Wednesday, July 18, 2018
“Always be guided by your heart rather than by your head, and your life will be transformed. Happiness does not consist in living in a palace or enjoying a large fortune; these can be lost. True happiness is something that neither men nor events can take from you. You will find it in Faith, in Hope and in Charity. Try to make those around you happy, and you will be happy yourself.” —Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna of Russia (photo).
Born in Germany, she was the daughter of Princess Alice of England and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was the sister of the Tsarina Alexandra (executed 100 years ago yesterday, with her husband Nicholas II and her five children).
Elizabeth was killed the day after her sister, on July 18, 1918, that is, 100 years ago today. She was thrown alive down a mine shaft in Alapayevsk, a tiny village about two hours drive northeast of Ekaterinburg, Russia.
She was 53.
For the Russian Orthodox Church, she is St. Elizabeth Fedorovna.
English was her first language.
Later in life, she would tell a friend that, within her family, she and her siblings spoke English to their mother and German to their father.
For me, she is the last and greatest flower of the pre-modern Christian culture which nourished Europe and the West for many centuries, then perished 100 years ago in the cataclysm of theFirst World War.
I traveled today to the place of St. Elizabeth’s cruel execution, 100 years after her passing.
There, like other pilgrims, I threw a white rose down the green embankment above the place where she so tragically died.
(Below, a view this afternoon of the grass above the mineshaft down which Grand Duchess Elizabeth was thrown with her faithful friend and fellow nun, Sister Barbara, and several others, on July 18, 1918. Some hundreds of Russian believers came to venerate icons of St. Elizabeth and St. Barbara and then to throw roses on their grave. We were told we were the only Americans, and the only Catholics, to come to the remote grave site, two hours drive from Ekaterinburg. The roses fell down the green slope as did the bodies of the condemned a century ago, fluttering downward, drawn by gravity)
Some things cannot be explained fully.
The story of Ella is like that.
So what follows is just a sketch, an attempt…
I call her Ella because that is how I first came to know her.
The letters “E L L A” were inscribed in cursive script in a childlike scrawl on the black enamel of a piano in a convent residence in Moscow that I visited while tiny flakes of snow swirled downward on a December day in 2001, 17 yeas ago.
It had been Elizabeth’s piano, and as a child in Germany she had carved her own nickname in the enamel: “Ella.”
I ran the tips of my fingers along the ridges of the carved letters, and felt the tragedy of that child’s life and hopes, which ended in a mineshaft near the Ural Mountains, on the edge of western Siberia.
In that moment, my heart went out to her, though at that moment I knew little about her, or her life. Such is the force of the most slender of physical connections with a another human being, even a century-old scratch on the enamel of a piano.
The piano was in the residence of the head of the Order of Martha and Mary, an order of Orthodox nuns founded by Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna in 1905 — the year her husband, Grand Duke Serge, was killed by an assassin’s bomb in his carriage outside their home on the Bolshaya Ordinka, a street not far from the Kremlin. The piano had been brought to Russia from Germany, and is still preserved in Moscow today.
Elizabeth heard the bomb blast, rushed out of her house, found the ruined body of her husband, gathered parts of the body that had been scattered by the force of the blast, brought the pieces into her chapel, closed the door, asked not to be disturbed, grieved all night, and emerged the next morning to begin the life of a widow in mourning.
Five years later, she left the life of high society completely, and became a nun.
Until 1918 she cared for the children and sick and miserable, becoming known as the “Great Mother” of Russia, though she had no children of her own.
And other women followed her, joining her order, which was the first in Russian Orthodoxy to combine charitable action with meditative contemplation.
After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in October 1917, soldiers came to her convent door in early July, 1918, and told her she had 20 minutes to pack for a journey to Siberia, and that she could bring one nun with her.
Sister Barbara did not need to volunteer to go with her, but went of her own free will, telling her superior that she would never leave her side. And she never did…
On July 18, 1918, the two nuns and several noblemen connected with the Romanov family who might have been possible candidates for a restoration of the monarchy, were brought to Alapayesk.
There they began to be struck on the chest and head with a hammer.
But one nobleman rushed to interpose himself before the blow struck the head of Elizabeth, and she was struck only on the chest.
So she was certainly alive, and still conscious, when she was thrown down the mineshaft.
The assassins dropped a grenade or two down the hole, and then went away.
Peasants of the area later recounted that for three days they heard the low sound of psalms and spiritual hymns being sung from deep in the earth, and then there was silence.
Men descended the mineshaft to recover the bodies.
They found that Elizabeth had torn off strips of cloth from the hem of her white nun’s gown and bandaged the wounds of every one of the other victims.
To the very end, her life was a proclamation of love and charity for others, having suffered great loss herself.
Her body was taken from the mineshaft, along with the other bodies, and put on a train which traveled all the way across Russia to Harbin, China. S
he was then put on a boat and brought by sea to Palestine, and then to Jerusalem, where she was buried in the Garden of Gethsemane.
She remained there until 2004 when her body returned to Russia, where it is today, again on the Bolshaya Ordinka.
She struggled mightily before she converted, against her father’s wishes, from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, making the decision after much prayer and study.
Her diary and correspondence reveals a woman who lived her life in search of God’s will, and tried to follow it, acting with great tenderness toward many.
In these writings, she speaks of long periods of intense prayer to know God’s will for her life.
Elizabeth, with her Catholic ancestors, her Anglican grandmother, her Lutheran father and her embrace of the Orthodox faith, a type of sign for our possible unity.
She is the confluence in a single person of the broken strands of Christendom.
And so, on the 100th anniversary of the moment when she was thrown down the mineshaft, I traveled to Alapayevsk, and cast a rose onto the green embankment down which she was thrown in the 53rd year of her inspiring life.
(Here below, two Russian Orthodox priest, Father Seraphim and Father Moses, both of whom live in a monastery at Alapayevsk, chanted in memory of Elizabeth today by the site of the mineshaft where she was thrown)
The following biography of Elizabeth was written just 5 years after her death, in 1923. What is most moving is the account of her meeting in prison with the killer of her husband, whom she forgave, toward the end of this piece.
The Life of Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna
by the Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff
Originally published in London, by John Murray, Albermarle St. — 1923 (link)
[The writer of the following article, the Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff, was for many years the ‘Grand Maitresse’, that is to say the Mistress of the Robes to my sister, the late Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia. Advanced in age, an exile from her home and country, the Countess has put pen to paper to draw a portrait of the Mistress to whom she was profoundly devoted, in order to render a last service to the memory of her who is beyond the need of any earthly service now. –VICTORIA MILFORD HAVEN.]
One figure stands out unforgettably among the thousands of the gay and gallant, the gifted and the worthy of honour, who have been done to death by the Soviet Government, so-called, of Bolshevist Russia.
It is a woman high-hearted and great of soul, whose destiny opened in the blaze of imperial splendour, and closed in the black depths of a Siberian mine, into which she was flung by her executioners at the end of a cruel martyrdom.
The Grand Duchess Elisabeth, sister of the Empress Alexandra of Russia, was the daughter of Princess Alice of Hesse, and grand-daughter of Queen Victoria.
She had received from her mother the early education which prepared her for her high destiny.
This wise and tender mother instilled into her children from their earliest youth the main principles of Christianity, love for one’s neighbour.
She herself, though she always remained English at heart, won the warm love of her adopted country; endowed with tact and judgment, she founded many works of benevolence, and, during her short life, kept the welfare of the Duchy ever before her.
Yet when she died her last wish was that the British flag alone should be laid on her coffin.
The Grand Duchess Elisabeth put her mother’s teaching of charity into practice, both by generosity in action and by restraint in speech.
She never allowed herself to criticize anyone severely, and always found a kindly excuse for anyone in fault.
When the charming Princess Ella became the Grand Duchess Serge of Russia, the first seven years of her marriage where spent in the radiant glow of the Imperial Court at Petersburg.
To please her husband she cultivated society, and society admired her.
But she found no happiness in this sort of life, which failed to satisfy her heart.
To appear at State functions was a duty of her high station, but this position she esteemed only according to the opportunities it afforded her for doing kind and generous actions.
Radiantly beautiful, she showed herself at balls, sparkling with jewels, but on her calm brow her vocation was already printed, though perhaps not so clearly as the destiny that could be read on the face of her sister the Empress, for she, even in the height of prosperity, never quite lost the sad lines of the mouth which gave her beauty an impression of pre-ordained tragedy.
In 1891 the Grand Ducal pair established themselves in Moscow, where the Grand Duke Serge had been appointed Governor-General.
At this period the Grand Duchess began to give herself up to charitable works.
People quickly got into the habit of referring to her, of putting her at the head of new organizations, of making her the patroness of all charitable institutions, and when the war with Japan broke out, she was well prepared to play the leading part in the great patriotic movement which carried away the whole of Russian Society, in its constant eagerness to help the wounded soldiers, whether in hospital, or at the front, far away from their own homes.
The Grand Duchess became completely absorbed in this work; she was everywhere; she thought of everything which could contribute to the spiritual needs of the Russian, so religious as he was then, by sending out many camp churches equipped with everything necessary for Divine Service.
Under her supervision, too, splendid ambulance trains sped along the Trans-Siberian railway.
But the most remarkable achievement which was due to her, and to her alone, was the organization of women workers, drawn together from all stations of life, from the highest to the lowest, whom she united in the Kremlin Palace, where work-rooms were arranged.
From morning till evening all through the war this busy hive worked for the army, and the Grand Duchess saw with joy that the immense gilded saloons hardly sufficed to contain the workers; in fact the only room not used was the Throne Room.
All her days were spent in this work, which assumed gigantic proportions.
It was a whole Ministry in itself, a complete Department, differing from most ministries in the fact that the employees never spent an idle moment.
I appeal to my fellow country-women; they will remember the charming vision of the woman so simply dressed in pale grey or blue, and under her white toque the face with its regular features, and that welcoming smile of hers, as she moved about among them, rejoicing in the sight of these hundreds of women united in the common purpose of alleviating, as far as possible, the sufferings of the men who were facing Japanese bullets in the Far East.
Moscow worshipped its Grand Duchess, and showed its appreciation by the quantity of gifts daily brought to her for her soldiers, and the number of bales sent to the front from her workrooms was colossal.
Her personality was so inspiring that the coldest people took fire from contact with her ardent soul, and threw themselves with zeal into the work of charity.
To me it is sweet to remember this busy time of work during the Japanese War, before there was any thought of the more awful war which was to lay Europe in ruins.
One day when she was starting for her workrooms, the Grand Duchess heard near by the fearful explosion caused by the bomb thrown at the Grand Duke Serge on February 4, 1905.
Like his father, the Emperor Alexander II, he fell victim to the revolutionaries, with this difference, that in the person of Alexander the Second the anarchists of 1881 killed an Emperor who was due the next day to sign a most liberal constitution, whereas the Grand Duke Serge never hid his apprehensions of giving to a people still so young the boon of liberty which was bound to be misused.
We now see that is fears were justified; these same socialists have been drowned in their own blood, and have fallen victims to the Bolshevist terror which they themselves let loose upon their country.
At the time of his father’s death the Grand Duke Serge was quite a youth and was living in Rome with his younger brother Paul, whose health required a warmer climate that that of Petersburg.
From this period dated the paternal kindness of Pope Leo XIII to the Grand Duke Serge.
His Holiness treated the young Princes with touching affection.
When the news of the Emperor’s assassination arrived in Rome, the Pope forbade anyone else to tell them of it, reserving to himself the task of breaking it to them, and of praying with them in their sorrow.
The Grand Duke always remembered with gratitude the kindness which the Pope had shown him and never forgot how he had consoled him and his brother in the loss of their beloved father.
When the Grand Duke was appointed Governor at Moscow, the socialists were losing ground under the firm and truly national policy of the Emperor Alexander the Third; but the too kindly disposition of Nicholas the Second allowed them to raise their heads again.
They felt that the Grand Duke Serge was an obstacle to their plans, and decided to remove him from their path.
On February 4, 1905, he was blown to pieces in front of the Kremlin.
The Grand Duchess was just leaving her palace to go to her work-rooms; she threw herself into her sledge and arrived on the scene of the disaster at the moment when a soldier was spreading his military cloak over the mangled remains to hide them from the poor wife.
Kneeling in the road she stretched out her hands to clasp the remains of the man who had been her husband.
It may have been the horror of this scene which caused her from that day forward to give up all food which had once had life.
Her daily fare consisted of milk, eggs, vegetables and bread, and this long before she resolved upon the monastic life.
In any case, the horror left a deep trace on her countenance which only passed away when, having learnt the futility of earthly existence, she received the experience of divine beauty, and after this time her eyes seemed to be gazing at a vision of the other world.
She laid aside her widow’s veil on April 2, 1910, and put on that of a nun, in the Church of the Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, together with about 30 others eager to help in her work for suffering humanity.
It was a beautiful ceremony, which those who took part in it can never forget.
She left the world where she had played a brilliant part, to go, as she said herself, ‘into the greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted.’
The Bishop, Thriphonius, who in the world had been Prince Turkenestanoff, presented her with the veil, saying these prophetic words: ‘This veil will hide you from the world, and the world will be hidden from you, but it will be a witness to your good works, which will shine before God, and glorify the Lord.’
So it came to pass.
Through the grey veil of the Sisterhood her works shone with a divine radiance and led her to martyrdom.
The Little Sisters of the Poor in the Catholic Church had always attracted her, and the rules of the community which she founded showed the trance of this influence.
The convents of the Orthodox Religion, to which she belonged, are all under the rule of St. Basil the Great, a contemplative order engaged in prayer and religious exercises; this did not satisfy her.
She belived that prayer and contemplation should be the final reward of those who have given their whole strength to the service of God; she believed that work should be the foundation of the religious life, and prayer its relaxation.
In her Sisterhood, therefore, the Sisters were called upon to work outside the walls of their convent, in contrast to those of the Greek Orthodox Church, who go out but rarely, and only upon special occasions.
The Sisters of Martha and Mary visited the poor and sick, helping them in every possible way, caring for the children, cleaning the homes, and bringing with them everywhere joy and peace.
But the hardest tasks were always undertaken by their Mother Superior, who knew that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and who felt that she herself had strength for anything.
Her soul grew and prospered in this life of privation; always calm and serene, she found time and strength sufficing for this never-ending work.
She lived in three tiny rooms, white and clean, separated from the hospital by the church, furnished with wicker chairs and adorned only by holy icons, thank-offerings from those who loved and honoured her.
She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, and with a hard pillow; but, tired out after her busy day, she fell asleep at once.
Often she had only two or three hours’ sleep, and even these were sacrificed to friends who begged her to let them come to her at a late hour.
At midnight she rose to attend prayers in her church, and then made the rounds of her hospital.
If one of the patients gave cause for anxiety, she sat down at his bed-side and remained there till dawn, trying to soothe him through the weary night hours.
With her exquisite intuition of heart and mind she succeeded in finding words of comfort, and the invalids vowed that her presence alone brought relief to their pain; they felt, as it were, a healing emanation, which gave them patience, and even serenity, in the midst of their sufferings, while the timid faced their operations bravely when fortified by her comforting words.
Perhaps these lines will meet the eyes of some of those in her own country whom she helped through this agonizing hour.
If, in spite of the tenderest care, the patient had to die, it was in her arms that this brother or sister in Christ passed away.
The Greek Orthodox Church ordains that during the two days which elapse before burial, the psalms should be read without ceasing by nuns from a convent, and the sisters of Martha and Mary were often called upon for this task, but the night hours were always taken by the Mother Superior.
In the chapel erected for this purpose at the end, she watched alone by the dead, and in the solitude of the night her voice was heard repeating the words of the psalmist.
The large hospitals of Moscow soon recognized the excellence of the treatment in the Grand Duchess’s hospital, where only fifteen patients were received, and the most desperate cases were sent to her.
I remember, for instance, the cook of a poor household who had burnt herself by upsetting an oil stove; the burns covered too large a surface of science to cure — no skin was left intact except on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.
She was brought already suffering with gangrene from one of the hospitals of the town.
The Grand Duchess herself did the dressings, which were so painful that she had to pause each moment to comfort and reassure the patient.
It took two hours and a half, twice a day, to do the dressings, and the Grand Duchess’s gown had to be aired afterwards to get rid of the terrible smell of the gangrene, yet she perservered in the treatment, till at last the woman was cured, to the astonishment of the doctors, who had given her up.
The Grand Duchess was admired by all the great surgeons, who begged for her help when they had a difficult operation to perform.
She assisted the operator with wonderful calm and concentration, attentive to each wish of the surgeon.
She had successfully overcome the first natural repulsion, and felt only the satisfaction of being of use.
Among other things she founded a Home for incurable consumptives among women of the poorest class and visited this ‘house of death’ twice a week.
The patients often showed their gratitude by embracing her, without any thought of the danger of infection, and she never once flinched from their embraces.
To this Home for consumptive women she was especially devoted.
Her main object was to give a little comfort and a few luxuries to servants sent away when their illness was no longer in doubt, when the hospitals refused to take them in, and there was nothing left for them but death in the direst poverty.
These poor creatures were cared for and nursed in a cheerful house with a big garden, where they often gained fresh hope of getting well, the Grand Duchess helping them in this; but often too, they passed away in peace, recommending their dear ones to their benefactress.
How often a dying mother said to her: ‘My children are no longer mine, they are yours, for they no one in the world but you!’
There was no limit to the list of her good deeds, or to the sums she spent on them.
Her personal expenses were almost nothing; indeed, there were whole months when a few pence covered the cost of her toilette.
After her husband’s death, when she decided to follow the higher life, she divided her jewels into three parts; one of these she gave back to the Russian Crown, and I suppose they are among the number stolen by the Bolshevists, and are now serving to defray the expenses of revolutionary propaganda.
A second part she distributed among her nearest relations, and the third and very considerable part was sold for the benefit of her charities.
She kept nothing, not even her wedding ring; the only ornament she ever wore was a wooden cross hung round her neck on a white ribbon.
Usually she wore grey or white cotton dresses, keeping the white woolen robes for great occasions.
In order not to attract notice when she went into the town she usually wore black, with a black veil on her head; but sometimes she was seen wearing her grey gown and veil and then she would be recognized and greeted with respect and veneration.
It is impossible to realize that one will never again see this being, so different from all others, so far above the common level, so captivating in her beauty and charm, so compelling by her goodness, she had the gift of drawing people to her without effort; and one felt that she moved on a higher plane, and gently helped one upwards.
She never made one feel one’s own inferiority; on the contrary, without any false humility on her part, she brought out the best qualities of her friends.
As soon as the Great War broke out, when our brave soldiers still formed the splendid Russian Army, the Empress’s sister felt it her duty to help the Sovereign, who naturally was at the head of the patriotic movement.
The Dowager Empress, the young Empress, and the Grand Duchess Elisabeth divided amongst them the two fronts, the Eastern or German front, and the Southern or Austrian — not to speak of the Turkish front, which was less extended, but where the fighting was quite as fierce.
The Empresses and the Grand Duchess drew into their organization, all ranks of society, officials small and great, government employees, and all the hierarchy of feminine society from the highest to the lowest.
The Red Cross on the white apron was worn by all those who were able to leave their homes and devote themselves to the one great and absorbing consideration, war and victory.
No sacrifice was too great — money was poured out like water — life counted as nothing in the balance.
It is not my business to tell of those heroic days when almost all the youth of Russia perished, when our splendid regiments, three and four times decimated, were at once filled up again with men and officers; Russia poured forth her noblest blood for honour and loyalty’s sake.
In February 1917, the maximum military effort was attained, the front from the Baltic to the Black Sea was bristling with troops and guns.
We seemed on the point of triumphing over Germany and Austria, but it was decreed otherwise.
An extraordinary collapse, unparalleled in history, took place.
On March 1 the Emperor Nicholas abdicated.
A handful of men, whose political incapacity was only equaled by their blindness, their narrow-mindedness, their petty ambitions, proved a powerful instrument of destruction, to cast down the mighty from their seats.
In Russia monarchy, religion, love of country were all inextricably intertwined; soldiers died hourly with the words “For Tsar and Country” on their lips.
The Emperor Nicholas was the loyal ally of the Entente, and repudiated with horror the idea of a separate peace.
When once he had fallen, there was a general collapse.
The dyke had given way.
In vain did the officers sacrifice their lives in trying to stop the soldiers; in vain did whole battalions, entirely composed of officers, attack the enemy’s lines: their example had no effect on their subordinates, who watched their chivalrous sacrifice with sardonic mockery, while they parleyed with the Germans behind their backs.
A long procession of men, demoralized and bolshevized by the Germans, passed back into Russia, bringing discontent and rebellion into their homes and villages.
What sadness filled the heart of the Grand Duchess!
Yet she continued to love the country of her adoption, as is shown by the words she wrote to an old friend: ‘Russia and her children at this moment know not what they do; they are like a sick child, whom one loves a hundred times more in his sickness than when he is well and happy. One longs to alleviate his sufferings, to help him and teach him patience. This is what I feel more every day.’
Her greatness of soul could forgive anything.
Was it not she who, on the day after the death of her husband, went to see his murderer in prison?
This action was misunderstood; many thought she went to visit him so as to be able to obtain his pardon from the Emperor, but hers was a different aim.
She obtained permission for the door to be unlocked, and went alone into the cell.
When the assassin saw her before him he said ‘Who are you?’
‘I am his widow. Why did you kill him?’
‘I did not want to kill you,’ he said. ‘Several times I saw him when I had the bomb in my hands, but you were with him and I spared him.’
‘And you did not think that you were killing me together with him?’
Then she spoke of the horror of the crime and of the Divine displeasure.
She held the Gospel in her hand and begged him to read it.
She hoped that the erring soul would make its peace with God before appearing before Him.
Death to her was but an empty word; she feared the judgment of God even for her enemy.
In her great goodness she felt it intolerable that even he who had robbed her of happiness should die impenitent.
She still begged him to read the words of the Gospel, which she thought would touch his hardened heart.
‘I will read it,’ he said, ‘if will promise to read the journal of my life; you will then see how it was I resolved to destroy everyone who stands in the way of our anarchist principles.’
She did not read the journal — but the Gospel stayed on the table in the cell.
On coming out she said sadly to some of those who stayed outside: ‘I have failed.’
Yet, who knows?
Perhaps in the moment of death he may have acknowledged and repented his sin.
We see her thus at each period of her life, even the most terrible, forgetting herself to think only of others.
Immediately after the death of the Grand Duke, she had hardly realized the greatness of her loss before she thought of the other victim of the crime, her husband’s devoted coachman, who was dying in the hospital, his body full of nails and splinters of wood from the carriage.
As soon as he saw her he cried: ‘How is His Imperial Highness?’
To veil the truth, which would have distressed him, she spoke these simple and beautiful words: ‘It is he who sends me to you.’
One could quote several of these sayings of hers which were all the more impressive as coming from one who never thought of making an effect.
This slight sketch of her character would be incomplete did I not mention the political sagacity of the Grand Duchess.
She very wisely avoided even the suspicion of interference in the affairs of State, great as was the unhappiness these were causing her.
Twice only did she depart from the line of conduct she had traced out for herself.
On the first occasion she wrote a letter to the Emperor, in which, with all the respect due from a subject, she spoke of her great fear of danger in the future both for those whom she loved and for Russia.
Soon afterwards, in December 1916, she went to Petersburg to plead for a cause, alas already lost; — had her advice been taken the tottering monarchy might, perhaps, have been saved.
She was in favour of a complete entente between the Emperor and the Duma for the strict observance of the constitutional laws promulgated in October 1905, and for a responsible Ministry.
She also urged that the fatal Rasputin should be sent back to Siberia.
The Empress begged her not to speak to the Emperor on the subject of her letter, saying that he was leaving the next day for the front, and must not be troubled with political questions, but that she herself would willingly listen.
When the Grand Duchess touched on the thorny question of Rasputin the Empress could not be dissuaded from her belief in his sanctity, in spite of what the Grand Duchess told her of his scandalous life, which he had managed to hide successfully from Her Majesty’s eyes.
So mistaken was the latter in his character that all she would say in answer to her sister’s remonstrances was: ‘We know that saints have been maligned before this.’
The Grand Duchess then had a glimpse into the future.
‘Remember,’ she said, ‘the fate of Louis XVI.’
Alas, she was mistaken only in the magnitude and horror of the catastrophe which was to come.
On the first day of the Revolution, March 1, 1917, a raging crowd surrounded her home, and a lorry full of men, mostly criminals let loose from prison, came to arrest her and take her to the Town Hall on the charge of being a German spy.
She sent all the frightened women in the back of the house, and went out alone to talk to the men.
‘What do you want with me?’ she said.
‘We have come to take you to be tried; you are concealing weapons; German Princes are hiding in your house.’
‘Come in,’ she said. ‘Look round, search everywhere, but let only five of you come in.’
‘Dress yourself to come with us.’
‘I am the Superior of the Convent,’ she said. ‘I must make final arrangements and say good-bye to my Sisters.’
She had given the order for the Sisters to assemble in the church and for a Te Deum to be sung.
Turning to the revolutionaries she said ‘Come into the church, but put down your arms in the entrance.’
They followed her.
After the Te Deum she went up to the cross, signing to the men to come after her.
Under the spell of her calm they followed her and kissed the cross too.
‘Now go and search for whatever you think you will find.’
The priest Mitrophanes accompanied them, and they soon came back to the howling mob outside, saying ‘It is a convent and nothing more.’
For the moment the danger was averted.
Some hours afterwards the Provisional Government, at that time still composed of moderate men, came to the Community to make excuses for the disturbance caused by this group of gaol-birds, and to assure the Grand Duchess that they had had no knowledge of, or share in this attack.
She received them, and asked them how the Revolution was going.
‘Do you wish us to tell you the truth?’ they said.
‘Yes, always tell me the truth.’
‘This is the first day of the socialist revolution, and we have no means of resisting the wave of anarchy which is sweeping over us. We have come to beg Your Highness to move into the Kremlin, where it will be easier to safeguard you.’
‘I did not come out of the Kremlin in order to be driven back into it by revolutionary force; if it is difficult for you to safeguard me, pray do not attempt it.’
She continued to live in the Community, to nurse the soldiers in her hospital, and to give free meals to the poorest people — in short, she made no change in her life, except that she redoubled the fervour of her prayers.
She lived with calm and serenity, giving herself up entirely to the will of God.
At the moment when Bolshevism was let loose, in April 1918, she wrote to an old friend as follows:
‘One must fix one’s thoughts on the heavenly country in order to see things in their true light, and to be able to say “Thy will be done,” when one sees the complete destruction of our beloved Russia.
‘Remember that Holy Russia, the Orthodox Church “against whom the Gates of Hell shall not prevail,” still exists, and will always exist. Those who can believe this without a doubt will see the inner light shining through the darkness in the midst of the storm.
‘I am not exalted, dear friend, I am only certain that the God who chastises is the same God who loves.
‘I have been reading the Bible a good deal lately, and if we believe in the sublime sacrifice of God the Father in sending His Son to die and rise again for us, we shall feel the Holy Spirit lighting our way, and our joy will become eternal, even if our poor human hearts and earthly minds pass through moments which seem terrible.
‘Think of a storm; there are some things sublime in it, some things terrifying; some are afraid to take shelter, some are killed by it, and some have their eyes opened to the greatness of God; is not this a true picture of the present times?
‘We work, we pray, we hope and each day we feel more and more the divine compassion. It is a constant miracle that we are alive. Others are beginning to feel the same, and they come to our Church to seek rest for their souls. Pray for us, dear heart. Always your old and faithful friend.’
Then comes a postscript, which was read with deep gratitude and emotion by the person to whom it was addressed:
‘Thank you for the dear past.’
This was the last farewell, said as simply as everything else in her life.
Later, it was known that she had lived in her Community of Martha and Mary till July 1918 when the Bolshevist Soviet determined to effect her disappearance first, and her death later.
At Moscow, in spite of the terror reigning among the population, the indignation would be too great and must be avoided.
They sent her an order, false like everything else done by the Bolshevist Government, to leave Moscow and join the Emperor and his family at Ekaterinburg.
She asked for two hours to prepare herself for this distant journey, but the request was refused.
She left under the guard of Lithuanian soldiers and accompanied by a devoted nun, sister Barbara.
It is known that the Grand Duchess wrote twice to her confessor, Father Mitrophanes.
The first time she said that the Lithuanian guards had been very harsh to her in the beginning, but that they had since become kinder, and had therefore been exchanged for Russian guards, who were ruthless and brutal.
The second letter asked for the Patriarch of Moscow, who was then still at liberty, to intercede for her, so that she might be accorded the vegetarian food to which she was accustomed.
It is not known whether the infamous Lenin granted this modest boon.
A heavy curtain has fallen on this last period of her life.
Complete darkness reigned till the moment when a few short notices appeared in the newspapers, mentioning her murder.
The Times of August 1920 published some articles of most pathetic interest on the martyrdom of the Russian Emperor and his family, and mentioned, amongst the number killed, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth, three of the Grand Dukes and Prince Paley, son of the Grand Duke Paul — these were all brought from the depths of the Siberian forests to the mouth of an abandoned coal-mine, and it is said that they were still alive when they were thrown into it.
Whether the Grand Duchess survived her fall into those black depths, and whether she died of starvation, we do not know; only one thing is certain, that she suffered patiently, that she died serenely, and that as long as life lasted, she never ceased to praise the God from whom her soul drew its strength.
Knowing her as well as I did, I can say with certainty that she thanked God for throwing open to her, through suffering, a place among His elect.
She was of the same stuff as the early Christian martyrs who died in the Roman arenas.
Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren the Church will beatify her as a saint.
In the time of Admiral Koltchak, a pious hand collected her mortal remains, and they were transferred first to Kharbin and then to Pekin.
At the time of writing I hear that owing to the efforts of her sister, Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven, they have been conveyed from Shanghai to Port Said, and from thence to Jerusalem, where they will rest in holy ground in the church of St. Mary Magdalene, near the Judgment Gate, dedicated to the memory of the Empress Marie, wife of Alexander II.
Among her ancestors, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth numbered Mary Queen of Scots and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
She chose the latter as her example, and followed in her steps.
The mediaeval saint had a hard life, the modern saint received the crown of martyrdom.
This martyrdom could have been avoided had she chosen, but she accepted it of her own free will.
In the spring or summer of 1917 — I am not sure which — the Swedish Minister came to Moscow at the express desire of the German Emperor to advise the Grand Duchess to leave Russia, where terrible events were to take place.
No one knew this as well as the Emperor, who was working to destroy Russia by the means of anarchist propaganda, and who had just made a fatal gift to this unhappy country by sending her Lenin and his Jewish adherents.
These worthy henchmen were about to drench with blood the town where the Emperor’s cousin was living, working, and praying.
The Swedish Minister, representing a neutral power was received by her, and urged her to follow the Emperor’s advice.
She listened attentively, and answered that she, too, believed that terrible times were at hand, but that she would share the fate of her adopted country, and would not leave her spiritual family, the Sisters of the Community.
Then she rose and concluded the audience.
She had signed her own death-warrant.
Now the prophetic words of Bishop Triphonious are being fulfilled: her good works shine before God.
Her body, they say, remains untouched by corruption, and around her tomb numbers of people are flocking to obtain by her intercession the favour of the Most High.
A Note to the Reader:
As a Jew, and the person who transcribed this book, I have been asked to comment on the Countess’s phrase of “Lenin and his Jewish adherents” and that passage. To the modern reader, this is, of course, offensive. However, it should be stressed that any historical document transcribed or translated for research purposes, as here, must be preserved and unedited to be an exact representation of the original document. The Reader must always attempt to place these works back into their original context.
Much of the Russian Aristocracy before the Revolution was anti-Semitic, to varying degrees. Also, it is to be remembered that the Revolutionary parties had a definite membership of Jews, who felt oppressed by the anti-Jewish laws and nature of Imperial Russian government. Thus, many portions of Russian monarchist society felt the Revolution was a largely “Jewish” movement. The Countess was, in my opinion, expressing this sentiment.
— Original text transcribed for this website by Rob Moshein. 2004. firstname.lastname@example.org
Note to Readers
P.S. If you have any interest in joining one of our upcoming pilgrimages, we have information packets on pilgrimages later this year, and in 2019 and 2020. The pilgrimages visit:
(1) Rome and Vatican City — including inside Vatican City
(2) The Italy of St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Catherine of Siena, and other saints
(3) England in the Footsteps of St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher and Blessed John Henry Newman
(4) Germany in the Footsteps of Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI
(5) Russia: In Search of the Spiritual Renewal of Post-Soviet Russia
(6) Ireland: In Search of the Emerald Isle’s Past, and Future
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