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Prominent Russians: Paul I

Остоber 1, 1754 — March 24, 1801

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Childhood and education

Paul I was born in the Summer Palace in St Petersburg on September 20, 1754. He was the son of the Grand Duchess, later Empress, Catherine II, but according to one scurrilous report his father was not her husband, the Grand Duke Peter, who would become Emperor Peter III, but Colonel Serge Saltykov, a lover of Catherine II. However there is probably little foundation to this story except gossip, and the cynical malice of Catherine.

During his infancy Paul was taken away from his parents and raised for the first seven years of his life at the court of his grandmother, Empress Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna), who intended to appoint him her heir instead of Peter Feodorovich (Peter III).

Elizabeth’s ill-judged fondness is believed to have injured his health. In 1760, Paul began his education under a trustworthy governor, Nikita Panin, and competent tutors. One of the best minds in Russia, Panin had studied all the latest teaching methods. However, Paul’s education proved to be unsystematic; he was taught a lot in some areas and very little in others. One of his tutors complained that Paul was “always in a hurry”, acting and speaking without thinking.

Relationship with Catherine II

During a short period from December 1761 to June 1762, Elizaveta Petrovna died, Peter III became Emperor, and Catherine II deposed him and became Empress. The shock of his father's forced abdication and death shortly thereafter left an impression on Paul.

As a boy he was reported to be intelligent and good-looking. His extreme ugliness in later life is attributed to an attack of typhus in 1771. The violent events of his childhood and his estrangement from his mother made him irritable and suspicious of those around him.

It was asserted that his mother hated him, and was only restrained from having him killed while he was still a boy by the fear of what the consequences of another palace crime might be. Catherine II was generally cold to her son, since she had not had a chance to raise him and because her opposition felt that Paul should become Tsar when he came of age rather than when she died.

She did, however, name him her heir, and took great trouble to arrange his first marriage (on September 29, 1773) with Princess Auguste Wilhelmine Luise of Hessen-Darmstadt, who had converted to Orthodoxy on 14 August 1773 as Nathalia Alekseevna. She died giving birth in April 1776 and was buried in the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

After his first marriage Paul began to engage in intrigues. He suspected his mother of intending to kill him, and once openly accused her of causing broken glass to be mingled with his food.

The use made of his name by the rebel leader Emelyan Pugachev in 1775 also rendered his position more difficult. Pugachev claimed to be Paul’s father, the emperor Peter III, promoting a rumour that Peter had not died, but had secretly been imprisoned by Catherine II, and promised to enthrone his alleged son in case of victory.

Marriage to Maria Feodorovna and family life

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Paul married another German princess, a beauty and a relative of the Prussian king, on 26 September, 1776. This was Sophie Dorothea Auguste Luise of Wurttemberg, who converted to Orthodoxy on 14 September 1776 as Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna. She bore him four sons and six daughters, died in 1828 and was buried alongside her husband in the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

On the birth of his first child in 1777 Catherine II gave him an estate near St.Petersburg, Pavlovsk. Paul and his wife were allowed to travel through western Europe in 1781-1782. In 1783 the empress gave him another suburban estate at Gatchina, where he was allowed to maintain three battalions of soldiers whom he drilled on the Prussian model and used in mock battles. Paul’s family was under a similar strict discipline to that of his soldiers and dared not violate his slightest order.

As Paul grew his character became steadily degraded. He was not incapable of affection, nor was he without generous impulses, but he was flighty, passionate in a childish way, and when angry capable of cruelty. The affection he had for his wife turned to suspicion. He fell under the influence of two of his wife's maids of honour in succession, Catherine Nelidova (1758 -1839) and Anna Lopukhina (1757 – 1805), and of his barber, a Turkish slave named Koroissov.

Catherine II contemplated setting him aside in favour of his son Alexander, to whom she was attached. Paul was aware of his mother's intention and became increasingly suspicious of his wife and children, whom he rendered perfectly miserable. No definite step was taken to set him aside, probably because nothing would be effective short of putting him to death, and Catherine II shrank from this extreme course. When she was seized with apoplexy, he was free to destroy the will in which she had left the crown to Alexander, if any such will was ever made.

The reign of Paul the Emperor

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On the day of Catherine II´s  death, the 42-year-old Paul declared himself Emperor. His coronation in Moscow on April 5 1797 signalled a break with the stability of Catherine's reign. Painfully aware that Catherine II had planned to bypass him, Paul decreed at his coronation a law of hereditary succession to the crown in the male line, and afterwards in the female, instead of leaving it to the caprice of the reigning sovereign.

It was one of the few lasting reforms of Paul's brief reign. On the very day of his coronation he published a manifesto on serfs and landlords, which was a starting point for easing serfdom’s rules. Serfs’ forced labour for their landlord on Sundays was prohibited. For the first time in Russia history, peasants could be sworn in as witnesses. A special peasantry department was set up, the state peasants received plots of land, and all peasants were granted the right to appeal court decisions. The Old Believers were allowed to practice and build their own churches.

One of the first measures of the new emperor was that of ordering the remains of his father, Peter III, to be removed from the sepulchre in which they had been deposited in the church of St. Alexander Nevskу. After having been lying in state for three weeks, they were interred in the sepulchre of Catherine II, in the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. He also, with strong marks of admiration and friendship, liberated Polish leader Tadeusz Kościuszko from the prison in St. Petersburg where he had languished since his defeat and capture in 1794.

His true idol was Friedrich the Great of Prussia. The new Emperor emulated Prussian orders and habits in every aspect of government and quickly turned the army and the civil service into models of organised brutality. Floggings, brandings and banishments to Siberia awaited not only murderers and counterfeiters but also underperforming officers.

Under a city statute enacted in 1799, no gathering could go ahead without authorisation by the police. Many ladies from high society, let alone career-minded men, worked as undercover government spies. For offenders, no matter how small, from among the lower classes, short shrift and tight rope were very much the order of the day. At the same time, Paul was haughty and unstable, and he frequently reversed his previous decisions, creating administrative chaos and accumulating enemies.

Army reforms

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Paul strove to reshape the Russian army in the Prussian fashion, introducing strict discipline and ridiculous wigs for soldiers. These reforms fed discontent among officers and ordinary soldiers alike.

Among his first steps was the summoning of all guardsmen to their regiments, which brought several surprising details to light. Most officers had actually been in their country estates or villages deserting their regiments, where they had also enlisted their children, whose ages were often given as 18 when they were in fact not even 10. The widespread practise of enrolling the nobles’ infants into the army to provide them with a ‘deserved’ officer rank by the age of 16 – 17 was forbidden.

Paul also forbade army officers from coming to military exercises in their six or four horse driven carriages and wear fur coats or muffs, as this was not part of their uniform. To avoid freezing in cold weather (the average temperature in St. Petersburg in February 1799 was minus 370C) officers had to wear woolen sweaters beneath their jackets or line them with fur.

Economic situation

The emperor was determined to drag Russia out of the state of economic stagnation into which it had fallen during the last years of the ‘Golden Age’ of Catherine II. Unlike his mother, however, he lacked the ability to choose the right people.

Much progress was nevertheless made. In an attempt to curb inflation, 5 million paper roubles were burnt outside the Winter Palace. The minting of silver rubles was also ordered.

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The Czar himself sacrificed part of the palace silver for this cause, saying that he would eat his meals with tin plates and cutlery “until the ruble reaches its proper conversion rate.” The enormous palace sets 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, which eventually led to Russia's acquisition of Alaska. 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. A school of medicine was founded in St. Petersburg.


The belief in his own Divine Right, which made some monarchs more human, had the opposite effect on him. He was perceived to be an aloof, haughty, lonely figure; yet he was generous and sympathised with the misfortunes of others.

He would often apologize to people whom he had punished unjustly in a fit of anger, making amends by embracing them and showering them with presents. For example, he visited the wounded Polish leader, Kosciuszko, in prison, ordered his release and treated him with kindness.

Meanwhile, he began his reign by repealing Catherine's law which exempted the non-serfs from corporal punishment and mutilation.

Society and culture during Paul

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The eccentricities of Paul exhibited themselves in the most fantastic manner. Members of the gentry, including youngsters, were supposed to wear military-style suits. Those sporting French novelties like tailcoats, round hats, trousers, neckerchiefs, nice shoes or free hairstyles risked detention, public stripping and immediate changing into rat-tailed wigs, cocked hats, tight tunics, breeches, stockings and sturdy brogues. Also among his whims was a passion for painting the watch-boxes, gates, and bridges throughout the empire with the most strident colours.

Fiercely opposed to the French Revolution, he banned from his court French books and fashions. Paul is also often criticized for his decree of 18 April 1800 limiting the import of foreign literature. The use of some foreign words was forbidden as well. Thus, places for regular socialising came to be euphemized as 'academies', because words like 'club', 'assembly' and ‘convention’, to say nothing of 'citizen' or 'patriotism', were frowned upon as incendiary hangovers from revolutionary France.

Emperor Paul’s love for justice was also seen (in a peculiar way) in the fact that he granted his subjects direct access to him by placing a famous box outside the Winter Palace. Its key was in his personal possession and anyone from the highest dignitaries to the humblest commoner could place requests for direct royal protection or mercy. The Czar himself took the requests out of the box every day and read them.

There was probably no sphere in state affairs which was not influenced by the industrious emperor. Paul passed an incredible number of new laws – 595 in 1797, 509 in 1798, 330 in 1799, 469 in 1800. Thus, Paul averaged 42 decrees of new laws per month, where Catherine II had averaged only 12.

On a daily basis the emperor was already on his feet before dawn and he made everyone work according to his example. 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 8”.

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Paul addressed other areas of Russian life, including the bureaucracy. Civil servants were expected to earn their pay honestly, and corruption at the highest levels was harshly punished. He would appear anywhere unexpectedly, no matter how bad or frosty the weather was, and mercilessly fired negligent officers. And like most Russian monarchs, Paul came down heavily on those who disagreed with him.

Foreign policies

Paul I dreamed of bringing peace to Europe and restoring thrones and altars ruined by the French revolution. The struggle against revolution for the “divinely appointed” monarchial authority was a religious matter for him. However, in foreign policy he performed an abrupt reversal, plunging the country into the second coalition against France in 1798, and then into the armed neutrality together with France against Great Britain in 1801.

In 1798, as a result of a treaty between Russia and Austria, which was subsidised by Britain, an army of about 50 thousand men, under Field-Marshal Suvorov, was sent to Austrian Italy. Suvorov hatched an ambitious plan to single-handedly defeat the French army in northern Italy and to march from there on to Paris. However, Suvorov's plan was thwarted by the treachery of the Austrians.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had returned from Egypt, and became first consul of France. He immediately liberated 10 thousand Russian prisoners-of-war, and, presenting them with new uniforms and everything necessary for their long journey, dispatched them to their own country, together with a friendly epistle to their sovereign. Being angry at the Austrian and British perfidy, Paul appreciated this magnanimous act and, from having been the uncompromising opponent of Napoleon, entered into amicable correspondence with him, and became one of his ardent admirers.

Joining Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, Paul laid an embargo on all the British vessels in Russian ports, and induced Sweden, Denmark and Prussia to join him. This gave great offence to the mercantile classes of Russia, who preferred the English to the French alliance.

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In January 1801, Paul ordered Feodor Orlov-Denisov, of the Cossacks, to prepare to march on the British colonies in India. It was a move designed to undermine Britain’s position of power. However, due to Paul's murder two months later, the planned invasion never took place.

Paul put much energy into somewhat unrealistic schemes to inculcate the virtues and idealism of chivalry in the Russian nobility. His admiration for medieval knights (together with his geopolitical desire for a base in the Western Mediterranean) made him a supporter of the Knights Hospitaller, a dying chivalric order in Malta. After French capture of Malta, Paul took the Maltese order under his own protection and became its Grand Master.

Conspiracies against Paul I

His policies disgusted many of the nobles and military officers dreaming of unrestricted freedom. Conspiracies sprang up to replace him with his son Alexander. Paul was aware of some of these, and made his own position clear to Alexander by leaving a history of Peter the Great on Alexander's desk, open at the section about the death of Peter's son Aleksey.

Finally, by 1800, a conspiracy was organised by Counts von der Pahlen (St. Petersburg’s military governor) and Panin, and a half-Spanish, half-Neapolitan adventurer, Admiral Ribas. The salon of Olga Zherebtsova, the sister of the three Zuboff brothers, who would later become assassins, became the headquarters of the plot, and behind her stood a ‘friend’, English ambassador Sir Charles Whitworth.

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Zherebtsova allegedly distributed 2 million gold pounds to the participants of the assassination. The organisers employed Plato Zuboff, the last of Catherine's favourites, who had been banished from the court in disgrace and was eager to avenge this affront.

The conspirators began to distort the Emperor’s orders beyond recognition. Pahlen contrived, by his intrigues, to insinuate himself into the favour of Paul. They used all sorts of tricks to turn public opinion in the capital against the Czar. The sudden and suspicious death of Ribas delayed the action up to the spring of 1801.

Assasination

But on the night of the 11/12th March Paul was murdered in his bedroom in St. Michael Palace by a band of dismissed officers headed by General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the Russian service. They burst into his bedroom after supping together and, fuelled by alcohol, the conspirators forced Paul to the table, and tried to compel him to sign his abdication.

Paul offered some resistance. Amid the melee, one of the assassins struck him with a sword, and he was then strangled and trampled to death.

Succession by Alexander I and legacy

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Alexander was actually in the palace, and Nicholas Zubov, one of the assassins, announced his accession. Early the next morning, news of the death of Paul (as having been produced by apoplexy), and the accession of Alexander I, were announced to the capital.

The principal nobility and the great officers of state being assembled, Alexander I was solemnly proclaimed emperor of all Russia.

During my reign,” Alexander proclaimed, “everything will be as it was during the time of my grandmother” (Catherine II the Great). As in the case of the murder of Peter III, none of the assassins of Paul were punished, but rewards were heaped upon them. It is not known how much Paul’s sons knew about what was going on, but it was generally believed that they were in on the plot, being convinced that their father intended to imprison them in a fortress.

On receiving the news, St. Petersburg and Moscow went astir, with people gossiping at every corner and hastily changing into exactly the sort of clothes the former ruler had been crusading to stamp out. Towards the end of April, a Paul era camisole worn in public could only testify to the wearer's destitution.

Historians are equivocal about his short reign. Whereas Catherine II, though enlightened in her ideas, was unscrupulous in her methods, Paul wished to remain an honest man, idealistic and religious, while governing despotically.

Paul’s murderers later justified their actions in numerous widely-read memoirs. As a result, his image in history books of the XIX century, and in some popular accounts to this day, has been unflattering.

In the XX century, however, professional historians began to reassess Paul I more favourably: his social policies, very disagreeable to the aristocracy, were half a century ahead of their time and he is credited by many for the foundation of half of the reform of 1861, which finally liberated the serfs in Russia. In addition, his foreign policy was unusually ethical for his times.

The plot to dethrone him proved to be the last of the ‘palace revolutions’ that were such a feature of Russian history in the XVIIIth century.

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