L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich



Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia (11 May 1857, Tsarskoe Selo – 17 February 1905, Moscow), seventh child and fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and his wife Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt. Inseparable from his younger brother Paul as a child, Serge - as he was usually called withing the family - was shy, studious, and withdrawn; under the influence of his mother, he became very religious. Though destined for a military career, Serge always had a passion for the Arts, painting well, himself, and even playing flute in an amateur orchestra. He became fluent in several languages and later came to know many of Russia's greatest writers - including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - personally.

Serge (on the right) with his brother Paul.
Serge and Paul.

As an adult, the grand duke stood more than six feet tall, with a very straight and slim figure - he was also known to wear a corset under his uniform, "in the Prussian style" - had short-cropped fair hair and a neatly trimmed beard, and pale green eyes. Though handsome, intelligent, well read and refined, his great reserve, his self-consciousness, and his disapproving rigidity made him an unattractive personality, totally lacking the easy charm that the Romanov grand dukes were famous for. Always unpopular with the public, even his extended family was strongly divided in their opinion of him; many of his relatives criticized him harshly, but there were those who would remember him warmly. One of the many rumors that surrounded him, during his lifetime and after his death, was that he was homosexual, inclinations he suppressed because of his strong religious beliefs.


In 1881, his father was assassinated and his elder brother came to the throne as Alexander III. The next year his brother appointed Serge Commander of the 1st Battalion Preobrazhensky Life Guard Regiment, with whom he would have a long association. In 1884, he married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, his first cousin once removed. The marriage came as a shock to many; she was considered one of royal Europe's most beautiful and eligible princesses, and few - including her grandmother Queen Victoria - understood her choice.

Portrait of the couple taken at the time of their engagement.
"Ella" as she was called in the family, 1887.
(It should be remembered that, at that time, people rarely smiled in posed photographs.)

They spent their honeymoon in Ilinskoe, Sergei’s large country estate forty miles west of Moscow on the left bank of the Moskva River; in the future they would spend most summers at Ilinskoe.  Though their marriage would remain childless, the couple was devoted to each other.  And in 1891, after the sudden death of Serge's young sister-in-law, the two infant children of his brother, Grand Duke Paul, began to spend much time with Serge and Elisabeth; eventually they were made their guardians.

Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.
At Ilinskoe.  Serge and Maria are in the foreground, Dmitri is on Ella's lap.
In 1916, of course, Dmitri would be involved in the murder of Rasputin, along with Prince Felix Yusupov.
Serge and his niece and nephew, 1899.
With the children at Ilinskoe.

That same year Elisabeth, who had retained her Lutheran religion after her marriage, made a sincere conversion to the Orthodox faith, a decision that was very gratifying to her devout husband.  Also in 1891, Serge's brother the Tsar appointed him Governor General of Moscow; his tenure would prove very controversial. Contemporary opinion and history is divided on his true feelings and motivations in all that occurred during his command of Moscow but, like the Tsar, he was a strongly nationalist, hard-line conservative, politically, and was ultimately responsible for his actions. The most infamous examples of the management - or mismanagement - of his rule were the horrific expulsion of Moscow's twenty thousand Jews at the beginning of his rule, and the disaster that occurred in 1896 at Khodynka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow, during the festivities for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, when a stampede began on the unstable ground, and thirteen hundred people were killed and twice as many injured. (He had been appointed, additionally, as Commander of the Moscow military district in 1896, by his nephew, the new tsar.) After the latter, many - including some in his own family - called for his dismissal, but the young Tsar vacillated and ultimately left Serge in command.

Serge, 1892.
Serge and Ella dressed for the famous Winter Palace Boyar Ball of 1903.  From the commemorative album.
The dates on the Fabergé frame commemorate his tenure as Governor General of Moscow.

At the beginning of 1905, in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War, internal revolutionary disturbances, and disagreements with the Tsar and the Tsar's advisers, Serge resigned the governorship, while remaining Commander of the Moscow military district. After his resignation, and with increasing disturbances in the city, Serge, his wife, and their two wards moved into the Nicholas Palace, within the protective walls of the Kremlin. Knowing he was a target for revolutionaries, Serge took every precaution to ensure the safety of himself and his family, rarely leaving home, and insisting that when he did, others not travel in his carriage. Still, with his deep religious beliefs, he held a stubbornly fatalist view of his own mortality; if an assassin succeeded or did not succeed, it was all the will of God.

In Darmstadt, 1903.

On the afternoon of February 17, 1905, after lunching with his wife, the Grand Duke drove out from the Kremlin to finish up some business at the Governor General's mansion. As his carriage passed through Nikolsky Gate, Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, stepped forward and from only four feet away, threw a nitroglycerin bomb directly into Sergei's lap. The carriage was instantly obliterated and Serge was literally blown to bits. (The coachman was severely wounded and died three day later, while the assassin, also wounded, recovered, was convicted and hanged.) At the bomb's detonation, the ground shook and the windows of the Nicholas Palace rattled violently. Grand Duchess Elisabeth, certainly having a stunned understanding of what had occurred, rushed from the palace, and while calmly giving instructions, she knelt in the bloody show and gathered up the scraps of what had been her husband.


Understandably traumatized by Serge's death, Ella found solace in, and was more and more absorbed by, her adopted Orthodox faith. Living increasingly retired from the world, she later gave away her possessions and founded a convent for nursing sisters, of which she was the abbess. She, herself, was murdered in 1918, during the Russian Revolution.

Serge in his study at Ilinskoe, by Kirill Vikentevich Lemokh (7/19 June 1841, Moscow - 24 February/9 March 1910, St. Petersburg), 1886.






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