Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Victoria’s Grandchildren, Part 2: Ella of Russia

Queen Victoria was not fond of Russia, despite having fallen a little in love with the young Tsarevitch Alexander (later Tsar Alexander II) when he paid a state visit to the young queen’s court in 1838 (they danced a great deal, which must have been a sight with the queen so petite and tsarevitch so tall). But two of her favorite grandchildren would marry Alexander’s son and grandson…with disastrous outcomes.

Elizabeth Alexandra Louise Alice was born on November 1, 1864, the second child and second daughter of Princess Alice, Victoria’s second daughter, and her husband, Prince Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Princess Alice was a devoted mother to her family, which eventually numbered seven, and little Elizabeth’s (her nickname in the family was “Ella”) life up to her early teens was a happy one…until the unexpected and shocking death of first a younger sister, and then her mother, during a diphtheria outbreak in 1878.

Queen Victoria came to the rescue, and from then on Ella and her remaining brother and sisters spend at least as much time in England living with their grandmother as they did in Hesse, becoming especially close to their uncle Leopold, Victoria’s youngest son and a partial invalid who lived with his mother well into his twenties.

Ella grew in, by all accounts, a lovely young woman. All princesses are supposed to be beautiful, but in her case, it actually seems to have been true: she had delicate features, a porcelain complexion, and a graceful, slender figure. Royal suitors began to flock around her after she made her debut, including her cousin Wilhelm, who became quite besotted with her but whom Ella politely refused. Instead, she eventually fell for a very different suitor: Grand Duke Sergei Romanov, son of Tsar Alexander II and his wife, a princess from Hesse-Darmstadt. Sergei was an enigmatic figure: educated and cultured, yet stiff and reserved and with a difficult temper. But he seems to have been fond of his young wife (they married in 1884, when Ella was not quite yet twenty), and the marriage, if not a blissfully happy one, was yet a content one.

Ella threw herself into her new country, studying Russian language and history diligently as a young bride and eventually converting to the Russian Orthodox faith, which she embraced wholeheartedly (much to the dismay of most of her staunchly Protestant family. She and Sergei did not have children, though they did semi-adopt the children of one of Sergei’s brothers, who had been exiled.

Sergei was close to his brother, Tsar Alexander III, and accepted the role of Governor of Moscow, where his stiff, unbending attitude and deep conservatism made him enemies. He remained an influential advisor to his nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, who came to the throne in 1894 (at the same time that he married Ella’s younger sister, Alix of Hesse), and grew to be a deeply hated man…so much so that in 1905, as unrest grew in Russia in the wake of the humiliating Russo-Japanese War, Sergei was assassinated by a revolutionary’s bomb tossed into his carriage in the streets of Moscow.

A devastated Ella slowly began to draw away from her old life at court…and in 1909, withdrew even more, giving away some of her fabulous art and jewelry collection to relatives and selling the remainder, then using the proceeds to buy an estate on the Moscow River. Here she founded a religious order, a convent dedicated to Saints Mary and Martha. She became its abbess, taking the veil and dedicating herself to a life of charity, something she’d learned at the feet of her late mother: Princess Alice had been deeply interested in improving the nursing profession and providing health care for the poor, and in turn her daughter’s new enterprise included a large charity hospital and outreach to the poor of Moscow.

But despite the good work she accomplished for the poor of her adopted land, Ella was never accepted by a certain segment…and it was that segment that came into power with the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the rise of the Bolshevik party. They regarded her as a foreigner and a German sympathizer, and she was arrested early in 1918 and shuttled from location to location, depending on the whim of her captors and the fortunes of the varies parties struggling for power in Russia in those chaotic months. She eventually wound up in Alapaevsk, a town in the Ural Mountains, along with a few other members and connections of the Romanov family. In July, members of Lenin’s secret police, Cheka, came to Alapaevsk with orders to execute the prisoners. They were beaten and thrown down a mine shaft, but somehow survived this brutal treatment until desperate Cheka operatives threw hand grenades into the mine and finally set fire to it.

However, a few months later her body was found and removed from the mine, then smuggled out of Russia for burial in Jerusalem. Sixty-three years later, Queen Victoria’s pretty grand-daughter was canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.

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