Paul I (October 1, 1754 – March 23, 1801) reigned as Emperor of Russia between 1796 and 1801. 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’s “father” was as Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp the only child of Charles Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (the son of Hedvig Sophia of Sweden, sister of Carl XII of Sweden) and Anna Petrovna (the elder surviving daughter of Peter the Great).
Tsarevich Paul Petrovich of Russia
Paul was born in Saint Petersburg. His nominal father, the future Emperor Peter III, was the nephew and heir apparent of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia the daughter of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, by his second wife, Catherine I, Polish or Lithuanian peasant woman, born Marta Samuilovna Skavronskay. His mother, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst born the daughter of a minor German prince, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, who 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. Some claim that his mother, Catherine, hated him and was restrained from putting him to death. Robert K. Massie is more compassionate towards Catherine; in his 2011 biography of her, he claims that 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.
Emperor Peter III and Empress Catherine II of Russia
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.
In 1772, her son and heir, 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-Darmstad, (who acquired the Russian name “Natalia Alexeievna”), a daughter of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt and Countess Palatine Caroline of Zweibrücken.
Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstad, “Natalia Alexeievna”
The bride’s older sister, Frederika Louisa, was already married to the Crown Prince of Prussia (the future 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.
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, a daughter of Friedrich II Eugene, Duke of Württemberg and his wife, Princess Friederike of Brandenburg-Schwedt. Sophia Dorothea received the new Orthodox name Maria Feodorovna. Their first child, Alexander, (future Russian Emperor) was born in 1777, within a year of the wedding, and on this occasion the Empress gave Paul an estate, Pavlovsk.
Paul was of difficult character but Maria Feodorovna was completely satisfied with her fate. “My dear husband is a perfect angel and I love him to distraction” she wrote to a friend. Maria Feodorovna never changed her feelings for Paul, and despite everything that happened later, despite his difficult and often tyrannical character, she truly loved him.
Sophia Dorothea of Württemberg, Maria Feodorovna
The close relationship between Paul and Catherine Nelidova, one of Maria’s ladies-in-waiting, was the cause of the first crack in their marriage. Paul’s liaison, a deeply intense but, according to him, only platonic attachment to Nelidova, was particularly painful for Maria Feodorovna as the other woman had been her friend. Her relations with Nelidova became very bitter for several years. Later, however, she began to accept Paul’s word that it was only a friendship, and eventually Maria Feodorovna not only reconciled with the idea, but joined forces with Nelidova in an attempt to moderate Paul’s increasingly neurotic temperament.
Paul’s early isolation from his mother created a distance between them that later events would reinforce and from which the relationship would never recover. She never considered inviting him to share her power in governing Russia. And once Paul’s son Alexander was born, it appeared that she had found a more suitable heir. The use made of his name by the rebel Yemelyan Pugachev, who impersonated his father Peter, tended no doubt to render Paul’s position more difficult.
As Catherine grew older, she became less concerned that her son attend court functions; her attentions focused primarily on the future Emperor Alexander I. It was not until 1787 that Catherine may have in fact decided to exclude her son from succession. After Alexander and his brothers Constantine and Nicholas were born, she had them placed under her charge, just as Elizabeth had done with Paul.
Catherine 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 misogynist Pauline Laws, which established the strict principle of primogeniture in the House of Romanov, leaving the throne to the next male heir.
Paul, Emperor of Russia
Emperor Paul was idealistic and capable of great generosity, but he was also mercurial and capable of vindictiveness. In spite of doubts of his legitimacy, he greatly resembled his father, Peter III and other Romanovs as well and shared the same character. During the first year of his reign, Paul emphatically reversed many of his mother’s policies. Paul’s early foreign policy can largely be seen as reactions against his mother’s. In foreign policy, this meant that he opposed the many expansionary wars she fought and instead preferred to pursue a more peaceful, diplomatic path.
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 repealed Catherine’s law allowing corporal punishment of the free classes, directed reforms that resulted in greater rights for the peasantry, and provided for 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.
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 Great Britain’s representative in Saint Petersburg, Charles Whitworth. 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 in his bedroom in the newly-built St. Michael’s Castle. The assassins included General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the Russian service, and General Yashvil, a Georgian.
They charged into his bedroom, flushed with drink after dining 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 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 son, the 23-year-old Alexander, was actually in the palace at the time of the killing. 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.
Historians still debate Alexander’s role in his father’s murder. The most common theory is that he was let into the conspirators’ secret and was willing to take the throne but insisted that his father should not be killed. Becoming emperor through a crime that cost his father’s life would give Alexander a strong sense of remorse and shame.
On the night of her husband’s assassination, Maria Feodorovna thought to imitate the example of Catherine II and tried to claim the throne on the grounds that she had been crowned with Paul. It took Maria’s son, Alexander I, several days to persuade her to relinquish her reckless claim, for which she had no party to support her. For some time afterward, whenever her son came to visit, the Dowager Empress would place a casket between them containing the bloodstained nightshirt that Paul was wearing on the day of the murder, as a silent reproach.
Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia.