The Russian Empire saw a long line of extravagant, deranged, and scandalous Tsars, yet believe me when I say that Empress Elizabeth of Russia puts them all to shame. From her bottomless vanity to her unimaginably cruel punishments, get out those crown jewels and read these facts about Elizabeth of Russia.
Elizabeth of Russia’s reputation today is full of scandal and contradiction, as it was in her own time. One historian called her “the laziest, most extravagant, and most amorous of sovereigns,” and the Empress’s reign is still the stuff of legends. For all her beauty and luxury, Elizabeth of Russia had one chilling history.
At the height of her power, Elizabeth’s court was beyond decadent. Not only did the Empress demand that all her courtiers wear the most luxurious clothes, she also insisted that no one wear the same dress twice, and had her men stamp gowns with special ink to enforce the rule. Oh, does that sound unhinged? Just wait.
Even though Elizabeth insisted that her yes-men be dressed to the nines, the incredibly vain Empress also strictly forbade anyone from outshining her. She honest-to-god issued literal edicts proclaiming that no one could wear the same hairstyle, dress, or even the same accessory as her. And if someone did? Well…
One day, a courtier named Natalya Lopukhina didn’t get the memo about Elizabeth’s get-up that evening and ended up wearing a similar bauble as the Empress. Elizabeth’s reaction was swift and brutal. She lashed poor Natalya across the face for her “impertinence.” But as you’ll see, this is Elizabeth on a good day.
Elizabeth of Russia’s eccentricities might have come from her extremely scandalous childhood. Sure, she had half a royal pedigree—her father was no less than Peter the Great—but her mother Catherine was a peasant. To make matters more soapy, the day Elizabeth was born on December 29, 1709, she was illegitimate. Yep, this was a recipe for drama.
Growing up, Elizabeth was her father’s favorite, and it didn’t take a Russian rocket scientist to figure out why. The bold, intelligent, sociable little girl took after her father’s own vivacious personality, and they even looked alike. Peter was as susceptible to vanity as his daughter, and he doted on her. Well, except for one glaring issue…
Peter may have spoiled Elizabeth rotten when it came to gifts, but there was one thing he denied her. Since she had only a distant claim to the throne, Peter gave Elizabeth a shamelessly bare-bones education. He left most of her upbringing to her peasant mother, who was pretty out of her depth when it came to courtly charms. Not that Elizabeth didn’t make it work…
What Elizabeth lacked in formal education, she more than made up for in looks. She was one of the great beauties of her age, with one foreign minister describing her as “fair, with light brown hair, large sprightly blue eyes, fine teeth, and a pretty mouth.” This should have helped her snag a royal husband, but she only got tragedy.
Besides the fact she was a St. Petersburg 10 in the looks department, Elizabeth had another secret weapon for winning allies: She was a total riot to be around. She lived life to the fullest and could charm even the most curmudgeonly courtiers. As one of her acquaintances put it, she “is extremely gay and talks to everyone."
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As the royal daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth should have made a stunning marriage…only that’s not what happened at all. Though Peter was anxious to get his girl a snooty European prince, those European princes didn’t want her, citing her half-peasant heritage. So the monarch had to resort to desperate measures.
In 1724, Elizabeth’s father betrothed her to Charles Augustus, a prince from a tiny German principality. She was slumming it with the match, but her father planned a lavish wedding anyway. Sadly, the nuptials were doomed to a heartbreaking end. In fact, Elizabeth was in for a world of pain that would make Ivan the Terrible tremble.
Elizabeth of Russia was 15, beautiful, and her royal wedding was fast approaching. It should have been a dream come true, until it suddenly turned into a nightmare. Before Peter the Great could walk his favorite daughter down the aisle, the Tsar dropped dead. Elizabeth was inconsolable, little knowing there was more heartache to come.
Even though her beloved father was gone, Elizabeth at least still had her mother Catherine to lean on for emotional support. But she didn’t have long to do it. Just two years later on May 17, 1727, Catherine also passed, turning Elizabeth into an orphan. But hey, there was always her fiancé Prince Charles Augustus, right? Well…
Not two weeks after her mother’s passing, Elizabeth received news that was almost too horrible to be true. Her fiancé Charles had perished, and there would be no wedding at all. The 17-year-old Elizabeth had watched her entire life unravel in mere months, and she was left alone and vulnerable in a court of Russian vipers. And those snakes had fangs.
Elizabeth was physically domineering, just like her dear old daddy. And it’s no wonder she cut such a figure. She loved horseback riding, hunting, skating, and basically any activity where she could show off. Elizabeth didn’t limit her skills to the outdoors either; one courtier claimed she “dances better than anyone I ever saw.”
Elizabeth’s fiercest enemy during this time was her equally beautiful cousin Anna Ivanovna. The cousins never liked each other—but their rivalry soon reached disturbing heights. Somehow, Anna came out of all this turmoil as Empress of Russia, and she didn’t just make Elizabeth bend the knee, she practically destroyed her.
After her family dropped like flies, Elizabeth’s marriage prospects plummeted, and Anna was all too happy to help quash them. Anna made it very clear that no nobleman could marry Elizabeth. Meanwhile, if Elizabeth chose a commoner, the Empress would strip her of her titles and her claim to the throne. And that’s not even the worst part.
Don’t forget, Elizabeth was one heck of a looker, a truth that Anna utterly despised. In fact, one day Anna had a real “Mirror, Mirror” moment and tried to bait a Chinese minister by asking who was the most beautiful woman at court. When the minister pointed over to Elizabeth (uh, obviously), Anna nearly blew a gasket. But she got an ice-cold revenge.
Elizabeth was a beautiful, growing girl, and it wasn’t long before she started a steamy relationship with a strapping sergeant named Alexis Shubin. She would live to regret her sin. Although it was a strictly bedroom relationship with no hope of marriage, Anna eventually found out...and her response was legendarily bitter.
Take heed: Do not cross your jealous cousin if your jealous cousin happens to be the Empress of All Russia. When Anna found out about Elizabeth’s side-piece Shubin, the unhinged Empress ordered her men to cut out Shubin’s tongue and, as if that weren’t enough, exiled him to Siberia for the rest of his miserable life.
How did Elizabeth get over the mangling and banishment of her favorite bedmate? She got a new lover, of course. Well, actually, lovers, plural—and she didn’t have to look far. Elizabeth dried her tears on the pillows of her coachman, before moving on to her footman to get that cathartic release. Hope she tipped well.
Elizabeth had a type, and that type was “Men under her employ”—but her next conquest really took the cake. Alexis Razumovsky was a Ukrainian peasant singer with a dulcet voice and an even sweeter face. Elizabeth brought him in to sing in her own personal choir, and the position came with some choice “side benefits.” But no one could have predicted what happened next.
From these humble beginnings grew a legendary romance. Though they weren’t allowed to marry, Razumovsky was unshakeably loyal to Elizabeth, even throughout her turbulent rise to power. In turn, Elizabeth was so devoted to her choirboy, people started calling the strapping man “The Emperor of the Night” for his influence.
In 1740, a miracle happened: At long last, the horrible Empress Anna passed. Except this only meant Elizabeth had a bigger problem on her hands. Instead of naming her empress, the court crowned Elizabeth’s three-month-old cousin Ivan VI as ruler. That’s right, they chose a literal baby over our girl. This time, Elizabeth didn’t get mad, she got even.
From the moment the pink little newborn Ivan got crowned, Elizabeth started plotting his brutal demise. Cunning and smart, she’d always made sure to be, er, “friendly” with the Russian guard, and on November 25, 1741, she called in a major favor. She asked them to join her in staging a coup—but it’s the way she did it that’s become almost mythical.
That November, Elizabeth of Russia marched over to the regiment while decked out in a warrior queen’s metal breastplate over one of her fabulous dresses. She convinced the guards with a single sentence. Elizabeth shouted out, "Whom do you want to serve: me, your natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?" Get it, girl.
What occurred after this PR feat was one of the most spectacular coups Russia had ever seen. Elizabeth and her men strutted up to the Winter Palace, stormed in, and detained the child emperor and his parents without shedding a single drop of blood. But that doesn’t mean Elizabeth didn’t commit one horrific act…
Elizabeth had initially decided to let Ivan flee Russia with his mother and live in exile. Instead, she doled out a much darker punishment. Worried the babe would gather supporters and threaten her crown, she imprisoned him in a fortress…for, uh, the rest of his life. The poor boy spent 20 long, unhinged years in captivity before passing.
Elizabeth of Russia knew the way to hold onto power was to hold onto secrets, and she kept her horrific treatment of her baby cousin under strict lock and key. Not even the commandant of the fortress knew the identity of “a certain prisoner.” But that wasn’t all: She also destroyed almost all references to Ivan in court documents and coins. Oh, but her cruelty was just getting started.
Today, Elizabeth is famous in Russia because she refused to execute a single person during her reign—instead, she gave her enemies a fate worse than death. Early on in her rule, Elizabeth caught wind of a court plot to overthrow her and re-install Ivan. Enraged, she rounded up the conspirators and gave them a taste of their own medicine.
Instead of executing the treacherous courtiers, Elizabeth did the “gracious” thing and had them brought before a crowd, stripped down to their skivvies, and flogged. No wait, there’s more. She then took a move from her old cousin Anna’s playbook and had the conspirators’ tongues torn out before exiling them to, you guessed it, Siberia.
At the height of her reign, Elizabeth of Russia became notorious for her debauched, raucous behavior, particularly at her balls. She threw no fewer than two a week, one for the whole court and one degenerate affair for her “special” friends. These private gatherings started as masked balls, but they soon developed into something else entirely…
The masquerades quickly turned into so-called “Metamorphoses” balls, where Elizabeth forced everyone to dress up as members of the opposite gender. Elizabeth herself always chose either a Cossack or a carpenter costume, supposedly in honor of her beloved father. Only she had another, more selfish reason for this disguise.
Though they would never say so, the courtiers despised Elizabeth’s balls because of how ridiculous the costumes made them look. But that’s exactly how Elizabeth liked it. See, while everyone else got de-hotted, she knew she looked like a mega babe in men’s clothes. As one courtier put it, “As she was tall and powerful, male attire suited her.”
Elizabeth knew her empire had one huge weakness she needed to solve: The matter of an heir. Without one, Ivan’s fanbase would only grow—so maybe that explains her choice of her malleable nephew Peter as the next Emperor. Elizabeth thought she could easily control Peter…but she took that control to the next level.
Not only did Elizabeth drag Peter into Russia to live permanently, she also immediately arranged a marriage for him to Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, a little-known German princess. Except, apparently Elizabeth sure could pick ‘em, because “Sophia” would soon turn into Catherine the Great. Uh, not that Elizabeth treated her with respect, either…
Elizabeth was incredibly exacting of Peter and Catherine, and demanded total loyalty from them even after they became adults. Then in 1754, the Empress went to chilling lengths to assert her power. That year, Catherine gave birth to a son named Paul, and Elizabeth instantly claimed the child as her own. And I do mean instantly…
Literally right after Catherine gave birth, Elizabeth marched up to the midwife and ordered the woman to give her the baby. She didn’t even let poor Catherine see her own child for an entire month after that, and even then only briefly. To Elizabeth, she was now Paul’s mother. Too bad she did such a mind-blowingly terrible job with that.
As it turns out, vain empresses don’t make the best moms, and Elizabeth treated raising Paul more like a fun hobby than a serious job. One minute she smothered him, and the next she went off dancing. She was so neglectful, one time the baby reportedly “fell out of his crib and slept the night away unnoticed on the floor." Did this make her want to give him back to Catherine? Heck no.
Elizabeth’s vanity really knew no bounds. One day, she happened to get a bit of powder stuck in her hair and had to furiously shave off a patch of her scalp. Then she made everyone else pay in a brutal way. Unable to stand the humiliation, Elizabeth forced all the ladies of the court to shave patches into their hair as well, even as they choked back tears.
You might be wondering: How does a woman so unhinged handle the ravages of aging? The answer is, “really, really badly.” Elizabeth’s narcissism and cruelty reportedly only grew worse with age, and by the end of her reign, she would often burst into a tantrum at the mere sight of a woman who was more beautiful than her.
Although Elizabeth had a legendarily beautiful face, she had another famous physical asset: Her legs. If they knew what was good for them, courtiers made sure to comment on how beautiful her legs were in front of her, and Elizabeth liked to show them off in men’s trousers whenever she was able to finagle another “Metamorphoses” ball.
Elizabeth of Russia was definitely of the “work smarter, not harder” school of thinking. Although many of her advisors complained that she was lazy and would take forever to sign documents, this was actually probably an ingenious move. Elizabeth often appeared to procrastinate like a classic indecisive woman, but she did it to wisely delay important decisions and let egos cool.
As she got on in age, Elizabeth’s commitment to fantasy took on unsettling dimensions. Starting in the 1750s, she began to suffer from strange dizzy spells and fainting fits. The aging Empress was no fool, but she also wasn’t ready to confront her own mortality. Instead, she simply forbade anyone from saying the word “death” in her presence. Yeah, that’ll make you live forever, Liz.
For all her carousing, the Empress was weirdly religious, and it popped up in the strangest places. Never the most book-smart, she didn’t like secular literature because she thought it was “injurious to health.” Then, when it came to her cross-dressing balls, she forbade anyone from coming as a pilgrim because she thought it was “profane.”
Elizabeth’s court didn’t skimp in the fashion department, and it certainly didn’t skimp in the food department. It was totally normal for the empress to order thousands of bottles of champagne for one single event, and she usually insisted on serving pineapple at these soirees, which at that point was one of the greatest delicacies in Europe.
People who characterized Elizabeth as “lazy” obviously weren’t aware of just how productive she could be…as long as she wanted to. This woman could build an entire party palace in 24 hours, and she regularly traveled the immense distance from Moscow to St. Petersburg in fewer than two days. Which maybe explains her last great feat.
Empress Elizabeth had a dubious claim to fame. As a direct descendant of Peter the Great, she was the last full-blooded Romanov on the Russian throne. Take that, Anastasia.
In 1757, Elizabeth started her most bloody project yet: The Seven Years’ War against Prussia’s Frederick the Great. Elizabeth had been getting mighty suspicious that Prussia was trying to curb her power, plus she just plain didn’t like Frederick and had a personal vendetta against him. Right, this sounds like it’s going to end well.
Here’s the thing: Elizabeth was really good at bloodshed. Once she started the conflict against Frederick, she was like a particularly vicious dog with a bone. Year after year, the conflict grew into epic proportions, but Elizabeth kept hammering at Frederick with her men and refusing to back down. Then, it was Frederick who buckled.
By 1762, Frederick—the vaunted King of Prussia, a hero of the battlefield—wrote to a friend and confessed that vain, vicious Elizabeth had forced him into a corner. In fact, he was willing to meet a soldier’s end just to claw back some of his territory from her. She’d done it. Elizabeth had won…that is, until “The Miracle” happened.
On Christmas Eve 1761, Elizabeth of Russia succumbed to her ill health and suffered a stroke, passing on Christmas Day. It was a cruel twist of fate. Her demise unraveled all her work in The Seven Years’ War and saved her enemies from certain defeat. When Frederick heard about her end, he anointed it “The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.” But Elizabeth wasn’t quite done yet.
Elizabeth’s funeral was utterly bizarre by our modern standards. As befitting a queen, her corpse was displayed in state for six very ripe weeks. Always the clotheshorse, Elizabeth requested to be dressed in a lavish silver gown, and many commented that she was as beautiful as she had been life. Rest in glamour, Queen.
Today, we see Elizabeth’s reign as one long, decadent party. And, well, it was. But Elizabeth was also hiding a shameful truth. She was constantly on the brink of poverty, and though her ballrooms were decked out with the best music and food, the living quarters in her court were often cramped and squalid.
Common lore says that Elizabeth remained childless and never married—but there's a much more scandalous theory. According to some, Elizabeth married her long-term lover Alexis Razumovsky in a secret ceremony unrecognized by the state, and Razumovsky may have even been the father of her secret children.
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