from The Voice of Russia
This program is prepared in memory of Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth (Yelizaveta in Russian), sister of the last Russian Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna and wife of the uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. Grand Duchess Yelizaveta died a martyr’s death in 1918 at the hands of the Bolsheviks, and her bones were laid to rest in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem where Orthodox pilgrims to the Holy Land may kneel before her shrine.
Grand Duchess Elizabeth was born on November 1, 1864, daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland. Elizabeth, known as Ella in the family, was a particularly beautiful young lady and was considered the most desirable bride in all the German noble houses. In 1884 Ella married Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the uncle of future Emperor Nicholas II, and on her marriage she took the patronymic name Fyodorovna.
She openly embraced her new situation in Russia where she was welcomed with great warmth. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich described Yelizaveta Fyodorovna as possessing ‘a rare beauty, extraordinary intellect, fine sense of humour, angelic patience and a noble heart… The moment she arrived in St.Petersburg from her native Hesse-Darmstadt, everyone fell in love with “Aunt Ella”. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, a well-known poet, dedicated some verses to her in which he described her as “Like an Angel … pure, serene, a true perfection.”
She was beautiful and elegant and popular, but Ella was much more concerned with social issues than society, even from her first days as Grand Duchess. Visiting local villages during her honeymoon at Ilyinskoye Ella witnessed the abysmal poverty of the peasants’ huts and was determined to help. After discussing this with her husband she arranged for an experienced midwife to be on permanent service to peasants in the district. And later Sergei Alexandrovich built a small maternity clinic in Ilyinskoye for women of nearby villages. Thus from an early age Ella was determined to be actively helpful to others less fortunate than herself. She constantly aimed to act truly and purely. Soon after her marriage she wrote to her grandmother, Queen Victoria: “I hope that when you see me again you won’t find any change in my character for the worse, as I long to be simple in manners and as good as Mama would have wished me to be…”
Although the majority of their acquaintances saw their marriage as unhappy, Ella in her letters often confessed she could not leave her husband. “I am happy,” she wrote, “and I am very much loved.” Ella quickly learned Russian with her husband’s help and through him became familiar with and attracted to the Orthodox Faith. In 1888 Sergei Alexandrovich was asked to represent the Emperor at the consecration of the newly built Orthodox church in Jerusalem. Ella was delighted to be able to accompany him. She wrote a rapturous letter to her grandmother describing with great joy all her impressions of the Holy Land. Not long after this Ella decided to convert to Orthodoxy.
Her decision did not come to her in a rush, nor did her husband push her. As she wrote to her father: “For more than a year and a half I have been thinking and reading and praying to God to show me the right way, and I have come to the conclusion that only in this religion can I find all the true and strong faith one must have in God to be a good Christian … You must see that it is with such profound faith that I decided on such a step, and I feel that before God I must stand with a pure and believing heart … I have thought and thought so deeply about all this … I want so much at Easter to take Communion with my husband.” And to her brother Ernest she tried to explain herself further writing that it wasn’t the “outer brilliance of the Church” that attracted her, but rather the ‘foundation of the belief.”. Although her Protestant family did not fully understand her decision to convert, Ella saw it as a matter of conscience that could not be ignored. She felt spiritually awakened and from then on felt only at home in Russia.
In 1891 Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich became Governor General of Moscow. This meant the couple would have to attend endless public functions. Ella did not like the idea, naturally preferring quietude of society but she accepted her lot with customary patience and fortitude. She once told her brother that she believed each human should set before himself an ideal and strive to attain it. Asked by Ernest what her ideal was, she replied: “To be a fully perfect woman, and this is not easy for one must learn to forgive everything.”
In 1894 Emperor Alexander III suddenly died leaving the unprepared Tsarevich Nicholas to take over the reigns of a country undergoing rapidly increasing political and social unrest. Nicholas was engaged to Ella’s sister, Alexandra, ten years her junior. Shortly before Nicholas’s coronation the young couple married, Alexandra having agreed to convert to Orthodoxy. For the Tsarina this was obligatory. Naturally, people gossiped at court that Ella first influenced her sister into accepting the Orthodox Faith, then that she was jealous of her younger sister’s superior position. This greatly distressed Ella but her faith gave her strength to overcome these false calumnies.
The entire Imperial family embarked on an expedition in July 1903 to witness the canonization of Seraphim of Sarov and the experience deeply moved Ella and brought her even closer to God. She began to pray more fervently and began to be more and more active in performing Christian duties. During the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-1905, Ella organized help for soldiers at the front. She took over Kremlin halls to use as workshops where hundreds of women responded to her call for volunteers to sew clothes and package food and medicine to be sent to the troops.
It was at this time that a tragedy struck her life and tested her Christian strength to the roots. Amidst the growing national unease the terrorist leaders who were inciting revolution blacklisted Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich for assassination. On February 18, 1905 Grand Duke Sergei prepared to leave the Nicholas Palace inside the walls of the Kremlin for a conference. Ella, meanwhile, was preparing to leave for her Kremlin workshops. Moments after his departure, a terrific explosion shook the palace. Ella immediately took her sleigh to see what had happened. Arriving on the scene of the assassination minutes after it had occurred, Ella discovered the body of her husband blown to shreds and nearby the assassin, partially wounded, crying: “Down with the Tsar! Long live the revolution!”
Ella herself collected the scattered fragments of her husband’s body and, deadly pale, followed the stretcher into the Chapel of the Chudov Monastery. Ella displayed unimaginable courage both at the time and afterwards, even going secretly to visit her husband’s assassin in prison to tell him she forgave him and see if he would repent. Her ward, Grand Duchess Marie, wrote later: “During all these sad days my aunt gave proof of an almost incomprehensible heroism; no one could understand whence came the strength so to bear her misfortune.” She took personal charge of the funeral details and erected a monumental cross on which was inscribed: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they do.”
The result of this most terrible tragedy was that Ella began to lead a more and more deeply pious life. She gave up eating meat and for the rest of her life followed a very humble diet of milk, bread, vegetables and eggs. She spent most of her time in church and rarely appeared in public although she did not abandon her charitable duties. Gradually her deep grief was replaced by contemplation of the spiritual life. She changed her room to appear like a nun’s cell and turned her attention to others. She set up a hospital at Ilyinskoye for the war-wounded. Fearless of the danger of going out which arose because of the general uprising she persisted in attending her hospital. In a letter to her brother she wrote: “All is going from bad to worse, and one must not make oneself any illusions of better times for months. We are in the revolution. [However] Nothing will make me leave this place.”
It was at this time that Ella’s long cherished project to build a convent began to be realized. It was to be dedicated to Saints Martha and Mary thus calling upon the ideas of prayer, labour and charity. The aims of the convent were to combine a monastery and a nursing home. In order to carry out her project, Ella sold a large portion of her jewellery (she gave the rest to her relatives and the State Treasury) and some valuable paintings, and with the money she bought an estate in Moscow’s downtown on Bolshaya Ordynka Street. Here she established living quarters, a hospital with wards and an operating room, a hospital chapel, a poor house also used for guests, a clinic for the poor, a library, pharmacy, orphanage, Sunday school, and a main church.
The door of the convent was always open and Ella never refused anyone. As Mother Superior of the convent, she was a shining example to her nuns. She slept on a hard bed with no mattress for no more than three to four hours a day. At midnight she would rise to pray and then make the rounds of the hospital visiting the bedsides of the most seriously ill and comforting them with her words. She constantly recited the Jesus prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” – following with the prayer rule for laymen recommended by St. Seraphim of Sarov.
The Grand Duchess worked extremely hard at her project and although she encountered numerous difficulties, she was entirely undefeated in her attitude. The convent was very successful in every way; the number of nuns grew very quickly, many church dignitaries came to give talks, and the hospital had such an excellent reputation that other hospitals in the region sent their most serious cases to its wards. Archpriest Mikhail Polsky lays its success entirely at the feet of the Grand Duchess. He described her personality as “a rare combination of lofty Christian sentiments, spiritual nobility, enlightened mind, tender heart and elegant taste.” Countess Olsoufiev wrote that the Grand Duchess “had the gift of drawing people to her without effort; one felt that she moved on a higher plane, and gently helped one upwards. She never made one feel one’s own inferiority.”
While she was thus involved in her convent, Ella still made time to provide help elsewhere. She frequently went to the notoriously squalid Hitrovka slum in Moscow to collect orphans and persuade parents to let her take their children and educate them. She provided a hostel and a boarding school for the children that aimed at giving them a well-rounded education. The Sts.Martha and Mary community also sponsored two organizations outside the premises: The Children’s Corner, which gathered volunteers to sew clothes for poor children, and housing for girls working in factories.
From her late husband Ella inherited the chairmanship of the Orthodox Palestine society. Through this she founded the vast reception hostel at Jerusalem to welcome pilgrims, and contributed towards building a Russian Orthodox church and a guest house in Bari, Italy, the resting place of St.Nicholas the Wonderworker.
During the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914 the Grand Duchess further excelled her efforts to aid others. She and Empress Alexandra organized sanitary trains, medical supply depots and the dispatching of field Chapel necessities to the front. They visited the war wounded and even helped enemy soldiers – something which was publicly criticized and led to accusations against them of sympathizing with the enemy. Muscovites began to suspect the sisters of being possible German spies because of their German blood. It became a danger for Ella to leave the convent.
Although the war had begun well for Russia, by 1916 matters were taking a dramatic turn for the worse exacerbated by internal strife provoked by the revolutionary mobs. Emperor Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and was put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1917. All members of the Romanov family were in great danger. Ella tried to keep a brave face on these sad days and continue her work as before, but she was suffering acutely. Speaking about the Imperial family to Archbishop Anastassy she told him she saw it as God’s will and to be accepted as such: “This will serve for their moral purification and will bring them closer to God.” She wrote to her sister with spiritual encouragement: “I am not an exalted fanatic, dear friend. I am simply sure that the Lord that punishes is the same Lord that shows love.”
Archbishop Anastassy recalled how great the Grand Duchess’ self-control was at this time: “It seems that she was standing on a high, inaccessible cliff and, from there, overlooking stormy waves, she mentally gazed at far-off eternity.” She was very lonely and desperately missed her family. When the postal services became blocked because of the war she had no contact with them at all. Yet, she never wished to leave. She even refused the tempting offer of the Swedish Minister acting for Kaiser Wilhelm to leave Russia knowing that her staying would mean her dying in Russia.
At first the situation in the convent continued uninterrupted and supplies arrived regularly. But life outside the walls was fast becoming anarchy. One morning two noisy truckloads of revolutionaries drew up to the convent. The Mother Superior Elizabeth herself opened the gates for them. They declared they had come to arrest, imprison and try her as a German spy; the convent was to be searched. The Grand Duchess calmly permitted five of them to enter and search the premises. While they were futilely hunting for arms, Elizabeth gathered all the nuns in the church and asked Father Mitrofan to hold a service. After they had finished their search and found nothing, the revolutionaries left, but the peace of the convent was not long lasting.
On the third day after Pascha (Orthodox Easter) in 1918, the Bolsheviks finally arrested the Grand Duchess and quickly removed her from Moscow. The Bolsheviks had already taken the Imperial family in captivity to Tobolsk in Siberia. Elizabeth just had time to bid farewell to her nuns and give them a final blessing. When Patriarch Tikhon learned what had happened, he tried all he could to win her release, but to no avail. Elizabeth and two of her cell attendants were on a train going into exile in Perm. Somehow she managed to send a letter to her convent, a copy of which has miraculously survived. In it she urged her sisters not to lose faith: “Let the Resurrection of the Lord give you strength and solace… we are all going through the same experience and find consolation only in Him as we bear the cross of our separation… Pronounce these words daily and your heart will feel lighter. They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah 40:31)
The long journey from Moscow to Perm was a great ordeal. In Yekaterinburg other arrested members of the Imperial family joined the prisoners and from there they were moved on to Alapaevsk on May 20th, 1918. Even though the immediate Imperial family was imprisoned in Yekaterinburg at the same time, Elizabeth was unable to see her sister or have any contact with her. In Alapaevsk the prisoners were housed in a school and subjected to rude and vulgar treatment by some of the Red guards. Elizabeth was accompanied by her loyal cell-attendant Sister Barbara (Varvara) who refused to return to Moscow even though she had been told she could go free. The prisoners tried to keep a brave face on matters, involving themselves in gardening and Elizabeth never ceased praying.
Captivity did not last long. On July 17th a Cheka (Secret Police) officer and a few communist workers came to the school. They announced the transfer of the prisoners to a factory that night. Along the road, some 18 kilometers from Alapaevsk, was an abandoned iron mine with a pit 60 meters deep. It was there that the Cheka chose to carry out their bestial plan. Swearing, shouting and beating the prisoners, the executioners – local Bolsheviks – threw their victims into the pit and then hurled hand grenades into the shaft. A local peasant secretly witnessed the entire episode. The peasant saw that the Grand Duchess was praying and crossing herself when she was thrown into the pit, and the others, still alive, were pushed after her.
The Cheka aimed to disguise the crime as an explosion by throwing in the hand grenades, but only one victim died as a result of the grenades (his body was found severely burned) and the rest died of horrible sufferings caused by slow suffocation. The peasant later testified that he heard voices coming from the mine singing the Cherubic Hymn and the Divine Liturgy and then the prayer, “O Lord, save Thy people…” Terrified, the assassins threw branches into the pit and then set fire to the lot, but through the smoke came the voices still in prayer and singing.
When the Grand Duchess’ body was recovered, they found she had performed her last deed on earth helping another. She and Duke Ivan Konstantinovich had landed on a higher ledge in the mineshaft, and Elizabeth, to ease the suffering of his wounds, had bandaged him with her monastic veil. To the last Elizabeth’s thoughts were for her fellowmen. During this same 24-hour period, the Imperial family was summarily executed in the basement of their house-prison in Yekaterinburg, and their bodies were brought to an abandoned mineshaft for disposal.
The bodies of Elizabeth and other Alapaevsk prisoners were buried in simple graves in Alapayevsk when White Army Admiral Kolchak occupied the region. A funeral service was held on October 18th and huge crowds of mourners came to bid a final farewell to the martyrs. However, the region was not a safe resting-place due to the threats of an offensive from the Red Army. Under the surveillance from Abbot Seraphim, friend and confessor of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the coffins were taken on the East-Siberian railway line to China in July 1919. Here the coffins were opened and it was discovered that the Grand Duchess’ body showed no sign of decomposition. The coffins were placed for safety under the floorboards of the Abbot’s monastic cell. Fear of the advance of the Red Army led the Abbot to move the coffins further afield – this time outside the Motherland to Peking.
Elizabeth’s sisters and brothers, having found out where her remains were located, wished to take them, with those of Sister Barbara, for burial in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem whose consecration had been attended by Elizabeth in 1888. It is here in the calm of the Orthodox church under the Mount of Olives that Holy Martyrs Elizabeth and her faithful nun Barbara are to rest. In a letter to their brother Ernest, Victoria, Elizabeth’s elder sister, wrote: “The church lies in a beautiful and peaceful spot, away from traffic and noise… We must think of our dear ones as now at peace and rest and try not to let our thoughts dwell too much on their terrible departure from this life.”
Those who knew the Grand Duchess recognized in her the remarkable qualities of a saint. Nona Grighton, lady-in-waiting to Princess Victoria, knew Grand Duchess Elizabeth very well. She wrote of her: “I think the thing that struck me most was the atmosphere of peace and calm that surrounded her. It was not the calm of inactivity, but of well-ordered work and loving sympathy with all around her. She radiated peace and love, and with it all, and her high sense of duty and true piety, was that delightful sense of fun and humour that made her so intensely loveable to all of us who were leading ordinary lives.”
And Maurice Paleologue, the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg, praised Elizabeth as a saint: “Many who loved her console themselves with the hope that one day she will be canonized…”
Saint Elizabeth instructed us with words that she indeed acted upon: “It is easier for a feeble straw to resist a mighty fire than for the nature of sin to resist the power of love. We must cultivate this love in our souls, that we may take our place with all the saints, for they were all-pleasing unto God through their love for their neighbour.” Her words reflect Christ’s teaching: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (I John 3:18)