Tsar Elizabeth of Russia
(b. 1709, r. 1741-1761)
For much of history, Elizabeth Petrovna, also known as Tsar Elizabeth I, has been regarded as the intermediary ruler between the two famed 18th-century Russian Tsars, Peter the Great and Catherine I. She has been celebrated as a court favorite, renowned for having an "ethereal spirit," establishing herself as the center of attention at balls, and loving to dance. Yet, throughout the historiography of Russian rulers, few contributions of substance had been attributed to Elizabeth's reign. In recent years, however, the positive effects of her control over the throne have been published and the stigma of being the "transitional" leader during the middle years of the 1700s has diminished.
Elizabeth Petrovna led a charmed existence. Born on 18 December 1709, to Peter the Great and Martha Skaronska, or Catherine I, a peasant, she was technically illegitimate, (her father had not found the time to marry her mother until after Elizabeth was born); nevertheless, she grew up in a supportive and loving environment. She lived an enchanted lifestyle in which she learned to appreciate the customs and etiquette of both Western culture and Russian tradition; Elizabeth was a passionate church attendee, Russian patriot, fluent speaker of the French language, and a competent dancer of the minuet.
Elizabeth’s father, Peter, had abolished the law of succession during his reign. Subsequently, the Supreme Council was given the right to choose Peter’s heir to the throne. In the initial years after her father’s death in 1725, Elizabeth was nonchalant regarding political activity; she was content with being a social butterfly and Russian society’s fashion leader. In 1730, Elizabeth’s cousin Anne of Courland became Empress and Elizabeth was allowed to remain a promiscuous, apathetic Russian socialite. For years, she trounced around Russia, courting numerous lovers and spending exorbitant amounts of money.
By 1740, however, Elizabeth had matured; she was frustrated by her cousin, Empress Anne's, vindictiveness as a political leader and the perpetual threats of banishing Elizabeth to a nunnery. As Empress Anne lay on her deathbed, the people hoped that Elizabeth would take the throne. Instead, she was passed over in favor of Prince Anton and Anna Leopoldnovna’s newly born son, Ivan VI, on whose behalf his mother, served as regent. Secret agents acting on the orders of the Regent Anna watched Elizabeth day and night. Anna was worried that Elizabeth would incite a revolt against her, because Anna recognized that as a foreigner, the Russian populace distrusted her, while Elizabeth was a favorite of the guards and loved by the people.
On November 25, 1741, Elizabeth was ready to take her place among the annals of Russian political leaders. She began her coup d’état by praying in a private chapel with a silver cross in hand. Then, with the help of her political supporters, Elizabeth arrested Regent Anna's husband, advisors, and person, consequently establishing herself as Empress. Even in victory, Elizabeth was fair, graceful, and managed to keep her revenge in check; she had emerged from the shadows of neglected, carefree princess status to become Russia’s ruler.
Elizabeth's almost twenty-year reign that officially began with her coronation on April 25, 1742, proved to be politically and militarily beneficial to Russia. The incompetence of the previous two tsars had cost the country scores of national pride; Elizabeth increased morale by reinstating her father's policy of appointing only Russian citizens to top advisory positions within the government, thereby avoiding foreign influence. The Senate was revitalized and the 'Secret Council' was eradicated. She made humanitarian gains by outlawing the death penalty. In 1743, she attained a historic victory for diplomacy by negotiating an end to the long-standing land dispute between Russia and Sweden. She was also chiefly responsible for maintaining the alliance between Russia, Austria, and France, against Prussia during the Seven Years' War.
Elizabeth's reign was marked by political as well as cultural advancements. On January 25, 1755, she set forth a decree to establish the founding of the University of Moscow. She proved to be a blessing to the Russian Orthodox Church; she donated large sums of money to the church and set the price of bibles at five rubles. Elizabeth established a solid foundation for the arts; she created a state theater, brought in Italian instrumentalists, singers, and set designers to complement the court choir. In addition, she changed Petersburg architecture to reflect the styles that were dominant in Western Europe at that time.
On December 25, 1761, Elizabeth died leaving no children as heirs; she had never married due to disputes within her family and her love of sexual freedom. Instead, she left the throne to her nephew, Peter II who died shortly thereafter. His wife, Sophia of Zerbst, who would later become Catherine the Great, succeeded him as one of Russia's greatest tsars. For years, Elizabeth had been portrayed as a minimal player in Russian tsarist history. Recently, however, her own accomplishments have been highlighted. She is no longer the transitional monarch, solely responsible for preparing Catherine for the throne. Instead, she is considered a powerful, free-spirited, and strong willed woman who coalesced Russia militarily, politically, and culturally.
Almedingen, E.M. Catherine, Empress of Russia. New York: Dodd,
Mead and Company. 1961.
While this source is about Empress Catherine I, Tsar Elizabeth is covered extensively, as it was she who brought Tsar Catherine to Russia. Elizabeth is depicted as moody and vindictive, displayed by the fact that she would make decisions, and then quickly change her mind. In addition to a sullen attitude, the book gives examples of Elizabeth's cruelty, especially directed at Catherine and Elizabeth's disappointment with Peter III, her successor, because he was German, Lutheran, and therefore friendly with Sweden. Little is said of Elizabeth's feelings toward the other relevant nations of her time, although the author notes that she was feared by Prussia, liked by Austria, and had peaceful relations with Sweden. Through all of the criticisms and open talk of Elizabeth's personality, the author takes a positive look at the disposition and character of Elizabeth, and her relationship with those who would succeed her: Peter III and then Catherine the Great.
Anthony, Katherine. Catherine the Great. New York: Garden City
Publishing Company. 1925.
The author provides interesting details about Tsar Elizabeth and her life before she came to power: Elizabeth’s signing of her mother's will so that her half brother, Peter II, could become tsar, Elizabeth's childhood, and her private life. On a basic human level, Anthony argues Elizabeth was a contradiction in terms as she was in some ways immoral, yet also very religious. While the book does not mention much about Elizabeth's own reign, it does describe how Elizabeth’s successful acquisition of Catherine the Great to Russia’s throne.
Beard, Robert. " Chronology of Russian History." 1996. <http://http://www.bucknell.edu/Academics/Colleges_Departments/Academic_Departments/Foreign_Language_Programs/Russian_Studies/Resources/History/Chronology/To_1917.html>
(1 October 2005).
This site is published by Bucknell University as part of resources for their Russian Studies and History departments. The site supplies a chronological list of all the Russian rulers from Peter I, the great to Nicholas II. The name of each ruler is linked to a page that provides a short biography. In addition, each ruler has a timeline of events under their name that includes all of the major events that occurred during their lifespan. Under Elizabeth, some notable events listed include: the founding of Moscow University, formation of the first Russian theater, and the granting of power to nobles to ban serfs to Siberia . However, the Russian wars are not listed. This site provides a useful starting point for research in denoting key events and people in the history of the Russian empire.
Coughlan, Robert. Elizabeth and Catherine: Empresses of all the
Russias. Ed. Jay Gold. New York: Putnam. 1974.
The author uses the story of Empress Elizabeth I as the backdrop for the life and reign of Catherine the Great. According to Coughlan, Catherine, who was neither named Catherine nor of Russian blood, would not have become the ruler she was without the influence and tutelage of Elizabeth I. The accomplishments and influence of Tsar Elizabeth have often been overshadowed by other Russian Tsars or overlooked by historians. This author takes a chronological approach to the study of the life and influence of Elizabeth I on the reign of Catherine the Great. This book is a useful tool to any Elizabeth I historian; however, it does not look at the history of Elizabeth from what she personally contributed to society, but rather, approaches the study of Elizabeth’s life and reign from the perspective of how she influenced one of the greatest rulers of Russian history, Catherine the Great.
Grey, Ian. The Horizon History of Russia. New York: American
Heritage Publishing Co. 1970.
Ian Grey is a Russian Tsarist historian who has researched numerous political leaders and historical events. In the History of Russia, he describes Elizabeth Petrovna's desire to westernize Russia, as she had learned from the example of her father, Peter I, and subsequently she transformed Petersburg into the styles of Western Europe. This book gives a more complete account of her rise to power than Grey’s other work, The Romanovs. During her reign, she was credited with founding Russia's first state theater, possessing ill feelings for Frederick II of Prussia, and involving Russia in two wars: the Seven Years War and the war with Sweden over lands conquered by her father. She was a forceful and decisive woman who refused to lose the latter mentioned military engagement.
Grey, Ian. The Romanovs; the Rise and Fall of a Dynasty. New
York: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1970.
The author dedicates an entire chapter in this book to Elizabeth's life, both before and after becoming tsar. Elizabeth was seventeen when Peter ruled as tsar and therefore, the perfect age for marriage. This book delves into issues regarding Peter's plans for her marriage. The author then goes into detail on such issues during her reign as her approach to dealing with the church, the military and outside countries. The piece also details Elizabeth's insistence of having no foreign advisors following her father's death. This is a useful tool in the research of Empress Elizabeth I as it gives a history of all of the Romanov Dynasty and particularly helpful information on Elizabeth.
Iskenderov, A. A. The Emperors and Empresses of Russia:
Rediscovering the Romanovs. Ed. Donald J. Raleigh. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe
The author of this compilation regarding Russian Emperors and Empresses from the Romanov Dynasty dedicates an entire chapter to Empress Elizabeth I. While her twenty-year rule has often been dismissed as superficial, the author attempts to honestly describe both the negative and positive aspects of Elizabeth’s reign. At times, she was frivolous, owning more than 15,000 ball gowns, but she also maintained a strong arm when it came to issues of the death penalty and the importance of her father, Peter the Great's, canonization. Overall, the author views Elizabeth in an affirmative light, and this work is useful in discovering more about the reign not only of Elizabeth, but all of the Romanovs.
Kirby, David. Review of Evgeny V. Anismov, " Empress Elizabeth:
Her Reign and Her Russia, 1741-1762." History Today 47 (1997).
This journal article is actually a book review from History Today of Evgney V. Anismov's book, Empress Elizabeth: Her Reign and Her Russia, 1741-1762. Within the book, Elizabeth is depicted as a poor ruler who merely held the throne until Catherine II came to Russia's aid. The reviewer criticizes the author’s portrayal of Elizabeth as simply an interlude between two great rulers. Rather he believes that she was an accomplished singer who helped developed the Russian theater. Subsequently, the strength of the book, according to the reviewer, is in the book’s presentation of court life and culture in mid-eighteenth century Russia.
" MSU History." Lomonosov Moscow State University. 1997. <http://www.msu.ru/en/info/history.html>
(18 October 2005).
Published by the Moscow State University at Lomonsov, the article details the history of the university. It was named after Mikhail Lomonosov (1711 - 1765), an outstanding Russian academician and scientist of the day who greatly contributed to the building of the university. Tsar Elizabeth I commissioned the building of the university on January 25, 1755 (St. Tatiana's Day as established by the Russian Orthodox Church). The opening ceremony took place on April 26, 1755. While the website provides valuable and vast information on Moscow State University and touts Elizabeth I as the reason for its inception (and a copy of the charter document), it does little to provide information about her life and reign. Therefore, it is not a helpful source in the study of the life of Empress Elizabeth I and only beneficial to those looking at the influence of Elizabeth I on the founding of the university.
Longworth, Phillip. The Three Empresses: Catherine I, Anne, and
Elizabeth of Russia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1972.
The author is an accomplished Russian historian who was taught the language while serving in the British army. His work details the lives and reigns of three of the Great Russian Tsarinas of the 18th century, Catherine I, Anne, and Elizabeth. In the section on Tsar Elizabeth, the author takes a chronological approach to the life of Elizabeth I. He does a nice job of breaking down the stereotypes about her carefree, and sometimes negligent behavior as displayed through her possession of 15,000 ball gowns at the time of her death. He goes on to develop a complete character sketch that details her weaknesses (her tendency to flounder and love of carousing with men) as well as strengths (her devotion to the Russian state and her vehement opposition of the death penalty). This is a useful source for finding a relatively concise and complete background on the life of Elizabeth I of Russia.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. Works of Art: European
Sculpture and Decorative Arts. <http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/viewOne.asp?dep=12&item=65.47&viewMode=0§ion=prov>
(3 November 2005).
This is the website for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York. It displays a photograph from one of the museums permanent collections. The image is of a plate, made between 1756 and 1760, that was manufactured by the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory which had been established in St. Petersburg, by Empress Elizabeth I in 1744. This particular plate is made of hard-paste porcelain, intricately designed, and, on the bottom, displays a two-headed eagle in black, which was a mark of the Imperial Porcelain Factory under Empress Elizabeth I. While the website does not provide biographical information, it does presents historians with inside information into the artistic taste of Elizabeth through a tangible object that was owned by her.
Mirnov, Boris. "Consequences of the Price Revolution in
Eighteenth Century Russia." The Economic History Review. Vol. 45, (August
While this article does not directly speak to the quality or character of Empress Elizabeth I, it does provide an insight into the economic conditions of Russia in the 1700s. The article supplies details regarding the Price Revolution. This upheaval first swept through Western Europe in the 1500s and 1600s and came to Russia in the 1700s. The article demonstrates how the Russian economy and serfdom expanded as a result of the growth of agriculture, while industrial centers lagged behind.
Olga, "Aleksey Antropov Portait of Empress
Elizabeth," Olga’s Gallery. 2005. <http://www.abcgallery.com/A/antropov/antropov3.html>
(16 December 2005)
This website is a compilation of portraits done by various artists from throughout Europe. It touts itself as being the largest and most comprehensive online art gallery. While it does little to provide biographical information or research material regarding Elizabeth I of Russia, it does present a handful of portraits composed by Russia artists of the late ruler. It was the only source found that had actual images of Elizabeth I and therefore useful in placing a name with a face.
Pavlenko, Nikolai. “The couture of power.” Russian Life. Vol. 40, (May 1997), P.13.
This article was published in the magazine of Russian Life, a publication with a forty-nine year old history. The magazine contains lively feature articles, an independent quality, and remarkable profundity and span of coverage. The author provides his audience with an interpretive look at the public and private life of Empress Elizabeth, including her love of horseback riding, carousing, and building palaces. The author details Elizabeth’s role in Russia's history, achievements, and information on the men who were involved in Elizabeth's life. While much of the information can be found in other sources, the article provides a concise picture of Elizabeth I, including interesting anecdotal facts regarding her personal life.
Perushev, Dan. "Brief History of Russia and Famous Russians — from the 7th century till nowadays," Way to Russia. 2004. <http://www.waytorussia.net/WhatIsRussia/History.html> < (16 December 2005)
This website was written and published by company that promotes tourism to Russia. While it provides a brief historiography of the country from the beginning of the Russian empire through the presidency of Vladimir Putin, the article makes no mention of Elizabeth I. In addition, it has a disclaimer that states that a professional historian did not write the information. Therefore, one must be wary of the accuracy. However, as a source of travel information it is quite useful in providing vacationers with a concise guide to the country. The site has links to destinations, transportation, visa, practicalities, apartment rent, accommodations, airline tickets, train tickets, tours and taxi service. Therefore, while it is a useless source for finding information regarding the life of Tsar Elizabeth I, it is a beneficial link to travelers wishing to visit the Russian state.
Rice, Tamara Talbot. Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. New York: Praeger Publishers. 1970.
While numerous books cover Elizabeth I as a secondary or tertiary character, this book focuses solely on her life and reign as the primary source of interest. Details and conditions about her life are broken down by chapter. The book recounts the trouble Elizabeth had as Peter I's only child to reach maturity and details her inner turmoil regarding whether or not she desired to take possession over the Russian throne. In addition, knowing that her successor was not Russian Orthodox, Elizabeth was perplexed at the difficulty of her situation; she wanted to spread Russian control past its contemporary boundaries, but could only do so by naming a successor from without the confines of the Russian Orthodox Church's control. To date, this book is the most complete source published concerning Elizabeth's life as Empress of Russia and her contributions to the Russian empire.
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Written by Austin Clarke, 1998;
Revised by Kimberly Fabbri, November 2005
Last Revision:14 May 2007
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