Empress Catherine II and her son and heir Paul maintained a distant relationship throughout her reign. The aunt of Catherine’s husband, Empress Elizabeth, took up the child as a passing fancy. Elizabeth proved an obsessive but incapable caretaker, as she had raised no children of her own. Paul was supervised by a variety of caregivers. Roderick McGrew briefly relates the neglect to which the infant heir was sometimes subject: “On one occasion he fell out of his crib and slept the night away unnoticed on the floor.”
Even after Elizabeth’s death, relations with Catherine hardly improved. Paul was often jealous of the favours she would shower upon her lovers. In one instance, the empress gave to one of her favourites 50,000 rubles on her birthday, while Paul received a cheap watch. Paul’s early isolation from his mother created a distance between them that later events would reinforce.
Catherine 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.
Catherine’s absolute power and the delicate balance of courtier status greatly influenced the relationship at Court with Paul, who openly disregarded his mother’s opinions. Paul adamantly protested his mother’s policies, writing a veiled criticism in his Reflections, a dissertation on military reform. In it he directly disparaged expansionist warfare in favour of a more defensive military policy.
Unenthusiastically received by his mother, Reflections appeared a threat to her authority and added weight to her suspicion of an internal conspiracy with Paul at its centre. For a courtier to have openly supported or shown intimacy towards Paul, especially following this publication, would have meant political suicide.
Paul spent the following years away from the Imperial Court, content to remain at his private estates at Gatchina Palace with his growing family and perform Prussian drill exercises. 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 brother Constantine were born, she had them placed under her charge, just as Elizabeth had done with Paul. That Catherine grew to favour Alexander as sovereign of Russia rather than Paul is unsurprising. She met secretly with Alexander’s tutor de La Harpe to discuss his pupil’s ascension, and attempted to convince Alexander’s mother Maria to sign a proposal authorizing her son’s legitimacy. Both efforts proved fruitless, and though Alexander agreed to his grandmother’s wishes, he remained respectful of his father’s position as immediate successor to the Russian throne.
Catherine suffered a stroke on 17 November 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.
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. Although he accused many of Jacobinism, he allowed Catherine’s best known critic, Radishchev, to return from Siberian exile. Besides Radishchev, he liberated Novikov from Schlüsselburg fortress, and also Tadeusz Kościuszko, yet after liberation both were confined to 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.