Yelizaveta Petrovna (December 29, 1709 – January 5, 1762 (New Style) also known as Yelisavet and 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 – 1763). 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 favorite 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 did not allow Germans in the government and not one person was executed during her reign.
Elizabeth, the second-oldest daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I of Russia, was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on December 18, 1709 (O.S.).
Even as a child she was bright, if not brilliant, but her formal education was both imperfect and desultory. Her father adored her, but had no leisure to devote to her training, and her mother was too down-to-earth and illiterate to superintend her formal studies. She had a French governess, however, and later 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 Tsarevna found herself, at the age of eighteen, practically her own mistress.
So long as Alexander Menshikov remained in power, she was treated with liberality and distinction by the government of her adolescent half-brother Peter II, who was rumored 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 father's 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 handsome sergeant in the Semyonovsky Guards regiment, and after his banishment to Siberia (having previously been relieved of 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.
During the reign of her cousin Anna (1730 – 1740), Elizabeth was gathering support in the background; but after the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna with infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. Such a course of events compelled the indolent, but by no means incapable, beauty to overthrow the weak and corrupt government. Elizabeth, being the daughter of Peter the Great enjoyed much support from the Russian people, while 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.
At midnight on November 25, 1741 (Old Style)/December 6, 1741 (New Style), with a few personal friends, including her physician, Armand Lestocq, her chamberlain, Mikhail Vorontsov, her future husband, Aleksey Razumovsky, 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. After arresting all the governmental ministers, she seized the regent and her children, 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 lay people in the city were aware of it.
Thus, at the age of thirty-three, 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.
The great event of Elizabeth's later years was the Seven Years' War. Elizabeth 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. And 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 May 17, 1757 the Russian army, 85,000 strong, advanced against Königsberg. 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 stateswoman 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 a Prince-elector. 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 May 21, 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, wielded by the inept Count Buturlin, induced the court of Versailles, on the evening of January 22, 1761, to present to the court of St Petersburg a dispatch to the effect that the king of France by reason of the condition of his dominions absolutely desired peace. The Russian empress's reply was delivered to the two ambassadors on February 12. 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 January 6, 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 (N.S.)).