Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia was born on 17 January 1882 as the only daughter of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia and Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. She would have three surviving older brothers; Kirill, Boris and Andrei.
She grew up surrounded by immense luxury and was therefore quite conscious of her exalted position as a Grand Duchess. She was born at Tsarskoe Selo, and she would spend most of her childhood and adolescence there. She was known to have quite a temper and once threatened a nurse with a paper-knife as she sat for a portrait. “The little lady then transferred her attentions to me, her black eyes ablaze with fury.”1
Her mother wanted Elena to make a brilliant match and considered several candidates for her. One of the first was Prince Albert of Belgium, who became King Albert I in 1909. However, he was already in love with Elisabeth in Bavaria. She then considered Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, who had been expected to one day succeed as King of Bavaria, but in this case, religion posed a problem. Rupprecht was a Catholic, and Elena would need to convert, something she would not do. He also married a Bavarian Princess.
While on holiday in Cannes with her mother, 16-year-old Elena met Prince Max of Baden and in 1898, they became engaged. However, the engagement was broken off just a few months later. Her eventual husband would be Prince Nicholas of Greece, the third son of King George I of Greece, and Queen Olga (born Olga Constantinovna of Russia). Elena had known him from childhood as the relatives from Greece often came over to Russia. He was not the heir to a throne Marie had hoped for, but over time, it would prove to be a loving match.
Elena and Nicholas were married on 29 August 1902 in the Grand Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. It was also her parents’ 28th wedding anniversary. Nicholas later wrote, “The wedding took place…in the chapel of the Grand Palace, its interior in dark blue and gold. It was decorated to the liking of Catherine the Great, with the splendour of that era. This time, instead of being an ordinary observer, I became not just one of the main characters but also a proud winner in the battle for the charming bride who conquered all the hearts with her beautiful soul and selflessness.”2 Afterwards, the newlyweds went on their honeymoon to Ropsha.
Elena did not find moving to her new home country of Greece easy. She wrote, “The thought of having to leave my home is terrifying, of course, but I am doing my best not to show it to spare Nicky from worrying.”3 The Greek Royal Court was a lot more modest and quiet. Within a year, Elena was pregnant, and her first child – a daughter named Olga – was born on 11 June 1903. Her mother came to Athens to see her first granddaughter. Two more daughters would follow; Elisabeth (born 24 May 1904) and Marina (born 13 December 1906). Elena had nearly died giving birth to Marina, and the couple would have no more children.
Elena and her family would often visit Russia, and rooms were always available for them in the Vladimir Palace. The political turmoil in Greece in 1917 meant that Elena and her family had to leave Greece. For a while, they wandered around Europe as Nicholas’ artistic talents helped them financially. His paintings always sold well. They were able to return to Greece in 1920, but not for long. By 1923, they were living in Paris. Her daughters all made good matches. Olga married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia in 1923, Elisabeth married Count Carl Theodor of Törring-Jettenbach in 1934 and Marina married Prince George, Duke of Kent in 1934.
Elena had not been not particularly close to her sister-in-law Alice (born of Battenberg) as reportedly Elena’s priorities were, “God first, then the Russian Grand Dukes, then the rest.”4 For Elena, an Imperial and Royal Highness, Alice was simply a Battenberg, born a mere Serene Highness and who married up to being a Royal Highness. Alice’s status improved a little in Elena’s eyes when her sister Louise became Crown Princess and later Queen of Sweden and when her son married the future Queen Elizabeth II. They also took Greek lessons together, and both learned to speak the language fluently.