Emperor Paul I of Russia and his second wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, née Princess Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, had six daughters: Alexandra, Elena, Maria, Catherine, Olga, and Anna. All of the grand duchesses, with the exemption of Olga who died when she was only two years old, married into the royal houses of Europe. Shy and gentle Alexandra married the Archduke Joseph of Austria and lived in Hungary; sensitive and altruistic Elena became a Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin when she married Friedrich-Ludwig, Hereditary Prince of Mecklenburg-Schwerin; intelligent and artistic Maria married Grand Duke Karl Friedrich of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and presided over the cultural development of Weimar; vivacious and strong-willed Catherine was first married to Prince George of Oldenburg and after his death she married the future King William I of Württemberg; and the youngest and sombre Anna became a Dutch queen when she married King William II of the Netherlands.
Emperor Paul, beyond his purported eccentricities and cruelty, was a doting and devoted father to his children, while the Empress Maria was a woman of strong character who was determined to maintain unity and order within her large family. The grand duchesses thus grew up in an idyllic atmosphere of happy family life. They were educated to a high standard, and were taught the necessary skills for their future roles as consorts. Duty has always comes first before one's self. But behind the glittering palace rooms and dazzling court life where these grand duchesses spent their childhood, their lives would never be easy. As they faced a future of uncertainty, it was but their only desire to be of good use to their adoptive countries that made them strive, above all else, to be dedicated consorts and overcome their ever-present longing for their beloved Russia.