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A Russian Duchess and Her Extraordinary Martyrdom

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AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File

As the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall is upon us, it is important to remember one of the first martyrs murdered by atheistic communism.  

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine lived an extraordinary life by any stretch as a Princess in Germany, as Russian nobility, a nun, and finally, as a martyr.


Princess Elisabeth was born in Germany in 1864, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  She was regarded as the most beautiful of her siblings and even rejected a marriage proposal from the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.  She married Sergei Alexandrovich in 1884, becoming Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna.  Elizabeth converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and was formally received into it in 1891. At Elizabeth’s wedding her sister Alix met her future husband; Sergei’s nephew Nicholas, who would become Czar Nicholas II.  While an aunt by marriage and sister in law to Czar Nicholas, she thought of him more as a brother.

A socialist revolutionary assassinated Sergei in 1905.  This event sparked an even greater spiritual awakening for Elizabeth.  Instead of crying for vengeance she, almost immediately, began a life of contemplative prayer.  She asked her husband’s assassin to accept her forgiveness and that of God as his hanging drew near.  He refused.

Thereafter Elizabeth withdrew from formal royal life and became a nun.  She sold off her possessions, even including her wedding ring, and used the monies to open up the Mary and Martha Convent as well as a hospital, orphanage, and other entities to help those who were less fortunate in Russia.

However, she remained very much a part of the royal family and her wise counsel to Czar Nicholas to dispose of Rasputin was, unfortunately, not heeded.


After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Elizabeth and a great many others of the Russian Royal Family were arrested.  On July 17, 1918, Czar Nicholas II was murdered along with his wife, children, and household staff.  The next day, July 18, 1918, Elizabeth was beaten and led to a 66-foot deep mineshaft along with her fellow prisoners.  They knew they were going to die.  One of the Royal Family was shot and thrown down the shaft.   Elizabeth and the others were also thrown down, alive.  From the top of the mineshaft, the Bolsheviks heard the survivors singing Orthodox hymns.   The Bolsheviks threw in hand grenades but the singing did not stop.  Elizabeth used her religious head garb to bandage the wounds of one of her fellow prisoners before she, and then they, died.

Elizabeth’s body was found months later by White Russian forces, in surprisingly good condition.  Her body was moved to Beijing, China and now rests in the Church of Mary Magdalene, near the Garden of Gethsemane, in Jerusalem.  The Church rests near where Jesus spent His last night, before the Resurrection, alive.  Elizabeth had commissioned the large murals of Mary Magdalene for the same church many years before and was there for the consecration ceremony of the church. 

Also resting in the same church are the remains of Sister Barbara Yakovleva.  Sister Barbara had served as Elizabeth’s maid before too taking her religious vows and was murdered with Elizabeth that July night in 1918.


In 1989, the Soviet Empire began falling, with the Soviet Union dying on Christmas Day 1991.  The next year, Elizabeth was canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate as a Holy Martyr along with Sister Barbara.  She was most deserving of it, having given up nearly everything to serve God and then showing great faith in the face of certain death.  Elizabeth was an amazing woman of extraordinary faith.

The Soviets killed Elizabeth, Barbara, and millions of others in their nearly 75 year reign of terror.  Yet, the Communists and those who follow them will never kill their legacy or their souls.  The faith, hope, and charity of the faithful, such as Elizabeth, was there before the Soviet Empire and will far outlast it.  Like the Savior they served, their deeds will never be forgotten.

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