Paul I of Russia



Pavel (Paul) I Petrovich of Russia (October 1, 1754 – March 23, 1801) was the Emperor of Russia between 1796 and 1801.

Paul was born in the Palace of Elizabeth I at St Petersburg. He was the son of the Grand Duchess, later Empress, Catherine II. In her memoirs, she strongly implies that his father was not her husband, the Grand Duke Peter, later Emperor, but her lover Sergei Saltykov. Supporters of Catherine's claim assume that Peter III was sterile, and was unable to even engage in normal sexual relations with her until he had a surgical operation performed, and so could not have sired the boy himself. Although the story was much aired by Paul's enemies, 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. He physically resembled the Grand Duke so one might doubt the claims of illegitimacy. Catherine was a descendant of the House of Rurik; Peter was a descendant of the House of Romanov.

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 British Ambassador at her court, expressed this opinion as early as 1764. However, others suggested that the Empress, who was at all times very fond of children, treated Paul with kindness. He was put in the charge of a trustworthy governor, Nikita Ivanovich 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 Louisa (who acquired the Russian name "Natalia Alexeievna"), one of the daughters of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, in 1773, and 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 rushing," acting and speaking without reflection.

After his first wife died in childbirth, his mother arranged another marriage on October 7, 1776, with the beautiful Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, given the new name Maria Feodorovna. At this time he began to be 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, who had impersonated his father Peter, tended no doubt to render Paul's position more difficult. 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. Maria bore Paul 10 children.

Paul became emperor after Catherine suffered a stroke on November 5, 1796, and died in bed without having regained consciousness.

During the first year of his reign, Paul emphatically reversed many of the policies of his mother. Although he accused many of Jacobinism and exiled people merely for wearing Parisian dress or reading French books, he allowed Catherine's best known critic, Radishchev, to return from Siberian exile. The army, then poised to attack Persia in accordance with Catherine's last design, was recalled to the capital within one month of Paul's ascension. The inscription on the monument to the first Emperor of Russia erected in Paul's time near the St. Michael's Castle reads in Russian "To the Great-Grandfather from the Great-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.

Emperor Paul was idealistic and capable of great generosity, but he was also mercurial and capable of vindictiveness. Apart from Radishchev, he liberated Novikov from the fortress of Shlisselburg, and also Tadeusz Kościuszko, yet both liberated persons were kept in their own estates under police supervision. He viewed the Russian nobility as decadent and corrupt, and was determined to transform them into a disciplined, principled, loyal caste resembling a medieval chivalric order. To those few who conformed to his view of a modern-day knight (e.g., his favorites Kutaysov, Arakcheyev, Rostopchin) he granted more serfs during five years of his reign than his mother had presented to her lovers during thirty-four years of her own. Those who did not share his chivalric views were dismissed or lost their places at court: seven field marshals and many generals fell into this category.

In accordance with his chivalric ideals, Paul was elected as the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller, 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. At a great expense, he built three castles in or around the Russian capital. Much was made of his courtly love affair with Anna Lopukhina, but the relationship seems to have been platonic and was barely more than another detail in his ideal of chivalric manhood.

Paul's independent conduct of the foreign affairs plunged the country into the War of the Second Coalition against France in 1798, when he sent Suvorov to batter Napoleon in Switzerland and Ushakov to assist Nelson's operations in the Mediterranean. After great hardships endured and great victories won in either campaign, the emperor suddenly changed his mind and turned toward 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 Britain after it had captured Malta, their traditional home. Besides the previously abandoned plans of a joint Russo-French naval assault onto the British Isles, another of his famous follies was the dispatching of the Cossack expeditionary force to fight the British in India (see Indian March of Paul).

Paul's premonitions of assassination were well-founded. His attempts to force the nobility to adopt a code of chivalry alienated many of his trusted advisors. The Emperor also discovered outrageous machinations and corruption in the Russian treasury. Although he repealed Catherine's law which allowed the corporal punishment of the free classes and directed reforms which resulted in greater rights for the peasantry, and better treatment for serfs on agricultural estates, most of his policies were viewed as a great annoyance to the noble class and induced his enemies to work out a plan of action. On the night of the March 11, 1801, Paul was murdered in his bedroom in the newly built St Michael's Castle by a band of dismissed officers headed by General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the Russian service. They charged into his bedroom, flushed with drink after supping together, and found Paul hiding behind some drapes in the corner. The conspirators pulled him out, 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, after which he was 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.

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