In her 2018 memoir Such A Pretty Girl, Nadina LaSpina describes her childhood in mid-twentieth century Sicily, and the pitying comments directed at her, a disabled girl, that cast her in two lights: attractive, but damaged.1 LaSpina contracted polio as a child, which left her without the use of her legs. Her family moved to New York when LaSpina was a teenager in the hopes of finding treatment. LaSpina eventually chose to amputate her legs. LaSpina became a leading figure in disability activism, including advocating for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). Her memoir deals with her experiences as a disabled woman, often emphasising the gap between what able-bodied people felt she should want and need, and what she herself wanted and needed.
Reading LaSpina’s memoir reminded me of another woman, Maria Khlopova, a seventeenth-century Russian noblewoman. In 1616, Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich chose Khlopova to be his fiancée. After the engagement began, Khlopova fell ill, which led to a series of events. There were two investigations into her health, the engagement was broken, and Mikhail Fedorovich ultimately decided to marry another woman. Khlopova lived the rest of her life in a provincial town and never married.
More than three centuries separate LaSpina and Khlopova, yet they share a common experience of being women who society considers broken due to their physical disabilities. Comparing Khlopova’s story to LaSpina’s allows us to think about what has, and has not, changed in the female experience of disability and illness. How much of Khlopova’s life can we see as entirely the relic of a past society, and how much of it reflects our present-day experiences?
As a young noblewoman of the right age from a politically-connected family, Maria Khlopova was one of the women “shown” to the Tsar. This brideshow of 1616 was especially significant. Mikhail Fedorovich was not born a tsar, but selected as the first of a new dynasty, the Romanovs, after the previous line had died out at the end of the sixteenth century and Russia had slipped into civil war. At the brideshow, Mikhail Fedorovich chose Khlopova; she moved to the women’s quarters of the Moscow Kremlin, and official documents referred to her as the Tsaritsa. Yet, before the marriage ceremony could take place, she fell ill. Mikhail Fedorovich broke the engagement and sent her away.
Seven years later, Mikhail Fedorovich had not married, or produced the heir the fledgling Romanov dynasty desperately needed. His father, Patriarch Filaret, pushed for another investigation to resolve the Khlopova case. The Tsar and the Patriarch themselves re-interviewed everyone involved in the original set of events, including Khlopova, her relatives, other members of court, and Khlopova’s doctors. It is from this 1623 investigation that we know much of the details of what happened to Khlopova, and how her contemporaries in elite Muscovite society viewed her.2
For the Tsar’s Joy
The 1623 investigation file discussed the choice of Khlopova as the Tsar’s fiancée. The brideshow was a staple of Muscovite marital politics, a performance in which a woman was selected by the tsar, in theory on the basis of her physical attractiveness. Khlopova’s looks are referenced in the 1623 investigation documents: Mikhail Fedorovich selected Khlopova, we are told, “dlya Gosudarskoi radosti,” for the Tsar’s joy. In reality, the choice of a bride for the sovereign had less to do with looks and more to do with power politics, and the allies or enemies that would be made by such a match. But it was a key part of the performance of marital politics in Muscovy that Khlopova should be physically attractive.
Khlopova’s physicality was a central concern of the 1623 investigation. Even more important than her attractiveness was her ability to bear children. The Tsar and the Patriarch asked Valentin Bills, a top Kremlin doctor who had treated Khlopova, “does he know if there would be interference in childbearing from that illness?,” a question they repeated in some form or other to everyone they interrogated in this case.3 Khlopova had been sent away in 1616 for exactly this reason: a woman who might be unable to have children was not worthy of marriage to the Tsar.
In this respect, Khlopova and LaSpina have similar stories. As LaSpina details in her memoir, during her Sicilian childhood other girls would play with dolls, but declare that LaSpina did not need to, as disabled girls do not grow up to marry and have children.4 LaSpina would never have children, but her memoir leaves us ambivalent as to how much this was due to her body versus how society viewed the role of disabled women.
The Disabling Environment of Muscovy
The concept of the disabling environment is useful in helping us understand these two women’s experiences three centuries apart. Emerging from the social model of disability, the disabling environment concept focuses on ableism – discrimination and derogatory comments against disabled people – as a major part of the disabled experience. LaSpina discusses how disability activist groups in the late twentieth century, like those she was involved with in New York, developed and used these concepts. As LaSpina explains it, the medical model sees “disabled people as in need of treatment and cures”; the social model instead shows that they need “accommodations, equal rights, and opportunities.”5
We can apply these concepts to Khlopova’s case. There seems to have been a genuine medical problem behind her illness, which caused Khlopova to vomit, and, presumably, some physical distress. It is possible that she was poisoned. Yet this ailment, whatever its origin, was temporary. Her life was instead more transformed by the reactions of those around her to her sick body, and likely more specifically to her sick stomach, so perilously close to her womb. In fact, if she was poisoned, her tormentors did so knowing the impact it would have. The ability to bear children was such a central part of a woman’s role in elite Muscovite society that the mere possibility that Khlopova could not do so rendered her unfit.
LaSpina talks about the medical side of her disability, including the then-emerging condition of “post-polio syndrome” in which polio survivors suffered a form of aftershock decades after the illness itself. As she acknowledges the pain of her condition, LaSpina insists on ableism as a major problem. She and her late husband repeatedly chose to be arrested protesting discrimination even as the process was physically demanding. LaSpina’s willingness to potentially exacerbate physical symptoms fighting discrimination shows how important she considers society’s role in shaping the disabled experience.
We can see the applicability of the social model in Khlopova’s case in the contrast between Khlopova’s condition and the reaction to it. Khlopova’s illness was temporary and treatable and may never have impeded her ability to have children. But the Tsar took the unprecedented step of breaking their engagement over her illness. Muscovite documents do not explicitly frame Khlopova as disabled. But the social model of disability still helps us here. In Khlopova’s case, it was the reactions of society to her bodily state, rather than her body itself, that had the bigger role in her life.
What did Khlopova think of her illness, Mikhail Fedorovich’s actions, and the repeated investigations of her physical state? Did she see Mikhail Fedorovich’s unwillingness to let her go as an expression of love? As an act of duty of a tsar to his betrothed? As a suffocating stranglehold on her life? Or as something else entirely? Unlike LaSpina, who explains her views to us, documents on Khlopova do not answer these questions.
Even the resolution to Khlopova’s case was ambivalent. The 1623 investigation declared that she was then healthy, and sent her back to the provincial centre of Nizhny Novgorod to await further news. But there was still strong opposition at court to the match, and the next year Mikhail Fedorovich would marry Maria Dolgorukova instead. Khlopova would never marry, or have children, and died ten years later.
Femininity and Disability
Some texts seem to collapse time, to erase the centuries between when they were written and when we read them, and speak to us in a disturbingly presentist fashion. Khlopova’s story is one of those. Her experience is simultaneously embedded in the specifics of elite Muscovite society in the early Romanov years, as well as something timeless.
How much has changed in the 300 years that separate Khlopova and LaSpina? On the face of it, any number of things. Yet, both women’s lives were shaped by society’s ideas about femininity and disability. Able female bodies produce children; disabled female bodies do not.
Looking back at historical cases like Khlopova’s allows us to see how society’s ideas of what constitutes a “normal” body have shaped ideas of disability in the past. That in turn helps highlight the ongoing role of society in shaping the disabled experience, including the female disabled experience, in the present.
- Nadina LaSpina, Such a Pretty Girl: A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride (New Village Press, 2019). Return to text.
- This investigation is published in Sobranie gosudarstvennykh gramot i dogovorov, khraniashchikhsia v gosudarstvennoi kollegii inostrannykh del, 4 vols. (Moscow: N. S. Vsevolozhskii, 1813–28), iii (1822), 257–66. Return to text.
- Sobranie gosudarstvennykh gramot i dogovorov, 258. Return to text.
- LaSpina, 11–12. Return to text.
- LaSpina, 228. Return to text.