Paul, son of Catherine the Great and Peter III, started his reign in 1796. Born in 1754 and raised by his great-aunt Elizabeth, the young prince never had an affectionate relationship with his own mother. Young Paul always fell short of his mother’s expectations and was almost bypassed in favor of his own sons. Paul started his short and tyrannical reign upon Catherine’s death in 1796, but his reign was mostly overshadowed by the First and Second Coalition Wars waged against the expanding French Republic. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during this time period.
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Early Years and Accession
Catherine, Empress of Russia, gave birth to her son on September 20, 1754. The baby was named Paul (Pavel) and was kidnapped several minutes later by the childless Empress Elizabeth. Grand Duke Peter, the boy’s father, was busy drinking himself into a stupor somewhere in the palace while the empress was taking the child away from his mother.
Any form of affection failed to grow between mother and son as Paul was raised by Empress Elizabeth in her own household. He rarely saw his own mother, and he was entrusted early on to a tutor named Nikita Ivanovich Panin. Elizabeth died in 1762 and was soon succeeded by her nephew, the Grand Duke Peter. Emperor Peter III, however, did not reign long. Catherine, his own wife, deposed him in a coup just five months after he acceded the throne. After sending her husband to Ropsha, she then crowned herself Empress of Russia in Moscow.
Although the Empress did not neglect him altogether, Paul’s relationship with his mother worsened as the years passed. In 1773, she arranged his marriage to the Prussian princess Wilhelmina Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt. She knew that she would have to leave the throne to him after her death, so she allowed him to attend the meetings of the Council to give him some training.
Paul’s first wife died in 1776 after giving birth to a stillborn son, so Catherine once again arranged his marriage to another Prussian princess. This time she picked the lovely Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg, and the two were married in September 1776. What was initially a marriage of convenience turned out to be a good match when Paul and Maria Feodorovna (Sophia Dorothea’s Orthodox name) fell in love. She gave birth to their son Alexander I in 1777, and the heir was soon followed by nine more children.
Paul was also infatuated with military drills—a quirk that irritated his mother as it reminded her of her dead spouse. He also inherited his father’s temper, impulsiveness, and cruelty. He terrorized his family with his fits of rage, so his wife was often forced to calm him down. The Empress and her court often scoffed at him and considered him mad.
Catherine and Paul’s relationship worsened when the Empress insinuated that she would bypass him and elevate her grandson Alexander to the throne instead. When his third son Nicholas was born, Catherine persuaded Maria to convince her husband to renounce his claim to the throne in favor of their sons. Maria refused, and Paul’s resentment of her mother only worsened.
The Mad Emperor
Paul became Emperor of Russia as soon as his mother breathed her last in 1796. His priority was to consolidate power and ensure the loyalty of his courtiers. Then it was time to settle old scores. The new Emperor had his father’s remains exhumed from the Nevsky Monastery. He then ordered Orlov and Bariatinski (the ringleaders of Peter’s assassination) to lead the funeral procession. When she was alive, Catherine had insinuated that Paul was the son of her first lover Saltykov and therefore was not a true Romanov. Paul never forgot this slight, and he had Peter buried with her as revenge.
So great was his hatred of Catherine that the Emperor started his reign by erasing his mother’s legacy. He forbade the troops from wearing the simpler and more practical uniform introduced by Catherine’s favorite and former lover Grigory Potemkin. He favored the Prussian style uniforms (with matching wig and powder) which he soon reintroduced to the army. He had General Alexander Suvorov (one of Catherine’s favorites) dismissed and sent to his estate when the general defied him by rejecting his reforms. Paul and his wife also formulated a decree which forbade a female offspring of the House of Romanov from inheriting the throne.
Apart from military parades, he also liked to bend people to his will with or without the use of violence. Members of the nobility needed to submit to corporal punishment, and they were required to adhere to the strict hierarchy he created for them. He was not above to beating soldiers who offended him. Banishment to Siberia as punishment for petty sins was also common so that soldiers assigned in the capital resorted to padding their coats with cash just in case they were suddenly sent into exile.
His volatility and pettiness confused and terrified his courtiers. He was gracious with people whom he favored but severe with people who fell from his grace. He drove out his mistress Yekaterina Nelidova and the Kurakin family when he got tired of their scheming. He also elevated his barber, valet, and occasional pimp Ivan Kutaisov to the position of count.
The Coalition Wars
Paul spent much of his reign trying to contain the expansionist ambitions of the newly created French Republic. The French Brigadier General Napoleon Bonaparte embarked on the Italian campaign in the year of Paul’s accession to the throne. Bonaparte and his troops easily took Savoy, Piedmont-Sardinia, Ferrara, Romagna, and Bologna during the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797). Austria, a haven for French royalists and enemy of France during much of the war, was forced to sue for peace on April 1797. Napoleon Bonaparte and his Austrian counterpart signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 18, 1797.
The treaty left Austria’s former ally Britain out in the cold as it was only between Austria and France. Bonaparte was eager to attack Britain, but he was doubtful that a French invasion of the island would ever succeed. He then decided that it would be wiser to weaken Britain first by disrupting the British commerce. To this end, he decided to block the Mediterranean route taken by British ships to India and establish French domination in Egypt. Napoleon and his fleet then sailed to Egypt but stopped mid-way in Malta to besiege the island.
News of the fall of Malta to the French in 1798 enraged Paul. He had been elected as Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and he considered this distant island his jurisdiction. To his delight, however, Bonaparte and his fleet were later routed by Captain Nelson’s navy in the Battle of the Nile. Despite the defeat at sea, the French were still victorious on Egyptian land. French troops successfully captured Cairo and soon were spreading their tentacles into Syria.
Alarmed at the expansion, the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger traveled to St. Petersburg in 1799 to convince the Emperor to form the Second Coalition that would counter France. Paul agreed to join the coalition and sent Russian soldiers to attack the French troops in the Batavian Republic (former Dutch Republic), Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia, Savor, and Switzerland along with British and Austrian troops.
The Austrian and the Russian armies (under the command of General Suvorov) was able to route the French army in Italy. Despite this victory, the relationship between the Austrian and the Russian troops soon floundered. Suvorov and his men later marched to Switzerland to fight the French forces, but they were soon abandoned by the Austrians. The Russians were forced to fight their way out of Switzerland to survive. To Paul’s dismay, the troops he sent to Holland to work with the British forces fared no better. Enraged at his allies’ ineptitude and unreliability, he formally withdrew his troops from the coalition on October 22, 1799.
Coup d’etat and Death
Two men held sway over Paul during his reign. First was the pro-British Count Nikita Panin whom Paul appointed as vice-chancellor. Panin’s more powerful rival was the president of the Collegium of Foreign Affairs Feodor Rostopchin who was known to advocate pro-French policies. Frustrated with Paul’s inept foreign policies, Count Nikita Panin soon planned to have the Emperor deposed and elevate his son Alexander instead. He met with Alexander, but the terrified heir neither agreed to the plan nor breathed a word to his father about the plot.
Bonaparte, meanwhile, had overthrown the French Directory in a coup in November 1799 and soon became the country’s First Consul. In the same year, Paul granted Rostopchin the title of count and soon made overtures to Napoleon. Nothing could have made the First Consul happier. To secure Paul’s goodwill, he released 7,000 Russian prisoners of war and sent them back to their homeland in 1800. He also agreed to evacuate French troops from Malta and let Russian troops occupy the island. The British navy, however, got there first and promptly captured the island which they then refused to hand over to the Russians. Paul responded by planning an attack on British-held India together with Bonaparte.
The Emperor’s stifling paranoia increased during the last year of his life. He trusted no one (not even his own sons) and often sent people to exile for tiniest offenses. His heir—the perceptive and liberal Alexander—bore the brunt of his tyrannical tendencies. He saw threats all around but suspected Alexander more than the others.
Men who served Paul (even those who were loyal to him) often found themselves dismissed from their jobs when they fell from grace. One of these men was Count Nikita von der Pahlen who was appointed, dismissed, reappointed and dismissed once again as governor of Livonia. In 1800, Pahlen finally had enough of Paul’s volatility. He approached Alexander and slowly began to suggest the idea of ousting Paul in favor of his son. Alexander, terrified or deeply filial, refused to go along with Pahlen.
In early 1801, Pahlen finally convinced Alexander to join his allies in forcing his father to abdicate. Ever the devoted son, he asked for Pahlen’s assurance that Paul would remain alive and that he would only be retired to the Mikhailovsky Palace. Pahlen agreed but knew that he would not be able to keep his promise to Alexander. Now all he had to do was to find someone who did not mind to having his hands stained with blood.
By some stroke of luck, Pahlen was able to convince Paul to recall Prince Nikolay Zubov from exile. Zubov, one of Catherine’s favorites, had been Paul’s nemesis. Upon his mother’s death, the Emperor immediately had him and his brother Platon (Catherine’s lover) exiled. Levin Bennigsen, one of Catherine’s most prominent generals, was also exiled in 1798 but was pardoned by Paul along with Zubov. Some 200 soldiers soon joined in on the plot after some their fellow soldiers were sent into exile.
Paul retreated to the Mikhailovsky Castle as his paranoia deepened. He knew that something was up and it was only a matter of time before someone deposed or worse, killed him. He once confronted Pahlen on the news of a conspiracy which reached him, but the latter only reassured the Emperor that it would not succeed. Pahlen decided to play along. He told the Emperor that his wife and elder sons were planning to oust him, and advised him to plan a counter-coup.
He then betrayed the Emperor by telling his son of the plot and advised him to be ready to strike. Unaware of the whole plot, Paul then gave his wife and elder sons a dressing down for plotting against him. He had his sons placed on house arrest, but Alexander remained in contact with Pahlen.
Pahlen and his men surrounded the Mikhailovsky Palace during the early morning hours of March 23, 1801. Meanwhile, a group of drunk and angry soldiers led by Prince Platon Zubov, his brother Nikolay, and Bennigsen stormed into the palace. Alarmed at the noise, Paul got out of his bed and hid behind a screen. The assailants soon found him and dragged him from behind his hiding place. Bennigsen then declared him deposed and elevated Alexander as the new Emperor. A ruckus ensued as the disbelieving Paul struggled against his captors.
Nikolay Zubov then took a heavy snuffbox and hit the emperor’s face with it. Several officers also joined the melee and started beating and choking him. Another officer took the Emperor’s sash then looped it around his neck while Paul begged for mercy. None was spared for him that night.
Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.
Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia. Vol. 2. The Cambridge History of Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521815291.
McGrew, Roderick E. Paul I of Russia, 1754-1801. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.