Peter the Great of Russia was astonishing in a number of ways. He crushed the Swedish military with a vastly inferior military. He founded the city of St Petersburg. He placed a tax on wearing your beard long. But by far the most heart-warming fact about Peter is that when he fell in love with a foreign, illiterate peasant girl, he wanted her as a wife, not just a mistress.
Marrying her was politically difficult, but instead of backing out, he married her in secret. He told the world that he intended to marry her, but just ”hadn’t found the time” (Massie, 29). In 1712, he found the time, by which he meant that he had already crushed the Swedes and solidified his rule. Then he held a state wedding and married his peasant girl publicly. It is a rare thing in history for a powerful monarch, who had nothing to gain from it, married a woman simply because he loved her and their children.
The result of this fairy-tale romance is that when Elizabeth made her entrance into the world in 1709, she was technically legitimate by virtue of the secret marriage, but officially illegitimate because the world didn’t know about it. At age two, she was a bridesmaid in her parents’ second wedding.
Elizabeth was the fifth of twelve children born to that marriage, but only she and her older sister Anne would ever reach the age of seven. (As an aside, can I just point out what a historically strange world we currently live in? In our time, when you have a child, you, of course, expect her to grow up. Losing one child is a tragedy. Losing ten is inconceivable.) Perhaps it is because of this mortality rate the Peter valued his girls so highly, declaring that he “loved both his girls like his own soul” (Massie, 29).
Both Anne and Elizabeth were raised as European princesses, which included learning French, Russian, history, literature, court manners, and dancing. By all accounts, the blond Elizabeth was a stunner. The Spanish ambassador said, “She is a beauty the like of which I have never seen. An amazing complexion, glowing eyes, a perfect mouth, a throat and bosom of rare whiteness. She is tall and her temperament is lively. She is always with one foot in the air” (Massie, 30). And though you might think an ambassador has good reason to be complimentary, his description is corroborated by others.
Peter’s plan for had been to marry Elizabeth to Louis XV of France, who was her same age. But it all came to nothing. As far as the world knew, Elizabeth was the bastard daughter of peasant girl, and even though that was only half true, the French court was far too stuffy to accept her. My sources did not include an account of Elizabeth’s reaction to this rejection. Possibly she was hurt. Possibly she was pleased. At any rate, she was fifteen, beautiful, and good-natured. Surely the future was glittering.
But the future is always uncertain, and for Elizabeth it was about to take a series of turns. In 1725, Peter the Great died at the age of 52. He had previously abolished the right of primogeniture (another great thing in his favor) and made a law that said the emperor had the right to name his successor. He was succeeded by his wife Catherine I, so Elizabeth was still the daughter of the reigning monarch. Her older sister Anne married a Duke Charles Frederick of Holstein, a duchy in the northern part of what would later become Germany, and Elizabeth was soon engaged to his cousin Duke Charles Augustus, also of Holstein.
But the Grim Reaper wasn’t done with Elizabeth’s family because her mother died in 1727, having ruled for less than a year and a half. Elizabeth’s fiancée died of smallpox four days after the engagement was announced. Her beloved sister Anne and her family moved back to her husband’s German duchy, leaving Elizabeth very much alone, a solitude that was all the more bitter when the news came that Anne had also died shortly after giving birth to a son.
The throne, meanwhile, had passed to Elizabeth’s nephew, Peter the Great’s grandson by his first marriage. The new young emperor liked his aunt, who was beautiful and always interested in an outing of hunting, boating, sledging, or tobogganing.
What she wasn’t interested in was political power, which is a strange quality for someone featuring in a series on women seizing power. In 1730, the young emperor also died of smallpox in the middle of the night. Elizabeth was sleeping soundly when her personal physician burst into her bedroom to insist that she get up and run to the Senate to present her claim as Peter the Great’s only remaining child. Whereupon Elizabeth murmured “five more minutes,” rolled over, and went back to sleep! Thus proving that teenagers are the same no matter what the century. By morning, her cousin Anne of Courland had been chosen as Empress.
The Belle of the Imperial Court
Elizabeth didn’t care. It was certainly more fun to be the belle of the imperial court. For the next eleven years, she rode horses, traveled the countryside, danced with the peasants, gambled with the guards, and wore breeches because she’d been told she had magnificent legs. She was immensely popular, especially with the men of court.
In a weird twist of fate, it was her very positive qualities that hampered her marriage prospects. It was well known that Empress Anne was jealous of her and suspicious of her motives. Therefore, no European royal house would have Elizabeth for fear of offending Anne. Marrying into the Russian nobility was equally impossible, as that would have been marrying down, and would thus handicap any future claims she might have to the throne. She young, beautiful, educated, and charming, and she was utterly unmarriageable.
Like her father before her, Elizabeth found her own ways of dealing with the situation. When a certain tall, dark, and handsome peasant with a rumbly bass voice joined the court chapel choir, he attracted her attention at once. He was kind, gentle, and good-looking. And he remained in his favored position for the rest of her life, always supportive, never interfering. In fact, there are more than a few rumors that they were secretly married. The rumors were present for years, but were seriously fueled by the fact that years later, after Elizabeth’s death, when Catherine the Great sent her chancellor to ask Razumovsky about the suspected marriage, he reportedly opened a locked cabinet, removed a scroll, tossed it in the fire, and then said “I was never anything more than the humble slave of the late Empress Elizabeth” (Massie, 317). Translation: they did marry, but he had no intention of pressing any claims.
As always, though, the urgent question was: Who was the heir? Empress Anne had no children of her own, and she named her grand-nephew Ivan to the heir. Shortly thereafter, she died of a stroke. The emperor Ivan was all of two months old. Anne had specified that Ivan’s mother Anna Leopoldovna was to act as regent. (In case you are counting, yes, she is the third female ruler of Russia in a very short span of time.)
By the traditions of blood right, Elizabeth had a far greater claim than Ivan or Anne, and still she didn’t care. But she grew to care. Anna Leopoldovna saw her as a threat. She kept Elizabeth under surveillance. She reduced her income. Rumors flew that she was planning to force Elizabeth to enter a convent. Finally in 1741, Elizabeth’s physician, the same one who had tried to get her to press her claim so many years ago, came to her and made her choices very clear. She could either be empress or she could be a nun. There was nothing in between. And if she chose the nunnery, it was likely that her servants and friends would be tortured, exiled, or killed to prevent them from ever trying to resuscitate her claims.
Elizabeth chose to be empress.
Seizing the Throne
At midnight that night, she went to the Guard Barracks and said “You know whose daughter I am. Follow me!” (Massie, 38). And they did. She marched through the bitter night with 300 men at her back. When they reached the Winter Palace, not a single palace guard challenged them as she entered Anna Leopoldovna’s bedroom and told her to get up. Anna immediately grasped the situation and begged for mercy. Elizabeth’s coup was complete and not a single drop of blood had been shed. She was 32 years old. Russia got its fourth female ruler in not very many years.
Empress Elizabeth’s first thought was to reward those who had supported her, which she did handsomely. Razumovksy the peasant became a count.
Empress Elizabeth’s second thought was that same old question, yet again. Who was the heir? Elizabeth had not led a sheltered life, but she had never once been pregnant, so even if she found a suitable husband, she was unlikely to produce an heir. Meanwhile there was the question of the deposed Ivan VI. He was not even two years old, but a coup was always possible as Elizabeth had good reason to know. To be safe Elizabeth absolutely needed a clear, undisputed heir as quickly as possible.
When her beloved sister Anne had gone to Holstein with her husband, she had soon given birth to a boy. Anne had died three months later, but the boy had lived. Elizabeth had never met him, but she now sent for him to come to Russia, gave him the title of Grand Duke, and declared him her heir.
Elizabeth knew this boy Peter was a scion of her father, the illustrious Peter the Great. He was the son of her beautiful, beloved, and accomplished sister Anne. She had known his father and fallen in love with his cousin. He had been raised to be the Duke of Holstein for sure, but also possibly the Emperor of Russia, and even possibly the King of Sweden through his father’s side. So you might be expecting a strong, handsome figure of a man, educated, charming, brave on the battlefield, good with the ladies.
If that’s what Elizabeth expected, she was disappointed on every single count.
Peter III of Russia
The fourteen-year old boy who arrived in St. Petersburg was scrawny, short, sickly, prepubescent, nervous, unaccomplished, and breathtakingly uneducated. To be fair, not all of this was his fault. Maybe none of it was his fault. His childhood had included if whippings, malnutrition, and neglect. But his fault or not, the result was a twisted, fidgety little boy who beat his servants and tortured small animals. Elizabeth hoped it wasn’t too late to train him better.
Only it was too late. Peter’s education had not produced any noticeable grasp of history, languages, literature, geography, manners, or dancing, but he had learned a different lesson very, very well. He knew, to the core of his soul, that Russians were primitive, ignorant, dirty, undisciplined, and religiously inferior. He felt only contempt for its language, its priests, its military, and the whole country in general. He had no desire to learn any more about it. He wanted to go home.
Elizabeth was crushed, and though she lavished Peter with tutors, money, and favors, it was to no effect. He stubbornly refused to show any improvement whatsoever. In desperation, Elizabeth turned to what seemed like her only other option. She had to get Peter a wife. A wife who would produce a child. A child who could be given a good Russian upbringing.
That wife was Catherine, and—spoiler alert—Catherine also belongs in a series on women who seized power, so you’ll hear a lot more about her next week, but for now we’ll just say that Elizabeth brought Catherine to Russia, but she still had to wait ten years before the birth of Paul. When he did finally make his appearance, Elizabeth quickly whisked him away into her care and Catherine hardly ever saw him. This story is almost always told from Catherine’s point of view, so Elizabeth comes across as selfish and cruel because you don’t steal another woman’s child. It’s just not okay.
But I think from Elizabeth’s point of view, the situation is more understandable. Remember that she had grown up in a warm, loving family, and every single member of it had died when she was a teenager. She had no children of her own and no publicly acknowledged husband. She had been prepared to pour her mother-love on her nephew Peter, but he didn’t want it. He pushed her away at every point. Elizabeth didn’t just want an heir. She wanted a family, and Catherine was an extremely well-paid surrogate mother. That was what she had been brought to Russia for. So when the babe was finally born, of course he was brought to live with Elizabeth, in the same way that adoptive parents take babies to live with them and sometimes prefer not to have the birth mother around hogging the affection and second-guessing the parenting decisions. And I will say that Catherine, while irritated, was nowhere near as devastated as a modern mother might expect, so perhaps she understood this as well.
Which is not to say that Elizabeth didn’t have a selfish side. She was lavish in affection, but she was also vain, extravagant, and easily angered. When she died, she left behind 15,000 dresses, hard to justify in a country where so many lived in poverty (Lincoln, 194). She brought Catherine to tears more than once with public, cutting comments. She also banished some of Catherine’s friends from court, for which the only explanation appeared to be that she was mad about the lack of pregnancy. Having grown up beautiful, Elizabeth was particularly sensitive about younger beautiful women who might outshine her. In 1747 her head had to be shaved when a heavy powder in it could not be washed out. Well, she certainly wasn’t going to be the only bald woman at court. So every single one of her ladies-in-waiting had to go bald as well.
But alongside such personal incidents, let’s look at her record as a ruler. Elizabeth was not a reformer and not a hands-on governor. She allowed her chancellor to pretty much direct foreign affairs. Internally, she returned to the system used by her father Peter the Great. But she did outlaw capital punishment (Lincoln, 192). When you think about Wu Zetian’s record, Elizabeth seems unusually sweet and sensitive.
Elizabeth hated to sleep. She would party as long as the festivities lasted, then retire with friends to talk, then order her maids to rub her feet to keep her awake, before finally falling asleep as the sun came up. Why would she not go to sleep when she was obviously tired? Because she was afraid. She had deposed her cousin in the middle of the night as she slept. Ivan VI still lived (because she would not dispose of him), and she could never ever be free of the fear that someone might do the same to her.
In fact, my sense of Elizabeth is that unlike Cleopatra and Wu Zetian, she wasn’t really cut out for absolute power. She was neither ambitious nor ruthless. She wasn’t even power-hungry. In an alternate universe where her father lived longer or her brothers survived childhood, I can imagine that Elizabeth married a Russian nobleman and lived a very happy life, throwing big parties and spoiling her children. On paper, she is an incredible success, but internally? There is definitely an element of tragedy in her story. Elizabeth died of a stroke on Christmas Day in 1761, having reigned for 20 years. She was succeeded by her nephew Peter III, but not for long, because in the end, Elizabeth’s main legacy to her country was that it was she who brought Catherine to Russia.
Alpsten, Ellen. “Empress Elizabeth: Saving the Slavic Soul.” Aspects of History, 30 July 2021, aspectsofhistory.com/empress-elizabeth-saving-the-slavic-soul/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2023.
Koeppe, Wolfram. “Saint Petersburg.” Metmuseum.org, 2019, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stpt/hd_stpt.htm.
Lincoln, W Bruce. The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias. Garden City, N.Y., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1987.
Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great : Portrait of a Woman. London, Head Of Zeus, 2019.
Prodan, Olga. “Elizaveta Petrovna Romanova – Russiapedia the Romanov Dynasty Prominent Russians.” Russiapedia.rt.com, russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/the-romanov-dynasty/elizaveta-petrovna/index.html.
Loved this! Thank you so much for all your research and for sharing it with us. You do such an outstanding job of making history interesting and fun.
[…] episode is a retrospective look at Cleopatra, Wu Zetian, Elizabeth I of Russia, Catherine the Great, and Ranavalona. I discuss a three-step strategy that all of them used to get […]
I knew a little about Elizabeth prior to this episode, and what always stood out to me is that she didn’t have her inept nephew killed. That move seemed so uncharacteristic of the time. What I didn’t realize is just how much she hadn’t wanted the job. Most retellings of that time period include Elizabeth and Catherine in the same breath, so we never really hear about Elizabeth’s background. Very interesting!