The Life of St Elizabeth the Grand Duchess and New Martyr
An Excerpt from THE NEW MARTYRS OF RUSSIA, by Archpriest Michael Polsky, Montreal, Canada., 1972., pp. 124-32
On 4 February, 1905, at the moment when the Grand Duchess was leaving for her workshops, she was alarmed by the sound of an exploding bomb nearby. Hurrying toward the place, she saw a soldier stretching his military overcoat over the maimed body of her husband. The soldier tried to hide the horrible sight from the eyes of the unfortunate wife.
The Grand Duchess dropped to her knees, on the street, put her arms out to embrace the torn remains of her husband. From that time on, the Grand Duchess refused the food to which she was accustomed, and milk, vegetable and bread became her daily nourishment, even before she took the vows.
The lofty spirit with which she took the tragedy astounded everyone: she had the moral strength even to visit in prison her husband’s assassin, Kaliaev, hoping to soften his heart, with her Christian forgiveness. “Who are you?” he asked upon meeting her. “I am his widow,” she replied, “why did you kill him?” “I did not want to kill you,” he said. “I saw him several times before when I had the bomb with me, but you were with him and I could not bring myself to touch him.” “You did not understand that by killing him you were killing me,” she said. Then she began to talk of the horror of his crime before God. The Gospel was in her hands and she begged the criminal to read it and left it in his cell. Leaving the prison, the Grand Duchess said: “My attempt was unsuccessful, but, who knows, perhaps at the last minute he will understand his sin and repent.”
The murder of Grand Duke Serge Alexksandrovich brought about a change in the soul of his wife and caused her to withdraw from her former social life. The shock and horror she had experienced left a wound in her heart which healed only when she lifted her eyes to see that which is above this world.
From then on, she devoted her life to the organization of a community in which spiritual service to God would be united with caring for the poor. She moved from the palace to a building she bought in Ordinka where she reserved herself three modest rooms. She called this community the convent Saints Martha and Mary, intending it to be as the home of Lazarus visited so often by Jesus Christ. The members of the convent were invited to unite the high aims of Mary (listening to the words of life), and the service of Martha (as if they were taking care of Christ), since He was present in His brethren, the poor.
The convent quickly developed, and attracted many nuns from the upper classes as well as from common people. Life within the convent was that of a monastery. Outside, the sisters’ consisted in helping the sick, hospitalized in the convent or in their homes, giving material and spiritual help to the poor, and taking care of the orphans and deserted children so many of whom used to perish in the big cities.
A house for young women, workers, and students was organized to give inexpensive or rent-free lodging to them. There were free hospitals, ambulatory, schools for the Red Cross nurses, free kitchens, and during the war, hospitals for the badly wounded. Sisters of Saints Martha and Mary visited the houses of the poor and sick, took care of the children, did the housework, and brought peace and happiness wherever they went.
Many tiresome duties were performed by the Mother Abbess of the holy Convent, the Grand Duchess. Innumerable business transactions, consideration of many requests and petitions from every corner of Russia, and other cares, filled her day, sometimes bringing her to a state of complete exhaustion. Nevertheless she often spent the night at the bedsides of critically sick people, or in some other church popular among the people for its feast day, or she would make a pilgrimage to a Moscow monastery. Her soul was stronger than her body. The only rest she got was during the pilgrimage to the holy places of Russia, but the crowds deprived her of peace and solitude. They revered her for her sovereign standing, her goodness and charity, and enthusiastically expressed their affection by turning her trips into triumphant processions. She tried to hide her weariness and appeared before people with a smiling face. Withdrawing from almost everything earthly, she shone with that inner light which comes from the soul, expressing love and tenderness. No one could have been more considerate in giving pleasure and comfort to others – according to each one’s spiritual needs.
She was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria of England and had married into the wealthy Russian royal family. It is difficult to estimate the amount of money she spent on charity. Her own personal expenses were insignificant. She lived in three small rooms, white and clean, separated from the hospital by the house chapel. They were simply furnished, with wicker chairs, icons on the walls. She slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, or a hard pillow; but after long hours of work she would fall asleep instantly. Often her sleep lasted only three to four hours. At midnight she would get up to pray, after which she made a round of the hospital. When the condition of a patient worried her, she would sit at his bedside until dawn trying to ease his sufferings. Intuitive and tactful, she always found the right words of comfort, and the sick testified that her mere presence affected them favorably and relieved their sufferings.
From the very beginning of the war, the Grand Duchess had devoted herself unreservedly to the service of caring for the sick and wounded soldiers, whom she visited in Moscow hospitals and at the battle front.
The Dowager Empress Marie, the Empress Alexandra and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth divided among themselves the work of nursing the wounded according to the front lines: the German front, the Austrian front, and the Turkish front, the latter, although smaller in size of operations, was just as intense in fighting. They were able to draw all kinds of people into their organization, men of high and low ranks, officials, clerks, government workers and a whole hierarchy of women. The Red Cross on a white uniform was seen on everyone who could spare any time from housework in order to serve the great cause of war and victory. There was no sacrifice too great – money was given freely and personal life was not important in the time of war.
The Grand Duchess met the revolutionary storm with remarkable calmness and self-control. She continued to live in the convent nursing the sick in her hospital, where she also fed the poor. There was no change in the routine of her life except that her prayers became even more fervent. She was always composed and completely resigned to the will of God.
The Communists, after seizing the power during the October revolution in 1917, to everyone’s surprise, allowed the Grand Duchess and all the members of her convent complete freedom; even rendered material support in the way of food supplies. It made it more difficult to bear the sudden blow when, on Holy Pascha (after Agape Vespers), the Communists ordered her to leave Moscow and join the Imperial Family in Ekaterinburg. She asked for two hours to make the necessary preparations for the long journey but they were denied. She left with two novices, Sister Barbara, and Sister Katherine, escorted by a convoy of Latvian Guards.
Her future suffering could have been avoided if she had heeded the words of the Swedish Cabinet Minister who came to Moscow at the request of the German Emperor offering to help her leave the country. She answered him that he was right, that horrible times lay ahead, but she wanted to share the fate of her country and its people. Her decision was of course her own death sentence.
The Grand Duchess was told by the Communists that in the South she would be working as a Red Cross nurse. They gave her a private compartment on the train and offered all the comfort. She was happy at the prospective meeting with her sister, the Empress Alexandra, and ready to serve the people at the new place. Arriving at Ekaterinburg, the Grand Duchess was forbidden contact with the Tsar’s family. Sister Barbara succeeded in getting near the house of the imprisoned and seeing (through a crack in the fence) only the Emperor Tsar Nicholas II, in the garden or at a window.
The Grand Duchess was temporarily placed in the convent where she was warmly greeted by all the sisters. She especially appreciated the fact that she was permitted to attend all church services.
At the end of May, Grand Duchess Elizabeth and others were transported to Alopaevsk near Keaterinburg, and lodged in a school house on the edge of town. Although guarded, the Grand Duchess was permitted to go to church, work in the vegetable garden, with her own hands she weeded the vegetables and arranged the flower beds: she also painted and prayed. Lunches and dinners were served to her in her room; the rest ate together.
At times the Grand Duchess was able to send words of encouragement and consolation to the sisters of her convent in Moscow, who deeply mourned her absence.
There was some contact with the population, as among the possessions of the Grand Duchess there was a handmade towel of plain peasant linen embroidered with flowers and the inscription: “Dear Mother Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, do not refuse to accept in the ancient Russian custom the bread and salt from the loyal servants of the Tsar and the Motherland. Peasants of the Nievo-Alopaevsk district, Verkhotursk county”.
Such were the conditions of their life until the fatal night of 18 July. On that night they were suddenly taken to a place 12 miles from Alopaevsk, where all were atrociously murdered. It happened in the Verkhoutsk tract of a mine called “Nizhnaya Selimskaya.”
According to medical reports, only Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich was shot: the rest were blindfolded and thrown into the mine alive. The murderers threw into the mine hand grenades and debris. The mine was about 200 feet deep, but the corpses of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Grand Duke John Constantinovich were found on a ledge only 50 feet from the top. The Grand Duchess Elizabeth had remained alive for a long time. Near the mine, one could hear hymns – some say from hymns from the Vesper service,and these hymns continued through the following day. A peasant driving by on his cart heard the singing. In fright, he drove hurriedly to the camp of the White Army not very distant from there and told them about it. They reproached him for not giving any help, at least by throwing a piece of bread into the mine. When the White Army was able to reach the spot they removed the bodies of the murdered. Investigation showed that the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, herself mortally wounded, had removed her own scarves and had dressed the wounds of Grand Duke John.
Near her body were two unexploded hand grenades, on her chest an icon of Jesus Christ. The holy martyr had sung hymns for herself and for others, funeral hymns, hymns giving thanks or glorifying God, until the hymns of God’s kingdom had sounded her. Thus the holy martyr’s crown of thorns was placed on her head for her to join the saints.