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Biographies - Princess Zenaida Yussupov

by Greg King

Of all the aristocratic families that comprised the Russian Court, the wealthiest and most important was, without doubt, the Yusupovs. They traced their descent from ancient Tartar khans who had murdered, raped and pillaged their ways to power. In the 16th Century, Khan Yussuf made an uneasy alliance with Ivan the Terrible, forging the first link in a chain of service to the Russian Crown that bound the family to the Romanov Dynasty until the end of the Empire. They were created Princes of Russia and awarded the title of Yusupov after an ancestor, Abdul Mirza, converted to Orthodoxy, a bold and clever decision that probably saved the family from obscurity.

Princess Zenaide Yusupov was born in 1861, the second daughter of Prince Nicholas Yusupov, Grand Master of the Ceremonies at the Court of Alexander II, and Countess Tatiana Ribeaupierre. The unexpected death of the eldest daughter, Princess Tatiana, left the young Zenaide sole heir to the largest private fortune in Imperial Russia. Tall and slender, with an "exquisite, rose-leaf complexion, luxuriant black hair, and cornflower blue eyes," the young Princess soon became the toast of St. Petersburg Society. Vivacious, even-tempered, intelligent, and exquisitely refined, Zenaide captivated all of those whom she encountered; with her enormous private fortune, she quickly found herself courted by eligible scions from noble families across Europe. Members of the Romanov Dynasty, too, were drawn to her quiet, introspective nature. Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich was one of her early admirers, and dedicated several of his love poems to her in an effort to win her hand. But rather than making a grand match, she instead fell in love with the poor and socially unimportant Count Felix Sumarakov-Elston, an officer in the Chevaliers Guards.

The Elstons, according to family legend at least, were descended from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia through an illicit affair. The King supposedly fell in love with his sister's maid-of-honor who soon found herself pregnant. When she gave birth to a son, the child received the name of Felix Elston, derived from the French expression for astonishment. Felix Elston later married Countess Helen Sumarakov, the last of her line, and received Imperial permission to assume her surname and title. Their son-and Zenaide's future husband-Felix Felixovich, Count Sumarakov-Elston, was born in 1856. Educated at the famous Corps des Pages, he entered the Odessa Lancer Regiment of the Imperial Guard as Cornet in 1876 and two years later took part in the Russo-Turkish War before joining the Chevalier Guards. Tall and handsome, with a dashing cavalry mustache and blue eyes, he cut an attractive figure in St. Petersburg's drawing rooms, and Zenaide fell hopelessly in love. Prince Nicholas Yusupov strongly objected to the proposed union, urging his daughter to find a husband of more suitable rank, but the young woman was determined and, on 4 April 1882, the pair was married in the Chapel of the Chevalier Guards Regiment in St. Petersburg.

The marriage between Zenaide and Felix was an unlikely one. Renowned for her beauty and grace, she was without prejudice and believed absolutely in the aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige. She loved society, dinners, and balls, and used her vast fortune to assist struggling painters, sculptors, composers, and singers. Count Felix cared little for such things; with a reputation for eccentricity and a mind fixated on his military career, he stood in bold contrast to his refined wife. Many of those who knew him kindly dismissed the Count as an unimaginative bore, and he was never happier than when attending a military review. Despite the differences, however, Zenaide and Felix managed to create a stable and lasting marriage, and remained touchingly devoted to each other for all of their lives.

Prince Nicholas Yusupov died in 1891. At the time, he had applied to the Imperial Senate for special dispensation that would allow his son-in-law to assume the Yusupov name, which would otherwise die out on his daughter's death. It took two years before Alexander III finally interviewed and issued an Imperial Ukase granting the surname Yusupov to Count Felix and any of his children. Through this measure, the Yusupov Family was once again saved from oblivion.

Selflessly, Zenaide abandoned her own pleasures and interests and centered her life round her family. She and her husband had two sons, Prince Nicholas, born in 1882, and Prince Felix, born in 1887, who lived to adulthood. Both boys adored their mother, but relations with their domineering father were usually strained and always formal. Their morning ritual consisted solely of kissing his hand in greeting as he arrived at the dining table. He took absolutely no interest in their lives, asked no questions, and Nicholas and Felix, in turn, never confided in their father, turning to their mother for both love and acceptance.

Zenaide's life was one of unparalleled privilege and luxury. The family fortune was incalculable: one pre-Revolutionary estimate of her real estate holdings alone placed the figure at $350 million. The family had invested wisely through the years, owning racing studs, industrial works, mineral and oil reserves, real estate, and one of the world's greatest private art collections. Even the Romanovs considered themselves poor in comparison with their Yusupov subjects.(Vorres, 98)

The Princess owned an impressive number of palaces and estates. There were three mansions in St. Petersburg; villas at nearby Tsarskoye Selo and at the Krasnoye Selo Army Camp; a Moscow house which had once been the hunting lodge of Ivan the Terrible; a country estate near the former capital; two estates in central Russia; and three different houses in the Crimea. There were other holdings, rarely visited by the family but prized for their financial contributions to the Yusupov fortune. One of their estates in Caucasus stretched for 125 miles along the shores of the Caspian Sea: so much oil came from this land that it literally soaked the ground, and peasants used it to grease the wheels of their carts and wagons. Zenaide and her family visited these holdings each year by private railway carriage, coupled to an ordinary passenger train. This carriage was itself a miniature palace, complete with an aviary, drawing and dining rooms and bedrooms, not only for the family but for their servants as well. It even contained its own kitchen, lest the family be forced to dine on the fare offered by the railway. A similar private carriage always sat at the Russian border with Germany, for continental holidays.

The center of Zenaide's world was her palace at No. 94 Moika Canal in St. Petersburg. Spreads over three floors were drawing rooms, reception rooms, and art galleries. A Moorish Room, complete with a central fountain, had been copied directly from an apartment in the Alhambra. Zenaide's bedroom, hung with watered blue damask, contained long rows of cabinets filled with her priceless collection of tiaras, necklaces, earrings, and brooches. The furniture in her boudoir had belonged to Marie Antoinette; above swirled a chandelier of rock crystal, taken from Madame de Pompadour's bedroom at Versailles. Paintings by Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Fragonard, Bouchier, Watteau, and Robert graced the walls; the furniture was carved and gilded with gold and inlaid with ormolu; and the tables held bowls of uncut diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, used as mere decorations. At one end of the palace, separated by a series of galleries, was a private Louis XV-style theatre, in cream and gold.

In these elaborate surroundings, Zenaide held court on a scale equaled only by the Imperial Family themselves. Orchestras and ballet companies were hired for evening entertainments, and a thousand guests might dine on solid gold or silver plate, lulled into a state of enchantment by the perfection of the setting. Infanta Eulalia, aunt of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, recalled one such evening: "The Princess was a most lovely woman, whose marvelous beauty stands out... She lived in extraordinary luxury in a setting of unsurpassed splendor, surrounded by works of art of the purest Byzantine style... The magnificence and luxury of Russia, blended with the refinement and distinction of France, reached its culminating point in the Yusupov Palace... The Princess wore a court gown studded with the finest diamonds and pearls. Tall, exquisitely beautiful, she wore a kokoshnik set with enormous pearls and equally large diamonds worth a fortune. A dazzling array of fantastic jewels from the East and the West completed her costume: ropes of pearls, massive gold bracelets of ancient design, pendants of turquoise and pearls, multi colored glittering rings... All these gave to Princess Yusupov the majestic splendor of a Byzantine empress."

Zenaide's country estate of Arkhangelskoye, on the Moscow River outside the former capital, bordered Ilinskoye, home to Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich and his wife Elizabeth Feodorovna, and ties between they and the Yusupovs were close and warm. In 1886, Count Felix had been appointed Adjutant to the Grand Duke and, when Serge Alexandrovich was posted to Moscow as Governor-General, the couple followed them. Zenaide and Elizabeth became especially close confidants, a relationship cemented when the Princess spent hours helping the Grand Duchess with her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church. The two women spent long days together, taking carriage rides through the surrounding forests and picnicking along the banks of the wide, flat river. Prince Felix, Zenaide's youngest son, came to love the Grand Duchess, as he later recalled, as "a second mother," and repeatedly turned to her for advice throughout his life in Russia.

Zenaide was keenly aware of the inequities of the Imperial system and used her position and money to alleviate the suffering she saw around her. At Arkhangelskoye, she built schools, hospitals, new houses, a church, and even a theater, all for the use of her servants and those who lived on the estate, and she took a great interest in their lives. Her son Felix later recalled that no one who ever came to her with a request or favor was ever turned away, and her generosity won her many admirers. While many aristocrats took such paternalistic care of those on their estates, the Princess's dedication to improving the lives of these simple people was starkly at odds with the life of privilege into which she had been born. The French painter Francois Flameng was so impressed by her concern that he once declared: "Promise me, Princess, that when my artistic career is over you will allow me to become the honorary pig of Arkhangelskoye." Such far-sighted attitudes and enlightened benevolence also deeply impressed Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, and played no small part in her later dedication to the less fortunate.

Zenaide's wealth and power could not, however, protect her from the tragedies of life. In 1907, her eldest son, the tall, dashing Nicholas, fell in love with Countess Marina Heyden, a woman of fiery temperament and undoubted beauty but who had deliberately cultivated an aura of sexual intrigue about her. At the time, the Countess was engaged to Baron Arvid Manteufel and, despite his repeated protests, she engaged in a dangerous game, playing one lover against the other. Nicholas, determined to marry her, appealed to his mother, who was horrified that he would even consider such a scandalous union. Against her will, the Countess married Manteufel, but Nicholas refused to let the affair die, pursuing her on her honeymoon and quickly rekindling their liaison. Disaster was inevitable. One early July morning, Nicholas and Manteufel faced each other across a deserted, dew-covered meadow on the outskirts of St. Petersburg: shots rang out and Prince Nicholas, twenty-five, fell dead.

Zenaide had feared the worth, and implored her youngest son to intercede with his brother when she first heard hints of a duel, but Felix maliciously aggravated the situation and unwittingly played a pivotal role in the events that brought it about. He later remembered that morning when his brother's body was carried into the Moika Palace, his father tearful and Zenaide collapsed over the stretcher, screaming over and over again, "Nicholas! Nicholas!" The tragedy nearly broke the bereaved mother; she could not bring herself to even attend his funeral, and spent the next few years lost in a haze of tears, finding comfort only in the care and counsel of her friend Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna.

Nicholas's death left his twenty-one-year-old brother Felix as sole heir to the family fortune. Felix was a curious young man, tall, handsome, and cultured, with a pronounced eccentricity and a well-earned reputation as a dissolute, decadent aristocrat. As a child, he had gone through a rapid succession of nannies and tutors, frightening them all away with his uncontrollable behavior; desperate, his parents finally sent him to a military school before he finished his education with a degree from Oxford University. When he returned to Russia at the end of his three years abroad, he was quieter and more mature, but his dissolution had grown to encompass opium and alcohol, along with his indiscrete affairs with both men and women.

By 1913, Felix's reputation was such that Zenaide insisted he marry, an ultimatum supported by Empress Alexandra. In February of 1914, Zenaide watched, "a look of ineffable sadness in her still lovely cornflower blue eyes," as one guest recalled, as Felix wed Princess Irina Alexandrovna, only daughter of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, in the chapel of the Anichkov Palace. After the brief honeymoon, Felix's parents joined the newly married couple on a trip to Europe. They were in Bad Kissingen in August of 1914, when the First World War erupted. The group traveled to Berlin, hoping to join the staff of the Russian Embassy on a train bound for St. Petersburg, but they found themselves prisoners in their hotel suite on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Irina contacted Crown Princess Cecile of Prussia, asking that she intercede with her father-in-law, but Wilhelm was unwilling to release the Yusupovs; instead, he offered them their choice of one of three country estates for the duration of the War, assuring them that they would be comfortable and protected. Patriotically, however, the group continued to push for their return to Russia; in a few days, and under pressure from the Spanish Ambassador, the Kaiser relented and declared that the Russians were free to leave. They made their way to Anhalter Station, only to find it ringed by an angry mob that pelted their motorcar with rocks; Zenaide and her family barely managed to board the train without injury and, with relief, set off for Russia.

In the first months of the War, Zenaide financed several private hospitals for wounded officers and soldiers, and turned the elegant drawing rooms of the Moika Palace into common wards. She gave generously to the Red Cross, funding a number of trains bound for the German Front, and established an organization to assist families left behind in their financial needs. In March of 1915, she became a grandmother when Irina gave birth to a baby girl, called Irina by her parents.

It was one of the few bright spots in a life increasingly clouded with sorrow. Nicholas II appointed Count Felix Governor-General and Chief of the Moscow Military District, positions that demanded his presence in the former capital. With reluctance, Zenaide abandoned her son and daughter-in-law and took up residence in Moscow, where she found the population growing increasingly agitated by both the military setbacks of the War and by the common belief that the Empress, under the sway of Rasputin, was somehow involved in a shadowy conspiracy against their country and held strong pro-German sympathies. The issue came to a head in June of 1915, when anti-German riots broke out in Moscow. A large mob gathered in Red Square, calling for Rasputin's murder, the imprisonment of the Empress, the overthrow of Nicholas II, and the installation of Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaievich as Emperor Nicholas III. The military, under the control of Count Felix, was unable to disperse the mob, which eventually gravitated to the Convent of St. Mary and St. Martha, founded by Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna after her husband's assassination in 1905. Here, they resumed their attacks, pelting the Convent with stones and calling for "the German woman" to appear; to quiet them, Elizabeth Feodorovna bravely faced down the mob, only to be met with accusations that she was hiding her brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse und Bei Rhein. Only the arrival of a second contingent of armed police prevented violence.

As Governor-General and Chief of the Moscow Military District, Zenaide's husband was charged with maintaining order in the city, and the riot not only served as a visible demonstration of the growing discontent against the Dynasty but also underlined his impotence in the face of opposition. When she learned of this, Empress Alexandra was understandably angry, and demanded that her husband force his resignation. The Emperor, however-knowing that such outbreaks were taking place all over the country-was loathe to confront the Count. Instead, he waited until autumn before summoning Zenaide's husband to an uncomfortable meeting at Tsarskoye Selo. It began pleasantly, but when the Emperor demanded explanations, Count Felix replied frankly that, given the conditions in the country, such displays were to be expected. Then he went further, speaking out against the continued influence of Rasputin-a bold move that sealed his fate. Nicholas II demanded his resignation and the Count, glad to be free of the onerous responsibilities, immediately resigned.

Rather than return to Petrograd, Zenaide and her husband retired to their estate of Koreiz in the Crimea, where they lived quietly for the next eighteen months. In the fall of 1916, Zenaide had an urgent letter from her friend Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, in which she outlined the current situation as she saw it, and angrily denounced her sister Alexandra's influence and continued reliance on Rasputin. She begged Zenaide to go to Tsarskoye Selo and speak to the Empress, saying that she herself had been all but cut off from their former relationship for several years. With some reluctance, Zenaide agreed, and boarded a train for Petrograd. The Empress received her in the Maple Room of the Alexander Palace and, from the first, the meeting was uneasy. At the first mention of Rasputin, Alexandra asked the Princess to leave, but Zenaide refused, urging the Empress to listen to the growing discontent and abandon the peasant. It was all to no avail: after a few minutes, Alexandra rose, gave the Princess a hard look, and said coldly, "I hope never to see you again!" When Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna arrived and tried to raise the issue, her sister-as she later complained to Zenaide-"dismissed me like a dog!"

Scarcely a month later, Zenaide's son Felix lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace and, with Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich and several other conspirators, cold-bloodedly murdered the peasant. As soon as an investigation revealed his role, the Emperor ordered Felix into internal Russian exile. Accompanied by Irina and their daughter, he left Petrograd for the family estate of Rakitnoye in central Russia; Zenaide and her husband quickly followed them, and the family passed a cold, uncomfortable winter in the isolated house, far removed from the tumultuous events that erupted in Petrograd in February of 1917.

With the February Revolution, and the abdication of Nicholas II, the power that had kept Prince Felix in exile had disappeared, and all of the Yusupovs returned to the capital, once again residing in the Moika Palace. This was a dangerous time, with frequent raids and shootings in the streets, and the experience proved too much for the delicate Zenaide who hastily returned to Koreiz with her family. Although Felix himself made several hasty visits to the Moika Palace to retrieve important paintings and family jewels, no member of the Yusupov Family would ever live within its walls.

In the first months following the Revolution, Zenaide and her husband lived quietly at Koreiz, paying occasional visits to Felix and Irina at her father's neighboring estate of Ai-Todor. There were unpleasant incidents-raids, intrusive surveillance, and thinly veiled threats-but during the tenure of Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government they felt relatively safe. This changed in October of 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks came to power. Although Lenin had little time for the Romanovs imprisoned in various locations, local Soviets took it upon themselves to enforce their own brand of revolutionary justice, and the days of comfort soon came to an end, replaced with frequent deprivation and genuine fear. This uneasy situation was exacerbated in April of 1918 when, following the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Kaiser's army occupied the Ukraine and much of the Crimea. The prisoners now faced a Hobson's choice: accept the offers of protection from representatives of a country still at war with Russia, or face the unknown with an increasingly hostile Sevastopol Soviet. In the end, most opted for the Bolsheviks, only to find that the Germans were too powerful and could easily dictate terms of their captivity.

For fifteen long months, Zenaide and husband lived this uncertain existence; when they went to bed at night, behind the walls of their former palace, they could hear the crunch of footsteps as a constant Bolshevik patrol prowled the estate. Their fear was magnified as tales of the brutal execution of the former Emperor and his family in Ekaterinburg began to drift across the Crimea; for Zenaide, the worst blow came when she learned that her close friend Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna had also been murdered, thrown down an isolated mineshaft in Siberia along with six others with whom she had been imprisoned. There was no guarantee that the prisoners in the Crimea, a group that included Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, her daughters Xenia and Olga and their families, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaievich and his wife, and his brother Grand Duke Peter Nikolaievich and his family, would not themselves be awakened one night and lined up against a wall to face a firing squad.

Finally, at the beginning of 1919, King George V-after the incessant pleading of his mother Queen Alexandra-dispatched a British warship, HMS Marlborough, to rescue his aunt. The Dowager Empress, however, insisted that she would only board after all of those who also wished to leave had been allowed to do so; after much negotiating, the British naval officials agreed, and so Zenaide and her husband, along with Felix, Irina, and their four-year-old daughter, joined the ragged party of refugees that lined the crowded decks, watching as the Crimean shoreline slowly faded into the distance on their way to an uncertain future in exile.

The warship sailed to Malta, where the Yusupovs were forced to disembark. From here, they made their way to Rome, where Zenaide and her husband moved into a small apartment owned by a family friend. Felix and Irina left for Paris, leaving their daughter in Zenaide's care. For the next few years, as Felix and his wife moved from Paris to London and attempted to sell the few possessions and properties still left to them, Zenaide acted as surrogate mother, supervising young Irina's early education and playing with her in a nearby park. The young girl's parents-neither one particularly paternal-relished the freedom that came with Zenaide's care, and they saw their daughter only rarely. Then, in 1928, Count Felix died. He had been unwell for some time, and his wife had bravely nursed him through his final illness, at the same time caring for her granddaughter.

Her husband's death was a severe blow to Zenaide, and her son later remembered that she seemed to "lose much of her spirit" when confronted with widowhood. She moved to Paris, living in two rooms in a Mews house that her son had previously purchased, and for a time these four-mother, son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter-formed a happy, united family. Following his mother's example, Felix devoted himself to assisting fellow émigrés; he had little financial sense, however, and spent and gave away money as fast as it came in, often leaving the family in precarious situations. When Zenaide suffered a stroke at the beginning of the 1930s, Felix struggled to scrape together the funds to hire a nurse to help look after her.

Zenaide's last years, though surrounded by her small family, were lonely ones. She missed her husband, and-despite the fact that she had cared little for the wealth her birth had bestowed upon her-found it increasingly difficult to reconcile herself to life in exile. A second stroke left her half-paralyzed and barely able to speak. Unable to properly care for her, Felix reluctantly put his mother in a nursing home for Russian exiles in Sevres. It was here, far from the glittering world of palaces and extraordinary jewelry she had once known, that Princess Zenaide Yusupov finally died on November 24, 1939. She was buried next to her husband in the cemetery of Ste. Geneviļæ½ve des Bois at Essone, outside Paris. "She had been my friend," Felix wrote sadly, "my confidant, and my support for the whole of my life. She lived through extraordinary events, but she never lost that wonderful, infectious spirit of optimism that had charmed so many of her contemporaries. The crowd of those who genuinely mourned at her funeral was the best tribute to this remarkable woman."


Greg King is a famed author on European Royalty, his books include:
"The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia" (1994)
"The Man Who Killed Rasputin" (1995)
"The Mad King: The Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria" (1996)
"The Duchess of Windsor" (1999)
"The Fate of the Romanovs" (with Penny Wilson) (2003)

Please send your comments on this page to the author - Greg King


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