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Reliving the Life of a Doomed Tsar
08.23.2004 13:13

paul_the first_tsar ST PETERSBURG TIMES

By Angelina Davydova


Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

A special exhibition devoted to Paul I, Russia's most ambiguous tsar, opened in Manezh on Wednesday last week, marking 250 years since the monarch's birth. It is the first major display of artwork, documents, books and clothes put together to mark Paul's life (1754-1801) and has been put together from various collections, including those at the royal palaces of Pavlovsk and Gatchina, the Artillery Museum, Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, and the State Russian Museum, as well as a number of libraries and archives.

The image of Pavel, as he is known in Russian, the most criticized and ridiculed of all the Russian tsars both during the Imperial and Soviet eras and a figure hardly known outside of Russia, is surrounded in a veil of myth. A son of Catherine the Great and Peter III (although there are rumors concerning who else Paul's father could have been, given the vast number of Catherine's lovers), during the first years of his life he was largely oppressed by his domineering mother, and greatly shocked by the assassination of his father in 1761 by supporters of Catherine who then became empress. This Russian Hamlet, as Paul has been called by historians (inspiring a contemporary ballet of that name by Boris Eifman), upon accession to the thrown in 1796, pursued inconsequential and willful policies, driven by his own messianism. Adoring the Prussian Kaiser Friedrich, Pavel was obsessed with order. He introduced Prussian-like wigs, uniforms, drills and customs of order and obedience to the army, and tried to militarize all of Russian society.

Paul's foreign policy was driven mainly by his emotions - during the first years of his reign he strongly opposed republican France and Napoleon in particular, even creating an anti-French coalition (Russia, Austria, Prussia), which resulted in General Suvorov driving Napoleon's forces out of Italy. This campaign is rumored to have been largely financed by the British. Later, however, having become disappointed in his former allies, Paul teamed up with France to create an anti-English coalition, planning a joint march to India together with Napoleon. That's why Napoleon was said to be deeply saddened by Paul's subsquent assassination.

Pavel also championed a spiritual renaissance in Russia and preached unification between Russia's Orthodox Church and the Vatican, another doomed policy. Supporting the Knights of Malta, Paul led the order and even brought its headquarters to St. Petersburg. Some say he also brought freemasonry to Russia, but others say he fought against it.

During his short reign, just five years until 1801, Paul managed to antagonize almost every social layer of Russian society: the army, the nobility, and the clergy. It is no surprise then, that a plot to assassinate him was successful. Paul was murdered in the Mikhailvosky Castle, which he had built for himself shortly before, and, according to a legend, had lived on just the number of days which equaled the number of letters in the greeting engraved upon it's entrance. His son, Alexander, the future tsar Alexander I, was said to have indirectly participated in the conspiracy, or at least to have known about it.

Not one policy initiated by Paul was continued by any of his successors, and his name has remained in history mainly as a synonym of pathetic indulgence, famous more for the myths around him than for his deeds.

The exhibition at the Manezh, however, demonstrates a balanced approach towards Paul I, presenting his era with material artifacts, without rehearsing rumors or legends. A visitor can see Paul, his family and famous noblemen in the pictures of 18th and 19th century painters, read Paul's letters (including the one to Marie Antoinette and other European monarchs), examine the plans of the Mikhailovsky Castle, Pavlovsk, and Gatchina palaces and parks, and inspect his clothes and arms. Fine engravings, table sets, clocks, examples of interior design, portraits of friends and assassins all help build a picture of the luckless tsar. There are also two documentary films being shown every day at the exhibition. Unfortunately for foreign visitors, all of the materials and films are in Russian only.

"Emperor Pavel the First" (Paul I) through Sept. 22 at the Manezh exhibition hall, 1. St. Isaac's Square. Open daily except Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m

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