Sunday 23 March 2014

The Assassination of Paul I

Paul I (St Petersburg, Russia, 1st October 1754 – St Petersburg, Russia, 23rd March 1801)

Paul I of Russia by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1800
Paul I of Russia by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1800

After a pastoral turn around the gardens of Sheffield and a scientific sojourn, it is time to travel to Russia to witness a most dark moment in the history of that country. On this day, Emperor Paul I of Russia was five years into his reign and had made powerful and influential enemies. He believed that the noble class should behave in a chivalrous and honourable fashion and made efforts to deal with corruption in the highest government offices. Not only that, but he also increased rights for poorer citizens and put in place laws that ensured the poorest workers on estates could expect better treatment from their employers.

Paul feared assassination and was right to, for in the last months of Paul's life, a conspiracy was being planned against him by our old acquaintance, Count Pyotr Alexeevich Palen, Count Nikolay Zubov, Count Nikita Petrovich Panin and Admiral José de Ribas, who died before the assassination could be carried out.

As the night of 23rd March drew on, Paul hosted a dinner party in St Michael's Castle at which he was joined by his son, Grand Duke Alexander, who did not appear to enjoy the company of his father that evening. Presently Paul retired to his bedroom and began to prepare for rest as elsewhere, the conspirators waited for the appointed hour to strike. They spent the evening drinking and were admitted to the Castle by a member of staff who had been recruited to their cause, with the group making their way swiftly to the Emperor's chambers, where they easily overwhelmed domestic staff. Palen, meanwhile, made his way to Alexander's room where he and Paul's heir waited for the gruesome deed to be carried out.

St Michael's Castle
St Michael's Castle

Hearing a commotion in the hallway, Paul took refuge behind a screen in his room as General Levin August, Count von Bennigsen and Prince Vladimir Mikhailovich Yashvil burst into the chamber with their supporters. Finding the bed empty, they turned the room over and dragged the terrified man from his hiding place. Forcing him to sit at his desk, they instructed Paul to sign abdication papers, which he refused to do. Paul's refusal enraged his attackers and when he tried to resist, he was struck with the blade of a sword by one of the band and then viciously attacked. In the ensuing chaos, the Emperor was strangled to death with a scarf and terribly beaten by his attackers. So did the reign of Paul I end in violence and Alexander I rise to power.

Alexander I of Russia by Franz Krüger
Alexander I of Russia by Franz Krüger

None of the conspirators faced real punishment for their part in the plot and Palen's influence and reach ensured that much of the conspiracy remained mired in mystery. Whether Alexander was involved we can never be sure and while some of those who visit the salon say that he was part of the plot, others hold that he knew of the scheme but believed his father would be forced to abdicate, and no blood would be shed. Whatever the truth of the matter, the young man always felt a sense of shame for winning the throne through his father's violent death and would later develop a paranoia that his own life might be threatened, a worry that would plague the final years of his reign.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

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