Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanov as an abbess (1918)
Grand Duchess Elisabeth Romanov was a loving wife who served her husband in good faith as a true Christian. After her husband's tragic death, she continued to advance in Christ, dedicating herself fully to the service of God and the neighbour. We talked to historian Dmitry Grishin, about her two principal roles - spouse and alms giver. Dmitry is the author of a literary biography of Elisabeth Romanov published in Russian as a part of the book series "Outstanding People".
What made you interested in the life of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Romanov and motivated you to write a book about her?
I found it an immense challenge to trace the evolution of her personality throughout the greater part of her biography. From her arrival in Russia in 1884, she placed herself fully in the shadow of her husband Sergey Alexandrovich. She dissolved herself in him fully. He was an immense influence on her person, her ideas and her worldview. Her husband was her window on Russian culture, tradition and the people; through his eyes, she saw her world. From this perspective, I explored her character and person in my book.
Historian Dmitry Grishin
I did not model the narrative of my book on the somewhat distant and reserved style of the lives of the saints. I portrayed her as a living person from a realistic perspective. My idea was to write a secular biography of an outstanding person with her unique strengths and weaknesses, virtues and character flaws. Yet, the more I worked on the book, the more it became clear to me that this kind of approach was problematic because I was writing a biography of a saint.
How would you describe the role that faith played in her actions and life choices?
Progressively, I came to see her life as her ascent to sainthood. In her childhood and adolescent years, she developed her character, and eventually, she began her ascent on a spiritual ladder, knowing very well about the sorrows ahead.
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, later Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna of Russia (1887)
She wrote a remarkable letter to her brother Earnest who lost his only daughter. She comforts her brother and assures him that through this loss he would grow in spirit. "As far as I am concerned, I rise and fall, but I cannot ascend, as I have not experienced anything like your loss," wrote Elisabeth Romanov shortly before the tragic death of her husband Sergey Alexandrovich. Her bereavement put her squarely in the path of the ascent to her Golgotha, full of trials and great sorrows.
Among her relics discovered in 1918 in an abandoned mine off Alapayevsk was an icon of the Saviour. With this icon, Alexander III blessed her on the day of her conversion to Orthodoxy in 1981. Anticipating the fast approach of the final days of her earthly life, she took the icon with her at her arrest. While in custody in Yekaterinburg and Alapayevsk, her captors searched her multiple times.
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia with his wife Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna
Like the other members of the royal family, she had her personal belongings confiscated, but she always carried on her body this heavy icon. It is a remarkable detail showing how meaningful her conversion to Orthodoxy was to her. Her husband gave her a gold medallion. Engraved on it was the phrase "Don’t be afraid; just believe."
She adopted these words of our Saviour as her life motto. The sisters of her convent were afraid, and she said to them, "Do not be afraid. Nor a hair of your head will perish without God's will!"
How would you describe the role of her husband in her spiritual ascent?
It was a combination of many things. First among them was her love. She chose him, and she wanted nobody else in his place. His intelligence and magnanimity impressed her greatly. Her husband was a man with a broad life perspective, great wisdom and understanding. She held these assets of his personality in high regard and saw in him her mentor and model. He was her window on Russia and the world who helped her learn many things and make multiple discoveries about her new homeland, especially in her first years.
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanov
For her, her main role was to help her husband. She saw how much difficulty he was having in many of his life situations and how hard it was for him to take criticism from the Tsar. Occasionally, she should write to the monarch unbeknownst to her husband to ease the tensions. Her husband was also burdened by the lifestyles of the members of the royal court, their double standards and insincerity. He stayed outside of this closed circle and its ways. Sometimes, he was conspicuous in his disdain for its customs and made quite a few enemies because of it.
Elisabeth Romanov always softened the tensions. She impressed the court with her brilliance. She was universally admired, and this was helping her husband. Their union was complementary, warm and cordial.
What role did the example of her husband play in her conversion to Orthodoxy?
He never asked to convert to his faith but welcomed her desire with great joy. She took her husband's faith as her model. She was so impressed by its depth and sincerity that she accepted Orthodoxy wholeheartedly and could not imagine being of any other faith.
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanov as a nun after her husband's death
Her husband's deep belief and piety impressed her. Soon after their wedding, Elisabeth and Sergey Romanov went to the Lavra of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius. The visit let Elisabeth Romanov witness the piety of the Russian people and their devotion to prayer. Her husband was her spiritual mentor at the beginning of her spiritual journey as an Orthodox believer.
She established the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent. To what extent were its works a tribute to her husband?
She always used to say, "I am in heaven with Sergey." By that, she did not mean that marriages were made in heaven. She meant to say that her husband's death moved her to another world. All the time, she was thinking about what her husband would approve, and how he would have acted in one situation or another.
In a way, the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent was a memorial to her husband. A relief on the front of the Church of the Protection depicts two angels flying towards each other. On the left is an angel depicting Sergey Alexandrovich. and on the right is Elisabeth Romanov. The cross between them is a symbol of sorrow and redemption. They reach out to one another over the cross.
A relief on the front of the Church of the Protection at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent
What made the charitable works of the Grand Duchess distinct from everybody else's?
We should all be aware from the beginning that charitable work was an essential attribute of the life of any woman in the house of the Russian emperor. This tradition had existed from the time of Maria Fedorovna, the wife of Pavel I. However, to Elisabeth Romanov charity was more than a tradition, it was an essential part of her lifestyle, especially after her conversion to Orthodoxy in 1891. Her work was a combination of Russian spirituality with European rationalism. She pursued both traditions simultaneously and was very successful in doing so.
"It is painful and said to observe what is being done to our long-suffering homeland. One can only hope that the Lord will not leave it at that and that He will stop the evil-doers in their madness".
Altogether, more than 150 organisations worked under her supervision and direction. They were autonomous but not isolated from one another; in fact, they were complementary and interconnected. It was a unique arrangement that stood no comparison with all other practices in her time or the present day. It is still a mystery how she managed to coordinate the work of each organisation. She made sense of every detail of their work, despite the great number of helpers.
Her charitable monastic community was a platform for the spiritual growth of its sisters and the ministry among the sick and needy. It was more than a monastery or a charitable organisation. It was a unique achievement for its time for which Elisabeth Romanov deserved almost all credit. The light of her great achievement still shows us the way today.
Interviewer: Yulia Semenova.
Excerpted from: mmom.ru