What’s going on in Flavitsky’s famous ‘Princess Tarakanova’ painting?

Tretyakov Gallery
The well-known painting of Konstantin Flavitsky reveals an exciting story of a Russian 18th century adventurer.

Every Russian school kid going on a guided tour in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery is offered to wonder what is going on this painting. Can you tell?

Konstantin Flavitsky. Princess Tarakanova, 1864

Why is a young lady enduring a flood and won’t escape? The most attentive will notice the mice climbing her bed, then the water which has reached bed level with more water pouring into the room from the window; and, finally, the bars on the window.

The pictured lady is Elizaveta Vladimirskaya a.k.a. Princess Tarakanova, one of Russia’s most famous female adventurers and imposters claiming the Russian throne! She died in the prison of Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress… however, not this dramatically. But, let’s start from the very beginning. 

Who was Princess Tarakanova?

Portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Russia and Count Alexei Razumovsky, her favorite

Though Empress Elizabeth of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great) wasn’t officially married and didn’t have children, she is said to have a secret wedding with her favorite, Alexei Razumovsky (read more about it here). And legend has it that they might have had a secret daughter. However, there is no historical evidence proving that.

After Elizabeth, her nephew Peter III became the emperor, but, soon, his wife Catherine the Great committed a coup and seized the Russian throne after Peter III mysteriously died (rumors persisted that Catherine had most likely had him killed). During her reign, many different men came forward claiming to be Peter III, stating they had miraculously survived the coup. One of the most famous was Emelyan Pugachev, who led the major Pugachev’s Rebellion, frequently called ‘Peasants’ War of 1773–1775’.

Another adventurer who seeked an opportunity to get the Russian throne was Elizaveta Vladimirskaya, who pretended to be that very secret daughter of Empress Elizabeth and a more rightful heir.

Finding sponsors and supporters in Europe

The alleged bas-relief of Tarakanova

Actually, she called herself Elizaveta and didn’t use the name Princess Tarakanova, which is quite a ridiculous name (‘tarakan’ is translated as a cockroach from Russian and it’s very unlikely a high noblewoman to have such a surname). She was nicknamed this way by a French diplomat and writer named Jean Henri Castéra, who mentioned her story in a book about Catherine the Great. 

Most probably, she told everyone different stories about her origins and still it’s not known which one is the truth. She knew several languages (but not Russian) and had perfect manners. Most likely, she was a European woman (French, German or Italian).

Elizaveta was always seeking money and ran around Europe hiding from creditors. Once, she spread the rumor that there was a large inheritance waiting for her in Russia. She went too far in her gambling, almost becoming bankrupt by two very high-ranked noblemen (Count Philipp Ferdinand of Limburg-Stirum and a Polish Prince Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł).  

Pretending on the Russian throne

In 1774, she started spreading a rumor that she was a secret daughter of Empress Elizabeth and that she had legitimate claims to the Russian throne. Tarakanova started to gather supporters in Europe, saying she had lots of sympathizers in Russia (which wasn’t true). She even planned to reach King Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Stanisław Poniatowski of Poland to get them on her side, but this never transpired.

Count Alexei Orlov

Tarakanova started to send out to lots of people around Europe to proclaim that she wanted to become the Russian Empress with the support of Pugachev. Alexei Orlov, a Russian Count and Catherine the Great’s devotee, received one such manifesto. At that time, he was a Russian Naval commander in Europe. 

Orlov corresponded with Catherine the Great about the imposter and, with the empress’ permission, he took on the task of bringing Tarakanova to Russia. Orlov made Tarakanova believe he was loyal to her (and even that he loved her and wanted to get married) so as to trick her to board a ship to Russia.

Trick arrest and shipping to Russia

Orlov invited the fake princess to Livorno (Leghorn) in Italy to take a look at the Russian fleet he commanded. The sailors acted out a scene of praising and welcoming her aboard one of the ships… where she was immediately arrested. She, at first, didn’t realize that Orlov was involved and kept sending him letters of love and asking for help. 

Tarakanova spent her last days in the basement of the house of the Fort’s Commandant

In Petersburg, she was at once prisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress, where political prisoners were kept. During investigations and interrogations, she kept insisting on her imperial origin and even asked for a meeting with Catherine the Great.

The investigators tried to discover her true identity and suggested even giving her mercy if she came clean. But, Tarakanova never revealed her true self and died in December 1775.

Flavitsky painting

While imposters like Tarakanova are considered to be criminals from the state point of view, mass culture used to be interested in their personalities if not to sympathize with them. Alexander Pushkin wrote about Pugachev in his novel ‘The Captain’s Daughter’, while Tarakanova was immortalized by artist Konstantin Flavitsky.

In reality, Tarakanova died from tuberculosis; but, as time passed, many legends about her death began to appear. And one of them inspired Flavitsky: that she dramatically died in her basement cell during a massive flood (That flood really happened, however, two years after her death). Ironically, the artist himself died from tuberculosis.

Konstantin Flavitsky. Head of Princess Tarakanova (Study for Princess Tarakanova)

His painting brought him fame and was praised by the artistic circles, especially admiring the dramatic pose and facial expressions. ‘Princess Tarakanova’ was the first historical canvas in Pavel Tretyakov’s collection, with many to follow. The famous collector liked that it pays tribute to the Russian topic and is a great contribution to Russian fine art. 

In 1867, ‘Princess Tarkanova’ was exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair. However, Emperor Alexander II ordered a note to be added in the accompanying catalog that “the plot was borrowed from a novel and contains no historical truth”.

An earlier version of the painting

Numerous novels were written on the basis of this intriguing plot. And, in 1990, the Soviet movie ‘Royal Hunt’ was released telling Tarakanova’s story.

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