The Death of Catherine the Great’s Heir, on 23 March 1801

Empress Catherine II of Russia didn’t earn the title of “the Great” by being a sweetie. She was, like almost all successful rulers, capable of playing hardball and cagey about maintaining her power. She was determined to make Russia a world power, and force Europe to give it the respect she believed it deserved. Catherine was also an autocrat, and was chillingly ruthless if someone seemed to be a threat to her crown. Nevertheless, she was pragmatic and had very realistic expectations of what she could achieve. Unfortunately, her husband and son didn’t understand any of the political nuances and maneuverings Catherine seemed to do as naturally as breathing, and she ran roughshod over them. It is also why they quickly became toast without her support.


Her husband, Peter III, was assassinated shortly after she deposed him by a group of her most loyal adherents. There is no evidence Catherine knew about it or ordered them to do it, but if she hadn’t put Peter at their mercy it couldn’t have happened. Catherine, was more careful with the life of her son Paul, but after she died then he was no more able to survive without his mother to protect him than his father had been.

Of course, being a woman, Catherine the Great’s “unfeminine” strengths and weaknesses caused the most common reaction in popular culture and history – she has been slut shamed almost beyond compare (or belief). Her success where her husband and son failed just seems to have poured fuel on the fire of her reputation. If you want a more in depth look into this phenomenon, she is one of the featured queens in my book on the subject:


Catherine protected her son, but she also disliked him and feared he was trying to plant his Romanov butt on the throne too early and over her cooling body. The problem was that there was no maternal-child bond between them. She didn’t even get to see or hold Paul before he was snatched from her childbed and swept away to be kept as a kind of pet by his paternal aunt, Empress Elizabeth I of Russia. Catherine only got to see him a handful of times while Elizabeth lived, and after Catherine became Empress it was far too late for her to bond with the 8 year old boy who now actively hated her because he was convinced she had murdered his father. Furthermore, as he grew older she became profoundly afraid of his potential to unseat her, and she made his life at court isolated and miserable with her suspicions of anyone who befriended him. Catherine learned nothing from her own experience, because she did the exact same thing to Paul – his two eldest sons were taken from their biological parents and raised by their grandmother to be loyal to her.

When her son became Emperor Paul I of Russia, he started an almost immediate reversal of nearly all his mother’s policies.

Borovikovskiy_Paul I of Russia

Some of these reasons were excellent … at least on paper:

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 … he opposed the many expansionary wars she fought and instead preferred to pursue a more peaceful, diplomatic path … He also believed that Russia needed substantial governmental and military reforms to avoid an economic collapse and a revolution, before Russia could wage war on foreign soil [he was 100% correct in that fear] … Throughout his reign, his policies focused reestablishing peace and the balance of power in Europe, while supporting autocracy and old monarchies, without seeking to expand Russia’s borders … 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 … [and he was committed to reform after] discovered outrageous machinations and corruption in the Russian treasury.

What Paul didn’t understand (and Catherine had) was that you don’t transform a culture overnight because you want it to become more Eastern European in character. You have to ease into these sorts of things. While Paul’s moves toward human rights were admirable, they also vexed the nobility he needed to secure his crown. Catherine knew how to move the Russian court along with the judicious application of both the carrot and the whip, but Paul didn’t appear to know how to use either the arts of coaxing or commanding correctly.

A conspiracy was organized, some months before it was executed, by Counts Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, Nikita Petrovich Panin, and the half-Spanish, half-Neapolitan adventurer Admiral Ribas. The death of Ribas delayed the execution. On the night of 23 March 1801, Paul was murdered in his bedroom in the newly built St Michael’s Castle by a band of dismissed officers headed by General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the Russian service, and General Yashvil, a Georgian. They charged into his bedroom, flushed with drink after supping together, and found Paul hiding behind some drapes in the corner. The conspirators pulled him out, forced him to the table, and tried to compel him to sign his abdication. Paul offered some resistance, and Nikolay Zubov struck him with a sword, after which he was strangled and trampled to death. He was succeeded by his son, the 23-year-old Alexander I, who was actually in the palace, and to whom General Nikolay Zubov, one of the assassins, announced his accession, accompanied by the admonition, “Time to grow up! Go and rule!”. The assassins were not punished by Alexander, and the court physician James Wylie declared apoplexy the official cause of death.

It was a tragic end of an Emperor who sincerely tried to do so much good for his people, and an appalling betrayal by his son. Worse, when Paul’s heirs failed to imitate his liberal reforms, it created such an unbearable state of oppression and misery that the populace turned to communism for hope, and after the Soviets rose to power the Bolsheviks slaughtered the royal family, ending the line of the Romanovs.


2 thoughts on “The Death of Catherine the Great’s Heir, on 23 March 1801

  1. After seeing all the palaces in San Petersburg(Catherine’s, Peter’s, Alexander’s, Winter Palace, etc… I wonder how the people did not slaughter those parasites and established communism much earlier…

    1. Well, yes … in that demanding reform would have been great and even the abolition of the monarchy/peerage and of course some form of semi-socialism like they have in the Nordic countries (communism cannot work until people are perfectly noble; so no holding your breath on that). But also no, in that wholesale slaughter isn’t good.

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