Daughter of Peter I and Catherine I, grand princess and crown princess from 1709 to 1741, Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna) was the second of ten offspring to reach maturity. She was born in the Moscow suburb of Kolomenskoye on December 29, 1709, the same day a Moscow parade celebrated the Poltava victory. Elizabeth grew up carefree with her sister Anna (1708–1728). Doted on by both parents, the girls received training in European languages, social skills, and Russian traditions of singing, religious instruction, and dancing. Anna married Duke Karl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp in 1727 and died in Holstein giving birth to Karl Peter Ulrich (the future Peter III). Elizabeth never married officially or traveled abroad, her illegitimate birth obstructing royal matches. Because she wrote little and left no diary, her inner thoughts are not well-known.
Hints of a political role came after her mother's short reign when Elizabeth was named to the joint regency for young Peter II, whose favor she briefly enjoyed. But when he died childless in 1730 she
was overlooked in the surprise selection of Anna Ivanovna. Under Anna she was kept under surveillance, her yearly allowance cut to 30,000 rubles, and only Biron's influence prevented commitment to a convent. At Aleksandrovka near Moscow she indulged in amorous relationships with Alexander Buturlin, Alexei Shubin, and the Ukrainian chorister Alexei Razumovsky. During Elizabeth's reign male favoritism flourished; some of her preferred men assumed broad cultural and artistic functions—for instance, Ivan Shuvalov (1717–1797), a well-read Francophile who cofounded Moscow University and the Imperial Russian Academy of Fine Arts in the 1750s.
Anna Ivanovna was succeeded in October 1740 by infant Ivan VI of the Brunswick branch of Romanovs who reigned under several fragile regencies, the last headed by his mother, Anna Leopoldovna (1718–1746). This Anna represented the Miloslavsky/Brunswick branch, whereas Elizabeth personified the Naryshkin/Petrine branch. Elizabeth naturally worried the inept regency regime, which she led her partisans in the guards to overthrow on December 5–6, 1741, with aid from the French and Swedish ambassadors (Sweden had declared war on Russia in July 1741 ostensibly in support of Elizabeth). The bloodless coup was deftly accomplished, the regent and her family arrested and banished, and Elizabeth's claims explicated on the basis of legitimacy and blood kinship. Though Elizabeth's accession unleashed public condemnation of both Annas as agents of foreign domination, it also reaffirmed the primacy of Petrine traditions and conquests, promising to restore Petrine glory and to counter Swedish invasion, which brought Russian gains in Finland by the Peace of Åbo in August 1743.
Elizabeth was crowned in Moscow in spring 1742 amid huge celebrations spanning several months; she demonstratively crowned herself. With Petrine, classical feminine, and "restorationist" rhetoric, Elizabeth's regime resembled Anna Ivanovna's in that it pursued an active foreign policy, witnessed complicated court rivalries and further attempts to resolve the succession issue, and made the imperial court a center of European cultural activities. In 1742 the empress, lacking offspring, brought her nephew from Holstein to be converted to Orthodoxy, renamed, and designated crown prince Peter Fyodorovich. In 1744 she found him a German bride, Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Catherine II. The teenage consorts married in August 1745, and hopes for a male heir came true only in 1754. Elizabeth took charge of Grand Prince Pavel Petrovich. Nevertheless, the "Young Court" rivaled Elizabeth's in competition over dynastic and succession concerns.
While retaining ultimate authority, Elizabeth restored the primacy of the Senate in policymaking, exercised a consultative style of administration, and assembled a government comprising veteran statesmen, such as cosmopolitan Chancellor Alexei Bestuzhev-Ryumin and newly elevated aristocrats like the brothers Petr and Alexander Shuvalov (and their younger cousin Ivan Shuvalov), Mikhail and Roman Vorontsov, Alexei and Kirill Razumovsky, and court surgeon Armand Lestocq. Her reign generally avoided political repression, but she took revenge on the Lopukhin family, descendents of Peter I's first wife, by having them tortured and exiled in 1743 for loose talk about the Brunswick family and its superior rights. Later she abolished the death penalty in practice. Lestocq and Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who was succeeded as chancellor by Mikhail Vorontsov, fell into disgrace for alleged intrigues, although Catherine II later pardoned both.
In cultural policy Elizabeth patronized many, including Mikhail Lomonosov, Alexander Sumarokov, Vasily Tredyakovsky, and the Volkov brothers, all active in literature and the arts. Foreign architects, composers, and literary figures such as Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Francesco Araja, and Jakob von Stählin also enjoyed Elizabeth's support. Her love of pageantry resulted in Petersburg's first professional public theater in 1756. Indeed, the empress set a personal example by frequently attending the theater, and her court became famous for elaborate festivities amid luxurious settings, such as Rastrelli's new Winter Palace and the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Elizabeth loved fancy dress and followed European fashion, although she was criticized by Grand Princess Catherine for quixotic transvestite balls and crudely dictating other ladies'style and attire. Other covert critics such as Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov accused Elizabeth of accelerating the "corruption of manners" by pandering to a culture of corrupt excess, an inevitable accusation from disgruntled aristocrats amid the costly ongoing Europeanization of a cosmopolitan high society. The Shuvalov brothers introduced significant innovations in financial policy that fueled economic and fiscal growth and reinstituted recodification of law.
Elizabeth followed Petrine precedent in foreign policy, a field she took special interest in, although critics alleged her geographical ignorance and laziness. Without firing a shot, Russia helped conclude the war of the Austrian succession (1740–1748), but during this conflict Elizabeth and Chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin became convinced that Prussian aggression threatened Russia's security. Hence alliance with Austria became the fulcrum of Elizabethan foreign policy, inevitably entangling Russia in the reversal of alliances in 1756 that exploded in the worldwide Seven Years' War (1756–1763). This complex conflict pitted Russia, Austria, and France against Prussia and Britain, but Russia did not fight longtime trading partner Britain. Russia held its own against Prussia, conquered East Prussia, and even briefly occupied Berlin in 1760. The war was directed by a new institution, the Conference at the Imperial Court, for Elizabeth's declining health limited her personal attention to state affairs. The war dragged on too long, and the belligerents began looking for a way out when Elizabeth's sudden death on Christmas Day (December 25, 1761) brought her nephew Peter III to power. He was determined to break ranks and to ally with Prussia, despite Elizabeth's antagonism to King Frederick II. So just as Elizabeth's reign started with a perversely declared war, so it ended abruptly with Russia's early withdrawal from a European-wide conflict and Peter III's declaration of war on longtime ally Denmark. Elizabeth personified Russia's post-Petrine eminence and further emergence as a European power with aspirations for cultural achievement.
See also: anna ivanovna; bestuzhev-ryumin, alexei petrovich; peter i; seven years' war
Anisimov, Evgeny. (1995). Empress Elizabeth: Her Reign and Her Russia, ed. and tr. John T. Alexander. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International.
Naumov, Viktor Petrovich. (1996). "Empress Elizabeth I, 1741–1762." In The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs, ed. and comp. Donald J. Raleigh and A. A. Iskenderov. Armonk, NY:M. E. Sharpe.
Shcherbatov, M. M. (1969). On the Corruption of Morals in Russia, ed. and tr. Anthony Lentin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wortman, Richard. (1995). Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
John T. Alexander
Elizabeth (Russia) (1709–1762; Ruled 1741–1762)
ELIZABETH (RUSSIA) (1709–1762; ruled 1741–1762)
ELIZABETH (RUSSIA) (1709–1762; ruled 1741–1762), empress of Russia. Elizabeth Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great and his second wife, Catherine, reigned as empress for over twenty years. She came to power on the back of a coup by guards' regiments after a decade of unpopular rule, comprising first, the period of Anna Ivanovna and then the year and a half reign of the infant Ivan VI. She benefited greatly from the direct association with her father and was able to proclaim herself to be ruling in his image and extending his legacy. Less celebrated, but nevertheless noteworthy, was the link to her mother, Catherine I, Russia's first crowned female ruler. Court panegyrists repeatedly used the formulation "the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I" when situating her lineage, and it is perhaps more than coincidence that the coup bringing her to power took place, as scheduled, on November 24, her mother's name day.
Like all of Russia's female rulers, Elizabeth ruled without an official spouse (although she may well have been married), and in her case as an official virgin queen (even though she had a series of lovers and almost certainly gave birth to a daughter). At the level of court and statecraft, the Elizabethan period was marked by several activities of note: the opening of Russia's first university, in Moscow (1755), and of several new or remodeled Cadet Academies and religious seminaries; the flourishing of theater and the appearance of Russia's first literary magazines; successful participation in the Seven Years' War that at one point brought Russian forces to the gates of Berlin; and the convening of a legislative commission that tried—and failed—to draft an updated body of fundamental law.
Under Elizabeth, Russia's export economy blossomed, which, beginning in the early 1740s, systematically expanded the sale of agricultural goods abroad. She also took steps to facilitate a unified domestic market by eliminating—albeit temporarily—several categories of excise tax and by establishing the first noble land bank (1753). This latter step reflected what might be termed the pronobility bias of her social and economic policies. Landlords could borrow money from the bank at below market rates, and, although it was hoped that they would plow the cash into their estates, they had no obligation to do so. Instead, many nobles, perpetually strapped for cash by the high expense of serving in the capital, used the loans to defray their expenses or to purchase luxury goods from abroad. Thus began a long-term pattern of de facto state subsidies to Russia's most prosperous elites, providing them easy money through loans, corruption, and inflation, a pattern that ultimately resulted in growing noble indebtedness, and, in the nineteenth century, bankruptcy. Her reign also saw the first tepid decrees against the corporal punishment of nobles. This spirit of humaneness toward the individual did not extend down the social ladder, however, and a series of laws tightened the bonds of serfdom, at least on paper, and further tied peasants specifically to noble landlords.
What did not change was the continued monopolization of high office by important families, notwithstanding the growing number of positions in state service and the hypothetical meritocracy of the Table of Ranks. As before, a handful of powerful clans continued to place their people in important positions and to close off access to parvenus.
Anisimov, E. V. Empress Elizabeth: Her Reign and Her Russia, 1741–1761. Translated by John T. Alexander. Gulf Breeze, Fla., 1995.
Kaplan, Herbert H. Russia and the Outbreak of the Seven Years' War. Berkeley, 1968.