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Czar Paul’s one ambition was to avenge his father’s death

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Czar Paul of Russia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Czar Paul of Russia,  picture, image, illustration

When Catherine the Great died, Czar Paul of Russia shed no tears of grief but cried out an inner cheer of vengeful delight

The small squat ugly man stood looking at the coffin of his mother, Catherine the Great, still lying in state. There were no tears in his eyes. His face was white and the muscles of his face twitched – but this was anger not sorrow. Suddenly he raised his clenched fists upwards and hissed: “And now at last I shall have my revenge!”

This was Czar Paul of Russia who in 1796 had just succeeded to the throne. His mother, Catherine the Great, believed that his fits of uncontrollable temper bordered sometimes on madness and that he was not suited to take her place and rule over Russia. She meant to name Paul’s son, Alexander, as next Czar, but her death from a sudden stroke prevented her from making her intentions known publicly. And so Paul became Czar of Russia.

Paul had always disliked his mother while she for her part had treated him with contempt and hostility. He had been brought up by his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. When Elizabeth had died, Catherine had still shown no interest in her son. Paul had married when he was 19 but his wife died a few months later. Soon after, he married again, this time a Prussian princess – Maria. Catherine only showed some interest when Paul’s son was born. She held an enormous banquet in his honour, and then took the baby Alexander from his parents to be brought up by herself.

Paul had always firmly believed – and probably not without reason – that his mother was in some way to blame for the murder of his father, Peter the Third. Now that his mother had died, it was his opportunity to show some gesture of revenge.

First he ordered that the body of his father, killed 34 years ago, should be exhumed and placed in a coffin alongside that of his mother. The two coffins, side by side, formed the head of the vast and long funeral procession. And then the man who Paul knew to be guilty of the actual deed of killing his father – Count Alexis Orlov – once a strong fierce soldier but now an old man – was forced to walk behind the two coffins carrying Peter the Third’s crown in his hand. The bodies of Peter and Catherine were then buried together.

But Paul’s revenge was not yet complete. Catherine had had a favourite admirer who had helped and advised her during much of her reign. His name had been Potemkin and Catherine had been desolate when he had died a few years before her. Paul now had Potemkin’s remains dug up and scattered into a ditch to lie there forgotten.

Paul now believed that he had avenged his father’s death. But the Russian people were beginning to talk, to say that these were the actions of someone not completely sane.

Paul’s first task was to try and wipe out the memory of Catherine from Russia. She had loved French ways and had introduced many of them to Russia. Paul had these banned. He then refused to wear the royal crown of Russia at his coronation because Catherine had worn it at hers. And many of the splendid royal palaces that Catherine had had built were quickly allowed to deteriorate and become little more than ruins.

Paul had constantly lived under the threat of being disinherited. He knew of his mother’s affection for Alexander, of how she had arranged an early marriage for him at the age of 16, and of her wish to nominate him Czar in Paul’s place. And even though his mother was now dead, Paul still suffered from the feeling of being continually persecuted. And he had a constant fear of death, of being assassinated just as his father had been.

Because of his wife’s connection with Prussia, Paul had become enthusiastic about all things Prussian. He loved their sense of discipline and he spent much of his time drilling his royal soldiers until they dropped from exhaustion. His love for discipline went further. He had all foreign books banned. He enforced laws telling people what they could or could not wear. His rule became petty and governed mainly by his outbursts of temper. Officials would be removed from office one day only to be reinstated the next. There was a complete sense of insecurity.

This feeling spread to the people. Gradually a hatred for Paul began to be widespread. It was inevitable that there would be a conspiracy against him.

The conspiracy was planned by Count Pahlen, the military governor of St. Petersburg. He approached several officers of the royal guards and they banded themselves together as a group. They made their plans.

Then Count Pahlen approached Czar Paul’s son, Alexander. He pointed out that Paul had become mentally unbalanced and that it was for the good of Russia that he should be removed from the throne. It was a dangerous step for Pahlen – Alexander could easily have denounced him. But Alexander agreed – providing that it could be arranged without bloodshed.

Eventually the plans were set. The conspirators met over supper and reinforced their courage with wine. Then they made their way to the Czar’s palace. Because they were known to the guards and were officers they had no difficulty in entering. They climbed the staircase to the upper corridors and the Czar’s bedroom. They tried to walk quietly, but the wine they had drunk made them unsteady on their feet.

Meanwhile Paul, not yet asleep and hearing noises in the corridor, became alarmed and clambered quickly out of his bed. His perpetual fear of death and assassination swept over him. The hairs bristled on his neck. He looked frantically for somewhere to hide. There was only the large empty fireplace with the screen in front of it. He squeezed behind it desperately.

Suddenly the door was thrown open. The conspirators rushed in – all except Count Pahlen who made some pretext to remain outside. If something went wrong then he did not want to appear involved. The conspirators stopped short, staring round the seemingly empty room. Perhaps their plans had misfired. Perhaps the Czar had not retired for the night yet. They were about to leave when one of them went over to the bed and put his hand upon the sheets. They were still warm. Then they saw Paul’s bare feet beneath the screen. They quickly threw the screen aside and dragged Paul out, still in his nightshirt.

Paul was held by the arms while one of the conspirators read out a formal document demanding that Paul should abdicate in favour of his son.

Suddenly Paul regained his courage. He shook off those holding him and shouted that he would never abdicate. He demanded that they all leave his room and when they made no movement he stepped forward and struck one of the conspirators across the face.

They all stepped back, not quite certain of themselves any more. But then one of them, bolder than the rest, moved forward and struck a blow to Paul’s arm that broke it instantly. Paul fell to the ground in agony. The others crowded in, setting upon him and finally strangling him.

Paul had had good reason for his fear of assassination. Now he was dead and it was Alexander who was to be Czar of Russia. After the five short years of Paul’s reign, the Russian people welcomed the news of his death. They did not enquire too closely into the manner in which he had met his end. Paul was no longer Czar and that was all that mattered.

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