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.

According to his critics, Paul was trouble from the start, obstinate, obsessive, moody and temperamental. In fact, these are distortions of some of his best qualities, exaggerated later by those wishing to ruin his reputation. He was unbending in his defense of traditional principles, a man of restless energy and a man capable of changing direction when he could see something was not working; all fine things that can easily be cast in a negative light. He did have a temper on him but this was far from unusual amongst the ranks of the Romanovs. One of his religious instructors, the future Metropolitan of Moscow, instilled in him a devotion to the Church and said of the future Tsar that, “Fortunately, my high-born student always had a leaning towards godliness, and also enjoyed discussions and conversations about God and the faith”. His strong faith in God would sustain him through the difficult years of his life. Catherine the Great kept him always at a distance, frustrating his desire to serve Mother Russia and give vent to his restless energy. At times he often felt like a prisoner in his own country but was finally given a ray of light when his mother determined it was time for him to marry. She asked her friend Frederick the Great of Prussia to suggest a suitable candidate and he dispatched three young Hessian princesses for the Grand Duke to consider.

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.

Naturally, with so much bad blood between the Grand Duke and his mother there were talks of doing to the Empress what she had done to her own husband. Paul would have none of it. When the plan was amended to spare the life of the Empress and simply have a coup for Paul to take power he still would not allow anything of the sort. As much as he opposed his mother and her way of life, he would not dishonor himself by resorting to rebellion. By refusing to go along with the plan, the plotters feared he would betray them and had him poisoned. Paul managed to survive but retained several maladies for the rest of his life as a consequence of his unbending loyalty. He was not well liked at court, a fact which is often mentioned, but this was not necessarily a bad thing. He disliked most of those at court as well as disapproved of the ostentatious style of Catherine the Great and the immorality that prevailed there. He was often cheered wildly by the common people and when on a European tour with his wife was described in glowing terms by Emperor Joseph II (a man not known for being free with his praise) who wrote to his brother about what good parents Paul and Maria were, how interested they were in learning, particularly about charitable and educational subjects to benefit their people. Leopold of Tuscany was equally impressed, describing them as possessing “a great deal of spirit, talent and thoughtfulness”.

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.

As Catherine the Great began to fail in health there was talk that she would pass over her son and leave the Russian crown to her grandson Alexander. If there was such a plan, it was not able to be put into effect and in 1796 Tsar Paul I became Emperor of Russia without opposition. He had his father reburied alongside Catherine II at Peter and Paul Cathedral and the following year decreed a new law to regularize the succession, basing it on male primogeniture and adherence to the Russian Orthodox faith. Almost at once he began abolishing those policies of his mother he disapproved of, called off the war against Persia, released from jail those Catherine had imprisoned and clamped down on the spread of subversive ideas and activities. He also set about immediately to reform the army, based on the Prussian model. Not all of these changes were popular but, as Paul I said, “I prefer to be hated for a rightful cause than loved for a wrong one.” The lives of the regular soldiers were much improved, government spending was reduced and the first ministers were established. While not trampling on traditional rights, he urged landowners to exempt serfs from work on Sundays, forbid the breaking up of families and advised that serfs should work on the land of their masters no more than three days a week.

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.

In his drive to remove the French from the eastern Mediterranean where they could menace Russian trade on the Black Sea, Paul made peace with Ottoman Turkey and joined them in seizing the Ionian Islands from France which were then occupied by Russia. The Russian troops under the famous General Suvorov fought well in Italy and even when forced to retreat fought a brilliant delaying action through the Alps. The fact that Tsar Paul made and dropped alliances in turn has often been cited as proof of his madness but, in actuality, it was all due to his devotion to the cause of legitimate authority. He withdrew from the coalition when it became clear that rather than restoring the prior monarchs, Austria intended to keep the Italian territories they conquered for themselves. When Napoleon came to power in France, the Tsar hoped this might be a sort of counter-revolution and attempted to come to terms with “the Little Corporal” but Napoleon refused to agree to Paul’s demands that the pre-revolutionary regimes in Germany, Italy and on Malta be restored. When Great Britain occupied Malta and retained it rather than restoring it to the Knights as well as going along with the Austrian conquests in Italy, Paul I broke with Great Britain and even considered an offensive to drive the British out of India.

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.

This meant that some new justification for the coup had to be found and the madness of Tsar Paul I was quickly seized upon. If the Tsar had been murdered, so be it, but the murderers tried to argue that they had only done what was necessary in ridding Russia of an emperor who had gone hopelessly insane. It was not true of course but the story became widespread with some real eccentricities being exaggerated out of all proportion to support the story. In any event, Tsar Paul I was gone and his son took his place, who would himself become a beloved figure in Russian history. Still, Tsar Paul I deserves to be remembered for what he was. He was a devoted son of the Church, a man who believed in an orderly world of legitimate monarchs, a monarch who looked after the least of his subjects before the most prominent and the ruler who established the framework for how the Russian Empire was to operate for most of the rest of its history. He was a good man really who had legitimate reasons for everything he did and who did the best he could for Russia and the cause of Godly government around the world.

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