42 Brutish Facts About Paul I of Russia, The Mad Tsar

Kyle Climans

As Factinate has reported in the past, Russian tsars didn’t often have the sunniest of reigns. This was especially true in the case of Paul I, who spent most of his life being overlooked and overshadowed by his infamous mother or his more successful son. Regardless, Paul’s life is a fascinating one, taking place during a very important time in European history. Naturally, we have assembled a list of facts about Tsar Paul’s life and legacy for your reading pleasure, so keep scrolling and enjoy!

Tsar Paul I Facts

1. Two Different Birthdays?

Paul was born in Saint Petersburg in 1754, in the palace of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Depending on which calendar you’re using (since the Russians still used the Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which the world mostly uses today), Paul was either born on October 1 or September 20.


2. Prestigious Parents

Both of Paul’s parents independently ruled Russia before he took the throne. His father was Tsar Peter III, and his mother was Catherine the Great.

3. Maintaining Perspective

Paul was often referred to as “the Mad Tsar.” While it’s certainly debatable just how mad he really was (we’ll get to all that later), we must remember that Paul’s enemies wanted to slander his name and legacy. However, when you look at the life that he lived, it’s hard to say the shoe doesn’t fit…

4. Bragging About the Bloodline

Paul was a member of the House of Romanov, an ancient family that ruled Russia from the 17th century up until the early 20th century. However, Paul was descended from the Romanovs through his mother’s line rather than his father’s, so his official house was listed as “Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov.” The name ‘Romanov’ was included in order to emphasize Paul’s descent from Peter the Great.

5. We Need Changes Around Here!

Paul was highly critical of the Russian nobility, considering them to be far too licentious and immoral for his taste. Paul wanted them to embody the same code of chivalry which had been imposed during the Medieval period. Anyone who couldn’t live up to Paul’s standards fell out of favor.

6. A Russian Version of Prince Charles

Paul spent most of his life waiting for his turn to sit on the Russian throne. His mother, Catherine the Great, was a long-lived ruler, and Paul was already in his forties when he became emperor. Unlike his mother, Paul had a very short reign, ruling for around four years before his own death.

7. Who’s Your Daddy?

Paul’s full name was Pavel Petrovich Romanov. For those unfamiliar with Russian naming policies, “Petrovich” translates to “son of Peter.”

8. Three’s a Crowd

Like so many other monarchs in European history, Paul wasn’t without his royal mistresses. In the late 1770s, Paul began an affair with Yekaterina Nelidova, a lady-in-waiting to both his first and second wives. In 1798, he replaced Nelidova with Anna Lopukhina, much to his wife Sophia’s fury.

9. Can’t Get Out of That Shadow…

Paul has proved a popular subject in Russian film and television. Over a dozen actors have portrayed him on stage and onscreen. Just like real life played out, many of these onscreen appearances of Paul are supporting roles in the shadow of his more famous mother, Catherine.

10. Call it a Promotion

Paul was eight years old when Elizabeth died in 1762. This left Paul’s father to be crowned as Tsar Peter III of Russia. Paul was immediately made the new crown prince, and his father’s heir.

11. Overly Nurtured

It’s often been stated that his great aunt, Empress Elizabeth, proved a very negative influence on Paul as he was growing up. He spent a lot of time away from his parents and his great-aunt emotionally smothered him. Historians see this relationship as a possible explanation for his many eccentricities.

12. Mom, Dad, Please Stop Fighting…

In a shocking turn of events, Paul’s father only reigned as Tsar Peter III for less than a year. The unpopular figure fell victim to a coup that was organized by his own wife, and Paul’s mother, Catherine. Peter III became a prisoner of his own subjects, and he abdicated on their orders. Catherine became Catherine II of Russia. Paul, meanwhile, continued to be the crown prince, since it was still his parent on the Russian throne.

13. Custody Switch, Part 1

Empress Elizabeth stole Paul away from his mother shortly after his birth. It’s not fully known why this was the case, but several theories exist. One idea is that Elizabeth disliked Catherine and saw her only as someone who could produce an heir to the Russian throne. When Paul was born, Elizabeth swooped in and took charge of the boy, separating him from Catherine except for brief visits.

14. Custody Switch, Part 2

By contrast, some historians claim that the Empress took Paul away from his mother for his own safety. Allegedly, Catherine despised her own son and needed to be restrained from killing him! On another occasion, Catherine celebrated her birthday by gifting one of her favorite courtiers with 50,000 rubles, while Paul was gifted with a watch.

15. Control Issues

One person who disapproved of Paul from almost the beginning was his own tutor, Poroshin. Poroshin especially found fault with Paul’s tendency to speak impulsively, as if he were “always in a hurry” to get his words out, no matter how inappropriate.

16. Matchmaker, Part 1

When Paul turned 18, he was allegedly eager to claim the throne for his own, as he was confident that as the male heir to his own father and mother, he would be a better ruler than his mother on the grounds of gender alone. Catherine, however, wasn’t ready to step down from being the Empress, so she found a way to distract Paul by finding a bride for him.

17. Matchmaker, Part 2

In order to find a suitable match for her son, Catherine contacted the Crown Prince of Prussia. They ended up picking the Prince’s sister-in-law, Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstad. When she married Paul in 1773, she took the more Russian-sounding name Natalia Alexeievna. Neither of them knew it at the time, but their love would end in utter tragedy.

18. Bless You

One of Paul’s lesser-known traits was that he was incredibly devout. Even from a youth, he took his religious studies very seriously. In fact, his religious tutor wrote that Paul “always had a leaning towards godliness, and also enjoyed discussions and conversations about God and the faith.”

19. Playing with My Toy Soldiers

Throughout most of his mother’s reign as Empress of Russia, Paul was far removed from the royal court, and even the capital itself. Throughout her reign, Catherine actively blocked him from becoming involved in politics and governmental administration.

Following Paul’s marriage, he was given an estate at Gatchina, just outside of Saint Petersburg. Robbed of any responsibilities, Paul became obsessed with drilling and training the few military units under his command. He held onto this obsession for the rest of his life (more on that later).

20. Domestic Quarrels

Military reform became the stick which Paul used to beat at his mother, even when she was still alive and ruling supreme. At one point during her reign, Paul published a dissertation titled Reflections. In it, Paul criticized an expansionist military policy which his mother had supported and argued that a defensive stance was far more effective.

Catherine saw this treatise as an attack upon her, but the Russian nobility was smart enough to avoid supporting Paul against her.

21. Not Exactly a Battle Scar…

Contemporaries often described Paul’s face as being pug-nosed in appearance. Writings suggest that his features appeared that way because of a contraction of typhus that befell him in 1771 in his late teens.

22. Imagine if Joffrey Grew Up

Paul spent much of his adult years viewing Catherine as a rival rather than as his mother. Neither one liked the idea of giving up power to the other, and Catherine didn’t want to give her ambitious son a single inch. Even the suggestion that they become co-rulers was dismissed.

23. Time for Round Two

After Paul’s first wife died, Catherine didn’t wait six months before she found another wife for her son. Like Wilhelmina had been, Paul’s second wife was a German princess. While she was born with the name Sophia Dorothea, she also took a more Russian name when she converted to the Orthodox Church.

From then on, she was known in Russia as Maria Feodorovna. She remained married to Paul until his death.

24. One of the Gang

As a youth, Paul was fascinated by the ancient knightly order known as the Knights Hospitaller. When he became Tsar, the order approached him about the Priory of Poland, which had fallen into disrepair and wasn’t giving the Knights revenue anymore. When Paul took care of the problem, the Knights Hospitaller appointed him an official protector of the order, much to his pleasure.

25. You’re Not Going to Stop Me!

Back in 1722, Peter the Great had passed a decree that allowed Russian emperors to pass over their children and pick any new heir as they saw fit. That law reportedly gave Catherine an idea—and she came up with a devious plan. She allegedly planned to use this decree to deprive her son, Paul, of the Russian throne and name Paul’s son, Alexander, as her heir instead!

If that was the case, she was unsuccessful. Paul ascended the throne upon her death. He even repealed Peter’s 1722 decree, enforcing the Pauline Laws, which stated that the Russian throne always went to the closest male heir in the royal family.

26. Royal Progeny

Paul’s second marriage resulted in no fewer than six daughters and four sons. Two of Paul’s sons, Alexander and Nicholas, ruled as Tsars of Russia, while one of his daughters, Anna Pavlovna, became a queen in her own right when she married King Willem II of the Netherlands.

27. Nothing but Trouble

Despite Paul’s love for the military, the military didn’t love him back. This was because of Paul’s ideal army wasn’t the Russian army, but rather the Prussian army. Known for their rigorous discipline and drilling ability, Paul tried to impart that in his own troops, much to their frustration. Additionally, Paul threw out the comfortable and cheap military uniforms which Catherine had introduced into the army and replaced them with elaborate Prussian-style coats which were difficult to maintain and highly impractical during active duty.

28. Meet the New Boss!

As you can imagine, Paul was obsessed with having complete obedience from his subjects when he finally became the Tsar. Although Catherine had granted several freedoms and rights to the nobility and other Russian classes during her reign, Paul’s policy was a complete reversal. He made it clear that he felt the nobles should only “serve the monarch and the state.” This led to a lot of ill feelings towards the new Tsar (more on that later).

29. That’s Not Good…

The dedication and admiration Paul had for the Knights Hospitaller proved costly for him, however. In 1798, Malta was seized by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, that Napoleon Bonaparte). Outraged, Paul abandoned his previous military policy of non-involvement and formed an alliance with Austria against France. This resulted in military excursions into Italy to strike at France’s allies. However, the campaign ended badly for the Russians, as the Austrians didn’t want Italian independence as much as Italian territory for themselves, and they were happy to sacrifice Russian lives for that cause.

30. Doing Right by Dad

After Paul’s father, Peter III, was (allegedly) assassinated, he’d been quickly buried in Saint Petersburg’s Alexander Nevsky Monastery. During Paul’s reign, he took issue with his father’s final resting place. Paul ordered his father exhumed and gave him a funeral that Russian emperors were used to by that point. Peter III was reburied with full honors in the prestigious (and ironically named) Peter and Paul Cathedral, in the company of several other dead emperors.

31. Not Again!

Despite the defeat in Italy and the end of his alliance with Austria in 1799, Paul wasn’t done fighting the French. He pursued an alliance with the British, who were also eager to bring Napoleon down. Both nations committed to an invasion of the Netherlands, another kingdom which Napoleon had conquered. However, the campaign was marred by bad weather, and an effective defence by French troops against the British and Russian forces. In October 1799, Paul signed an armistice with France, presumably while gnashing his teeth.

32. Welcome Home!

Any enemy of Catherine’s was a friend of Paul’s. When he succeeded his mother to the throne, Paul famously allowed Alexander Radishchev to return to Russia from exile. Radishchev was an author who had frequently criticized Catherine during her reign. We can imagine that Paul was his biggest fan!

33. Are Your Heads Spinning Yet?

Despite having fought two grand military campaigns against Napoleon, Paul did a complete about-face in 1800 and made a secret alliance with him! There’s a few reasons for this: the British were occupying Malta now instead of the French, they had given Russia the cold shoulder even when they were allies, and Napoleon’s conservative rule over France appealed to Paul’s personal politics.

34. Not Cool, Bros!

Another reason why Paul parted ways with the British was because of Denmark. Britain considered the Danish fleet to not only be rivals to their own, but also a danger if Napoleon invaded Denmark and took the fleet for his own. Paul, however, developed close ties with Denmark, and took serious issue with the British sailing an army to Copenhagen in 1801 and seizing the fleet for themselves before Napoleon could get it.

35. Will Someone Buy a Baby Monitor?!

Although Empress Elizabeth took Paul into her custody when he was an infant, and even if the rumors about Catherine hating him were true, Paul suffered from neglect with Elizabeth as his caretaker. In a rather infamous anecdote, the infant Paul once “fell out of his crib and slept the night away unnoticed on the floor.”

36. Bad Way to Go

For the last few months of Paul’s life, a conspiracy was planned amongst several of his nobles, who were fed up with his rule. After several delays, the plot moved forward in 1801 on the 23rd of March (or the 11th of March, depending on which calendar we’re talking about). That night, the nobles burst into Paul’s bedchambers. Most of them were drunk, and when Paul resisted their attempts to make him abdicate, they mobbed him. Paul succumbed to injuries sustained from strangulation, trampling, and a sword thrust. He was 46 years old.

37. Hup Two Three!

Paul’s obsession with complete military discipline and order was honestly more of a paranoia than anything. He ordered soldiers whipped if they made a mistake during their military parades and forced his soldiers to march in any weather conditions. On one occasion, Paul was so infuriated by a regiment’s failure to stay ordered during a maneuver, that he ordered them to march all the way to Siberia! Luckily for the soldiers, he changed his mind after they were ten miles into the long journey.

38. Good Thing We Called It Off

Paul’s abrupt removal from power (and life) put an end to his most bizarre military campaign before it really began. In 1801, Paul plotted with Napoleon to attack the British, but since the island was too dangerous to invade, Paul decided to attack her colony in India. An army of 20,000 Cossacks were sent south to invade India, but the campaign was called off when they heard about what had happened to Paul. It was probably for the best, because in true Paul style, he hadn’t given his army a proper map of India before they left!

39. How’s That, Mom?!

Paul had nothing but contempt for his mother’s rule, insisting that her “petticoat reign” had resulted in disorder and degeneration, especially within the military. In an act of spite towards his mother’s legacy, Paul seized a palace which Catherine had bestowed on one of her favorites and gave it to a cavalry regiment so they could use it as a barracks.

40. My Own Inner Circle

In an ironic turn of events, one of the men who assassinated Paul was the nephew of Nikita Ivanovich Panin, Paul’s former governor. On a far more chilling note, Paul’s son, Alexander, allegedly knew about the plot against his father and gave it his blessing! He didn’t even punish his father’s killers, and even pretended that his father had died of apoplexy. Paul really didn’t get anything but grief from his family!

41. Over Too Soon

Reportedly, Paul was very quick to fall in love with his furst wife, Wilhelmina, even turning a deaf ear to rumors that she was cheating on him. Whether that rumor was true or not will likely never be known, but what’s known for sure is that Paul was devastated when Wilhelmina died during childbirth in 1776, just three years into their marriage.

42. Someone Call Maury

For his entire life, Paul had to deal with rumors that he wasn’t actually the legitimate son of Peter III. If you’re wondering who would dare to spread such treasonous subject matter, look no further than his own mother, Catherine! Catherine and Peter’s marriage was deeply dysfunctional, and Paul had only been born after ten years of childlessness. This helped sell the idea that Paul might have been fathered by one of Catherine’s lovers instead of Peter.

Sources1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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