Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sisters-in-Law at the Russian Court: Elizabeth Alexeievna and Anna Feodorovna

In the last decade of the 18th century, two very young German princesses separately made a long and tiring journey from their homeland to the vast Russian empire. The first princess, Louise, came from Baden in 1793 to marry the heir to the Russian throne, Alexander. The second princess, Juliane, came to Russia in 1796 from Coburg to marry Alexander's younger brother, Constantine. Both princesses came to Russia when they were only adolescents - Louise was 13 and Juliane was 15 - and in order to become full-fledged member of the Imperial Family both were required to give up not only their names but also their religion. Upon their conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Louise of Baden became Elizabeth Alexeievna and Juliane of Coburg became Anna Feodorovna.

For the first three years of her married life, Elizabeth had no closed female friend at Court to whom she could share her intimate thoughts and feelings. She had no one to turn to for a 'girl talk' since she was not even particularly closed to Alexander's sisters. But everything changed with Anna's arrival in Russia. Here was a new girl who also came from Germany and who was also subjected to the same bride-choosing ordeal as Elizabeth was when she came to Russia with her sister three years ago. They had so much to share with each other - news from Germany, the latest fashion trend, the music and the dances, the balls...and they could converse to each other in German. Elizabeth was more than happy to welcome the newcomer and soon she was writing an enthusiastic letter to her mother about her new sister-in-law:
"Julia is such a wonderful child: kind, polite, trustworthy, and she is the best friend I could ever dream of. She is cheerful and amusing... She has brown hair, brown dazzling eyes, and a pretty mouth..."
As for Anna, she likewise immediately felt comfortable with Elizabeth. Only two days after her arrival, she suddenly approached Elizabeth during a ball, held her hands, and called her in a German endearment equivalent to "darling". This vivacity initially surprised Elizabeth but she felt quite amused of Anna's naivete and spontaneity.
Grand Duchesses Elizabeth Alexeievna and Anna Feodorovna as young wives
Elizabeth and Anna were actually poles apart. In terms of physical appearance, Elizabeth was blonde while Anna was a brunette. Temperamentally, Anna was more vivacious and exuberant, while Elizabeth was the serene and soft-spoken one. But they have a thing in common: the two grand duchesses were highly acknowledged for their pretty faces and charming manners. Prince Eugen of Wurttemberg wrote about the two grand duchesses when he met them in St. Petersburg:
…During these early days of my life in St. Petersburg, I was introduced to Grand Duchesses Elizabeth and Anna, the wives of Alexander and Konstantin. The first, a former Princess of Baden, was lovely and kind, and at the same time possessed the most gentle character. The latter was probably even more a striking beauty, but still she could not overshadow the charms of Elizabeth…”
The then ruler of the Russian Empire was the indomitable Empress Catherine the Great. She was the one, through her careful machinations, who was largely responsible for these two early marriages of her grandsons. She was nonetheless delighted of her granddaughters-in-law and asked Mme. Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun to do a portrait of them.


Mme. Le Brun described Elizabeth to be 'ravishing' and a 'heavenly figure'
while she described Anna to be 'sweetly pretty' and with features of 'life and mirth'.

After her death, the throne was inherited by her despotic son who became Paul I. Paul resented his mother and upon his accession he was swift to enact changes and undo some of her mother's legacy. The brilliance and opulence of Catherine's reign was quickly replaced by military-structured and austere Court life which proved to be exceedingly stifling and boring for his two older sons and their wives. Court life was never the same as before. In this highly oppressive environment, coupled by Paul's temperamental and volatile nature and his wife Maria Feodorovna's obvious dislike of her daughters-in-law who treated them a little more than ladies-in-waiting, it was not surprising that the two young wives, Elizabeth and Anna, drew closer to each other. Elizabeth wrote to her mother several weeks after Catherine's death:
" I am certain, dear Mother, that the death of the good Empress affected you deeply. As for me, I can assure you that I cannot cease thinking of it. You have no idea how every little thing has been turned upside down. All this made such a wretched impression on me, especially in the first days, that I scarcely recognized myself. Oh, how awful those first days were! Anna was my only consolation, as I was hers. She practically lived with me, coming here in the morning, dressing here, having dinner on most occasions and remaining all day until we would go together in attendance on the Emperor. Our husbands were hardly ever at home and we could find little to do with ourselves, the way of life not having been regulated in every aspect."
In these early years of their life in Russia, Elizabeth was happily married to Alexander. They were a good-looking couple and their marriage was clearly based on friendship and mutual respect, if not love. But the same cannot be said of Anna and Constantine. Their married life was becoming increasingly unhappy as the months went by. From the beginning, Constantine was indifferent from his wife, and made no efforts to gain, at least, her friendship. He was moody and bad-tempered, totally dedicated to his military career, and Anna was too outspoken not to berate him about it and his lack of affection. This almost always resulted in quarrels between husband and wife. Despite his disinterest in his wife, Constantine proved to be an extremely jealous and insecure boy who exercised a very tight control over his wife. He was jealous of his brother Alexander's close friendship with her and he resented her increasingly popularity at Court. Whenever Anna earned admiring glances and remarks, he would forbade her to leave her rooms. In her misery, the usually cheerful and witty Anna soon became sickly and dispirited. She relied heavily on Elizabeth for moral and emotional support, as she was the one who could relieve the tension and smooth things out between the frequently quarreling couple. Throughout the duration of Paul's reign, Anna led a miserable married life.

After the death of Tsar Paul in 1801, Anna decided once and for all that her marriage is over. She left Russia and once in Coburg refused to return to Russia. She was determined not to go back to her unhappy life and immediately she started divorce proceedings against her husband. It was a bold move in her part despite her family's initial lack of support. It certainly says something about her character. She never returned to Russia but she and Elizabeth continued writing to each other well until Elizabeth's death in 1826. In the absence of Anna, Elizabeth once again felt lonely and deprived of a closed female friend within the imperial family. The new Empress certainly missed Anna, who settled permanently in Switzerland, that when she had a new sister-in-law, Charlotte of Wurttemberg later Elena Pavlovna, she confided to her mother how Elena reminded her so much of Anna and how her tender feelings for the new grand duchess were reminiscent to that she had for Anna more than twenty years ago.

Despite the subsequent breakdown of her marriage and the many other tribulations in her life, Elizabeth was determined not to follow Anna's example and leave Russia. She was fully resolved to stick to her husband and her marriage, knowing that he would one day finally come to his senses and return to her.

The close friendship between Elizabeth and Anna was the result of those early years they spent in Russia when they first knew opulence under Catherine the Great and which eventually gave way to a time of uncertainty and stifling formality under Paul I. In those uncertain times, they found comfort and solace with each other, and these helped them get through to their early life in the intimidating grandeur and magnificence of the Russian court.


Elizabeth and Anna in later life. Elizabeth would die at 47 and Anna at 79.


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