Catherine II died in 1796, and her son Paul (r. 1796-1801) succeeded her. She left an enlarged dominion to her son Paul. Paul, the only child of the Empress Catherine, ascended the throne in his forty-second year, having been born in 1754. Up to the time of his succession he had led a retired life, neglected by his mother and the courtiers. The former regarded him with dislike, and the latter copied faithfully the feelings of their sovereign. The Empress seems to have had great fears that he might be called to the throne by the voice of the nation, as her position was, to say the least, a very uncertain one.
There seems every reason to believe that Catherine had removed him from the succession, leaving the throne to her grandson Alexander ; but Kurakin, one of Paul's most intimate friends, contrived to gain access to the private apartments of the Empress and burned her will. Painfully aware that Catherine had planned to bypass him and name his son, Alexander, as tsar, Paul instituted primogeniture in the male line as the basis for succession. It was one of the few lasting reforms of Paul's brief reign. The only event of his life of any significance while Grand Duke had been a tour in the West of Europe in 1780. He was twice married, first in 1772 to Augusta, Princess of Hesse Darmstadt, who died three years after, leaving no issue ; secondly, in 1776, to Dorothea Sophia, Princess of WUrtemberg, who was received into the Greek Church as Maria Feodorovna.
Paul's first act was one of pious regard for the memory of his father, whose dishonored remains had long lain in the Ncvski monastery, and not with the bodies of the other Tsars and Tsaritsas. The Tsars from the time of the Grand Duke Ivan Kalita, who died in 1341, were buried in the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel at Moscow. Here the traveller may contemplate the tomb of the terrible Ivan, who was interred in 1584. From the time of Peter the Great they have been buried in the church of SS. Peter and Paul at St. Petersburg, with the single exception of the boy Peter II, who died at Moscow and was buried there. The Monastery of St. Alexander Nevski, where Peter III had been interred, contains the tombs of many of the most celebrated Russian authors. His remains were now exhumed ; we are told that on the opening of the coffin nothing was found but pieces of bone and the Emperor's boots. The body of Peter was buried with that of the Empress in the church of the Petropavlovski fortress after a magnificent funeral ceremony, in which Orlov and the other supposed assassins of the Tsar had been compelled to follow the coffins. After this ceremony was over they were for ever banished from the empire.
For Paul, son of Peter III and Catherine II, his traumatic episode happened in his childhood, when he learned that his mother was involved in murdering his father. Paul later told a story about himself seeing a ghost of Peter the Great that foretold him a violent death. One of Paul’s tutors, Frantz Epinus, wrote: “His head is clever, but it seems there’s some gadget inside, tied to a string – if the string breaks, the gadget will fall, and that’s the end to his intelligence and sanity.”
The strange fantastic character of Paul soon began to display itself; insane as he probably was, he alternated between excessive generosity and capricious tyranny. He released the Polish hero Kosciuszko from his imprisonment, and many unfortunate persons who had been incarcerated during the greater part of the reign of Catherine for State reasons not explained. One need not shudder particularly at their treatment as a proof of Russian barbarism and despotism, since precisely the same thing had been going on in the capital of her contemporary, Louis XV; and it may be doubted whether a Russian peasant with his communal piece of land was not a great deal better off than the French peasant of the same period.
In spite of these benevolent acts Paul soon became unpopular. He revived many obsolete imperial privileges, which were disagreeable to the nobility, such as making people get out of their carriages and kneel in the mud when they met him. In fact he had ridiculous semi-oriental ideas of dignity. Pushkin the poet, who was born in the year 1799, used jocosely to say that he had been presented to the Emperor Paul. The fact was that the Tsar one day met the nurse carrying the future author, then a mere infant, and because she was not quick enough in doing it, angrily snatched the cap from the little boy's head. The army also disliked his German innovations ; the soldiers were dressed in pigtails with powdered hair, and Suv6rov got into trouble for an epigram which he made on the subject . In fact the conduct of Paul throughout was eccentric, and probably the best explaination of his vagaries was the theory that he was insane. Paul was haughty and unstable, and he frequently reversed his previous decisions, creating administrative chaos and accumulating enemies.
Contemporaries used to mock Paul’s dressing orders: he forbade tailcoats, set strict rules for the colors and length of clothing, and banned waltzing. Things like these have been used to depict him as a madman, but Peter the Great did the same a century ago. Paul also had violent outbreaks, but, as his mistress, Ekaterina Nelidova recalled, “they lasted for just a short time… I didn’t lose myself, looked him in the eye, and he always apologized.”
But why did anyone need to vilify Paul and spread disparaging gossip about him? It was all rooted, historians believe, in the way he treated the nobility; unlike his mother, who freed the nobles from compulsory state service, Paul wanted to make them serve again, and he started reforms of the Senate and many other institutions, introducing the idea of ministries in Russia. He was very stern with aristocrats who didn’t want to serve the state. At the same time, he truly was very nervous, anxious and angry, and apparently couldn’t control himself.
He chartered a Russian-American company, which eventually led to Russia's acquisition of Alaska. As a major European power, Russia could not escape the wars involving revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Paul became an adamant opponent of France, and Russia joined Britain and Austria in a war against France. In 1798-99 Russian troops under one of the country's most famous generals, Aleksandr Suvorov, performed brilliantly in Italy and Switzerland. Paul reversed himself, however, abandoned his allies and threw himself into the arms of Bonaparte, who had won him over by skilful diplomacy. This reversal, coupled with increasingly arbitrary domestic policies, sparked a coup, and in March 1801 Paul was assassinated.
Paul had rendered himself so odious to his nobles by his capricious acts, and had so imperilled the safety and prosperity of the country by his foreign policy, that there was a universal feeling that he ought to be compelled to abdicate, and the crown was to be offered to Alexander his son. The Tsar was strangled in the Mikhailovski Palace by Zubov, Pahlen, and others; but their original idea seems to have been merely to force the emperor to abdicate. At the end of five years, the murdered Paul was succeeded by his son Alexander, who dealt very tenderly with the assassins of his father. At the end of twenty-four years, Alexander having died, and his next brother, Constantine, having resigned, the Czar Nicholas was raised to the throne.
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