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Our Friend: a depraved, drunken, dirty intriguer

Tuesday Book Rasputin - the last word by Edvard Radzinsky (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

Swallows arrive in the spring and daffodils bloom. With annual regularity a new biography of Grigori Rasputin is published and its appearance is greeted with wonderment. There ought to be an Institute of Rasputin Studies to examine the fascination he still exercises. When the cartoon film Anastasia was made a couple of years ago, whom did they cast as the instigator of the October 1917 Revolution? Not Lenin; instead they chose Rasputin - even though he had died in 1916.

Rasputin's appeal lies in his lurid character and his mischief at the court of the last tsar. As a youngster in Siberia, he was a notorious horse thief. Then he took to religion and wandered from village to village. Disliking the proprieties of the Orthodox Church, he was attracted to the illegal sect of the Khlysty, who practised sexual debauchery in order to purge themselves of impurity and approach a condition of oneness with God.

Rasputin soon regretted this allegiance, and tried to ingratiate himself with the church hierarchy. Eventually he came to the attention of Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra. His rural aphorisms and uncanny ability to relieve the symptoms of haemophilia in Alexei, heir to the throne, made him their favourite. Soon his misdeeds were causing uproar. He drank copiously. He intervened with the tsar on behalf of petitioners in return for large sums of money. He propositioned street prostitutes and took advantage of titled female admirers. But Nicholas and Alexandra would hear nothing against "Our Friend".

Finally, in 1916, a conspiracy involving Prince Felix Yusupov, a transvestite homosexual and one of the empire's richest aristocrats, lured him to a cellar in the Yusupov Palace. There, they tried to poison him with cyanide, but hours later he was still alive. Then Yusupov shot him and went upstairs to celebrate. An hour later, Rasputin rose up and made to escape. The plotters shot him again and tossed him, bound and battered, into the icy river Neva.

Edvard Radzinsky has an extraordinary reason to set forth this latest account. His friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, obtained the uncensored papers of the official enquiry into Rasputin. Bought at a Sotheby's auction in 1995, they have not yet been subjected to independent validation. If genuine, they do indeed shine fresh light on the career of "Our Friend".

Radzinsky writes in a lively fashion. As "the second most staged Russian playwright after Chekhov", he keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. And unlike most biographers, he is unafraid to express sympathy for the depraved, drunken, dirty intriguer. As he contends, the bits of the official investigation that were kept secret were those favourable to Rasputin. It is time for the defence to be made.

Whether Radzinsky has added much beyond details of personal relationships at court is doubtful. It has been known for years that Rasputin was attracted to the Khlysty. Nor is it a secret that the Empress Alexandra wrote him letters of great tenderness. Radzinsky comes close to suggesting that she was bedded by Rasputin, but ultimately holds back.

What is odd, however, is his failure to consider the medical treatment of the heir. Some writers have proposed that Alexei suffered from diseases other than haemophilia. Unfortunately, Radzinsky omits to consider what mysterious power Rasputin exerted. There is no doubt that "Our Friend" had an ability to help Alexei. Was it Siberian herbal medicine? Or - more likely - his skill as a hypnotist?

Radzinsky also argues that Rasputin imposed state policies upon Nicholas. This highly suspect contention would require greater corroboration that is offered here; and Radzinsky concedes that Rasputin, unlike the tsar, did not want Russia to go to war in 1914. The book is best as a combination of fresh anecdotes and detective thriller. Despite the subtitle, it is by no means "the last word".