The Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna - Her good influence - My work with her at Moscow - Plans for the future.
I do not claim to reveal any new facts about the Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna. Those who have read the many books on the last years of the Tsarist regime are familiar with this courageous and noble figure. However, I cannot, in telling the story of my life, omit to mention the woman who played such an important and helpful part in it; one whom, since childhood, I had loved and revered as a second mother.
All those who knew her paid tribute to the extraordinary beauty and generous nature of this exceptional woman. Tall and slender, with serene gray eyes, a sweet and gentle expression and delicate clear-cut features, she added to these physical qualities a keen intellect and great kindness of heart. She was the sister of the Tsarina Alexandra and of the reigning Prince Ernest of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the daughter of Princess Alice of Great Britain; she was thus the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her other sisters were Princess Victoria of Battenberg, later Marchioness of Milford Haven, and Princess Henry of Prussia. She had married the Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II.
The first years of her married life were spent in St. Petersburg, where she entertained a great deal in her palace on the Nevsky Prospect and led the brilliant life which her position called for, although, even then, she cared very little for pomp and ceremony.
In 1891 the Grand Duke was made Governor General of Moscow, and the Grand Duchess was soon as much loved in Moscow as she was in St. Petersburg. She led the same active life, and divided her time between her social obligations and her numerous charitable works,
On the 17th of February, 1905, as the Grand Duke was driving across the Senate Square in the Kremlin, a terrorist threw a bomb at him which blew him and his carriage to pieces.
This was during the Japanese war, and the Grand Duchess had organized a workroom in the Kremlin where clothes were made for the troops in Manchuria. She was working there when she heard the explosion and she ran out without even putting on a coat. In the square, she saw the wounded coachman and two dead horses. The Grand Duke's body had been literally blown to pieces and parts of it were scattered over the snow. The Grand Duchess gathered these precious remains with her own hands and had them taken to the chapel in her palace. The violence of the explosion was such that some of the Grand Duke's fingers, with his rings still on, were found on the roof of a neighboring house. All these gruesome details were given us by the Grand Duchess herself. We were at St. Petersburg when the tragic news arrived and we immediately left for Moscow.
Everyone admired the fortitude and calm with which the Grand Duchess met this blow. She spent the days before the funeral in prayer; her deep Christian faith gave her the courage to take a step which amazed her immediate circle of friends: she went to the prison where the assassin was confined and asked to be taken to his cell:
"Who are you?" he inquired.
"I am the widow of the man you killed. What led you to commit this crime?"
The rest of their conversation was never divulged, but more or less fantastic versions of it were put about. Some said that after his visitor left, the murderer broke down and wept. wept.
One thing is certain: that the Grand Duchess wrote to the Tsar, asking that the man's life should be spared. Nicholas II would have agreed to this if the assassin had not obstinately refused to ask for it. He even wrote to the Grand Duchess, denying that he had ever felt the least remorse for his act, and refusing in advance the pardon she had solicited for him.
The Grand Duchess visited the coachman, who had been dreadfully wounded. On seeing her by his bedside the unfortunate man, not knowing of his master's death, asked: "How is His Imperial Highness?" The Grand Duchess replied: "He sent me to see how you were getting on."
After her husband's death she continued to live in Moscow, but retired from the world and gave herself up entirely to pious and charitable works. She gave some of her jewelry to her close relations and sold the rest. My mother bought a magnificent pearshaped pearl from her, a gift from Tsar Nicholas II. The day he gave it to his sister-in-law the Tsar had remarked: "Now you own a pearl almost as beautiful as Zenaide Yussupov's 'Peregrina.' "
After disposing of all her possessions, the Grand Duchess bought a piece of land in the Ordinka quarter of Moscow, on the right-hand side of the river. In 1912 she built the Convent of Martha and Mary of which she became the Mother Superior. With a last touch of worldliness, for she had been a woman of extreme elegance and great taste, she had the dress of her order designed by Nesterov, a Muscovite painter: a long pearl-gray robe of fine wool, a lawn wimple which framed the face, and a white woolen veil that fell in long classical folds. The nuns were not cloistered, but dedicated their lives to visiting the poor and caring for the sick. They also traveled through the provinces, founding new centers. The institution developed rapidly; in a few years all large Russian cities had similar establishments. The Ordinka. Convent had to be enlarged: a church, a hospital, workshops and schools were added. The mother superior lived in a small, simply furnished three-room house; her wooden bed had no mattress and her pillow was stuffed with hay. The Grand Duchess slept little, a few hours at most, when she was not spending the whole night by a sickbed, or praying over a coffin in the chapel. Hospitals and nursing homes sent her their worst cases, and she nursed them herself. On one occasion, a woman who had overturned a lighted oil stove was brought in; her clothes had caught fire and her body was a mass of burns. Gangrene had set in and the doctors despaired of saving her. With a gentle but obstinate courage, the Grand Duchess nursed her back to life. It took two hours each day to dress her wounds, and the stench was such that several of the nurses fainted. The patient recovered within a few weeks and this was considered a miracle at the time.
The Grand Duchess thought it wrong not to tell patients when they were about to die; she considered, on the contrary, that it was her duty to prepare them for death and to inspire them with faith in eternal life.
During the first World War, she widened the scope of her charitable activities by centralizing all donations to the wounded, and creating new organizations. Although she was fully aware of what was going on, she was never interested in politics, being too much absorbed in her work to think of anything else. She was beloved by all; whenever she left the convent a crowd knelt as she passed by, and, making the sign of the cross, kissed her hand or her garments as she alighted from her carriage.
Although she did so much good, many people criticized her way of living. Some even went so far as to say that by leaving her palace and giving all she had to the poor she, as the Tsarina's sister, had lowered the dignity of the throne. The Tsarina herself was of this opinion; the two sisters did not get on at all well. Both were converts to the Orthodox Church, both were fervent believers, but each understood our religion in a different way. The Tsarina was inclined to follow a complicated, dangerous road to perfection: she dipped into mysticism and was led astray. The Grand Duchess chose the true and narrow path, that of humility and love; her faith was simple as a child's. But the chief reason for their disagreement was the Tsarina's blind confidence in Rasputin. The Grand Duchess considered him a fiend and an impostor, and did not conceal her opinion from her sister. They met at longer and longer intervals, and finally ceased to meet at all.
The revolution of 1917 did not shake the Grand Duchess' strong spirit. On March 1st, a troop of revolutionary soldiers surrounded the convent, shouting: "Where is the German spy?" The Grand Duchess came forward and replied very calmly: "There is no German spy; this is a convent, of which I am the Mother Superior."
When they stated their intentions of taking her away with them, she said that she was ready to follow them but that first she wished to say farewell to her nuns and receive the priest's blessing in the chapel. The soldiers consented, provided that a delegation of their men were present at the ceremony.
When the Mother Superior entered the chapel, surrounded by armed soldiers, everyone knelt, weeping. After kissing the cross that the priest held out to her, she turned to the soldiers and asked them to do the same. Not one of them refused. Impressed by the Grand Duchess' calm, and the veneration shown her, they filed out in silence, entered their trucks and drove away, leaving her free. A few hours later, members of the Provisional Government called on the Grand Duchess and apologized; they admitted that they were unable to curb the lawlessness which was spreading over the country and begged her to return to the Kremlin where she would be in safety. She replied that having left the Kremlin of her own free will, she would not go back to it because of a revolution: that she was determined, God willing, to remain with her nuns and share their fate. The Kaiser offered several times, through the agency of the Swedish Embassy, to give her shelter in Prussia, as he feared that Russia was on the eve of terrible happenings. None knew this better than he, as he was as one of those responsible for them. But the Grand Duchess sent him word that she would never leave her convent, or Russia, of her own free will.
After this alarm, the community had a respite for a short time. When the Bolsheviks assumed power, they granted all persons at the Ordinka Convent the right to live there as before; they even sent food to the convent.
But in June 1918 the Grand Duchess was arrested along with her faithful servant Varvara and taken to an unknown destination. Patriarch Tikhon tried in vain to trace her and have her set free. Finally, it became known that she was a prisoner in the small town of Alapaiesk, in the district of Perm, along with her cousin the Grand Duke Serge Mikhailovich, Princes John, Constantine and Igor, sons of the Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich, and Prince Vladimir Paley, son of the Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich.
On the night of July 18, twenty-four hours after the assassination of the Tsar and his family, they were thrown alive into a mine shaft. Inhabitants of the neighboring town witnessed the massacre from afar. They went to the mine after the Bolsheviks had gone, and claimed to have heard groans and hymns. But no one dared to help the victims.
A few weeks later, the White Army entered the town. By order of Admiral Koltchak, the bodies of the martyrs were taken from the pit and placed in coffins. Strips of a nun's veil were found to have been used to dress the wounds of the victims. Later, the coffins were sent to Harbin and from there to Pekin. The Marcbioness of Milford Haven subsequently had the remains of the Grand Duchess and her servant Varvara removed to Jerusalem. They were buried in the crypt of St. Mary Magdalene, the Russian church which stands near the Mount of Olives. The Grand Duchess' coffin split during its transfer from Pekin to Jerusalem, and a clear, fragrant fluid flowed from it; her body had escaped decomposition, and several miraculous cures took place at her tomb. One of our archbishops related that during a stay in Jerusalem, as he prayed before the Grand Duchess' tomb, he saw the door of the church open and a woman in white draperies cross the nave and stop before an icon of the Archangel Michael. He recognized the Grand Duchess when she turned and pointed to the icon; then the vision disappeared.
The only relics I have of the Grand Duchess Elisabeth are a few beads from her rosary and a fragment of wood from her coffin. This wood at times exudes a delicious odor of flowers.
I am firmly convinced that the name of "saint" by which she was known to the Russian people will one day be recognized by the Church.
But to return to my narrative where I left it at the death of my brother: I had now made up my mind to go and see the Grand Duchess Elisabeth, and set out for the Kremlin which I reached in a state of great mental distress. At the Nicholas Palace, I was at once shown in to the Grand Duchess' presence and found her seated at her desk. I broke down completely and threw myself at her feet. She gently stroked my hair and waited until I had calmed down. When I had recovered my self-control, I confided all my troubles to her: my spiritual turmoil and the conflicting emotions that were torturing me. To confess was in itself a relief, The Grand Duchess listened most attentively: "You were right to come to me," she said; "with God's aid, I am certain I can help you. No matter what trials He sends us, if we have faith in Him and confidence in our prayers, He will give us the strength to bear them. When doubt assails you, do not despair - kneel before an icon of the Savior and pray; you will feel better at once. The tears you have just shed came from your heart. 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."
The Grand Duchess then talked of my parents; she reminded me that I was their only remaining son and urged me to be as considerate and loving as I could and not to neglect my invalid mother. She asked me to help her in her charitable work. She had recently opened a hospital for tuberculous women, and suggested that I should visit the poverty-stricken slums, where this dreadful disease was widespread.
I returned to Arkhangelskoye, soothed and comforted. The Grand Duchess' words were an answer to everything that had worried me for such a long time. I again remembered the advice the priest had given me: "Do not philosophize too much... just believe in God." I had taken too little heed of it at the time, and had turned to occultism instead. I had succeeded in developing my will power, but had failed to find peace of mind. The strength and self-confidence of which I was so proud had crumbled the first time they were tested, leaving me wretched and bewildered. I realized that I could find relief and spiritual comfort only in the simple faith I had been taught as a child.
A few days later, I returned to Moscow and began my work among the poor. I started off by visiting slums where the squalor and destitution were indescribable. Most of the hovels never saw the sun; whole families were crowded into tiny rooms, and slept on the bare ground in dampness, filth and cold.
An unknown world was revealed to me, a world of suffering more horrible than anything I bad seen at the Wiasemskaia-Lavra. I longed to snatch these poor creatures from their pitiful conditions, and I was staggered by the immensity of the task. I thought of the incalculable sums spent on wars and on scientific research which resulted in the destruction of humanity, while so many wretched men and women were reduced to subhuman conditions. I had of course a great many disappointments.... I had realized a large sum of money by selling some personal belongings, but it melted away in a few days. I found that people took advantage of my lack of experience and imposed upon my good will. It was not till later that I understood that financial help must be given with great discrimination and without any thought of return. The Grand Duchess' example proved to me that one's only reward was in the giving. Almost every day I visited the sick at the Moscow Hospital. These poor people were touchingly grateful to me for the little I did for them. In reality it was I who was indebted to them, because of all they unconsciously taught me. I envied the doctors and nurses who were able to help them far more effectively.
I was most grateful to the Grand Duchess for understanding the desperate emptiness of my life and for giving me a new interest, but I was tormented by the idea that there was much she did not know, and that she might still be cherishing some illusions about me.
Finding her alone one day, I confessed to her all the facts of my private life of which I supposed her to know nothing. She heard me in silence, and when I had finished she kissed me.
"Don't worry," she said, "I know more about you than you think. That is why I am so much interested in you. Anyone who is capable of doing much evil is also capable of doing much good, if he sets about it in the right way. No matter bow serious the offense, it is redeemed by sincere repentance, Remember, the only thing that defiles the soul is spiritual sin; it can remain pure in spite of carnal weaknesses. It is your soul that I am thinking of, and I want to lay it open to you. Fate has given you everything that a man could wish; you have received much, and much will be asked of you. Do not forget your responsibilities; you must set an example and earn the respect of others. The trials you are going through will teach you that life is not just a pastime. Think nk of all the good you can do! And all the evil! I have prayed much for you, and believe that Our Lord will hear me and help you."
Her words filled me with a new hope and gave me strength to face the future.
My mother, knowing that I was busy in Moscow all day and in the Grand Duchess' kindly care, stayed on at Arkhangelskoye. We lived quite alone there. My mother spent most of her time at my brother's grave, my father had a great deal to do and we seldom saw him. My work in Moscow absorbed me, and I stayed in the city all day and only came home for dinner. In the evening, after my father had retired to his rooms, I often staved with my mother late into the night. Our common sorrow drew us even closer together than before, but her nervous state prevented my talking as freely as I would have wished, and I suffered on account of this. When I went to my room it was more often to think than to sleep. The religious books given me by my mother and the Grand Duchess were laid aside: the profound but simple words I had heard had sunk into my heart and were sufficient food for thought. Until then I had lived only for pleasure, avoiding the sight of suffering in any form; I had not grasped the fact that there were any more essential values than money and the power that goes with it. I now felt the vanity of all this. In discarding my thirst for power and my love for worldly possessions I had at last found freedom.
I then decided to change my way of living. My head was filled with plans for the future, which I would certainly have carried out had I not been driven into exile. I longed to turn Arkhangelskoye into an art center and build close to it a number of houses for painters, musicians, writers and craftsmen in the same style as the main building. They should have an academy, a school of music and a theater. I wanted to turn the chateau itself into a museum, reserving a few rooms for exhibitions. I planned to make the park still more beautiful by damming the river and flooding the surrounding fields, thus turning them into an immense lake; the terraces would then be extended to the water's edge.
My plans were not confined to Arkhangelskoye. We owned houses in St. Petersburg and Moscow which we never lived in; these I intended to turn into hospitals, clinics and homes for old people. The Moika house and Ivan the Terrible's palace would become museums, where the finest specimens from our collections would be exhibited. I further planned to build sanatoria on our Crimean and Caucasian estates. I meant to reserve a room or two for my personal use in all these different places. I would present the land to the peasants, the factories and workshops would be converted into joint stock companies. The sale of all jewelry and valuables which had no artistic or historical interest, plus the money in the banks, would give me a capital sum, the interest on which would be ample to carry out all these plans.
These were merely dreams for the future, but they haunted me. I was always on the lookout for new ideas, and was so obsessed by my projects that I even saw Ankhangelskoie in my dreams just as I hoped it would be one day.
I told my mother and the Grand Duchess of my plans. The latter understood and approved of them, but I had to face my mother's opposition, for she did not see eye to eye with me on the question of my future. I was the last of the Yussupovs, and she considered that my first duty was to marry. I told her that I did not feel fitted for family life, and that children would entail obligations which would prevent me from disposing freely of my fortune. I added that, in times when revolutionary passions were so rife, it was no longer possible to live as one did during the time of Catherine the Great. As to leading a shabby, bourgeois existence in a setting of such pomp and ostentation - that was, to my mind, completely out of the question. The quality that I wanted to preserve in Arkhangelskoye could only be retained if its luxury and splendor ceased to be enjoyed by a privileged few: it should be placed at the disposal of the greatest possible number of people chosen from among those who were capable of appreciating it and deriving benefit from it.
When I realized that I could never convince my mother, and that these discussions upset her, I gave them up.
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