Elizabeth of Russia

Elizabeth of Russia
Portrait painted by Charles van Loo
Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias
Reign 6 December 1741–5 January 1762 (&1000000000000002000000020 years, &1000000000000003000000030 days)
Coronation 6 March 1742
Predecessor Ivan VI
Successor Peter III
Spouse Alexey Razumovsky
Full name
Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova
House House of Romanov
Father Peter I of Russia
Mother Catherine I of Russia
Born 29 December 1709(1709-12-29)
Kolomenskoye, Moscow
Died 5 January 1762(1762-01-05) (aged 52)
Saint Petersburg
Burial 3 February 1762
Peter and Paul Cathedral
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Elizaveta Petrovna (Russian: Елизаве́та (Елисаве́т) Петро́вна) (29 December [O.S. 18 December] 1709 – 5 January 1762 [O.S. 25 December 1761]), also known as Yelisavet and Elizabeth, was the Empress of Russia (1741–1762) who took the country into the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). On the eve of her death in 1762, the Russian empire spanned almost 4,000,000,000 acres (16,000,000 km2)[citation needed], but her successor, Tsar Peter III, an admirer of the Prussian military, recalled the winning Russian forces from Berlin — effectively causing Russia to switch sides in the war, which likely resulted in his assassination in the following months.

Her domestic policies allowed the nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state. She encouraged Lomonosov's establishment of the University of Moscow and Shuvalov's foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg. She also spent exorbitant sums of money on the grandiose baroque projects of her favourite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, particularly in Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral remain the chief monuments of her reign in Saint Petersburg. Generally, she was one of the best loved Russian monarchs, because she did not allow Germans in the government and not one person was executed during her reign.[1]


Life before becoming Empress

Elizabeth, the second-oldest surviving daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I of Russia, was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on 18 December 1709 (O.S.).[2] Her parents were secretly married in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in St.Petersburg in November 1707.[3] The marriage was made public in February 1712.[3] As her parents were not publicly acknowledged as being married at the time of her birth, Elizabeth's 'illegitimacy' would be used by political opponents to challenge her right to the throne. On 6 March 1711, she was proclaimed a Tsarevna and on 23 December 1721 a Tsesarevna.[2]

The portrait of Elizabeth as Venus, painted in the 1710s for the Grand Peterhof Palace.

Out of the twelve children of Peter and Catherine (five sons and seven daughters), only two daughters, Anna and Elizabeth survived.[4] Anna was betrothed to the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, nephew of the late King Charles XII of Sweden, Peter's old adversary.[4] Her father had tried to also find a brilliant match for Elizabeth with the French Royal court when he paid a visit there.[4] It was Peter's intention to marry his second daughter to the young French King Louis XV, but the Bourbons declined the offer as Elizabeth`s mother`s origin was deemed too obscure.[5] Elizabeth had been betrothed to Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp,[6] son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Politically it was a useful and respectable alliance.[6] A few days after the betrothal, Karl Augustus died.[6] At the time of Peter's death, no marriage plan had succeeded.[4]

As a child, Elizabeth was bright, if not brilliant, but her formal education was both imperfect and desultory. Her father adored her. Elizabeth was his daughter and in many ways resembled him as a feminine replica, both physically and temperamentally.[7] Peter had no leisure to devote to her training, and her mother was too down-to-earth and illiterate to superintend her formal studies. She had a French governess, and was fluent in Italian, German and French.[2] She was also an excellent dancer and rider.[2] From her earliest years she delighted everyone with her extraordinary beauty and vivacity. She was commonly known as the leading beauty of the Russian Empire.[2]

Elizabeth in the 1720s (as painted by Ivan Nikitich Nikitin)

So long as Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov remained in power, Elizabeth was treated with liberality and distinction by the government of her adolescent half-nephew Peter II. The Dolgorukovs, an ancient boyar family, deeply resented Menshikov.[8] With Peter II's attachment to Prince Ivan Dolgorukov, and with two of their family members on the Supreme State Council, they had the leverage for a successful coup. Menshikov was arrested, stripped of all his honours and properties and exiled to northern Siberia, where he later died in November 1729.[8] The Dolgorukovs hated the memory of Peter the Great, and practically banished Peter's daughter from Court.

With the death of her father and the later accession of the Empress Anna, no royal court or noble house in Europe could allow a son to pay court to Elizabeth, as it would be seen as an unfriendly act to the Empress.[9] Marriage to a commoner was not possible as it would cost Elizabeth not only her title, but also her property rights and her claim to the throne.[9] Elizabeth's response was to make a lover of Alexis Shubin, a handsome sergeant in the Semyonovsky Guards regiment,.[9] After his banishment to Siberia (having previously been relieved of his tongue) by order of the Empress Anna, she turned to a coachman and even a waiter.[9] Eventually she consoled herself with a young Ukrainian peasant with a good bass voice who had been brought to Saint Petersburg by a nobleman for a church choir. Elizabeth acquired him for her own choir. His name was Alexis Razumovsky.[9] Razumovsky was a good and simple-minded man, untroubled by personal ambition.[9] Elizabeth was devoted to him and there is reason to believe that she could have married him in a secret ceremony.[9] Later Razumovsky would become known as "the Emperor of the Night"[9] and Elizabeth would make him a Prince and Field Marshal on becoming Empress. The Holy Roman Emperor would also make Razumovsky a Count of the Holy Roman Empire.[9]

Palace Revolution of 1741

Coronation procession of Empress Elizabeth, Moscow 1742

During the reign of her cousin Anna (1730–1740), Elizabeth was gathering support in the background; but after the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna with infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. Such a course of events compelled the indolent, but by no means incapable, beauty to overthrow the weak and corrupt government. Elizabeth, being the daughter of Peter the Great, enjoyed much support from the Russian guards regiments.[1] Elizabeth often visited the regiments, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children.[10] The guards repaid her kindness when on the night of 25 November 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. Arriving at the regimental headquarters dressed in a metal breastplate over her dress and grasping a silver cross she stated, "Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?"[1] After winning the regiment over, the troops marched to the Winter Palace where they arrested the infant Emperor, his parents and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and passed without bloodshed.[1] Elizabeth had vowed that if she became Empress that she would not sign a single death sentence, an unusual promise that she - notably - kept to throughout her life.[1]

At the age of thirty-three, this naturally indolent and self-indulgent woman, with little knowledge and no experience of affairs, found herself at the head of a great empire at one of the most critical periods of its existence. Her proclamation as Empress Elizabeth I explained that the preceding reigns had led Russia to ruin:

"The Russian people have been groaning under the enemies of the Christian faith, but she has delivered them from the degrading foreign oppression." [11]

Russia had been under the domination of German advisers and Elizabeth exiled the most unpopular of them including Heinrich Ostermann, Burkhard von Munnich and Carl Gustav Lowenwolde.[11] Elizabeth crowned herself Empress in the Dormition Cathedral on 25 April 1742.

Fortunately for herself and for Russia, Elizabeth Petrovna, with all her shortcomings (documents often waited months for her signature),[12] had inherited some of her father's genius for government. Her usually keen judgment and her diplomatic tact again and again recalled Peter the Great. What sometimes appeared as irresolution and procrastination, was most often a wise suspension of judgment under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The substantial changes made by Elizabeth's father, Peter the Great, had not exercised a really formative influence on the intellectual attitudes of the ruling classes as a whole.[13] Elizabeth made considerable impact and laid the groundwork for its completion by her eventual successor, Catherine II.[13]

Bestuzhev's policies

Empress Elizabeth by Vigilius Eriksen

After abolishing the cabinet council system that was in favor during the rule of Anna, and reconstituting the senate as it had been under Peter the Great, with the chiefs of the departments of state (none of them Germans as was the case previously), the first task undertaken by the new empress was to address her quarrel with Sweden. On the 23 January 1743, direct negotiations between the two powers were opened at Åbo (Turku). On the 7 August 1743 (the Treaty of Åbo), Sweden ceded to Russia all the southern part of Finland east of the river Kymmene, which subsequently became the boundary between the two states. Provisions of the treaty included the fortresses of Villmanstrand and Fredricshamn.

This triumphant issue can be credited to the diplomatic ability of the new vice chancellor, Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His policies would have been impossible without her support.[14] Elizabeth had wisely placed Bestuzhev at the head of foreign affairs immediately after her accession. He represented the anti-Franco-Prussian portion of her council, and his object was to bring about an Anglo-Austro-Russian alliance which, at that time, was undoubtedly Russia's proper system. Hence the bogus Lopukhina Conspiracy and other attempts of Frederick the Great and Louis XV to get rid of Bestuzhev (making the Russian court the centre of a tangle of intrigue during the earlier years of Elizabeth's reign.)

Promenade of Elizaveta Petrovna through the streets of Saint Petersburg (1903), watercolour by Alexandre Benois.

Ultimately, the minister's strong support from Elizabeth,[14] prevailed. His faultless diplomacy and a dispatch of an auxiliary Russian corps of 30,000 men to the Rhine, greatly accelerated the peace negotiations, leading to the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (18 October 1748). By sheer tenacity of purpose, Bestuzhev had extricated his country from the Swedish imbroglio; reconciled his imperial mistress with the courts of Vienna and London; enabled Russia to assert herself effectually in Poland, Turkey and Sweden; and isolated the King of Prussia by forcing him into hostile alliances. All this would have been impossible without the steady support of Elizabeth who trusted him completely in spite of the Chancellor's many enemies, most of whom were her personal friends.

By 14 February 1758, Chancellor Bestzuhev was removed from office. The future Catherine II recorded, "He was relieved of all his decorations and rank, without a soul being able to reveal for what crimes or transgressions the first gentleman of the Empire was so despoiled, and sent back to his house as a prisoner."[15] No specific crime was ever pinned on Bestzuhev. Instead it was inferred that he had attempted to sow discord between the Empress and her heir and his consort.[16] Those intent on bringing about Bestzuhev's ruin were his rivals the Shuvalovs, Vice-Chancellor Mikhail Vorontsov and the Austrian and French ambassadors.[16]

Finding an heir

Elisabeths donation to the Russian lieutenant general Balthasar Freiherr von Campenhausen, 27. May 1756

As an unmarried and childless Empress, it was imperative for Elizabeth to find a legitimate heir to secure the Romanov dynasty. She chose her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp. Elizabeth was only too aware that the deposed Ivan VI, whom she had imprisoned in the Schlusselburg Fortress and placed in solitary confinement, was a threat to her throne. Elizabeth feared a coup in his favour and set about destroying all papers, coins or anything else depicting or mentioning Ivan.[17] Elizabeth had issued an order that, should any attempt be made for him to escape, he was to be eliminated. Catherine II upheld the order and when an attempt was made he was killed and secretly buried within the fortress.[18]

The young Peter had lost his mother, Elizabeth's sister Anna, at three months old and his father at the age of eleven. Elizabeth invited her young nephew to Saint Petersburg where he was received into the Orthodox Church and proclaimed heir on 7 November 1742.[19] Elizabeth gave him at once Russian tutors. Keen to see the dynasty secured, Elizabeth settled on Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst as a bride for her nephew. On her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Sophie was given the name of Catherine in memory of Elizabeth's mother. The marriage took place on 21 August 1745 with a son, the future Paul I, finally born on 20 September 1754.[20]

There is considerable speculation as to the actual paternity of Paul I. It is suggested that he was not Peter's son at all, but that his mother had engaged in an affair—to which Elizabeth had consented—with a young officer named Serge Saltykov, and that he was Paul's real father.[21] In any case, Peter never gave any indication that he believed Paul to have been fathered by anyone but himself. He also did not take any interest in parenthood.[22] Elizabeth though most certainly took an active interest. She removed the young Paul and acted as if she were his mother and not Catherine.[22] The Empress had ordered the midwife to take the baby and to follow her. Catherine was not to see her child for another month and then on the second time briefly for the churching ceremony.[23] Six months later Elizabeth let Catherine see the child again. The child had in effect become a ward of the state and in a larger sense, the property of the state.[23] In her infinite capacity for self-deception, Elizabeth had made the decision to bring up the baby as she believed he should be—as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great.[23]

Seven Years' War

Elizabeth on Horseback, Attended by a Page.

The great event of Elizabeth's later years was the Seven Years' War. Elizabeth regarded the treaty of Westminster ( 16 January 1756, whereby Great Britain and Prussia agreed to unite their forces to oppose the entry into, or the passage through, Germany of the troops of every foreign power) as utterly subversive of the previous conventions between Great Britain and Russia. Elizabeth sided against Prussia over a personal dislike of Frederick the Great.[12] She wanted him reduced within proper limits, so that he might no longer be a danger to the empire. Elizabeth acceded to the treaty of Versailles thus entering into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia. On 17 May 1757 the Russian army, 85,000 strong, advanced against Königsberg.[24]

Neither the serious illness of the Empress, which began with a fainting-fit at Tsarskoe Selo ( 19 September 1757), nor the fall of Bestuzhev ( 21 February 1758), nor the cabals and intrigues of the various foreign powers at Saint Petersburg, interfered with the progress of the war, and the crushing defeat of Kunersdorf ( 12 August 1759)[25] at last brought Frederick to the verge of ruin. From that day forth he despaired of success, though he was saved for the moment by the jealousies of the Russian and Austrian commanders, which ruined the military plans of the allies.

On the other hand, it is not too much to say that, from the end of 1759 to the end of 1761, the unshakable firmness of the Russian Empress was the one constraining political force which held together the heterogeneous, incessantly jarring elements of the anti-Prussian combination. From the Russian point of view, Elizabeth's greatness as a stateswoman consists in her steady appreciation of Russian interests, and her determination to promote them at all hazards. She insisted throughout that the King of Prussia must be rendered harmless to his neighbors for the future, and that the only way to bring this about was to reduce him to the rank of a Prince-Elector.

Frederick himself was quite alive to his danger. "I'm at the end of my resources", he wrote at the beginning of 1760, "the continuance of this war means for me utter ruin. Things may drag on perhaps till July, but then a catastrophe must come." On 21 May 1760 a fresh convention was signed between Russia and Austria, a secret clause of which, never communicated to the court of Versailles, guaranteed East Prussia to Russia, as an indemnity for war expenses. The failure of the campaign of 1760, wielded by the inept Count Buturlin, induced the court of Versailles, on the evening of 22 January 1761, to present to the court of Saint Petersburg a dispatch to the effect that the king of France by reason of the condition of his dominions absolutely desired peace. The Russian empress's reply was delivered to the two ambassadors on February 12. It was inspired by the most uncompromising hostility towards the king of Prussia. Elizabeth would not consent to any pacific overtures until the original object of the league had been accomplished.

Elizaveta Petrovna in Tsarskoe Selo (1905), painting by Eugene Lanceray, now in the Tretyakov Gallery.

Simultaneously, Elizabeth caused to be conveyed to Louis XV a confidential letter in which she proposed the signature of a new treaty of alliance of a more comprehensive and explicit nature than the preceding treaties between the two powers, without the knowledge of Austria. Elizabeth's object in this mysterious negotiation seems to have been to reconcile France and Great Britain, in return for which signal service France was to throw all her forces into the German war. This project, which lacked neither ability nor audacity, foundered upon Louis XV's invincible jealousy of the growth of Russian influence in eastern Europe and his fear of offending the Porte. It was finally arranged by the allies that their envoys at Paris should fix the date for the assembling of a peace congress, and that, in the meantime, the war against Prussia should be vigorously prosecuted. In 1760, a Russian flying column briefly occupied Berlin.[26] Russian victories placed Prussia in serious danger.[26]

The campaign of 1761 was almost as abortive as the campaign of 1760. Frederick acted on the defensive with consummate skill, and the capture of the Prussian fortress of Kolberg on Christmas Day 1761, by Rumyantsev, was the sole Russian success. Frederick, however, was now at the last gasp. On 6 January 1762, he wrote to Count Karl-Wilhelm Finck von Finckenstein, "We ought now to think of preserving for my nephew, by way of negotiation, whatever fragments of my territory we can save from the avidity of my enemies", which means, if words mean anything, that he was resolved to seek a soldier's death on the first opportunity. A fortnight later he wrote to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, "The sky begins to clear. Courage, my dear fellow. I have received the news of a great event." The great event which snatched him from destruction was the death of the Russian empress ( 5 January 1762 (N.S.)).[26]

The Court of the Empress

Imperial Monogram

Under the reign of Elizabeth, the Russian court was one of the most splendid in all Europe.[12] Foreigners were amazed at the sheer luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades. The Empress prided herself on her skills as a dancer and wore the most exquisite dresses. She issued decrees governing the styles of dresses and decorations worn by courtiers.[12] Nobody was allowed to have the same hairstyle as the Empress and Elizabeth owned fifteen thousand ball gowns, several thousand pairs of shoes as well as an unlimited number of silk stockings.[12] In spite of her love of court, Elizabeth was deeply religious. She visited convents and churches and spent long hours in church. When requested to sign a law secularising church lands she said, "Do what you like after my death, I will not sign it."[27] All foreign books had to be approved by the church censor. Klyuchevsky called her a "kind and clever, but disorderly Russian woman" who combined "new European trends" with "devout national traditions."[12]


In the late 1750s, Elizabeth's health started to decline. She began to suffer a series of dizzy spells and refused to take the prescribed medicines. She forbade the word "death" in her presence.[28] Knowing she was dying, Elizabeth used her last remaining strength to make her confession, to recite with her confessor the prayer for the dying and to say good-bye to those few people who wished to be with her including Peter and Catherine and Counts Alexey and Kirill Razumovsky. Finally on 25 December 1761, the Empress died.[29] She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 3 February 1762, after six weeks lying in state.[28]

Elizabeth in popular culture


See also

  • Tsars of Russia family tree


  1. ^ a b c d e Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.105.
  2. ^ a b c d e Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.104.
  3. ^ a b Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.46.
  4. ^ a b c d Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.50.
  5. ^ Elizabeth and Catherine, p.50.
  6. ^ a b c Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.58.
  7. ^ Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.23.
  8. ^ a b Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.52.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.59.
  10. ^ The Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.105.
  11. ^ a b Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.106.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.107.
  13. ^ a b The Evolution of Russia by Otto Hoetzsch, p.83.
  14. ^ a b Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.57.
  15. ^ Catherine the Great by Virginia Rounding, p.118–119.
  16. ^ a b Catherine the Great by Virginia Rounding, p.119.
  17. ^ Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.103.
  18. ^ Russian Tsars, Boris Antonov, p.103.
  19. ^ Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.110.
  20. ^ Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.119.
  21. ^ Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.108.
  22. ^ a b Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.111.
  23. ^ a b c Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.112.
  24. ^ The Evolution of Russia by Otto Hoetzsch
  25. ^ The Evolution of Russia by Otto Hoetzch, p.93.
  26. ^ a b c The Evolution of Russia by Otto Hoetzsch, p.93.
  27. ^ Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p. 107.
  28. ^ a b Russian Tsars by Boris Antonov, p.109.
  29. ^ Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, p.174.

Books and articles

  • Antonov, Boris (2006). Russian Tsars. Saint Petersburg: Ivan Fiorodov Art Publishers. ISBN 5938931096. 
  • Coughlan, Robert (1974). Jay Gold. ed. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of All the Russias. London: Millington Ltd. ISBN 0 86000 002 8. 
  • Otto, Hoetzsch (1966). The Evolution of Russia. trans. Rhys Evans. London: Thames and Hudson. 
  • Rounding, Virginia (2006). Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0091799929. 
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
Elizabeth of Russia
Born: 29 December 1709 Died: 5 January 1762
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Ivan VI
Empress of Russia
6 December 1741– 5 January 1762
Succeeded by
Peter III

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