|Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia|
"There will come a time when gifted poets will write verse in praise of the Grand Duchess, her noble soul, her radiant feats, feats of love and mercy. Her beautiful and noble deeds will never be erased from the memory of human nobility and mankind will bless her as great, for she was wedded to love."
These words were written by Abbot Seraphim as a recognition to a great soul who had to endure so much suffering amidst a world of chaos and evil and yet remained undaunted, merciful and selfless.
I am speaking about the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia. I thought I ought to write about her, expressing my profound admiration and unwavering devotion to her. She was one of those people that the world couldn't afford to lose in such a cruel way. But everything ended dreadfully for she was a victim of the inhumanity of mankind. There's nothing more painful than to be turned on by those people she had longed to serve and love with all her life. But no single word of damnation against them ever came out from her lips. These only added to the heavy burden of her suffering, hoping that one day, the Russia (and the world) that she love with all her heart, will eventually emerge triumphantly from the consuming tide of madness.
Growing up as a minor German princess in an idyllic Protestant household, Ella, as she was affectionately called by her family, was a princess to her fingertips. Through her father, she was a descendant of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and through her mother, Princess Alice, she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of Britain. Despite her royal and noble descent, young Ella remained humble. She had none of those condensing attitudes common to most princesses at that time. On the other hand, Princess Alice was a devoted mother. Progressively minded and altruistic, she instilled to her children the deep love for God and family, which remained with them even as they had reached adulthood.
But Princess Alice's influence had a deeper impact on Ella more than any of the children. The story of the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary fascinated Alice so much so that she decided to named her newborn daughter after the saint. Little did she knew that the baby will eventually lead a life very similar to that of the saint's. "Elizabeth", which means "consecrated to God"...and Ella truly lived up to that until the day she died.
Her childhood days were generally happy but tragedy looms just around the corner. Even in her youthfulness, she was not spared from the pain of losing a loved one. Her mother and her younger sister died of diphtheria in a bitterly sad winter evening when Ella was just 14; a younger brother had died few years before after falling from an open window. She was sent away by her mother to her grandmother's house so she will not get the disease from her already-affected siblings. "It was a terribly sad meeting", she wrote soon after she was allowed to see her family. "It was like a horrible dream."
Deeply affected as she was, she pulled herself through for the sake of her family. She had learned so much from that horrible experience and her mother's teachings were her armour against an unknown future. She succeeded, almost like a dream, and nothing was even more remarkable. Considered to be one of the most beautiful princess in Europe at that time, her physical beauty matched her beautiful personality. And so everyone was shocked when the beautiful Ella turned down the advances of the future Emperor of Germany for a Russian grand duke. Her English relatives were disappointed, especially her grandmother Queen Victoria. For her, Russia was a savage land of savage people with strange customs. Undaunted, Ella went on with her grand duke and they were finally married in Russia amidst the splendor and riches of the Romanov family.
But this is only the beginning of trouble in Ella's life. For many years, Ella's husband, Sergei, was a constant target of malicious rumors. He was said to be a homosexual, a sadist, a radical and other gruesome and damning attributions they say to him. But from my personal view (and other's also), Sergei was only a completely misunderstood person, a victim of maliciousness precipitated (and enjoyed) by people who are jealous of his power and of his marriage. He and Ella may have different personalities but surprisingly they also share a lot in common. Sergei was a silent, serious and reserved man. He was intensely religious and very artistic. He has no love for frivolity and superficialness, and prefer the solace of books and religion to parties. On the other hand, Ella was charming, amiable and non-judgmental. As a young woman, she loved dressing up, dancing and organizing parties - normal preferences of a girl her age, and yet she was unassertive and very artistic. And so when Sergei met Ella, he saw her as the embodiment of beauty and goodness. She was not superficial and Sergei became attracted to her. Whatever were his feelings at that time, he was truly in love with her. In fact, Sergei 'worshipped' his wife. He will invent all sorts of reasons and occasions just to give her beautiful jewellery and other magnificent presents. His love for her was undemanding and it was more on the emotional and spiritual aspect than on the physical. Ella, on her part, loved him also in her own way. Despite persistent rumours, there is no evidence to support claims that the couple was unhappily married. They never had children their own children but they became foster parents to Maria and Dimitri, Sergei's niece and nephew.
As a grand duchess in one of the most magnificent courts in Europe, Ella perfectly fit in. She met the rigorous demands of court life with refinement and pleasure. She always had the power to fascinate people and was capable of arousing what the French ambassador to the Russian court described as 'profane passions'. But Ella's dazzling life as a grand duchess came to an abrupt end when Sergei was assassinated on a snowy February day. His body was torn into pieces by an assassin's bomb.
He had just left their palatial home in a coach that afternoon while Ella prepared to visit her Red Cross workshop when she heard a terrible explosion. She immediately rushed out to the scene of the explosion. People started to gather and some even prevented her from seeing the gruesome sight. But she brushed them off and immediately picked up the unrecognizable fragments of her husband’s corpse with her bare hands. The snow was a bloody morass and people were stunned and motionless but she remained calm all throughout. Sergei hated mess was her only thoughts during that time. The assassin was immediately arrested and Sergei’s body was put in an army stretcher brought by the soldiers nearby. The remains were then brought in a nearby monastery and a funeral service was immediately held. People were all weeping and the priest’s voice was trembling. Ella knelt beside the bloody litter, her hands and her clothes were bloodstained. She was not crying but as her niece Maria remembered, her face was pale and stricken rigid. Despite her misfortune, Ella gave proof of an almost incomprehensible heroism. She took over the running of everything: from the household to Sergei’s funeral. The political climate in Moscow prevented all but a few members of the family from attending the burial. Everyone admired her courage, her stoicism, and her lack of anger. Yet, her ashen face, her fixity of gaze and her inability to sleep or eat, all feared that she might not escape a nervous breakdown.
Then Ella did the unexpected which shocked Russian society. She went to the prison to visit the man who murdered her husband. She had no anger or hatred for the man. Instead, she asked him to repent of his grave sin to God so his soul would then be saved. She told him that she had forgiven him. The man was unmoving remained firm with his beliefs but he acknowledged the sufferings he had caused her. Before she left, she gave him an Icon and told him that she will pray for him. Ella had forgiven the unforgivable.
After Sergei’s death, Ella completely withdrew from social life. She never attended social gatherings anymore, where she was the “belle of the ball”, and she wore her mourning clothes all the time. An intensely religious, yet genuinely committed, convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, she was now determined to pursue what she now saw as her vocation. Helping other people and praying to God became her source of strength.
When her foster children had grown up, she finally left her palace and gave away her magnificent jewelleries. She sell all her luxurious possessions, even her wedding ring was not spared. With the money, she bought a land in Moscow and oversaw the building of her own convent, The Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, where she founded an order of nuns dedicated in helping the sick and poor of Moscow. She became the abbess of her convent and before her nuns, she was remembered for saying these most memorable words: “I have left a glittering position in a glittering world but from it, I go to a far greater world: that of the poor and the suffering.”
Within the convent, Ella set up a church, a state-of-the-art hospital to which some of the city’s best surgeons gave their services free of charge, an outpatients’ clinic, a pharmacy, kitchens from where freshly-cooked meals were distributed to the poor, a vegetable garden, and an orphanage. Somewhere in the city, she established a home for consumptive women, and refuges for poor boys and working girls.
Many in Russian society, particularly those members of the imperial family and the aristocracy, viewed Ella’s actions as demeaning to the dignity of her rank as a member of Romanov family. Some went as far as to jeer her, saying that her husband’s death unhinged her mind. But she was undeterred and took up everything with humility. "In my life I had so much joy, in my sorrows so much boundless comfort, that I long to give a little to that to others." She was probably the only person in her rank in modern times to literally obey Christ’s commandment, “Sell thou hast and give to the poor.” In her convent, Ella worked tirelessly sleeping no more than three hours in a day. Then she would wake up at midnight to pray at the chapel and make rounds at the hospital. She would stay up until dawn beside a patient’s bedside to comfort him when his condition worry her. Into the very worst of Moscow’s slum districts, Ella and her nuns ventured alone into a desolate place, even dangerous world of squalor and desperation, where beggars, pimps, murderers and thieves moved like spectres shrouded in the perpetual mist that hung over the area. There, Ella and her nuns did whatever they could to help alleviate the sufferings of these people. On seeing her, some would kiss the hem of Ella’s habit and call her a saint, and some others, who think of themselves less than human, asked why she care. Her life should have continued like this, fulfilling and a sheer pleasure for her. She can’t help but love these people, saying that “we are all created in God’s image and likeness”. They were like her own children and relish them without reservations. But as Russia suffered humiliating defeats during the Great War, the people’s disillusionment spark a wave of unrest which ultimately led to revolution. People turned against their Emperor and everywhere were words of condemnation for the imperial family. Ella, despite her popularity among local people, was not exempted from insults and the like. But during those difficult times, there are still people who respected her and no one even dared to harm her. She and her nuns remained unscathed in the convent, at least temporarily. But her relatives from other country feared for her safety and offered her to escape Russia as soon as possible. But she refused. By now, the Bolsheviks had overthrew the Emperor and set up their own government of terror. They finally removed Ella from her convent, on a pretext that her help was needed somewhere. It was the only excuse that the revolutionaries could use to remove her from the city in which she was still loved and respected. Eventually, she and Sister Barbara, who insisted on coming with her, were taken in a town in Siberia. They were held captive in a school there with other Romanov princes.
And the end came for her and her companions. In the early hours of July 18, 1918, Ella and her companions were taken into the dark forest. Ahead, surrounded by pine trees, gaped the shadowy mouth of an abandoned mine-shaft. One by one, they were beaten with rifle butts and thrown down alive into the depths of the mine-shaft. There, in agony, they were left to die of their injuries.
It was said that before Ella was struck in the head by her captives, she uttered Christ’s words Father forgive them for they know not what they do. When their bodies were eventually found by loyal soldiers, they were amazed with what they saw. It appeared that Ella had used her dress to bandage the wounds of her companions while she herself was also badly wounded. Her right hand was stiffened in the sign of the cross. Until the last moment of her life, she tried to alleviate the suffering of her companions.
Ella was buried in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem and in 1992 she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church. Canonisation would have surprised her, if only because she would never have thought herself worthy enough.
For the woman who is the embodiment of goodness and beauty, it was a tragic end. “A blot to all humanity…” as the Queen of Romania wrote. But Ella will always be exalted, for she was 'consecrated to God', as her name implies. And perhaps someday, humanity would truly deserve someone as beautiful as her.