The Last Coup of the Russian Tsardom

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 29 March 2021

Tsar Pavel I

A few days ago, it was the 220th anniversary of the palace coup that, in the early hours of 24 March 1801, deposed the Russian Tsar, Pavel (Paul) I, the last of the Russian monarchs to fall in this way.[1]


Pavel, the son of the great Empress Catherine II (r. 1762-96), with whom he had not got along, immediately set about changing “everything that was connected to his mother”, as Simon Sebag Montefiore explains in his history of the last Russian dynasty,[2] The Romanovs: 1613-1918 (2016).[3] Pavel had been appalled that a woman was Imperator, and “revelled in power” being back in male hands, issuing 2,000 decrees in just his first year. The most important changes, because they were the most abrasive, were part of Pavel’s overnight Germanizing of the domestic aesthetic of Russia,[4] symbolised most clearly by his Gatchina Regiment, kitted out in dated Prussian gear, and felt most acutely by the Russian elite in his banning of “French” attire.[5]

Pavel’s petty edicts on dress code were enforced by General Nikita Akharov, the Emperor’s primary loyalist, formally the governor of St. Petersburg, widely known as the “minister of terror”. The men who had overseen security at Pavel’s little world in the Gatchina Palace were now handed the state: Fyodor Rostopchin served as intelligence chief; Aleksey Arakcheev, promoted to Count and quartermaster-general, was given control of the Petersburg garrison and thus was the military backbone of Pavel’s government; and Peter Obolyaninov, the head of the political police, lavished with numerous titles until he was made procurator-general. Alexander Bezborodko, chief architect of Catherine’s foreign policy, was retained as foreign minister, though died in April 1799. Pavel’s wife, the Prussian-born Duchess Maria Feodorovna, had to get acquainted with the Tsar’s mistress, Nelidova, in order to get her way with her husband. And then there was perhaps the oddest one in this cast of characters: Pavel’s barber, Ivan Kutaisov, a captured and enslaved Turk, a convert to Orthodox Christianity, who served as fixer in procuring everything from advice to prostitutes.

Resentment built against Pavel’s ruthless flaunting of arbitrary rule and the rogue’s gallery of his Court. Even Rostopchin was moved at one point to remark that Pavel was “surrounded by such people that the most honest would deserve to be hanged”. Still, Pavel had hoped, as he literally said, quoting the Roman Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41 AD), to govern by the dictum: “Let them hate [me], so long as they fear me”. This did not work. The Gatchina Regiment in their archaic Prussian get-up provoked laughter, even in the days after Empress Catherine’s death in November 1796, when everyone was otherwise miserable. The effect was doubled when people turned from the troops to see Pavel watching them in “his dalmatique, … resembling as it did a bejewelled tea-cosy, combined with high Prussian boots, a tunic, and a three-cornered hat”.[6]

Pavel was haunted by the downfall of his father, Peter III, a German-born aristocrat who had served as Tsar for six months in 1762, until a coup replaced him with Pavel’s mother, Catherine the Great. Peter had then died while in the custody of Alexei Orlov (“Chesmensky” or “Scarface”), Prince Fyodor Bariatinsky, Grigory Potemkin (d. 1791), and a dozen others. The circumstances of Peter’s death are distinctly murky; the degree of intentionality, Orlov’s and Catherine’s, remains debated. Orlov’s favour under Catherine’s regime is not in doubt, though; he was, with Potemkin, a hero of many military campaigns, especially against the Ottomans.

One of Pavel’s first acts after taking power was to have his father’s corpse dug up and reburied with his mother. Bezborodko had gone through Catherine II’s papers after her death and discovered the letter from Orlov-Chesmensky that at least admitted to command responsibility for Peter III’s death (Bezdorodko also found the letter wherein Catherine was to disinherit Pavel and alter the succession so his son, Alexander, the future Alexander I (r. 1801-25), became Emperor; that one was carefully destroyed.) Pavel made the surviving regicides, Orlov and Bariatinsky, participate in the procession that moved Peter III’s body from the Nevsky Monastery to Catherine’s grave in Petersburg. Orlov, indeed, was made to carry the crown before the coffin, and then both men were banished.[7]


Pavel’s micro-managing despotism created many more problems than it solved—there was the sheer waste of putting on daily military displays and the expenditure of energy on regularising ceremony such that meeting the Imperial family was done in silence so the Emperor could hear the knee hit the floor during the bowing—but this tidy cast of mind did solve one issue, namely the dynastic instability of the eighteenth century: he proclaimed a Family Law that made the Royal House into a political institution with pre-set laws over the succession, proceeding through male primogeniture. As it turned out, these rules were soon to be needed.[8]

The root of the conspiracy that brought Pavel down was his fusing the irksome despotism he had constructed domestically to an abrupt shift in foreign policy in late 1799, from viewing himself as part of a Crusade—he was even made Grand Master of the Knights of Malta—with Britain and Austria to quarantine the French Revolution, to a man-crush on Napoleon Bonaparte to rival Peter III’s besotted view of Frederick the Great (r. 1740-86) that ended with Pavel planning a quixotic Russo-French invasion of British India.[9]

The loathing of the elite for the direction Pavel was taking the country in met with practical opportunity as the paranoid Emperor destroyed all the men protecting the throne. There had been a nascent conspiracy, but it was kept at bay by the posting of the conspirators far afield in 1800. Once Pavel removed his own loyalists, however, it opened the way to those who viewed him as a liability. The terror Pavel brought to Court was based on a truth—that there was a plot against him—yet he singularly misdirected his suspicion.[10]

Pavel seems to have basically gone out of his mind after switching to the pro-French policy. “The Emperor is literally not in his senses,” the British ambassador wrote back to London. Pavel’s son, Alexander, said the same: “It is impossible for me to enumerate all the madness” in a country that had become “a plaything for the insane” (i.e. his father).[11]


The most important of the people Pavel now promoted, nearly all of whom had either previously been wronged and/or were aware that he was an erratic tyrant, was Peter Pahlen, a German, as governor-general of Petersburg. Pahlen brought Alexander into the conspiracy against his father, though in a slightly deceptive manner, by promising to spare the Emperor’s life, something Pahlen almost certainly knew was impossible. Meanwhile, Pahlen then got the Emperor to restore several key figures in his plot: the Zubov brothers, and Levin Bennigsen, another German General in the service of the Russian government. Once Pahlen had got Rostopchin pushed out of his post in mid-February 1801 by the old calendar (late February/early march by the new), the stage was set.[12]

Pahlen had come close to exposure several times, as Montefiore explains, in a manner that is partly the stuff of spy thrillers, but with a strong element of farce, too.[13] On the night of the coup, 11 March by the old calendar (23 March by the new),[14] a couple of separate gatherings merged into one of about sixty people at the Winter Palace. Many were drunk and all had been drinking, except for the two German architects of the scheme, Pahlen and Bennigsen. Platon Zubov’s last-minute wobble was overcome by Bennigsen telling him, in terms unmistakeable, that things were too far gone for retreat: “The wine is poured and must be drunk”. Just after midnight, 12 March (24 March), the posse set about its work at Pavel’s new Mikhailovsky Castle, a structure that would have been secure, except that he entrusted its security to enemies.[15]

Pahlen, Bennigsen, and Platon Zubov arranged to be conveniently out of the room during the murder itself, while Alexander was waiting downstairs, still under the illusion his father was going to be confined to house arrest. The murder was quite gruesome in the end. Nikolai “Colossus” Zubov had brought news to Pavel years earlier of Catherine’s passing and the beginning of his reign and now he would initiate its end, smashing the Emperor in the face with a snuff box. Several officers that Pavel had had whipped and exiled assisted in strangling the Tsar to death. After it was over, they stomped on the body and did terrible damage. Bennigsen stepped back into the room to take charge of the situation, and the Colossus went to fetch Alexander, who promptly broke down upon seeing his father’s mangled corpse.[16]

Pahlen, arriving late enough that he could have had everyone arrested if the Tsar had prevailed in the struggle, remonstrated with Alexander to cease such “childishness” and “Go and start your reign”. This proved to be quite tricky since the Guards would not transfer their allegiance until they had seen the Emperor’s body (the conspirators had little choice but to allow them to confirm for themselves that he was “very dead”) and Empress Maria briefly tried to have herself proclaimed ruler.[17]


Alexander was haunted by Pavel’s murder all his life in the way even more intense than Pavel had been by Peter III’s. Pahlen, briefly very powerful, was soon exiled as Alexander, young though he was at 23-years-of-age, asserted himself simultaneously against the assassins, all of whom were ordered out of Petersburg, and his father’s legacy: “Alexander … ‘found affairs absolutely neglected and disordered’, he later told his brother Nicholas. ‘Our parent changed everything but didn’t replace it by anything.’ … [Alexander] amnestied Paul’s exiles, dissolved the secret police, prohibited torture, restored the rights of the nobility (particularly the ban on corporal punishment) and, recalling the Cossacks galloping towards British India, gradually restored warm relations with Britain”.[18]

The conspirators against Tsar Pavel had been a mix of the elite annoyed by his stripping of their privileges, more “properly” political opponents appalled by the pro-French turn, and various romantics and idealists, some of them constitutionalists and some of them Jacobin-influenced, believing—as in their original form in France—that murder was a quite proper means to advance “liberty”. Alexander I was very much within the liberal stream; some around him were more radical. The radical trend gathered strength during Alexander’s reign due to the contact with the French during the Napoleonic Wars, particularly once Russian troops were stationed in France, and this trend exploded with the Decembrist Revolt during the 1825 transition to Alexander’s brother, Nicholas I (r. 1825-55).

Nicholas crushed the Decembrists, then smothered liberalism altogether, so successfully that in 1848 there was not a hint of disturbance within Russia itself and he was able to export counter-revolution to assist the Habsburgs in dealing with rebellion in Hungary.[19]


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[1] Pavel was not the last Tsar to have his reign end unnaturally: Left-wing terrorists, the People’s Will (Narodnaya Volya), assassinated the most liberal of Tsars, Alexander II (r. 1855-81), in 1881, and the last monarch, Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917) fell to revolution in 1917 and eighteen months later was murdered, along with most of the Imperial family, by another set of Left-wing terrorists, the Bolsheviks.

[2] The Russian Tsardom was formally established in 1547 by Ivan IV or “Ivan the Terrible” after the overthrow of Islamic rule, which had come to Russia at the dawn of the fourteenth century, on the back of the Mongol conquests about a half-century earlier. Ivan’s Rurikid line collapsed in 1598 and the Romanovs were established in power in 1613. The intervening fifteen years of chaos, known as the “Time of Troubles”, included a Swedish invasion, the Polish-Lithuanian occupation of Moscow, and three literal pretenders to the throne, men claiming to be Ivan’s youngest son, Dmitry.

[3] Among the changes Pavel made: 12,000 Polish prisoners were released and their last King before the partition, Stanisław-Augustus (r. 1764-95), a some-time lover of Catherine’s who had died shortly after he was deposed, was rehabilitated; the radical Alexander Radishchev was recalled from his Siberian exile; the Pella Palace that Catherine had built for her grandson, the future Alexander I, was demolished; and the Persian expedition led by Count Valerian Zubov was immediately called off. Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 255.

[4] “Never was there any change of scene at a theatre so sudden and so complete as the change of affairs at the accession of Paul”, wrote Prince Adam Czartoryski (b. 1770). “In less than a day, costumes, manners, occupations, all were altered.” Czartoryski was a Polish nobleman whose affair with Alexander’s wife, Elizabeth, and the birth of their blatantly illegitimate child, with his jet-black hair, created a scandal at Court in 1799 that led to Pavel de facto banishing Czartoryski to Sardinia on a fabricated diplomatic mission. Alexander did not seem to mind: when he became Tsar in 1801, he restored Czartoryski. See: Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 256.

[5] Pavel, like his father Peter III, was an ardent admirer to the point of worshipfulness of Frederick the Great (r. 1740-86), the other notable Enlightened despot of the age ruling contemporaneously with Catherine II, and the Gatchina or Jaeger Regiment were attired accordingly, in a “Prussian uniform, including stockings, a pointed hat, a waxed hairdo and a pigtail, which took hours to prepare”, as Montefiore describes in The Romanovs (p. 231). At his dacha as Grand Duke, Pavel had imposed this Prussian aesthetic generally, appearing himself generally dressed in uniform and making his sons appear likewise, and now this was imposed on the country. “Anything French, new, and fashionable was banned”, Montefiore documents (p. 256): “trousers, frockcoats, round hats, top boots, [and] laced shoes”—all out, “on pain of arrest”. Pavel was willing to allow French-style “breeches, stockings, buckled shoes, [and] powdered hair” to remain, but, “Scissors were used to cut the tails off the ‘revolutionary’ frockcoats”, and the frockcoat ban provoked the ire of the elite in a way perhaps only rivalled by Pavel’s removal of the prohibition on corporal punishment for nobleman.

[6] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 254-60.

[7] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 253-5.

[8] Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 259.

[9] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 263-5.

[10] Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 267.

[11] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 264-6.

[12] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 267-8.

[13] At one point, Emperor Pavel had seen letters in Pahlen’s pocket and only desisted in asking to see them when told Pahlen had tobacco in his pocket, which Pavel hated. Pahlen had at another stage placed a list of conspirators and the Emperor’s order of the day in the same pocket; asked for the latter, he could not take out both pieces of paper together and had to trust his luck that he selected correctly. And right at the end, when the whole thing had become virtually public, Pahlen told the Tsar he was a double agent and was keeping a tight leash on the plot until the correct moment to move to round up all the conspirators. Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 269-70.

[14] The original date for the coup had been the Ides of March, 15 March [27 March, New Style], the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar, but it had to be moved up due to Pavel’s increased suspicion. Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 270.

[15] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 271-2.

[16] Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 274.

[17] Montefiore, The Romanovs, pp. 274-6.

[18] Montefiore, The Romanovs, p. 277.

[19] Tibor Szamuely, The Russian Tradition, pp. 131-6.

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