Book Review: “An Unbroken Unity: A Memoir of Grand-Duchess Serge of Russia – 1864-1918” by E.M. Almedingen

Every now and then, it’s possible to find a book that inspires and moves you and this book did that for me. While reading a biography of Princess Alice, mother of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the author mentions her aunt, Grand-Duchess Elizabeth as having a profound influence on Alice with her foundation of a convent and nursing and feeding the poor. The author highly recommended Ms. Almedingen’s biography of Elizabeth and I was lucky enough to find a used copy of this book, published in 1964.

There are few books published on the Grand-Duchess. This author, of Russian, English and German heritage, spent some time in Russia before the first World War and had relatives and friends who knew the Grand-Duchess personally. This book is a biography but it’s in the style of a memoir and includes many first hand stories. The life of the Grand-Duchess is filled with happiness, hope and tragedy and these personal stories deepen the narrative.

Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her parents were Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Her sister was Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Indeed, Elizabeth was instrumental in her sister marrying the Tsar, something she may have later regretted. Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, an uncle of the last Tsar. It was a love match and a successful, though childless marriage, which ended when Serge was tragically assassinated.

Widowhood opened up an opportunity for Elizabeth to create a life of piety and charity. She grew up Lutheran in her home country but once in Russia, she came to love the Russian Orthodox church and converted. After careful consideration, she began wearing a habit and built a convent and community to nurse, feed and teach the poor in Moscow. This was a thriving community and did significant charitable work. It was most unfortunate that the Romanov dynasty’s fall and the rise of communism had a deleterious effect on the community and on the life of Elizabeth.

I’m very impressed with Ms. Almedingen’s writing. She has keen insight into Russian society at the turn of the century as well as in the mind and motives of the Grand-Duchess. Her personal stories are fascinating. This is a mindful, conscientious, and considerate recounting of the Grand-Duchess’ life. Almedingen obviously cares deeply about her subject. She has a couple of other books about the Russian Imperial family that I might need to look into.