Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Saint and Martyr of the Great War: Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna

Sister Elizabeth
Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine  was the second daughter of Princess Alice and Grand DukeLouis, and was eight years older than her youngest sister, Alix, future empress of Russia. She spent much time in England with her sisters and grandmother, Queen Victoria, but she was more "German" than was Alix.

Elizabeth, called "Ella" by her family, married the Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich Romanov, brother of Alexander III, and Nicholas II's uncle. He was an unusual man, who was strongly disliked by many and was the subject of many rumors and gossip. They had no children.

Grand Duke Sergey was blown up by a terrorist bomb in the Kremlin in 1905. Elizabeth heard the explosion and rushed outside, only to find her husband blown to bits.

Elizabeth was, in great part, responsible for Nicholas and Alexandra's marriage. She acted as matchmaker, to the chagrin of Queen Victoria, who wanted the lovely Alix for her grandson, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence.

After Sergey's death Elizabeth devoted herself to good works and the poor, opening a hospice and hospital convent dedicated to Martha and Mary in Moscow. She became abbess of the convent. The building was designed by the same architect who would, one day, design Lenin's Tomb and was embellished with exterior reliefs in old Russian style. The interior was painted by the famous Russian painter Nesterov, who also designed the pearl-gray and white habit worn by the sisters of the convent. Surrounding the church was a lovely garden filled with fragrant lilies, flowers, and lawns.

Elizabeth dedicated the convent to the poor of Moscow. It was a hospice and hospital and had a dental clinic attached to it. The sisters came from all walks of life. Orphan girls from the Moscow slums were raised at the convent and given an excellent education. Many of these girls went on to become hospital workers and nuns themselves. The convent was famous in Russia for its charity work, and the work of the convent was unique in Russia, setting an example for the rest of the country in good works. Elizabeth herself would care for the poor, nursing the worst cases of injury and disease herself. The nuns would collect the dying from the streets and bring them to the convent, where they were given a place of shelter and care during their last days.

Elizabeth eventually became somewhat estranged from her sister Alexandra, over Rasputin and the growing chaos in the country. Untouched by the revolution in her beautiful Art Nouveau convent, she was eventually arrested by the Bolsheviks and exiled to Siberia. What happened next is one of the most horrific stories from the First World War.

That night the prisoners were awakened and driven in carts on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha, near Alapayevsk where there was an abandoned iron mine with a pit 66 feet deep. Here they halted. The Cheka severely beat all the prisoners before throwing their victims into this pit, Elisabeth being the first. Hand grenades were then hurled down the shaft, but only one victim, Fyodor Remez, died as a result of the grenades.

According to the personal account of Vasily Ryabov, one of the killers, Elizabeth and the others survived the initial fall into the mine, prompting Ryabov to toss in another grenade after them. Following the explosion, he claimed to have heard Elisabeth and the others singing an Orthodox hymn from the bottom of the shaft. Unnerved, Ryabov threw down still another grenade, but the singing continued. Finally a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and set alight, upon which Ryabov posted a guard over the site and departed [for fear that local peasants would come to save them].

Early on 18 July 1918, the leader of the Alapayevsk Cheka, Abramov, and the head of the Yekaterinburg Regional Soviet, Beloborodov, who had been involved in the execution of the Imperial Family, exchanged a number of prearranged telegrams saying that the school had been attacked by an “unidentified gang.” Lenin welcomed Elizabeth’s death, remarking that “virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the world revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars.”

Her body was recovered and now rests with her nun-companion, Barbara, in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. Elizabeth has been canonized by the Orthodox Church. The convent was closed in the 1920s but the nuns continued their work underground during the Soviet Era. They survived and are trying to reestablish their work in Russia today. The convent is preserved and houses a icon restoration studio. A statue to Elizabeth has been erected in the remains of the church gardens.

Sources:  Alexander Palace Website and  Wikipedia

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