Elizabeth Petrovna (29 December [O.S. 18 December] 1709 – 5 January 1762 [O.S. 25 December 1761]), also known as Yelisaveta and Elizaveta, was the Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death. She led the country into the two major European conflicts of her time: the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). On the eve of her death Russia spanned almost 16,200,000 square kilometres (6,250,000 sq mi).
Her domestic policies allowed the nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state. She encouraged Mikhail Lomonosov’s establishment of the University of Moscow and Ivan Shuvalov’s foundation of the Imperial Academy of 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 in Saint Petersburg are among the chief monuments of her reign. She remains one of the most popular Russian monarchs due to her strong opposition to Prussian policies and her decision not to execute a single person during her reign.
Elizabeth was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on 18 December 1709 (O.S.), the daughter of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, by his second wife, Catherine I. Catherine had been a maid in the household of Peter the Great and, although no documentary record exists, they are said to have married secretly at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in St. Petersburg at some point of time between 23 October and 1 December 1707. Peter valued Catherine and married her again (this time officially) at Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg on 9 February 1712. On this day his two surviving children by Catherine (Anna and Elizabeth) were legitimized by their father. This circumstance would later be used by Elizabeth’s political opponents to challenge her right to the throne on grounds of illegitimacy.
Of the twelve children born to Peter and Catherine (five sons and seven daughters) only two daughters, Anna (b. 1708) and Elizabeth (b. 1709,) survived to adulthood. Both of them were given the title of Tsarevna (“princess”) on 6 March 1711, and of Tsesarevna (“crown princess”) on 23 December 1721. They had one older surviving sibling, crown prince Alexei Petrovich, who was their father’s son by his first wife Eudoxia Lopukhina, a noblewoman.
As a child Elizabeth was the particular favorite of her father. She resembled him both physically and temperamentally. She was a bright girl, if not brilliant, but received only an imperfect and desultory formal education. Even though he adored his daughter Peter did not devote time or attention to her education. He had a son (and grandson) from his first marriage to a noblewoman and did not anticipate that a daughter born to his second wife might one day inherit the throne. Indeed, no woman had ever sat upon the throne of Russia yet. It was therefore left to Catherine to raise the girls, but she was herself too uneducated to be able to superintend the formal education of her daughters. Elizabeth had a French governess and grew fluent in Italian, German and French. She was also an excellent dancer and rider. Like her father Elizabeth was physically active and loved riding, hunting, sledging, skating, and gardening. From her earliest years she delighted everyone with her extraordinary beauty and vivacity, and was regarded as the leading beauty of the Russian Empire. The wife of the British minister (ambassador) described Elizabeth as “fair, with light brown hair, large sprightly blue eyes, fine teeth and a pretty mouth. She is inclinable to be fat, but is very genteel and dances better than anyone I ever saw. She speaks German, French and Italian, is extremely gay and talks to everyone…”
Peter was enamored of western Europe, and much of his fame rests on his efforts to westernize Russia. A corollary to this proclivity was his desire to see his children married into the royal houses of Europe, something which his predecessors had actually avoided. Peter’s only son and heir was born of his first marriage to a nobleman’s daughter, and no problem was encountered in securing a bride for him from the ancient house of Brunswick-Luneburg. However, Peter was hard put to arrange similar marriages for the daughters born of his second wife, who had formerly been a maid in his household. He was snubbed by the Bourbons of France when, during a visit to that country, he offered either of his daughters in marriage to the future Louis XV. The French court conveyed to him in brief that they deemed the origins of the girls’ mother too obscure and unacceptable.
In 1724 Peter betrothed his daughters to two young princes, first cousins to each other, who hailed from the tiny north German principality of Holstein-Gottorp. Anna Petrovna (aged 16) was to marry Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, who was then living in Russia as Peter’s guest after having failed in his attempt to succeed his maternal uncle as King of Sweden, and whose patrimony (Holstein-Gottorp) was at that time under Danish occupation. Despite all this the prince was of suitable birth and well-connected so it seemed a politically useful and respectable alliance, and Peter was happy. Some time later Elizabeth was betrothed to marry Charles Frederick’s first cousin, Charles Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, the eldest son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Anna’s wedding was held in 1725 as planned, even though Peter died a few weeks before the nuptials. In Elizabeth’s case, however, her fiancé died on 31 May 1727 before the wedding could be held. Unfortunately Elizabeth’s mother Catherine I (who had succeeded Peter the Great to the throne) also died on 17 May 1727 just two weeks before Elizabeth’s fiancé.
Thus, by the end of May 1727, Elizabeth (aged 17) had lost both her parents and her fiancé, and her step-nephew Peter II was on the throne. Her marriage prospects immediately dried up. They did not improve when, three years later, Peter II died and was succeeded by Elizabeth’s first cousin, Empress Anna (ruled 1730-40), daughter of Peter the Great’s elder brother Ivan V. The Chinese minister in St. Petersburg was asked by the Empress Anna who was the most beautiful woman at her court, leading him to point to Elizabeth, much to Anna’s intense displeasure. There was little love lost between the cousins and no prospect of either any Russian nobleman or any foreign prince seeking Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Nor could Elizabeth marry a commoner because it would cost her not only her title and royal status, but also her property rights and her claim to the throne.
Elizabeth’s response was to take Alexis Shubin, a handsome sergeant in the Semyonovsky Guards regiment, as her lover. When Empress Anna found out about this Shubin’s tongue was cut off and he was banished to Siberia. Elizabeth consoled herself with a handsome coachman and then turned to a footman for her sexual pleasure. Eventually she found her long-term companion in Alexis Razumovsky, a young and handsome Ukrainian peasant serf with a good bass voice. Razumovsky had been brought from his village to St. Petersburg by his master, a nobleman, to sing for a church choir. Elizabeth purchased the talented serf from the nobleman for her own choir. Razumovsky, a good-hearted and simple-minded man, never evidenced any personal ambition or interest in affairs of state during all the years of his relationship with Elizabeth which spanned from the days of her obscurity to the height of her power as empress. In turn Elizabeth was devoted to Razumovsky, and there is reason to believe that she might even have married him in a secret ceremony. Razumovsky would later become known as “the Emperor of the Night.” In 1756 Elizabeth would make him a Prince and a Field Marshal. In 1742 the Holy Roman Emperor made Razumovsky a Count of the Holy Roman Empire.
So long as Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov remained in power (until September 1727) the government of Elizabeth’s adolescent half-nephew Peter II (reigned 1727-1730) treated her with liberality and distinction. The Dolgorukovs, an ancient boyar family, deeply resented Menshikov. 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 died in November 1729. The Dolgorukovs hated the memory of Peter the Great and practically banished his daughter from Court.
During the reign of her cousin, Anna (1730–1740), Elizabeth was gathering support in the background. After the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna for the infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. Elizabeth, being the daughter of Peter the Great, enjoyed much support from the Russian guards regiments. The French ambassador in St. Petersburg, the marquis de La Chétardie was deeply involved in planning a coup to depose the regent Anna whose anti-French foreign policy was opposed to the interests of France, and bribed numerous officers in the Imperial Guard to support the coup. Elizabeth often visited the elite Guards regiments, marking special events with the officers, and acting as godmother to their children.
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 wearing a warrior’s metal breastplate over her dress and grasping a silver cross she challenged them: “Whom do you want to serve: me, your natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Won over, the regiment marched to the Winter Palace and arrested the infant Emperor, his parents, and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and, amazingly, succeeded without bloodshed. Elizabeth had vowed that if she became Empress she would not sign a single death sentence, an extraordinary promise for the time but one which she kept throughout her life.
At the age of thirty-three, with relatively little political experience, Elizabeth 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.”
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. 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), 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. Elizabeth made considerable impact and laid the groundwork for its completion by her eventual successor, Catherine II.
Elizabeth abolished the cabinet council system that had been used under Anna, and reconstituted the senate as it had been under Peter the Great with the chiefs of the departments of state (none of them Germans) attending. Her first task after this was to address the war with Sweden. On 23 January 1743 direct negotiations between the two powers were opened at Åbo (Turku). In the Treaty of Åbo, on 7 August 1743, Sweden ceded to Russia all of southern Finland east of the Kymmene River, which became the boundary between the two states. The treaty also gave Russia the fortresses of Villmanstrand and Fredrikshamn.
This triumphant issue can be credited to the diplomatic ability of the new vice chancellor, Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His policies would have been impossible without her support. 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 failed, but it put the Russian court into the centre of a tangle of intrigue during the earlier years of Elizabeth’s reign)
Ultimately the minister’s strong support from Elizabeth prevailed. His faultless diplomacy, and an auxiliary Russian corps of 30,000 men sent 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.
However, on 14 February 1758, Chancellor Bestuzhev 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.” No specific crime was ever pinned on Bestuzhev. Instead it was inferred that he had attempted to sow discord between the Empress and her heir and his consort. Enemies of pro-Austrian Bestuzhev were his rivals; the Shuvalov family, Vice-Chancellor Mikhail Vorontsov, and the French ambassador.
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. 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.
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) 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 12 February. 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.
Simultaneously Elizabeth had 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. Russian victories placed Prussia in serious danger.
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.))
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. 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.
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. 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. Incidentally, Sophie’s mother, Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, was a sister of Elizabeth’s own fiancé who had died before the wedding. On her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church Sophie was given the name ‘Catherine’ in memory of Elizabeth’s mother. The marriage took place on 21 August 1745. Nine years later, a son, the future Paul I, was finally born on 20 September 1754.
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. 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. Elizabeth though most certainly took an active interest. She removed the young Paul and acted as if she were his mother and not Catherine. 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. 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, to be brought up by Elizabeth as she believed he should be — as a true heir and great-grandson of her father, Peter the Great.
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. 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 Alexei and Kirill Razumovsky. Finally on 5 January 1762 the Empress died. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 3 February 1762 after six weeks lying in state.