Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs

Published on the centenary of the death of Rasputin, this is the definitive biography that will dramatically change our understanding of this fascinating figure.

Shortlisted for the 2017 James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Overview of the Book

A hundred years after his murder, Rasputin continues to excite the popular imagination as the personification of evil. Numerous biographies, novels, and films recount his mysterious rise to power as Nicholas and Alexandra’s confidant and the guardian of the sickly heir to the Russian throne. His debauchery and sinister political influence are the stuff of legend, and the downfall of the Romanov dynasty was laid at his feet.

But as the prizewinning historian Douglas Smith shows, the true story of Rasputin’s life and death has remained shrouded in myth. A major new work that combines probing scholarship and powerful storytelling, Rasputin separates fact from fiction to reveal the real life of one of history’s most alluring figures. Drawing on a wealth of forgotten documents from archives in seven countries, Smith presents Rasputin in all his complexity–man of God, voice of peace, loyal subject, adulterer, drunkard. Rasputin is not just a definitive biography of an extraordinary and legendary man but a fascinating portrait of the twilight of imperial Russia as it lurched toward catastrophe.

Book Reviews

"Perceptive in its human portraits, penetrating in its political analysis, brilliantly researched, and enlivened by a crazed cast of degenerate priests, whores, charlatans, adventurers, mystics, murderers, and a completely overburdened and incompetent Tsar Nicholas II, Smith has presented a riveting portrayal of Grigory Rasputin, whose end brought with it the finale of the tsars' empire."

— Theodor Kissel, Frankfurt Live (Germany)

"A must read ... minutely researched and luminously readable."

— Jane Shilling, The Daily Mail (UK)

"The best biography of Rasputin and a splendid piece of work."

— Gary Saul Morson, First Things

"As we immerse ourselves in this year's commemoration of 1917, we should not forget the recently passed centenary of the man who was more responsible than any other for bringing down the Romanovs. Such a grand claim for Grigory Rasputin's significance may invite scepticism, but Douglas Smith's engrossing and deeply researched biography shows that it is sustainable."

— Stephen Lovell, TLS (UK)

"Rich and detailed ... Six years in the making, Smith's book ranges widely ... One thinks of Anthony Trollope as one reads Smith's account of Russian ecclesiastical politics, although here the trollops were rather different!"

— Ian Cummins, Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

"Magnificently researched ... Smith's comprehensive biography portrays an intriguingly multifaceted figure who enjoyed power and had seductive vitality, but who was also an earthy and compassionate family man."

— Nina Martyris, NPR

"The American historian Douglas Smith has produced a large, eight-hundred-page monograph, both rich in ideas and brilliantly written, that thanks to its meticulous study of the archives helps to separate fact from fiction and should become the definitive work on Rasputin."

— Kerstin Holm, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany)

"From the opening pages of his colossal biography of Grigory Rasputin, the historian Douglas Smith dismantles many of the myths enshrouding the monk who exerted inordinate influence over Nicholas II and Alexandra."

— Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times

"Definitive ... 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."

— Greg King, The Washington Post

"In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject ... we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination ... a richly illuminating book."

— Lucy Hughes-Hallet, The New Statesman (UK)

"Magisterial ... This impeccably researched book is a revelation, as richly detailed and engrossing as any novel."

— Boris Dralyuk, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Scrupulous, insightful and thorough ... will surely be the definitive account of one of the most controversial personalities in Russian (and European) history ... Mr. Smith's research busts various Rasputin myths through a careful analysis of contemporary sources and meticulous attention to the archives ... All of this Mr. Smith presents lucidly, vividly and sympathetically ... Rasputin is sharply drawn and unmistakable."

— Edward Lucas, The Wall Street Journal

"Douglas Smith has written a powerful biography ... It is a masterful display of storytelling."

— Patricia Treble, Maclean's (Canada)

"The definitive new biography."

— Anne Applebaum, Harper's

"An astounding biography ... five stars."

— JP O'Malley, The Mail on Sunday (UK)

"Substantial, meticulously researched and fluently written."

— Rodric Braithwaite, The Observer (UK)

"Superb and authoritative."

— Donald Rayfield, The Literary Review (UK)

"By far the most comprehensive account of Rasputin to date, brimming with complexities and fascinating detail, and stands as an enlightening re-evaluation of this crucial figure in Russian history."

— Helen Rappaport, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

"Douglas Smith begins this impressive biography by rubbishing almost everything previously written, stripping away a century of myth, fabrication, gossip and lie ... Smith's intention is not to rehabilitate Rasputin, but rather to tease out the tiny facts hidden within a haystack of lies. This huge task requires the skills of a detective and the patience of a saint ... it is a fascinating, often entertaining biography."

— Gerard DeGroot, Book of the Week, The Times (UK)

"Douglas Smith has delivered the definitive biography that is brilliantly gripping, as hypnotic, wild and erotic in its revelations as the Mad Monk himself, sensitive in its human portrait, astute in its political analysis, superbly researched with rich new material gathered in faraway archives, and populated with the zaniest cast of the deranged Romanovs, depraved bishops, whores, mountebanks, adventuresses, mystics and murderers."

— Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Evening Standard (UK)

"Utterly fascinating and forensically detailed ... There are plenty of Rasputin biographies, but its superlative scholarship and attention to detail put this one in a class of its own."

— Dominc Sandbrook, The Sunday Times (UK)

"Smith, the author of Former People, has written the definitive account of Grigory Rasputin's life and times ... Smith's book reads like a revelatory work of revisionist history, unearthing a flesh-and-blood person from a century's worth of lies and exaggerations."

— Hank Stephenson, Shelf Awareness

"This brilliantly written, meticulously researched account of the life of Rasputin is the best, most complete and accurate I have ever read. Step by step, day by day, week by week in this life, Douglas Smith tells the story from its humble beginnings, through its obscene sexual chapters, to its violent end. He describes how a peasant became "our Friend" to the last emperor and empress of Russia. He explains why this dependency came at terrible cost for the imperial couple, for their children, for Russia, and for the twentieth century. Readers will begin by saying that this is an impossible story to believe. They will read on because, in Douglas Smith's mesmerizing telling, it must be believed. And because it did happen."

— Robert K. Massie, author of Nicholas and Alexandra

"The most complete and masterful study of Rasputin that I’ve read. Douglas Smith’s work is not only extraordinarily readable, but rich in detail."

— Robert Alexander, author of The Kitchen Boy

"Some years ago when working on a historical novel I had to read all the existing Rasputin biographies, and they do abound - in all literary styles and in many languages. What a pity that Douglas Smith’s Rasputin had not yet been published, it would have saved me a lot of time. If you are interested in the story of the Romanovs’ pet prophet this is the book to read."

— Boris Akunin, author of the Erast Fandorin novels

"It is hard to imagine a historical figure more barnacled with myth than Rasputin. Douglas Smith unravels Rasputin’s complex narrative in unprecedented detail, showing how he was a kind of chimera onto which could be hung all the ills of a disintegrating Russia. In the process Smith vividly exposes the astonishing blindness of the ruling class that made its tragic end inevitable. A brilliant achievement."

— Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter

"In his research, comprehensive to the nth degree, Douglas Smith has dug up previously unseen archives, followed previously unexplored leads, and connected the dots across the Russian landscape. They’re dots of blood. Rasputin reveals the true character of the man without minimizing his malign hold on the feckless Romanovs."

— Ken Kalfus, author of The Commissariat of Enlightenment

"The very best biographies illuminate an individual and the time and place in which they lived. In this magisterial, exhaustively-researched work on Rasputin, Douglas Smith paints a rich, detailed portrait of one of history’s most fascinating individuals while also chronicling the dramatic last days of the Tsar. It’s a wondrous read."

— Neal Bascomb, author of The Winter Fortress

"Douglas Smith understands that history is not only what happened, but what people think happened. In Rasputin, he deftly unpicks myth, legend and fact, separating and examining each thread, before weaving them back to create a pattern not merely of a man, but of a time, and a place, and a revolution. It is, itself, revolutionary."

— Judith Flanders, author of A Circle of Sisters

"A prodigious piece of scholarship. Douglas Smith’s exhaustive and forensic examination of a wealth of new and previously unseen evidence finally lays to rest the tired old myth of ‘the mad monk’ and rightly positions Rasputin as a crucial figure in late imperial Russian history."

— Helen Rappaport, author of The Romanov Daughters

"A big book about a big figure in the demise of tsarism. Douglas Smith supplies chapter and verse on the extraordinary life of Grigory Rasputin, the eminence grise behind the Romanov throne. Without denying the salacious and corrupt ways of the ‘holy man,’ the book brilliantly and thoughtfully defends Rasputin against the worst of the myths that swirled around him. A tour de force."

— Robert Service, author of Lenin: A Biography

"In this monumental and soul-shaking biography, Smith demystifies the figure of Grigory Rasputin a century after his gruesome murder [...] With a Dostoyevskian flair for noir and obsession, Smith exposes the base motivations behind Rasputin’s enemies [...] and expertly handles the intricacies of the salacious scandals that enveloped the empire in anti-Rasputin hysteria and that eerily presaged the fall of the Romanovs in 1917. Displaying commendable detective work and a firm understanding of the Russian silver age and the synod, Smith articulates even the most obscure cultural nuances with fluidity, sometimes slowing the pace but never losing his focus on his worthy and mesmerizing subject. Smith’s depravity-laden history of turn-of-the-20th-century Russia hinges on his insightful readings of myth and motive, and their tragic consequences."

— Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Smith performs a nearly miraculous feat in this amazingly detailed, deeply researched biography [...] He carefully lifts the myths away from the real story, which nevertheless is presented here as a greatly compelling picture of a figure who at the zenith of his influence was known all over Russia [...] To get to the most truthful understanding of Rasputin’s consequence, Smith advocates viewing him through a prism of what people at the time believed he was up to rather than what he was actually doing. Devil or saint? Smith steers a realistic course between those poles."

— Booklist, Starred Review

"On the centenary of his death, a vigorous attempt to penetrate the monstrous myths surrounding Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin [...] A tour de force."

— Kirkus