Elizabeth was born on 29 December 1709, the second-surviving daughter of Peter the Great and his wife, Empress Catherine I. As her parents were not publicly acknowledged as being married at the time of her birth, Elizabeth’s ‘illegitimacy’ would be used by political opponents to challenge her right to the throne. On 6 March 1711, she was proclaimed a Tsarevna, and on 23 December 1721, a Tsesarevna. She led the country into the two major European conflicts of her time: the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. She remains one of the most popular Russian monarchs due to her strong opposition to Prussian policies and her abstinence from executing a single person during her reign.
As a child, Elizabeth was bright, if not brilliant, but her formal education was both imperfect and desultory. Her father adored her. Elizabeth was his daughter and in many ways resembled him as a feminine replica, both physically and temperamentally. She was also an excellent dancer and rider. From her earliest years, she delighted everyone with her extraordinary beauty and vivacity. She was commonly known as the leading beauty of the Russian Empire. Under the reign of Elizabeth, the Russian court was one of the most splendid in all Europe. Foreigners were amazed at the sheer luxury of the sumptuous balls and masquerades. Russian court had steadily increased in importance throughout the 18th century and came to hold more cultural significance than many of its Western counterparts due its inclusive nature.
After the death of Empress Anna, the regency of Anna Leopoldovna with infant Ivan VI was marked by high taxes and economic problems. Elizabeth, being the daughter of Peter the Great, enjoyed much support from the Russian guards regiments. Elizabeth often visited the regiments, marking special events with the officers and acting as godmother to their children. The guards repaid her kindness when on the night of 25 November 1741, Elizabeth seized power with the help of the Preobrazhensky Regiment. After winning the regiment over, the troops marched to the Winter Palace where they arrested the infant Emperor, his parents, and their own lieutenant-colonel. It was a daring coup and passed without bloodshed. Elizabeth had vowed that if she became Empress that she would not sign a single death sentence, an unusual promise that she—notably—kept to throughout her life.
Elizabeth was only too aware that the deposed Ivan VI, whom she had imprisoned in the Schlusselburg Fortress and placed in solitary confinement, was a threat to her throne. Elizabeth feared a coup in his favour and set about destroying all papers, coins or anything else depicting or mentioning Ivan. Elizabeth had issued an order that, should any attempt be made for him to escape, he was to be eliminated. Catherine II upheld the order and when an attempt was made he was killed and secretly buried within the fortress.
In the late 1750s, Elizabeth’s health started to decline. She began to suffer a series of dizzy spells and refused to take the prescribed medicines. She forbade the word “death” in her presence. Knowing she was dying, Elizabeth used her last remaining strength to make her confession, to recite with her confessor the prayer for the dying and to say good-bye to those few people who wished to be with her including Peter and Catherine. Finally on 25 December 1761, the Empress died. She was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on 3 February 1762, after six weeks lying in state. Peter III, Elizabeth’s nephew, succeeded her.