‘He was a man, and you are not’: Court and the identity of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, 1741-1762

Vigilius Erikson, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, 1757, Tsarsckoe Celo.

Comparatively little has been written about the reign of Elizaveta Petrovna, Empress of Russia from 1741-1761. Daughter of Peter the Great and the woman who brought Catherine the Great to Russia, Elizaveta or Elizabeth’s reign is often lost between these two giants of Russian history. When written about, she is typically dismissed as frivolous and vain, dying with 15,000 dresses in her wardrobes. What this summary fails to acknowledge, however, is that Elizabeth successfully led Russia for 20 years. Indeed, during the Seven Years War, Elizabeth’s army almost brought Frederick the Great’s forces to the point of collapse. Yet the view expressed by then British Ambassador, Cyril Wych, that Elizabeth’s “attachment to pleasure spoils all”, is the one that has dominated interpretations of her reign ever since. [i] Dismissing Elizabeth in this way ignores the constructed nature of her image and the way in which her court entertainments strengthened her rule. This piece will examine the significance of Elizabeth’s “metamorphosis balls”, where she and other court ladies dressed as men, and the men as women. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth professed her adherence to her father’s legacy as a method of legitimisation; her balls allowed her to physically embody this commitment. Elizabeth used her court to exemplify her power on her terms, incorporating both masculine and feminine traditions.

It is undeniable that Elizabeth enjoyed court entertainments, as well as being well-dressed. Records from the Collegium of Foreign Affairs for October 1744 highlight this: in a ten day period, Elizabeth attended five masquerades and three theatre performances.[ii] Additionally, a rare surviving letter emphasizes her frustrations when new textiles were not brought to her first: “I have been informed that a French vessel has arrived with various ladies’ outfits… order them sent hither immediately…”.[iii] To dismiss this as simply the actions of a vain and spendthrift woman, however, takes this out of context. Barbara Evans Clements, for example, has suggested that Elizabeth’s consumption of fashion and culture can be understood as a “wealthy woman patronizing the secular arts”.[iv] Elizabeth’s investment in her court should be viewed as a statement of soft power. The Russian court became known for its almost casual decadence: foreign ambassadors regularly wrote to their home courts commenting on its extravagance.[v] Elizabeth’s personal control of fashion added to this: by ensuring that she dominated fashion, she was able to place herself at the centre of the court. Thus, she herself personified Russia’s wealth and splendour.

Georg Christoph Grooth, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna 1709-62 on Horseback with a Negro Boy, 1744, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Beyond this, Elizabeth’s court entertainments served another purpose. She regularly held balls in which she dressed as a man, often in naval outfits. Whilst typically feminine shows of soft power were not disregarded by Elizabeth, traditionally masculine shows of power were also used. Elizabeth repeatedly promised to rule as her father, Peter the Great, had. [vi]  This was a significant source of her popularity. By publicly dressing as a man, and especially in a naval outfit, Peter’s own favourite choice of apparel, Elizabeth could visually restate her commitment to this ideal. She became her father’s militaristic, masculine, heir. It was not just at balls that Elizabeth dressed this way. Foreign newspapers noted that she dined dressed as a commander of the Life Regiment on the anniversary of her accession to the throne.[vii] Furthermore, Elizabeth was painted in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Guards Regiment. Not only had these guards supported her claim to the throne but they were created by Peter the Great himself. The context of this portrait is particularly interesting: it was one part of a triptych that situated Elizabeth in context with her heir, Grand Duke Peter, and his wife, Grand Duchess Catherine, later Catherine the Great. Whilst Elizabeth was painted in a militaristic fashion, as was the Grand Duke, Catherine was painted in a more typically female pose. Thus, when painted in a dynastic context, Elizabeth chose to be portrayed in a way that transgressed gender norms, highlighting the importance of traditional masculine imagery to her image construction.

Elizabeth perceived herself as a full monarch, unlimited by traditional understandings of femininity. During the Seven Years War, she expressed a wish to go and lead her troops in person. On being told she could not do this as she was a woman, the following conversation ensued: “She replied, “My father went; do you believe that I am stupider than he?” The other answered, “He was a man, and you are not.”[viii] Elizabeth was certainly a woman who enjoyed typically feminine things such as splendid dresses, but her self-presentation and understanding did not stop there. She viewed herself in masculine terms too and, in this way, her reign blurred typical gender expectations.

By Charlotte Vallis, University of York, UK.

Charlotte is a part-time PhD student at the University of York. Her doctoral research focuses on Russia in the eighteenth century, examining the reigns of Elizaveta Petrovna and Catherine the Great. The lens of gender and sexuality, its impact on legitimacy and legacy are particular focuses.

[i] Cyril Wych, ‘Dispatches’, in Sbornik imperatorskogo russkogo istoricheskogo obshchestva, vol. XCIX (St Petersburg: Academy of Sciences, 1897), 333-334, < https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/sirio099.pdf>, [accessed August 3rd, 2023].

[ii] Evgeny V. Anisimov, Empress Elizabeth Her Reign and her Russia 1741-1761, ed. and trans. John T. Alexander (USA: Academic International Press, 1995), 179.

[iii] Elizabeth Petrovna, “Letter to Vasily Demidov”, July 28th 1751, quoted in E. V. Anisimov, Empress Elizabeth Her Reign and her Russia 1741-1761, ed. and trans. by John T. Alexander (USA: Academic International Press, 1995), 169.

[iv] Barbara Evans Clements, A History of Women in Russia: From Earliest Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 70, <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/york-ebooks/detail.action?docID=816827#>, [accessed November 30, 2022].

[v] John Carmichael, 3rd Earl of Hyndford to Chesterfield, “Dispatch”, 23rd February, 1748, in Sbornik imperatorskogo russkogo istoricheskogo obshchestva, vol. 103 (St. Petersburg: Academy of Sciences, 1897), 552, < https://networks.h-net.org/system/files/contributed-files/sirio103.pdf>, [accessed August 3rd, 2023].

[vi] Viktor Petrovich Naumov, “Empress Elizabeth I, 1741-1762”, in The Emperors and Empresses of Russia Rediscovering the Romanovs, ed. Donald J. Raleigh (New York: M.E Sharpe, 1996), pp. 66-100 (81), <The emperors and empresses of Russia : rediscovering the Romanovs : Raleigh, Donald J : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive>, [accessed November 24th, 2022].

[vii] Unknown, “Moscow, Nov. 25”, London Gazette, December 25th-28th, 1742, <https://go.gale.com/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=Newspapers&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&nav=next&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&docId=GALE%7CZ2000725047&currentPosition=105&sort=Pub+Date+Forward+Chron&prodId=BBCN&subjectParam=&bucketSubId=&searchId=R2&userGroupName=uniyork&inPS=true&sgCurrentPosition=&docLevel=&subjectAction=>, [accessed July 21st, 2023].

[viii] Catherine when Grand-Duchess, “Letter to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams”.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (September 6, 2023). ‘He was a man, and you are not’: Court and the identity of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, 1741-1762. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6ut

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