Helen of Serbia was born on 4 November 1884 (O.S. 23 October) in Cetinje, Montenegro as the daughter of King Peter I of Serbia and his wife Princess Zorka of Montenegro. Her mother would tragically die in childbirth six years later, and her father did not remarry. She spent most of her childhood under the care of her mother’s sisters Anastasia and Milica.
Her aunt Milica married Grand Duke Peter Nicolaievich of Russia in 1889, while her aunt Ansastia would marry Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaevich of Russia in 1907 after her divorce from George, Duke of Leuchtenberg. Helen received her education at the Smolny Institute in Russia. Helen was often at the Russian court, with another aunt Princess Vera of Montenegro who was actually younger than Helen.
Margaretta Eagar, who was a governess to the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II wrote of Helen, “That year in the Crimea we saw a great deal of Princess Ellen, now of Servia. She was a very sweet-faced though plain girl, with beautiful dark eyes, very quiet and amiable in manner. The little Grand Duchess Olga was very fond of her, and Princess Ellen would often come to tea in the nurseries, her young aunt, Princess Vera
of Montenegro, and the young cousins with whom she lived most of the time. Princess Ellen was about seventeen years of age. Her mother had been dead for many years, and she lived chiefly with one or other of the aunts in Russia. What a change has come into her life! I often think of her with deep pity and compassion. She can never know an easy moment, surrounded as she is by the assassins of the late king and queen. Poor, gentle, amiable girl! What will be her fate?”1
Helen was introduced to Prince John Constantinovich of Russia by yet another aunt, Elena of Montenegro, Queen of Italy. It was an apparent love match, and he proposed not much later. It came as a surprise to most of the family as John had considered becoming a Russian Orthodox monk. The Tsar’s daughter Tatiana wrote to her aunt Grand Duchess Olga, “Perhaps you know that Ioanchik is engaged to Helene of Serbia, it is so touching. How funny if they might have children, can they be kissing him? What foul, fie!”2
They were married on 3 September 1911 (O.S. 21 August) at the Peterhof3, and Helen took the name Princess Yelena Petrovna of Russia. Helen wore a silver brocade gown and the veil of the Karageorgevitch family. She wore the red ribbon with the silver border of the Order of St. Catherine.4
Helen took up medical classes at the University of St. Petersburg after she married John, but she gave it up when their first child was born. Their first child was a son named Vsevolod Ivanovich, and he was born on 20 January 1914. A daughter named Catherine Ivanovna was born on 12 July 1915.
Prince John fought at the front during the First World War, and he was there when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. In the spring of 1918, John was exiled to the Urals by the Bolsheviks, and Helen left her children with her mother-in-law Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mavrikievna of Russia (born Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Altenburg) at the Palace of Pavlovsk near Petrograd and followed her husband into exile. Helen ended up in Yekaterinburg with her husband and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the Tsarina’s sister, and several other. However, Helen had not been arrested, and she lived in rooms rented from a Cossack couple. In May, those who had been arrested were told they were to be moved to the mining town of Alapayevsk. Helen discussed the situation John and asked for permission to return to Yekaterinburg, where she would further request permission to go to Petrograd. However, once in Yekaterinburg, she did not receive permission to travel further and once again rented the same rooms.
Helen began to make almost daily visits to the British consulate, demanding that the consul would intervene on her husband’s behalf. She also demanded to be allowed to return to Petrograd, and she wanted to enter the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and his family were being held. She was eventually warned that if she did not stop, she would be arrested and put in prison. Nevertheless, Helen showed up at the gates of the Ipatiev House and loudly announced, “I am the wife of a Romanov interned at Alapayevsk, and I am also the daughter of the King of Serbia. As a relative of the Emperor, I have come to get news of him and ask to be allowed to see him.” The commandant eventually came out to speak to her, and while he did not allow her to come inside, he promised to tell the Tsar that she had come.5 The authorities eventually tired of Helen and she was arrested and put in prison for two weeks. After those two weeks, she put on a train back to Petrograd.6
In July 1918, Prince John was murdered in a mineshaft near Alapayevsk alongside Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and other members of the family. He was still only 32 years old. Helen’s mother-in-law and Helen’s two children were allowed to leave Russia in October 1918 after Swedish diplomats intervened. Helen was also eventually allowed to leave and joined her children in Sweden. They moved around quite a bit, first moving to Paris, then Belgrade, Cap Ferrat before settling in England where Vsevolod was educated at Eton and Oxford. She hardly ever spoke Russian with her children as hearing the language pained her.
Helen eventually moved to France where she died on 16 October 1962 at the age of 77 after being rushed to the hospital the night before with a lung ailment.7
- Six Years at the Russian Court by Margaret Eagar p. 172-173
- The Romanovs: Love, Power and Tragedy by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Bokhanov, Manfred Knodt and Vladimir Oustimenko p.127
- Road to Ekaterinburg
by ECS Banks
- New York Times 3 September 1911
- The Fate of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson
- The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport
- New York Times 16 October 1962