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Empress of Russia, 1742-1761

Empress Elizabeth

Elizabeth Petrovna was born at Kolomenskoye, near Moscow, on December 18, 1709, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine Alekseyevna. Her education emphasized French, German, and social graces, with the ultimate intention being to marry her into European royalty. No suitable husband was ever found for her, however, and she remained unmarried her entire life (she was far from virgin though, as she had numerous affairs both before and during her reign).

Although she was the legitimate heir to the Russian throne upon the death of her father, Elizabeth was passed over in favor of her mother, who ruled as Catherine I. She was subsequently forced into the background during the reigns of her nephew Peter II, her cousin Empress Anna, and the regency of Anna Leopoldovna, who held the reigns of power during the infancy of Ivan VI. She might have been content to leave the ruling of Russia to others were it not for the French ambassador to Russia, who hoped to destroy the Austrian influence then dominant at the Russian court. He urged Elizabeth to take action, as did some of her other friends and associates. On the night of November 25, 1741, Elizabeth, with the assistance of the elite Preobrazhensky Guards, went to the Winter Palace, arrested Anna Leopoldovna and other members of her family, and seized the throne from Ivan VI. The bloodless coup went virtually unchallenged, and Elizabeth was formally crowned Empress of Russia in Dormition Cathedral, Moscow, on April 25, 1742.


Empress Elizabeth had no real desire to rule, and left most of the actual decision-making responsibilities to ministers and advisers. Fortunately, however, most of her ministers and advisers were quite competent and life in Russia generally improved during her reign.

Having taken power under the pretext of ridding Russia of Austrian influence, Elizabeth abolished the cabinet council system of her immediate predecessors and reconstructed the Senate system used by Peter the Great, with all important positions held by Russians. After successfully seizing the throne without a single drop of blood being shed, Elizabeth promised that no Russian would be subjected to the death penalty while she ruled, and though the Senate continued to hand down capital sentences she commuted every single one of them. A patroness of the cultural arts, Elizabeth was responsible for Russia's first university being opened in Moscow (1755), the first professional public theater in St. Petersburg (1756), and the Russian Academy of Arts (1757). She was also responsible for major structural improvements being made to St. Petersburg, and for construction of a new Winter Palace.

Thanks to the abilities of Vice Chancellor Alexius Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Russia acquired all of southern Finland east of the river Kymmene from Sweden (August 7, 1743), Elizabeth was reconciled with the courts of Vienna and London, and Russia was able to assert itself effectively in Poland, Turkey and Sweden. During the Seven Years' War, the Russian army held its own against Prussia, and almost succeeded in capturing Berlin.

Empress Elizabeth died at St. Petersburg on December 25, 1761. She was succeeded by her nephew, who reigned as Peter III.

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This page was last updated on December 18, 2018.