17 July 2010

Review of a St Elisabeth Biography

Today, 5 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the New Martyr Elisabeth of Russia. In honour of St Elisabeth, patron of my daughter as well as my mother (and likely, many, many other convert women as well!), I thought I would post a little review—written years ago in a reader’s journal I used to keep—of a secular biography of the New Martyr: Hugo Mager’s Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999). I have made one or two minor editorial changes, and added page references where I could still find them.

The first problem I have is the author’s utter ignorance of Orthodoxy. After repeated remarks about the ‘rottenness’ of the relics of St Seraphim of ‘Sarovo’ [sic], Mager concludes that this ‘should have barred him from sainthood’; [1] but a brief look into the glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church would have shown that incorrupt remains are not required by any means. He claims that all startsy (which he translates imprecisely as ‘holy men’) are ‘semiliterate, eternal wanderer[s]’; some of them ‘fastened chains to their legs as a sign of asceticism’, or ‘claimed to possess powers of healing’. [2] He gives a dramatic description of some schema-monks without apparently realising what they are. He consistently uses imprecise, western language to describe Orthodox things: ‘High Mass’, ‘Te Deum’, ‘Monsignor’. He repeatedly refers to the Roman Catholic ‘saint’ Elisabeth of Hungary, an ancestor of the New Martyr, as ‘St Elizabeth’ without noting that she was not Orthodox (a legitimate ‘bar to sainthood’ in the Orthodox Church). [3] He mentions ‘the monastery at Mount Athos’, apparently unaware that there are twenty. [4]

More importantly, the ignorance of Orthodoxy in particular seems to be aligned to a deeper ignorance of and lack of interest in what it means to be a believer, period. The spiritual life seems to him to consist mostly of consolations, feelings and sentiments, except where it’s expressed in charitable works—which, to his credit, he covers admirably. But the account of St Elisabeth’s life in the Ss Martha and Mary Convent is given short schrift in favour of a sensationalistic and historically questionable account of the fall of the autocracy. Even clothes, jewelry, and balls are given more attention than spiritual things.

But even from a secular perspective the book leaves something to be desired. First of all, there are quite a few typographical and grammatical mistakes (he spells podvignodvig’!). Then, there’s the historiography. Although it doesn’t give any credentials, the jacket refers to the author as ‘historian Hugo Mager’, and indeed, the appendix (‘Documentary Evidence of the Last Journey & Death of Grand Duchess Elizabeth & the Removal of Her Remains to Beijing’) shows him to be pretty good at doing historical scholarship when he wants to be. [5] But the rest of the book makes matter of fact assertions about the nature and motivations of various people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about which—having read other accounts—I sometimes felt rather dubious. At the very least, how can Mager claim to know some of the things he does? He does not provide extensive reasoning or documentation behind much of it, probably because he intended the book as a popular biography and not a work of scholarly historiography. But some of the more extraordinary claims (like the allegation of Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich’s homosexuality, or perhaps more importantly, the ‘cool’ sexual relations which provide the basis for the allegation) could have done with a good deal more well-documented evidence (although sexuality might have been left entirely unmentioned in any case). In numerous cases, it is clear to someone a little bit acquainted with the subject that much of what is presented is founded on more or less unreliable testimony, including, in at least one or two places, that of witnesses whom Mager himself has discredited. Furthermore, serious scholars of the Revolution would disagree with the central rôle he assigns to Rasputin in the story. The latter certainly didn’t help matters, but didn’t Vladimir Lenin have at least something to do with it, not to mention well nigh irresistable historical forces?

Another problem is the author’s obvious biases: for Britain and liberal politics, against Pobedonostsev, Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich, the Russian peasants, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra, and certainly Rasputin (who, despite the testimony of multiple witnesses, is made to seem closer to the Tsaritsa-Martyr than anyone else she knows). One friend of the Tsaritsa-Martyr’s who was an admirer of Rasputin is consistently referred to as ‘plain and unintelligent’, and even ‘fat’, whenever she figures into the narrative. [6] The author’s opinions on politics are constantly interjected. Whenever someone becomes drunk, it is said to be in ‘typical Russian fashion’. He always describes the Tsar-Martyr—in typical biographer fashion—as ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’.

But most annoying, I think, is Mager’s apparent determination to play up a dramatic contrast between the New Martyr Elisabeth and her sister, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra. St Elisabeth is presented as the warm, saintly, reasonable sister who does everything she can to save Russia, St Alexandra as the cold, self-centered, hysterical sister who does everything she can to ruin it. The author seems quite satisfied—often basing himself on the testimony of witnesses he himself elsewhere calls unreliable—to pronounce their relationship as being at distressing odds and ending in complete coldness.

There are good things to be said about the book. The author certainly reveres St Elisabeth. He also appears to respect Christianity, monarchy and, to some extent, Ss Nicholas and Alexandra. Passages like the note contrasting the ‘repression’ of Tsar Alexander III’s reign with that of communism—concluding, ‘Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country’—are really nice. [7] But Mager’s politics, his preoccupation with Grand Duke Sergei’s sexuality (about which he himself acknowledges that there is ‘no firm evidence’), [8] his ignorance of Orthodoxy and superficial notions of spirituality, and his exaggerrated antinomy between the two saintly sisters are all very annoying, and detract greatly from an interesting story. More importantly, Mager clearly lacks the experience and insight to do any kind of justice to the spiritual life of a great Saint. His Victorian psychologising is a poor substitute, not compensated for, in the end, by his attention to detail in presenting an in-depth story.

Those who want to read about St Elisabeth should stick with the Life by Lubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 1991), only venturing toward Mager’s book for superficial and extraneous details about things like the Hessian grand duchy or Queen Victoria. Those interested in St Alexandra should never open Mager’s book, but stick with A Gathered Radiance: The Life of Alexandra Romanov, Russia’s Last Empress (Chico, CA: Valaam Society of America, 1992), by Mother Nectaria (McLees).

Addendum: Mary Mansur has just informed me that Nikodemos has recently published a new, expanded edition of Millar's biography of St Elisabeth, featuring all new materials. It can be ordered for $26.95 + $4 s&h. Just send a check to Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, PO Box 383, Richfield Springs, NY 13439-0383.

[1] Hugo Mager, Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 200.

[2] Ibid., p. 226. True startsy, or ‘elders’, of course, may well be educated, are rarely wanderers, would never display an external ‘sign of asceticism’, and would never claim to ‘possess powers of healing’.

[3] Ibid., pp. 19-20, 240.

[4] Ibid., p. 227.

[5] Ibid., pp. 343-9.

[6] Ibid., pp. 235, 255, 277.

[7] Ibid., p. 80. The final paragraph of this lengthy note deserves to be quoted in full:

However, these enormous powers [of the tsarist political police] were used with remarkable leniency. During Alexander [III]’s repressive reign only four thousand persons, out of a population of nearly a hundred million, were detained or interrogated in connection with political offenses; only forty-four, all assassins or potential assassins, were executed for political crimes. The right to travel abroad and property rights, even those of expatriate revolutionaries, were scrupulously respected. The vast majority of criminals were tried fairly, by jury. Censorship was little more than a nuisance: between 1867 and 1894 only 158 books, not including Marx’s Capital, were forbidden to circulate in Russia. Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country.

[8] Ibid., p. 74.


solzemli said...

It sounds like this book gives "bad" books a bad name.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, indeed! It's interesting because, despite our modern desire for 'biographical detail', books like this remind us that there really is a good reason that the traditional hagiography of the Church is written the way it is. The Orthodox hagiographers edify and inspire us; secular biographers, even at their best, merely inform us.

aaronandbrighid said...

By the way, check the post again for an addendum!

Dax said...

I just read the first two chapters of this book myself before and have found two aspects of Mager's writing a little annoying. The first is his use of several short sentences in a row at times. The other is his assumptions as to what the toddler or child St. Elizabeth was feeling or experiencing. I had already given up on the book before I saw this post.

Elias said...

Why are there dots on the shoulders and forhead of the St. Elizabeth icon? Aren't those only for the Theotokos?

aaronandbrighid said...

Dax> Well, obviously you didn't miss anything!

Elias> I couldn't tell you, though you might try e-mailing the iconographer, Fr Andrey Davydov--if you Google his name, you'll probably find his website. I do believe that the tradition for icons of the Theotokos, however, prescribes stars, not dots.

Mama Bear said...

I wish I had read your review before opening this book! A friend loaned it, and I am disapointed in the authors obvious biases, opinons and mean depiction of Grand Duke Serge & Nicholas and Alexandra.
I highly rec. NOT to bother with this book.