“Murder is the emperor of political action,” says an eager conspirator in the graphic novel Petrograd. In this case the murder is the notorious assassination of Grigori Rasputin, and the political action is a conspiracy orchestrated by agents of the British Secret Service at the height of World War I. Author Philip Gelatt and artist Tyler Crook demythologize the killing of Rasputin — a figure so buried in legend that this task borders on the herculean — largely by substituting a not wholly implausible counter-historical fiction.

Beginning in the trenches of the Eastern Front and ending with the February Revolution, Petrograd is based on enough known facts and real people to credibly capture a sense of time and place, but it also employs just enough fiction to create a compelling (if conventional) spy thriller. It mines a fair amount of tension out of material that’s already, in a sense, a matter of history.

There are no real revelations here for anyone with a passing familiarity with history or the spy genre. As a novel it is good, satisfying, but as a comic it is beautiful. Crook’s gorgeous sepia-toned artwork creates a palpable atmosphere of a people and a city on the edge while crisply moving the action through carefully constructed panels.

Whether archvillain, debauched madman, or clever charlatan, Rasputin remains largely a mystery in this novel, as he has in real life. He is a cryptic center around which wind the various strands of the Russian aristocracy, the tsar’s secret police, and British intelligence. Wary, perhaps, of coming at the enigma of Rasputin too directly, the narrative follows Agent Cleary, an Irish-born agent of the British Crown stationed in St. Petersburg. Cleary’s personal and political ambivalence make him a reluctant but effective spy who uses his contacts — including nobles at the top of Russian society and Bolshevik revolutionaries at the bottom — to “facilitate communication between war efforts.” As Cleary says, spying on the Russians sometimes means spying for them.

It is to the novel’s credit that the conspiracy it invents is not needlessly complicated or baroque. The British fear the Russians will make a separate peace with Germany, and rumors of secret negotiations at the behest of the Russian royal family’s “mystic advisor” are seen as the decisive factor. Thus, a comment made as a hypothetical jest by the right person is reported up the chain of command, and Cleary finds himself pressed into making sure that one nobleman’s fantasy becomes a reality.    

Despite the inherently grandiose and seductive nature of conspiracy theory as a basis for fiction, Petrograd never indulges the assumption that the machinations of empire are by definition omnipotent or all-encompassing. Neither the men who orchestrate events from afar nor those who carry out their plans are ever truly in control of their own actions or their outcomes. This is best captured in the depiction of the killing of Rasputin. As written by Gelatt and vividly illustrated by Crook, the infamously excessive assault that unfolded — the victim was shot, stabbed, poisoned, and thrown into an icy river — was due not to any supernatural hardiness of Rasputin, nor extraordinary malevolence on the part of his killers, but rather the assassins’ naiveté and inexperience. The romantic notion of changing history by means of some brilliant scheme is quickly replaced by the sordid work of actually killing someone. In the end, the murder accomplishes nothing, as the tide of revolution sweeps away the Romanov dynasty and ends the Russian involvement in the war. In a pattern often repeated throughout history, the only political action that really matters manages to take all the relevant “intelligence” completely by surprise.