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The man behind the legend

Grigori Rasputin in 1910. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Grigori Rasputin was born in 1869 in a “flea-bitten, down-at-heel village” in Siberia, say Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland in The Rest Is History. In his late twenties, the peasant turned holy man upped sticks and started travelling around Russia, then a tumultuous place full of self-flagellating religious sects. When he arrived in St Petersburg, two occult-obsessed Montenegrin princesses introduced him to the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Alexandra.

Rasputin soon became their adviser and confidante. His charisma and intense, burning eyes seem to have excused his terrible table manners. Lurid rumours soon abounded: that he had taken Alexandra as his lover, and had whipped out his penis in a Moscow restaurant, declaring “Through this I rule Russia”. But, although he acquired a “harem” of fragile aristocratic women, his only pastime with the imperial family was prayer.

Rasputin was killed by rivals at court in 1916, but even his death became the stuff of legend. One of the assassins, Prince Felix Yusupov, concocted a story about the “Mad Monk” surviving cyanide-laced cakes and multiple gunshots. After his death Rasputin accrued mystique from all sides: royalists thought he had ruined the monarchy and leftists saw him as a symbol of royal decadence. In the West he became synonymous with Russian exoticism – thanks in no small part to the Boney M song.

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