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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, although Catherine hinted that he was fathered by her lover Sergei Saltykov. Paul remained overshadowed by his mother for most of his life. He adopted the laws of succession to the Russian throne—rules that lasted until the end of the Romanov dynasty and of the Russian Empire.

Paul was de facto Grand Master of the Order of Hospitallers from 1799 to 1801 and ordered the construction of a number of Maltese thrones. Paul’s pro-German sentiments and unpredictable behavior made him unpopular among Russian nobility, and he was secretly assassinated by his own officers.

Grand Duke Paul Petrovich of Russia

Early years

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 and why.

Catherine II lied when hints about another father were written in the first edition, published by Hertzen. His mother, was born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her mother was Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt.

Catherine II 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.

In 1772, Paul, turned eighteen. Paul and his adviser, Panin, believed he was the rightful Emperor of 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-Darmstadt, who acquired the Russian name “Natalia Alexeievna”, a daughter of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and and his spouse Countess Palatine Caroline of Zweibrücken.

Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt

The bride’s older sister, Frederika Louisa, was already married to the Crown Prince of Prussia (future King Friedrich Wilhelm II 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 her son, as his claim to her throne was superior to her. Paul coveted his mothers position, and by the laws of succession prevalent then, it was rightfully his.

After her daughter-in-law’s death, Catherine began work forthwith on the project of finding another wife for Paul, and on October 17, 1776, less than six months after the death of his first wife, Paul married again. The bride was the beautiful Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, Daughter of Duke Friedrich Eugene of Württemberg and Princess Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt, Sophie Dorothea belonged to a junior branch of the House of Württemberg and grew up in Montbéliard, receiving an excellent education for her time.

Sophie Dorothea’s maternal great-uncle was King Friedrich II the Great of Prussia who also approved of the match and had been searching for a suitable husband for her.

Duchess Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg

In spite of her fiancé’s difficult character, Sophia Dorothea developed a long, peaceful relationship with Paul and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1776, adopting the name Maria Feodorovna. During the long reign (1762-1796) of her mother-in-law, she sided with her husband and lost the initial affection the reigning Empress had for her. The couple were completely excluded from any political influence, as mother and son mistrusted each other. They were forced to live in isolation at Gatchina Palace, where they had many children together.

Their first child, Alexander, 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.

Empress Catherine II suffered a stroke on November 17, 1796, and died without regaining consciousness. Paul’s first act as Emperor was to inquire about and, if possible, destroy her testament, as he feared it would exclude him from succession and leave the throne to Alexander. These fears may have contributed to Paul’s promulgation of the Pauline Laws, which established the strict principle of primogeniture in the House of Romanov, leaving the throne to the next male heir. Paul, as an emperor, also sought to seek revenge for the deposed and disgraced Peter III and for the coup of his mother Catherine II.

Paul intervened in the French Revolutionary Wars and, toward the end of his reign, added Kartli and Kakheti in Eastern Georgia into the empire, which was confirmed by his son and successor Alexander I.

Assassination

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.

As he had revoked Catherine’s decree allowing corporal punishment of the free classes, and directed reforms that resulted in greater rights for the peasantry and provided for better treatment for serfs on agricultural estates, many of his policies greatly annoyed the nobility and induced his enemies to work out a plan of action.

A conspiracy was organized, some months before it was executed, by Counts Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, Nikita Petrovich Panin, and Admiral de Ribas, with the alleged support of the British ambassador in Saint Petersburg, Charles Whitworth.

Emperor Paul of Russia

The death of de Ribas in December 1800 delayed the assassination; but, on the night of March 23, 1801, a band of dismissed officers murdered Paul at the newly completed palace of Saint Michael’s Castle.

The assassins included General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the Russian service, and General Yashvil, a Georgian. They charged into Paul’s bedroom, flushed with drink after dining together, and found the emperor 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 Nikolay Zubov struck him with a sword, after which the assassins strangled and trampled him to death.

Paul’s successor on the Russian throne, his 23-year-old son Alexander, was actually in the palace at the time of the killing; he had “given his consent to the overthrow of Paul, but had not supposed that this would be carried out by means of assassination”.

General Nikolay Zubov announced his accession to the heir, accompanied by the admonition, “Time to grow up! Go and rule!” Alexander I did not punish the assassins, and the court physician, James Wylie, declared apoplexy the official cause of death.