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The Mother Benefactress and the Sacred Battalion: Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna and the Emancipation of the Serfs

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Publication details

JournalRussian Review
DatePublished - Oct 2011
Issue number4
Number of pages24
Pages (from-to)584-608
Original languageEnglish


This article argues that Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna made a decisive contribution to the Emancipation of the Serfs through the political battles she waged from 1855 to 1861. Using her position as a Grand Duchess, her salon and her relationship with her nephew Alexander II, Elena was able to provide support and guidance for Alexander's desire for emancipation and for those who wished for real as a opposed to a nominal emancipation of the serfs. Elena's contribution has gone largely unnoticed because the gendered conception of politics in imperial Russia had no place for a woman. That ideology, however, did not reflect the complete reality of politics in imperial Russia which revolved around the person of the emperor both in his capacity as an autocrat and as a man in the centre of a network of personal relationships of which royal women were an important, but unacknowledged, part. Elena's position close to the throne, her exception skills and abilities, and her desire to help the process of emancipation allowed her to take an active part in that fight. She provided an organizing centre for all those on the Editing Commission who shared her view, was able to arrange access for them to the emperor in a context in which he willingly engaged with them on the emancipation, and finally she used her own growing influence over Alexander to ensure his continued support for the Commission and its work. This article in reconstructing Elena's role in the political sphere gives due recognition to her unjustly neglected contribution to the emancipation and broadens our understanding of politics in imperial Russia.

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