Elizabeth Alexeievna was the German-born Russian tsarina whose fairy tale life quickly turned into a gothic horror story. Full of royal marriages, cold palaces, hot romances and tragic losses, Elizabeth’s life reads just like a classically dark Dostoyevsky novel. Just how much suffering can one woman bear? Read these facts about the loneliest empress to find out.
1. She Was Weak From The Start
Elizabeth Alexeievna was born in January 1779 in Germany as Princess Louise of Baden. Her father was Charles Louise, Hereditary Prince of Baden and her mother was Landgravine Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt. At birth, Elizabeth was frail and the doctors didn’t think that she would make it. They had no idea how strong that frail little girl would become.
2. She Was A Momma’s Girl
Elizabeth had a pretty normal childhood—by royal standards, of course. While most of her princely peers had a whole retinue of caregivers, Elizabeth’s parents took on most of their childrearing responsibilities themselves. In fact, throughout her tragedy-fraught life, Elizabeth remained very close with her mother and kept up their correspondence. No matter how far she roamed.
3. She Had Simple Beginnings
One of the reasons for her simpler upbringing was that Elizabeth Alexeievna’s family wasn’t rich. In fact, they were of very modest means. Of course, again, that’s by royal standards. So…that probably means that she only lived in one palace instead of, like, ten. Though she never wanted more money, she couldn’t have imagined that it would have brought her so many more problems.
4. She Was A Smart Cookie
Despite her family’s “modest” wealth, Elizabeth Alexeievna received only the best education. She was fluent in French and German and studied philosophy, history, literature, and geography. All of the education, however, couldn’t prepare her for what lay ahead. She would have needed a Ph.D. in clinical psychology for that. Or a heart made of steel.
5. She Caught The Eye Of An Empress
Elizabeth’s family, despite being of modest means, had close ties to the Russian Imperial family. And Elizabeth’s beauty, pedigree, and excellent education caught the attention of Catherine the Great, the empress regnant of all Russia. While it pays to be well-connected, it doesn’t necessarily pay well—and for Elizabeth, it would cost a lifetime of unhappiness.
6. She Went Far, Far Away
Catherine the Great invited Elizabeth and her younger sister, Frederica, to Russia in 1792. Little did little Elizabeth know that Catherine was playing imperial matchmaker. Catherine had invited Elizabeth and her sister to Russia in order to find a suitable bride for her grandson, Alexander I. Ironically, this was not a competition that she would want to win.
7. She Was A Model
While Catherine liked Frederica just fine, she thought the world of little Elizabeth. The empress regnant of Russia found Elizabeth to be a “model of beauty, charm, and honesty.” To Elizabeth, Catherine must have seemed like a fairy godmother, making her wildest dreams come true. And all that was missing was the dashing young prince.
8. She Met Her Prince Charming
It soon became obvious to Elizabeth why Catherine had invited her and her sister to Russia. Shortly after her arrival, she met Alexander I. He was tall and handsome, just as all princes should be, and Elizabeth became quite fond of him. But Alexander had options. So, the question on Elizabeth’s mind was whether or not the feeling was mutual.
9. Her Prince Was Acting Strangely
Alexander was just one year older than Elizabeth Alexeievna (they were in their early teens at the time). Alexander was just as full of teenage angst and awkwardness as if he were a high school junior, pimples and all. He didn’t have much—or any—experience with girls and so he behaved kind of strangely around Elizabeth, probably rambling on about Halo and skateboarding.
So yeah, their relationship didn’t exactly get off to the best start—but it could still get a whole lot worse.
10. She Sent Sexts
Elizabeth mistook Alexander’s awkwardness and reserve for dislike and she felt utterly dismayed. But, the two teenagers got over their clumsiness just like teenagers in a 1990s middle school…by passing notes in class. Or, as the case might actually have been, by writing flowery letters to each other, hand-delivered by uniformed footmen.
11. She Was A Poet
Elizabeth wrote to Alexander, “You tell me that I hold the happiness of a certain person in my hands. If that is true, then his happiness is assured forever[…]this person loves me tenderly, and I love him in return, and that will be my happiness[…]you can be certain that I love you more than I ever can say.” All of those literature classes clearly paid off.
12. She Got The Ring
With their mutual feelings out in the open, Elizabeth and Alexander had Catherine’s blessing to take the next step in their relationship and go to prom. Ok, not exactly, but how cute would that have been? In May of 1793, less than a year after arriving in St. Petersburg, Elizabeth and Alexander sealed their puppy love and became engaged. If only they’d known the disaster that lay ahead…
13. She Was Too Young
At the time of their marriage, Elizabeth was 14 and Alexander was 15. However adorable their royal-rugrat marriage might have been, they were definitely too young to get married. They were too young to even get their horse-and-buggy license! Needless to say, they still had some growing up to do. And they would do it. Apart.
14. She Left Her Old Life Behind
Elizabeth Alexeievna’s marriage to Alexander meant that she would have to change a few things. Specifically, everything. She moved to St. Petersburg permanently, learned Russian, and converted to the Orthodox Church of her adopted homeland. Bye, bye, Princess Louise Maria Auguste of Baden and hello, Elizabeth Alexeievna. There’s only tragedy from here on out.
15. She Was “Psyched” Out
The kiddie-wedding itself was a splendid affair and its grand architect, Catherine the Great, was very satisfied with her accomplishment. In writing to a French prince, Catherine said, “It was a marriage between Psyche and Cupid,” referencing the old Greek myth from Metamorphoses. That would have been an apt analogy…if Metamorphoses had been written by Edgar Allan Poe.
16. She Was Like A Greek Statue
Elizabeth’s contemporaries considered her to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe. They even thought that she was the most beautiful consort and described her looks as “Grecian” with “an elegant figure” and “regal carriage.” However, looks aren’t everything. Elizabeth learned that the hard way. Despite her outward beauty, however, her shy personality and reserved manner made her unpopular in Russia.
17. She Liked The Simple Things
Elizabeth’s fairy tale very rapidly turned into a nightmare after her marriage. Compared to her humble and warm home life in Germany, Elizabeth Alexeievna found the Russian court to be cold and couldn’t adjust to the splendor of imperial life. But it wasn’t just the velvet bedsheets and ermine capes that she couldn’t get used to…
18. She Had A String Of Suitors
In the Russian court, adultery and extramarital affairs were a matter of entertainment rather than scandal. And, given her beauty, Elizabeth had no shortage of men lining up to get their, shall we say, starring role. Even Catherine the Great’s lover, Platon Zubov, tried to seduce her. But Elizabeth Alexeievna only had eyes for one man.
19. She Only Had One Friend
Elizabeth was having a hard time adjusting to life in Russia. In fact, she was just about ready to call it quits. Fortunately, Elizabeth found solace in her marriage. She wrote, “Without my husband, who alone makes me happy, I should have died a thousand deaths.” If she could have seen the future, she would have been glad to die a thousand times.
20. She Had A Fearsome Father-In-Law
The mastermind behind Elizabeth’s marriage, Catherine, passed in 1796 and her father-in-law, Paul I, became the tsar. Even though she had once been enamored of Elizabeth Alexeievna, Catherine ultimately disapproved of her granddaughter-in-law for failing to provide her grandson with a child after two years of marriage. But Catherine’s slight scorn was nothing compared to Paul’s outright hatred.
Elizabeth had never felt so alone. All of her friends in Russia seemed to be disappearing, but at least she still had her husband, right? Right??
21. Her Husband Drifted Away
Catherine wasn’t the only one who disapproved of Elizabeth’s apparent inability to bear a child. Alexander began to lose interest in her and they grew distant. Then, Alexander dealt his wife a devastating betrayal. To Elizabeth’s horror and dismay, her only source of comfort drifted right into the husband-stealing arms of one Maria Naryshkina. She was now, officially, all alone.
22. She Found A Bestie
Alexander began spending more and more time with Naryshkina, leaving Elizabeth Alexeievna all alone to stare out the window at the cold, bleak Russian winters. Luckily, Elizabeth struck up a close friendship with the equally stunning Countess Golovina. It turns out that she might have just been looking for the right wingman/wingwoman.
23. She Got Herself A New Man
After a few years in St. Petersburg, Elizabeth Alexeievna decided it was time to get her revenge. And if Alexander had a lover, then she might as well have one of her own. While Alexander was off with Naryshkina, Elizabeth sparked up a three-year-long relationship with the Polish prince, Adam Czartoryski. And want to know the cherry on top? He was Alexander’s best friend. Ouch.
24. She Fulfilled Her Duties
Despite the growing emotional (and physical) distance in their marriage, Elizabeth and Alexander still had some royal duties to perform. Namely, to produce lots and lots of little Russian royals. Though she hadn’t been able to produce a suitable heir in five years of marriage, she finally succeeded. Even if only temporarily.
25. Her Happiness Was Short-Lived
Just because they couldn’t be faithful, didn’t mean that Elizabeth and Alexander couldn’t be dutiful. Finally, in May 1799, Elizabeth gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. But any relief that the royal couple felt was short-lived indeed. The birth of their first child was a scandalous and tragic affair.
26. Her Daughter Was A Mystery
Elizabeth’s daughter, Maria Alexandrovna, came screaming into the world with a full head of dark hair. Pretty as she must have been, there was one problem. Both Elizabeth and Alexander were blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Needless to say, there were some questions about the child’s paternity. The rumors spread rapidly that the Grand Duchess was actually the daughter of Elizabeth’s lover.
27. Her Father-In-Law Was Amazed
While most of the Russian court whispered in the palace corners, Tsar Paul I was not so shy in expressing his doubts about the new Grand Duchess’ true parentage. To Elizabeth’s embarrassment, he openly expressed his “amazement”—no doubt ironically—that two fair-haired people should have a dark-haired child. And he wouldn’t tolerate an adulterous daughter-in-law.
28. She Lost Her Lover
While the court found extramarital affairs to be “entertaining,” they were less enthused by the “fruit” of those affairs. It’s not exactly clear whether it was Alexander acting out of jealousy or Paul acting out of cruelty but either way, the end result was the same. Elizabeth Alexeievna’s lover, Adam Czartoryski, received orders to leave St. Petersburg on a diplomatic mission. Permanently.
29. She Couldn’t Replace Her Lost Love
As if losing her lover wasn’t enough, less than a year after giving birth to Maria Alexandrovna, Elizabeth lost her too. Her firstborn passed just months after her first birthday. In utter despair, Elizabeth wrote to her mother, “Not an hour of the day passes without my thinking of her, and certainly not a day without my giving her bitter tears. It cannot be otherwise so long as I live, even if she were to be replaced by two dozen children.”
30. She Got Her Revenge
Elizabeth Alexeievna did, eventually, get her sweet revenge on Tsar Paul I for whatever involvement he had in sending her lover away. Paul fell prey to a bloody and brutal coup in which his own officers fatally slashed him with a sword and trampled him for good measure. Though she might not have plotted the coup herself, Elizabeth was well aware that it was happening. She was in the palace at the time and didn’t alert the guards.
31. She Was Always A Step Behind
Once Paul was out of the way, Alexander became tsar and Elizabeth became…well, an afterthought. Elizabeth’s mother-in-law asserted her place above the newly-minted tsarina at court. During all official ceremonies, Elizabeth always walked in behind her husband and his mother. Even shadows received more attention than she did.
32. She Enjoyed Family Dinners
After ascending to the throne, Elizabeth and Alexander remained friendly and cordial, but the writing was on the wall: Their teenage romance had passed. But Alexander still harbored some consideration for Elizabeth. He tried to eat all of his meals with her. When he wasn’t, you know, getting his fill with Maria Naryshkina.
33. Her Husband’s Lover Made Her Jealous
While Elizabeth knew that Alexander was carrying on an affair with Naryshkina, the whole thing had been pretty hush-hush. But all of that sneaking around wouldn’t do once Alexander had become tsar. To Elizabeth’s embarrassment, Naryshkina openly flaunted her affair with Alexander. It was even more embarrassing because Elizabeth Alexeievna had no one. For now.
34. She Needed More
Alexander definitely still had a soft spot for his wife and listening to her sobs over the dinner table was no fun. To ease her pain, Alexander reversed his father’s decision and brought Elizabeth’s old flame, Adam, back to the Russian court. But not even Adam was enough to fill the void in Elizabeth’s heart. That was a job for two men. It’s about time Elizabeth Alexeievna had a little fun…
35. Her Boyfriend Didn’t Like Her Boyfriend
In the time that Adam had been gone, Elizabeth had tried to move on. And being the looker that she was, she managed to find someone else. Elizabeth started a steamy affair with her dashing staff captain, Alexis Okhotnikov. As a result of her “infidelity,” Adam broke things off with Elizabeth. It seems he forgot that he was, himself, the “other man.”
36. Her Fling Ended Unexpectedly
Because Elizabeth couldn’t have one nice thing in her life, her love affair with Okhotnikov ended tragically. The staff captain, an image of health and vitality, caught tuberculosis and passed shortly thereafter in 1807. While his exit from the stage was sudden, it was no less dramatic—and caused quite a stir at court.
37. She Gave Birth To A Scandal
In November of 1806, Elizabeth once again gave birth to a baby girl, nicknamed “Lisinka.” In a case of history repeating itself, Elizabeth’s newborn daughter’s exact parentage came into question. Seeing that Alexander and Elizabeth seemed to have given up on having a family, some asserted that Lisinka was Okhotnikov’s daughter.
Even worse, that rumor gave rise to an even more outrageous one—one that was potentially very true.
38. Her Lover’s Demise Was Suspicious
Okhotnikov’s sudden illness and demise was suspicious. The timing was also curious, as he had croaked only months following the birth of what might have been his daughter. It was all too convenient, and some speculated that Alexander had Elizabeth’s staff captain/lover…dismissed. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the truth.
39. Her Brother-In-Law Burned The Evidence
Destroying evidence is a serious offense. Unless, of course, you’re an emperor. Emperor Nicholas I—Elizabeth’s brother-in-law and Alexander’s successor—destroyed all of Elizabeth’s letters to Okhotnikov. We’ll never know what sweet-nothings they whispered to each other. And what secret plots they might have hatched or discovered.
40. She Lost Another Baby Girl
With Okhotnikov buried and Adam out of the picture, Elizabeth put all of her hopes for happiness and companionship in her daughter, Lisinka. But even that ended tragically. At 15 months old, Lisinka lost her life to an infection associated with teething. It was just one more in a list of losses for the abominably unlucky Elizabeth. But it was one more than she could bear.
41. She Was Down And Out
In her darkest moments, Elizabeth always wrote to her mother. After Lisinka’s untimely passing—thank goodness for modern dentistry—she wrote a chilling letter to her mother. “I am no longer good for anything in this world,” she said, “My soul has no more strength to recover from this last blow.” It seemed like rock bottom, but fate had one last cruel twist in store.
42. She Bonded In Grief
Alexander must have accepted that Lisinka was his daughter, because he and Elizabeth and Alexander bonded over their shared grief at the loss. They both agreed that, despite being in their late twenties, they wouldn’t try to make a family again. The build-up of hope was too much to bear only to have it crumble again and again.
43. She Supported Her Husband
Even after everything they had suffered together—because of each other—Elizabeth remained a dutiful wife. She stuck with her husband through the toughest years of his reign as Napoleon invaded Russia, and even accompanied him to the Congress of Vienna. It would have been a boring convention about politics…if she hadn’t come face-to-face with her old flame.
44. She Got Closure
Amidst all of the diplomats, dignitaries, and despots at the Congress of Vienna, Elizabeth bumped into none other than Adam Czartoryski. While he helped to negotiate peace in Europe, he also tried to negotiate Elizabeth’s heart. Adam told Elizabeth that he forgave her for her affair with Okhotnikov, but Elizabeth wasn’t interested in rekindling their romance.
Go off queen…err, empress.
45. She Was Her Husband’s Mistress
In 1818, Alexander had something of a spiritual awakening and broke off his 15-year long relationship with his mistress. Elizabeth, aged in her 40s, had also given up on love. To everyone’s surprise, the married couple drifted back together. Maria wrote to her mother, “I am reduced to thinking of myself sometimes as Alexander’s mistress, or as if we had been married secretly.”
46. Her Fairy Tale Had A Happy Ending…Sike!
Elizabeth’s health began to decline in 1825 and she and Alexander escaped St. Petersburg for the southern, lakeside town of Taganrog. The imperial couple had no palaces in Taganrog, so they lived modestly in a suitably comfortable home. A quiet life by the lake with her prince charming. Had Elizabeth’s fairy tale dreams come true?
47. Her Love Slipped Through Her Arms
Elizabeth’s simple, lakeside life was short-lived. Because, you know, fate wouldn’t let her be happy. Not long after they arrived in Taganrog, Alexander developed a terrible case of typhus. Elizabeth dedicated herself to nursing him back to health, but it was all for naught. Only a month later, Alexander gave his last breath in her ever-loving arms.
48. She Was Totally Lost
Elizabeth captured the complete and utter despair she felt in letters she wrote to her mother. “I do not understand myself, I do not understand my destiny[…]What am I to do with my will, which was entirely subjected to him, with my life, which I loved to devote to him?” She wouldn’t even get the chance to say her final goodbye.
49. Her Heart Finally Gave Out
Elizabeth was so frail from grief that she couldn’t make the trip to St. Petersburg for Alexander’s funeral. It wasn’t until months later that she mustered up enough strength to brave the journey. But halfway there, she stopped to rest. When one of her maids came to check on her one night, Elizabeth’s heart had finally given out. The lonely empress was gone.
50. She Wanted It All To End
Doctors determined Elizabeth Alexeievna passed of natural causes—but an ominous letter she wrote a few months earlier suggests a darker possibility. For someone who had suffered so much loss and loneliness throughout her life, a journey to the afterlife seemed like a welcome reprieve. Soon after her husband perished, she wrote to her mother: “Do not worry too much about me, but if I dared, I would like to follow the one who has been my very life.”