On January 11, 2001, Vera Konstantinovna of Russia, Princess of the Blood Imperial and great-granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I, died in Valley Cottage, New York, where she had lived for many years at the home for the elderly at the Tolstoy Foundation. On the 20th anniversary of her death, we offer this brief tribute to a woman who was a pillar to the Russian emigration in the United States, and a founding patron of the Russian History Museum.
Princess Vera Konstantinovna was born at Pavlovsk Palace on the 24 of April 1906, the youngest of the nine children of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and his wife, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna (born Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg).
Her 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 Georgii (1903-1938), and Princess Natalia (+1905).
Originally to be named Marianne after her mother’s favorite sister, Princess Marie Anna of Saxe-Altenburg, she was instead named for her paternal aunt, Grand Duchess Vera Konstantinovna, who had let the infant Vera’s parents know in no uncertain terms that the child was to be named after her, and that she would serve as godmother.1 Shortly after her birth, on the 30th of April, Nicholas II wrote in his diary:
At 1 1/2 we went to Tsarskoye [Tsarskoe Selo, the Imperial Family’s residence outside St. Petersburg] with Maria and Dmitrii [Maria Pavlovna the Younger and Dmitrii Pavlovich, Nicholas II’s first cousins]. From the station we went to Pavlovsk for the christening of little Vera Konstantinovna. After the service, there was a sumptuous tea, upon which the family threw themselves hungrily.2
The young princess’ arrival was heralded by a 19-gun salute at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, and the issuance of announcements concerning her birth. As the great-granddaughter of an emperor, she was a princess of the blood imperial with the style of “Highness” and not a Grand Duchess, a title reserved for daughters and granddaughters of an emperor.
Having followed the stillborn Princess Natalia, Vera was the treasured baby of the family and particularly close to her father. In his 1912 diary, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich wrote on Easter Monday:
Little six-year-old Vera comes to greet me every morning and plays with me for a half-hour. She speaks loudly to herself, as well as to a host of invisible imaginary girls. Yesterday as an exception she dined with us, sat beautifully at the table, cut everything herself, and did not leave a single spot on the tablecloth. My wife and I are terribly pleased with her. Recently, on the 14th, my wife had breakfast with Their Majesties and was appalled at the behavior of the Heir [Nicholas II’s son, Tsesarevich Alexis], who is two years older than Vera, yet who sat lounging, ate poorly, licked a plate, and pulled at others. The Sovereign often turned away, so as perhaps not to [be forced to] reprimand him, and the Empress instead scolded their eldest daughter Olga, who was sitting next to him, for not controlling him.3
It was during one of these pleasant morning times together that the nine-year-old Vera was alone with her father when he died of a heart attack in 1915. She is reported to have dragged several heavy plants blocking a massive door to reach her mother, and entered the room calling urgently “Papa hat kein Luft! [Papa can’t breathe! – German].”
The death of Grand Duke Konstantin meant that Vera would leave her childhood home of Pavlovsk and move to the family’s residence in Petrograd, the Marble Palace. She and her brother Prince Georgii were the closest in age, and spent most of their time in lessons and with their mother. Even during World War I, they lived in relative luxury and isolation, seeing only close family members and friends of their mother’s.
When the February Revolution occurred, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna and her family returned to safety at Pavlovsk where they remained throughout the October revolution, where they first learned of the murder of Vera’s brothers Ioann, Konstantin, and Igor at Alapayevsk. In the summer of 1918, they left Pavlovsk, and were forced to rent an apartment in the city, as the Marble Palace had been nationalized by the Bolshevik government. As the situation became worse, Grand Duchess Elizaveta accepted an offer of asylum from her friend Queen Victoria of Sweden, who sent the offer through the Swedish ambassador Edvard Brändstrom. The family left from Kronstadt on the Swedish ship Ångermanland in October 1918. The twelve-year-old Princess Vera left with her mother, her brother Georgii, and her young nephews (Prince Teymouraz Bagration-Moukhransky and Prince Vsevolod Ioannovich) and her young nieces (Princess Natalia Bagration-Moukhranskaya and Princess Catherine Ioannovna). Traveling through Tallinn, Helsinki, and Mariehamn, the family finally arrived in Stockholm.
Princess Vera and her mother lived in Sweden for two years, then left for Belgium, where they lived from 1920 to 1922. That year, Elizaveta Mavrikievna received a letter from her brother, Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Altenburg, inviting them to come to live with him in Germany. Princess Vera moved into her mother’s family’s ancestral property in Altenburg near Leipzig, where they lived until her mother’s death on March 24, 1927.
Vera Konstantinovna’s uncle told Prince Georgii and Princess Vera that they were welcome to remain with him in Altenburg as long as they liked. In 1930, Prince Georgii moved to New York, where he began a new life and business as an interior designer.
Vera remained in Germany, which came under Nazi control in 1933. She watched anxiously as the Third Reich took shape and the war began, cutting her off from her Romanov relatives, most of whom had left Germany for Britain and the United States. On May 1, 1937, her uncle Ernst joined the Nazi Party. Vera found herself alone as the Second World War loomed. In 1939, she learned of her brother’s death in New York, and a small inheritance from him which made independence possible.5
During the war, Princess Vera worked as a translator in a prisoner-of-war camp, as she was fluent in German, French, English, and Russian. But German officials soon removed her from her work at one of the camps near Altenburg, because she continued to assist prisoners, and showed concern for their well-being. Vera waited out the war, and in early 1945, American troops arrived in Altenburg. Vera Konstantinovna waited to see what the political future would bring, and she soon heard that as a result of the Potsdam Conference, Saxe-Altenburg would fall into the Soviet occupation zone. Realizing that the Soviets would arrive, Princess Vera and her cousin, Prince Ernst-Friedrich of Saxe-Altenburg, fled on foot, walking 240 kilometers in 12 days.
Vera Konstaninovna settled in Hamburg in early 1946, where she worked as a translator for the British Red Cross, and later as a translator in a Displaced Persons (DP) Medical Center. Vera Konstantinovna stayed in Germany until 1951, when she was able to move to the United States. Though she had been an émigré since 1918, she had never taken Swedish, Belgian, or German citizenship. She never gave up her Nansen6 passport and continued to maintain her Russian nationality.
Princess Vera arrived in New York in 1951 from Hamburg, and began to work for the Tolstoy Foundation, founded by Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the writer Leo Tolstoy. The Tolstoy Foundation provided aid to Russians in need. In November 1952, Vera Konstantinovna became involved with the work of the Russian Children’s Welfare Society, where she worked until 1969. She was a patron of the Russian Nobility Association in America from 1958 until her death. Throughout her life in the United States, she was devoted to the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, and a variety of Russian cadet corps alumni organizations. She retired from work in 1971.
On her retirement, Princess Vera became one of the Russian History Museum’s earliest supporters. Her first donation in 1972 was a hand-painted banner, featuring a double-headed eagle, which was presented to the Princess by the Russian Nobility Association on the occasion of her brother Georgii’s reinterment at the Novo-Diveevo Convent in Nanuet, NY in 1957. This donation was followed by many other gifts, including a painting of her father, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, after the original by A.M. Leontovsky7 (shown at the beginning of this article). Perhaps the most sumptuous donation from Princess Vera is the masterpiece Fabergé presentation frame, given by Konstantin Konstantinovich to Elizaveta Mavrikievna for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1909. The frame depicts the Grand Duke, his nine children, and the family’s four primary residences, in a massive Empire style silver frame.
The most touching gift may be Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich’s shoulder boards, which bear the cyphers of the three emperors he served: Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II. Princess Vera attended the opening ceremony of the Russian History Museum in 1984.
Princess Vera Konstantinovna died on January 11, 2001, and was buried in the Novo-Diveevo Cemetery in Nanuet, New York, next to her brother Prince Georgii Konstantinovich. The Princess was a presence in the life of the Russian emigre in the United States for fifty years, a living connection to Imperial Russia into the 21st century, and a devoted patron of our Museum in its earliest days, for whose guidance and generosity we remain grateful today.
- Vera Кonstantinovna, “Konstantinovichi” Kadetskaya pereklichkа No. 3, Union of Russian Cadets: New York: 1972, pp. 8-22. Unless otherwise indicated, all biographical information in this piece is drawn from Vera Konstantinovna’s own published memoirs cited here.
- Nicholas II, Diary, 30 Apr 1906, retrieved Jan 2021 from http://www.rus-sky.com/history/library/diaris/1906.htm
- Konstantin Konstantinovich, Dnevnik Velikogo Knyazya Konstantina Konstantinovicha (K.R.) 1911-1915, Moscow: ProzaiK, 2013., p. 169.
- Klee, E. Das Kulturlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2007, S.505. It should be noted that Ernst II joined the Nazi party less from political conviction than from the fear that his properties would be confiscated by Hitler’s government, which viewed the former German royal families with antipathy, if not contempt.
- “$10,700 Left By Prince: George of Russia, Grandson of Czar, Died here Nov 7.” New York Times, 1 April, 1939.
- Nansen Passports were internationally recognized temporary refugee travel documents first issued by the League of Nations to stateless refugees from 1922-1938. They became known as “Nansen passports” for the Norwegian statesman and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who promoted them.
- Alexander Mikhailovich Leontovsky (1865-1928) was commissioned to paint Portrait of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, President of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. 1906, depicting Konstantin Konstantinovich in his study in the Constantine Palace at Strelna, together with a pendant portrait of his wife – Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mavrikievna (now in the Omsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts). The original was transferred from the Marble Palace in 1923 to the Pushkin House collection.