Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Most Beautiful Princess - Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna

Christina Croft talks about "Most Beautiful Princess – A Novel Based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia".

In the early hours of the morning 18th July 1918, two carts left the small Siberian town of Alapaevsk and followed the Sinyachikhenskaya road to a disused mine. There, soldiers alighting from the carts, ordered eight blindfolded prisoners - six men and two women - to walk forwards and, striking their heads with rifle butts, forced them one after another into the waterlogged shaft. Having hurled hand grenades after them into the pit, the soldiers assumed their task was complete and were about to leave when to their amazement the sound of singing echoed from beneath the ground. From a ledge nineteen metres below a woman was singing the Russian Orthodox hymn: ‘Lord Save Your People.’

Some weeks later as the First World War drew to its bloody conclusion across Europe, battles still raged for control of revolutionary Russia. With the arrival of the White Army in Alapaevsk, the bodies were recovered from the mine: five grand dukes, a companion, and two middle-aged nuns. By the side of the incorrupt body of one of the nuns lay an unexploded grenade, on her breast an icon of Christ.

How did a fairy-tale princess, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V, and sister-in-law of two Russian Tsars come to so terrible an end? ‘Ravishingly beautiful’, ‘saintly’, ‘enigmatic’, revered as a saint by the poor of Moscow, what drove the Lutheran daughter of Princess Alice to turn her into the Russian Imperial Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, then ‘Matushka’ mother of the poor, and finally Holy Imperial Martyr Saint Elizabeth? Why did the gentle Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, described by one her admirers as ‘the most beautiful creature of God I have ever seen’, die of infected wounds and starvation in a mineshaft in Siberia?

These were some of the questions which prompted me to write: Most Beautiful Princess – A novel based on the life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (link: http://www.amazon.com/Most-Beautiful-Princess-Elizabeth-ebook/dp/B004JXVVQG/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1 ), whose life was so remarkable that it amazes me that so few people have even heard of her.

At the age of nineteen, ‘Ella’ married Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, a younger brother of Tsar Alexander III. From the moment she arrived in Russia, she became the object of both adulation and gossip, as rumours of her unhappy marriage and the alleged cruelty of her husband swept across Europe, even to the ears of her doting grandmother, Queen Victoria. Highly-strung, domineering and obsessed with order, Serge’s strong reactionary views had made him many enemies in Russia, and Ella’s absolute submission to his whims led to speculation that he treated her as little more than a glamorous ornament. The fact that the couple remained childless suggested that the marriage remained unconsummated, and increasingly salacious stories spread through Russia and beyond. For twenty years Ella endured the slanders and, following her conversion to Orthodoxy, found comfort in the practice of her religion, her devotion to charitable causes, and her overriding determination to bring to bring about the marriage of her younger sister, Alix, to the future Tsar Nicholas II. Despite immense opposition from both families – and especially from Queen Victoria - Ella ardently believed that this marriage was meant to be and promised Nicholas that she ‘move heaven and earth’ to bring Alix to Russia. For six years she argued and cajoled and when at last the engagement was announced, she could take pleasure in the knowledge that she had virtually single-handedly engineered the match...which, sadly, was to lead to such tragedy in 1918.

In 1905, in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, discontent spread through Russia bringing the country to the verge of a revolution, which would claim the life of Ella’s husband, by then the Governor General of Moscow. One afternoon as Ella was working on a Red Cross project in the Kremlin, she heard the sound of an explosion outside and knew at once that something had happened to Serge. Running out into the snow she discovered her husband literally blown to pieces and, though the guards tried to hold her back, she gathered the remnants of his body in her own hands and had what was left of him taken to a nearby monastery. After spending the night in prayer, she visited the prison where his assassin was being held captive, to assure him of her forgiveness and to find out what had driven him to commit such a crime. From then on, Ella’s life changed dramatically. After twenty years of stagnation in a glittering palace, she gave away literally all she possessed – her palaces, furs, cars, even her wedding ring – and, purchasing a piece of land in the poorest district of Moscow, built a hospital, orphanage and convent where she trained as nurse and personally treated the most abject of patients. Wandering at night through the slums and backstreets, she gathered the orphans and child prostitutes and provided them with a home. Her schemes for the improvement of housing for students and young workers and her tireless efforts on behalf of the poor soon led the Muscovites to revere her as a saint. Wherever she went crowds gathered to ask for her blessing and to kiss the hem of her garment as she passed, but, while she won the hearts of the poor, the rich could only gaze askance in horror. To the aristocracy her way of life was a scandal, demeaning to the Imperial Family; and further divisions arose between Ella and her sister, Alix, due to Ella’s opposition to the Tsarina’s guide and friend, Rasputin.The First World War brought further heartache for Ella and Alix. Though both worked indefatigably for the Russian wounded, they could not hide their German origins and were accused of spying for the enemy. Spat at or even stoned in the street, Ella continued her work with the poor, while desperately pleading with Alix to part with Rasputin whose constant presence was bringing the dynasty to disaster. Alix refused to listen to the warnings and in one bitter scene, told Ella to leave the palace. They would never meet again.

In the early months of the Revolution, the Communists were so impressed by Ella’s care for the poor that she was allowed to continue her work unimpeded but the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the days of the Romanovs were numbered. Ella’s cousin and former suitor, Kaiser Wilhelm pleaded with her to escape to Germany before it was too late, but she refused to abandon her orphans. At Easter 1918, she was arrested and taken to Siberia where, the day after the massacre of the Tsar and his family, she was murdered.

Several weeks after her death, when the bodies were recovered from the mine, Ella’s alone remained incorrupt. Even a year later when the coffins were transported to China, Ella’s body remained intact. In 1921 her elder sister, Victoria (grandmother of the present Duke of Edinburgh), had her body taken to the Orthodox Church on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem from where many miracles have been reported. Sixty years later, she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and her statue now stands above the West Door of Westminster Abbey with those of other 20th century martyrs.

‘Most Beautiful Princess’ - based on my earlier biography of Ella, which was short listed for the Biographers’ Club Award in 2004 – is available in paperback and in Kindle, Nook and Apple format.

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