Orthodox America

  Monarch Idealist – Emperor Paul I of Russia

      Few historians have succeeded in penetrating the veil of prejudice and mystery which continues to hang over the short reign of Emperor Paul I, martyred Tsar of Russia , He is variously described as a petty military despot prone to fluctuating moods and violent fits of temper, or a reactionary monarch bent on reversing the "progress" achieved during the reign of his mother, Catherine II ,whom history has acclaimed "the Great"; his murder in a palace conspiracy on March 11, 1801 is made to appear as an historical necessity, and indeed, we are told that among court circles it was met with rejoicing. Said one official at the time, "Terror has taken flight and joy reigns supreme in the capital."

      At first glance his official portrait corroborates this view: depicted in the fashionable attire of the 18th century, complete with powdered wig, the Emperor looks almost prissy and decidedly unimposing. A closer look at his eyes, however, reveals an entirely different story, one of much sadness and suffering. While absent from history annals, this very different view of Tsar Paul is supported by the crowds who attended his funeral as well as the 50th anniversary of his tragic death, and by the fresh flowers and burning candles which, until the Revolution, were always found by his grave in the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St, Petersburg. 

I prefer to be hated for a rightful cause than loved for a wrong one. -- Emperor Paul I

In order to understand this Tsar-Martyr, we must first understand his mother and the 18th century revolution which Holy Russia suffered in consequence of Peter I's infatuation with the West. The ambitious Catherine did nothing to heal the wounded national consciousness and only furthered the rift between the Westernized nobility and the lower classes. Born Sophie Augusta Fredericke of the German house of Holstein-Gottorp, she converted to Orthodoxy when she married the Empress Elizabeth's heir, the future Tsar Peter Ill. Her conversion was prompted by reasons of state, not by heartfelt conviction, and she remained foreign to Holy Russia, although she easily cultivated the favors of the spoiled court circles which accepted her liberal views imported from the French Enlightenment thinkers.

    From a worldly standpoint Catherine was a brilliant, dynamic woman, but personally headstrong and so immoral in her private life as to cause great scandal among the pious. Unable to be an obedient wife and good Orthodox Christian, she thought nothing of sanctioning the conspiracy that led to the removal of her husband, Tsar Peter III, from his throne, and his subsequent murder. Ignoring the reproaches of conscience, she began to rule in his place. Despite the overall favorable judgment of history, from an Orthodox perspective Catherine was like a wolf in sheep's clothing, scattering instead of protecting the holy flock entrusted to her care.

    One recent historian writes frankly of Catherine's monumental ego, showing how she was "unable to control the new and awesome force she had unleashed" on Russia. Her reign, he says, "was a difficult time for the Empire's peasants. The high cost of westernization...increased the burdens borne by the serfs. In an effort to pay for their new palaces, Western fashions, and luxury goods, nobles pressed their serfs .... For the mass of Catherine's subjects, her reign thus was a sore and trying time..."

     Justifiably wary of Catherine' s willful and ambitious designs, the Empress Elizabeth took upon herself the upbringing of the young Paul, surrounding him with tutors who shared her traditional, pious views. A warm and lasting relationship developed between the child and his catechism instructor, Hieromonk Platon, who later became Metropolitan of Moscow. At an early age Paul is described as being sincerely religious, of an excellent and upright character; he was a voracious reader, had a remarkable memory, and was gifted with an aptitude for science and languages. A lively, warmhearted, instinctively kind child, he grew to have a keen awareness of his responsibilities as heir to the throne. 

In contrast to the example of his mother, Paul was taught that "a good monarch does not, and indeed cannot, have any true interest or true glory apart from the prosperity and well being of those peoples subjected to him by God's grace." It was because of his responsible views of the monarchy, as well as his mother's shocking excesses, that on more than one occasion Paul was greeted "by delirious crowds" in various cities, making his mother anxious and fearful of his growing popularity.

     Catherine's personal prejudice towards her son contrasts with the favorable impression created by Paul during his 11-month European tour with his wife (1781-82). In a letter written by Joseph II of Austria to his brother Leopold of Tuscany where a visit of the royal couple was soon to he expected, they are described as "very sensible and careful parents" who "have a strong desire to see and to learn .... Public establishments whether charitable or educational, have been of interest to them; and because they try to profit from everything they see, one must not refuse them details." After having met the heir to the Russian throne, Leopold was left with a similarly positive impression: "In addition to a great deal of spirit, talent and thoughtfulness, [he] also possesses the ability fully to understand things and ideas, and to understand thoroughly, all aspects and circumstances .... I believe that he is very industrious and particularly that he has a great deal of toughness in his thinking."

On their return to Russia, the Grand Ducal couple settled at Gatchina, a large and flourishing estate which Paul rather sensibly viewed "as a miniature version of the Empire he one day would rule, a mini-kingdom in which to test his ideas about government, economy, and reform .... As master of Gatchina's serfs, he proved a benevolent and enlightened lord. Most of his serfs were Lutheran Finns, and he was surprisingly tolerant of their faith .... He lent them money in time of need, instructed them in more advanced agricultural techniques, and established a variety of industrial enterprises to occupy them during the winter months. He founded schools where peasant children were taught to read and write, and he built a hospital where peasants who usually lived and died without seeing a physician, could receive free medical care." His good wife, meanwhile, dedicated herself to numerous charitable works. Thus passed the years of waiting.

       On the whole, objective descriptions of the Grand Duke are generally sympathetic and do not at all match the stories of the "hopeless madman" that have come down to us from his enemies at his mother's corrupt court. Even neutral observers characterized him as an emotional, sentimental man, who did sometimes act with less than desirable restraint or consistency, but was withal a genuinely warm-hearted, generous, affectionate and pious man.

      If one assumes--as most historians do-that the reign of "the great" Catherine was an unqualified triumph of the French Enlightenment over the brooding superstitions of "dark" Mother Russia, then indeed some of Paul's actions take on the appearance of "madness." After all, why would anyone stand in the way of "progress"? But if, on the contrary, one sees that Paul was justifiably shocked and alarmed at the pernicious effect his mother's policies were having on the piety, decency, and simplicity of Holy Russia, his behavior then takes on quite heroic dimensions and one begins to realize that his method of government was rightfully severe, and perhaps not severe enough!

      Upon his mother's unholy death in I796 (she suffered a stroke while on the toilet--a real sign of heaven's judgment on her reign,) Paul had the remains of his dishonored, murdered father exhumed to lie in state next to his mother. This showed to all that his mother reigned not in her own right, but only as his father's consort. One of the first actions he undertook as Emperor was to issue a decree forbidding females from sitting on the throne of Russia and legally defining the order of succession so as to eliminate political instability and the uncertainty which had plagued heirs to the throne--especially Paul.

     The partisans of his late mother--who had profited greatly from her indulgent methods of governing--seethed with resentment and jealousy as the new Tsar began to institute his reforms. They saw his long-needed reorganization of the army as a childish obsession with things military, and used every opportunity to discredit and slander him. They chafed under the new regime which cut down court expenses, streamlined the bureaucratic apparatus, forbade landlords from forcing serfs to work on Sundays, imposed a tax on estates of the nobility and "interpreted the aristocratic principle in terms of duties rather than privileges.”

Paul had  a tremendous capacity for work, rising daily at 5 A.M. and he expected the same discipline in both military and government circles. But the dreams which this idealist Orthodox monarch had conceived during the lone and often frustrating period before he ascended the throne were destined to be thwarted by the prevailing attitude of a degenerate nobility which had long forsaken the best interests of a Holy Russia to which the new Tsar was committed. Paul realized that only an iron hand could save Russia from the brink of disaster to which it had been brought by Catherine. At the same time he felt keenly the opposition of the pampered nobility and the ever-fresh memory of his father's tragic fate inclined him to be suspicious. But while fearing that his enemies were growing stronger, Paul remained deeply compassionate. For example, while punishing his dead mother's lovers with exile, he at the same time recalled his illegitimate half-brother from exile and gave him public honors, since he was not himself responsible for his illegitimacy.

    Those unacquainted with the difficult circumstances of Emperor Paul's reign ascribe the suspicious side of his character to some mad paranoia. The fact is that soon after he ascended the throne a web of conspiracy began slowly to close around the Imperial Family. It is no coincidence that many of the conspirators gathered frequently at the home of a woman of extremely loose morals, the mistress of the British Ambassador and the sister of Catherine's last lover, "She was by nature a conniver, loved intrigue, and despised Paul because he had sent her three brothers into exile." The Tsar was at this time living in a newly-built fortress outside St. Petersburg, the Mikhailovsky Castle, and it was here that the final scene of this tragedy was enacted. We do not know precisely which conspirator killed the Emperor, but we do know that his son and heir knew of the plot to dethrone his father (although he did not expect his father to be murdered), and announced to the guards on duty at the Castle that Paul had died of apoplexy. "During my reign," he continued, "everything will be as it was during the time of my grandmother (Catherine the Great)." Thus, after a short reign of only four years, Tsar Paul died in the same manner as his father, Peter III, and, like his father, his memory has been subjected to vicious calumny. It is interesting that the regicides all became mentally ill and died a shameful death.

    Paul ascended the throne with a sincere desire to reign with justice. "All his wise policies were directed at improving conditions in Russia internally...but he was surrounded by assistants who did not share his lofty views....Whether by intent or by servility, a number of Paul's instructions and wishes were carried to impossible extremes. " Misunderstood and woefully maligned, Paul was constantly frustrated in his Good intentions which were motivated by a genuine desire to serve God and country, This caused him much suffering, and the great number of his subjects who sympathized with his views regarded his violent death as nothing less than martyrdom for a holy cause. Without overlooking his many weaknesses--absolute perfection is not a requisite of Orthodox sanctity--his venerators began to ask his intercession which must have been very effective judging from the more than 1,000 miracles registered by the clergy at the Sis. Peter and Paul Cathedral before the Revolution. Even today many pious Orthodox Christians, harassed by administrative or bureaucratic difficulties, misunderstandings and slander, often ask their priest to serve a Pannikhida (Memorial Service) for Tsar Paul, knowing that this martyred sovereign's much-suffering life has found favor with the Monarch of monarchs, the Lord God Almighty.


Florinsky, M.T., Russia: __a History and an Interpretation; Macmillan Co., N .Y., 1947. Lincoln, W. Bruce; The Romanov.s; Dial Press, N.Y., 1981.

Illustrated History of the Russian Empire; 'Rev. Archdeacon Nikita Chakirov, ed., Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, 1971. Makochenko, A.K., "Emperor Paul Petrovitch"in Nasha Siraha, Buenos Aires, Aug. 14, 1981(in Russian).

Makridi, A., "Emperor Paul the First" in Nasha Strana, July 3, 1973.

Readings in Russian History; W. Walsh, ed., Syracuse University Press, 1963. Waliszewski, K., Paul the First of Russia; Archon Books, 1969