Grand Duchess Elizabeth: No Nobler Woman in Russian History

September 1987Mary Grace Swift

Mary Grace Swift, O.S.U., is Professor of History at Loyola University in New Orleans. Copyright © 1987 Mary Grace Swift.

In 1988 Christendom will celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Vladimir, Prince of Kievan Rus'. During the millennium thousands of monks and nuns have lived lives of humble dedication with little publicity either in their Slavic homelands or abroad. The subject of this article is an Orthodox nun. Even though she was a Grand Duchess, she, too, is little known in the Western world.

"It is impossible to describe her; she was different from anyone I ever met; her modesty, and even humility, elevated her to the position of a being quite apart. In a word, she was an angel in the guise of a woman." Thus a contemporary described Grand Duchess Elizabeth, daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse and granddaughter of England's Victoria. Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth, a Lutheran, came to Russia to marry Grand Duke Sergei, brother of Emperor Alexander III, on June 15, 1884. She had cameo-like features, slender grace, and radiant poise. In character, Elizabeth grew to resemble her distant relative St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

Unfortunately, Sergei had a reputation for harshness and inflexibility. Some relatives agreed with Grand Duke Alexander Nicolaevich, who recalled: "her eyes, her skin, her laughter, her genius for putting one at ease threw us all into the depths of despair at the realization of her approaching betrothal. I would have given ten years of my life to stop her from entering the church on the arm of haughty Sergei."

Sergei's brother Paul married a divorced commoner after his first wife died, and for that reason Marie and Dmitri, Paul's children by the first wife, were raised in Sergei's household. Marie left the impression that Elizabeth was a vain, cold, unloving woman who spent a great deal of energy designing her stunning wardrobe. Marie recalled in detail the ritual as Elizabeth dressed for dinner: with her lace-bordered underlinen arranged in a basket lined with rose satin near her, Elizabeth bathed privately, then a bevy of maids would enter her room to present the shoes, stockings, petticoats, and other finery for the evening. Marie's task was to fetch the jewels chosen for the occasion from Elizabeth's incomparable collection.

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