A Princess Most Brave
“I am the wife of a Romanov interned at Alapayevsk, and I am also the daughter of the King of Serbia. As a relative of the Emperor, I have come to get news of him and ask to be allowed to see him.”
Jelena of Serbia stood at the main gate of Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where the Romanov Imperial Family were being held, demanding to be let in. No one with only a passing acquaintance with the young and fragile-looking quiet woman would have ever expected such forcefulness. She was known for being quiet and for getting along with nearly everyone. Her Romanov husband, Grand Duke Ivan Konstantinovich, was quiet and introspective himself. Their marriage had come as a shock to many in the Russian Imperial Family, because Ivan was expected to become a priest.
But both Ivan and Jelena had depths of character that those who only knew them superficially never expected.
Jelena Karađorđević was born in Cetinje, Montenegro while her father and the Karađorđević Dynasty were out of power and exiled. Petar Karađorđević married Zorka, the oldest daughter of Montenegro’s Prince Nikola, and when Zorka died in childbirth in 1890, Petar never remarried. Jelena, however, still needed mothering and her Montenegrin aunts stepped up to raise the child.
Prince Nikola of Montenegro married his children throughout Europe, and his daughters Milica and Anastasia were no exception. Both daughters married Russian princes, and Jelena followed them to Russia, where she was a frequent playmate of the Romanov Grand Duchesses and was educated in one of St Petersburg’s top schools.
Margaretta Eagar, the nanny for the Romanov daughters, mentioned Jelena in her memoirs, “The year in the Crimea we saw a great deal of Princess Ellen, now of Servia. She was a very sweet-faced, though plain, girl, with beautiful dark eyes, very quiet and amiable in manner.”
Jelena may have been plain when she was a young girl, but by the time she married she had become undeniably beautiful.
She enjoyed other typically teenage pastimes in Russia as well – such as roller skating.
In 1903 the Obrenović king in Serbia was murdered by a group of army officers that would later become known as The Black Hand. Supported by the Russian government, Jelena’s father Petar became the King of Serbia. She came to Belgrade for his coronation, but later returned to Russia, where she married the Grand Duke Ivan Konstantinovich on 3 September 1911. The news titillated the Grand Duchesses she had grown up with.
“Perhaps you know that Ioanchik is engaged to Jelena of Serbia, it is so touching,” wrote the Grand Duchess Tatiana in 1911. “How funny if they might have children, can they be kissing? What foul! Fie!”
But Jelena and Ivan did not start their family immediately after marriage. In 1912 the First Balkan War broke out and Jelena asked the Tsar for permission to go to her father which was granted. Like both of her brothers, Jelena served during the war. She worked as a nurse on the front lines, always near her father.
Returning to Russia, she entered medical school, but her son Vselevod was born on 20 January 1914. Although no one yet knew it, he would be the last male of the Romanov dynasty born on Russian Imperial soil.
When World War I started, the introspective Ivan proved of immense courage. He was decorated for bravery and was at the front lines when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out and he was arrested and taken to the Urals. Jelena left her two young children with her mother-in-law, who managed to get them out of the country on an invitation by the Swedish queen, and followed her husband into exile.
It was at this moment that Jelena proved how deep her own courage, which had been camouflaged by her gentle nature, ran. Grand Duke Ivan, sensing a looming disaster, told Jelena to return to their children. But rather than leave Russia, Jelena instead went to Yekaterinburg, where the Imperial Family were being held at Ipatiev House, and took rooms at the Amerikanskaya Hotel. Every day she would pay a visit to the British consulate, demanding they intervene to save the Imperial Family. Every day she would visit the dreaded Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, demanding they free the Tsar. And every day she would go to the gate of Ipatiev House, demanding to be allowed to see the Romanovs.
When her demands to see the Tsar’s family were ignored, Jelena became more strident. In one visit she made such a scene that the commandant in charge of the Tsar’s imprisonment came to see her personally and promised to pass her message along. Unfortunately, we have no proof that he ever did.
Finally, the Serbian Ambassador to Russia, Miroslav Spalajković, sent a delegation to Yekaterinburg with a pass to get Jelena out of Russia and back to her children. The Cheka, already suspicious of Jelena, who was not the only monarchy-minded Serb trying to get the release of the Tsar in the Urals, submitted a query on her pass to the Petrograd Cheka and received word that they had never approved her release.
Someone in the Serbian government had attempted to break Jelena out without going through official channels. This was too much for the Bolsheviks to overlook, and on 9 July Jelena and the Serbian Army Major sent to fetch her, Džarko Konstantinovič Mičič, were arrested and transported to the prison at Perm.
Various reports have her as moved from Perm, as having spent time in Lubjanka, and place Jelena in more than a few different places. However, the overriding truth is that she was lost within the prison system for more than five months. Eventually discovered by a Norwegian diplomat, her release was secured and she was transported to the border where the ambassador himself was to walk her across, a plan which was nearly derailed by a cantankerous prison guard who wanted to rearrest her on the spot. This issue was solved when the Norwegian Ambassador paid out an enormous “fine” to secure her freedom.
Jelena was finally out of Russia and free, and learned at last the fate of her husband. Ivan had been beaten and tossed into a mine along with the Tsarina’s sister, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth who had taken vows and become a nun, and his brothers. Grenades were thrown down amongst them to kill anyone not dead from the beating and fall, and when those didn’t work a fire was set at the entrance to the mine. Despite all the attempts, when the bodies of the murdered Romanovs were found, they were determined to have mainly died later of wounds and lack of water. Ivan himself was found with the Grand Duchess’s wimple wrapped around his head wounds.
It was a horrible way to die, and a horrible thing for Jelena to learn; she would never remarry. To compound the trauma, she had changed so much in the several months since she had seen her children that they did not recognize her at all, and she learned that her father had been mourning her as amongst the dead.
After a period of recovery where Jelena had to be slowly reintroduced to food because captivity had completely ruined her digestive system, Jelena was reunited with her father and brother Alexander in Paris. Initially she returned to Serbia, but when her father died in 1921 she moved to the Via Trianon in St Jean Cap Ferrat, France. Jelena did not entirely get along with her brother Alexander, and had disagreed with him publicly on some things – most notably his treatment of their brother George, whom he had replaced as Crown Prince and now King of the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs.
“Elena, I love you very much and cannot say how saddened I am that you are struggling with children. And I’m in Hell – my brother Alexander, for his account and the government, drove me from the scene. He invented the disease of nerves and placed me behind bars in a madhouse near Toponica,” George wrote to Jelena after her release.
When the Yugoslav government was taken over by the Communists in 1945, Jelena’s stipend as a Princess of Serbia ended and her circumstances were quickly reduced. By the time she died in 1962 she was living in very reduced circumstances, renting a single room and living off donations by the Russian Orthodox Church some French nobility.
Other members of the Karađorđević family did try to meet with her and help with her circumstances, but Jelena’s pride would not allow her to see people in her reduced circumstances.
“In 1959 I was with my wife Margaretha in southern France. Then I found out that Aunt Elena is in Nice. I have heard she is living a difficult life in a rented room, impoverished, with no income, and even lacking food. I tried to find her and help. She, however, rejected any help and even a meeting. No one, not even me, was allowed to see her in such dismal condition. She persisted in that until her death. —Prince Tomislav Karađorđević
Jelena, the quiet and amiable child who was quite beloved in her visits to the Romanov nursery, had proven to be the most remarkable of people: courageous, loyal, and possessing an inner strength that allowed her to survive when so many of her contemporaries did not.
- February 26, 2021