Paul I of Russia Biography

Tsar/Tsarina (1754–1801)
Paul I of Russia served as the nation's emperor for a brief, tyrannical five years before he was assassinated 1801.


Paul I of Russia was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 1, 1754. He was sidelined for years by his mother, Catherine II, before finally becoming emperor in 1796, after her death. His reign was marked by numerous decrees that were resented by the populace, as well as quickly shifting alliances in foreign affairs. Paul was 46 years old when he was assassinated in St. Petersburg on March 23, 1801.

Early Life

Tsar Pavel Petrovich, anglicized to Paul, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 1, 1754. His parents were the future Peter III and Catherine II (there has been speculation that his father was actually court member Sergei Saltykov, though the rumor may have been spread to discredit Paul). As a presumptive heir to the throne, Paul was taken into the custody of Empress Elizabeth, his great-aunt. He was instructed by tutors and had little contact with either of his parents.

Wait for the Throne

In 1762, Peter III reigned for a few months before being overthrown by his wife, who became Catherine II. When he turned 18, Paul hoped for a role in government but was given little responsibility by his mother. As Paul grew older, Catherine consistently kept him from rising to power.

Paul was further sidelined by being sent to live at the country estate of Gatchina in 1783. There, he passed the time with Prussian-style military drills. Catherine began to consider bypassing Paul in the succession in favor of his son, Alexander. However, when Catherine died in 1796, Paul seized his chance to take the throne.

Reign of Paul I

When Paul became Paul I at the age of 42, one of his first acts decreed that primogeniture would be followed in the future, instead of the current ruler being permitted to choose a successor. The change was viewed as a repudiation of his mother and her attempts to stop him from taking power.

Once he was in power, Paul, believing that Russia needed an absolute monarch, began to reduce the power and privileges of the nobility. He also directed the country's military to take up maneuvers and uniforms like the Prussian-inspired ones that had been used at his country estate. Neither group appreciated Paul’s changes. Even serfs did not benefit from Paul's reforms—although he instituted a work obligation of three days, he gave serfs little recourse if the rule was not obeyed.

Paul wanted to keep the ideals of the French Revolution from spreading in Russia, so he outlawed foreign books and travel outside the country. He also instituted pettier rules, such as banning round hats, shoelaces and waltzes. These dictates aroused further opposition in the populace.

In foreign affairs, Paul initially withdrew from Catherine's commitment to send troops against Napoleon Bonaparte. However, in 1798, he joined the Second Coalition, along with Austria and England, to oppose Napoleon. Paul broke away from the coalition in 1799; he soon began to cooperate with Napoleon and turned against England.


The numerous changes in Paul's foreign and domestic policy, combined with his despotic attitude and fits of rage, left him with few allies. Rumors also began to spread that he was mentally unstable. On March 23, 1801, a group of officials gained access to the 46-year-old Paul’s rooms at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg and killed him. His son Alexander then took the throne.

Although it is impossible to know if Paul was mad or if he was just an unfit ruler, what is certain is that he was unsuccessful in his role as tsar.

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