In This Review

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
By Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 832 pp

What could justify another biography of the Russian mystic and adviser to the Romanovs, so famous that theatrical works and musicals feature him and bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are named after him? Smith acknowledges that this ground has been plowed many times, but he argues that the mystery of Rasputin remains. Smith does not pretend to have produced a definitive portrait; nevertheless, he renders in great detail the ten years that Rasputin spent on the national stage, from 1906 until his murder in 1916. Sorting through the Rasputin mythology, Smith discards the apocryphal and weighs the plausible, balancing the extraordinary mix of mysticism and debauchery that made the peasant monk notorious. Digging through countless and often conflicting firsthand accounts and impressions, Smith gives Rasputin’s mystique a depth and a fine edge missing from prior histories. In the end, readers themselves must decide whether Rasputin was a holy man with hypnotic powers or merely a charlatan. But Smith goes a long way toward making him more intelligible by exploring the fascination polite society had with the occult and the demonic during imperial Russia’s final, fateful decade.