On this day in 1801 Tsar Paul I of Russia is struck with a sword, then strangled, and finally trampled to death inside his bedroom at St. Michael’s Castle.
Emperor Paul was idealistic and capable of great generosity, but he was also mercurial and capable of vindictiveness. During the first year of his reign, Paul emphatically reversed many of the harsh policies of his mother. Although he accused many of Jacobinism, he allowed Catherine’s best known critic, Radishchev, to return from Siberian exile. Along with Radishchev, he liberated Novikov from Schlüsselburg fortress, and also Tadeusz Kościuszko, yet after liberation both were confined to their own estates under police supervision.
He viewed the Russian nobility as decadent and corrupt, and was determined to transform them into a disciplined, principled, loyal caste resembling a medieval chivalric order. To those few who conformed to his view of a modern-day knight (e.g., his favourites Kutuzov, Arakcheyev, Rostopchin) he granted more serfs during the five years of his reign than his mother had presented to her lovers during her thirty-four years. Those who did not share his chivalric views were dismissed or lost their places at court: seven field marshals and 333 generals fell into this category.
Paul’s premonitions of assassination were well-founded. His attempts to force the nobility to adopt a code of chivalry alienated many of his trusted advisors. The Emperor also discovered outrageous machinations and corruption in the Russian treasury. Although he repealed Catherine’s law which allowed the corporal punishment of the free classes and directed reforms which resulted in greater rights for the peasantry, and better treatment for serfs on agricultural estates, most of his policies were viewed as a great annoyance to the noble class and induced his enemies to work out a plan of action.