Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
that don't empress me much
Or, celebrating my book release with the coup-filled antics of Empress Elizabeth of Russia.
Let the Dead Bury the Dead is on sale today, and I’m so excited to have my second book baby out in the world! Hardcover, ebook, and audio editions are available anywhere you buy books in North America. If you’re in Chicago, you can stop by my beloved local indie The Book Cellar tonight at 7pm to celebrate with me and the incredibly talented Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, author of The Witch and the Tsar. (Details here.)
I also wrote an essay for LitHub that I’m very proud of about the kind of historical novel this is—one inspired by fairy tales but that defies the fairy-tale expectation of an easy victory, looking at the mess and disappointment and hope that carries through from past to present. Give it a read here if you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like when I’m very, very earnest and do not swear at all.
Let the Dead Bury the Dead is an alternate history of 19th-century Russia starring a deeply untrustworthy woman, so to stay on theme for release day, I’m sharing one of my favorite Russian lady dirtbags this week:
Empress Elizabeth, the Sneaky Schemey Fashion Icon with the World’s Best Boyfriend
Elizabeth was born in 1709 in Moscow, the third and final child of Peter I of Russia to survive into adulthood. We’ll get to Elizabeth’s actual story shortly, but before we do, I have to tell you the whole deal with her parents.
Peter I, aka Peter the Great, is one of the Big Three Tsars most Americans have ever heard of. The other two, of course, are Catherine the Great (aka Elle Fanning) and Nicholas II (aka the dad in Anastasia the cartoon). Peter is best known for “Westernizing” Russia, which involved a number of (Orientalist and sorta gross) policies like imposing a dress code and getting mad about beards. He also built St. Petersburg, which he named after himself like all modest and non-megalomaniac men would do.
Elizabeth’s mom was Peter’s second wife Catherine, who grew up as a Polish peasant and eventually schemed her way to the throne. Someday I’ll probably feature her, too. It’s some serious Game of Thrones shit.
Anyway, the important part is: before Catherine was Peter’s second wife, she was his secret peasant mistress. And she was still his mistress when Elizabeth and her older sister Anna were born. Technically, that means both Anna and Elizabeth were illegitimate. But Peter and Catherine had a Super Secret Sexy Marriage at some point, and then a Super Not-Secret Public Marriage in 1712, after which both girls were technically legitimized.
You know, the best kind of legitimized: technically.
Honestly Fuck Louis XIV, He Seems Like a Dick
By all historical reports, Elizabeth seems cool as shit. She was smart, athletic, a great dancer, spoke four languages, and apparently a real party girl. I would’ve liked to go to the club with her. She was also super hot, blond, almost six feet tall, and loved flirting with attractive soldiers. Her sister Anna, on the other hand, was dark-haired, painfully shy, and wanted nothing to do with court. Sort of a Lydia Bennet/Mary Bennet situation, for the Jane Austen girlies.
Now, Peter the Great was still on his “Rah-Rah Yay Europe” horse, so he was trying to get both his daughters engaged to high-ranking European princes for diplomatic reasons. This was fairly easy for Anna, who he matched with some random German prince. (I refuse to learn about 18th-century Germany. It doesn’t make sense. There’s simultaneously too much and not enough Germany. Fight me.)
Elizabeth, though, had a harder time. Peter was angling for the dauphin of France, son of the Sun King Louis XIV. (XIV is one of the three Louises I remember, this one because of his elaborate shoes.) However, the Sun King took one look at Elizabeth and said “Sir, you cannot fool me, this is the illegitimate daughter of a Polish serf, fuck off.” So Peter had to engage Elizabeth to some other random German man.
Spoiler: Everyone Dies
And thus we enter the period in Elizabeth’s life I like to call “the time everything went to shit.”
First, Peter the Great died in January 1725 of gangrene of the bladder, which I didn’t even know was a thing but yikes. Catherine took over and ruled for two years, but she died of tuberculosis in 1727, as one does. Then Elizabeth’s random German fiancé died of smallpox, aka spicy tuberculosis. Now Elizabeth was 18, orphaned, single, and generally not having a good time.
And also, annoyingly, not the empress. Goddamn “technically legitimate.”
Her half-brother’s son Peter II took over as tsar instead. He died in a couple years, though, so don’t worry about remembering him. Except even after that Elizabeth still wasn’t the empress. The throne went next to her cousin Anna, the child of her half-uncle.
If it sounds like we’re just dancing all over the goddamn family tree to avoid giving the throne to Elizabeth, a cool person who technically is legitimate and probably would have done a good job, well, that’s what Elizabeth thought, too.
Flirt and Ernie
Even beyond this, Elizabeth’s obvious black-sheep status was making it really fucking hard to get married. And remember, she was a party girl who loved to flirt. So Elizabeth decided to do the sensible thing and have an affair with a handsome army sergeant behind the Empress’s back. Lydia Bennet rises again.
Empress Anna was pissed off about this and exiled the sergeant to Siberia. But Elizabeth was not to be deterred! She went off in search of another secret lover! And this time, she found the perfect one: Alexei Razumovsky, a hot Ukrainian serf who sang in the court choir and, to all appearances, absolutely loved the shit out of her.
I am a big Razumovsky fan. He had no interest in becoming tsar himself. He never tried to scheme his way into power. All he wanted was to hang out with Elizabeth and be a good guy. Later rulers of Russia even offered him noble status and the title of “highness” and he refused, saying the only reward he wanted was to have loved Elizabeth. Ten points to Razumovsky.
Winnie the Coup
While things were going well in Elizabeth’s love life, they were shitty everywhere else. She was still nowhere near the throne, which—as Peter the Great’s sexiest surviving literal child—she felt she had a right to. And then the final straw: Empress Anna died in 1740, and the throne went not to Elizabeth but to Ivan VI: Peter the Great’s great-nephew and also a two-month-old baby.
So Elizabeth went into Full Dirtbag Mode.
In November 1741, she showed up at the regimental headquarters wearing a silver breastplate over her dress and holding a silver cross, looking presumably like a six-foot-tall sexy warrior angel, and commanded the soldiers to help her claim her birthright.
Elizabeth and her soldiers stormed the palace and took the baby emperor hostage. The coup was successful without killing a single person. Not even Ivan VI, at least not right away! Elizabeth sent the baby and his parents to a highly-fortified prison and said he wouldn’t be harmed unless he tried to escape. Ivan did stage an escape attempt and was executed, but not until the reign of Catherine the Great, and therefore not by Elizabeth, unlike what the TV show The Great would have you believe.
Sugar, We’re Goin’ Crown
Like anyone who comes to power through a coup, Elizabeth really had to make her coronation count. This was the time to convince everyone she was a legit empress, not a usurper. So our girl went to fucking town on the pageantry.
In April 1742, she showed up at her coronation in a gown that looked so good all future empresses copied her, plus a brand-new crown with 5,000 diamonds. Two fountains were set up in the streets, one shooting red wine and the other shooting white wine. The party went on for two months. I’m assuming this was the vibe:
After the partying stopped, Elizabeth started doing what to me seems like a fairly okay job of being empress, broadly speaking. She:
Let people wear their beards again, which they appreciated.
Encouraged people to go to school.
Opened Russia’s first university.
Ordered the construction of a new Winter Palace.
Helped negotiate an end to Russia’s war with Sweden.
Did not personally kill any people.
That last one’s sorta the biggie. Her whole time as empress, she didn’t order a single death sentence. This seems like a low bar, but if you know anything about Russia past or present, you know this is a big fucking outlier.
Elizabeth also ruled Russia during the Seven Years’ War, which I’m sorry but I refuse to learn about, because any war with “Years” in it puts me straight to sleep. My research did tell me that she went to war partly because she personally thought Frederick the Great was a shithead, which I appreciate.
The Dark Knight Razumovskys
In addition to ruling, Elizabeth was a real Dirtbag-About-Town in a way that lines up with what I want vibe-wise from these stories. She owned 15,000 dresses, threw two balls a week, and served pineapples at every meal, in goddamn St. Petersburg. I’m not pro-empire by any means, but also I want to go to the club with Elizabeth and then cut open a pineapple with a sword.
Elizabeth was particularly famous for throwing “metamorphosis balls” starting in 1744, where guests were required to dress up as the opposite sex. Most courtiers hated these balls—particularly the men, because patriarchy’s a bitch. But Elizabeth loved them, because it is a documented historical fact that she looked incredible in pants.
This is also where my boy Alexei Razumovsky really shone. Like I said, Razumovsky wasn’t interested in politics. He just loved to throw a party and make sure his girl looked good. He was referred to in court as “The Night Emperor,” implying that he and Elizabeth secretly got married at some point and also maybe that he was Batman.
However, any children Elizabeth had with Razumovsky would be technically legitimate at best, and Elizabeth knew all too well how that went. So when it came time to name an heir, she chose her nephew: her sister Anna’s child with that shitty German guy from earlier. This was an equally shitty little German child named Peter.
Elizabeth then went back to the Germans to find Peter a wife, presumably because there were so many goddamn Germans. She picked a young lady named Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, who converted to the Orthodox Church and changed her name to Catherine. This Catherine would also share her patron’s penchant for coups and would overthrow her husband to become Catherine the Great, but that’s another story.
In Which I Am Physically Restraining Myself From Driving to Hulu’s HQ to Yell
Elizabeth spent the last several years of her life in poor health. She had a stroke in 1761 and, knowing that she was dying, made her last confession. She died in the Winter Palace on Christmas Day, 1761, age 52, surrounded by Peter III the Dickhead German, soon-to-be Catherine the Great, and Ken Extraordinaire Alexei Razumovsky. Her body rests in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, where I assume it is doing somersaults every time that actress playing Elizabeth showed up on The Great with her cloud of butterflies.
Anyway, that’s all for this week. Thanks as always for joining me, and if you enjoyed this story about a hot Russian lady fucking shit up, I happen to know another recently released book you might enjoy...
Until next time, be well, and don’t judge me if I change my dating app profile to “just an elizabeth looking for her razumovsky” because I’m worth it and so are you,