twentieth century, a society on the brink of destruction.