Paul was born in 1754, as son and successor to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Almost from birth he was seen by courtiers as mentally unstable (the modern, distilled version of that last word is ‘challenged’). Nevertheless, Paul became the Tsar in 1796 at the age of forty-two.
He was soon involved in foreign affairs: Russia entered the War of the Second Coalition for one year only (1798-9), before Paul I insisted on Russia’s changing sides to join the French (1800). However mad Paul was, he managed to become responsible for the first clear Russian law of succession to the throne of Russia, which had to come, now, through the male line only. Historians with a bent towards psychology will no doubt trace this draconian move to a dislike for his mother the Empress.
Paul I also passed a law restricting serfs to working only three days for their master per week, always providing the work they did was agricultural.This early socialism caused even more unrest at Court, where members now openly stated that Paul was quite mad.
Tsar Paul was assassinated on 24 March, 1801 in what had to be called a ‘palace revolution’, since it was principally organised by his son, who thus became Tsar Alexander I.
Alexander I, Tsar of Russia was born in 1777. He too was mentally challenged, but not so much that he could avoid orchestrating the murder of his father – becoming Tsar in 1801.
Alexander was said to be schizophrenic; certainly his policies showed vacillation and plenty of signs of contradiction. Russia entered the War of the Third Coalition in 1805, but the Russian army was defeated at the Battle of Friedland (June 1807). Alexander then met Napoleon Bonaparte (at Tilsit), and was greatly impressed, though currently written diaries do not suggest the feeling was mutual. For the moment, however, Alexander spoke well of the Corsican.
Later, Napoleon’s economic policy and his attitude towards Germany and Poland alienated Alexander. Then the extraordinary little man invaded Russia (1812). Beethoven composed his symphony for orchestra and cannonfire, and the Tsar stayed in St. Petersburg, emerging only to lead his troops into battle.
As usual the Russian troops fought like hell and Alexander was soon entering Paris (on March 31, 1814) becoming the first invading monarch to enter that city since Henry V of England in 1420, after Agincourt (qv).
The Tsar was present at the Congress of Vienna, where his schizophrenia was satisfied by his determination to create a new Poland entirely under his ‘protection’. This alarmed his colleagues, especially the British, who could not see why a Russian emperor should rule Poland as well as Russia.
Then came the Battle of Waterloo (1815), and Alexander prclaimed his ‘Holy Alliance’, a phrase used frequently, and mistakenly to describe the purely reactionary policy of Russia, Prussia and Austria in the period 1815 – 48. The Holy Alliance was in fact a document drawn up by Alexander under the influence of the religious zealot Baroness von Krüdener. It said that ‘the Precepts of Justice, Christian Charity and Peace . . .must have an immediate influence on the Council of Princes and guide all their steps . . .’ (my italics). The paper was signed by the Tsar, the Austrian Emperor and the King of Prussia, but not by the Pope, who thought they were all heretics; nor by the English Prince Regent (who raised constitutional objections) or the Sultan of Turkey, who hadn’t been invited to do so because he was a non-Christian. Metternich said the Alliance was a ‘loud-sounding nothing’, and Lord Castlereagh described it as ‘a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense’. European liberals lived up to their name by identifying the Holy Alliance with repression by the three Eastern European autocracies.
Meanwhile, Alexander I was obsessed by the fear of revolutions, and became dominated by two reactionaries, General Arakcheyev and the Archimandrite Photius. The former had founded a cruel system of ‘military colonies’, and the latter was a bigoted zenophobe. All that was left for Alexander to do was to remember that he himself had instituted the murder of his father: his conscience, mixed with longish periods of religious mania, resulted in a mysterious death on 1 December, 1825. He was forty-eight.