Saturday, July 16, 2011

Angel of Schwerin: Elena Pavlovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna of Russia,
Hereditary Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Portrait by Josef Grassi, 1803

On December 13, 1784, in Gatchina, Tsarevich Paul of Russia and his wife Maria Feodorovna gave birth to a second daughter. The proud parents and the formidable grandmother Empress Catherine were surprised with the unusually regular features of this baby. She was named Elena - after Greek mythology's Helen of Troy - and true enough the baby would grow up to be a great beauty.

Elena was educated privately at home together with her elder sister Alexandra, to whom she shared a close relationship. The first years of her education were strictly supervised by her grandmother, and Elena was given a governess, Countess Charlotte Lieven. The Countess closely monitored the child's spiritual and emotional qualities and she quickly realized that the child was particularly sensitive to all things beautiful. Countess Lieven reported this to the Empress, and in turn the Empress ordered to decorate the room of the little grand duchess with special care and fill it with flowers everyday. The Empress, filled with pride about her granddaughter, wrote to Baron Grimm about Elena: "She seems to be a beauty in the full sense of the word. She has an unusually regular features. She is slim and graceful by nature, she had a lively and playful character and a kind heart. Her brothers and sisters are extremely fond of her cheerful disposition..." The Empress was meticulous when it comes to matters about her grandchildren but she was particularly proud and quick to compliment Elena. She wrote: "...beautiful Helen is thriving and I believe that in the next six months she will be smarter and livelier than her older sister, who will be two years old next week."

Elena, together with her sister Alexandra, learned painting, music and languages. By the time they were in their early teens, they could already speak five languages. As Elena grew older, her grandmother never tried to hide her preference for "beautiful Helen", comparing her with her sisters and was always praising her appearance. For the Empress, Elena was the embodiment of beauty and grace. She was fond of drawing flowers and plants, loved taking long walks in the parks of Pavlovsk, and probably kept a diary - but it was not preserved. She grew up to be a thoughtful and sensitive but impressionable girl.

When Elena was 12 years old, the French painter Madame Vigee Le Brun did a portrait of the two eldest grand duchesses: Alexandra and Elena. Another painter, Vladimir Borovikovsky, also painted a portrait of Elena. These portraits were shown to the European courts, and monarchs and ministers were fascinated with the two grand duchesses.

Soon there were talks about Elena's marriage. Emperor Paul chose the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. This German state is not only small but it is also not wealthy. Nevertheless, Paul saw it was politically advantageous for Russia. Negotiations were conducted and fortunately no problems arose and so it was completed successfully.

On February 17, 1799, Prince Frederick Louis, the heir to the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin arrived in St. Petersburg. He was introduced to his bride-to-be. According to contemporaries, Frederick was rather "naive and plain, but he is kindhearted, handsome and has a strong sense of humor". He was obviously captivated with his bride's "elegant beauty, refined manners and gentle eyes". Elena was also fascinated with the young man, and they quickly fell in love. She was happy to meet his entourage and was eager to see his future father-in-law. She sent him letters, almost everyday, which she diligently and respectfully written in German and French.

Elena and Frederick Louis were engaged on May 5, 1799 in Pavlovsk and on October 12, 1799 they were married in Gatchina. A week later, Elena's sister Alexandra was married to Archduke Joseph of Austria. These two weddings were celebrated with great joy and pomp, and celebrations lasted for a month.

In early 1800, Elena and her husband left Russia for Schwerin. On their arrival, she was warmly received by her father-in-law, the Duke. He immediately liked Elena and she was to become his favorite daughter-in-law. A banquet was held in honor of the newlyweds. Elena appeared in her magnificent dress decorated with diamonds, things that were never seen in impoverished Schwerin. She quickly realized the condition of her new homeland and she became involve in charity.

Despite the fact that Schwerin is far from being magnificent or opulent like the Russian court, Elena was happy and contented with her new country and tried her best to make the most out of it. The new Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was affectionate and amiable. She was friendly to all people: from her in-laws to the street urchins. She and Frederick explored the streets on foot while generously giving the people, especially the children, with flowers, coins and sweets. She became involve in encouraging children's education and did her best to help those in need. She quickly won the hearts of her people. They loved their Princess and were proud of her kindness and beauty. Elena was indeed lovely and charming, with blond hair, a slender figure and beautiful blue eyes, but she also possessed a warm heart devoid of any pretensions. She treated people with respect and in the way they would not feel intimidated nor distressed in her presence. On her birthday, her maid got hold of something rare in those days: a bunch of Parma violets (these normally bloom during warm season, and Elena's birthday is in December). She presented the flowers to her mistress, and Elena, deeply moved with her maid's thoughtfulness, gave her something that is "more valuable than gold" - she simply embraced her. Both stood for several minutes in silence and with tears in their eyes.

On September 1800, she gave birth to her first child - a son - and he received the names Paul Frederick. He was named in honor of his grandfathers. In the following year, she and her husband visited Berlin. She met the Prussian royal family and became friendly with Queen Louise. The people of Berlin were fascinated with the sight of these two lovely creatures walking together, and they were called "A Pair of Roses".

In 1803, when Elena was expecting her second child, her fragile health deteriorated rapidly. There were signs of consumption. Physicians were called from Berlin and St. Petersburg, but there was nothing they can do to save her. Consumption was incurable during those times. She died in the evening of September 24, 1803. She left behind a bereaved husband and in-laws, a one year old son and a newborn daughter. The people of Schwerin were saddened by her sudden death. She was buried with great sorrow in a mausoleum in Ludwiglust. On the day of her death, a paper was found under her pillows. It contains a long list of the names of families she intended to help in the future.

The people of Schwerin called Elena an "Angel" because she made no enemies and was loved by everyone. Despite her short life, Elena was still luckier than her older sister Alexandra. While both princesses grew up together, were almost inseparable, married almost at the same time, and had relatively short life and both dying in childbirth, Elena was more fortunate. Until her untimely death, she was surrounded by loving and kind people. Her husband was loving towards her, her father-in-law gave her with fatherly affection and the servants all loved and respected her (strikingly different from the cold and stiff Austrian court that Alexandra had to endure).

Read about Elena's sisters:
AlexandraMaria | Catherine 


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