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Paul I (October 1, 1754 – March 23, 1801) was Emperor of Russia from 1796 until his assassination. Officially, he was the only son of Peter III and Catherine the Great.

Paul was born in the Palace of Elizabeth of Russia, Saint Petersburg. His father, the future Emperor Peter III, was the nephew and heir apparent of the Empress. The last edition of Catherine’s memoirs explained that Peter III was certainly Paul’s father after all, although Catherine hinted that he was fathered by her lover Sergei Saltykov.

His mother, born the daughter of a minor German prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, would later depose her own husband (Paul’s father) and reign in her own right as Catherine II, known to history as Catherine the Great.

Paul was taken almost immediately after birth from his mother by the Empress Elizabeth, whose overwhelming attention may have done him more harm than good. Once Catherine had done her duty in providing an heir to the throne, Elizabeth had no more use for her and Paul was taken from his mother at birth and allowed to see her only during very limited moments. In all events, the Russian Imperial court, first of Elizabeth and then of Catherine, was not an ideal home for a lonely, needy and often sickly boy

Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, when Paul was 8 years old, and he became crown prince with the accession of his father to the throne as Peter III. However, within a matter of months, Paul’s mother engineered a coup and not only deposed her husband but, for a long time, was believed to have had him killed by her supporters. It was later found that Peter III probably died due to a fit of apoplexy when exerting himself in a dispute with Prince Feodor, one of his jailers. Some historians believe that he was murdered by a vindictive Alexei Orlov. After the death of Peter III, Catherine then placed herself on the throne in a surpassingly grand and ostentatious coronation ceremony. 8 year old Paul retained his status as heir to the Imperial throne.

In 1772, Paul, turned eighteen. Paul and his adviser, Panin, believed he was the rightful Emperor Russia, as the only son of Peter III. His adviser had also taught him that the rule of women endangered good leadership, which was why he was so interested in gaining the throne.

Distracting him, Catherine took trouble to find Paul a wife among the minor princesses of the Holy Roman Empire. She chose Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstad, who acquired the Russian name “Natalia Alexeievna”, a daughter of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and Caroline of Zweibrücken.

(Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstad)

The bride’s older sister, Frederika Louisa, was already married to the Crown Prince of Prussia, the future King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and she became Queen of Prussia.

Around this time, Catherine allowed Paul to attend the council in order that he might be trained for his work as Emperor. Wilhelmina died in childbirth on April 15, 1776, three years after the wedding. It soon became even clearer to Catherine that Paul wanted power, including his separate court. There was talk of having both Paul and his mother co-rule Russia, but Catherine narrowly avoided it. A fierce rivalry began between them, as Catherine knew she could never truly trust him and Paul wanted his mother’s power.

(Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg)

After her daughter-in-law’s death, Catherine began work forthwith on the project of finding another wife for Paul, and on October 7, 1776, less than six months after the death of his first wife, Paul married again. The bride was the beautiful Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, who received the new Orthodox name Maria Feodorovna. Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg was the daughter of Duke Friedrich II Eugene of Württemberg and Princess Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt

Their first child, Alexander, (future Emperor) was born in 1777, within a year of the wedding, and on this occasion the Empress gave Paul 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, Gatchina Palace, where he was allowed to maintain a brigade of soldiers whom he drilled on the Prussian model, an unpopular stance at the time.