The four daughters of Russia’s last Emperor, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, are well known in the English speaking world. They have been the subject of popular biographies, most recently The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport and Road to Ekaterinburg:Nicholas and Alexandra’s daughters by ECS Banks, as well as historical novels. In contrast, the Grand Duchesses at the courts of nineteenth century Czars, the daughters and daughters-in-law of Paul I, Nicholas I and Alexander II are little known outside of Russia.
Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the wife of Catherine the Great’s youngest grandson, Michael Pavlovich, assumed in her own lifetime that she would be the subject of a biography and carefully curated her own papers. Despite her extraordinary accomplishments, she has disappeared into near obscurity, the subject of a few academic conference papers and a chapter in Charlotte Zeepvat’s Romanov Autumn. In Becoming a Romanov: Grand Duchess Elena of Russia and Her World (1807-1873), Elena finally receives the full length biography she expected and deserves. University of Western Ontario professors Marina Soroko and Charles A. Rudd bring the Grand Duchess and 19th century St. Petersburg to life.
Elena displayed a strong personality and intellectual curiosity from her childhood as a Princess of Wurttemburg, Germany. When she was seventeen and had only been at the Russian court for a year, she informed the author of a multivolume history of Russia, “I know your work sir, and do not think I have only read it only in translation, I also read it in Russian.” In middle age, she tackled Russia’s social and political problems, advising her nephew the “Czar-Liberator” Alexander II in his plan to free the serfs. During the Crimean War, she acted as Russia’s Florence Nightingale, founding an order of nurses that developed into the Russian branch of the Red Cross. Her palace was a gathering place for Russian intellectuals and her artistic patronage included the founding of the St. Petersburg conservatory
While Elena was respected in her public role, her private life was filled with unhappiness from her childhood through her engagement and marriage. Her parents separated when she was a child and her father, Prince Paul of Wurttemburg cut corners on her education to pocket the money sent for this purpose by her grandfather. When Elena showed a fear of mice as a child, Paul had a servant release a sack of live mice in her bedroom (she fainted). Elena’s husband, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, was pressured into the marriage and made clear from their betrothal that would have preferred to marry another. He shared none of her intellectual interests, smoked cigars to avoid having to talk to her and said that he would celebrate 30 years of marriage as the anniversary of the 30 Years War. Two of their five daughters died in infancy and another two died as young women.
In addition to Elena’s eventful life, Soraka and Rudd also describe 19th century St. Petersburg in vivid detail. Elena’s and Michael’s residence, the Mikhailovsky Palace was one of the city’s landmarks with a main staircase described as the finest in Europe. Elena’s first child was born in the aftermath of the 1824 Neva river flood that killed more than 600 people and the disaster and recovery efforts are described extensively. Becoming a Romanov is richly illustrated with portraits of Elena and her family in addition to images of the landmarks of the St. Petersburg she knew.
The only false note in this otherwise brilliant biography comes in the first paragraph, where the authors describe Elena as “…the only female Romanov whose name merits mention in any narrative of Russian history after the Crimean War…” The contributions of the Romanov women – including the famous daughters of Russia’s last Czar – to Russia’s war effort during the First World War merits a book of its own. Grand Duchess Elena’s accomplishments over the course of the nineteenth century were so extensive that it was difficult for any future Grand Duchess to achieve a similar public profile. Becoming a Romanov restores Elena Pavlovna to her rightful place in Russian history.