Tsar Goes a Step Too Far

Tsar Paul I, by portrait artist Vladimir Borovikovsky
Tsar Paul I, by portrait artist Vladimir Borovikovsky

by Ray Setterfield

March 23, 1801 — The Romanov family ruled Russia for 302 years producing 14 Tsars who held the throne and lived in luxury and splendour while commanding unquestioned obedience. In short, their word was law.

But despite their power and wealth they were not invincible and no less than five of the 14 were murdered.

Perhaps the most shameful of these killings came on this day when, with the apparent connivance of his son, assassins despatched Tsar Paul I.

Paul was the son of domineering Catherine the Great and possibly her husband, Tsar Peter III, though the paternity rests in some doubt because Empress Catherine had a string of lovers.

In the end, feeble-minded Peter III was murdered, probably at his wife's instigation and she went on to reign in her own right as Catherine II.

The killing of his father would permanently scar the mind of her nervous and insecure eight-year-old son, Paul.

Not that Catherine cared much about the feelings of her weak and often sickly son and there was even talk that she considered sending him to his death. Later on, she arranged his marriage to a German princess and the newlyweds had to live well away from the St. Petersburg powerhouse in a rural retreat.

There, Paul could at least indulge in his fascination with military affairs and he was able to hold regular pointless parades, checking drill movements and inspecting the soldiers.

He became Tsar in 1796 when Catherine died and immediately began a disastrous reign. Apart from going to war against France he broke off diplomatic relations with Austria and threatened war against England.

At home, he reversed many of his mother's policies, weakening the power of Russia's nobility as well as that of local authorities. He refused to allow his subjects to travel abroad and banned the import of foreign books and periodicals.

Displaying signs of megalomania he was quoted as saying: "In Russia, anyone to whom I speak is great – but only while I speak to him."

Paul ensured his own downfall when he took on the army, imposing severe military discipline and even sending high-ranking officers to Siberia for perceived parade ground errors.

After four years of turmoil a group of top military men and members of the aristocracy went to see Paul's 22-year-old son, Alexander, and told him that his father had to go.

Alexander consented and so around one o'clock in the morning of March 23, 1801 a group of conspirators backed by soldiers led by General Leo Bennigsen went to Mikhaylovsky Palace where the Tsar had hosted a dinner party. Paul was found cowering in terror behind a screen in his suite. The Tsar was beaten and then throttled to death.

One of the conspirators, Count von Pahlen, the military commander of St Petersburg, said of the Tsar's fate: "Making an omelette requires the breaking of eggs."

Alexander, who succeeded as Tsar Alexander I, was said to have been wracked by guilt for the rest of his life.

Published: February 19, 2019

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