Princess Friederike Charlotte Marie of Württemberg was born in Stuttgart in 1807. She received a brilliant education in Paris, studying at an exclusive school founded by Madame Campan, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette. From an early age, she showed an unusual talent for the exact and natural sciences. Georges Cuvier, the famous French zoologist, hoped that one day she would become his pupil, but the princess was, by birth, destined for another role.
In 1822, at the age of fifteen, Charlotte was engaged to Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich. Armed with only a dictionary and a grammar book, she taught herself to speak Russian, amazing the court with her perfect command of the language when she arrived in St Petersburg two years later. With her inquisitive brain and love of learning, she had little in common with the other Romanovs. Nicholas I proudly called her “the scholar of our family.”
But Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich put his foot down and refused to go ahead with the wedding. There was much about the German princess that he did not like. A serious and intelligent girl, she obviously had a high opinion of herself, and, quite frankly, did not seem cut out to be a member of the Romanov family.
Mikhail’s mother, who was also the girl’s aunt, managed to persuade Charlotte not to leave St Petersburg straight away. Meanwhile, pressure was applied to Mikhail, the youngest member of the family, who eventually succumbed to the wishes of his mother and three elder brothers – Alexander, Konstantin and Nicholas.
Mikhail took a deep breath and, in February 1824, married the seventeen-year-old princess, who converted to Orthodoxy as Elena Pavlovna. They lived in the centre of St Petersburg, at the Mikhailovsky Palace, which is now the Russian Museum. Elena gave birth to five daughters.
After the death of Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna in 1828, Elena took over the patronage of the Mariinsky and Midwife Institutes. She helped to found the Clinical Institute in St Petersburg and the Community of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which later developed into the Russian Red Cross.
After the death of her husband in 1849, Elena turned the Mikhailovsky Palace into a glittering salon, where she hosted lavish receptions and soirees which often outshone the court of the tsar. Elena had several meetings with Alexander Pushkin, who discussed the Pugachev revolt with her and even gave her the banned memoirs of Catherine the Great to read. The grand duchess was also a friend of the poets Fyodor Tyutchev and Vasily Zhukovsky, who helped to improve her Russian.
Endowed with great taste, wide knowledge and a genuine love of music, Elena Pavlovna was a perfect patroness of the arts. She was a great connoisseur of painting and patronised the artists Alexander Ivanov, Karl Brullov and Hovhannes Aivazovsky. Her salon was the setting for brilliant concerts and scintillating conversation. Besides writers, Elena invited many scientists to the Mikhailovsky Palace. One of them, Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, dedicated his treatise on New Guinea to the grand duchess.
Elena’s salon is possibly best known for its contributions to the development of music in Russia. The composer Anton Rubinstein performed at the Mikhailovsky Palace, accompanying singers and headlining musical evenings. With the support of the grand duchess, he founded the Russian Musical Society and, later, the Conservatoire.
Elena Pavlovna seemed ideally suited to the reign of Alexander II and the age of great reforms. The young emperor always listened to his aunt’s thoughts and opinions. She passed on to him many notes and projects that might otherwise have got stuck in the bureaucratic machine.
Elena Pavlovna’s salon took on a special significance with the launch of Alexander’s reforms. The Mikhailovsky Palace became a place where political questions could be discussed by those who might not otherwise have met, because of the rigid rules of court etiquette and class distinctions. Government officials and even the tsar himself could, at Elena’s salon, meet liberal professors and civil servants, and adopt their ideas for change. The authorities wanted to pass reforms, but they did not know how to go about it. For the first time ever in Russia, the governing classes grew accustomed to consulting independent experts and listening to their opinions.
Elena was more than just the beautiful hostess of an enlightened salon, who poured out the tea and listened to the chatter with a sympathetic ear. In 1856, she personally emancipated and gave land to all the peasants on her estate at Karlovka. The grand duchess helped Alexander II to draw up his manifesto abolishing serfdom in 1861.
The traditions of great hospitality and culture continued for many years at the Mikhailovsky Palace. Visitors were serenaded by the violin of Henryk Wieniawski, the cello of Karl Davydov, the piano music of Anton Rubinstein.
As the years passed, Elena Pavlovna’s health began to fail, and she increasingly went abroad to recuperate. Although she retired from politics, Alexander II did not forget her contributions to his reforms, awarding her a special medal struck in her honour. Elena died in Stuttgart at the age of sixty-six in 1873.