It is difficult to make her out through the mists of time and prejudice. Catherine II, meeting her in 1744, was “struck by her beauty and the majesty of her bearing.... In spite of being very stout, she was not in the least disfigured by her size, nor embarrassed in her movements, … though she wore an immense hoop when she dressed up.”26 She was privately skeptical to the verge of atheism;27 publicly she was zealously orthodox. A French observer noted her “pronounced taste for liquor,”28 but we must remember that Russia is cold and vodka warms. She refused marriage, fearing that it would divide her power and multiply disputes; some say that she secretly married Alexis Razumovsky; if so, he was merely primus inter pares. She was vain, loved finery, had fifteen thousand dresses, heaps of stockings, 2,500 pairs of shoes;29 some of these she used as missiles in argument. She could upbraid her servants and courtiers in the language of a sergeant. She sanctioned some cruel punishments, but she was basically kind.30 She abolished the death penalty except for treason (1744); torture was allowed only in the gravest trials; flogging remained, but Elizabeth felt that some way had to be found to discourage the criminals who made the highways and city streets unsafe at night. She was both restless and indolent. She had a keen natural intelligence, and gave her country as good a government as the condition of Russian education, morals, manners, and economy allowed.
Having banished Ostermann and Münnich to Siberia, she restored the Senate to administrative leadership, and entrusted foreign affairs to Alexei Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. Catherine II described him as “a great intriguer, suspicious, firm and intrepid in his principles, an implacable enemy, but the true friend of her friends.”31 He was fond of money, as those usually are who know that their high state invites a fall. When England sought to bribe him it estimated his integrity as costing 100,000 crowns.32 We do not know if the purchase went through, but Bestuzhev generally took an English line; this, however, was a natural retort to French support of Sweden and Turkey against Russia. Frederick the Great in his turn offered Bestuzhev 100,000 crowns if he would ally Russia with Prussia; the offer was refused;33 instead, Bestuzhev allied Russia with Austria (1745) and England (1755). When England followed this by an alliance with Prussia (January 16, 1756), Bestuzhev’s house of chancelleries fell apart, and Elizabeth henceforth ignored his advice. A new ministry bound Russia to the Franco-Austrian “reversal of alliances,” and the Seven Years’ War was on.
We have seen—far back!—how the Russian general Apraksin defeated the Prussians at Gross-Jägersdorf (1757), and then withdrew his army into Poland. The French and Austrian ambassadors convinced Elizabeth that Bestuzhev had ordered Apraksin’s retreat and was conspiring to depose her. She ordered the arrest of both the Chancellor and the general (1758). Apraksin died in jail. Bestuzhev denied both charges, and later knowledge has cleared him. His foes wished to torture him into confession; Elizabeth forbade this. Mikhail Vorontsov replaced Bestuzhev as chancellor.
Amid the balls, gambling, intrigues, jealousies, and hatreds of the court, Elizabeth encouraged her aides to advance Russian civilization. Her young favorite Ivan Shuvalov opened a university at Moscow, established primary and secondary schools, sent students abroad for graduate study in medicine, and imported French architects, sculptors, and painters for the Academy of Arts (Akademia Iskustv) which he set up in the capital (1758). He corresponded with Voltaire, and induced him to write a History of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great (1757). His brother Piotr Shuvalov helped the economy by removing tolls on internal trade. Meanwhile, however, to console the Pan-Slavists, Elizabeth allowed religious intolerance to grow; she closed some mosques in the Tatar regions, and banished 35,000 Jews.
Her proudest achievement was that her armies and generals repeatedly defeated Frederick II, stopped the Prussian advance, and were on the point of crushing him when her physical decline weakened her power to hold the Franco-Austro-Russian alliance together. As early as 1755 the British ambassador reported: “The health of the Empress is bad; she is affected with spitting of blood, shortness of breath, constant coughing, swollen legs, and water on the chest; yet she danced a minuet with me.”34 Now she paid heavily for having preferred promiscuity to marriage. Childless, she had long sought someone of royal blood who could face the external and internal problems of Russia, and, inexplicably, her choice had fallen upon Karl Friedrich Ulrich, son of her sister Anna Petrovna and of Karl Friedrich, duke of Holstein-Gottorp. It was the greatest error of her reign, but she redeemed it by her choice for his mate.