Prominent Russians: Nikita Panin
Nikita Panin was born in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) on 18 September 1718. His father devoted his life to army service but did not attain much success in his military career. In 1740 Nikita Panin entered the army in the lowest ranks of the Horse Guards. But this was just the beginning of his long and successful military career, as he was soon promoted to gentleman of the bedchamber, which gave him access to royal circles.
Much of his success can be attributed to his closeness to Empress Elizabeth – Panin was rumored to be one of the favorites of the Empress. However, when Empress Elizabeth started to express interest in the young and good-looking Panin, her then favorite Ivan Shuvalov decided to get rid of his rival by promoting him to a post that would require him to leave Russia.
In 1747 Panin was dispatched to Copenhagen, but a few months later was sent to Stockholm, where he spent the next twelve years. In Stockholm he was instructed to weaken the Swedish royal power in order to promote Russia’s influence.
While living in Europe, Panin was taken by the ideas of Enlightenment and constitutional monarchy. This led him to believe in the power of law and that even monarchs should abide by it. He strongly envisioned this for Russia as well.
Panin was a student of Count Aleksey Bestuzhev-Ryumin, one of the most influential and successful European diplomats of the 18th century, whose strategy Panin followed with brilliant success as an ambassador in Copenhagen and Stockholm.
Soon, however, he was summoned to Russia by Empress Elizabeth for another important mission - to tutor Catherine’s son Paul, the heir to the Russian throne. This was the last appointment Panin received from Elizabeth, whose reign was soon to end.
Tutoring the future Emperor
His new position opened new heights to him, bringing him closer to the sovereign and his family. According to the instructions he received, he was to educate the heir to the throne in religious matters and bring out the best qualities in him. He also introduced the boy to people of different positions on the social ladder in order to improve his social skills and intelligence.
Since birth, Paul had been brought up by uneducated nursemaids and the boy was neurotic and ill-tempered, which posed quite a challenge to Panin who was expected to hone a well-rounded character in the boy.
However, Panin was reluctant to strongly suppress the boy’s bad nature and give him a profound education, partly due to laziness, and partly because he was seriously involved in the country’s political life and didn’t have much time to devote to bringing up royal youngsters.
Instead, Panin practiced long philosophical conversations with Paul that were not always suitable for a child. Other sources say Panin took up his new responsibility of educating Paul with willingness and that his new mission was a success until 1761 when Peter III ascended the throne and Paul’s future became indefinite and murky. In any case, Panin left an imprint on Paul’s life and the two maintained a very close friendship until Panin’s death.
Under Catherine the Great's rule
Panin had been close to Catherine back in the days when she was simply the wife of Peter III, the then-heir to the throne. Disliked by Elizabeth and openly neglected by her husband Peter III, Catherine was avoided by the court. Panin was one of the few statesmen who took interest in and had the courage to have an open relationship with Catherine. This friendship would eventually make him the right hand man of the future Empress of Russia.
Panin was supportive of Catherine when she overthrew her husband in 1762. He is said to have masterminded the murder of Peter III. In any case – Catherine generously rewarded Panin by making him first one of her counselors and then a chief member of the Foreign Affairs Collegium, which, in essence, made him the Foreign Minister of the country. Panin's intimate acquaintance with European diplomacy made him absolutely indispensable to Catherine when she ascended the throne. Catherine respected Panin and held a very high opinion of his knowledge and experience.
He was her chief man when it came to foreign policy, a position he retained for some twenty years. This fact proves that Panin merited his post because of his credentials and not just as a temporary favor bestowed on lovers.
Panin resisted the influence of the Empress’s favorites, something none of his successors had the courage to do. To restrict the influence of the ruling favorites, he suggested the formation of a cabinet council of six or eight ministers, through which all state business was to be transacted; but Catherine, suspecting in the skillfully presented novelty a subtle attempt to limit her power, rejected the suggestion after some hesitation.
Catherine had rather progressive political views but because she came to power in a coup d’état, she feared for her throne and opted for more conservative measures in practice. As much as she respected Panin, she had to keep him at some distance with his views on constitutional monarchy and his attempts to suggest the corresponding reforms.
Panin, however, continued to be indispensable. He owed his influence partly to the fact that he was the governor of Paul, who was greatly attached to him, partly to the peculiar circumstances in which Catherine had mounted the throne, and partly to his knowledge of foreign affairs.
Panin was one of the most learned, accomplished and courteous Russians of his day. The Earl of Buckinghamshire declared him to be the most amiable negotiator he had ever met. Unlike many of his contemporaries, it was impossible to bribe him. It was difficult for him to say “no” but his “yes” didn’t always mean his full accord. Catherine highly valued him for his encyclopedic knowledge. He also had very humane and liberal views and was honest and kind.
Having lived a long time in Europe he was well-acquainted with European culture and etiquette. People like Panin were rare and highly valued in Russian high society. His exceptional diplomatic skills made him many friends and very few enemies, even in social circles.
His charm made him popular with women, although he never married. There are rumors that he was once engaged to Countess Sheremetyeva, who died shortly before their planned marriage.
Panin was also famous for his laziness, which threw many diplomats off-guard. He walked slowly and spoke slowly but with dignity. His taste was impeccable and he was considered the most elegant man in the Imperial court. His taste extended to fine cuisine and he was said to employ the best chef in St. Petersburg.
The Northern Accord
Panin masterminded the famous "Northern Accord" – the union of Baltic Sea states and Great Britain under Russia to oppose the Austrian-Hungarian League. Such an attempt to bring together nations with different aims and characters, however, was destined to fail due to the wide differences of interests of the countries involved.
The idea of the "Northern Accord," though never quite realized, had important political consequences and influenced the foreign policy of Russia for many years.
Panin’s contribution was clearly seen at the end of the second decade of Catherine’s rule – Russia was no longer ignored on the international scene, but was rather sought after and counseled with.
Catherine, who by this time was 50, felt dissatisfied with her accomplishments and desperately needed fresh blood in the court to help her leave some trace in history. Her new favorite, Grigory Potemkin, was full of energy and threw himself into any project Catherine had in mind. The era of Panin’s prominence was coming to an end.
Panin further incited Catherine’s displeasure by meddling with the marriage arrangements of the Grand Duke Paul and by advocating a closer alliance with Prussia, while the Empress was beginning to lean more and more towards Austria.
Nevertheless, even after the second marriage of Paul, Panin maintained all his old influence over his student, who, like Panin, was now a warm admirer of the King of Prussia. As the Austrian influence increased, Panin found a fresh enemy in Joseph II, and the efforts of the old statesman to prevent a matrimonial alliance between the Russian and Austrian courts convinced Catherine to get rid of her steadfast counselor, dismissing him in 1781.
Catherine’s main reason for fearing Panin was that he thought the Empress should give up the throne once her son was of age to rule the country - something she was not willing to do.
Panin felt betrayed both by Catherine and his subordinates, who received promotions after his dismissal. It dealt a further blow to his already fading health. He spent most of his days in bed, visited daily by the doctor. However, his student Paul I was still as attached as ever to his tutor and spent much time at his deathbed in 1873 seeking counsel regarding the policies of his future reign.