The Empress Alexandra and the Freedom to Be Imperfect

Alexandra of Russia and her son Alexei, photographed between 1910 and 1913. (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today is International Women’s Day. It also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the start of the revolution that brought down the Russian empire. Given the coincidence, I was delighted to find in our archives an article from our January 1928 issue titled “The Fall of the Russian Empire: The Part Played by a Woman”—that is, until I read author Edmund Walsh’s assessment of exactly what that “part” was:

Russia was the last island fortress of absolutism in the rising tide of democracy, the outstanding anachronism of the twentieth century. … It defied the elements for three hundred years—until the deluge came. Whose hand unloosed the flood gates? In my opinion, a woman, all unconsciously, had more to do with the final debacle than any other single cause. … History probably will clear the memory of Alexandra Feodorovna [of treason, but] it can never clear her memory of tendencies, practices, and imprudences that contributed notably to Russia's ruin. The domination which this imperious, proud, aloof, and resolute woman exercised over her irresolute and impressionable husband became such a menace that more than one grand duke, duchess, and general cried out in warning against it. …

Revolutions are made by men and women determining events. Men are swayed by powerful human emotions. Women create them. And the master passion, particularly in neurotic females, can be as elegantly indifferent to the realities of life and war as ever Montesquieu was to the existence of God.

It’s a fascinating historical document, undeniably sexist in its overtones. The gist of Walsh’s argument is that the Tsarina Alexandra, driven by fear for the health of her hemophiliac son, gave the self-proclaimed holy man and healer Grigori Rasputin a level of influence that irrevocably weakened the Russian government. For evidence, Walsh delves into the embarrassing intimacies of Alexandra’s letters to her husband. And he criticizes the empress on two familiar, contradictory fronts: On the one hand, she’s weak and overly emotional, too much guided by motherly worries to see the bigger picture of Russian politics. On the other, she’s aggressive and overly domineering, stepping outside her proper sphere of childrearing to advise her husband on governance. She’s portrayed as a femme fatale, making a “subtle approach to political questions … through the gateway of the Tsar’s affections.” But she’s not granted agency either: Walsh argues she brought about the fall of the empire “all unconsciously.” She is, like female leaders still are, damned for the stereotypes of womanhood she does fulfill and damned for the ones she does not.

But none of this is to dispute the chain of events that Walsh describes. Alexandra and her husband did fail at governance: For any leader, male or female, it’s a heartbreaking reality that even the safety of one’s own family must come second to the national interest. And for all the sexism embedded in Walsh’s narrative, I agree with his central point that “revolutions are made by men and women determining events.” What struck me, reading this article today, was Alexandra’s simple human vulnerability, and my own reaction to it—my inclination to sweep this unflattering story under the rug. When we seek to recognize the women of history, what do we do with the history that reveals individual women as less than admirable? How do we celebrate women—our role models, ourselves—as powerful, vulnerable, fully complex humans, flaws intact?

If you have thoughts on that question, please let us know. It reminded me of a comment about female characters I’d seen recently from a reader during TAD’s book-club discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian government of that novel is built on the oppression of women, to which its central character, Offred, bears witness but doesn’t fight back. The reader wrote:

When I started reading The Handmaid's Tale before Christmas, someone (a LADY before you get all "pffft men!") told me that the women of the novel, especially Offred, bothered her. It took me a long time to settle into why Offred might be kind of frustrating—and it's because I think, as women, we all want her to fight, to struggle, to know that what is happening to her is wrong. But she's a product of her conditioning, isn't she? And she's been conditioned so well. She passively allows things to happen to her. She just rides along, not speaking up or out or anything.

But as another reader pointed out, “Offred is like a lot of folks. When it comes down to it. It's easier to put your head down and survive.” And the first reader agreed, summing it up:

I think we expect women characters to be strong nowadays. We’re shocked when they aren’t.

We’ve come a long way since 1928, when portrayals of women like Walsh’s were more or less the norm. Over decades—centuries, for that matter—women have worked to prove that they are strong and brave and smart; that they are leaders and revolutionaries; that they are more than mothers only; that motherhood is no lesser thing. It’s been proven time and again, but women still must demand the freedom to be imperfect—which is no more and no less than what every human deserves.