Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Romance of an Empress

The Romanov Family was infamous for its story of drama and tragedy. It was this aspect that probably fascinates people the most. Each member of the family, whether they were born into it or married into it, seems to have his or her own unique story to tell. And so for today, I'd like to explore one of the least known member, Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, wife of Alexander I.

Emperor Alexander I's life was a mystery and continues to be so. His upbringing, his role in his father's death, his domestic and foreign policies, his personality, and the circumstances of his death are all shrouded in enigma. His wife Elizabeth and her life also has its own fair share of drama, tragedy, romance, and mystery. When I was reading about Elizabeth's life, it was like watching a soap-opera and a legend rolled into one. I could not help but be fascinated with this lady, although largely unknown to most history buff, was still quite a personality. She was adored by poets and musicians, and contemporaries and later historians and authors are drawn to her; and it's quite understandable why. Elizabeth was an attractive woman. Her beauty was often described as the angelic kind and this gave her an almost unearthly and ethereal appearance. She was both beautiful and intelligent but sad and inaccessible. She was the perfect muse for an uninspired artist, the perfect heroine of a doomed love story, and the perfect angel to a lost man.

The Empress Elizabeth

Before her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Empress Elizabeth was born as Princess Louise of Baden, the third daughter in a close-knit and modest family. She came to Russia as a young and naive girl of 13, who barely knew anything about the country and the family that she would eventually belong to. She traded everything to be a member of the Russian imperial family: her name, her religion, and her family. She wholeheartedly embraced the Russian culture, religion, language, and the people. However, she would not feel completely accepted within the imperial family. She was viewed as cold, reticent, and withdrawn. She had very few friends in Russia and people who had the chance to know her deeper were left with an indelible memory of her charm, gentleness, quiet dignity, intelligence, and her ability to easily put people at their ease despite her stately presence.

The Empress Elizabeth was an intellectual. She received a well-rounded education and spends most of her time reading. Of particular interest to her was the history of Russia, that she read with the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin. Alexander used to say that since he had no time for reading books, he rely on Elizabeth for information about anything that may appear curious for him.When she was not reading, she was playing the piano or the harp, and observers noted her beautiful singing voice. She goes outside for walks or horse-riding accompanied by a lady-in-waiting. Sometimes, she bathe in the sea, wrote on the hills of the Oranienbaum, and painted on the banks of the Kamenny Island.


Emperor Alexander I

Like most couple from royal families at that time, Alexander and Elizabeth's marriage was arranged for reasons of state. Catherine the Great, Alexander's grandmother, arranged his marriage to the then Princess Louise of Baden and found the princess to be a worthy companion for her grandson. However, Alexander and Elizabeth's relationship was not allowed to develop just like ordinary couples. Courtiers, diplomats, members of the royal family, and the whole court watched attentively but discreetly on how the young couple interact with each other. Despite the fact that theirs was an arranged marriage, Alexander and Elizabeth were an affectionate couple during the early years of their married life.

Physically, they were both good-looking. Everyone at court agreed that they made a beautiful couple and so they were dubbed as "Cupid and Psyche". Not only were they husband and wife, but also best friends and confidants. No doubt that Elizabeth, who at 13, had fallen completely in love with her husband, and her devotion to him would last until her death. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Alexander. He cared about her and her well-being, but he was the sort of man who easily succumbs to the charms of beautiful women. Elizabeth, while a famous beauty herself, was not able to exclusively hold her husband's affection. But her patience, high philosophy, understanding, and kindness gave her the forbearance to endure the many disappointments in her life. She remained devoted to him despite the countless times he hurt her with his infidelity and neglect.

Alexander and Elizabeth had a complex relationship. He had a difficult character, and it was said that it was only Elizabeth who truly knew the depths of his character, emotions, and conflicts. But this was also the cause of Alexander's change of heart. With Elizabeth, Alexander could not hide anything. She knew him all too well and they were so deeply connected that he started looking for someone else to whom he could hide himself and escaped from reality. The pressure and the burdens of his position were too much for him and he needed another person to whom he could find an oasis, even a false one. That was not Elizabeth; for him, she was a constant reminder of the realities of his life and its burdens. He found solace in the arms of Maria Naryshkina, a Polish countess. He made her his mistress and kept her for 15 years. Unsurprisingly, Alexander's family liked her, but people at court found her distasteful and vulgar and she was a far cry to the gentle Elizabeth. When Maria tried to persuade him to divorce his wife, Alexander vehemently refused. This refusal could only mean that he still held his marital vows in high regard and that somehow it was incomprehensible for him to discard a wife to whom he had poured all his heart out during his early married life and during the chaos and aftermath of his father's death. Everytime he experienced a reproach of conscience or a tough time during his reign, it was to Elizabeth that he sought the kind of peace, comfort, and understanding for his troubled soul, not to Maria Naryshkina.

Alexander and Elizabeth was the sort of couple who were so alike in so many ways - both had physical beauty, depth of character, intelligence, and noble heart, but somehow there was a point in their hearts where they could not completely reach each other, as the Countess of Choisseul-Gouffier wrote. Somehow, for these two tortured souls, they were able to finally 'reach' each other after so many wasted years, but it was almost too late. Their newfound happiness was cut short by their deaths which occurred almost at the same time.


 Count Platon Zubov

The dashing but cunning Platon Zubov was Catherine the Great's lover. Zubov was only in his early 20s when he became the lover of the 60-year-old Empress. When Elizabeth was a young wife, Zubov tried to seduce her right under Catherine's nose! The Empress did not seem to care if the eyes of her young lover would turn elsewhere, and watched with a mixture of sadness and amuseness as Zubov tried to pursue Elizabeth in vain. He openly declared his love for her in front of courtiers and ladies-in-waiting; he sighed pathetically whenever he sees her; and he would hum a sad melody as if a disappointed lover. He even asked Elizabeth's maid-of-honor to convince her mistress to relent to his advances. For Elizabeth and her husband, this was an awkward situation. How would she treat a man for him to understand that he must stop his pursuit while at the same time not offending him? She kept her calm and politeness while at the same valiantly resisting Zubov's advances. Thankfully, and to Elizabeth's relief, Catherine finally called Zubov on his feet and was told to stop pursuing the grand duchess.


Prince Adam Czartoryski

Prince Adam Czartoryski was a scion of a prominent Polish-Lithuanian noble family and as a young man he came to Russia with his brother in order to seek the recovery of their confiscated property from the Russian government. Well-educated and liberal-minded, he became acquainted with and eventually became a great friend of Alexander I. Now a Polish prince in Russian service, he used to visit Alexander in his apartments at Alexander Palace almost everyday. He was introduced to Elizabeth by Alexander himself and Adam soon found himself becoming more and more attracted to Elizabeth. Alexander apparently encouraged Adam's affection towards her and affection turned into love and passion which only grew because of the unlimited opportunities of seeing her. Since Adam was Alexander's best friend and it was difficult to avoid him completely, all Elizabeth could do was to put off with him while gently resisting him. Because of these frequent meetings between them, rumours spread at court that Adam and Elizabeth were lovers.

These rumors certainly damaged the reputation of Elizabeth. When she became pregnant for the first time in 1799, the rumors reached larger proportions. It was said that she was pregnant with Adam's child. When she gave birth to a dark-haired baby girl, the Emperor Paul I asked a lady-in-waiting on how could both blond parents have a dark-haired child. However, despite his comment the Emperor certainly did not believe the rumors, but he was determined to remove Adam and his growing influence on Alexander. He was sent to Italy as ambassador to the King of Sardinia in an attempt by the Emperor to separate him from Elizabeth and from Alexander as well.

But Adam's love for Elizabeth never waned even after his exile from Russia. Emperor Paul died in 1801 and Alexander, now the new emperor, recalled his friend back to Russia. Over the next few years, Adam continued to pursue Elizabeth, but without success. She had such a deep sense of duty and responsibility that she was unable to give in, despite her feelings for him. As their feelings for each other grew more intense, so was their resistance to surrender to temptation. This certainly caused pain for both of them, but Elizabeth never ceased to be Adam's great love. When they met again at the Vienna Congress after years of separation, he was more than happy to see her again. Many historians suspects that Adam and Elizabeth's relationship briefly resumed at the Congress. He wrote in his journal about their first day of meeting: "I see her here very changed, but to me she is still the same from the point of view of her feelings and mine." When he was ill-received by Elizabeth, he described the whole day in his diary as "a bad day". When he requested an audience with her, he was anxious that she would not receive him. "The prospect of not seeing her at all is painful to me."  He was filled with happiness when he finally met for the second time. "...She is, as always, an angel. ...She is still my first and only object of adoration. ...I desire her happiness and am jealous of that happiness; I adore her to distraction..." Later in life, Adam married another woman, but he never really forgot about his feelings for Elizabeth, and he recalled her in his memoirs with utmost discretion.


Alexander Pushkin

In the autumn of 1830, a young Alexander Pushkin wrote a poem wherein he remembered a mysterious lady whom he described to have possessed an "imposing air", "solemn beauty of her eyes", "eyes as bright and clear as summer skies". The poem goes on like this:

In early life I recollect my school;
Where we, the carefree children, numbered many;
A varied family that played the fool.

A humble woman, dressed with meager penny,

But in appearance of imposing air,
O’ersaw the school as strictly as a nanny.

Surrounded by a crowd of youngsters there,

In sweet and pleasant voice she used to chatter
With little ones who’d gathered by her chair.
I picture now her head-scarf to the letter,

Her eyes as bright and clear as summer skies…

The rare and solemn beauty of her eyes,
Her peaceful mouth, her manner of beholding,
Her precious words disturbed me in such guise.

In the poem, Pushkin was obviously recollecting his early years when he was a student in the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo. And at that time only one woman could supervise the Imperial Lyceum - the Empress herself, the wife of its founder, Alexander I. So the imposing woman that "oversaw the school" that Pushkin was referring to was obviously the Empress Elizabeth.

Pushkin saw the Empress Elizabeth for the first time on October 19, 1811 at the gala commencement ceremony of the Lyceum which was attended by the whole imperial family. She was young and very attractive then, and the whole event gave Pushkin, a dreamy youth of 12, a deep and lasting impression.

In recent years, many historians have speculated that Pushkin's muse and secret love was none other than the Empress, and that his love poems hides cryptic messages for the object of his adoration. Since the Lyceum was located in the grounds of Tsarskoe Selo, there were plenty of opportunities for young Pushkin to catch even a glimpse of the Empress while she was taking short walks in the park or while she was in her apartments. These instances, they argued, are what made Pushkin's feelings for the Empress grow stronger and more passionate every day. But since he could only look at the object of his adoration from afar, Pushkin contented himself in writing several poems about her.

On one poem that Pushkin wrote, he mentioned the Empress's name:

Upon the modest, noble lyre
The earthly gods I never praised.
And strength of pride that’s freer, higher
Have not extolled with censer raised.
Unused to hymning freedom’s action
My verse to her I sacrifice,
I was not born for tsars’ distraction
By bashful muse’s artifice.
But when on Helicon’s fair mountain,
Where loud Castalian current rang,
I quickened by Apollo’s fountain,
Elizaveta in secret sang.
An earthly witness of the godly,
With soul inspired by poet’s love,
I sang of virtue reigning proudly,
With beauty high above…

Some Russian historians and scholars put forward arguments that the great Russian poet was in love with the Empress Elizabeth. Perhaps, he was; perhaps he was not. No one would exactly know for Pushkin did not declare this openly. He might have found in her the embodiment of beauty and all the things that were worth loving and fighting for. Maybe for him, the Empress was the face of Russia with its sorrow and its hidden beauty


Ludwig van Beethoven

The Empress Elizabeth met Beethoven during the course of the Vienna Congress in 1813. He was one of the numerous musicians who were asked to entertain the crowned heads of Europe. Like Pushkin, Beethoven was an impressionable young man who was having problems with money, depression and motivation when the Vienna Congress started. He composed and dedicated two works for Elizabeth, Polonaise in C Major, Op. 89 and 7th Symphony, Op. 92 which both resulted to a substantial payment. Beethoven thought the Empress full of extreme gentleness and affability. For her 36th birthday which she celebrated in Vienna, Beethoven played a piano composition in public, despite the fact that he did not feel like playing at that time. He was convinced by the Empress's encouragement, kind words, and confidence in his talents.

One of Beethoven's most famous composition, Fur Elise, was believed by some to have been composed and dedicated to the Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth was called and referred within the imperial family as "Elise". Of course, this is is still subject to conjecture and the identity of the woman that Beethoven called Elise has never been totally established.


Alexei Okhotnikov

Alexei Okhotnikov was a young Horse Guardsman in the Russian Imperial Army. It was estimated that he and Elizabeth first met in 1803, when he was 23 and she 24. By this time, Elizabeth had been married for 10 years and had lost a baby daughter. Alexander had began an affair with a Polish countess, Maria Naryshkina, and he became increasingly distant to Elizabeth. At 24, Elizabeth was still young and very attractive. She was in the prime of her beauty and she was craving for love. Romantic and sentimental, the betrayed and forgotten wife embarked on a secret love affair of her own. It is unknown how and exactly when Alexei and Elizabeth's affair started. The Empress kept a diary about her relationship with Alexei but these diaries were burned at the ordered of Emperor Nicholas I, her brother-in-law, after her death. Fortunately, some pages of the diaries were kept in another place (thus escaped the burning), and these are sufficient to establish the extent of the Empress's relationship with the guardsman, whom she gave the codename "Vosdu".

Elizabeth's diaries relates how she exchanges furtive glances with him and inscriptions made on a tree bark in the garden of the Kamenny Palace and her aimless walks through the various gardens of the imperial palaces in the hope of an encounter. Here are some extracts from them:

"Sunday, March 15, 1803. He was on guard. I passed by and was bewildered as he looked at me with his nice eyes while his voice excited me greatly. Angebrannt [trans: "I burn"], I thought only about him and spent the whole day dreaming of love…"

"Tuesday, March 24… After lunch I occasionally looked out of the window of the lounge at the embankment when he rode by. He could not but see me. This moment was like a volcano eruption
and boiling lava flooded my heart for two hours after that.

"Thursday, 16. Rode the horse, dismounted at the Princess's, returning on foot with my sister. Again, I saw Vosdu from afar. Extreme emotion. He was coming back from the estates. I quickly went back to change dress and then into the garden where I saw him close by, pale, drawn, but charming... Rejoined the Pr. to whom I had written, I still saw him from afar, he was drawing circles around us invisibly. Then I saw him with two civilians close to the wooden bench, alone another time from far away and then as we were leaving. he followed us in his carriage to the bridge and as we were on the balcony he passed by the gate at gaze at us intently."

"Thursday, July 30: This day the feeling was deeper than in a year. Angebrannt without any
clear reason."

"Thursday, April 23: ...in the theater I passed by him, lost shame and gave him a fleeting glance…"

"Monday 27: ...My reckless gentle glances."

"Saturday, June 20: Tempting moments! Mutual temptation, inimitable meeting of the eyes."

The lovers were careful to avoid any suspicion just like this excerpt from a letter by Okhotnikov:

"Dear Elise, please do not deny this small request: do not change the time of your walks, it can seem strange and it may disturb the Emperor."

"Do not worry, they did not see me, but I broke the flowers under your window."

Held by the norms of  etiquette, the Empress could not freely speak of her feelings and love. She poured all of these in her diaries, and she wished to bequeath her diaries to her confidant, the historian Nikolai Karamzin, upon her death. However, her diaries were intercepted by the Emperor Nicholas I and he ordered them to be burned. But before the destruction of the diaries, his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, was able to read some of them. She recorded these in her own diary:

"July, 3rd-4th, 1826: If I haven't seen it, probably I still would have any doubts. But last night I have read these letters written by Okhotnikov, the horse guardsman officer, to his beloved empress Elizabeth in which he called her mon amie, ma femme, mon Dieu, ma Elise, je t'adore ("my friend, my wife, my Goddess, my Elise, I love you"). From them I can judge, that every night when the moon was not in the night sky, he climbed up on the window at the Kamenny Island or in the Tauride Palace, and they were together for 2-3 hours, believing they were in paradise. Together with these letters there was her portrait and they were stored in the hiding place, in that cupboard where she had portraits and memorable things of her little Elisa. Probably as a sign that he was a father of this child. I blushed to the roots of my hair because of the shame that this could happen in our family."

Okhotnikov however died 18 months later. The circumstances of his death were a mystery. Some says he died of tuberculosis and that the Empress visited him in his deathbed; others say that he was probably killed on the orders of Grand Duke Constantine or Alexander I himself. He was buried on the grounds of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where a marble statue of a weeping woman said to be Elizabeth was erected on the tomb.

Talks about the secret affair of the Empress were quickly hushed up to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the imperial family. Nicholas I succeeded in this through the burnings of her diaries. The matter was never brought up again and somehow the subject became a sort of taboo for the members of the imperial family. However, in the late 19th century, Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich, a historian and scholar, with his access to the imperial archives, was able to write separate biographies about Alexander I and Empress Elizabeth. The Grand Duke wanted to add a chapter to the Empress's biography about her relationship with Okhotnikov, but the Emperor Nicholas II, upon seeing the chapter, forbid its inclusion in the book. The Grand Duke felt slighted on this refusal and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna wrote a letter to him, asking him to try to understand the Emperor's decision and to "pray for the poor woman's soul who had suffered so much".

"Alexander I" by Henri Troyat
"Alexander I, Tsar of War and Peace" by Alan Palmer
"Alexander I" by E.M Almedingen
"Empress and Poet" by Leonid Arlinstein 
"Memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski and his correspondence with Alexander I"
"The Empress Elizabeth of Russia" by Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich
"The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven" by Alexander Wheelock Thayer


Joseph Kibanoff said...

Beautiful story!

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