­Elizabeth, the Students’ Empress
by Phoebe Taplin

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Artist: Vigilius Eriksen)

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Peter the Great’s daughter, Tsaritsa or Tsarina Elizabeth, is not well known outside Russia. Although her reign saw the building of theatres and libraries, palaces, academies and universities, she doesn’t get to be remembered as “the great”, perhaps because she didn’t kill her subjects as rulers so often have.

The traditional saint’s day of students, St. Tatyana’s, is on January 25, because that was the date on which the empress signed the decree ordering the creation of Moscow State University in 1755.

The old Moscow State University building on Mokhovaya Ulitsa

The Tretyakov Gallery has recently opened an exhibition to Elizabeth in the Engineers Hall on Lavrushinsky Pereulok, as a rather late celebration of her 300th birthday, which was in December 1709. This is one of several places where you can remember the Moscow legacy of the educational empress. Although by the time Elizabeth came to power her father had already moved the capital to St. Petersburg, there are still a few places in Moscow where you can see echoes of the baroque splendour she commissioned there.

Like her father, Peter, Elizabeth was born at Kolomenskoye in the huge rambling palace erected by her grandfather, Tsar Alexei. This wooden labyrinth of medieval luxury, famous in its day as the “eighth wonder of the world”, was demolished in the 18th century and recently reconstructed (near to Kashirskaya metro station, on the far side of the park from its original site). There are engravings and models of Kolomenskoye in the Tretyakov’s exhibition, along with portraits of Elizabeth’s parents.

Visitors at the opening of the exhibition dedicated to
Empress Elizabeth at the Tretyakov Gallery

Three hundred years ago, on March 6, 1711, Elizabeth was proclaimed a tsarevna (princess). She was a beautiful princess, a great dancer, fluent in Italian, French and German. Ironically, given her academic interests, her own education was erratic and she was not particularly literate, preferring outdoor pursuits and pleasures. Her love of horse riding and hunting is reflected in a dedicated section of the exhibition, which includes an original 18th-century saddle, bridle and weaponry. A small painting by Georg Grooth from the Tretyakov Gallery’s permanent collection, a contrast to the more formal portraits with full imperial regalia, is one of many to show the empress on horseback. Here, she is dressed in the uniform of her father’s Preobrazhensky guards and attended by a fancily-dressed Arab pageboy. Ships and water in the background are reminders of her father’s role as founder of the Russian fleet.

It was the Preobrazhensky guards who fought for Elizabeth’s right to rule. According to Boris Antonov’s “Russian Tsars”, she appealed to the soldiers, dressed in armour herself, with the words:

“Who do you wish to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?”

The church of St. Clements on Klimentovsky Pereulok,
near the Tretyakov Gallery

Elizabeth was not always in military or hunting gear. Many of the portraits show her with her serene face and fair hair, wearing a succession of fine dresses and gems. The Tretyakov exhibition has reconstructed one of her dresses in peach-coloured silk, lace and gold embroidery.

Beautiful and vivacious as she was, very few princes would dare approach Elizabeth while her sister Anna was in power. Anna banished one of Elizabeth’s suitors to Siberia, having cut out his tongue. In the 1730s, Elizabeth fell in love with a Cossack choirboy, Alexei Razumovsky, and later secretly married him. The church where they supposedly got married was the Resurrection in Barashakh, on the corner of Ulitsa Pokrovka and Barashevsky Pereulok. The church once had a crown on the dome lending support to the legend, but has not been restored to use as a church since the Soviet era. The dilapidated, pink-washed building still belongs to the Interior Ministry, although it might be worth visiting at the same time as the beautiful, baroque Church of the Presentation in Barashakh, which stands nearby. The Moscow Architectural Preservation Society report from 2009 does not speculate about the morganatic marriage, but confirms the period of the Resurrection church: “an excellent example of the mature Baroque style of the reign of the Empress Elizabeth, a rarity in Moscow.”

A carriage presented to Empress Elizabeth by count Kirill Razumovsky.

One place where you can see the rare Elizabethan style in (nearly) all its former glory is the church of St. Clements on Klimentovsky Pereulok near the Tretyakov Gallery. This splendid bright red building typifies the style the empress favoured. The outside has been beautifully restored and work continues on the interior, which is already worth a look for its fragmented frescoes and moulded plasterwork. The front entrance, on Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, has a fantastic gateway, reminiscent of the triumphal arches the empress liked to ride through.

The Tretyakov exhibition has numerous drawings of these arches, the most famous being the “Red Gates”, which once stood on the Garden Ring, near the modern day Krasniye Vorota metro station. Some 18th-century engravings also show the long processions, containing hundreds of horses, carriages, sledges and foot soldiers that accompanied the empress from her coronation in the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral. One room, devoted to Elizabeth’s connections with various monasteries near Moscow, contains a model of the bright blue, baroque bell tower at Sergiev Posad, another perfect example of the style. The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to “Elizabethan baroque”, while the central hall upstairs contains portraits of her courtiers and favourites, including Razumovsky.

Visitors viewing items featured at the pre-premiere showcase of Empress Elizabeth and Russia exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Elizabeth made Razumovsky a count (he was nicknamed “the night-time count”) and gave him numerous gifts and estates. Petrovsko-Razumovskaya metro station is named for the count’s former palace and gardens nearby. There are still a few interesting buildings on Timiryazevskaya Ulitsa, now belonging to the Timiryazevsky Agricultural Academy and the woodland park has old landscape features like overgrown ponds and avenues of larches. Another house sometimes associated with the Cossack count is the Apraksin mansion on Pokrovka. The white and turquoise palace imitates the style of Bartholomew Rastrelli, Elizabeth’s favourite architect, who rebuilt the Winter Palace and created several other famous palaces for her in St. Petersburg.

Moscow University is one of the more enduring aspects of Elizabeth’s legacy. The finest of the old buildings on Mokhovaya Ulitsa, designed by Matvei Kazakov, was built during the reign of Catherine the Great, a few decades later. A statue of the university’s founder, Mikhail Lomonosov, sits outside a neighbouring building and the round, pillared chapel in between is dedicated to St. Tatyana.

Lomonosov, polymath, poet, scholar and scientist, was born into a peasant family in remote Arkhangelsk and studied in Marberg and Moscow, at the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy on Nikolskaya Ulitsa.

If you read Russian, you can further your own education at the Tretyakov by answering their quiz about some of the exhibits, including a portrait of Lomonosov. The main prize is porcelain from the imperial factory in St. Petersburg.

Source: The Moscow News
20 January, 2011