Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Monarch Profile: Tsar Paul I of Russia
I will admit, I have a soft spot for Tsar Paul I, often referred to as the “Mad Tsar”. He was a monarch of very monarchist sensibilities, a dedicated sovereign and a man with a great sense of imagination and adventure. The popular image of him as an unsavory, authoritarian lunatic was, it must be remembered, an image spread by those who murdered him and who tried to portray him in the most negative light possible to justify their heinous crime. He was certainly not flawless, but his faults have been grossly distorted and he possessed many admirable qualities. He was born on September 20, 1754 to the future Tsar Peter III (then a Grand Duke) and his formidable wife who would become known as Catherine the Great in St Petersburg. His mother, however, would later cast doubts on his legitimacy, showing little regard for the future stability of the Russian Empire but all of that involves speculation. Soon after he was born the Empress Elizabeth removed the little prince from his parents and as he grew up he would hold a grudge against his mother for the murder of his father and the subsequent coup that made Catherine Empress of Russia. His education was entrusted to Nikita Ivanovich Panin who was to teach him to be an “enlightened” monarch but he was also surrounded by the quiet example of many pious women as well as the Empress Elizabeth who was a devoted daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church in the best, traditional, fashion.
Contrary to those who have portrayed Paul as cold and unfeeling, he was immediately taken by the Princess Wilhelmina, a beautiful, pleasant and outgoing young lady who won over everyone. It took only two days for Paul to determine that she was the one for him and on September 29, 1773 the two were married, the princess converted to Orthodoxy and was thereafter known as Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna of Russia. She supported her husband but soon rumors were running thick of an affair between the Grand Duchess and her husband’s best friend. Paul remained blissfully ignorant of this talk and was extremely distraught in 1776 when Grand Duchess Natalia died after giving birth to a stillborn son. Paul was crushed and blamed the doctors for the death of his wife. There was little time for mourning, however, as Empress Catherine quickly arranged another marriage for her son with Princess Sophia Dorothea of Wuerttemberg, later known as Maria Feodorovna. Paul gave his wife a detailed set of instructions which show how well he knew his own shortcomings, keeping his entire day strictly regimented so that not a minute was lost to idle frivolity. In their years together Maria Feodorovna gave Paul four sons and six daughters.
Still deprived of a role in government, when the couple returned to Russia the Grand Duke set up his own model estate at Gatchina Palace where luxury and decadence were forbidden in favor simplicity, military discipline and pursuits which expanded the mind. He was fond of playing chess and of drilling his soldiers which he did in the Prussian style, being greatly impressed by the stunning victories of Frederick the Great. The serfs on his estate were mostly Finns and Grand Duke Paul took good care of them, tolerating their Lutheran faith, always sharing with them the latest advances in agriculture and lending them money when they were in need. He built a free hospital for them as well as schools for the local peasant children. These facts are often left out of the accounts which like to portray the estates of Paul as nothing more than an armed camp presided over by a militaristic martinet. The army was always important to him but he was far from being no more than a heartless drillmaster as he is often portrayed. His only chance to see battle himself was during the war with Sweden of 1788-90 during which he did come under enemy fire, though the Swedes later apologized for having shot at him.
Far from being a harsh authoritarian, Tsar Paul I made everyone more equal under the law, which not everyone in the nobility appreciated. Under his rule, nobles would pay taxes and if they committed crimes would be subject to the same corporal punishment given to the common people. Which is not to say that Paul I was any sort of revolutionary. Quite the contrary. Because of the spread of revolutionary ideas from France, in 1800 Tsar Paul I cut off all imports of books and music and even forbid the use of such words as “citizen” and “society”, which was to his credit. He believed absolutely in divinely ordained monarchy, legitimate authority and was totally opposed to revolution on principle. It was because of his devotion to these ideals that he joined Great Britain, Naples and Austria in the Second Coalition against revolutionary France. Russia was, at that point, under no threat whatsoever, but Paul I would oppose revolution and defend legitimate monarchs wherever and whenever they were threatened. His goal was to see the lawful monarchs restored to their thrones in Italy and he was particularly outraged by the French occupation of Malta in 1798. The Knights of Malta had fascinated him since he was a boy and in that year he secured his election as their Grand Master. It was his greatest wish to see Russia liberate Malta and restore the island to the Knights.
Through it all, the Tsar never forgot his people and he was meticulous in looking out for their welfare. He wanted to be the accessible Tsar and indeed he was. One of the things he is remembered for was putting in what we would today call a “suggestion box” at the Winter Palace where any Russian could leave him letters, making suggestions, reporting problems or ask for assistance. This was no meaningless charade either as the Tsar collected and read these letters himself every day and answered every single one. He was known to spend whole nights on his knees in prayer and wrote of government that, “The object of every society is the happiness of each and all”. He rose at five o’clock every morning and remained constantly busy until his head touched the pillow at night. Many have described him as being paranoid but this seems an odd accusation to make considering the tragic end of Tsar Paul I. As has often been said, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. So it was with Paul I. A plot was hatched with the knowledge of his son and heir Alexander, though Alexander had no idea that the plot included regicide. Count Peter Pahlen, military governor of St Petersburg, was the chief architect of the coup. On the night of March 11-12, 1801 the conspirators infiltrated the Tsar’s residence, Mikhailovsky Zamok, and found Paul I in his bedroom. The Tsar was attacked, fought back, was brutally beaten and finally strangled to death with a sash. The murderers quickly announced that the Tsar had died of an apoplexy but the truth spread quickly.