St. Petersburg, Russia Late 1796
Sergei Pakil walked into the royal bedroom and went directly to the closet, pulling out those clothes his sovereign would wear for the day. Czar Paul I preferred military uniforms. His fascination with the armed forces was well known. Paul was always kind with him, but he could be rather mercurial depending on his mood.
A door lined with ornate gold leaf opened and Paul walked in. Most of the doors in Gatchina’s estate were fashioned this way. The estate itself was situated southwest of St. Petersburg, an hour’s drive from Tsarskoe Selo by sleigh during the winter. It was given to Paul by his mother, the Empress Catherine when his first daughter was born in 1783. Now, the Czar was considered an old man at forty-two.
“I laid out your uniform, just as you asked, Your Highness,” Sergei began, casting his eyes toward the ground.
“Good. I am meeting the boyars today, Pakil. There is much work to be done and I expect some resistance – especially from Count Pahlen,” Paul replied.
“Your mother was much revered as Czarina,” Sergei continued, watching Paul quickly jerk off his morning robes and throw them at the foot of his bed.
“She was petty, Pakil. I will not tolerate such abuses and favoritism as Czar.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Sergei prepared Paul’s toiletries, laying them out on the Czar’s bureau.
“Do you know how she died, Pakil? Fat old cow had a stroke sitting on her toilet. Serves her right. She deserved to die surrounded by her favorites and not her family,” Paul snapped, his fingers urgently working the buttons of his uniform. Sergei was used to his quick gestures. Paul always acted as if he was in hurry to do everything. The sun filtered in through the bay windows lighting up the room.
“My medals,” Paul instructed. He was not in a humorous mood.
Sergei rushed forward and fiddled with the awards, straightening them out and buttoning the uniform’s stiff collar. Paul was a fairly tall man with thick brown hair and the Romanov nose, however his looks waned after an attack of typhus.
“Well, Count Pahlen and the boyars will see that I am not my mother. I am Czar of all the Russians – not of all the Russian boyars.”
Sergei dug into the breast pocket of his suit and withdrew a handkerchief, polishing off the gold on the buttons.
Paul smiled at him. “You are a good valet, Pakil.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“How is your family - your wife and son? Do they like Gatchina?”
“They do. I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to serve you,” Sergei said, a hint of affection for the older man laced in his voice.
“Come with me to court.”
Sergei nodded his head and followed his sovereign out of the room. While Sergei was considered a serf, a slave, Paul treated him better than that. All the serfs employed by the Czar in his personal staff were paid well and even educated. Sergei was grateful for that.
Count Oleg Pahlen walked into the Russian Imperial Court, housed in the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, a sly grin on his face as he swatted his white gloves into the palm of his hand. It was a shame the Czarina had past away recently. He’d found favor with her and she’d given him several estates that had increased his wealth. A number of other wealthy boyars approached him as he took his seat.
“What will the new Czar do? Can we expect to lose all we gained under his mother?” Count Vitaliy Mettov cried, wiping the sweat from his beady little brow.
“Don’t snivel like so, Mettov,” Pahlen said smoothly. “Paul is a simpleton. He does not understand how the Czarina’s government worked. He will be easy to manipulate – especially if he IS his father’s son.”
“Peter?” A second noble, Dimitri Sukhov whispered.
“Catherine would have you believe it was Sergei Saltykou,” Pahlen replied.
“The Empress Elizabeth swore Paul was of Peter’s blood…” Dimitri replied.
“He does possess Peter’s features,” a fourth noble, Yuri Galtov chimed in.
“Enough! Catherine did not have time to officially name Alexander her successor, however more agreeable he would have been. Now, if Paul fails to carry out the same reforms as his mother, his reign might be a…challenging one, to say the least.”
“How so, Pahlen?” asked Vitaliy.
Just then the door opened to the court and Paul marched in, accompanied by several high-ranking military members of his personal regiment.
Pahlen stood up slowly, the members of the nobility following his lead. Pahlen inwardly chuckled at that. All were dressed in their finest clothes, from uniforms to traditional robes of the providences they represented. Pahlen then spied the Czar’s son, the Czarvich Alexander. The boy was nineteen, young, impressionable, and groomed by Catherine herself to succeed her. The Czarvich was as tall as his father with handsome, rugged features. Compared to the Czar, he painted a picture of beauty and vitality. Quietly, yet distinctly, Alexander made his way next to his father’s seat.
Paul’s eyes cut to Alexander. No words were spoken, but Pahlen guessed the Czar’s severe message – don’t be late again.
“My mother’s reign is over,” Paul began speaking clearly, for all to hear as he sat down. “There is much work to do.”
“Much work? What else is to be done, Your Highness? Your mother expanded Russia’s lands, built schools, improved our defenses…” began Pahlen. There was a chill in the air despite the efforts to keep December’s cold at bay.
“Yes, Pahlen, but there is more to do. While you and I are free men, there are some in Russia who are not free from needless corporal punishment or even exile. This goes against the Enlightment principals that my mother espoused.”
“You refer to the serfs, Your Highness?” Pahlen asked, crossing his arms.
“They are men like you and I.”
“Physical punishment is a means to get them to work.”
“It is a means of intimidation!” Paul snapped, standing up.
“And how do you know what your mother would want?” Pahlen retorted. “After all, you live in Gatchina, Your Highness, on the opposite end of St. Petersburg and you rarely visited Court.”
Pahlen did his best to keep his composure even, despite Paul’s apparent sneer. The Czar glanced at his son, then back to Pahlen. His eyes once cool, were now full of anger.
“I am Czar! I am the Supreme Autocrat of Russia! Is there a challenge to my presence on the throne? Do you deny my birthright?” Paul hissed.
“No, of course not, Your Highness,” Pahlen said. “I am merely suggesting that Russia needs little reform, as the ones your mother implemented were adequate.”
“There are things you are unaware of Pahlen – things you could not possibility know because you do not oversee the entire nation as I do,” Paul said, lowering his voice in a calming manner as he sat down. “Now, as you all supported my mother, I expect the same.”
Paul seemed to drown on as Pahlen shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The new Czar did not understand the needs of the nobles, and he would either come to or else. Pahlen looked up, finding the young Czarvich’s eyes. They betrayed nothing; in fact Alexander nodded his head in agreement with what his father was saying. Was it politeness? How could Alexander support his father’s ideas, which were in exact opposition of his grandmother? The day carried on in dreadful anticipation as Pahlen listened to the Czar set an almost unmanageable agenda for his rule.
Sergei Pakil went to the kitchen to ask the cooks to prepare the lunch meal for Paul. The new Czar was a simple man and he preferred simple meals. During the winter time, Paul cared for a hearty goulash soup and bread. When Sergei advised the cooks they seemed surprised by the request. Sergei couldn’t blame them. Catherine had a vivacious appetite and was fond of rich foods and thick sauces.
He waited patiently, intending to serve Paul in the conservatory. The Czar loved music and his wife was quite talented in the piano. There was nothing the Czar enjoyed more than listening to his wife play after dinner, his daughters at his side. It was a shame really – the Czar’s sons – Alexander, Konstantin, and even the infant, Nikolai, born just last year, were taken from him, to be raised by Catherine. She intended to groom them to be future monarchs. At least Nikolai would come to know Paul like his daughters did. Alexander and Konstantin, young men in their own right, were strangers to him.
“Pakil?” asked the head cook, an older man walking toward him. Sergei knew his name to be Leo Gutenberg, a German. Gutenberg brought him a tray with the lunch he ordered.
“Thank you,” said Sergei, taking the tray.
“Does the Czar intend to hold court here? I need to know what to tell the staff.”
“I believe he does, but he will still live at Gatchina,” Sergei answered.
“Very good. Thank you, Pakil.”
Sergei nodded his head and made his way out of the kitchen. The Catherine Palace was enormous and quite impressive. The front courtyard was lined with classical colonnades covered in gold trim. In the middle of the yard was a wide fountain that shot a stream of water high into the air on the hour. Inside, the palace itself was a complicated pattern of rooms with tall ceilings and delicate furniture. Sergei understood why Paul didn’t want to move his family. The main reason being Gatchina felt more like a home with its intimate rooms, but also, the Czar did not wish to occupy his mother’s cold, aloof home. The irony was Alexander stayed in the small palace adjacent to this one. If Paul wanted to reach out to his son, moving to the Catherine Palace to be close to him would prove his sincerity.
As Sergei made his way through the halls, towards the more formal apartments, he heard the boyars talking as he passed the nobles’ dining room.
“Peter was mad, he was…”
“Paul is not mad. He acts before he thinks. He did not inherit Peter’s wit.”
Sergei recognized that cold voice to be Pahlen’s.
“Perhaps he is sane simply because Peter is not his father…”
“Peter couldn’t stand Catherine. If Paul was truly not his son, he would have denied his parentage,” Pahlen barked.
“Well, Paul is impulsive like his father…”
“The Czar is determined to do away with all his mother has accomplished at our expense,” barked another noble. The voice was familiar, but Sergei couldn’t place it. He wasn’t surprised to hear such remarks, but Sergei was surprised by their arrogance as they talked loudly.
“He hated Catherine. That much was well known, Pahlen.”
“We cannot let him destroy all that we worked for in the name of the Enlightment,” Pahlen hissed.
Sergei raced forward, finding the chill in the Count Pahlen’s voice frightening. He raced to the conversatory and found the Czar staring out the window, his blue-gray eyes longingly facing the direction of his son’s palace.
He placed the tray on the small table in front of the couch. “Your Highness? Lunch is here.”
“Thank you, Pakil,” said Paul evenly, as he turned around. The look on his face was pensive and reserved. It grew quiet and Sergei made his way toward the door to depart.
“Yes, Your Highness?”
“See to it my sons, Alexander and Konstantin, are invited to Gatchina tonight for dinner.”
“Yes, Your Highness. Anything else?”
“Stay, Pakil. I wish your company. The nobles do not care for me as their ruler. They would have much preferred Alexander.”
“Perhaps,” said Sergei, nodding his head. He sat down from the Czar and they talked a little.
It was late when Maria Feodorovna Romanov descended the center staircase in Gatchina. Her infant son, Nikolai, was resting peacefully in his crib. The girls were all in bed. Still, Paul was late coming home and he seemed distracted throughout dinner. It was unlike him to refuse a game of bezique with Alexandra, their thirteen-year-old daughter. She wondered if his behavior was due to the stress of taking the Russian throne. Opening the door to the observatory, she found her husband sitting in front of a roaring fire, his eyes fixed on the flickering flames that danced before him.
“Paul? Darling, how are you?” she asked, kneeling in back of him, rubbing his shoulders. While his face suffered from slight pockmarks, he still had a full head of thick hair and his eyes sparkled like a young man’s. His body was not fat – instead lean and muscular. A low, guttural moan escaped his lips and she smiled at the effect of her touch. They had a good, blessed marriage with many children, and while they were older now, in their forties, she was grateful that his eye did not roam and that they still shared the same intimacy they possessed when they were younger. “Paul?”
“I am disappointed Alexander and Konstantin did not come tonight, Maria.”
“It is understandable. They are young men now, with their own households,” Maria replied, continuing to kneed and rub her husband’s tight muscles. “They will come soon enough. They do not hate us, as your mother did.”
“Will they come to us? Or did my mother truly destroy their faith in me?” he mussed.
“Faith…or love, husband?”
He sighed, turning around to look at her. “You know I love you. I love our children – even Alexander and Konstantin, despite the fact I barely know them. I love them because you gave them to me. I have been faithful to you, Maria. There have been no others.”
She smiled, moved by his words. She knew he did not take lovers. It was a behavior that appalled him – especially after witnessing the loose morals of his mother’s court. Gently, she placed a finger to his lips. “I do not like seeing you so troubled.”
“They hate me, Maria. They hate me because I am not my mother.”
“Who? Our sons?”
“No, the nobles. My mother was cruel and mean, Maria! I longed for her attention and love when I was young – instead she chose to take my sons and lavish them with the attention that should have been mine. It has made me bitter in that regard – hard and bitter. I want my reign over Russia to be different.”
“Oh, Paul, our children do love you. You have been a good father to them and I could not ask for such a faithful husband…”
He cupped her chin. “Thank you, my darling. Your love is reassuring now that I’ve ascended into a den of thieves. I don’t even know if I can trust my own son, Alexander, and that disturbs me. I heard rumors today…” his voice fell off.
“Oh?” she prompted.
“The boyars are loud and talk too much. Their arrogance appalls me. You know my mother intended Alexander to succeed her?”
“I did not know,” she answered.
“The current law of succession is not stable. It allows for the reigning monarch to name who will succeed them – it is not a birthright,” Paul continued. Maria noticed how his jaw twitched. His features earlier, smooth and sensitive were now hard and fierce.
“It did not favor you,” Maria added. Paul’s fingers slowly curved over her chin and found her neck.
“No, it did not. My ancestor, Peter the Great, believed the Czars could choose the best person to succeed them, but if you look at history, the monarchy suffered. My own father was deposed in favor of my mother and my mother would skip over me for my son – a mere boy who the boyars can easily bully.”
“What are you going to do, my love?”
“It will be my first manifesto, Maria. Alexander will inherit the throne, but he will do so because he is my firstborn son. Then Konstantin, then Nikolai.”
“And our daughters?”
“The throne will fall to the Romanov males. Not the women.”
“I see. You are put off by your mother’s rule, I understand that, but…”
“Please, Maria, even you must admit women rule with their heart. My mother did so – showering her favorites with estates and serfs. Now look what I face, extreme opposition to my reign. I will not have that for generations to come. The law of succession will be clear and concise.”
Maria nodded her head. Poor Paul to feel this way! If only his mother had been kinder with him. They had plenty of sons so the throne was not in jeopardy. If Paul felt it was for the best, she would support him.
He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. She snuggled into him, and they turned to face the fire, enjoying the quietness and the dancing flames before them.
Pahlen marched into court, his heavy wool coat still parched with dense snowflakes. He yanked off the thick gloves that covered his hands and found his way to his seat. Only Paul would hold court on such a dreary day.
“Why does he call us here today?” asked Vitaliy approaching Pahlen, brushing the snow out of his hair.
“He is asserting himself, nothing more. He is the Czar. Remember, we must appear to appease him. If we anger him too much, he could take away all our gains,” Pahlen reminded him.
“Did you see him talking to Catherine’s personal maid, Olga, yesterday, before he left?” asked Yuri, settling in his seat.
Pahlen chuckled. “She is young and good looking. Unlike his wife.”
“Do you think he might find favor with her?” suggested Dimitri.
“Paul? You suggest too much. His wife has bore him nine children. There’s been no rumors he’s lain with anyone else,” Pahlen scoffed.
“He is Czar now, he could have any woman he wanted,” Yuri added.
Pahlen rubbed his chin with his fingers, losing himself in thought. Just then Paul entered, Alexander following behind him, surrounded by his guards. The nobles stood and the Czar went directly to dais. Pahlen watched as he withdrew a piece of parchment from his jacket pocket and unrolled it.
“I, Paul I, Czar of Russia, do hereby announce the following manifesto. From here on, the former law of succession is void. The throne will pass from father to son, to the eldest born son of the ruling Czar. Women are to be excluded from the throne. This will ensure the stability of the House of Romanov, binding the family intimately to Russia’s land. Those Romanov males in line for the throne will be known as “His Imperial Highness.” Women will carry a rank of “Grand Duchess” and no higher. This I decree, signed, Paul, Czar Autocrat of Russia.”
Pahlen snarled, disgusted at the new Czar’s announcement. That was not what the great Peter intended when he made Russia into a world power! The whispers began, and Pahlen could only watch as the manifesto was properly filed with the court’s recorder. So be it! Paul intended just more than to change the law succession. He intended to change the course of Russia. Imperial bastard, that’s what he was! Pahlen balled his hands into fists, determined to stop Paul if it came to that. After all, Peter II, Ivan IV, and even Paul’s own father, Peter III, were deposed in favor of monarchs more suitable to Russia’s nobility. He would personally ensure Paul made no friends, that rumors destroyed his reputation. Paul was as mad as his father, he would see to it that’s what the Russian people believed – even down through the ages. After all, history was written by the victors. Pahlen chuckled as Paul directed the court to have a seat. His eyes cut to Alexander. Hope for the future shined bright.
Author's Note: In resarching this "aspect" of Russian history, I was surprised to discover that Paul wasn't quite what history would have us believe. With the opening of Russia's archives after the Soviet regime collasped, historical researchers were able to delve into material not avail about Paul's reign, raising more questions than answers about the true nature of his relationship with his mother and his intentions regarding his reign.
This piece is purposely not written from Paul's perspective in the first person or the the third person. By using the third person omniscient, I'll able to show you slivers a man history hardly painted an accurate portrait of. I'll let you decide for yourself if Paul was truly mad or a victim of "History is decided by the victors."