Wandering Research: The Grand Duchess, Suffrage, and Sainthood

Last week I was researching my politics article when I stumbled upon an interesting article.  Because three of my four sets of great-grandparents came from the area of Poland ruled by the Russian Empire, I googled various topics regarding the Russian Empire and the voting process.  One article from the New York Times was so interesting that I had to devote a post to it.  How could you pass on a lead-in headline such as this:

THE CZAR’S SISTER-IN-LAW A WOMAN SUFFRAGE LEADER; She’s the Widow of Grand Duke Sergius — Nicholas Sent Her to a Nunnery, But She Turned the Nuns Into Suffragists and He Had to Surrender.

The article, dated Sunday, September 17, 1911, details the women’s suffrage movement in Russia.  Read the entire article here. It begins, “Backward as Russia is in many ways, it is feeling the force of the feminist movement.”  Czar Nicholas II’s sister-in-law was the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.  According to this article, which reads more like the National Enquirer than today’s New York Times, she was very unhappy in her marriage to Grand Duke Sergei and turned to feminism.  After his assassination, she became involved in the suffragist movement.  When the Czar questioned this, she openly stated her belief that men and women should have equal political rights, and this equality should be obtained through peaceful diplomacy and influence.  The Czar promptly sent her off to a nunnery (again, according to this article), where she found kindred souls who also supported the suffrage movement.

The article is funny, though it was not written to be.  It also details the Russian suffrage movement in the universities, the Polish influence from the “poetess” (as she is referred to, although she was actually a novelist) Madame Orzesykowa [sic – should be Orzeszykowa], and another nun, Sister Veronica, who led the movement from a monastery in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Of course, this was written in 1911.  Russian women did get the right to vote in 1918…a full two years before American women despite the fact that the New York Times highlights just how “backward” Russia is in the first sentence of the article!

Needless to say, I became interested in the Grand Duchess, but her biography on Wikipedia tells a slightly different tale than this sensational article.  In fact, her involvement in the suffragist movement isn’t even mentioned.  Rather than an unhappy marriage to the Duke, she appeared to love him a great deal.  After his murder, she entered a convent – it didn’t mention a Czar-forced trip to the nunnery – and became known for her charitable works.  After her death she was canonized in the Russian Orthodox church for her saintly life. Sadly, Elizabeth was also murdered, apparently under Lenin’s orders.  Her life story is quite fascinating, as is her ancestry.  She may have become a Russian princess, but she was half German and half British by birth.  In fact, her grandmother is Queen Victoria!

I can’t help but wonder if the “press” slant of the article is that the Czar sent her to a nunnery to repent for her feminist views because that was easier for the world to understand than the fact that a woman of royal standing would give up all of the world’s riches in order to serve the poor. Politics may be slightly different today (at least women can vote), but I fear there’s not much difference between the news outlets of 1911 and today.

You never know what fascinating lives you will uncover as you research topics related to either genealogy or history!  They never told us in school that research could be interesting!


3 thoughts on “Wandering Research: The Grand Duchess, Suffrage, and Sainthood

  1. What an interesting post! I very much doubt that Ella had any direct intention of ‘turning her nuns into suffragists’ though I am equally sure that, following her mother’s example – for Princess Alice did a great deal to uphold and promote greater independence for women – her sympathies would have been for greater freedom for women. Her interests, however, were primarily spiritual rather than political and, due to her position as a member of the Imperial Family, she remained determinedly apolitical.
    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Dear Donna,

    Thank you! Ella is truly one of the most enigmatic and fascinating people of the last century. It amazes me that her statue stands above the door of Westminster Abbey and she is great aunt to the current Duke of Edinburgh, and a huge favourite of Prince Charles yet so few people have even heard of her. Here was a woman who was truly ahead of her time…and, after witnessing the horrific murder of her husband, she literally gathered what was left of his remains in her own hands…and then went to the prison to forgive his killer…Sorry for going on…hers is just such an amazing story!


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