Elizabeth Feodorovna – The Princess Saint

Day 178 of Colourisation Project – November 1

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

In the early hours of the morning of July 18, 1918, the day after the execution of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family, the singing of the Orthodox hymn, ‘Lord Save Your People,’ could be heard rising from a disused water-logged mineshaft near Alapayevsk. This was immediately after local Bolshevik soldiers had hurled eight blindfolded prisoners – six men and two nuns down a mineshaft and thrown hand-grenades in to finish the job.

According to the personal account of Vassili Ryabov, one of the assassins, he threw another grenade into the mineshaft, but the singing continued. I’ll let him tell the story.

“First we led grand duchess Elizabeth (Ella) up to the mine. After throwing her down the shaft, we heard her struggling in the water for some time. We pushed the nun lay-sister Varvar down after her. We again heard the splashing of water and then the two women’s voices. It became clear that, having dragged herself out of the water, the grand duchess had also pulled her lay-sister out. But, having no other alternative, we had to throw in all the men also.

None of them, it seems, drowned, or choked in the water and after a short time we were able to hear all their voices again.

Then I threw in a grenade. It exploded and everything was quiet. But not for long.

We decided to wait a little to check whether they had perished. After a short while we heard talking and a barely audible groan. I threw another grenade.

And what do you think – from beneath the ground we heard singing! I was seized with horror. They were singing the prayer: ‘Lord, save your people!’

We had no more grenades, yet it was impossible to leave the deed unfinished. We decided to fill the shaft with dry brushwood and set it alight. Their hymns still rose up through the thick smoke for some time yet.

When the last signs of life beneath the earth had ceased, we posted some of our people by the mine and returned to Alapaevsk by first light and immediately sounded the alarm in the cathedral bell tower. Almost the whole town came running. We told everyone that the grand dukes had been taken away by unknown persons!” [1]

Killed that night were the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; the Princes, Ioann, Konstantin and Igor Konstantinovich, and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; the Grand Duke’s secretary, Feodor Remez; and two nuns, Varvara Yakovleva, and Elizabeth Feodorovna.

The last mentioned was the first to be thrown down the mineshaft and probably the last to die. It is Elizabeth Feodorovna’s unusual story that brings us to today’s colourisation.

Photographer: Alexander Bassano – Princess Elizabeth Feodorovna – 1878 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

There is something haunting about today’s photo, (taken when she was 14 years old) and indeed many of the other photos I found of her on the internet. Elizabeth almost always wore the same forlorn expression.

She had witnessed a fair amount of tragedy in her life but there was surely something more behind the sad expression.

In 1923, the Countess Alexandra Olsoufieff, Elizabeth’s ‘Mistress of the Robes’ wrote,

“…even in the height of prosperity, [Elizabeth] never quite lost the sad lines of the mouth which gave her beauty an impression of pre-ordained tragedy.”

Before becoming a nun, she was known as the very popular, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia. She was was a German princess of the House of Hesse, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V.

Elizabeth was considered by many historians and contemporaries to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe. The French Ambassador to the Russian court, Maurice Paleologue, wrote in his memoirs how Elizabeth was capable of arousing what he described as ‘profane passions.’

Admired by many suitors, she knocked back many offers of marriage including those of the future German Emperor William II, Lord Charles Montague, and the future Frederick II, Grand Duke of Baden. How different her life would have been if she had accepted one of these men.

How then did she come to meet such a terrible end in a mine-shaft on the outskirts of Siberia?


Elizabeth, called ‘Ella” by her family, married the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, brother of Alexander III and Nickolas II’s uncle. A conservative even by contemporary standards, his policies made him a polarizing figure. In 1891 he was made Governor General of Moscow. A political hardliner, his tenure began with the expulsion of 20,000 Jews from Moscow. He was strongly disliked by many and was the subject of many rumours and gossip about his sexuality. They had no children.

In 1905, Sergei was assassinated by the Socialist-Revolutionary, Ivan Kalyayev, when he threw a nitroglycerin bomb directly into Sergei’s lap as his carriage was returning to the Kremlin in Moscow. Elizabeth heard the explosion and rushed outside, only to find her husband blown to bits.

It was as if her prophecy, made years earlier, after the expulsion of the Jews, had come true, when she remarked ominously that “God will punish us severely.”

On the eve of her husband’s funeral, Elizabeth publicly forgave his assassin.

After her husband’s death Elizabeth devoted herself to charitable works and to the poor. She wore mourning clothes, became a vegetarian and four years later in 1909, she sold off her vast collection of jewels including her wedding ring and other luxurious possessions. With the proceeds she opened the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary (Marfo-Mariinsky) in Moscow. After twenty years of life in a glittering palace of the Imperial Court, Elizabeth had chosen a life of dedication to the poor and sick of Moscow. She became abbess of the convent and a hospital, chapel, pharmacy and an orphanage soon followed on its grounds. Elizabeth and her nuns worked tirelessly to help alleviate the suffering of the sick and the poor.

The sisters came from all walks of life. Orphan girls from the slums of Moscow were raised at the convent and given an education. Many of these girls went on to become hospital workers and nuns themselves.

Elizabeth adopted a hands on approach caring for the poor, nursing the worst cases of injury and disease herself. Her 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.


The Russian revolution which began in 1917, was growing momentum putting the entire royal family in peril. Tzar Nicholas II, Elizabeth’s brother in law, was placed in captivity and forced to abdicate the throne.

In the early months of the Russian Revolution, the Communists had allowed Elizabeth to continue her work unimpeded but once the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, the days of the Romanov Dynasty were numbered.

Her cousin and former suitor, Kaiser Wilhelm pleaded with her to escape to Germany before it was too late, but she refused to abandon her orphans. At Easter 1918, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia where, the day after the massacre of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, she met the same fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The bodies of Elizabeth and her companion Sister Barbara were smuggled to China and eventually made their way to Jerusalem. The wooden coffins were met at the railway station by the deputy British governor, Sir Harry Charles Luke, and taken for burial at the Church of Maria Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The convent was closed in the 1920’s but the nuns continued their work underground during the Soviet Era. The convent is preserved and now houses an ikon restoration studio.

In 1981 Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and in 1992 by the Moscow Patriarchate. She is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.

A statue of Elizabeth was erected in the garden of her convent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its inscription reads: “To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna: With Repentance.”

Elizabeth was born this day, November 1, 1864. She was 53 years old when she died.


“Always be guided by your heart rather than by your head, and your life will be transformed. Happiness does not consist in living in a palace or enjoying a large fortune; these can be lost. True happiness is something that neither men nor events can take from you. You will find it in Faith, in Hope and in Charity. Try to make those around you happy, and you will be happy yourself.” – Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna

1. A Lifelong Passion, Nicholas and Alexandra – Their own Story – Andrei Maylunas and Sergi Mironenko, Doubleday, New York, February 1997, pp. 638-639
This entry was posted in Black & White, Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography, russia, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Elizabeth Feodorovna – The Princess Saint

  1. Pingback: Alice – The Other Queen Mother | Random Phoughts

  2. Such a sad looking girl, and sad times she lived in.

    Liked by 1 person

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