Russia’s last empress receives compassionate but by no means uncritical treatment from biographer Erickson (Josephine: A Life of the Empress, 1999, etc.).
Alexandra’s term for herself—“Pechvogel,” or “bird of ill omen”—seems an all-too-apt description for her star-crossed life. A German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain, she lost her mother Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse, when she was only six. After her marriage to Czar Nicholas of Russia, she found herself beset by ill health and viperish tongues. Debilitating migraines, sciatica, and shortness of breath resulted from several exhausting pregnancies. Her depression was deepened by her interfering mother-in-law, the dowager empress; by a sophisticated, French-speaking court that regarded her as an interloper; and by a populace who called her the “German Whore” and scorned her inability to produce a healthy male heir. That last failure so upset Alexandra (or “Alix,” as Erickson calls her familiarly) that she came to rely increasingly on Father Gregory, the infamous Rasputin, whose mere presence could stop her hemophiliac son’s hemorrhaging. The irony, Erickson shows, is that Alix’s shyness and imperiousness masked a romantic and selfless woman. Against the matchmaking conventions of her time, Alix rebuffed all marriage overtures until she could wed her true love, Nicholas, and throughout her marriage she sought to bolster the confidence of this sensitive, weak man. While warm, affectionate, and even amusing at times, she was drawn most easily to situations where self-sacrifice was required—whether on behalf of her children or the soldiers she nursed. Ironically, her protective instincts couldn’t save herself or her family from execution by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Once again, Erickson demonstrates her skill in limning a forceful royal who tried unsuccessfully to alter history and escape fate.