The Murder of Tsar Paul I
Sudden and violent death was not unknown to the monarchs who declared themselves the omnipotent rulers of Russia. Tsar Paul I (there was to be no Paul II) had a brief and turbulent reign from 1796 to 1801. He succeeded in making numerous enemies in his own country and they conspired to bump him off.
A Troubled Family
Paul was born in 1754, the only son of Peter III and Catherine II, or maybe not. The marriage was not a happy one and most of what is known about Peter comes from Catherine who portrayed her spouse as a man-child with very limited brain power and a fondness for alcohol.
Catherine, on the other hand was a woman of towering intellect and a lusty appetite for sex that Peter was unable to satisfy on his own. Catherine had many lovers and she hinted that Paul was fathered by one of these.
“One day, when I went into the apartments of His Imperial Highness, I beheld a great rat which he had hanged, with all the paraphernalia of an execution. I asked what all this meant. He told me that this rat had committed a great crime, which, according to the laws of war, deserved capital punishment.”
Catherine writing about her husband Tsar Peter III
In 1761, Peter succeeded his mother as Emperor of all Russia. In power, he was something of a reformer; he made it illegal for landowners to kill their serfs. Such a radical move, among others, annoyed the nobility. The Orthodox Church also took exception to his attacks on the traditional norms of society.
After only six months on the throne, Catherine organized a plot to have Peter removed. He was arrested, imprisoned, and probably murdered very shortly thereafter. Some historians say he died of natural causes or took his own life; there does not appear to have been a robust examination of the circumstances of his death. While his parents were having their tiffs, young Paul was being raised by an aunt.
The Mother Monarch
Having gotten rid of her husband, Catherine held an elaborate coronation to mark her seizure of the crown. Paul was now the crown prince and heir.
The lad's upbringing had been largely incompetent, neglectful, and distant from his mother. Catherine ruled with absolute power, (later acquiring the unofficial title Catherine the Great) and kept her son away from any role in governing. She found him a suitable princess from among Europe’s minor royal families and sent him off the manage an estate far from St. Petersburg and the centre of power.
She seems to have had a low opinion of Paul’s abilities and was, apparently, planning on changing the rules of succession when she was felled by a stroke in 1796. Her wish to see Paul’s son, Alexander, follow her was not immediately honoured.
To stop later monarchs from cutting the eldest son out of the line of succession, the new Tsar proclaimed the Pauline Laws dictating the male heir would always inherit the crown.
Tsar Paul’s Rule
Neither of Paul’s parents were Russian and he admired all things Prussian, particularly military matters. On his home estate, he kept a small army that he drilled in Prussian methods. He held daily parades so he could pretend to be a military commander.
When he came to the throne, one of his first actions was to change the uniforms of the Russian military to mimic those of Prussia. This did not go down well with the officers and men who saw Prussia as their traditional foe. And, the parades continued, every day at 11 a.m.
He seemed to learn nothing from his father’s misadventures and started to weaken the powers of the aristocracy and to improve the living conditions of serfs.
Paul’s foreign policy was a mess. He acted impulsively and capriciously and mostly seemed intent on undoing his mother’s legacy.
There were questions about Emperor Paul’s mental health as he was given to sudden outbursts of rage. He gave orders that men were no longer allowed to wear tailcoats and banned waltzing.
In fairness to Paul, much of what we think we know about him was written by people who harboured grievances against him.
Putting all of his actions together, the picture is clear that Tsar Paul I made too many enemies than was consistent with his continued good health.
On March 23, 1801 Paul held a dinner party in the Mikhaylovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. It was not, apparently, a joyous affair and Paul went to his private apartments early.
Many of his aristocratic guests remained in the dining room building up the courage to do what they had planned with large quantities of champagne. Suitably fortified, they broke into the emperor’s chamber and dragged him out of bed.
The plan had been to rough him up enough to encourage him to abdicate, but the alcohol intervened and a frenzied beating ensued. At some point, a ligature was placed around Paul’s neck and he was throttled into silence.
His son, Alexander, knew of the plot to depose his father although likely not of the murder. He became Tsar Alexander I. Four generations later, Tsar Nicholas II and all his family were assassinated by Communists in 1917.
“Tsar,” sometimes spelled “Czar,” comes from the Latin “Caesar.” This, in turn, came from the family name of Julius Caesar, and was adopted as the title for Roman leaders in about 68 CE.
On the throne, Paul had his father’s remains dug up and reburied with great pomp in the royal sepulchre. Count Aleksey Orlov, a favourite of Catherine the Great, and a suspect in the death of Peter III, was given a special function at the funeral. Paul forced the old man to carry the Imperial Crown behind Peter’s coffin during the burial procession.
The Emperor Paul visited an indignity upon Grigori Potemkin who had been a lover of Catherine the Great. He had his bones dug up and scattered. Those of her paramours that were still alive he kicked out of the country.
- “Peter III Biography.” Biography.com, April 19, 2019.
- “Peter III, once Placed a Rat on Trial, it Was Found Guilty & Sent to the Gallows.” Martin Chalakoski, Vintage News, June 4, 2018.
- “The Murder of Tsar Paul I.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, March 2001.
- “Russia's Tsar Is Brutally Beaten to Death.” BBC History, Volume 20, No. 3.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor