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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried