Friday, May 22, 2020

The Last Princess of Imperial Russia: Princess Vera Konstantinovna (1906-2001)

HH Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia

Princess Vera

Her Highness Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia was born on 11 April (Old Style) / 24 April (New Style) 1906 at Pavlovsk Palace. Vera was a great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. The princess was named after her paternal aunt Grand Duchess Vera Konstantinovna (1854-1912), the wife of Duke Eugen of Württemberg. Vera's godparents were her brother Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (born Princess of Hesse and by Rhine), consort of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia.

Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich
Grand Duchess Elisabeth Mavrikievna

Vera was the youngest of the nine children of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia (1858-1915) and Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna (1865-1927; née Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg), who married in 1884.

Grand Duke Konstantin and Grand Duchess Alexandra of Russia
Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg
Princess Augusta of Saxe-Meiningen

Vera's paternal grandparents were Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich (1827-1892) and Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna (1830-1911; née Princess of Saxe-Altenburg). The maternal grandparents of the princess were Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg (1829-1907) and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Meiningen (1843-1919).

The Konstantinovichi Branch of the Russian Imperial House in 1911.(Back row; L to R): Princess Tatiana; Prince Gabriel; Prince Ioann; Grand Duchess Elizabeta and Grand Duke Konstantin
(Front row; L to R): Princess Vera; Prince George; Prince Igor; Prince Oleg and Prince Constantine

Vera's older siblings were Prince Ioann (1886-1918), Prince Gavrill (1887-1955; later titled Grand Duke), Princess Tatiana (1890-1979), Prince Konstantin (1891-1918), Prince Oleg (1892-1914), Prince Igor (1894-1918), Prince George (1903-1938), and Princess Natalia (1905).

Prince George Constantinovich and Princess Vera Constantinovna

Princess Vera was the only surviving member of the Russian Imperial House to have vivid recollections of the family before the Revolution. Vera recalled how the four daughters of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra would carry her in their arms when she was small; how the grand duchesses were "very modest" and kind to their little relative; how Vera greatly enjoyed the time she was able to spend with her cousins. Vera did recall that the grand duchesses were easier company than their brother, the Tsarevich Alexei, who could be demanding and rude. The princess remembered how her brother Prince George and she were very fond of their cousins; in addition, Vera had sweet memories of Emperor Nicholas II, who charmed her early on by his kind familial interactions.

The First Fatality amongst the Romanovs: Prince Oleg Konstantinovich

When World War I broke out, Vera was in Altenburg with her parents and brother George visiting her maternal family. Due to the intervention of Empress Auguste Viktoria, the family was able to return to Russia. Vera's five older brothers (Ioann, Gavrill, Konstantin, Oleg, and Igor) joined the Russian military in order to serve their nation. The first fatality was her twenty-one year-old brother Prince Oleg, who died in a battle with the Germans at Vilnius on 12 October 1914. Considered too young for the occasion, Vera was unable to attend her brother's funeral.

Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich lying in state.
The funeral procession of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia in Saint Petersburg.

On 15 June 1915, Princess Vera was the sole witness to the death of her father, Grand Duke Konstantin. Aged fifty-six, Konstantin suffered an heart attack at Pavlovsk Palace while his nine year-old daughter was in the room. Understandably upset, Vera made her way into a neighbouring room, where she alerted her mother Grand Duchess Elizaveta of Konstantin's condition. When they made their way back to the grand duke's body, it was found that he had already passed away.

Prince Ioann of Russia

Prince Konstantin of Russia

Prince Igor of Russia

In the aftermath of the Revolution, three of Vera's five surviving brothers were to meet their eternal reward. On 17/18 July 1918, Prince Ioann, Prince Konstantin, and Prince Igor were murdered by the Bolsheviks at Alapaevsk. The princes were joined by Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorvna (widow of Grand Duke Sergei and sister of Empress Alexandra), Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich (brother-in-law of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, sister of Emperor Nicholas II), and Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley (son of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich, a first cousin of Emperor Nicholas II).

Queen Victoria of Sweden

Grand Duchess Elisabeth and her children Prince George and Princess Vera

Queen Victoria of Sweden provided a lifeline to Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna and her children. Through the Swedish ambassador to Russia, the queen invited the family to Sweden. In October 1918, aboard the Swedish vessel Ångermanland, the twelve year-old Princess Vera reached the safe haven of Sweden with her mother and brother in addition to her nephews, Prince Teymuraz Konstantinovich Bagration-Mukhransky and Prince Vsevolod Ivanovich of Russia, and her nieces, Princess Natalia Konstantinovna Bagration-Mukhransky and Princess Catherine Ivanovna of Russia. The Bolsheviks allowed the family to travel to Stockholm unharmed, as they apparently feared a diplomatic incident.

On the sofa: Princess Tatiana with her children Teymuraz and Natalia Bagration-Mukhransky and Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna. On the floor: Prince George and Princess Vera. Brussels, 1921.

In 1920, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna and her surviving family relocated to Belgium after an application to King Albert I of the Belgians. The grand duchess had found the cost of living in Sweden to be insupportable. Happily, Albert provided a place for his Romanov relatives to reside in Brussels. Alas, the grand duchess and her children suffered from ill health, and their Belgian respite was brief.

Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Altenburg

In 1922, the grand duchess and her son and daughter relocated to Elizabeta's ancestral lands, where welcomed by Vera's uncle Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Altenburg. Elizaveta Mavrikievna settled at her family's castle, where she found a safe harbour.

Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna of Russia

On 24 March 1927, the grand duchess died of cancer at Leipzig; she was sixty-two years-old. Her youngest daughter Vera now had to forge her own way forward. In the 1930s, Prince George relocated from Europe to New York City, where he became an interior designer. The prince died from surgery complications in 1938 at the age of thirty-five.

Vera

Princess Vera remained in Germany during World War II. Vera worked as a translator in a camp for prisoners of war. However, officials of the Third Reich eventually removed the princess from her position because she had tried to help fellow prisoners. At the end of the war, when Vera became aware that Altenburg was to fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, she fled on foot along with her cousin Hereditary Prince Georg Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg (1900-1991) to Hamburg, where she settled in 1946. In 1951, the princess moved to the United States of America, where she established herself very modestly in New York.

Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia in front of a picture of her father Grand Duke Konstantin.

Princess Vera of Russia in her New York City apartment.

Mindful of her familial connections, Princess Vera was an occasional guest at Romanov family gatherings. In 1938, she attended the wedding of her cousin Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna of Russia to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. In 1953, the princess participated in the celebrations of the union of Archduke Rudolf of Austria, son of Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary and Empress Zita, to Countess Xenia Czernichev-Besobrasov, whose father was a Tsarist courtier.

Princess Vera of Russia

The American press caught up with the princess in February 1959. By this time, Vera was living in a small apartment with three other ladies in NYC. Various news outlets contained the following brief profile of the princess:

Every weekday morning, she hops a bus or subway and rides to an office in the basement of the Russian Orthodox church. There she files and answers letters from Russian refugees, packs bundles of food and clothing and tends to other details for the Russian Children's Welfare Society. 
How does she feel about this change of status? 
"I always enjoy life, whatever I do. And remember, I have been living this way most of my life," said the 53-year-old princess in an interview. 
A hearty woman with grey hair, twinkly eyes and a deep voice, she wore a simple, black dress and little jewellery. The family had to sell what jewels they were able to bring out of Russia, she explained. 
In 1918, the Bolsheviks killed three of her six brothers. The next day, Tsar Nicholas was killed. The princess and her mother, and later her sister and brothers, escaped. 
"We were lucky because we had an invitation to visit the Queen of Sweden. The Bolsheviks were afraid of an international incident, so they let us go," she said. 
From Sweden, Princess Vera went to Belgium, Germany, England, and back to Germany. But in 1945, she had to flee again, escaping on foot across the East German border. 
In 1951, she came to the United States "because Europe was a bit too near the Communists."

Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia

On 11 January 2001, HH Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia died at the Tolstoy Foundation's elderly care home in Valley Cottage, New York. A stateless person since the fall of the Russian Empire, Vera had traveled under a Nansen passport; she never took foreign citizenship. Xenia Woyevodsky, the Tolstoy Foundation's executive director, shared this memory of Princess Vera: "She had a very difficult life. Her brothers were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks, thrown into a mine shaft with hand grenades a few days after the execution of the imperial family. We were inundated, mostly after the fall of the Soviet Union, after people realised there was this Romanoff living in the United States that bridged the generations. People would come from all over the world. We finally had to restrict them - she was old, and it was emotional for her. She lived really to help. She worked on boards, helping the elderly, children, orphans refugees. She was very involved. She was a modest, unassuming grand lady. With her death comes an end of era. She closes a chapter to that generation of the Romanoffs."

Vera's signature.

The grave of Princess Vera of Russia.

Princess Vera once memorably declared: "I didn't leave Russia; Russia left me." The princess was ninety-four years-old when she passed away. On 15 January 2001, she was buried at the Russian Orthodox Monastery of Novo-Diveevo in Nanuet, New York. Vera was laid to rest next to her brother Prince George, who had died over sixty years before her.

Vera of Russia

A portrait of Her Highness Princess Vera Konstantinovna of Russia

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