An excerpt from the book “Holy Martyr of Russia, Grand Princess Elizaveta Fyodorovna” written by Liubov Miller in Australia. Translated from Russian by Irina Nabatova-Barrett
Holy Martyr Grand Princess Elizaveta Fyodorovna was the second child in the family of Grand count Guessen of Darmshtadt, Louis IV and princess Alice, a daughter of England’s Queen Victoria. Another daughter of this couple — Alice — later became the Empress of Russia Alexandra Fyodorovna.
The children were brought up in the spirit of Old England — their life was scheduled strictly according to their mother’s timetable. Their food and clothes were very simple. The elder daughters performed household chores: tidying up rooms and beds, and making fires in the fireplace. Later Elizaveta Fyodorovna would say, “I learned everything I know at home.” Their mother carefully supervised the development of each child’s talents and aptitudes. She tried to raise them on the basis of Christian commandments and to bring them up in the spirit of love of fellow man to people, especially the destitute.(1)
Elizaveta Fyodorovna’s parents spent a major part of their wealth on charity. The children often visited hospitals, orphanages and homes for the disabled. They would bring big bouquets of flowers and put them into vases in the wards. Since childhood, Elizaveta loved nature, especially flowers, which she liked to draw very much. She had an artistic talent and devoted a lot of time to drawing. She liked classical music too.
All those who knew Elizaveta from childhood noted her love for people. According to what Elizaveta herself said later, her life from the very young years was greatly influenced by the life and deeds of Elizabeth of Turing, one of her ancestors, after whom Elizaveta was named.
In 1873 Frederick, Elizaveta’s 3-year-old brother, fell to his death in front of his mother’s eyes. In 1874 the town of Darmshtadt had epidemics of diphtheria, all the children fell ill except Elizaveta. Their mother stayed with the sick children day and night. Four year old Maria was the first to die; she was followed by the Grand Duchess Alice herself, who was 35 at the time. That year Elizaveta’s childhood ended. In her grief she began to pray zealously and more often. She understood that this earthly existence is a cross-bearing life. She tried to do all she could to relieve her father’s pain, to support and console him. To some extent, she tried to replace their mother to her younger sisters and brother.
At the age of 20 princess Elizaveta was betrothed to grand prince Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of the Emperor Alexander II, who was a brother of the Emperor Alexander III. She met her future husband while they were children, when he visited Germany with his mother — Empress Maria Alexandrovna, also a descendant of the Gessen lineage. Before that she had turned down the proposals of all other suitors.
The whole family was seeing Princess Elizaveta off to Russia to her wedding. Her 12-year-old sister Alice accompanied her, and there in Russia she met her would-be husband, young prince Nicholas Alexandrovich.
The wedding took place in the church of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The grand princess studied the Russian language with persistence, wishing to learn more about the culture and especially the faith of her new homeland. Grand princess Elizaveta was a dazzling beauty. In those times the Europeans would say, “There are only two beauties in Europe, both are called Elizaveta: Elizaveta of Austria, wife of the Emperor Franz-Joseph, and Elizaveta Feodorovna. In 1884 Grand Prince Constantine Constantinovich Romanov wrote a poem devoted to her:
I look at you and I enjoy it ever
You are so beautiful, no words can tell!
Oh! I am sure that such beauty hosts
A soul that is wonderful as well.
The depth of modesty and quiet sorrow
Is in your eyes of beauty so pure
You are as calm and quiet as an angel;
And as a lady, gentle and demure.
Amidst the many earthly sins and evils
Let nothing blur the pure soul of thine,
And let us all sing praises to Creator
Who gave such beauty to a soul divine!
Most of the year the Grand Duchess lived with her spouse in their Iliynkoye estate sixty kilometers from Moscow, on the bank of Moscow River. She loved Moscow with its ancient temples, monasteries and partriachal way of life. Sergei Alexandrovich was a deeply religious man, he lived according to the statutes of the Holy Church, strictly observing the fasts, going to church frequently and visiting monasteries. The Grand Duchess followed her husband everywhere and never sat down during the long church services.
In the Orthodox temples she experienced a wonderful feeling of mystery and grace, so different from what she had felt in a protestant church. She saw how happy Sergei Alexandrovich was after partaking of the Holy Mysteries of Christ and she herself wanted to approach the Holy Chalice to share that joy with him. Elizaveta Fyodorovna began asking her husband to give her books of spiritual content, the Orthodox catechism, and interpretations of the Bible in order to comprehend both with her mind and heart what the True Faith was.
In 1888 Emperor Alexander III entrusted Sergei Alexandrovich to be his representative at the sanctification of the temple of Holy Mary Magdalene, built on the Holy Land of Gethsemane in the memory of their mother, Maria Alexandrovna. Sergei Alexandrovich had already been to the Holy Land in 1881, when he participated in the foundation of the Orthodox Palestinian Society and was elected chairman. This society raised funds for pilgrims to the Holy Land, for assistance to the Russian Mission in Palestine, for extending missionary work, for buying lands and relics that came down from the time of the Savior and were associated with His life. Having heard about the possibility of visiting the Holy Land, Elizaveta Fyodorovna took it as a sign from above and prayed so that there, at the Lord’s tomb, the Savior Himself would let her know His will.
In October 1888, Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich and his wife arrived in Palestine. The temple of Holy Mary Magdalene was built in the Gethsemane garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. This temple, crowned with five gold domes, to this day retains the title of one of the most beautiful temples of Jerusalem. The mountain was topped with a great bell tower, called “the Russian candle.” Having seen this beauty and having felt the presence of God’s grace in this place, the Grand Duchess said, “Oh, if I could be buried here when I die!” At that time she did not know that those words were prophetic. As a gift to the temple of Holy Mary Magdalene, Elizaveta Fyodorovna brought precious vessels, the Gospel and incenses.
After the visit to the Holy Land, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna had firmly decided to convert to Orthodoxy.(2) It was only the fear of hurting the feelings of her relatives, her father in particular, that made her procrastinate. Finally, on January 1, 1891, she wrote her father a letter about her decision to adopt the Orthodox faith. We shall quote almost all the letter, showing the way Elizaveta Fyodorovna had to take to come to the Faith.
“... And now, my dear father, I want to tell you something and I entreat you to grant me your blessing. More than over half a year ago during your last stay here you must have noticed the deep reverence that I feel towards the Russian religion. All this time I was thinking and reading, and prayerfully asking God to show me the right way, and came to the conclusion that only in this religion can I find the true and strong faith in God which a person must have in order to be a good Christian. It would be a sin to remain — as I am now — to belong to one church formally just for the sake of the world around me, while inside myself — to pray and to believe the way my husband does. You cannot imagine, how kind he was always to me: never did he try to force the faith on me, he left it completely to my conscience and discretion. He knows what a serious step this is for me, that I must be absolutely confident in my decision before I take such a step. I would have done it even earlier, it was only delaying this fearing that this would cause pain to you. But won’t you understand me, my dear Papa?
You know me so well — you will see that I decided to take this step only through deep faith, and that I feel that before God I must stand with my heart pure and truly believing.
It would be so easy to remain the way I am now, but then how hypocritical, how false it would be! How can I lie to everybody pretending that I am a protestant and following all the due traditions in outward appearance, while my soul totally belongs to Orthodoxy. I was thinking about all this profoundly, having lived in this country for over 6 years already and knowing that I have “found” the religion. It is my very strong desire to partake of the Holy Mysteries on Easter together with my husband. My decision might look impulsive, but I have been thinking about it for already so long that I cannot put it off any more. My conscience would not let me procrastinate. I beg of you to forgive me, your daughter, if your feelings are hurt when you read this letter. But isn’t faith in God and religion one of the main consolations of this world? Please send me only one line by telegraph, when you receive this letter. God bless you. It would be such a comfort to me, as I know, there will be many uneasy predicaments, as nobody would understand this decision. I am asking for only a short kind letter.”
Her father did not send her the telegram with his blessing, which she had asked for. Instead, he wrote a letter saying how much pain and suffering her decision caused him and that he could not give her his blessing.
Then Elizaveta Fyodorovna acted fearlessly, and despite her spiritual sufferings she did not give up her decision to be converted to the Orthodox Faith. Here are some more excerpts from her letters to relatives and friends:
“My conscience would not let me go on as usual — that would have been sinful; during all this time my remaining in the old faith was a lie for everyone around me…It would be impossible to continue living the way I was. I even understand almost everything in the old Slavonic services though I had never studied the language. There are Bibles both in Slavonic and in Russian, but the latter is easier to read… You say that the outer glamour of the Church charmed me. You are wrong here. Outward appearance never enticed me, not even the sermons, it is the foundation of the faith that I admire. Appearance is only associated with the inner essence… I am being converted because I am sure and I feel that this is the supreme creed, and that I will do it with faith, profound belief and conviction that I have God’s blessing for it.”
On April 25, which was the Saturday of St. Lazarus, the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna received the sacred anointing and was baptized with the same name she had.(3) But this time it was in honor of Holy Righteous Elizaveta — mother of St. John the Forerunner, who is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on the 18th of September. After the anointing ceremony, the Emperor Alexander III blessed his daughter-in-law with the precious Not-Made-by-Hands icon of the Savior. Elizaveta Fyodorovna never parted with that icon during her life and she suffered a martyr’s death holding that icon to her breast. Now she could say to her husband quoting the Bible, “Now your people are my people and your God is my God!” (Ruth 1:16).
In 1891 Emperor Alexander III appointed Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich to the position of the Governor-General of Moscow. A wife of a Governor had to perform many duties: receptions, concerts and balls were held incessantly. She had to smile to the guests, dance and keep up conversations irrespective of her mood, health or wish. After moving to Moscow, Elizaveta Fyodorovna suffered the loss of some people who had been very close to her — her beloved sister-in-law, Princess Alexandra (wife of Paul Alexandrovich), and her father. That was the time of her spiritual growth.
Muscovites quickly noticed and appreciated the charitable kindness of the Grand Princess. She visited hospitals for the poor, institutions and orphanages. Everywhere she tried to alleviate people’s sufferings: she brought food, clothing, money; she tried to better the life conditions of the destitute. After her father’s death she went on a voyage along the Volga, making stops at such towns as Yaroslavl, Rostov, and Uglich. In all those places the couple prayed in local churches.
In 1894, despite various obstacles, a decision about the engagement of Grand Princess Alice and the Heir to the Russian throne was finally adopted. Elizaveta Fyodorovna was glad that the young couple, who were in love, could marry and that her sister would live in Russia, the country she loved with all of her heart. Princess Alice was 22 and Elizaveta Fyodorovna hoped that living in Russia, her sister would understand and appreciate the Russian people, master the Russian language and get ready to assume the high duty of becoming the Empress of Russia.
But everything happened to turn out differently. When the bride of the Heir arrived in Moscow, Emperor Alexander III was on his deathbed. In October 1894 the Emperor died. The next day Princess Alice converted to Orthodoxy and was baptized with the name Alexandra. The wedding of Emperor Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna took place a week after the burial of Alexander III, and in the spring of 1896 Nicholas’ coronation took place in Moscow. The celebration was darkened by a terrible event. So many people came to the Khodyn field where presents were handed out to the guests that several thousand people were injured or killed in the crush of the crowd. Thus, that tragic period of reign started amidst mourning and burial Psalms.
An official ceremony honoring St. Seraphim of Sarov was held in July 1903. The entire family of the Emperor arrived at Sarov. The Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna prayed to the Holy Father to intercede that God would grant her a son. When a year later the heir was born, the royal couple decided to have the lower level altar of the church built in the village of Tsaritsino to be sanctified in the name of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. Elizaveta Fyodorovna was also in Sarov with her husband. In a letter sent from Sarov she wrote, “…We saw so many sick and suffering, but we also saw such great faith! It seemed like we found ourselves in the time of the Savior’s earthly life. They were praying and crying — those mothers with sick children — and, thank God, many were healed. The Lord granted us the favor of seeing how a mute girl gained the gift of speech, but one should see how ardently her mother was praying for her!”(4)
When the war between Russia and Japan started, Elizaveta Fyodorovna immediately began organizing help for the front. One of her wonderful initiatives was the organization of shops producing things needed by soldiers; all the big rooms and chambers of the Kremlin palace, except the Throne assembly room, were occupied by thousands of women sewing things and making other goods for the front. Large amounts of charity donations were delivered to the front from Moscow and provinces. Big containers with goods, livery, medicines, and presents for soldiers were being forwarded from Moscow to the frontlines. The Grand Duchess also sent to the transportable churches on the battle fields icons and everything necessary for the services there. She personally sent Gospels, icons and prayer books and she used her own money to finance several train hospitals. In Moscow she organized a hospital for the soldiers and visited it regularly. She set up special committees to provide for the needs of the widows and orphans of the officers and soldiers killed in action.
Yet, the Russian army lost one battle after another. An unprecedented number of terrorist acts, political meetings and strikes took place in the country. The State structure and public order were deteriorating, revolution was looming ahead.
Sergei Alexandrovich considered it necessary to take more rigid measures to stop the revolutionaries and reported his opinion to the Emperor, having noted that under the circumstances he could no longer be the Governor of Moscow. The Emperor accepted his resignation and the couple left the Moscow Governor’s house and moved temporarily to the village of Neskuchnoye. In the meantime, the militant S.R. (Socialist Revolutionary Party) organization had sentenced the Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich to death. The party agents were hunting him, waiting for a convenient moment to execute the sentence. Elizaveta Fyodorovna knew that her husband’s life was in jeopardy. She received anonymous letters with warnings not to accompany her husband, unless she wanted to share his fate. Contrary to that advice, the Grand Duchess tried to never leave her husband alone, and to accompany him wherever possible.
On the (18th of February 1905, Sergei Alexandrovich was killed with a bomb set by terrorist Ivan Kaliaev. When Elizaveta Fyodorovna arrived at the site of the explosion, there was already a crowd of people there. Someone tried to prevent her from coming close to her husband’s remains, but with her own hands she picked up the parts of his body torn asunder by the explosion and put them onto the stretchers. After the first funeral services at the Chudov monastery, she returned to the palace, changed into black mourning dress and sat down to write cables — the first one being to her sister Alexandra Fyodorovna, asking her not to attend the burial as the terrorists could use that chance to make an attempt on the lives of the royal couple.
While writing the telegrams, she found time to ask about the state of the wounded coachman of Sergei Alexandrovich. Upon learning that there was no hope for him to survive, she changed her mourning gown for the blue one that she had been wearing on that day and left for the hospital. There, bending over the dying man, she could discern his question about Sergei Alexandrovich and wishing to console him, she made herself smile kindly and said, “He sent me to see you.” Comforted by her words and thinking that Sergei Alexandrovich was alive, the devoted coachman Yefim died that very night.
On the third day after her husband’s death Elizaveta Fyodorovna visited the jailed assassin. Kaliaev said, “I did not want to kill you, I saw him several times when I had the bomb ready, but you were beside him and I did not dare the attempt.” — “Did not it occur to you that you killed us both?” she replied. Then she said that she brought Sergei Alexandrovich’s forgiveness and asked the murderer to repent. She was holding a Gospel in her hands and asked him to read it, but he refused. And still, she left the Gospel and a small icon in his cell before she left the jail, saying, “I failed to persuade him, but who knows, maybe at the last minute he would recognize his sin and repent.” After that she appealed to Emperor Nicolas II to grant forgiveness to Kaliaev, but the Emperor refused.
Out of all the grand princes only Constantine Constantinovich and Pavel Alexandrovich attended the funeral. Sergei Alexandrovich was buried in a small church of the Chudov monastery after which the requiem services were held there for 40 days. The Grand Duchess was present at all of the services and often went there at night to pray for her deceased husband. Here she felt that she received Grace with help from the relics of the holy Alexis, Metropolitan of Moscow, whom she venerated especially and devotedly from that time on. The Grand Duchess wore a silver cross with a small relic piece of Hierarch Alexis.(HREF="#n5" MACROBUTTON HtmlResAnchor 5) She thought that Prelate Alexis endowed her heart with the desire to serve God for the rest of her life.
She ordered a monument to be designed by the Russian artist Vasnetsov and built at the site of her husband’s assassination. It was a cross on which the words of the Savior pronounced by Him on the cross were written, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are do.” (Luke 23:34) (6).
From the time of her husband’s assassination, Elizaveta Fyodorovna always wore mourning dresses, she kept a strict fast and prayed much. Her bedroom in the Nicolievski palace began to resemble a nun’s cell. All the splendid furniture was removed; the walls were painted white and covered only with icons and pictures of evangelic content. She never appeared at any receptions or balls. She went to church only at weddings or baptism of relatives and friends and left for home or on her business immediately after ceremony. Nothing bound her to the high society life.
She took all her jewelry and gave part of it to the state treasury, some to her relatives, and she decided to use the rest of it for building a monastery of Mercy. Elizaveta Fyodorovna bought a large estate with four houses and a garden on Ordynka Street in Moscow. The biggest two-story building housed the dining room, the kitchen, storage and other rooms for nuns. The second house became a church and a hospital, with a drugstore and a clinic for visiting patients beside it, and the fourth building was set up as a house for the Priest-Confessor, the library, and classes for orphan girls.
Elizaveta Fyodorovna worked hard in order to compile the Statutes of the monastery. She wanted to revive the ancient institute of deaconesses, which existed during the first centuries of Christianity. Widows or elderly maidens could become deaconesses in those times. Their main role was to supervise the women joining the Church, to teach them the basics of the Faith, to help during the services of the Mystery of baptism and to take care of the poor and the sick. In the times of Christian persecution deaconesses served and supported jailed martyrs.
Archbishop Anastasius, who knew Elizaveta Fyodorovna personally wrote, “For some time she was earnestly contemplating the project of resurrection of the ancient institution of deaconesses, and the initiative was supported by Vladimir, the Metropolitan of Moscow (Bogoiavlenski, new martyr of Russia † 1918).” But the idea was opposed by the Bishop of Saratov, Hermogen, (after the revolution he died as a martyr in Tobolsk). Elizaveta Fyodorovna gave up the idea as she did not want to use her high position in order to circumvent the established rules and ignore the opinion of the Church powers. There were cases when the Grand Duchess was accused of some Protestant tendencies, but later the critics understood they had been wrong.
Elizaveta Fyodorovna continued to work on the Statutes of the monastery. She visited the Zosima desert several times where she discussed the project with the elders; she kept correspondence with various monasteries and religious libraries, studied the statutes of ancient cloisters. She was lucky to receive a prompt from Providence in her endeavor. In 1906 the Grand Duchess read a book written by a priest Mitrophan Serebrianski, “The Diary of the Regimental Priest, Who Served in the Far East During the Whole Period of the Recent Russian-Japanese War” (HREF="#n7" MACROBUTTON HtmlResAnchor 7).
She wanted to meet the author and invited him to Moscow. The draft of the Statutes for the future monastery appeared as the result of Elizaveta Fyodorovna’s meetings and conversations with Father Mitrophan.
According to the Statutes, the sermons and spiritual instruction of nuns could be carried out by a married priest, who would have sister-and-brother relations with his wife and who would live permanently on the territory of the monastery. Elizaveta Fyodorovna asked Father Mitrophan both when they met personally and in her letters to him to become the Confessor of the monastery, as his personality was in full conformity with the requirements of the Statutes. He was born into a large clerical family on July 31, 1870, in the town of Orel. The children were brought up in the spirit of devoutness and strict observance of the Church traditions and rules. When a baby turned four, the father would take it by the hand, bring it in front of the mother and tell her that from now on the child was able to observe all the fasting rules. The atmosphere in the family was permeated with love and peace, the children treated their parents with great respect. After graduation from the seminary young Mitrophan asked his parents to bless his marriage so that afterward he could be ordained a priest. Throughout his entire life Father Mitrophan respected and loved his wife very much. Toward the end of his life Father Mitrophan remembered, “Oliushka, my devoted life companion, came to the place of my exile on an open raft along the Irtysh River. She was such an encouragement, such comfort of my life!”