At the pinnacle of this courtly splendor was a madman. Paul (Pavel Petrovich) was son of Catherine II, but genius skipped a generation, and left Paul little but morose suspicions and the dementia of absolute power.
He was eight years old when he learned that his father, Czar Peter III, had been slain through the connivance of Aleksei Orlov, brother to Grigori Orlov, the current paramour of Paul’s mother. Paul never quite recovered from this revelation. In the normal course of succession Paul should have inherited his father’s throne; Catherine bypassed him and assumed full power. Paul’s first wife, with his knowledge, plotted to dethrone Catherine and make Paul czar; Catherine discovered the plot, and forced Paul and his wife to confess. The Empress acknowledged him as heir to her authority, but he never felt sure that he too would not be snuffed out aforetime. His wife lived in constant fear, and died in giving birth to a dead child.
His second wife, Maria Feodorovna, bore him a son (1777), Alexander, whom Catherine for a time thought of naming her successor, bypassing Paul. She never developed the idea into action, but Paul surmised it, and it left him suspicious of his son. In 1783 Catherine gave Paul an estate at Gatchina, thirty miles from St. Petersburg; there Paul trained his own regiment, drilling it, after his father’s example, in the goose-step style of Frederick the Great. Catherine, fearing that he was planning another attempt to replace her, sent spies to watch him. He set spies to watch the spies. He had hallucinations of meeting, at night, the ghost of his ancestor Peter I the Great. His mind was already near breaking point when, in 1796, after forty-two unhappy years, he came at last to the throne that he had long considered rightfully his own.
In a flurry of good feeling he issued some benevolent edicts. He liberated several victims of Catherine’s senescent fears—Novikov and Radishchev, radical thinkers, and Kosciusko and others who had fought for Polish freedom. He was so horrified by conditions in the Moscow Hospital that he ordered its renovation and reorganization (1797), with the result that the New Moscow Hospital became one of the best in Europe.10 He reformed and stabilized the currency. He lowered the tariffs that had been stifling foreign trade, and he opened new canals to internal commerce.
However, he sent a flurry of commands to his troops about polishing buttons, repairing uniforms, and powdering wigs; to his subjects prescribing their dress and forbidding, under severe penalties, garments or styles of dress, that had been introduced into Europe after the French Revolution.11 In 1800 he prohibited the import of books published abroad, and discouraged the printing of new books in Russia. He checked the autocracy of the nobles, but transferred to private landowners 530,000 serfs who had previously enjoyed easier conditions as serfs of the state. He sanctioned the severe punishment of rebellious serfs—”as much as their owner will desire.”12 His troops, once devoted to him, resented his unrelenting surveillance and imperious discipline.
His foreign policy was incalculably versatile. He canceled the plans of Catherine to send forty thousand soldiers against Revolutionary France. He resented Napoleon’s appropriation of Malta and Egypt, and allied Russia with Turkey and England against him; he persuaded the Sultan to allow Russian warships to pass through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles; his Navy took the Ionian Islands, and landed troops in the kingdom of Naples to help eject the French. But when Great Britain refused to surrender Malta to him as elected grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, Paul withdrew from the coalition against France, and fell in love with Napoleon. When Napoleon responded with gestures of goodwill Paul forbade all trade with England, and seized all British goods in Russian stores. He discussed with Napoleon a Franco-Russian expedition to expel England from India. His fits of anger multiplied as foreign affairs ignored his wishes, and as domestic compliance waned before the profusion of his demands. He punished severely the slightest offenses, banishing from Moscow nobles who had questioned his policies, and sending to Siberia army officers tardy in obedience. His son Alexander had often been the object of Paul’s special wrath and insults.13
More and more nobles and officers joined in a conspiracy to unseat him. General Levin Bennigsen enlisted Count Nikita Panin, minister of foreign affairs, and won over to their plan Count Peter von Pahlen, who commanded the city soldiers and police. They sought and finally obtained Alexander’s consent, on condition that no bodily harm should come to his father. They agreed to this, knowing that a fait accompli is a convincing argument. At two o’clock on the morning of March 24, 1801, Pahlen led the conspirators and a band of officers into the Mikhailovsky Palace, where they overcame all guards, surrounded the struggling Emperor, and choked him to death. A few hours later they notified Alexander that he was now czar of Russia.