Elizabeth Petrovna

The Russian empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709-1761) ruled from 1741 to 1761. Her reign was marked by Russia's continuing Westernization and growth as a great power.

Born in Moscow on Dec. 18, 1709, Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter I and Catherine Alekseyevna. Her education, emphasizing French, German, and the social graces, was designed to prepare her for marriage to a member of European royalty. However, all efforts to provide a suitable husband, including her father's attempt to arrange a marriage between her and Louis XV of France, failed. The beautiful and vivacious Elizabeth was forced to accept a life of spinsterhood but not one of chastity. Over the years she had many lovers, chief among them Alexis Razumovsky.

Elizabeth spent the first 3 decades of her life in political obscurity during which time the Russian throne passed, after the death of Peter I, to a succession of her relatives: her mother, as Catherine I; a nephew, as Peter II; a cousin, as Empress Anna; and finally her young cousin Ivan VI, whose mother, Anna Leopoldovna, served as regent.

That obscurity was lifted in 1741, when a movement began to remove the allegedly pro-German regent and her son Ivan VI and to install Elizabeth as empress. In November of that year, supported by Alexis Razumovsky, Elizabeth accepted the role of legitimate claimant to the throne. She led a detachment of guardsmen to seize the regent and her son and then dramatically proclaimed herself empress of Russia.

An intellectually limited and sensual person, Elizabeth gave little attention to the day-to-day business of government. She was shrewd enough, however, to see the importance of some political matters, particularly those that personally concerned her. To protect her position, she dealt harshly with any who might become threats, among them the family of the former regent, whom she kept imprisoned. Although Elizabeth made neither domestic nor foreign policies, she influenced both through her choice of officials and her response to their counsel.

Some notable domestic changes occurred during Elizabeth's reign. The number of Germans in the government was reduced. The privileges of the landed nobility were enhanced at the expense of the serfs. The process of Westernization was accelerated by the introduction of structural improvements in St. Petersburg; the opening of the first Russian university, in Moscow, in 1755; and the establishment of the Academy of Arts in 1757.

Elizabeth took pride in the advance of her country as a great power during her 20 years as empress. In the latter part of her reign, when Russia was at war with Prussia, she followed the battle reports closely. With victory almost in sight, Empress Elizabeth died on Dec. 25, 1761.

Further Reading on Elizabeth Petrovna

Robert Nisbet Bain, The Daughter of Peter the Great (1899), is both readable and useful. A more recent work is Tamara Talbot Rice, Elizabeth, Empress of Russia (1970). See also Herbert Harold Kaplan, Russia and the Outbreak of the Seven Years' War (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Empress Elizabeth: her reign and her Russia, 1741-1761, Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1995.

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