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History is littered with examples of rulers who have been harmed by their choice of favourites, but few can compete with the reliance of the empress Alexandra on Grigory Rasputin. Gratuitously rude and offensive, with unkempt hair, dressed always in filthy clothes, smelling like a goat and correspondingly lecherous, this self-professed holy man mesmerizes Alexandra and the ladies of her court - with his flashing eyes, his aura of mysticism, a reputation as a healer and, not least, his bold effrontery.

Born in a peasant family in Siberia in 1869, Grigory later earns for himself the name Rasputin, meaning 'dissolute'. But a pilgrimage to a monastery brings about a change of heart. He decides to lead a holy life.

Mysticism runs like a constant thread through Russian history and is particularly popular among the upper classes at the turn of the century. As a wandering holy man, with a talent for preaching and the added romance of a genuine peasant background, Rasputin wins a following. By 1903 he in St Petersburg. In 1905 he is introduced to the emperor and empress, specifically as a healer and specifically in relation to the haemophilia of their only son, Alexis, born the previous year.

Where the professional doctors despair of the boy's condition, Rasputin offers hope - prophesying even that the boy will be cured when he reaches thirteen.

Alexandra is convinced, inviting Rasputin more and more frequently to the palace. His influence over her becomes complete after 1912, when a particularly severe bout of internal bleeding causes the doctors to offer no hope for the boy's life. Then a telegram arrives from Rasputin, on a visit to his home in Siberia, saying 'Do not grieve. The little one will not die'. Within hours the child begins to recover. Coincidence or not, this impressive outcome means that henceforth the imperial family will hear not a word against their saviour.

Rasputin now has carte blanche to misbehave in St Petersburg. Rumours of his sexual exploits shock and excite the ladies of the court, while he uses his position to harm his enemies and benefit his friends.

As the popularity of the imperial family dwindles during World War I, it becomes all too evident that Rasputin is one of the main causes. A plot is laid by three grand dukes - all, as it happens, homosexual, for the bisexual Rasputin is closely involved in aristocratic gay circles in St Petersburg. But their scheme proves easier to plan than to achieve.

on 16 December 1916 Rasputin is invited to the palace of one of the grand dukes, with the implicit promise of a tryst with his beautiful wife. To await her arrival he is taken to a room where there is a supply of his favourite sweet Madeira, laced with poison, and some attractive cyanide cakes. During an hour's wait he avails himself freely of both delicacies - astonishingly to no ill effect.

His host, by now impatient, draws a pistol and shoots the holy man - leaving him for dead while he goes to tell his fellow conspirators that the plot has succeeded. But when they return to the room, there is no body. The seemingly indestructible guru is found outside, staggering through a snowy courtyard towards the outer world. A few more bullets finally achieve the desired purpose, after which the body is wrapped in iron chains and dumped in the Neva.

The assassins are given a standing ovation when they go to the theatre the following evening. But the emperor exiles them, and the affront has the opposite effect from what was intended. Nicholas II and Alexandra, in the two months of rule left to them, become even more resistant to any talk of reform.