Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762)

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Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762)

Russian empress who ruled from 1741 to 1761 in a reign marked by Russia's continued development as a major power and an acceleration of Westernization. Name variations: Elizabeth I of Russia; Elizaveta; Yelizaveta. Pronunciation: Pa-TROV-na. Born Elizabeth Petrovna on December 7, 1709 (dates are according to the Julian calendar, in use in Imperial Russia, which was 12 days behind the Georgian calendar) in Kolomenskoye near Moscow, Russia; died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 25, 1762; daughter of Peter I the Great (1672–1725), tsar of Russia (r. 1682–1725), and Marta Skovoronski or Skavronska (later Empress Catherine I, 1684–1727); educated by tutors, but only superficially and informally; probably secretly married Aleksei Razumovsky, in 1742 or 1744; no children.

Lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg during her early years; consigned to care and upbringing of the Dowager Empress of Ivan V; named to the Supreme Privy Council in the will of Catherine I (1727); passed over for the throne, retired to the self-exile of her estate (1729); led a coup d'état against Regent Anna Leopoldovna (1741); defeated Sweden (1743); founded Moscow University (1755); opposed Prussia in the Seven Years' War (1756).

"Time to get up, sister," whispered Elizabeth Petrovna as she shook regent Anna Leopoldovna awake from her sleep on the night of November 24–25, 1741. With those words and the help of Russian boyars and members of the military dissatisfied with the German domination at the court of the infant Tsar Ivan VI, Elizabeth Petrovna carried out a bloodless coup d'état and installed herself as empress of Russia.

Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter I the Great and his common-law wife Marta Skovoronski (later Empress Catherine I ), was born in Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on December 7, 1709. But Marta was Peter's second wife, and he did not marry her until three years after their daughter's arrival. Although Peter recognized Elizabeth immediately, and she was later legitimized, her illegitimate birth haunted both her marriage prospects and her claims to the Russian throne. Elizabeth grew up with security and love from her parents who also provided her with religious guidance. She had nurses from Karelia and Russia and a governess from France which gave her an early appreciation of both Western culture and Russian traditions. Blue-eyed and fair-haired, the girl was cheerful, energetic, graceful, and attractive.

Elizabeth was declared of age by her father on January 28, 1722. At 15, she was a beautiful young woman and many minor princes of Europe were interested in marriage with her. Her father wanted to marry her to young Louis XV of France and even journeyed to Paris in 1717 without success. Despite her remarkable beauty, grace, and fluent French and German, Elizabeth's illegitimacy created a sensitivity at all the major courts of Europe. After Peter's death in 1725, her mother, now Empress Catherine, failed in a second effort to secure the marriage agreement with the French king. Elizabeth's marriage prospects reached such a desperation that an engagement was finally arranged with Karl, prince-bishop of Lübeck. Both Elizabeth and her mother approved of Karl, but he died of smallpox before the wedding day. There were no further efforts to secure an acceptable marriage for the 17-year-old. Elizabeth consoled herself by having affairs outside the bounds of matrimony.

Catherine's brief reign was characterized by her disinterest in the business of absolutist government and her reliance on the ambitious Prince Alexander Menshikov's domination of the newly created Supreme Privy Council. Catherine was kind and took an interest in Elizabeth and her only other surviving child, Anne Petrovna . Before Catherine died in 1727, she instructed in the will that Elizabeth and Anne receive equal divisions of her personal estate and both were to be appointed primary members of the Council which was the regency for her successor, the youthful Tsar Peter II (r. 1727–1730), grandson of Peter the Great. Menshikov and the other members of the Council ignored the will and ignored the two sisters' positions as heirs of Peter should he die intestate. Anne married Charles Frederick, duke of Holstein, and went to live at his estate in Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, where she would soon die shortly after giving birth in 1728 to the future Peter III (r. 1761–1762). Elizabeth, who had inherited two country estates and the house at Tsarskoe Seloe, retreated to hunting and hawking on her rural estate. On her meager income, she maintained a household staff but devoted her time to the pursuit of pleasure. She danced and sang folk songs with local peasants and became involved with pages or local young men.

The Council, now dominated by the Dolgoruky family, no longer saw Elizabeth as a threat and invited her back to court. Known as a fashion leader, she continued her carefree life by attending balls and bear-baiting events; she also often hunted with her nephew, the young tsar. She behaved scandalously, bragged openly of her contentment with love, turned down an opportunity to marry Ivan Dolgoruky because it would limit her freedom and choice of lovers, and was seen as a person of no political importance.

Like Moses, Elizabeth had come to release Russia from the night of Egyptian servitude; like Noah, she had saved Russia from an alien flood.

—Mikhail V. Lomonosov

In early 1730, Peter II died shortly before his coronation. According to Catherine's will, Elizabeth should have been declared empress of Russia. When she was passed over for her cousin, Anna of Courland, who became Empress Anna Ivanovna (1693–1740), Elizabeth refused to demand her rightful claim, partly out of fear and partly out of her distaste for power, protocol, and responsibility. At the time, Elizabeth was deeply attached to her lover, Alexei Shubin, and she remained absent from the court. Jealous of her beautiful and popular cousin, Anna Ivanovna had Shubin arrested and exiled and actually considered ordering Elizabeth to a nunnery. Elizabeth was followed by Anna's spies and forced to be politically discreet. Lonely and disillusioned, Elizabeth fell in love with a member of the court chapel choir, Alexei Razumovsky. Anna Ivanovna eventually required Elizabeth to take an oath of loyalty and welcomed her to court. Satisfied that Elizabeth and Razumovsky were no threat, she finally left them alone. Though it seemed that Elizabeth wasted her life during the 1730s, she made friendships and established contacts between nobles and soldiers that would be useful to her future political ambitions.

Anna Ivanovna's court was dominated by several German nobles who were either leftovers from the court of Peter the Great or accompanied her from her Duchy of Courland. The major figures in her regime were Count Ernst Johann Biron, Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich and Count Andrei I. Ostermann. She disliked the idea of Elizabeth as her possible successor, preferring the son of her niece Anna Leopoldovna who had married Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick; their marriage had produced Ivan in 1740. Anna Ivanovna designated Ivan as her successor with Anna Leopoldovna as regent. Before her death, however, the empress changed the regency from Anna to her longtime favorite, Ernst Biron, her secretary and lover, who had emerged as the notable individual at her court. Elizabeth maintained her distance and retained an appearance of disinterest in the palace intrigues.

Thus, on the death of Anna Ivanovna, the infant Ivan VI became tsar, the last of the farcical successors to Peter the Great. Three weeks into the regency, Biron, who was on the worst terms with Münnich, Ostermann, Ulrich, and Anna Leopoldovna, was overthrown and exiled to Siberia. Anna Leopoldovna became regent and the German faction continued their internal struggles for wealth and power. Dissension among the Germans weakened the regency and created a discontent among the Russian Guards, particularly after the outbreak of an unpopular war with Sweden. Russian hopes for change centered on Peter the Great's daughter, Elizabeth Petrovna. The French and Swedish ambassadors, unhappy with the regency's ties to Prussia, began to intrigue with Elizabeth through her close friend, Dr. Armand Lestocq. Although she was still reluctant to lead a coup d'état, Elizabeth finally was persuaded by her intimate friends and officers in the guards to lead the uprising.

Anne Petrovna (1708–1728)

Princess of Russia and duchess of Holstein. Name variations: Anna Petrovna. Born on March 9, 1708; died on June 1, 1728; daughter of Catherine I (1684–1727), empress of Russia (r. 1725–1727) and Peter I the Great, tsar of Russia (r. 1682–1725); sister of Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762); married Charles Frederick (1700–1739), duke of Holstein-Gottorp (r. 1702–1739), on June 1, 1725; children: Peter III (b. 1728), tsar of Russia (1728–1762, who married Catherine II the Great ).

In the early hours of November 25, 1741, Elizabeth, carrying a cross and wearing a cuirass (armor), appeared at the barracks of the Preobrazhensky Guards. At the head of several hundred guards and her small group of conspirators, she advanced to the Winter Palace, where the sentries were bloodlessly captured or joined the conspirators. Elizabeth led her insurgents into the bedchamber of Anna Leopoldovna where she

found the regent sleeping with her German lover, Julia Mengden . With snow dripping from her cape, Elizabeth shook Anna by the shoulder and whispered her wakeup call. Ivan VI, Ulrich, Ostermann, Münnich, and other high officials were arrested in other parts of the palace. Ostermann and Münnich were exiled to Siberia, Anna Leopoldovna and Ulrich were exiled to the provinces, and the young tsar was sent to a dungeon, where he grew to adulthood only to be murdered to prevent opportunistic plots for his restoration to power.

Elizabeth Petrovna was a 32-year-old woman when she assumed the throne. Her subjects accepted her with a sigh of relief because it ended the despised period of German domination. Elizabeth was illeducated and poorly trained to govern, but her fervent patriotism and abhorrence of war endeared her to the people. The Swedish war was ended in 1743 with Russia gaining some territory in southern Finland. Elizabeth quickly abolished the Supreme Privy Council system of government that had been begun by her predecessors and formally restored the Senate to the same role created by her father. This was only a nominal reform because she actually ruled the country through her private chancery. Although her reign has been generally characterized as a return to the traditions and principles of Peter the Great, she, in fact, abolished many of his major reforms. For example, the opportunity for lower classes to achieve noble ranks by state service was terminated by Elizabeth, and she regularly met with "Her Majesty's Chancery" which managed the government administration and financial matters.

The events of November 1741 not only produced a new ruler but also a new group of Russian leaders. Elizabeth promoted many of her friends and elevated other capable men to leadership positions. Important figures during Elizabeth's reign included Count Michael Voronstov and Count Alexis Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who were excellent in foreign policy; Alexander Shuvalov, chair of the Secret Chancery; Peter Shuvalov, chief of the secret police; Ivan Shuvalov, head of the Academy of Arts; and her closest advisor Alexei Razumovsky, who may have earlier been morganatically married to the empress. Cyril Razumovsky, younger brother of Alexei, held several high offices, including that of field marshal. The Dolgoruky and Golitsyn families, persecuted during the German era, were restored to their former status and eminence in the Russian nobility.

During Elizabeth's reign, there was a slight increase in French influence. This was partly in response to France's support of Elizabeth's accession to the throne but was mostly a reaction to German rigidity at the court. Elizabeth placed a greater emphasis on art, philosophy, and literature, especially French culture, instead of the technology and trades emphasized during the Westernization of Peter the Great. She took a great interest in cultural matters. In 1755, at the behest of Ivan Shuvalov, Elizabeth founded the University of Moscow. Because she and Shuvalov ardently loved opera, ballet, and theater, they established the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1757. Fedor Volkov opened a theater in St. Petersburg which, under Elizabeth's patronage, became a national institution. During her reign, St. Petersburg became a center of architectural splendor. French and Italian architects, particularly Bartolomeo Rastrelli, constructed and improved for the empress the beautiful palaces of Peterhof, Tsarskoe Seloe, and the Winter Palace. Rastrelli also designed the graceful Smolnyi Convent and many lesser palaces for prominent boyar (noble) families.

Literature also made great advances during the reign of Elizabeth. When Cyril Razumovsky returned to Russia from his studies in Western Europe, Elizabeth appointed him president of the Academy of Sciences. He placed more emphasis upon the arts, which had previously been offered only to students unfit for the sciences, and initiated the first monthly periodical printed in Russia. Razumovsky was also the patron of Vasili Adadurov who authored the first Russian grammar book, and historian Vasily Tatischev's Russian History from Earliest Times was posthumously published in St. Petersburg. The greatest talent to emerge from Elizabeth's literary patronage was Mikhail Lomonosov, a fisher's son who came to St. Petersburg in the reign of Anna Ivanovna and grew, during Elizabeth's rule, to be one of the greatest scholars in Russian history. He produced a new vernacular poetry style and mastered such diverse studies as geology, meteorology, and physics. Vasily Trediakovsky, in 1766, translated Fenelon's Télémaque which introduced the hexameter for the first time into Russian poetry. Alexander Sumarokov was the first Russian professional author who chose national subjects for his plays. He introduced Shakespeare to the Russian people with his adaptation of Hamlet, and it was as a spectator at his play Khorev that Elizabeth fell in love with Nikita Beketov who played the leading role.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, she had immediately realized that Russia's legal code, last revised in 1644 by Tsar Alexis I (r. 1645–1676), needed extensive changes. She gave this responsibility to Michael Voronstov and Peter Shuvalov who endeavored to reform the judicial system. Though the work of Shuvalov's Commission on the Law Code made excellent progress, the codes were not completed until the reign of Catherine II the Great . Under Elizabeth's reign, the serfs and peasants continued to lose their few remaining rights. Serfs could no longer marry a person from another estate without his owner's permission, and in 1760 Elizabeth issued an edict giving boyars the power to deport peasants to Siberia. This led to massive numbers of peasants and serfs fleeing to the frontiers. The policies also resulted in serious peasant uprisings that were violently suppressed in the Ural or Bashkir regions. Elizabeth tried to humanize the penal codes; and, to the displeasure of her ministers, she commuted every death sentence issued by the courts.

During the first 15 years of Elizabeth's reign, Russia was at peace. Simultaneously, Russia's prestige as a European power grew under the direction of Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who enjoyed Elizabeth's total confidence and guided Russia along a pro-Austrian and anti-Prussian foreign policy. But in 1756, Elizabeth reluctantly honored the Austro-Russian alliance of 1746 by joining the European coalition against the Prussia of Frederick II the Great. Russian troops invaded East Prussia in 1757, won the decisive battle of Kunersdorf in 1759, and reached Berlin in 1760. Prussia would be saved by political divisions among Elizabeth's allies as well as her death, which would result in her successor withdrawing Russia from the war.

Elizabeth's reign was marked by an exciting and splendid court, with Western culture, fashion, styles and secular values. While she took a sincere interest in all aspects of the state, she usually left the details and the administration of her policies to highly capable ministers and advisors. Continuing to enjoy the company of common soldiers and peasant women, she loved the promenades at court and spent astounding sums on her wardrobe that contained over 15,000 dresses. She was devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church and never missed Sunday masses. The empress took pilgrimages to her favorite monasteries and supported a vigorous missionary program into all areas of her empire. Though she endeavored to improve the distribution of church wealth and to improve the literary levels of the clergy, she had very limited success in those areas.

Elizabeth had no children and, shortly after her accession to the throne, had designated her nephew Peter as her successor. He was the son of Elizabeth's older sister Anne Petrovna and the duke of Holstein. Shortly after his birth and the death of his parents, the young boy, who was regarded as an heir to the Swedish throne, was taught Swedish and brought up as a Lutheran. In 1742, Elizabeth brought him to Russia, crowned him as grand duke, and required his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church. In agreement with her advisors, Elizabeth married the 17-year-old Peter to Sophia Augusta Frederika, later baptized Catherine (later known as Catherine the Great), in 1745. Peter resented this entire process and for nearly two decades sullenly accepted Elizabeth's decisions while virtually worshiping her rival, Frederick the Great.

With her beauty and youth behind her, Elizabeth Petrovna entered a period of depression. She gained weight, rarely exercised, and began to doubt her own accomplishments as empress. After 1749, she suffered from asthma, colic, dropsy, and constipation. Strokes in 1756 and 1759 left her barely able to walk. On December 12, 1761, she took a fever and began to hemorrhage from the mouth. She recovered enough to sign decrees five days later reducing salt taxes and granting amnesties for tax offenders. On December 22, she suffered a relapse, exhibiting fainting spells, impaired speech, and thought. She died at the age of 52 on December 25, 1761.


Bain, R. Nisbet. The Daughter of Peter the Great. Westminster: Constable, 1899.

Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of All the Russias. NY: Putnam, 1974.

Longworth, Philip. The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne and Elizabeth of Russia. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Rice, Tamara Talbot. Elizabeth: Empress of Russia. NY: Praeger, 1970.

Wieczynski, Joseph L., ed. The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1976.

suggested reading:

Bain, Nisbet. Peter III: Emperor of Russia. Westminster: Constable, 1902.

——. The Pupils of Peter the Great: A History of the Russian Court and Empire from 1697 to 1740. London: Constable, 1897.

Kaus, Gina. Catherine: The Portrait of an Empress. Translated by June Head. NY: Viking, 1935.

Kluyuchevsky, V.O. A History of Russia. Vol. 4. Translated by C.J. Hogarth. NY: Russell & Russell, 1960.

Marsden, Christopher. Palmyra of the North: The First Days of St. Petersburg. London: Faber, 1942.

Miliukov, Paul, C. Seignobos, and L. Eisenmann. History of Russia. Vol. 2: The Successors of Peter the Great. Translated by C.L. Markmann. NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Morfill, W.R. A History of Russia from the Birth of Peter the Great to the Death of Alexander II. London: Methuen, 1902.


Orders of Empress Elizabeth, Iazykov Collection, 1613–1936, Department of Special Collections, University of California, Davis.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama

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Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762)

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Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762)