Who was Elizabeth of Russia?
Elizabeth of Russia, also known as Elizaveta Petrovna, was the Empress of Russia from 1741 to 1762. She was a very powerful and popular monarch who led the country into two major European wars—the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. Born as one of the daughters of Peter the Great and Catherine I, Elizabeth was a beautiful, intelligent and smart girl. As one of the only two daughters of her parents, who survived to adulthood, she was doted on by both her parents and was provided with a loving upbringing. In spite of not receiving a proper formal education, she was fluent in Italian, German and French, and was a talented dancer and rider. Upon the death of her father, her cousin Anna ascended to the throne, and upon the death of Empress Anna, the Russian Supreme Council chose the infant Ivan VI as the emperor, with his mother, Anna Leopoldovna, as regent. Disillusioned at this development Elizabeth staged a coup and seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment to become the Empress of Russia. She proved to be a much loved and popular monarch. Not only was she an able political leader, she was also a patron of arts and played a key role in the founding of her country’s first university
Childhood & Early Life
Elizabeth was born to Peter the Great and Catherine I on 18 December 1709 in Kolomenskoye, near Moscow. Her parents were not officially married at the time of her birth. She had 11 siblings but only a few of them survived to adulthood.
Both her parents, especially her father, doted on her. She had a happy childhood and was trained in European languages, social skills, and Russian traditions of singing, religious instruction, and dancing. Some sources however state that she did not receive a proper formal education.
Her father died in 1725 and her cousin Anna ascended the throne in 1730. During this time Elizabeth started living a life of opulence. She became very active on the social front and started taking up several lovers from various social classes. Her lifestyle caused embarrassment to her cousin who tried to get Elizabeth banished to a nunnery.
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Accession & Reign
Empress Anna fell very ill in 1740. By now Elizabeth had earned much support from the populace and it was expected that she would succeed her cousin. However, Anna named her infant grandnephew, Ivan VI, as her heir and his mother Anna Leopoldovna, as the regent.
Empress Anna died on 28 October 1740. By this time the Russian government had become corrupt and the regency of Anna Leopoldovna for the infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems.
Elizabeth solicited the help of Preobrazhensky Regiment and organized a coup following which the infant emperor and his mother were arrested. Even though it was a daring coup, it was accomplished without bloodshed. Elizabeth crowned herself the empress on April 25, 1742.
When Elizabeth came to power, the Russian government was under the domination of German advisers. She exiled several of the advisers including Heinrich Ostermann, Burkhard von Munnich and Carl Gustav Lowenwolde who were unpopular among the masses.
Even though Elizabeth had little knowledge or experience of state affairs and governance at the time of taking the throne, she proved herself to be an able empress. It soon became evident that she had inherited several qualities from her father Peter the Great who was known to have been a highly efficient emperor.
One of the major steps she took was to abolish the cabinet council system of government that was in place at the time she became the ruler. Following the footsteps of her late father, she formally reconstituted the Senate that had been created by Peter during his reign.
She gave the top government positions to Russians instead of foreigners; this boosted the morale of her countrymen and added to her popularity.
The War of the Austrian Succession broke out in 1740 over the question of Maria Theresa's succession to the realms of the House of Habsburg. Most of the powers of Europe became involved in the war and Elizabeth is credited to have led Russia into the major European conflict.
Another major war that took place during her reign was the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) which again involved most of the great powers of the world. She acceded to the treaty of Versailles and entered into an alliance with France and Austria against Prussia. However, Elizabeth, whose health declined steadily during the war, died before the war ended.
Personal Life & Legacy
As a young woman she had been involved with numerous men though she never married or had children. Since Elizabeth was born before her parents’ marriage was legally recognized, she carried the stigma of illegitimacy and thus could not find any suitor from a royal or noble family to marry. She decided not to marry a commoner as it would have required her to forfeit her claim to the throne.
She was very beautiful when she was young and was notorious for her vanity. She spent extravagantly on clothes and had a deep dislike for women who were more beautiful than she was.
She was a patron of arts and supported the establishment of the University of Moscow and foundation of the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. She was also known for her strong religious convictions due to which she never signed even a single death sentence throughout her reign.
Elizabeth’s health started declining in the late 1750s. She refused to take the prescribed medicines in spite of her illness and died on 5 January 1762. Long before her death she had named her nephew, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp as her legitimate heir.