A Tale of Two Sisters

Their Grand Ducal Highnesses, Elisabeth and Alix, princesses of the minor German House of Hesse and By Rhine, were related to half the royal houses of Europe. Their grandmother was no less than Britain’s Queen Victoria whose misgivings about the sisters’ marriages to Russians proved tragically prophetic when both women met violent ends in Siberia. Their intertwined destinies are among history’s strangest.

By all accounts, Elisabeth was as

By all accounts, Elisabeth was as charming as she was beautiful.

Born in 1864, Princess Elisabeth, nicknamed Ella, was one of the most beautiful, sought-after royals in Europe. Charming and vivacious, she had no shortage of celebrated suitors. In addition to the expected nobles and aristocrats, she was pursued by Wilhelm, the future German Kaiser, and Frederick II, the future Grand Duke of Baden. Queen Victoria was incensed when Ella rejected Frederick and chose instead Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Ella and Sergei were married in 1884, at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and made their home in that city.

Ella, the glamorous Grand Duchess.

Ella, the glamorous Grand Duchess.

By contrast, Ella’s younger sister, Princess Alix was shy and moody and rarely smiled as evidenced in so many photographs. Quite pretty in her own right, Alix attracted her own tally of proposals, including one from British Prince Albert Victor, but she was fated to land the biggest fish of all. At her sister’s wedding, 12-year-old Alix caught the eye of Sergei’s 16-year-old nephew, Russian crown prince Nicholas. Nothing came of the moment until they met again five years later and fell deeply in love. The marriage was opposed by Nicholas’s parents, Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Marie, both virulently anti-German. Queen Victoria objected too, not because of Nicholas, of whom she was quite fond, but because she considered the Russian throne dangerously unstable. When the tsar fell gravely ill in Livadia in 1894, he reluctantly consented to his son’s choice for a wife but died before Nicholas could marry. When the funeral party arrived in Petersburg, superstitious tongues wagged that the bride-to-be had followed a coffin to her new home. Alix’s coronation as Empress Alexandra brought more bad omens when a stampede at a public celebration resulted in the trampling deaths of over a thousand people. Dark clouds seemed to hover over the imperial couple.

Alix didn't even smile for her engagement photo?

Alix didn’t even smile for her engagement photo.

In the meantime, Ella and Sergei were happy and, with no children of their own, were foster parents to his niece and nephew. Ella’s passion for jewels, fashion and parties became legendary, and she was known to change dresses and jewels three times in the course of an evening, with each ensemble more dazzling than the last. In 1891, Tsar Alexander III had appointed Sergei Governor General of Moscow, and the couple moved into a Kremlin palace. Sergei was a capable if polarizing politician whose expulsion of 20,000 Jews from their Moscow homes prompted Ella to warn that, “God will punish us severely.” Her prophecy became manifest in 1905 when an assassin hurled a bomb at Sergei’s carriage and blew him to pieces. Ella rushed across the bloody snow to collect fragments of her husband’s mangled corpse and had them taken inside a monastery. Donning the requisite black mourning clothes, she was transformed by the tragedy, withdrawing from society to seek solace in her faith. She began giving away her worldly possessions and sold her extravagant jewelry collection to found and finance a convent where she became abbess. She would later add a hospital and orphanage. The once glamorous grand duchess was now plain Mother Ella devoutly dedicated to helping Russia’s poorest souls.

Ella transformed as a Mother Abbess.

Ella transformed as a Russian Orthodox Abbess.

Alexandra’s life was also upended as she faced a rough road as empress. Her often painful shyness was interpreted as icy aloofness, and her disdain for Russian culture made her unpopular, especially within the Romanov family. She shone, however, as a devoted wife and mother, bearing Nicholas four daughters and a son, Alexei, to whom she tragically bequeathed hemophilia. Devoutly religious, her penchant for mystics drove her to search outside conventional medicine to help the tsarevich’s often excruciating pain. Alexandra’s maternal desperation made her ignore warnings that these men were charlatans and left her vulnerable to the machinations of a Siberian peasant named Grigori Rasputin. A satanic “holy man” notorious for drunkenness and lechery, Rasputin conjured an inexplicable mix of coincidence and curative powers convincing the empress that he alone could help her son. Their relationship had cataclysmic consequences when Russia warred with Germany and the tsar traveled to the front in 1916, leaving the incapable Alexandra—and Rasputin—to run the government. The predictable chaos that followed appalled the nation, and, with the empress ignoring all criticism of Rasputin, Ella was encouraged by the alarmed Romanovs to intercede. Ella dutifully called on Alexandra, but her pleas to get rid of Rasputin so infuriated the empress that she ordered her sister from the palace. Empress and Abbess,  once so close, never saw each other again. Soon afterwards, Prince Felix Yusupov took matters into his own hands and murdered Rasputin.

Alexandra and three of her children with Rasputin.

Alexandra and three of her children with Rasputin.

In March, 1917, the long-simmering revolution erupted. Nicholas was forced to abdicate, and, along with Alexandra and their children, was put under house arrest. Ignoring the pleas of her family in England to flee the coming civil war, Ella refused to abandon her impoverished charges. She courageously continued until 1918 when she was arrested by the Bolsheviks and dispatched to Siberia where Alexandra was by now imprisoned. On July 17, the entire imperial family was shot to death. The next day, Ella, some Romanov relatives and a nun from her convent were beaten with rifle butts, thrown down a mine shaft and left to starve. In 1981 Ella was made a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, and in 1992 a New Martyr by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2000, Alexandra was canonized as a Passion Bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church. One can only wonder at history’s machinations leading these German sisters to violent deaths in Russia only a day apart.

Rest in Peace.

Rest in Peace.

Ella and Alexandra are peripheral characters in my time travel book, Past Time, due in August.


  1. Liz
    Jul 20, 2015

    Well done, Michael. And thanks so much for these excellent photos. Seeing these doomed sisters – and the others, too, of course – makes history feel very immediate, rather than cardboard characters from long, long ago. Which is exactly what you have done in PAST TIME – breathed life into “names” and allowed them to walk off the page!

  2. Ciji Ware
    Jul 20, 2015

    What a terrific story! I knew about Alexandra, of course, but not about Elizabeth/Ella…can’t wait to read PAST TIME…

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