15 July 2018

The Last Romanov Ladies Part 3

PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 4

The 19th Century Russian Tsars were extremely prolific, creating a quite a large, extended Imperial Family. In this installment, we follow the collateral-line descendants of Tsar Nicholas II's grandfather, Alexander II, who is remembered to history as the Czar-Liberator, for finally "freeing" the serfs from their landlords -- too little, too late -- and whose violent assassination caused his son and heir Alexander III to turn away from his father's liberal ideals to pursue a more thorough autocracy that was ultimately inherited by Nicholas II.

Before his assassination, Alexander II fathered a large family. In addition to the deceased Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich and Tsar Alexander III, he had two daughters and four more sons by his wife Marie of Hesse. His four younger sons were all large and commanding military officers in service to their nephew Tsar Nicholas II. Although but the youngest died before the Revolution, their wives and children were greatly impacted by it.

Elizabeth, sister of Empress Alexandra
and widow of Grand Duke Sergei
By Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn via Wikimedia Commons
The next son born after Tsar Alexander III, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich was publicly blamed for the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, although he was out of town. Nevertheless, it was his brother Sergei Alexandrovich who died by assassin's bomb a month later. Sergei left behind a beautiful widow, the former Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, who was an older sister of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Sergei and Elizabeth had no children, so following his assassination, she devoted herself to religion, selling her possessions, including her wedding ring, to found the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, a hospital, a pharmacy and an orphanage. She worked in the slums of Moscow to serve the poor. She tried to warn her sister of the dangers of associating with Rasputin, but to no avail, and the sisters never saw each other again after his death. Once Lenin came to power, he ordered the arrest of the 53-year-old Elizabeth and she was sent along with her nephews Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich and Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley as well as three other Romanov princes to Perm and later to the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, where the imperial family were being held. Just hours after the massacre at Ipatiev House, Elizabeth and the others were taken to an abandoned mine. They were thrown into a pit with grenades tossed after them. Only one person, Sergei's secretary, died in this first attack. Elizabeth could be heard leading the other victims in a hymn. Another grenade failed to stop the singing. So, the assassins filled the pit with wood and set it ablaze.

Unlike her sister whose body remained hidden for decades, Elizabeth was found just months later by the White Army. Many stories exist that she had survived all of the attempts to kill her, dying instead of starvation after tending the injuries of others with her. Her body was ultimately laid to rest in Jerusalem at the Church of Maria Magdalene, which she and her late husband had helped fund. She was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Victoria Melita with her daughters by Cyril,
Maria and Kira (center)
via Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Alexandrovich, who died of a stroke in 1909, left behind a large family. His widow Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin longed to have their eldest son Cyril Vladimirovich recognized as tsar, since he was the closest male-line heir after Nicholas II's brother Michael Alexandrovich. Therefore she remained in Russia with her two youngest sons, Boris and Andrei, after everyone else had been killed or escaped, not leaving until February of 1920 and dying later that year in France. Cyril Vladimirovich, who had made an unapproved marriage to his first cousin, the divorced Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria), did indeed assert himself as Head of the Romanov Family. Although he had initially been stripped of his imperial status by Nicholas II after his marriage, he had been restored when his father's death in 1909 made him third in line to the throne. In the February Revolution, Cyril pledged his allegiance to the Russian Provisional Government. Later that year, he, his pregnant wife and their two daughters moved to Russian-controlled Finland, where their only son Vladimir Kirillovich was born. In 1920, they escaped to Germany. After Michael Alexadrovich was declared dead in 1924, Vladimir gave himself the title Emperor of Russia, although not everyone in the family agreed. Victoria Melita passed away in 1936. Cyril died in 1938 in France, passing his claim to his son Vladimir, who passed it to his only child Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna when he died in 1992. Cyril and Victoria Melita's second daughter, Kira Kirillovna, married the Louis Ferdinand, heir to the defunct German and Prussian thrones as the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Their oldest daughter, Maria Kirillovna, married the 6th Prince of Leinengen. Both girls produced large families.

Meanwhile Vladimir Alexandrovich and Marie's other sons, Boris and Andrei, managed to escape Russia in 1919 and 1920 respectively, and each went on to marry their respective long-term mistresses while in exile. Andrei's bride, the actress Mathilde Kschessinska, had been an early love for Tsar Nicholas II before he met his soulmate, Empress Alexandra.

Prince and Princess Nicholas of Greece with their daughters
(from left) Olga, Elizabeth and Marina before the Revolution
via Wikimedia Commons
Vladimir Alexandrovich and Marie's only daughter, Elena Vladimirovna, was safely away from Russia during the Revolution, having married Prince Nicholas, third son of King George I of Greece. However, turbulence in Greece also sent them into exile in France. The couple had three celebrated daughters, including Olga who married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia and Marina who married the British Prince George The Duke of Kent and became the matriarch of the Kent branch of the British Royal Family. Elena, also known as Helen or Princess Nicholas, returned to Greece and, like her sister-in-law Alice (Princess Andrew, mother of The Duke of Edinburgh), served the people there throughout World War II.

Alexander II's youngest imperial son, Pavel Alexandrovich, was the only one of his sons alive at the time of the Revolution but he did not survive it. Maria Pavlovna, Pavel's only surviving child by his first wife, Maria had divorced a Swedish prince and remarried to a Russian officer. She gave birth to a son just nine days before the murders at Yekaterinburg. She left the infant with her in-laws and escaped through Ukraine to her cousin Queen Marie of Romania. Her baby died from illness a year later. Meanwhile, Paul's morganatic second wife and their two teenaged daughters, Princess Irina Pavlovna Paley and Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, escaped via Finland to Paris. Irina later married Prince Feodor Alexandrovich Romanov and spent her life in France. Natalia had a career as an actress and model, married twice, and lived the last decades of her life in New York City. Pavel's morganatic son Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, was not so lucky. Having been arrested for writing a poem about Provisional Government Head Alexander Kerensky, Vladimir was later also arrested by the Bolsheviks and was among the family members killed with Grand Duchess Elizabeth at the mine shaft in July 1918. Pavel himself was also captured by the Reds and was executed with three of his cousins in January 1919, as the last Romanov grand dukes still on Russian soil.

Alexander II with Catherine Dolgorukova and
their two oldest children, George and Olga,
before their marriage
via Wikimedia Commons
After the death of his first wife, Alexander II contracted a morganatic marriage with his long-term mistress, Catherine Dolgorukova, thereby legitimizing their children. However, the kids only had princely status, not imperial status due to their mother's low rank. She was granted the title Princess Yurievskaya, which was also used by her offspring. They had been married less than a year when his assassination left her a widow. This "second family" were never accepted or respected by the rest of Alexander II's descendants. Thus, Catherine had moved abroad long before World War I or the Revolution. However, her youngest child Princess Catherine Alexandrovna Yurievskaya was in Russia when things fell apart. She had been widowed by Russian Prince Alexander Vladimirovich Bariatinsky and left with two sons in 1910. In 1916, she married Prince Sergei Platonovich Obolensky, who fought with the White Army while Catherine suffered from dislocation and hunger, walking for miles and miles like so many other refugees. She eventually escaped back to Western Europe and her husband left her for Alice Astor, while she became a singer to support herself.

PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 4

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