Elizabeth of Russia

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H.I.M. Yelizaveta Petrovna, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russias (1709-62)

Yelizaveta (Yelisavet) Petrovna (Елизаве́та (Елисаве́т) Петро́вна) (December 29 1709 - January 5, 1762), also known as Elizabeth, was an Empress of Russia (1741 - 1762) who took the country into the War of Austrian succession (1740 - 1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). Her domestic policies allowed the 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 St. Petersburg. She also spent exorbitant sums of money on the grandiose baroque projects of 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 St Petersburg. Generally, she was one of the best loved Russian monarchs, because she didn't allow Germans in the government and not a single person was executed during her reign.

Contents

Life before becoming Empress

Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great and Martha Skavronskaya, was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on the 18th of December 1709. As her parents were not married at that time, her illegitimacy would be used by political opponents to challenge her right to the throne.

Even as a child her parts were good, if not brilliant, but unfortunately her education was both imperfect and desultory. Her father had no leisure to devote to her training, and her mother was too illiterate to superintend her studies. She had a French governess, however, and at a later day picked up some Italian, German and Swedish, and could converse in these languages with more fluency than accuracy. From her earliest years she delighted every one by her extraordinary beauty and vivacity.

It was Peter's intention to marry his second daughter to the young French king Louis XV, but the pride of the Bourbons revolted against any such alliance. Other connubial speculations foundered on the personal dislike of the princess for the various suitors proposed to her, so that on the death of her mother (May 1727) and the departure to Holstein of her beloved sister Anne, her only remaining near relation, the princess found herself at the age of eighteen practically her own mistress.

So long as Menshikov remained in power, she was treated with liberality and distinction by the government of her adolescent nephew Peter II, who was rumoured to be her lover. The Dolgorukovs, who supplanted Menshikov and hated the memory of Peter the Great, practically banished Peter's daughter from court. Elizabeth had inherited her fathers sensual temperament and, being free from all control, abandoned herself to her appetites without reserve.

While still in her teens, she made a lover of Alexis Shubin, a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Guards regiment, and after his banishment to Siberia, minus his tongue, by order of the empress Anne, consoled herself with a handsome young Cossack, Alexis Razumovski, who, there is good reason to believe, subsequently became her husband.

Palace Revolution of 1741

During the reign of her cousin Anne (1730-40), Elizabeth effaced herself as much as possible; but under the regency of Anna Leopoldovna the course of events compelled the indolent but by no means incapable beauty to overthrow the existing government. The idea seems to have been first suggested to her by the French ambassador, La Chetardie, who was plotting to destroy the Austrian influence then dominant at the Russian court. It is a mistake to suppose, however, that La Chetardie took a leading part in the revolution which placed the daughter of Peter the Great on the Russian throne. As a matter of fact, beyond lending the tsesarevna 2000 ducats, instead of the 15,000 she demanded of him, he took no part whatever in the actual coup d'etat which was as great a surprise to him as to every one else. The merit and glory of that singular affair belong to Elizabeth alone. The fear of being imprisoned in a convent for the rest of her life was the determining cause of her irresistible outburst of energy.

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The portrait of Elizabeth as Venus, painted in the 1710s for the Grand Peterhof Palace

At midnight on the 6th of December 1741, with a few personal friends, including her physician, Armand Lestocq, her chamberlain, Mikhail Illarionovich Vorontsov, her future husband, Alexius Razumovski, and Alexander and Peter Shuvalov, two of the gentlemen of her household, she drove to the barracks of the Preobrazhensky Guards regiment, enlisted their sympathies by a stirring speech, and led them to the Winter Palace, where the regent was reposing in absolute security. Having on the way thither had all the ministers arrested, she seized the regent and her children in their beds, and summoned all the notables, civil and ecclesiastical, to her presence. So swiftly and noiselessly indeed had the whole revolution proceeded that as late as eight o'clock the next morning very few people in the city were aware of it.

Thus, at the age of three-and-thirty, this naturally indolent and self-indulgent woman, with little knowledge and no experience of affairs, suddenly found herself at the head of a great empire at one of the most critical periods of its existence. Fortunately for herself, and for Russia, Elizabeth Petrovna, with all her shortcomings, had inherited some of her father's genius for government. Her usually keen judgment and her diplomatic tact again and again recall Peter the Great. What in her sometimes seemed irresolution and procrastination, was, most often, a wise suspense of judgment under exceptionally difficult circumstances; and to this may be added that she was ever ready to sacrifice the prejudices of the woman to the duty of the sovereign.

Bestuzhev's policies

After abolishing the cabinet council system in favor during the rule of the two Annes, and reconstituting the senate as it had been under Peter the Great, with the chiefs of the departments of state, none of them Germans as used to be, the first care of the new empress was to compose her quarrel with Sweden. On the 23rd of January 1743, direct negotiations between the two powers were opened at Abo, and on the 7th of August 1743 Sweden ceded to Russia all the southern part of Finland east of the river Kymmene, which thus became the boundary between the two states, including the fortresses of Villmanstrand and Fredricshamn.

This triumphant issue was mainly due to the diplomatic ability of the new vice chancellor, Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin, whom Elizabeth, much as she disliked him personally, had wisely placed at the head of foreign affairs immediately after her accession. He represented the anti-Franco-Prussian portion of her council, and his object was to bring about an Anglo-Austro-Russian alliance which, at that time, was undoubtedly Russia's proper system. Hence the reiterated attempts of Frederick the Great and Louis XV to get rid of Bestuzhev, which made the Russian court during the earlier years of Elizabeths reign the centre of a tangle of intrigue impossible to unravel by those who do not possess the clue to it.

Ultimately, however, the minister, strong in the support of Elizabeth, prevailed, and his faultless diplomacy, backed by the despatch of an auxiliary Russian corps of 30,000 men to the Rhine, greatly accelerated the peace negotiations which led to the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (October 18, 1748). By sheer tenacity of purpose, Bestuzhev had extricated his country from the Swedish imbroglio; reconciled his imperial mistress with the courts of Vienna and London, her natural allies; enabled Russia to assert herself effectually in Poland, Turkey and Sweden, and isolated the restless king of Prussia by environing him with hostile alliances. But all this would have been impossible but for the steady support of Elizabeth, who trusted him implicitly, despite the insinuations of the chancellor's innumerable enemies, most of whom were her personal friends.

Seven Years' War

The great event of Elizabeth's later years was the Seven Years War. Elizabeth rightly regarded the treaty of Westminster (January 16, 1756), whereby Great Britain and Prussia agreed to unite their forces to oppose the entry into, or the passage through, Germany of the troops of every foreign power) as utterly subversive of the previous conventions between Great Britain and Russia. A by no means unwarrantable fear of the king of Prussia, who was to be reduced within proper limits, so that he might be no longer a danger to the empire, induced Elizabeth to accede to the treaty of Versailles, in other words the Franco-Austrian league against Prussia, and on the 17th of May 1757 the Russian army, 85,000 strong, advanced against Konigsberg.

Neither the serious illness of the empress, which began with a fainting-fit at Tsarskoe Selo (September 19, 1757), nor the fall of Bestuzhev (February 21, 1758), nor the cabals and intrigues of the various foreign powers at St Petersburg, interfered with the progress of the war, and the crushing defeat of Kunersdorf (August 12, 1759) at last brought Frederick to the verge of ruin. From that day forth he despaired of success, though he was saved for the moment by the jealousies of the Russian and Austrian commanders, which ruined the military plans of the allies.

On the other hand, it is not too much to say that, from the end of 1759 to the end of 1761, the unshakable firmness of the Russian empress was the one constraining political force which held together the heterogeneous, incessantly jarring elements of the anti-Prussian combination. From the Russian point of view, Elizabeth's greatness as a statesman consists in her steady appreciation of Russian interests, and her determination to promote them at all hazards. She insisted throughout that the king of Prussia must be rendered harmless to his neighbors for the future, and that the only way to bring this about was to reduce him to the rank of an elector.

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Elizaveta Petrovna in Tsarskoe Selo (1905), painting by Eugene Lanceret, now in the Tretyakov Gallery

Frederick himself was quite alive to his danger. "I'm at the end of my resources", he wrote at the beginning of 1760, "the continuance of this war means for me utter ruin. Things may drag on perhaps till July, but then a catastrophe must come." On the 21st of May 1760 a fresh convention was signed between Russia and Austria, a secret clause of which, never communicated to the court of Versailles, guaranteed East Prussia to Russia, as an indemnity for war expenses. The failure of the campaign of 1760, so far as Russia and France were concerned, induced the court of Versailles, on the evening of the 22nd of January 1761, to present to the court of St Petersburg a despatch to the effect that the king of France by reason of the condition of his dominions absolutely desired peace. The Russian empresss reply was delivered to the two ambassadors on the 12th of February. It was inspired by the most uncompromising hostility towards the king of Prussia. Elizabeth would not consent to any pacific overtures until the original object of the league had been accomplished.

Simultaneously, Elizabeth caused to be conveyed to Louis XV a confidential letter in which she proposed the signature of a new treaty of alliance of a more comprehensive and explicit nature than the preceding treaties between the two powers, without the knowledge of Austria. Elizabeth's object in this mysterious negotiation seems to have been to reconcile France and Great Britain, in return for which signal service France was to throw all her forces into the German war. This project, which lacked neither ability nor audacity, foundered upon Louis XV's invincible jealousy of the growth of Russian influence in eastern Europe and his fear of offending the Porte. It was finally arranged by the allies that their envoys at Paris should fix the date for the assembling of a peace congress, and that, in the meantime, the war against Prussia should be vigorously prosecuted.

The campaign of 1761 was almost as abortive as the campaign of 1760. Frederick acted on the defensive with consummate skill, and the capture of the Prussian fortress of Kolberg on Christmas day 1761, by Rumyantsev, was the sole Russian success. Frederick, however, was now at the last gasp. On the 6th of January 1762, he wrote to Finkenstein, "We ought now to think of preserving for my nephew, by way of negotiation, whatever fragments of my territory we can save from the avidity of my enemies", which means, if words mean anything, that he was resolved to seek a soldier's death on the first opportunity. A fortnight later he wrote to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, "The sky begins to clear. Courage, my dear fellow. I have received the news of a great event." The great event which snatched him from destruction was the death of the Russian empress (January 5, 1762).




Preceded by:
Ivan VI
Empress of Russia
December 6, 1741January 5, 1762
Succeeded by:
Peter III

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