Described at the time as the most beautiful woman in Europe, this is the story of a princess who was to know both public adulation and private sorrow before spending her last days in the service of the sick and the poor wearing the plain garb of a nun. Having been born into privilege and lived in unimaginable splendor, her end was to come in an industrial wasteland as a martyr to her faith.
Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth was born on November 1, 1864. She had been named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a distant ancestor. Ella, as she was to be known, was the second child of the Royal House of Hesse, a minor Germanic principality. Her upbringing was conventional for one of such rank; charming and bright, she was also beautiful. Suitors were proposed or came hoping for marriage. The future Kaiser Wilhelm II was one such, only to be met with a firm if polite “nein.” Then, there came from the East two brothers, sons of the Russian Tsar, and it was to one of these, Sergei, she was drawn: an intense artistic and spiritual kinship grew—soon her heart was won.
Thereafter, Ella was to leave home and family for a distant land and a formidable dynasty: Imperial Russia and the Romanovs. The couple were married on June 15, 1884, at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg; and, in so doing, she entered a world nothing could have prepared her for. With political and social systems markedly different from those in Germany, the Romanovs ruled Russia and her vast empire as absolute monarchs, as they had done so for nearly 300 years, but, unbeknownst to all, they were now entering their twilight.
Initially, Sergei and his new bride were enveloped into life at court, with all its petty rivalries and dubious charms, but theirs was to be a love set apart, one based primarily on a shared and deep Christian faith. Nevertheless, for her first years of marriage, Ella lived in an aristocratic world that knew only great wealth and power, decadence and dissipation, and even greater mismanagement of those it claimed to serve. Inevitably, age-old resentments started to build within a restless empire.
There was one occasion, from those early years, that was both telling and significant, occurring in 1888, when the young couple represented the Russian Royal House at the dedication of the church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. There, whilst priests intoned prayers and incensed icons, in the very center of the Holy Land, Ella felt the first stirrings of her heart away from the Lutheranism of her birth. As it turned out, this visit to Jerusalem and the Holy Places impressed both greatly, but Ella in particular. Although always a devout Christian, her faith began to deepen from this time. An intense period of prayer and study followed, eventually leading to the Orthodox faith of her husband. But, for now, leaving the tranquility of Jerusalem, the couple made their way back to Russia and to another city, if one far from peace.
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In the spring of 1891, Sergei was asked by his brother, Tsar Alexander III, to assume the position of Governor of Moscow. It was a significant post that was growing in importance due to unrest from workers, intellectuals and anarchists. Of course, he accepted at once. And, as he did so, both Ella and he said farewell to St. Petersburg and all they had known there. Little did they realize that they would never again live life with such youthful abandon. At the same time as this imperial couple made their way to a new home at the Kremlin Palace, from across the vast wastes of Holy Russia clouds of dissension and revolt continued to drift inexorable toward Moscow.
The city that was to become Ella’s home was to be the seedbed for the revolutions that followed. And, as repression followed on from outrage, soon the cycle became a deadly one for all concerned, not least its governor.
1894 was to be a bleak year. Alexander III died of illness and was succeeded by his son, Nicholas, who was married to Ella’s sister, Alix. By all accounts the new Tsar was unsuited for the task: a weak and vacillating man, his wife’s prominence soon grew, only to have later disastrous consequences for the Romanov dynasty and the whole of the Empire. Nevertheless, it was customary to have a large publicly funded celebration in the center of Moscow to mark the accession of a new emperor. All was planned, but did not go according to plan, horribly so. In a stampede over 1300 people were crushed to death in what became known as the Khodynka Tragedy, with the blame for this leveled at Sergei.
In any event, by then, his was a thankless task, trying to maintain order in a city that seemed to be in ceaseless pain as a new, very different, order was being born. Sergei was to be the emblem of all these woes, and, as a consequence, the target for much of the revolutionary hatred then spewing out in every direction. And, as the years progressed, as if possible, matters grew still worse when, in 1904, Russia fought a disastrous war with Japan, with the resultant national humiliation breeding further discontent. Eventually, Sergei was to resign his post, but decided to remain at the Kremlin with Ella. His resignation mattered little for those who, for political motives, wanted him dead, and who now plotted and watched for an opportunity to destroy the city’s symbol of Tsarist rule.
On February 17, 1905, a grenade was tossed into the former Governor of Moscow’s carriage. It detonated immediately, and, as it did so, the windows of the nearby Kremlin rattled. Ella knew instantly that that was the sound of her husband’s assassination, and ran from the palace out onto the snow-covered streets…. Stunned but still calm, she was to kneel in the blackened snow beside the mangled wreckage, as an equally stunned crowd gathered around her. As help came to collect the mortal remains of her husband onto a stretcher, in the snow she noticed the religious medallions he had worn. Bending down, she gathered these into her palm, before rising to pass silently through the crowds back into the Kremlin’s dark emptiness.
His assassin was easily apprehended at the scene, having also been wounded. Later, as he lay recuperating in his heavily guarded cell, the door opened to reveal, stood in the faint light, a strikingly beautiful woman dressed in mourning. As she drew near, she said: “I’m his wife”…. Soon his astonishment grew, realizing she had come out of concern for his soul. That night, Ella sat beside her husband’s killer and asked him to turn away from evil and seek repentance. And, whilst proffering an icon, with a face drained of all color and desperately trying to control her emotions, she told him she would pray for him. Then, rising, she quietly left the cell. A few months later, and after the assassin had been tried and hanged, the widow who had visited him was told by warders that, at the end, placed next to his bed, was found the icon she had given him.
That winter afternoon, when that season’s darkness seemed the blackest yet, Ella lost her husband, but, curiously, was to gain something in return, for it was from that hour that a strange luminosity arose and shone out upon the path that she was now to take. Shortly afterwards, she removed from her royal chambers all items deemed unnecessary leaving instead a sparsely furnished room. At its center stood a bare wooden cross and upon it hung the items of clothing taken from her husband on the day of his slaying. That death had brought her to the foot of a cross, the Holy Cross, as, mysteriously, it showed her the way to an even greater Love.
In the years that followed, her jewels and finery were to be exchanged for a plain white woolen habit, a palace for a monastery, glittering ballrooms for a sickroom full of the forsaken. Others were to join her mission, especially in the establishment of the Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy, dedicated to serving Moscow’s poor. Her prayer was practical as well as mystical; but, it coincided with another whose service was fantastical and whose mysticism was as dark as night. Emerging from the depths of Siberia, a mystic of sorts, known to history as Rasputin, made his way to the Imperial Court and through his influence, particularly on Ella’s sister, Alix, would wreck havoc on the destiny of a dynasty that was already tottering on the brink, and about to be ripped apart by war and revolution.
Russia’s enthusiastic commencement and ignoble retreat from the Great War is well documented. So too is the rise of the agitators that waited in the wings as an empire crumbled from within. Soon after the death of her husband, Ella had had a large cross erected at the site of the assassination—a symbol of her love for her husband, but, also, of this strange tragedy that was to shape her life. It was reported, during these first years of tumult, with his bare hands, Lenin helped tear down that cross, but, as history recounts, it was much more than just monuments that this leader of Bolshevism now wished to obliterate.
Governments rose and fell before the Tsar with his family were banished to internal exile and, ultimately, death. The peace found at the Martha and Mary Convent could not last. As Moscow fell into anarchy and then Red Terror, one night, in 1918, a knock came to the door of the convent, and as others watched, Ella was bundled onto the back of a truck by the secret police, acting under Lenin’s express orders, and driven off into the night.
Like the Royal Family before her, she was eventually taken to Alapayevsk in the Ural Mountains where the nascent Red Army held her under armed guard. Deep down, however, Ella knew her fate had been sealed, and, as the hour drew near, she wrote the following:
The Lord found that it was time for us to carry His cross, let us strive to be worthy of that joy.
Her journey, having started with an awakening on the Mount of Olives, and continued with the Cross being placed on her shoulders on that February day in 1905, was now to end in the depths of a seemingly desolate night, as she began her ascent of Calvary for the final oblation.
In the early hours of July 18, Ella and a number of others were taken to a nearby disused mine, one that had recently flooded. Ella was ushered forwards first by the now increasingly agitated Red Guards, calmly she approached them, and knowing the hour had finally come, knelt before her executioners and prayed: “Father, forgive them, they know not….” She was unable to finish her prayer, however, for rifle butts bludgeoned her face. Dazed she was picked up and, to the horror of those watching, thrown head first into the gaping blackness. One by one the other captives were thrown down into the darkness below, before, their task complete, the Red Guards left, leaving all to die.
An advancing White Army recovered her body months later. It was eventually removed to China, and then to the church on the Mount of Olives where she had come as a pilgrim some thirty years previously. It is there, facing the Holy City, with her earthly journey now over, that she awaits the advance of another, heavenly, army, come to claim her.
Just over 70 years later, across the now defunct Soviet Union, jubilant crowds watched as statues of Lenin were pulled down into the dust of a socialist utopia, now, at last, ended. And, as they did so, upon the Moscow sky a new dawn broke to reveal, standing once more in the midst of that city, the resurrected memorial of Ella to her husband, Sergei, with that cross no longer just a symbol to human love, but, now also, one of fidelity to Divine Love.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with kind permission.