Before Paul I was born in 1754, the court of Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, hummed with gossip about the matrimonial antics of the "Young Court" of Grand Duke Peter, and his wife, Grand Duchess Catherine, or Ekaterina. They had been married over eight years and had yet to produce a child. The Grand Duke, who later was to rule as Tsar Peter III, was physically unable to consummate his marriage to his second cousin, born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst. Finally, a courtier suggested a surgical solution to his problem. That courtier, Sergei Saltykov, was rumored to be the lover of Grand Duchess Catherine. In fact, the memoirs of that the Grand Duchess, who was to become Tsarina Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, strongly suggest that Paul's father was Sergei Saltykov.
What is known is that Catherine gave birth to her first child under conditions that would be appalling to any woman, regardless of her circumstances. She was placed in a room next to the Tsarina, and her child taken away from her moments after the umbilical cord was cut.
The first to marry Paul was Princess Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt, who took the Russian name of Natalia Alexievna, upon her marriage on September 29, 1773. At first, all was well, and Paul was happy, while Natalia charmed everyone. It was not to last, as the new Grand Duchess was not at all what she seemed. To start with, she was not loyal, as she soon took Paul's best friend as her lover. Next, she had Catherine's ambition and interest in politics, while lacking her mother-in-law's skill and savvy.
Fortunately for the Imperial Family, but unfortunately for Natalia, she died in childbirth in April 1776. She was unable to birth the child, so her baby died, too. Paul, who had grown to despise his wife as his father had hated his bride, was, at the age of 21, a widower.
The happy marriages that set the Romanovs apart from other ruling houses during this period began with Paul's marriage on September 26, 1776. The second German bride was Princess Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg, born October 25, 1759. The princess, who took the Russian name Maria Feodorovna, was serious and purposeful. She and Pavl had 10 children in all over a 22 year period. It was a feat of royal childbirth which few could equal.
Among their children were two future tsars, Alexander I, and Nikolai I, and two future queens, Catherine of Wurttemberg and Anna of the Netherlands. The present Dutch royal family is descended from Anna Pavlovna, who is still greatly loved in her adopted country.
The couple remained devoted for the rest of their lives. Paul did take two mistresses later in his life. His liaison with one of his wife ladies-in-waiting was particularly painful for Marie Feodorovna, as the other woman had been her friend.
For a ruler who has been much-maligned, Paul is closely associated with four Russian palaces of historic significance. These are Pavlovsk, Gatchina, our own Alexander Palace, and the Mikhailovski.
In 1777, with the birth of their first child, Alexander, the couple was gifted with Pavlovsk, named, of course, for Paul. At the time, it was a shabby gift, especially when compared with the more opulent treasures Catherine was heaping on her favorite, Potemkin. With his wife's thrift and acumen to back him up, Paul recreated the estate as a masterpiece. Today, thanks to the work of many Russians , and American writer Suzanne Massie and others, Pavlovsk has been restored to its pre-Revolutionary greatness. It is a "must see" for anyone traveling to the St. Petersburg area.
In 1783, the couple had their first daughter, Alexandra. In response, Catherine gifted her son and daughter-in-law with Gatchina, another estate outside of St. Petersburg. Gatchina became their primary home during the later part of Catherine's reign. It was here that Pavl engaged in his paradomania, constantly drilling his soldiers with Prussian precision. As Pavl has often been criticized for this, it is worthwhile to point out that he was a grown man, a husband and father, who was permitted little involvement in the "family business." The blame for this behavior must be shared by the Great Catherine, who was not such a great parent. In later years, Gatchina became the home of Alexander III, and his son, the Imperial Successor, Mikhail Alexandrovich.
Catherine the Great died suddenly on November 6, 1796. Although she had expressed an intention of having Alexander succeed her, she never followed through. Thus, at the age of 42, Paul Petrovich became Tsar of all the Russias. He immediately set out to undo as much of his mother's work as possible. In this, he was driven by pettiness and spite, two traits his mother kept under control when it came to her politics.
His first action as tsar, however, was driven by his astute analysis of the shortcomings of the law of succession instituted by his great grandfather. Peter the Great believed that Russian tsars should be able to choose their successors. In practice, this policy was disastrous for the stability of Russia. It caused three palace revolutions during the 18th century, with Peter II, Ivan VI, and Peter III all being deposed. The dynasty lost considerable prestige as a result of the instability of the Romanov dynasty. To correct this, the new tsar issued a manifesto that separated the Imperial Family legally from the rest of the Empire, and established an orderly succession to the throne through the male line. The Pauline law, as it became known, was an important Russian contribution to the Enlightenment period of European history.
While Catherine caused many ordinary Russians to be enslaved through serfdom, Paul was the first Russian tsar to limit the work required of these unfortunate people. At Gatchina, Paul educated their children, lended them money, instituted a system of free medical care, gave them more land for their use, and upgraded agricultural technology. In short, he was a model landlord. When it came to Russia's most humble people, as both tsar and grand duke, he sought to end their suffering and improve their lives. In this, he put into action the Enlightenment ideas parroted, but never followed unless it suited her, by his mother.
To the nobility, Paul was a scourge. He awarded titles randomly, and sought to undo most of the privileges they had gained under Catherine. What Paul lacked was political savvy. Plots to remove Paul as tsar brewed for at least a year before Russia's last palace revolution actually happened.
While Pahlen provided the means to dethrone his tsar due to his control of strategic offices, the spark for the successful conspiracy came from the Zubov family. Platon Zubov used his favorite status as Catherine's lover as a career opportunity to advance himself and his family. Naturally, this was lost with Catherine's death. The tsar made a tactical error when he issued a general amnesty in 1800. The parasitic Zubovs used this to return to the capital.
On the night of March 12, 1801, Pahlen, Count Bennigsen, and the Zubov brothers Nikolai and Platon entered the Mikhailovski Castle with the assistance of a co-conspirator, an unfaithful aide-de-camp of Paul's. They found the tsar's bed empty. The conspirators, who were drunk, found their head of state hiding behind a screen in his chamber. In an alcohol induced frenzy, they proceeded to murder the man to whom they had sworn their loyalty. Thus died Pavl Petrovich Romanov, who left the world in circumstances as lacking in love as his entrance.