The Rule of Paul I of Russia

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the short-lived but eventful rule of Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great, whom Catherine would have preferred to have passed over in the line of succession.

Paul I of Russia

Politics can get very heated. Republicans, for instance, don't care too much for many of the things Barack Obama has done, while Democrats were never too fond of George W. Bush. But never did it cross the minds of the U.S.'s 21st-century politicians to organize a coup! This, however, was precisely how unpopular the reign of Czar Paul I was in Russia at the turn of the 19th-century; after only five years of ruling, Paul was overthrown and assassinated by members of his own court.

Early Life

Paul was born in 1754 in St. Petersburg to the Grand Duchess Catherine, who later became the Czar Catherine II. Paul lived a tumultuous childhood away from his parents. He was torn from his mother while still an infant and raised at the court of the Czar Elizabeth. When Elizabeth died, Paul's father briefly became Peter III before his mother deposed Peter and became Catherine II.

The intra-family struggle was hard on the young Paul, but even worse was his mother's dislike for her son. Catherine not only favored her other son over Paul, but also feared Paul: many in the Russian court felt Paul should take the throne as soon as he came of age. Viewing Paul as a threat, Catherine continually pushed Paul away from the court and the family and shut him out of governmental affairs entirely.

Paul and his second wife (his first wife died in childbirth) were eventually given an estate by Catherine II outside of St. Petersburg in 1777. Paul's chaotic childhood had an effect on his character as an adult: he was skittish, quick to anger, and suspicious to the point of paranoia. Despite apparent plots by Catherine and the court to find a way to set aside the succession of the increasingly unstable Paul, Paul took the throne after his mother's death in 1797.

Paul I of Russia
Paul I


Paul's reign was as tyrannical as his personality was unstable. His paranoia led the Russian court to turn into a vicious circle of spies and sycophants who readily informed upon one another. Punishment for transgressors was severe: flogging, branding, and being banished to Siberia were regular sentences for anyone who crossed Paul's administration.

Paul styled himself a great reformer and set his eyes upon the army. His idol was Frederick the Great of Prussia, the creator of the impressive Prussian military machine of the mid-18th century, and Paul attempted to reform the Russian military in the same way. He forbade many insidious practices which had crept into the Russian military, such as the children of officers occupying paid positions and officers using personal carriages. He also cracked down on the absenteeism and desertion rife amongst the officer classes. Though Paul's reforms were, in theory, positive, they had a negative effect on morale and officers and ordinary soldiers alike resented the changes.

Paul's domestic policies were eclectic. The nobility were required, for instance, to dress in military style, and anyone caught wearing the popular French fashions of the day risked being publicly stripped and forced to conform. Paul banned the import of foreign literature and harshly punished bureaucrats or army officers who performed poorly. Economically, Paul attempted to address the economic stagnation in Russia through burning 5 million Russian rubles (to combat inflation) and creating the Russo-American company to jumpstart international trade with the United States.

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