Elizabeth of Russia Biography

Emperor (1709–1762)
After taking the throne by force in 1741, Elizabeth of Russia founded her country's first university and forged strong ties in Europe during her 20-year reign.


Born to Peter the Great and Catherine I on December 29, 1709, Elizabeth of Russia took power after staging a coup d'etat in 1741. Although she was famed for her social interests, she founded Russia's first university and bolstered its military reputation with a successful campaign against King Frederick II of Prussia. Elizabeth ruled until her death on January 5, 1762, in St. Petersburg.

Early Life

Elizabeth of Russia was born Yelizaveta Petrovna on December 29, 1709, in Kolomenskoye. The second-oldest surviving daughter of Peter the Great and Marta Skowronska (the future Empress Catherine I), her father had not officially married his bride when Elizabeth was born.

Elizabeth grew up in a loving, supportive environment, and became known as an intelligent, vivacious child. Her adolescence was marked with an education in French culture in hopes of a union with King Louis XV. However, the noble Bourbon family rejected her, questioning her mother's bloodline.

After father's death in 1725, and the accession of her cousin, Anna, as empress, Elizabeth busied herself with social pursuits and took on lovers from a range of social classes. Anna grew to loathe her younger cousin's lifestyle, threatening several times to banish her to a nunnery.

Rise to Power

In 1741, as Anna lay dying, many Russians hoped Elizabeth would take the throne. Instead, the Russian Supreme Council chose the 2-month-old Ivan IV, with his mother, Anna Leopoldovna, as regent. By that point, the Russian government had become weak and corrupt, and its subjects disillusioned with the prevalence of Germans in important positions. Elizabeth organized her allies within the military, and in November 1741, they staged a coup in which the infant emperor and his mother and advisors were arrested. Elizabeth was crowned empress on April 25, 1742.

Ruling Years

Elizabeth was famous for spending lavishly on extravagant court ceremonies and gowns, but she proved to have keen political instincts. She abolished the Supreme Council and reconstituted the Senate, replacing many of the foreigners who held top government positions with Russians. This not only solidified the morale of the citizens, it reduced foreign influence and gave her advisors she could trust to run the country.

In 1743, with her guidance and approval, her advisors attained an historic victory in diplomacy by negotiating an end to the long-standing land dispute between Russia and Sweden. Russia's prestige as a major European power grew in subsequent years, as Elizabeth oversaw improved relations with Great Britain and ordered a successful offensive against the powerful Prussian King Frederick II during the Seven Years' War.

In addition to the political successes, Elizabeth contributed to major social and cultural advancements. Due to her strong religious conviction, she outlawed the death penalty in Russia. She also established funding for a university in Moscow, donated large sums of money to the Russian Orthodox Church and created a foundation for the arts.

Death and Legacy

Elizabeth of Russia died on January 5, 1762, and was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Although she had numerous lovers, she never officially married nor beget any children she could ascend to the throne. Her selected heir, Peter III, was killed after only a few months as tsar; however, his wife became one of Russia's most celebrated rulers as Catherine the Great.

In part due to her social reputation, Elizabeth has often been dismissed as an intermediary between two of her country's great leaders. However, she has come to be viewed in a more favorable light for her positive, substantive contributions during her 20-year reign.

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