Paul I

Paul I, emperor of Russia, son of Peter III and Catherine the Great, husband of Princess Sophie Marie Dorothee Auguste Louise of Württemberg, father of Alexander I and Nicholas I, murdered at St Michael’s Castle in St Petersburg in 1801
Born: 1754, St Petersburg
Died: 1801, St Petersburg

From the very day he was born in the Summer Palace of Elizabeth Petrovna on 20 September 1754, the life of Paul I unfolded like a drama. When the young prince visited Vienna in 1781, a gala performance was held in his honour at the theatre. The choice of play was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the leading actor, Johann Franz Brockmann, told the emperor that he could not go through with it “because the grand duke was, in real life, already playing the role!”

There were indeed uncanny parallels between Shakespeare’s tragedy and the biography of Paul I. His father, Peter III, had been killed by his mother, Catherine the Great, who now sat on the throne, aided and abetted by an all-powerful favourite. Like the prince of Denmark, Paul was sent away from the court to travel abroad.

Throughout his life, Paul was haunted by rumours that his real father was Count Sergei Saltykov, that Catherine II was not his mother or that Elizabeth Petrovna had substituted a Finnish peasant child for Catherine’s still-born baby. These rumours were inspired by Catherine herself, in order to consolidate her own hold on the throne. Portraits of Peter III and Paul I show the clear physical similarities between father and son.

Paul had a vexed relationship with his mother, whose coup had led to the death of his father. He became the heir to the throne at the age of seven and remained so for the next thirty-five years. His mother deprived him of the rights and privileges normally associated with this title. She kept him well away from power, in a state of virtual banishment. He sat and bided his time, observing the surrounding lawlessness and debauchery.

Immediately after Paul was born, he was removed from his mother by Empress Elizabeth, who decided to bring the boy up herself. Catherine was only allowed to see her son once a week. Separating the newborn child from his mother was a traumatic experience for both. Catherine was unable to bond with her son, while Paul was deprived of maternal love at an early age. The first cracks in their relationship can probably be traced back to this period.

Paul grew up at Elizabeth’s palace, surrounded by care and affection. Rumours soon began to spread that the empress wanted to make Paul her heir and banish his parents to Germany. This unexpected turn of events was an unpleasant blow to the ambitious plans of Catherine, who dreamt of ascending the throne herself. Mother and son now became rivals, competing for the crown.

In 1760, Paul was given his first tutor, Count Nikita Panin. This clever and competent mentor greatly influenced the formation of his personality. One of the best minds in Russia, Panin had studied all the latest teaching methods. As a result, Paul was well-read and had an excellent knowledge of French and literature. He also studied Old Church Slavonic, German, history, geography and mathematics.

Like other members of the aristocracy, Count Panin dreamt of limiting the power of the autocracy. He tried to do so by filling Paul’s head with ideas of a constitution. But the only result was to turn his pupil against his mother. Paul never accepted Panin’s plans for constitutional reform, but he did grow accustomed to rejecting his mother’s policies. When he became emperor, he immediately set about reversing all that she had done.

After Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762, her hold on power was extremely shaky. She was a foreign woman who had usurped the throne, killed her husband and taken one of her own subjects as a lover. Catherine now regarded Paul with fear and animosity. When he reached adulthood, he was not given any official duties. On the contrary, the empress kept her son as far as possible from government.

Exasperated at his own superfluity, Paul found an outlet for his frustrations in army discipline. He spent hours studying military regulations and came to believe in the power of constant drilling and parades. Over the years, the relationship between Catherine and her son irretrievably broke down. The heir was convinced that his mother wanted to deprive him of the throne and that her lovers were following and trying to poison him.

When Paul turned eighteen in 1772, Catherine decided to find him a wife. The empress’s choice fell on Princess Augustine Wilhelmine Luise of Hesse-Darmstadt, who converted to Orthodoxy as Natalia Alexeyevna on 15 August 1773. The couple were married at the Church of Our Lady of Kazan in St Petersburg on 29 September 1773.

For a brief period, Paul was happy. But on 15 April 1776, after a long and painful labour lasting five days, Natalia died giving birth to a stillborn son. She was buried in the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery on 26 April 1776. Paul suspected his mother of not allowing the doctors to intervene until it was too late and was too heartbroken to attend his wife’s funeral.

Catherine used drastic measures to cure the heir of his grief. Unknown to Paul, Natalia had been conducting an illicit affair with his best friend, Count Andrei Razumovsky. The empress found their love letters and showed them to her son. While Paul immediately forgot his loss, this was a cruel blow to his still aching heart.

Soon after Natalia’s death, Catherine found her son a new wife – Princess Sophie Marie Dorothee Auguste Louise of Württemberg. Unexpectedly, Paul found himself falling in love with the beautiful princess, who converted to Orthodoxy as Maria Fyodorovna on 14 September 1776. The couple were married in St Petersburg twelve days later. After travelling through western Europe in 1781 and 1782, they took up residence at Gatchina in 1783.

Paul regarded Gatchina as his private fiefdom and personal refuge from the depravities of Catherine’s court. Everything was run along the lines of the Prussian army, with its cult of order and discipline. Over the twenty years spent waiting to succeed his mother, Paul turned Gatchina into a miniature police state. One day, he dreamt of introducing this regime throughout the entire empire.

On 6 November 1796, Catherine the Great died and Paul finally came to power. When people woke the next day, they thought that they had been invaded by a foreign army. The new emperor and his guards were dressed in Prussian-style uniforms. There were black-and-white striped sentry boxes on the streets. Paul introduced a curfew and passed a law banning the wearing of tailcoats and waistcoats. Anyone who failed to comply was instantly targeted by the police.

One of Paul’s first steps on inheriting the throne was to summon all guardsmen to their regiments, which brought several surprising details to light. Most officers had deserted their regiments for their country estates or villages, where they had also enlisted their children, whose ages were often given as eighteen when they were in fact not even ten. Thousands of officers hurried to their regimental headquarters, increasing transport costs and causing discontent among the nobility.

Paul passed a series of reforms designed to improve the Russian army. He introduced individual frontline training and attempted to combat abuses by commanders. Russian military historian Sergei Panchulidzev writes: “Many of Paul’s innovations still survive today, with great benefit to the army. Taking a dispassionate look at his military reforms, one cannot deny that the Russian army is greatly indebted to him.”

Guardsmen were banned from wearing fur coats or muffs, as this was not part of their uniform. Paul introduced a new uniform costing twenty-two roubles. To avoid freezing in cold weather – the average temperature in St Petersburg in February 1799 was minus 37 C – officers wore woollen sweaters beneath their jackets or lined the jacket with fur.

Paul addressed other areas of Russian life, including the bureaucracy. Civil servants were expected to earn their pay honestly. As one contemporary wrote: “In the offices, departments and ministries, everywhere in the capital, the candles were already lit at five o’clock in the morning. All the chandeliers and fireplaces blazed in the vice-chancellor’s mansion opposite the Winter Palace, while the senators sat round their red table at eight o’clock.” Corruption at the highest levels was harshly punished.

In an attempt to combat inflation, five million paper roubles were burnt outside the Winter Palace. The enormous palace services of silver were melted down and turned into coins. Loaves were sold from special crown storehouses in an attempt to reduce the cost of bread. The price of salt was lowered and decrees were issued on the protection of forests and the prevention of fires. The Russo-American Company was established to start trade with the United States. A school of medicine was founded in St Petersburg.

Paul passed an incredible number of laws – 595 in 1797, 509 in 1798, 330 in 1799 and 469 in 1800. The new emperor was determined to drag Russia out of the state of stagnation into which it had fallen in the final years of the reign of Catherine II. Unlike his mother, however, he lacked the ability to choose the right people. Much progress was nevertheless made. The Credit Bank lent large sums of money to the nobility. Russia led the world in the production of pig iron, smelting 155,000 tons in 1800. The Old Believers were allowed to practise and build their own churches.

Paul undoubtedly wanted the best for his country, but some of his reforms went too far – and that was what people remembered. Everyone laughed at his decrees banning the waltz or the wearing of round hats. In his pursuit of discipline, the emperor did not know where to stop. In July 1800, he ordered all printing houses to be “sealed up, so that they do not print anything.” This law had to be overturned when the country ran out of labels and tickets.

As the sovereign, Paul regarded the morality of his subjects as his personal responsibility. On 18 April 1800, he issued a decree limiting the import of foreign literature. In the words of the new law, “corruption of the faith, civil laws and morality is being spread by various books imported from abroad. We therefore command, to the point of a decree, the prohibition of various imported books, no matter what language they are written in ... and works of music.”

Why was Paul so despotic? As a young prince, he had dreamt of humane reforms, based on justice and the rule of law. But, like many rulers of Russia, he tried to combine the incompatible – autocratic rule and personal freedoms. Over the years spent waiting to ascend the throne, his heart had been consumed by feelings of hatred and revenge. Paul despised everything to do with his mother – her personality, her ways, her lovers, her statesmen, her world. This was not a good basis from which to start ruling a country.

Personal contact with Paul was never a pleasant experience. Instead of the kind patience of Catherine the Great, the new emperor was cantankerous and explosive. He increasingly flew into rages when he saw that his wishes were not being carried out. Nikolai Karamzin wrote: “To the inexplicable amazement of the nation, Paul began to rule ... following no guidelines except for his personal whims. He regarded us not as his subjects, but as his slaves. He punished without guilt and rewarded without merit; he deprived punishment of shame and reward of joy... He taught heroes schooled in victories how to march.”

In international relations, Paul was forced to resolve a series of difficult problems. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, Napoleon landed on Malta, expelled the Russian ambassador and promised to sink any Russian ship daring to approach the island. As Paul had taken Malta under his personal protection, he regarded this hostile act as a declaration of war and joined the anti-French alliance.

Under pressure from his allies, Austria and Great Britain, Paul placed Count Alexander Suvorov at the head of the Russian army. Suvorov hatched an ambitious plan to single-handedly defeat the two French armies in northern Italy and to march from there on Paris. But the plan was thwarted by the treachery of the Austrians.

After defeating the French armies in northern Italy in 1799, Austria demanded that Count Suvorov join up with the forces of General Alexander Rimsky-Korsakov in Switzerland, despite the difficult climatic conditions and the lack of any help from Russia’s ally. When Suvorov’s army arrived in Switzerland, they found that Rimsky-Korsakov had already been defeated by the French.

The Russians were without provisions or supplies and surrounded by a numerically superior French army. The French were better equipped and supplied and had more experience of mountain warfare. With great difficulty, Suvorov managed to extract himself from Switzerland by crossing the Alps. But he fell ill on the road back to St Petersburg and died soon after his arrival in the Russian capital in May 1800.

Angry at Austrian and British perfidy, Paul decided to change sides. Watching Napoleon destroy the last vestiges of the French Revolution in his desire to become emperor, he threw in his lot with France and joined the anti-British coalition. Russia’s role was to march on the British colonies in India.

In January 1801, Paul ordered General Vasily Orlov, hetman of the Don Cossacks, to prepare an invasion force: “All the riches of India will be your reward... My maps only go as far as Khiva and the River Oxus. Beyond these points, it is your affair to gain information about the possessions of the English and the condition of the native population subject to their rule.” But the emperor’s murder two months later meant that the planned march on India never took place.

Paul was strangled in his bedroom in St Michael’s Castle on the night of 11/12 March 1801. The plot was headed by two former favourites of Catherine, the Zubov brothers, with the alleged support of the British government, alarmed at the alliance between Russia and Napoleon. The emperor was buried in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on Black Saturday.

Although the events of March 1801 were tragic, the rest of the country breathed a sigh of relief. Paul’s murder seemed to bear out his own words, written back in his youth, when he had denounced absolutism: “Despotism eats everything in its path, before finally destroying the despot himself!”

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