The life and work of Grand Duchess Ella (Elizabeth Fyodorovna of Russia) continue to resonate in Russian society. The elder sister of the Tsarina shared her fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks, a sad and premature end to a life dedicated to helping the less fortunate.Christopher Warwick’s acclaimed new biography of Ella sheds new light on a remarkable woman, writes Jonathan Taylor. Ella’s deep religious devotion, her sacriﬁces for the Russian people and her violent murder eventually led to her canonisation by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2001. A shrine to her memory exists at the Martha and Mary Convent, which she founded in Moscow in the years after her husband’s assassination. She is also distinguished as one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.
Ella was born on November 1, 1864, the second child of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of Great Britain, Queen Victoria’s third child. Louis and Alice’s children were destined to marry amongst Europe’s most powerful royal families. Apart from the future Tsarina Alix and Ella marrying into the Romanov dynasty, their sisters Princess Victoria of Hesse and Princess Irene both married well. Victoria to the minor German prince, Louis Alexander Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford Haven; Princess Irene to Prince Albert Wilhelm Heinrich of Prussia, younger brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Alix and Ella, who would both become deeply religious as they grew older, were marked by the loss of theiry oungest sister Marie and their mother. The cause of the tragedy was diptheria, which swept through the Hesse household in the winter of 1878, killing Marie and a few weeks later Princess Alice. Ella was fortunate not to be in Hesse at the time and was the only member of the family not affected by the outbreak.
Ella married before Alix, to Grand Duke Sergei Romanov in 1884. Sergei was the ﬁfth son of Tsar Alexander II. However, the marriage was not a happy one, possibly partly due to the fact of Sergei’s alleged homosexuality. Russian high society was becoming more tolerant regarding sexuality, and Sergei did not hide his, but Ella’s upbringing and nature were conservative and she struggled to come to terms with her husband, a rather harsh character who was in political matters a reactionary. The pivotal moment in Ella’s lifecame in 1905 when autocracy in the shape of Sergei in his role as Commander of the Moscow Military was confronted by revolutionary terrorism. Ivan Kalyayev, a young socialist-revolutionary,carried out the Grand Duke’s assassination on February 17,1905. It was a brutally simple murder – a bomb was thrown into Sergei’s coach as he and his coachman neared the official residence in the Moscow Kremlin. It was a gruesome sight – Sergei’s body was shattered by the blast and days later body parts were still being found in the vicinity. Kalyayev was arrested immediately. Days later the grief stricken Ella visited her husband’s murderer in the hope of persuading him to repent so that his soul would be saved. He refused and was subsequently hanged on May 23, 1905.
There is no doubt that the loss of her husband affected Ella profoundly, in a sense she spent the rest of her life in mourning. Yet her almost morbid response to the murder spurred her into action and in some respects softened her character. Tragedy brought Ella’s humanity out and her inner strength proved to be remarkable. Grand Duchess Ella withdrew from a world she found unbearably cruel – she gave away her jewellery, sold many of her possessions and became a nun. With the proceeds she opened the ‘Convent of Saints Martha and Mary’ in Moscow and for many years helped the city’s poor and its orphans. Ella’s mission of mercy developed into a new vision of a diaconate for women. In April 1909 Ella and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work ﬂourished and soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.
Ella poured her energy into reli-gion and the monastery she founded as her fame spread throughout Russia.Her charitable work continued without respite until the seizure of power by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1917. In 1918 she was exiled to Yekaterinburg by the Communist government and subsequently to Alapaevsk. After a brief period of captivity she was violently killed by the local Bolsheviks on July18, 1918. Those who died alongside herwere Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; the Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; Grand Duke Sergei’s secretary, Fyodor Remez;and Varvara Yakovlevna, a nun from Ella’s convent. A good deal of myth has accrued around Ella’s murder. For many years it was accepted that the victims were herded into the local forest, pushed into an abandoned mineshaft and grenades were then hurled into the mineshaft.
However, Christopher Warwick debunks much of this received history as myth.Whilst the bare bones of the account are true he reveals that it is implausible that grenades were thrown into the mine, or that the survivors sang hymns as they prepared to die. Which emphasises rather than lessens the atrocity – Ella and her companions’ deaths are de-romanticised, leaving the harsh reality of cold blooded murder. The act was in-fact more brutal and callous than we have been led to believe. As the author tersely comments, a testament to mankind’s inhumanity. The Bolsheviks were determined to eradicate Russia’s royal history and both churches of the convent were closed down in 1926. It would not be until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union that the Romanovs would be restored to their place in history. In 1990 a monument was erected to Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Feodorovna, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1992 a divine service was resumed in the church that she had founded.