THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIGORII RASPUTIN by Alex De Jonge (Carroll & Graf: $10.95, illustrated)

Rasputin remains one of the most intriguing and least understood figures of modern history. In this vivid and scrupulously researched biography, De Jonge shows that the mad monk of popular legend was neither mad nor a monk, but an example of a starets, the strange, unordained holy men that often arose among the Siberian peasants. Through a mixture of cunning and luck, he penetrated the highest levels of Russian society.

His reputation for effecting miraculous cures won him the confidence of the credulous Czarina, who believed he was the only person who could help her hemophiliac son (apparently he could to some degree, probably psychosomatically). This ability enabled Rasputin to manipulate Alexandra and, through her, the weak-willed and inept Nicholas II.

The image of a peasant dictating policy, combined with his dissolute private life, helped discredit the Romanov dynasty. There was widespread rejoicing when Felix Yussupov and his cabal murdered Rasputin, but the conspirators struck too late. The monarchy had been irretrievably compromised and revolution was inevitable.

A fascinating study, as entertaining as many novels.

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