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Paul I of Russia

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Paul I of Russia
Paul I of Russia

Paul I of Russia (Russian: Pavel Petrovich, Павел I Петрович) (October 1, 1754 - March 23, 1801) was an Emperor (Tsar) of Russia (1796 - 1801).



Paul was born in the Summer Palace at St Petersburg. He was the son of the Grand Duchess, afterwards Empress, Catherine. According to some, his father was not her husband, the Grand Duke Peter, afterwards emperor, but Catherine's lover Sergei Saltykov. Although Catherine herself hinted that the story was true, it is fairly likely that this was simply an attempt to cast doubt on Paul's right to the throne, in order to prop up Catherine's own somewhat shaky claim.

During his infancy Paul was taken from the care of his mother by the Empress Elizabeth, whose ill-judged fondness allegedly injured his health. As a boy he was reported to be intelligent and good-looking. His pugnacious facial features in later life are attributed to an attack of typhus, from which he suffered in 1771. It has been asserted that his mother hated him, and was only restrained from putting him to death while he was still a boy by the fear of what the consequences of another palace crime might be to herself. Lord Buckinghamshire, the English ambassador at her court, expressed this opinion as early as 1764. In fact, however, others suggest that the empress, who was at all times very fond of children, treated Paul with kindness. He was put in charge of a trustworthy governor, Nikita Panin, and of competent tutors.

Her dissolute court provided a bad home for a boy destined to become the sovereign, but Catherine took great trouble to arrange his first marriage with Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt (who acquired the Russian name "Natalia Alexeievna") in 1773. She allowed him to attend the council in order that he might be trained for his work as emperor. His tutor Poroshin complained of him that he was "always in a hurry", acting and speaking without reflection.

Early Life

After his first marriage Paul became involved in intrigues. He believed he was the target of assassination. He also suspected his mother of intending to kill him, and once openly accused her of causing broken glass to be mingled with his food. Yet, though his mother removed him from the council and began to keep him at a distance, her actions were not unkind. The use made of his name by the rebel Pugachev in 1775 tended no doubt to render his position more difficult. When his wife died in childbirth in that year, his mother arranged another marriage on October 7, 1776, with the beautiful Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, renamed in Russian "Maria Feodorovna". On the birth of his first child in 1777 the Empress gave him an estate, Pavlovsk. Paul and his wife gained leave to travel through western Europe in 1781-1782. In 1783 the Empress granted him another estate at Gatchina, where he was allowed to maintain a brigade of soldiers whom he drilled on the Prussian model.

Rise to Power

Paul became emperor after Catherine suffered a stroke on November 5, 1796, and died in bed without having regained consciousness. Emperor Paul was idealistic and capable of great generosity, but he was also mercurial and capable of vindictiveness. In 1797 he allowed famous Russian writer Radishchev to return from Siberian exile. Yet Radishchev was kept in his own estate under police supervision. In 1798, Paul was elected as the Grand Master of the Order of St John, to whom he gave shelter following their ejection from Malta by Napoleon. His leadership resulted in the establishment of the Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller (Order of St John/Maltese Order) within the Imperial Orders of Russia.

Foreign Relations

His independent conduct of the foreign affairs of Russia plunged the country first into the Second Coalition against France in 1798, and then into the armed neutrality against Britain in 1801. In both cases it seems as if he acted on personal pique, quarrelling with France because he took a "sentimental" interest in the Hospitallers, and then with England because he was flattered by Napoleon. Besides the previously abandoned plans of joint Russo-French naval assault onto the British Isles, another of his gravest mistakes was the dispatching of the Cossack expeditionary force to India (Indian March of Paul). But his so-called political follies might have been condoned. But it is more likely that the Emperor was just trying to follow in the footsteps of Peter the Great. The inscription on the monument to Peter the Great erected in Paul's times near the Mikhailovskiy (St. Michael) Palace reads in Russian "To the Grandfather from the Grandson", a subtle but obvious mockery of Latin "PETRO PRIMO CATHERINA SECUNDA", the pompous dedication by Catherine on the 'Bronze Horseman', the most famous statue of Peter in St Petersburg.

Domestic Policy

Paul repealed Catherine's law which allowed the corporal punishment of the free classes of the population of Russia. Under Catherine's rule, no one could feel safe from exile or brutal ill-treatment at any moment. Paul also directed reforms which resulted in greater rights for the peasantry, and better treatment for serfs on agricultural estates. This was a great annoyance to the noble class and Paul's enemies. The Emperor also discovered outrageous machinations and corruption in the Russian treasury. If Russia had possessed any political institution except the tsardom, his enemies could have conspired to put him under restraint. But the country was not sufficiently civilized to deal with Paul as the Portuguese had dealt with Alphonso VI, a very similar person, in 1667. In early 19th-century Russia, as in medieval Europe, there was no safe haven for a deposed ruler. Paul's premonitions of assassination were well-founded.


A conspiracy was organized—some months before it was executed—by Counts Pahlen, Panin, and a half-Spanish, half-Neapolitan adventurer named Admiral Ribas. The death of Ribas delayed the execution. On the night of the March 23 1801, Paul was murdered in his bedroom in the 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 when flushed with drink. The conspirators forced him to the table, and tried to compel him to sign his abdication. Paul offered some resistance, and one of the assassins struck him with a sword, and he was then strangled and trampled to death. He was succeeded by his son, the Emperor Alexander I, who was actually in the palace, and to whom general Nicholas Zubov, one of the assassins, announced his accession.


A common unresearched view of Paul I, is that he was mad, had a mistress, his acceptance of the office of Grand Master of the Order of St John furthered his delusions, and that these eccentricities and his unpredictability in other areas led to his assassination. Such a portrait of Paul is a gift to those who seek to discount and ridicule the reign of Paul I. Given that histories are usually written by the victorious party to any conflict, in this context, how true is that picture of Paul?

Comparatively recent research has rehabilitated the character of Paul I. The popularist view of Paul was originally generated by his assassins in justification of their actions. It would be easy for authors writing about Paul I to follow the propaganda uncritically, ignoring new research, which has been available for nearly three decades. It is as if the propaganda has become accepted historical fact through being venerated by age.

In the 1970s, two academic Panels provided the assessments of new research into Paul I. These were at Montreal in 1973 and St Louis in 1976. Some of the findings were presented in a book edited by Hugh Ragsdale in 1979; Paul I: A reassessment of His Life and Reign, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1979. The reappraisal of Paul I has demonstrated his character as someone of high morals, who followed his conscience. Dismissed as unlikely is Paul's infidelity in having a mistress, and the involvement with the Order of St John is understood against a background of his idealising their history as a lesson in high chivalric ideals, he wished the Russian Nobility would adopt. Paul saw in the Russian Nobles an element of degeneracy, and introducing the high ideals of the Knights of Malta, was Paul's method of reform. Paul suffered a lonely and strict upbringing and whilst he was eccentric and neurotic, he was not mentally unbalanced. Whilst an analysis of his biography reveals an obsessive-compulsive personality, what the evidence reveals is that he had "characteristics fairly common in the population at large". Where Paul differed, was that by 1796 he had to manage the whole of the Russian Empire.

A new film on the rule of Paul I was produced by Lenfilm in 2003. Poor, Poor Paul ("Бедный, бедный Павел") is directed by Vitaliy Mel'nikov and stars Viktor Sukhorukov as Emperor Paul I. The film portrays Paul I more compassionately than the long-existing stories about him. The movie won the Michael Tariverdiev Prize for best music to a film at the Open Russian Film Festival "Kinotavr" in 2003. "The film, dedicated to the 300th anniversary of Petersburg, tells about the tragic fate of the Russian emperor Paul I."

See Also

  • A reasonable and balanced picture of Paul I, can be gained from;

Hugh (Ed) Paul I: A reassessment of His Life and Reign, University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1979.

  • For early literature tending to suggest that Paul was mad see;
  • For Paul's early life; K. Waliszewski, Autour d'un trone (Paris, 1894), or the English translation, The Story of a Throne (London, 1895), and P. Morane, Paul I. de Russie avant l'avenement (Paris, 1907).
  • For Paul's reign; T. Schiemann, Geschichte Russlands unter Nikolaus I (Berlin, 1904), vol. i. and Die Ermordung Pauls, by the same author (Berlin, 1902).
  • Other readings : (in Russian) V.V.Uzdenikov. Monety Rossiyi XVIII-nachala XX veka (Russian coinage from XVIII to the beginning of XX century). Moscow - 1994. ISBN 5-87613-001-X.

|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
Christian XII | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Count of Oldenburg
1773 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Friedrich August

|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
Catherine II | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Emperor of Russia
November 6, 1796March 23, 1801 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Alexander I

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Last updated: 10-14-2005 10:59:22
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