RASPUTIN: The Saint Who Sinned. By Brian Moynahan. Random House.

This article written by LYNWOOD ABRAM

IN the fall of 1905, Czar Nicholas II of Russia wrote in his diary, "We have got to know a man of

God, Grigory, from Tobolsk province."

It is safe to say that no sentence in the czar's diaries could be more ominous than this. The reference is to Grigory Rasputin, who later would be known by other names, including "the Mad Monk." Although that nickname stuck, it was inaccurate: Rasputin was neither a monk nor mad.

Ignorant, almost illiterate, uncouth and unwashed, this Siberian peasant was a character so outrageous that, for once, the cliché is apt: He seems to have emerged from a pulp novel.

He was many things: unordained preacher, faith healer, prophet, alcoholic, seducer of high-born women, liar, swindler and conniver. The subtitle of Brian Moynahan's new biography, however, is wrong: Rasputin was no saint.

Rasputin's great distinction is that more than any other person, including Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, he was the architect of policies that spelled the doom of the Romanov monarchy and led to the murders of the czar, his wife and children.

Introduced to Nicholas and Alexandra by two eccentric Montenegrin grand-duchesses, Rasputin quickly entranced the empress and, through her, the only slightly less malleable czar.

Rasputin's influence with the royal couple is usually attributed to his ability to halt the bleeding that threatened the life of their hemophiliac son, Alexei, heir to the Russian throne. How Rasputin did this has never been satisfactorily explained. On one occasion, for example, he is said to have stopped the bleeding by sending a telegram assuring the royal parents that their son's hemorrhage would cease.

In his satisfying biography, Moynahan says Rasputin's power stemmed primarily from a different source -- the "hysteria, mysticism and isolation" of the unhappy, lonely and unpopular Alexandra. Eventually Rasputin's control became such that through the empress he selected the czar's ministers, choosing exclusively weak-willed incompetents whom he could manipulate.

One of these, Alexander Protopopov, a minister of the interior, spent hours gazing at himself in a mirror, apparently in the grip of syphilitic dementia. When Nicholas took command of the army and moved to the front, the government was in effect left to Alexandra and Rasputin.

Under their control, Russia in two years had four prime ministers, four war ministers and six ministers of the interior. Rasputin masterminded each appointment. One after another, Alexandra dismissed them, sometimes threatening death by firing squad or hanging for those who had especially displeased her.

A Russian historian has written: "A narrow-minded, reactionary, hysterical woman and an ignorant, weird peasant had the destinies of Russia in their hands."

There were other elements in Rasputin's domination of the Romanovs. Nicholas and Alexandra hated rational discussion and acquired knowledge. They also were fatalists.

God, Nicholas often remarked, guided his thoughts, policies and destiny. For example, although Nicholas hated his position, he wore the crown because he was convinced that God had selected him for the task. Among his predecessors, Nicholas particularly disliked Peter the Great, who he believed had gone against God's will in trying to westernize his nation.

Nicholas was certain that the deity had endowed him with infallible wisdom and judgment. Holy men, Nicholas also believed, had God-given powers to foresee the future and to heal the dying. Rasputin was not the first holy man to minister to Nicholas and Alexandra.

"The fundamental skill (of these holy men)," according to Moynahan, "was to seek out nervous and troubled people and lead them by the nose."

The politician Mikhail Rodzianko, who knew Rasputin well, described him as "entirely free from any morality, greedy for profit, brave to the point of impudence."

Rasputin did give Nicholas one piece of advice that, if heeded, might have saved his throne and his life. It might also have spared Russia the horrors of life under the communists. Rasputin warned the czar not to enter World War I against Germany. Although Rasputin predicted victory for the Russians, he also told Nicholas that the war would bring to Russia "God's punishment" and "great destruction and grief without end."

Such forecasts did not alarm the czar. Misfortune and failure, he believed, were God's doing. Nothing could or should be done to overcome them. When revolution came, Nicholas remained calm, humbly submitting to the edicts of his God. "Whatever may happen," he said, "I shall bow to his will."

In his abdication statement, Nicholas mentioned that "the Lord God saw fit to send down upon Russia a harsh new ordeal" -- the revolution -- but said nothing about the policies that had lost the war and brought suffering and death to his people.

This passivity in a ruler aroused hatred among the peasants and the military. It also terrified the czar's relatives, the nobility and aristocrats. As the war's death toll mounted into the millions, troops at the front no longer regarded themselves as soldiers; they considered themselves people who were going to die.

So disastrous for Russia and its war effort were Rasputin's policies that he was widely rumored to be a German agent. He also was accused of having sexual relations with the czar's wife and daughters. In place of the imperial flag, Rasputin's underpants were said to float over the royal palace.

Rasputin was aware powerful forces were working against him. As fate closed in, he asked: "Do you know that I shall soon die in terrible pain?"

In 1916, Rasputin's prophecy came true: He was poisoned and shot and then thrown into an icy river -- but not by revolutionaries. Among his slayers was one of Russia's wealthiest men, Prince Felix Yusupov, a former transvestite who had married the czar's niece. After the Bolshevik revolution devoured his fortune, Yusupov recouped some of his losses by writing a best-selling account of Rasputin's death and by suing the makers of a Hollywood film about Rasputin for slander.

Blind to facts to the end, Nicholas and Alexandra with their children found themselves in the clutches of the Bolsheviks, who murdered them in a hail of bullets in July 1918.

To Moynahan, this dark tale is a love story without sex. Without Alexandra, Rasputin was a corrupt and fashionable holy man, one of many. Without Rasputin, Alexandra "was a creature of the vapors, the weak heart, the hours in bed, the neurasthenia."

Together, they paved the way for their own deaths and for a tyranny incomparably more terrible than anything Russia had endured under the czars.

Lynwood Abram is a free-lance reviewer and writer. He lives in Danville, Ky.

Rasputin - The Mad Monk

Author: Florence Cardinal
Published on: September 29, 2000

Related Subject(s): Rasputin, Grigori Efimovich, ca. 1870-1916 ,  Russia -- Court and courtiers -- Biography ,  Russia -- History -- Nicholas II, 1894-1917

Grigory Rasputin was born in Siberia in the late eighteen hundreds, the son of Russian peasants. He preferred filth to cleanliness and called lice "Pearls of God." He preferred the company of Gypsies to that of his fellow peasants. With the wild Romany bands, he drank, and danced and took part in orgies.

But Rasputin was said to possess a wondrous gift. He was a healer. Whether he was actually a healer or if he did his healing using the power of mesmerism (hypnosis) isn't clear, but he was known as a healer. When not cavorting with his Gypsy friends, he sought the company of learned monks and discussed with them the pros and cons of religion and debated with them about the twisted faith he called his own.

He was called "The Mad Monk." If he was a monk, it was in a religion that most sane men would not espouse. And mad he may well have been, but it was a sly madness, one that won him the friendship, even the love, of the Empress Alexandra and made him one of the most powerful and feared men in Russia. The Empress's son, young Alexei, suffered from hemophilia. In other words, he was a bleeder, and even the slightest cut or bruise could lead to his death. Rasputin is reputed to have healed the boy, and it is thus that he gained the trust of the Empress and the admiration of a large number of the Russian people.

However, when the Tsar was called away to lead his troops into battle during World War 1, Rasputin began to exert his influence upon the Empress. He replaced several of the ministers of the court with his own followers. Instead of the love and admiration he had enjoyed before, now many of the people, especially the nobles, began to hate and fear him. They credited him with mystical powers that he was using to control the Empress and perhaps even the Tsar.

They decided he would have to be killed. It was then that Rasputin issued his great prophecy. "I am to be killed, "he said. "If I am killed," he told the Tsar and his court, "by my own people, by the peasants, then you will continue to rule in peace and harmony. However, if I am killed by the noble class, then within two years, you and your children and all the royal family will be no more." This was thought to be but idle chatter to save his skin, and it was ignored. Still, Rasputin was no an easy man to kill. The nobles tried to poison him but cyanide had no effect. He narrowly avoided being run down by a wagon and avoided numerous other attempts on his life.

When one of the nobles shot him, instead of falling down dead, he jumped to his feet and tried to kill his attacker. When he was shot a second time, still he refused to die. Finally he was captured, bound tightly in a fur robe and tossed, helpless, into the icy waters of the Neva River. Even then, it is said, when his body was recovered, he had three fingers raised and pressed against his chest in the sign of benediction. Seven months later, in July 1918, the Bolshevik revolutionaries executed the Tsar and his family. The final prophecy of the mad monk had come true.