07 July 2008

Famous People: Tsarina Elizabeth I of Russia

By Christine Koehler

During the 18th century, there are two very powerful leaders of Russia: Peter I and Catherine II. Between them came Elizabeth, Peter's daughter and a formidable woman in her own right. Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-1761) ruled for just over 20 years, and despite the fact that she had very little love for the work that went into ruling a country as large as Russia (things waited weeks or months for her signature), she loved the country itself and took her responsibility for its future and her heritage as Peter's daughter extremely seriously.

As the daughter of the greatest tsar in Russian history and his illiterate peasant wife, her life was filled with political difficulties that followed her through her ascension to the throne. As such, her father had little time to see to her training as his heir, and her mother had no idea what to do with her to-be Empress daughter.

Elizabeth never married, for both political reasons and the sake of her own property rights and ascension to the throne. She took many lovers, and is reputed to have secretly married commoner singer, Alexis Razumovsky who became known as "the Emperor of the Night." Elizabeth made him a Prince and Field Marshal on becoming Empress, while the Emperor of Austria made him a Count of the Holy Roman Empire.

After the death of her cousin, the Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna with infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. As the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth enjoyed the support of the Russian guard regiments. She often visited the regiments, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children. On November 25, 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

Arriving at the regimental headquarters dressed in a metal breastplate over her dress and grasping a silver cross she stated, "Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?" They marched to the Winter Palace where they arrested the infant Emperor, his parents and their own lieutenant-colonel, Count von Munnich. It was a daring coup and passed without bloodshed. (Catherine II executed her own coup against her husband, Elizabeth's nephew and heir, in much the same way.)

Under her, Russia was involved in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Her domestic policies continued the Westernization of Russia her father, Peter, began, and allowed nobles to gain dominance in local government while shortening their terms of service to the state.

She encouraged Lomonosov's establishment of the University of Moscow and Shuvalov's foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg. She also spent exorbitant sums of money on her favourite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, particularly in Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral remain the chief monuments of her reign in Saint Petersburg. Generally, she was one of the best loved Russian monarchs, because she did not allow Germans in the government and not one person was executed during her reign.

Under her, the Russian court was the most splendid in all Europe with the sheer luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades. Elizabeth prided herself on her skills as a dancer and wore the most exquisite dresses. She issued decrees governing the styles of dresses and decorations worn by courtiers; nobody was allowed to have the same hairstyle as she. Elizabeth owned fifteen thousand ball gowns, several thousand pairs of shoes as well as an unlimited number of silk stockings.

In spite of this, Elizabeth was a deeply religious woman who visited convents and churches and spent long hours in church. When requested to sign a law secularising church lands she said, "Do what you like after my death. I will not sign it."

Her death on December 25, 1761 marked the end of the Russian Romanovs. Although future rulers called themselves Romanov, they were all, with the exception of Peter III, descended from Catherine II.

Further Reading:
Academic International Press
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