Pious but seductive, generous but jealous, poorly educated, but masterful at international diplomacy, Tsarina Elizabeth I of Russia was a study in contradictions. As the daughter of Peter the Great, whose thirty year reign bridged the watershed eras of Peter and Catherine the Great, Elizabeth’s reign was marked by royal shenanigans, diplomatic triumph, and cultural advances.
Born in 1709 to Peter the Great and his illiterate wife, Catherine 1st, Elizabeth was the adored second daughter of Russia’s Great Westernizer. Elizabeth was lively and beautiful and grew up with little dedicated education but much indulgence and vivacity. When Elizabeth’s father died, her cousin Anna became Tsarina and was succeeded by an infant tsar, Ivan VI. At the time of Ivan VI’s reign, the Russian government was weak and corrupt. Elizabeth had courted the favor of the Russian guard, trading upon her status as Peter the Great’s adored daughter, and, at age 33, orchestrated a bloodless coup and ascended to the throne of the Russian empire.
And so in 1741, the coquettish young woman rose to assume rulership of a vast empire. Though her education and natural inclinations towards self-indulgence left her ill-prepared for dominion over such a vast realm, Elizabeth had inherited much of her father’s political acumen, particularly in the area of diplomacy.
With her ascension, Elizabeth dismantled the system of government as it had existed under Anna and systematically removed German advisors and influence from the government. She resurrected the Senate as it had existed under her father and surrounded herself with shrewd advisors.
Foreign policy during Elizabeth’s reign was marked by artful diplomacy resulting in successful property acquisitions for Russia. Delicate negotiations with Sweden led to expansion of the Russian borders. Additionally, Elizabeth was instrumental in ending the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748.
During this period the Prussian empire was growing strong and Elizabeth was profoundly mistrustful of Frederick the Great’s imperial ambitions. When Prussia and Britain signed the Treaty of Westminster, preventing major powers from moving freely through Prussia, Elizabeth regarded the directive as hostile and sent the Russian army to war against Prussia, thus beginning the Seven Years War, which Russia would remain embroiled in after her death in December 1761.
Elizabeth’s private life is steeped in mystery and opulence. The Tsarina did not marry, as accepting a royal suitor during her cousin’s reign would be seen as unfriendly towards the reigning empress. Marrying a commoner would strip her of her royal title, her property rights, and any claim to the crown. So Elizabeth remained unmarried but reputedly took a series of lovers and even engaged in a long-term affair – possibly a clandestine marriage – to a commoner and singer, Razumovsky.
Much of Elizabeth’s colorful legacy is attributable to her grandiose and complex personality and habits. Elizabeth had a disdain for bloodshed and during her rise to power pledged to abstain from execution. She honored this promise and ushered in an incidental humanitarian advance, ending capital punishment in the realm during her reign. Elizabeth held aesthetics in high regard, prizing beauty in her person, her court, and her country. Her rule was marked by unprecedented opulence in the Russian court and the blossoming of music, art and theater.
Elizabeth’s penchant for beauty manifested itself in cultural achievement, as well as pernicious vanity. She funded extravagant architecture including the Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral in St. Petersburg and supported the establishment of the University of Moscow. Elizabeth fixated on her own beauty as energetically as she fostered aesthetics and cultural progress in the Russian empire. She reportedly never wore the same dress twice and forbade her courtiers from wearing the same dress or even hairstyle as she did. She zealously regulated the appearance of her courtiers in order that they would reflect her glory but not rival it. As she aged, she grew increasingly hostile to other women whose beauty rivaled her own.
Ironically, Elizabeth balanced her trifling excess and sensuality with devout religious observance. Unlike her father, who worked to curtail the influence of the church, Elizabeth protected church lands from secularization and devoted large sums of money to church building.
As a consequence of Elizabeth’s appetite for luxury items and exotic foods, her reign witnessed modernization of Russia’s infrastructure and roads to meet her whims.
By turns petty and far sighted, excessive and generous, Elizabeth heralded an era of cultural blossoming, imperial expansion, and modernization in keeping with her father’s rulership.