The Russian czar Paul I (1754-1801), the son and successor of Catherine the Great, reigned from 1796 until his assassination in 1801. Noted for his tyranny, he reversed many of his mother's policies.

Born on Sept. 20, 1754, Paul I was the son of Emperor Peter III and Catherine the Great. Empress Elizabeth brought Paul up under her personal supervision, and his schooling was under the direction of Nikita Ivanovich Panin, who later became Catherine's chief diplomatic adviser. Under the guidance of a carefully selected group of teachers, Paul studied geography, history, and mathematics. He learned to speak Russian, French, and German fluently. At the age of 19 Paul married Wilhemina, daughter of the landgrave of Hesse, but this marriage was brief and unhappy. His wife died in childbirth in April 1776. In September of that year Paul married Sophie Dorothy, Princess of Württemberg, who took the name of Fedorovna. Between 1777 and 1798 Fedorovna bore four sons and six daughters.

Catherine disliked Paul intensely and on several occasions attempted to change the law of succession to his disadvantage. In 1783 she gave him an estate near St. Petersburg. Paul spent the next 13 years in semiretirement at Gatchina, living the life of a country squire and garrison commander. He made rare appearances at the royal court and opposed both his mother's domestic and foreign policies.

Despite Catherine the Great's attempts to make Paul's son Alexander her successor, Paul ascended the Russian throne following his mother's death in 1796. One of his first legislative measures was the abolition of the arbitrary power of the czar to nominate his successor, a power that had contributed to political instability in 18th-century Russia. A law promulgated on the day of Paul's coronation made the crown hereditary in the house of Romanov and defined the order of succession based on primogeniture.

Paul as emperor repealed many of the nobles' privileges, restricted the duties and powers of the imperial guards, and tried to place restrictions on the exploitation of the serfs by the upper classes. Paul encouraged trade and industry, and he also attempted to modernize the armed forces. His conduct, however, was on occasion erratic and tyrannical, such as in his prohibition of foreign travel, Western music and books, and various types of dress.

In foreign policy, Paul joined in 1798 the second coalition against France, but Russia withdrew a year later. In order to discourage English interference with neutral shipping, Paul formed an armed neutrality league with Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia.

Paul's unpredictable—possibly mentally ill—behavior led to a conspiracy to force his abdication. His son Alexander assented to the coup d'etat of March 11, 1801. However, when Paul refused to abdicate, the conspirators strangled him.

Further Reading on Paul I

The most authoritative study of the reign of Paul I is in Russian. Martha Edith Almedingen, So Dark a Stream: A Study of the Emperor Paul I of Russia, 1754-1801 (1959), is a popularly written biography. There is a good section on Paul in Alexander A. Kornilov, Modern Russian History (3 vols., 1912-1914; trans., 2 vols., 1916-1917), and in Ronald Hingley, The Tsars: Russian Autocrats, 1533-1917 (1968). Hans Rogger, National Consciousness in 18th Century Russia (1960), traces the emergence of a sense of national identity among the cosmopolitan elite.

Additional Biography Sources

McGrew, Roderick E. (Roderick Erle), Paul I of Russia, 1754-1801, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Paul I, a reassessment of his life and reign, Pittsburgh: University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 1979.