May 01, 1997

The Couture of Power

The Couture of Power
Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (V. Erikson, 1757)

The Empress Elizabeth, who ruled Russia from 1741 to 1761, is remembered more for her 15,000 dresses, fun-loving nature and great beauty, than for any political decision she ever made. Overshadowed by her legendary descendant, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth is praised for sponsoring the founding of Moscow University, but her other achievements and important failures have been passed over. Her personal flaws and virtues have been hidden under an official portrait of loveliness and good-natured indolence. Is this treatment warranted or simply the fate of a beautiful woman “trespassing in politics?” Historian Nikolai Pavlenko offers an interpretive look at the days and nights of Peter the Great’s passionate daughter. Illustrations from great encyclopedia of russia.

After the death of Peter the Great, Russia had to wait for 37 years before the throne was occupied by an heir worthy of him, Catherine II. In the meantime, six different men and women tried their hand at Peter’s job with varying degrees of success. Among these, the Bronze Horseman’s handsome daughter, Elizabeth, was the most talented, remaining in power a full 20 years, from 1741 to 1761. But besides being Peter the Great’s daughter, prone to cross-dressing and selfish pleasure, who was Elizabeth? And, most importantly, what is her role in Russian history: a frivolous figurehead or a competent stateswoman? Or, could it even be, strangely enough, both?

Elizabeth, like all her female counterparts in the nobility, was not brought up to be the main governing figure in the country. She was supposed be a charming wife and mother, the well-bred mate of an upper-class husband selected from among numerous German noblemen. Ironically, she became neither. But, as benefiting her elevated station, she did master the sort of genteel manners that had escaped Peter the Great, and even became fluent in several European languages. She was also an accomplished dancer and rider.

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