Friday, July 15, 2011

Psyche: Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna of Russia

"Her features were well formed and regular, her face a perfect oval; her fine complexion was not bright, but was of a paleness completely in harmony with the expression of her countenance, whose sweetness was angelic. Her fair hair floated over her neck and forehead. She was clad in a white tunic, a carelessly knotted girdle surrounding a waist as slender and supple as a nymph's. As I have described her, so ravishingly did this young person stand out against the background of her apartment, adorned with pillars and draped in pink and silver gauze, that I exclaimed, "That is Psyche!" It was Princess Elisabeth, the wife of Alexander." 

-Madame Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun
I have always been fascinated about Elizabeth Alexeievna, wife of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. She was one of the saddest figures of the Romanov family. Extraordinarily beautiful, sensitive, charming, compassionate, intelligent and kindhearted, it seemed she had all the requirements to please the future Alexander I of Russia and become the perfect Empress-Consort of Russia. Alexander himself was a handsome and very charming man, and his marriage to Elizabeth was dubbed as 'the marriage of Cupid and Psyche'; it was said that no other couple looked so perfect together. Everybody commented that Alexander was married to the most desirable of women. Indeed. But with all her beauty and good character, Elizabeth was not able to find happiness in her marriage to Alexander nor in her life in Russia.

Elizabeth as Princess Louise of Baden
Elizabeth was born as Princess Louise Augusta Marie of Baden on January 13, 1779 third daughter of Hereditary Prince Charles Louis of Baden and Princess Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt. Louise grew up in a tightly-knit family. She was very close to her brother and sisters and they in turn had a warm relationship with their parents. Louise was particularly close to her mother and would remain her confidant even when she was already married and lived in Russia.

Around the time when Louise was thirteen years old, the Empress Catherine II of Russia was on a search for a wife for her favorite grandson, the Tsarevich Alexander. She was informed about the princesses of Baden who were said to be very pretty and well-educated. The Empress immediately communicated her interest to the Baden court and invited its two unmarried princesses, Louise and Frederica.

Louise was not completely unfamiliar with Russia. Her maternal aunt, Princess Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt married the then Tsarevich Paul, the Empress's son. She was with Louise's mother, Amalie, when she traveled to Russia when they were also in their early teens, and Wilhelmine was subsequently chosen by Paul to be his wife and became Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna. Amalie had told stories about Natalia to Louise and the young impressionable girl of thirteen was filled with admiration to an aunt whom she never met.

Just like her mother and aunt before her, Louise traveled to Russia with her younger sister Frederica at the invitation of the Empress Catherine. It must have been a very daunting experience for these two young girls barely age 13 and 11 to travel to a foreign land unaccompanied by their parents. They were naturally filled with apprehension if they would make a good impression to the Empress, otherwise they will be sent back to Baden. Upon their arrival in St. Petersburg, they were met by the Empress herself and she was immediately impressed by the princess's appearance and the magnificence of their trousseau. She was amused of the pretty and dark-haired Frederica for her vivaciousness, and admitted that she would make a good bride for another grandson. However, she was particularly taken with the blond and blue-eyed Louise, whom she also described to have possessed an angelic face and a melodious voice. She found her to be the epitome of beauty and charm. In her heart, the Empress was secretly hoping that Alexander would choose Louise to be his wife.

The reluctant groom-to-be, Alexander, was not very keen to the idea of marriage, however he admitted that Louise was indeed pretty and charming. He was very shy on her presence and had no idea how to treat her. Eventually, the two of them warmed up to each other and their initial awkwardness blossomed into friendship. He told his parents and his grandmother that he liked the princess and on their blessing, wrote a letter to Louise telling her his feelings and asking her to marry him.

Upon their engagement ceremony, Louise was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and was given the names and title Elizabeth Alexeievna, Grand Duchess of Russia. A few months later, Alexander and the new Elizabeth were married with great pomp in the Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The bride was radiant in her wedding gown of silver brocade and on her ash-blond hair was a diadem of diamonds. It was said that the couple were so good-looking together that they were compared to two angels getting married. The Empress could hardly contained her happiness and contentment to this beautiful couple whom she referred to as "Cupid and Psyche".

Elizabeth as Grand Duchess of Russia
After the wedding, Elizabeth's sister went back to Baden. Elizabeth felt homesick and she relied to her husband for comfort and companionship. She wrote to her mother that her husband was worthy of her love and affection. Alexander, in turn, admitted to his tutor that he loved his wife and that she was an angel of kindness. As the wife of the Tsarevich, Elizabeth poured out her energy and enthusiasm in learning the history and language of her new country. Her tutors, one of them was Princess Dashkova, were impressed by the speed to which she mastered the Russian language and the way she spoke it without any hint of a foreign accent. People at court were filled with admiration to her resolve to become fully accustomed to her new country and the St. Petersburg society admired her beauty, kindness and humility.

The court of the Empress Catherine was opulent, lively and magnificent but it was also beaming with intrigues. There was also the tension and rivalry between the Empress and the Tsarevich Paul: the Empress's court against the Tsarevich's court. Alexander and Elizabeth were full of anxiety about the tensions and intrigues surrounding them and they only found solace in the company of each other. This drew them closer together and their relationship deepened as the time went by.

After the death of the Empress and the ascension of Paul as the new Emperor, things turned upside down. The magnificence of the court under Empress Catherine was replaced by a militaristic one created by Emperor Paul. He had an erratic character and a volatile temper that made earned him a lot of anger and hatred among the people. His wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna was rather cold towards her daughter-in-law and proved to be unsympathetic to her. During the Coronation Day of Emperor Paul and Empress Maria Feodorovna, all wore court dresses, and Elizabeth - desiring to supplement her attire, fastened fresh roses with the diamonds attached on her dress. When the Empress saw her, she immediately pulled out the roses and threw them on the floor, saying, "These don't suit the court dress." Elizabeth's only consolation during those times, other Alexander, was her sister-in-law Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna, wife of Alexander's brother Grand Duke Constantine. She was Elizabeth's constant support and companion. She wrote to her mother after Empress Catherine's death how Anna was her only consolation, as she was for her. "She spends almost all of her time in my place. She comes in the morning and take meals with me almost everyday, and stay with me all day..." But when Anna left St. Petersburg permanently for Coburg because of her failed marriage to Constantine and with Alexander started his dalliances with different court ladies, Elizabeth felt completely alone.

In the summer of 1799, Elizabeth became pregnant. Everyone at court were rejoicing for the upcoming birth of an heir. She gave birth in the spring of the following year, but to the disappointment of everyone at court, the baby was a daughter. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed as opposed to the baby's blond parents that the Emperor Paul remarked how could two blond parents have a dark-haired baby. Malicious people at court began to gossip that the baby's father was not Alexander, but instead it was his best-friend, a Polish prince named Adam Czartoryski. Prince Czartoryski was handsome and intelligent and he was attracted to the then Grand Duchess Elizabeth. It was said that Alexander encouraged his best-friend's affection towards his wife so that he could be free to pursue other women. Whether Elizabeth did succumb to the charm of the handsome Polish prince was debatable. There was no strong evidence to suggest that Czartoryski and Elizabeth had sexual relations. But almost certainly, he was in love with Elizabeth and he admitted this on his journals. Nevertheless, his association with Alexander (and Elizabeth) caused him the ire of Emperor Paul and he was sent on a diplomatic mission in Italy.

The years 1800-1801 proved to be trying years for Elizabeth. Her baby daughter Maria died of teething infection in July 1800. In her sorrow, she wrote to her mother: "Not an hour of the day passes without my thinking of her, and certainly not a day without my giving her bitter tears. It cannot be otherwise so long as I live, even if she were to be replaced by two dozen children." The following year, Emperor Paul, with his erratic character and volatile temper which earned him the anger and hatred of many people, was consequently murdered in his bedroom by a group of conspirators. Alexander was said to be in full knowledge of the plans by the conspirators to kill his father. The murder of his father left an indelible mark of remorse on his inner psyche that he would always carry with him for the rest of his life and this was best summed up by Elizabeth to her mother: "His sensitive soul will forever remain torn."

With the death of Emperor Paul, Alexander and Elizabeth suddenly found themselves Emperor and Empress of Russia. It was a tremendous responsibility for their age. Alexander was only 24 and Elizabeth was 23 and though both of them possessed intellectual power and noble character, they were virtually unprepared for the task that lies ahead of them. They were overwhelmed by their new roles and the burden that goes with them. Their relationship which sweetly formed out of friendship, respect, warmth and affection began to crumble. Alexander, tortured by his grief and guilt, became a restless soul. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was too placid to keep him down, and he gradually drifted away from her.

Elizabeth as a young Empress of Russia
As a young Empress, Elizabeth tried to fulfill her role in the best way she can. She exhibited such calm and strength of will when she had to pull her husband together (who was completely overcome with grief after the murder of Emperor Paul) and encourage him to take the reins of the government. She dutifully presided over court ceremonies and balls and started setting up charities, schools and hospitals. However, she was superseded in her role by the Dowager Empress herself. This was something unique in Russia and Alexander was more than willing to let his mother take the center stage."The Dowager Empress sought to eclipse [Elizabeth] by a more majestic demeanor, and at every State pageant occupied a place by the side of the emperor. She regarded Elizabeth as her chief rival - a feeling she showed with some haughtiness towards her daughter-in-law..." Elizabeth was more than willing to let her mother-in-law upstage her, but she would also be upstaged, unwillingly, by another woman in her husband's heart.

Soon after his ascension as Emperor of Russia, Alexander began an affair with a Russian primadona, Princess Maria Naryshkina. Maria Naryshkina was a Polish princess and she was married to Prince Dmitri Naryshkin, court-master of the Russian court. She was said to be a woman whose beauty was so perfect that it was "almost impossible". Her jet black hair and black eyes were her main charms and she had a habit of wearing a simple white gown without any jewels in every ball and court ceremonies so she would stand out. She was not intelligent as Elizabeth and was rather vulgar and distasteful in her remarks, Nevertheless, Alexander found her irresistible and greatly enjoyed her company. Some historians often wonder why Alexander would fell for a woman like Maria Naryshkina who was described as "without any merit other than the charm of her beauty". Alexander's affair with Naryshkina would last for 13 years. And in those years, they virtually lived together as husband and wife. They had several children together who would unfortunately lived until their teenage years only.

Elizabeth, with her gentle character and forbearance, became withdrawn. She was determined that if she would to suffer due to her husband's infidelity and neglect, she would do it in silence and with dignity. She was sustained by the knowledge that it was only she who had known the depths of his emotions and the hope that her husband would someday return to her. Indeed, it was with his moments with Elizabeth that Alexander found a sort of oasis for his tortured soul. When  he was undecided with a certain matter, he asked Elizabeth for her opinion. He relied on her for current events because according to him "she was more of a reader than him". He made efforts to have meals with her as often as his schedule allowed and she showed her kindness and respect when in public. When Maria Naryshkina tried to persuade him to divorce Elizabeth, he rebuked her and vehemently refused; the subject was not brought up anymore.

In 1804, Elizabeth, then 24 years old and who was by this time at the height of her beauty had fallen in love with a handsome Guard Officer, Alexei Okhotnikov. Alexei called her in French: "My little wife" and "My friend, my wife, my Goddess, my Elise, I love you." According to a diary entry by Elizabeth's sister-in-law, the future Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Alexei would climb to a window in Elizabeth's room "when the moon was not shining" and the lovers would spend around 3 hours together. Soon enough, Elizabeth became pregnant. She gave birth to a baby girl who was also named Elizabeth and called "Lisinka" by her mother. Nevertheless, Alexander declared that the child was his, but during the baptismal ceremony, according to the Dowager Empress, he felt quite ambivalent and showed little attention to the infant. Alexei and Elizabeth's affair lasted for only two years. He died after an attempt in his life. After his death, she felt abandoned and lonelier than ever and turned to her only solace, her daughter Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the little girl died after just fifteen months. Elizabeth was grief-stricken and wrote to her mother: "Now, I am not longer good for anything in this world, my soul has no more strength to recover from this last blow."

Towards the end of their lives, Alexander became more religious and reserved while Elizabeth's health declined. He regretted his past actions and sought to redeem himself. He left Maria Naryshkina for good and returned to Elizabeth. He wanted to spend more time with her and somehow the couple tried to bring back a certain piece of their past together. They traveled to Taganrog in 1825 due to Elizabeth's ill health and stayed in a small house. There, Alexander and Elizabeth enjoyed a happy and quiet life together. She wrote to her mother while in Taganrog: "Sometimes I am reduced to thinking of myself as Alexander’s mistress, or as if we had been married secretly." Near the end of 1825, Alexander caught a cold that developed into typhus while returning to Taganrog from Crimea. On December 1825, he died in the arms of his wife. Elizabeth was stricken by her loss, writing in her diary, "I do not understand myself, I do not understand my destiny. "

The Empress Elizabeth by George Dawe
Elizabeth was now too weak to go back to St. Petersburg for the funeral and decided to stay for some time. When the journey finally started, she felt very sick and they had to stopped at Belev in Tula. In the early hours of May 16, 1826, five months after her husband's death, Elizabeth was found dead in her bed by her maid. She had died of heart failure. Her remains were buried in St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

The Comtesse of Choiseul-Gouffier wrote sadly about Alexander and Elizabeth: "What a difference would it have made in the happiness of both, if they had been able to understand each other! They seemed to have been made the one for the other; the same goodness, the same gentleness and intellectual power. Yet there seemed to have been one point on which their hearts could not meet. Why is it that death alone has reunited such perfect souls?"

Elizabeth's life in Russia had been unhappy and unfulfilled. She was an example of one of those women who, despite their rare qualities and nobleness of heart, were destined to lead a lonely and deeply unhappy life. Neglected and abandoned by her husband throughout most of her life in Russia, her potential as a woman and as an empress were not fully realized. Certainly, she deserved more, all the goodness and the happiness in her life, just as the Comtesse de Choiseul-Gouffier declared wistfully, "How happy she deserved to be!"

Further Reading:

Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat

Alexander of Russia: Napoleon's Conqueror by Henri Troyat

Memoirs of Countess Golovine: A Lady at the Court of Catherine II by Countess Varvara Nikolaevna Golitsyna Golovina

Historical Memoirs of the Emperor Alexander I: and the Court of Russia by Sophie, Comtesse de Choiseul-Gouffier

Life and Times of Alexander I Emperor of All the Russias by F.R. Grahame


Patricia said...

Such an interesting personage! Elizabeth was a great beauty but she was so unhappy with her life. Thank you for this informative article, Gem. Keep it up!

Gem said...

Thank you Patricia for your comment. Elizabeth is really a fascinating person. And that's why she is one of my favorite Romanov.

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