I think a good biography will answer many questions and leave you asking many more. That is exactly the case with this outstanding book: in providing a detailed account of Rasputin himself, it naturally draws upon a vast amount of Russian history, adding a sense of context and continuity. Such an approach also layers on the ambiguity; Rasputin's shown as a unique figure in many ways, but also as a man of his time. He wasn't the only intriguer to meddle in politics. He wasn't even the only holy man or healer to gain access to the Romanovs. He was a catalyst - he formed a dangerous simbiotic relationship with Empress Alexandra - but he also lived at a time when the tide had been steadily turning against the old order for years. A generation before, the once radical socialist Dostoevsky - who was sentenced to death for his activities and got as far as the day of his sentence before it was commuted - re-embraced religion, despite retaining misgivings, because he could see something very threatening emerging out of the currents of nihilism and socialism (his novel, The Devils, discusses the state of play in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century and it is the socialists he is describing in the title). A combination of factors had long been at work in the empire, and Moynahan avoids just scapegoating one man, as many, many other figures are necessarily drawn in detail here too.
The book has a circular structure: it begins on the night of Rasputin's murder (and gives us the first of the many fables about his death, courtesy of his daughter, Maria). Then, we loop back to Rasputin's birth in rural Siberia, his childhood, and early years. To understand the development of the character of this man you have to consider the society he grew up in - the nature of peasant life in an incredibly remote environment, and the proliferation of religious fringe groups. Moynahan describes Siberia as a 'dumping ground for sectarians and cultists', and on his evidence you'd believe him. He describes for instance the Raskolniks - a group who believed that the government and all its works were of the Antichrist to the extent that, when census takers tried to approach their village, they read their own burial service and threw themselves into four great tunnels they'd dug where they suffocated (which puts recent slacktivism over the UK 2011 Census into perspective, no?) Privation, physical pain and curious ideas about sex were well-established in such communities, and Rasputin was suspected throughout his life of being a member of the khlysty, a group which expressed the 'love of Christ' through various sexual excesses. Moynahan assers that he was never a khlyst, but certainly his early years of religious ecstacy and pilgrimages toughened him, as well as helping to develop his sexual appetites. He was a strangely worldly, adaptable figure by the time he arrived in St Petersburg, where he impressed all the right religious figures - at least at first - and guaranteed his stay. There seems to have been an earnestness in Rasputin's belief, but it was also expedient for him. He used it to evade some things (hard work, his father said) and to gain access to others. This was a pattern which continued through his life.
A close study of the royal family forms a large part of the book. To understand how Rasputin gained access to the Empress, and made himself indispensable, depends upon understanding her and the people around her - such as Anna Vyrubova, her lady-in-waiting. Vyrubova attributed a recovery from illness to Rasputin and was thereafter fundamental in allowing his access to the Tsarina. Moynahan pulls no punches in his verdicts on these people; listless, gullible and unhappy, they were vulnerable and Rasputin's escalating sense of his own power made him an adept in using these traits. He did his work well. As the relationship grew ever more intertwining, the more indispensable he was able to appear. The more rumours circulated about Rasputin's dealings with the royal family, the more they tried to protect their 'Friend' to protect themselves. But as they did so - such as censoring any press mentions of him, and jettisoning cabinet ministers who were openly hostile to the holy man - the more they implicated themselves, and the more they ran out of (as they perceived) trustworthy associates, allowing Rasputin to consolidate his position again and again.
But was he all bad? Moynahan paints him as amoral, rather than immoral. He was certainly sexually incontinent, and probably a rapist - part of his 'you must sin to know God' schtick. He exploited people's weaknesses, and undermined Russia during some difficult years by supporting the Empress in her determination to people her government with any manner of weakling so long as he was pro-Imperial and pro-'Friend'. Yet, he was petitioned by numerous poor people over the years and would give them his last kopeck. He does seem to have had some aptitude for healing, however it was that he performed it. He never abused the women fundamental to his success to the extent that a man like Crowley did, and he never used his clout to order anyone killed. Considering the Bolshevik atrocities which followed his death, Grischa Rasputin seems positively tame.
This is a fascinating book which covers vast amounts of ground from the grand to the anecdotal and never feels tiresome, or loaded one way or the other. What you get here is a unique character explored via the unique people, customs and machinations around him - a book never pretending to be the final word, but succeeding as an earnest, considered history. To its credit, I now want to read a lot more on the Russia of this period.