The Premier Site for Russian Culture
Because she was born to unmarried parents, Elizabeth was initially considered illegitimate. In 1712, Peter finally decided to marry his common-law wife and legitimise their children. But people had long memories and, later on in life, even after she became empress, Elizabeth was still referred to in the crowds and marketplaces as a “bastard” born “out of wedlock.”
At the tsar’s wedding in St Isaac’s Church in St Petersburg, the guests were treated to an amusing spectacle. As the bride and groom walked round the lectern, they were followed by two pretty little girls, clumsily clutching at their mother’s skirt. This was the three-year-old Elizabeth, accompanied by her elder sister, four-year-old Anna Petrovna.
Elizabeth Petrovna was educated by foreign tutors, who instilled in her a love of dancing and foreign languages. Besides being fluent in Italian, German and French, she was also an excellent rider. She grew up into a tall and slender woman with a fine complexion and magnificent ash-blonde hair.
The Spanish ambassador, Duque de Liria, wrote: “Princess Elizabeth ... is a beauty the like of which I have never seen. The colour of her face is remarkable. She has flaming eyes, a perfect mouth, the whitest neck and a remarkable body. She is tall and extremely lively. She dances well, rides without the smallest fear and is intelligent and pleasant in conversation.”
Elizabeth was officially proclaimed a princess (tsarevna) on 6 March 1711 and crown princess (tsesarevna) on 23 December 1721. Although many foreign princes hoped to marry Elizabeth, including Prince George of England, Infant Manuel of Portugal, Infant Don Carlos of Spain, Duke Ernst Ludwig of Brunswick, Count Moritz of Saxony and even Shah Nadir of Persia, none of them was able to win her heart.
In the early 1720s, Peter the Great toyed with the idea of marrying Elizabeth to King Louis XV of France. She was only two weeks younger than Louis and this would have been a highly advantageous match for the Russian Empire. The tsar ordered his diplomats to open negotiations with Versailles, but the questions still hanging over the girl’s legitimacy meant that she was rejected as a potential consort to the young French king.
The only suitor whom Elizabeth loved was Prince Carl August of Holstein-Gottorp, who was the cousin of Anna’s husband, Duke Carl Friedrich of Holstein. He died of smallpox in 1727 and the tsar’s daughter never forgot him. She remained forever attached to Holstein and, when she became empress, summoned her nephew Peter to Russia, along with his bride, Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, whose mother was Carl August’s sister.
Although Elizabeth never married, she had a long line of lovers. These included General Alexander Buturlin, the lord steward Semyon Naryshkin (her cousin) and a page of the chamber called Alexei Shubin, whom Empress Anna Ioannovna exiled to Siberia in 1732.
After the death of Peter the Great, no one seriously considered Elizabeth as a suitable candidate for the throne. She seemed too empty-headed, caring only for dancing and dresses. Under her mother (Catherine I) and nephew (Peter II), she led a merry and frivolous lifestyle. She kept a lower profile during the reign of Anna Ioannovna, who disliked her cousin.
All this changed following the accession of Ivan VI in 1740. The Russian army contrasted the glorious victories of Peter the Great with the weak rule of boy emperors like Peter II and the domination of such foreign favourites as Ernst Johann von Biron. For them, the only worthy successor to Peter’s great heritage was his charismatic daughter.
In 1741, Elizabeth employed these moods to her own advantage. As the daughter of Peter the Great, she was particularly popular with the guards regiments created by her father. She often visited the regiments, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children. The guards repaid her kindness on the night of 24/25 November 1741, when the thirty-one year-old princess seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
Arriving at the regimental headquarters, wearing a breast-plate over her dress and grasping a silver cross, Elizabeth Petrovna addressed three hundred grenadiers. Holding up the cross, she asked the men: “Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?”
After swearing allegiance to Elizabeth, kissing her hand and the cross, the troops marched to the Winter Palace, where they arrested the infant emperor, his parents and their own lieutenant colonel, Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich. It was a daring coup and it passed without bloodshed. Elizabeth had vowed that if she managed to capture the throne, she would not sign a single death sentence as empress. She kept her word and, for twenty years, no one was executed in Russia.
The following day, a royal manifesto proclaimed a new empress, Elizabeth I, explaining 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.” The population had indeed suffered under a series of German favourites and Elizabeth exiled the most unpopular of them, including Heinrich Johann Friedrich Ostermann, Burkhard Christoph von Münnich and Carl Gustaf von Löwenwolde.
Elizabeth revived dreams of the brilliant age of victories and achievements under Peter the Great. In the eyes of Russian society, she personified the memory of the great reformer. Over a third of the three hundred members of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, who had provided the main military muscle behind her coup, once served under Peter. Many had fought in the battles of the Great Northern War.
Like her predecessors, Elizabeth had no experience of governing and had to rely on her ministers and favourites. Luckily for the empress, Russia was at that time experiencing a surge of national pride. Many regarded the presence of Peter’s daughter on the throne as an assurance of the continuation of her father’s achievements.
Initially, after succeeding to the throne, Elizabeth took an active interest in affairs of state. Venerating the memory of her father, she desired to rule the country in the spirit of his traditions. She abolished the Cabinet of Ministers and restored the Senate.
Ultimately, however, the empress was more interested in ball-gowns and dancing. Elizabeth had no political ambitions of her own and disliked the day-to-day business of governing. Documents often waited months for her signature. When given a treaty with Austria to sign, a wasp settled on the pen and the empress put the quill aside. She only returned to signing the document six months later. She sided against Prussia in the Seven Years War out of her personal dislike of Frederick the Great.
With the occasional exception of foreign policy, Elizabeth Petrovna left the running of the state to her trusted confidantes. Such Russian statesmen as Mikhail and Roman Vorontsov, Pyotr and Ivan Shuvalov and Alexei Bestuzhev-Ryumin replaced the numerous foreigners who had held key posts in the army and government under Anna Ioannovna and Anna Leopoldovna.
Guided by this new generation of patriotic statesmen, Elizabeth actively upheld the interests of the Russian Empire and the country gained increasing weight in European affairs. Following victory in the Russo-Swedish War (1741–43), there was peace for over a decade. In 1756, Russia joined the anti-Prussian alliance and entered the Seven Years War. The Russian army inflicted several defeats on the forces of Frederick the Great and occupied Berlin.
The development of industry and commerce led to an economic boom during the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna. European demand for Russian iron equalled 100% of its production. The abolition of internal customs in 1754 increased trade and the national income.
Elizabeth’s passion for the arts, particularly music and the theatre, contributed to many notable achievements in the field of culture. The empress opened Moscow University in 1755, the first public theatre in 1756 and the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1757. The Academy of Sciences was reformed. Russian culture flourished under the guidance of Mikhail Lomonosov and Vasily Trediakovsky, Alexander Sumarokov and Fyodor Volkov, Ivan Vishnyakov and Alexei Antropov, Savva Chevakinsky and Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli.
Under Elizabeth Petrovna, St Petersburg was the most dazzling court in Europe. Foreigners were amazed at the luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades. The empress adored dancing and new clothes. She issued special decrees governing the styles of the dresses and decorations worn by courtiers. No one was allowed to have the same hairstyle as the empress. Elizabeth owned fifteen thousand ball-gowns, several thousand pairs of shoes and an unlimited number of silk stockings. She never went to bed before six o’clock in the morning and spent each night in a different room, never having a permanent bedroom.
Despite her love of parties and dresses, Elizabeth was extremely religious. She visited convents, made pilgrimages to holy sites and spent long hours in church. When asked to sign a law secularising the church lands, she said: “Do what you like after my death, I will not sign it.” All foreign books had to be approved by a church censor. Vasily Klyuchevsky called her a “kind and clever, but disorderly and wayward Russian woman” who combined “new European trends” with “devout national traditions.”
The empress might have seemed indolent and frivolous, but in reality she was intelligent, ambitious and cunning. She was an autocratic ruler who listened to no one else. She demonstrated her independence at her coronation in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 25 April 1742. During the ceremony, she took the crown from the metropolitan and placed it on her head herself.
Although Elizabeth’s policies reflected her personal passions and caprices, she was never hasty or rash. She was often compared to Peter the Great and could be just as temperamental. But she always avoided taking risks and ruled successfully right up until her death in 1761.
Behind her facade of coquettish frivolity, Elizabeth was fearful and suspicious of the slightest threat to her position. She always remembered the night when she had overthrown Anna Leopoldovna and now dreaded the same thing happening to her. Sometimes, instead of going to bed, she would suddenly jump onto a horse or into a carriage and ride off to spend the night in another palace. She prohibited her subjects from walking beneath the windows of the royal palace.
In the early 1730s, before she became empress, Elizabeth had fallen in love with a handsome Cossack singer in the imperial court choir called Oleksa Rozum. When he lost his voice, he was appointed first court mandolin player and then martial of the court. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, she promoted him to chamberlain and the rank of lieutenant general. She is alleged to have secretly married “Olesha” in a tiny rural church in the village of Perovo outside Moscow during her coronation in 1742.
Two years later, Alexei Razumovsky was made a count. In 1756, Elizabeth made him a fieldmarshal on his birthday, 17 March, even though he did not know the first thing about military tactics and had never commanded a unit. On his next birthday, 17 March 1757, he was presented with the Anichkov Palace. Although occupying an official position, Razumovsky was never asked to do any work because “Elizabeth wanted to spare him and even published a special decree forbidding anyone from giving him notes or requests.”
Elizabeth and Razumovsky made a handsome couple. She had blue eyes and fair hair, while he was tall and broad-shouldered. They were often seen together – riding, hunting or walking along the seashore. They did not attempt to conceal their intimacy from outside eyes. Soon, the whole country was talking about the empress’s love affair with the simple Ukrainian shepherd.
Emerging from the theatre on a cold evening, Elizabeth would carefully pull Olesha’s fur coat around him, so that he did not catch cold. She similarly fussed over him when they were out hunting. Even the court journal mentions their relationship: “Her Majesty so desired to take yesterday’s meal in the rooms of His Excellency, Count Alexei Razumovsky.” Like her mother before her for Peter the Great, the empress liked to cook Olesha’s supper for him herself.
In 1749, Elizabeth broke up amicably with Alexei Razumovsky. His place was taken by another intimate friend – a handsome young gentleman of the bedchamber called Ivan Shuvalov. The son of guards captain Ivan Menshoi Shuvalov and Tatyana Rostislavskaya, he had pleasant manners and a handsome face. Ivan received a good education and knew several European languages. He began his career as a page at the court of the future Catherine II, who remembered him as a quiet, modest young man whom she often came across with a book in his hands.
Ivan Shuvalov initially fell in love with Princess Anna Gagarina, an intelligent and well-read girl who was eight years his senior. She reciprocated his love and the couple were married. But Ivan’s cousins decided that there was more benefit to be gained from making him the favourite of Elizabeth Petrovna. They dissolved the marriage between the twenty-two year-old Ivan and the thirty-year-old Anna and managed to arrange an audience with the forty-year-old empress.
Elizabeth took an immediately liking to Ivan Shuvalov. In September 1749, she appointed him gentleman of the bedchamber, followed by the usual posts and titles awarded to all favourites – chamberlain, lieutenant general, adjutant general and knight of the Orders of St Alexander Nevsky and the White Eagle. A friend of Mikhail Lomonosov, Shuvalov went on to become a leading patron and connoisseur of the arts, who founded Moscow University and the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg.
Elizabeth’s ministers attempted to ingratiate themselves with the empress’s favourite by offering him even more titles and awards – senator, count and the Order of St Andrew. Ivan, however, was not interested. Kind and unusually modest for a royal favourite, he turned down all privileges offered to him. He was happy with his status as the empress’s secretary, which gave him access to her at all times. His opinion decided the outcome of all requests and petitions submitted to Elizabeth.
Shuvalov drafted replies to the reports submitted by foreign diplomats and military commanders, writing the texts of imperial decrees without bearing any legal responsibility for them. Anyone wanting to reach the empress could do so only through Ivan. In 1716, the French diplomat Jean-Louis Favier wrote: “He interferes in all affairs, although he does not have any special titles or posts ... In short, he enjoys all the advantages of a minister without actually being one.”
Suspicious of people in general, Elizabeth had many occasions to convince herself of Shuvalov’s unselfish loyalty. She came to rely completely on her young friend. During the difficult struggle against Prussia in the Seven Years War (1756–63), virtually all affairs of state were conducted by Ivan. He was the only person admitted to the empress’s private chambers, even when she was ill or in a bad mood.
Although everyone knew about the empress’s secret husband, Alexei Razumovsky, Elizabeth Petrovna was officially unmarried and childless. This did not stop rumours circulating that the empress had given birth to children, who were immediately given away to servants. Whatever the case, Russia’s virgin queen faced the vexed problem of who to name as her successor.
After seizing power in 1741, Elizabeth decided to leave the throne to her nephew, Prince Carl Peter Ulrich, son of her sister Anna Petrovna and Duke Carl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp. In 1742, the boy was summoned to Russia from Kiel, converted to Orthodoxy as Peter Fyodorovich, and was officially appointed the heir apparent. In 1745, he married his second cousin, Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst, better known today as Catherine the Great.
At first, Elizabeth was very attached to her nephew, who had not had an easy upbringing in Holstein. Over time, however, their relationship changed, and aunt and nephew began to actively dislike one another. The main reason was the personal fears of the suspicious empress, who kept the heir under strict control and constant surveillance. Peter, who was just as wilful and recalcitrant as his aunt, dreamt of escaping his gilded cage.
Elizabeth’s health suddenly deteriorated in the late 1750s, when she suffered a series of dizzy spells. The time had come to pay for her nocturnal lifestyle and all the years of immoderate living. The empress aged and was often ill, making her reticent and irritable. She would only take medicine when it was dipped in marmalade or concealed in sweets. The word “death” was forbidden to be uttered in her presence.
The greatest tragedy for Elizabeth was the loss of her beauty. Nothing could stop the hands of time – neither long hours spent in front of the mirror, nor the purchase of exquisite new dresses. Vexed by what she saw in the dispassionate glass, the empress cancelled balls and receptions. Afraid to show herself in public, she hid herself away at Tsarskoe Selo.
Elizabeth finally died at the age of fifty-two in St Petersburg on Christmas Day in 1761. She was buried in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 3 February 1762 after lying in state for six weeks. Elizabeth’s death interrupted the Romanov line. Although all following sovereigns were called Romanovs, they were not Russians.