Tsar Paul I thought he was born to save Russia from his monstrous mother, Catherine the Great. With the confidence only royalty possesses, Paul schemed against his mother for years, then fought to pick apart her entire legacy. But a man as spoiled, hateful, and clueless as Paul was always going to be doomed in the end—I just doubt he expected his demise to be so sudden, or so painful.
Paul was born in a golden era for the Russian Empire. His father's aunt, Empress Elizabeth, ushered in a new age of enlightenment and progress. Paul's father Peter was Elizabeth's heir, and Paul stood to inherit one of the most powerful thrones in the world one day. There was just one small hitch in that plan: Paul's mother, Catherine. You might know her better as "Catherine the Great."
Catherine was ambitious, ruthless, and brilliant, and she wanted power for herself. She was a source of constant scandal at court—as such, Paul's birth was met with a shocking rumor.
Everyone knew that Paul's parents hated each other's guts—so when Catherine gave birth to a strapping young baby boy, many Russian nobles raised their eyebrows. Had they gotten over their differences for the good of the country...or had Catherine's wandering eye finally done a little more than look? Catherine's affair with a young officer was common knowledge, and many whispered that he was Paul's true father.
These rumors persisted for years—and Catherine did little quiet them.
Paul's mother knew how to get things done. Born to a minor German prince, no one expected Catherine to amount to anything. Now, she was married to the heir to the entire Russian Empire, and she had a son through whom she could rule one day. She allowed the rumors about Paul's true parentage to spread; as far as she was concerned, anything that made her husband look bad was good for her.
This is the kind of "loving" family Paul was born into—and mere minutes after his birth, he was already caught up in their schemes.
Paul's mother had many enemies in court, but the greatest was the empress herself, Elizabeth. Elizabeth saw Catherine as nothing more than a baby-making machine, so once Paul popped out, she was done with her. That's when Catherine's worst nightmare came true. Before she'd even caught her breath, Elizabeth had Paul ripped from Catherine's grasp.
Paul was whisked away—yet it was even worse than his mother feared.
Moments after Paul took his first breath, the Empress told the midwife to take the child and follow her. Catherine watched as they walked away with her son—unaware that she wouldn't see the boy again for a month. Even then, after a very brief meeting, she didn't see Paul again until he was six months old. Elizabeth's message to Catherine was chillingly clear: Paul is Russia's child, not yours.
This all sounds traumatic to any family—but Paul's new "mother" was even more twisted than she seemed.
Empress Elizabeth claimed her only concern was the future of Russia—but with no children of her own, it sure seemed like she wanted to be Paul's surrogate mother. The only problem is, Elizabeth was the obsessive type. She micromanaged every aspect of Paul's young life. Historians agree that her obsession with the boy caused more harm than good.
Pretty soon, this chaotic childhood started to have an effect on the boy—and it wasn't good.
Empress Elizabeth was a truly horrible mother figure. At times, her overwhelming attention smothered the boy, while at others, she failed at the most basic aspects of care. Once, when Paul was an infant, he fell out of his crib in the middle of the night. And who was there to pick him up? No one! He screamed on the floor until he fell back asleep, right where his attendants found him the next morning.
That kind of neglect can have an effect on any child, but Paul was more troubled than most.
At least people could agree that Paul was a handsome boy, but that was about all he had going for him. Paul grew up lonely, desperate for attention, and frequently sick. Then, as if his life couldn't get even worse, he came down with a devastating case of typhus in his teens. He managed to recover from the disease—but it made its mark on him in the worst way.
If you've ever seen a portrait of Paul I of Russia, you can't help but notice his distinct pug-nosed visage. Even royal portrait artists could only do so much to mask his...unique facial features. Well, sources claim he looked totally normal as a boy, and that typhus had warped his face. This poor guy can't catch a break! And I've got bad news for you: It only gets worse from here.
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It's easy to feel bad for young Paul. After all, he barely got to see his mother, his surrogate mother smothered him, and he nearly died before his sweet 16. But, let's not forget: Paul was a miserable little twerp throughout all of this. His tutor saw little of promise in him, complaining that Paul always rushed through things and loved to run his mouth.
The chaotic Russian court was already starting Paul down a dark path—but the chaos was only beginning.
Paul's life was a mess when Empress Elizabeth was around—but what about after she was gone? Elizabeth passed when Paul was just eight, which made his father Tsar Peter III and him the official Crown Prince of Russia...for about five minutes. Remember how we said Paul's mother was ambitious? Turns out, Elizabeth had been the only thing standing in her way.
The conflict in Paul's family had always bubbled under the surface—and it was about to explode.
Paul's father, Tsar Peter III, managed to rule for...all of six months. The people of Russia already hated him because he barely spoke Russian and loved the Empire's greatest enemy, Prussia. He only made them hate him more in his brief rule, and Catherine saw her chance to pounce. With the support of the armed forces, Catherine deposed Peter and locked him up.
No one likes to see their parents fighting, but don't worry, Paul wouldn't have to for long. Catherine had even darker plans for his father.
Peter III didn't last long after Catherine deposed him. Mere days later, he passed suddenly under mysterious circumstances. The official line is that he suffered a fit of "apoplexy" while arguing with his jailer, but no one really believed it. Everyone in Russia assumed that Catherine had offed her own husband, likely even young Paul.
Catherine was now the undisputed ruler of Russia, but her next enemy was completely unexpected: Her own son. Paul never really knew his mother before—as he grew up, he started to hate her guts.
Now with Elizabeth and Peter out of the picture, there was nothing stopping Catherine and little Paul from finally becoming close. Unfortunately, that ship had long since sailed. Paul's father and great-aunt had already poisoned him against his ambitious mama. For her part, Catherine showed little interest in raising her son after all. Paul spent most of his time with his tutor, Nikita Panin.
However, like everyone in Catherine's court, Panin hid a sinister agenda.
Nikita Panin supported Catherine at first—maybe a little too much. He saw how..."insatiable" the empress was, and he tried to throw his own hat into the ring. However, when Catherine gave him the cold shoulder, Panin turned against her. Bitter and scorned, Panin started turning young Paul against his mother. He claimed that women were unfit to rule, and that Paul was the true Tsar of Russia.
At 18, Paul was shaping up to be a big problem for his mama—so she came up with the perfect way to distract him.
Catherine knew that Paul could pose a threat to her, so she drew his attention elsewhere. And what's the best way to catch a young man's eye? That's right: It was time to find Paul a wife. She didn't want him marrying anyone too powerful, so she decided upon a German princess named Wilhelmina, who went by Natalia Alexeievna in Russia.
At first, Paul couldn't believe his luck—little did he know, this "fairy tale" union would turn out to be more like a horror story.
Natalia seemed like a breath of fresh air at first. With the constant scheming and infighting, Catherine's court could be a frosty place. The joyful and animated new princess brought new life with her, and no one was happier than her new husband, Paul. He adored Natalia and lavished her with affection. Even Catherine approved of her new daughter-in-law, and this new blood threatened to finally bridge the gap between mother and son.
But Natalia Alexeievna was NOT who she seemed...
Paul and Natalia's honeymoon period didn't last long. The amicable new princess soon showed her true colors: She was overbearing, impetuous, and cold. Everyone could see it; well, everyone except for her husband. Paul's obsession with his wife meant he did pretty much anything she said. Natalia dominated the relationship, and couldn't be bothered to even look like she cared about Paul.
But Paul's wife wasn't just bossy and cold—she was also extremely dangerous.
Paul was completely blind to his wife's true nature, but Catherine soon saw through her like a book. The empress saw how cold her new daughter-in-law was with Paul, but that wasn't all. Natalia spent lavishly without a care in the world, soon wracking up a massive debt. She also refused to listen to anyone, and couldn't be bothered to learn Russian.
It's obvious why Catherine didn't trust her—but the empress didn't know the half of it.
Natalia found the Russian court cold and boring, and her new husband even more so. She needed something to keep life interesting, so she started plotting against her new mother-in-law. She already had Paul doing everything she said. If she could make him the Tsar, that would make her the most powerful woman in Russia!
She might have even done it, too—but fate had other ideas.
Paul's wife treated him like dirt, but at least he had a new ally in his fight to steal the throne from his mother. They hadn't been married long, so perhaps their relationship would grow until they were a force to be reckoned with. Maybe they would have. We'll never know, because two years into their marriage, disaster struck.
Paul's wife looked down on just about everyone in the Russian court, but she still hadn't even kept of her end of the bargain: Two years had passed, and yet no babies were in sight. Maybe they were just unlucky, or maybe Paul actually repulsed Natalia that much. Either way, in 1776, she finally became pregnant. Between Paul as a father, Natalia as a mother, and Catherine the Great as a grandmother, who knows what that child would have been like.
Sadly, we never got the chance to find out.
Before it turned tragic, Natalia's pregnancy was just plain scandalous. Before her belly started growing, everyone was already whispering that she was sleeping with the dashing Andrey Razumovsky. No surprise, then, that people claimed Paul wasn't really the father. It must have been humiliating—but his mother Catherine couldn't care less about the rumors. Natalia carried the next heir to her throne, and that was good enough.
Of course, rumors would turn out to be the least of their worries.
Paul's wife had an utterly horrible time when it came to labor. Her contractions lasted for days, yet her body simply couldn't give birth naturally. Finally, after interminable hours of pushing, the child couldn't hold on any longer. It died in the womb—yet Natalia wasn't out of the woods yet. She had no time to grieve, as she'd caught an infection during the labor.
Paul had already lost a child; now he might lose his wife too.
Paul watched as his wife endured the torment of an excruciating labor, then the pain of losing her child. By the time the infection began working through her body, she had no strength left. Five days after this awful ordeal began, Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna finally gave birth to a stillborn son, then lay still forever. She may have been unkind and demanding, but Paul had loved her—and his reaction to her end was devastating.
Paul lay with his wife for hours until eventually, servants tried to ease him away to begin preparing her body. They underestimated Paul's grief, however. The prince ordered them away and refused to allow anyone to remove his wife's body. He suffered alone—but as always, gossip began to spread through the palace. One rumor suggested that there might be more to Natalia's sudden end than met the eye...
It was no secret that Paul's wife and mother disliked each other. So when Natalia, who was so young and in the prime of her life, passed so abruptly, many suspected foul play. One French diplomat took it upon himself to investigate, and he came to a disturbing conclusion: Catherine must have ordered Natalia's midwife to engineer an "accident" and eliminate her.
So, what did Paul do when he heard this shocking allegation? A lot of nothing.
The truth about Natalia Alexeievna's end will likely remain a mystery forever. After getting his grief out of his system, Paul moved right on from his dead wife and put his focus back on plotting against his hated mother. Just like that, they were back to the same impasse they'd been at before Catherine had found him a wife. But if something works once, why shouldn't it work twice?
Paul's first wife was barely in the ground before he put his ring on another finger...
Catherine cared little for Natalia, but she definitely did care about grandchildren. As soon as Natalia passed, Catherine set out in search of a new wife for her son—and she worked fast. Just six months after he became a widower, Paul married the stunning Sophia Dorothea, another German princess. She took the Orthodox name Maria Feodorovna.
The poor woman had no idea what she was in for.
It's high time our boy Paul caught a break. His first wife stomped all over him, then croaked within three years, breaking his heart. His second marriage at least started happy. Just a year after their marriage, Maria gave birth to a happy, healthy baby boy, Alexander. Paul finally had the family he'd been searching for, and Catherine finally had her heir.
However, their relationship was about to take a nosedive.
Once Paul had a (living) wife, Catherine pretty much lost interest in him. Instead, she focused all her time and attention on her many scandalous lovers, showering them with praise, influence, and gifts. Paul, meanwhile, her own son and heir, got diddly squat. One year, for her birthday, she gave her boy toy 50,000 rubles. Paul got a cheap watch.
Clearly, something had to give in this relationship—and the birth of Paul's son pushed them to the brink.
Catherine saw far too much of her hated husband in Paul, and she did not want to see him on the throne. So, when little Alexander showed up, Catherine had an idea. What if she skipped over Paul and gave the throne straight to her grandson? She could even shape the boy to her liking, just as Elizabeth had with Paul. Honestly, Paul was a fool, and that idea sounds pretty great to me.
But Paul wasn't the sniveling little boy he once had been. This time, he started to push back.
Paul didn't know much about running a country, but he believed one thing above all else: He could do a better job of it than his mother. He became a total reactionary and simply disagreed with the empress just to disagree. He openly ignored her opinions and, even worse, protested against her policies in open court.
Paul was getting uppity again—but as always, Catherine knew just how to distract him.
Paul had that special kind of entitlement where he thought he could do everything better than his mother (who we don't call "The Great" for nothing) even though he'd never accomplished anything in his life. He talked a big game, but in reality, he was comfortable just sitting back and enjoying his life of luxury. So, when he started speaking out against Catherine too much, she came up with a devious plan: She gave him a palace in the country, complete with his own troop of soldiers to do with as he chose.
It sounds strange—but it was utterly brilliant.
Once Paul had his palace and his toy soldiers, he completely lost interest in court politics. He took his family and retreated to the country estate, while Catherine finally got a minute's rest. She focused all of her attention on her grandson Alexander, grooming him to become emperor one day. Meanwhile, Paul forced his men to perform Prussian field exercises and maintain immaculate uniforms.
Had this continued, Catherine might have successfully cut him out of the succession completely—but she ran out of time.
Catherine the Great of Russia, the Prussian princess who claimed Russia's throne and brought the Empire to untold new power and influence, suffered a sudden stroke in 1796. She never regained consciousness. If she'd planned on cutting Paul out of the will, she didn't get it done in time. Paul became Tsar Paul I of Russia. It was a dark day for the country.
The instant Paul became tsar, he set about tearing apart his mother's legacy. First things first, that meant finding and destroying her will. Paul knew that his mother had been grooming young Alexander to take his place as heir. The new tsar wasn't going to take any chances. But destroying Catherine's will was just the beginning—finally, Paul had the chance to get revenge.
After all these years, after Catherine the Great's legendary reign, Paul still believed his scorned old tutor Panin: Women weren't fit to rule (eye roll). After he'd sorted out his mother's will, he pushed through the Pauline Laws. These established "primogeniture" for the royal House of Romanov: That meant only male heirs could inherit the throne, and his plan worked. The Russian Empire never had another empress.
Catherine the Great was barely cold, and Paul had already destroyed her will and barred women from the throne. But he had more planned than that.
Paul's vindictiveness knew no bounds. He spent the first year of his reign reversing many of his mother's policies as he could. He also allowed the radical Alexander Radishchev, one of his mother's fiercest critics, to return from exile. Radishchev's revolutionary ideas definitely didn't jive with Paul, but he hated his mother so much he let the radical walk free out of spite.
It was an incredibly stupid and petty move—but it's nothing compared to when Paul dug up a corpse.
Paul's father, Peter III, was not a man who inspired loyalty. Hated in Russia, he reigned for six months before his own wife and the Russian army deposed and eliminated him. But for Tsar Paul, another man who inspired little loyalty, his father was a martyr. Catherine had unceremoniously buried her husband in a simple church. Paul had Peter's remained exhumed, given an extravagant funeral, and interred in the Peter and Paul Cathedral with the rest of the Romanov family.
And apparently, he enjoyed the whole process, because those weren't the only bones he dug up.
Paul had always despised his mother's many lovers, and now he was out for revenge. Grigori Potemkin had been one of Russia's most esteemed generals. He'd also slept with Catherine the Great, so he was on Paul's "enemies" list. Paul dug up Potemkin's grave and scattered the man's bones for no reason other than it made him feel better.
If this all sounds like a bad use of Tsar Paul's time, you're right. Things in Russia quickly started going downhill.
The sheltered and out-of-touch Paul had comically archaic views about how the world worked. He believed the Russian nobility should act like the chivalrous knights of old (reminder: this was nearly the 19th century). He rewarded any nobles he thought lived up to his medieval expectations and dismissed any who were too "modern" for his tastes.
The few nobles whom Paul showered with rewards loved his reforms, everyone else was furious. Paul was off to a bad start—and he was going to get so much worse.
Tsar Paul was obsessed with the military, but he didn't actually have any idea what he was doing. He was used to playing with his toy soldiers, and he thought he knew was best for the entire army. Under Catherine, the Russian forces had worn inexpensive, comfortable, and practical uniforms, designed in a distinctly Russian style. Paul hated them, and forced the men to wear elaborate, inconvenient uniforms based on the hated Prussians' outfits.
It wasn't long before the men despised their new Tsar—and, for any prospective tyrants out there, here's a piece of advice: Do not make your fighting men turn against you.
Arrogantly, Tsar Paul forced the Russian forces to wear uniforms they hated, then he made them perform constant ceremonial parades every single day, rain or shine. If any men didn't perform up to his standard, his response was disturbing. He watched the parades at any chance he could, and he personally ordered floggings for any men who made mistakes. Once, he ordered an entire battalion to march...to Siberia.
He didn't realize it yet, but these incredibly stupid and naive decisions, based on his belief that God chose him to lead, were going to cost him dearly.
If Tsar Paul's reforms sound stupid to you, how do you think his generals felt? When he introduced the Infantry Codes, a book of guidelines that offered no practical advice and instead focused only on show and glamour, his top general just flat out ignored them. That's not a good sign. Discontent brewed in the armed forces—but Paul was too oblivious to notice it.
Plus, he had more scandalous things on his mind.
The list of Paul's flaws is long, so why not add "hypocritical." Paul always judged his mother for her many affairs and despised all of her lovers. Should it surprise anyone that Paul started taking mistresses? At a ball in 1796, a beautiful young woman named Anna Lopukhina caught his eye. Later in the evening, he inquired about her—but he was not prepared for his attendant's response.
When Tsar Paul asked about Lopukhina, his advisor told him that she was completely and utterly in love with him. So much so that she was on the verge of taking her own life if he didn't notice her. To me, that sounds like a massive red flag. To Tsar Paul, it was music to his ears. He had to have her—but, because it's Paul, he managed to make a huge mess of things.
Shockingly, Paul's wife Maria wasn't happy about him taking a mistress. When Paul invited Lopukhina's entire family to court, the empress sent her a furious letter, demanding she stay home. Unfortunately, this plan blew up in her face. Someone intercepted the letter...and showed it to Paul. This drove a wedge even further between them and sent Paul running into his mistress's arms.
Lopukhina arrived at court and gained incredible influence over the tsar—but she soon learned she was in way too deep.
Lopukhina must have thought she hit the jackpot when she ended up in Tsar Paul's bed. There's one thing she didn't think of, though: Tsar Paul was the worst. Maybe he learned it from his first caretaker, Empress Elizabeth, but he obsessed over his new mistress. His smothering attention got so bad that she eventually threw it all away. She begged him for permission to marry her childhood friend. Power and influence were great and all, but they weren't worth another minute with Paul.
But his lover wasn't the only one fed up—the sharks started circling too.
One of history's greatest screwups, there's one thing that Tsar Paul I got right. He was incredibly paranoid, convinced that his enemies in court wanted him eliminated. Well duh. He'd forced the nobility to follow his bogus code of chivalry and alienated anyone who didn't comply. Of course, some people wanted his head—I doubt he expected them to act so quickly, though.
By the turn of the century, several influential Russian aristocrats hatched a conspiracy to get rid of their brutal tsar once and for all. In a sinister twist, but one of the conspirators was Nikita Panin, the son of Paul's old tutor. The elder Panin had taught Paul he had a divine right to rule; the younger one helped rip him off his throne.
After months of planning, the conspirators made their move. Under cover of darkness, they stormed into Paul's bedchamber, armed and ready to do what it took—but when they arrived, they found something they hadn't prepared for. The room was totally empty...at least, it seemed empty at first. Then, they heard whimpering coming from the corner of the room...
Tsar Paul must have heard a commotion outside of his rooms because he ran behind some drapes before they entered. No hide and seek champion, they quickly found him, dragged him to a table, and tried to force him to abdicate. Paul, for the first time in his life, showed some backbone. He refused to comply—and it was the last thing he ever did.
When Paul wouldn't sign the papers, one of the conspirators struck out with his sword. After first blood, the frenzy started. The other men joined in, stabbing, strangling, and trampling the hapless tsar to death. Tsar Paul I of Russia, the unpopular, incapable, and infinitely entitled emperor, was no more. In one final mercy, he met his end unaware of the terrible betrayal that made it happen.
Tsar Paul's 23-year-old son Alexander took the throne after his grim demise—but there was more to it than that. Alexander was actually well aware of the plot against his father's life; he even slept in the palace at the time it happened! He gave his consent to the conspirators to overthrow his own father. Now that's cold. But this is Tsar Paul of Russia we're talking about. What else would you expect?
Yet somehow, the most humiliating part came after that night.
How do you know that Tsar Paul screwed up bad? The conspirators faced absolutely no punishment for their actions. Alexander got the court physician to declare that Paul had succumbed to "apoplexy," and they just brushed the whole thing under the rug. Pretty much everyone in Russia went along with the lie and pretended like the nightmare that had been "Tsar Paul I" had been just that—a bad dream.
But even after everything he'd been through, Paul still never managed to outrun the most scandalous rumor of his life.
Maybe the reason that Tsar Paul hated his mother so much was that she never truly acknowledged the truth about his parentage. In her first memoirs, she strongly implied that Peter III was not Paul's real father. A later version walked that back and claimed that Peter was the father, but no one in Russia ever knew for sure. On top of everything else, Paul never truly knew if he was the product of an affair or not.
That would certainly explain his hatred of his mother's lovers.
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