Shedding light on dark story of murdered emperor

A madman to some, a monarch ahead of his time to others, Paul I is one of Russia’s most controversial political figures.

Dubbed “Russian Hamlet”, the son of Catherine the Great, Paul became Tsar in 1796, aged 42. Four years and four months later he was murdered by a group of courtiers.

Compared to his mother’s three decades on the throne, Paul’s reign was very brief. Yet his legacy remains so hotly debated that he holds a special place in the country’s history, with his short-lived rule referred to as “an era.”

The display in the former royal estate of Tsaritsyno offers more than 700 items carefully recreating the spirit of the emperor’s time.

Paul loved order and discipline, and reinforced them everywhere, starting with the army. Floggings and Siberian exile awaited underperforming officers, which fed discontent.

Described as haughty and unstable, he frequently reversed his previous decisions, creating administrative chaos and accumulating enemies, while his eccentricities raised more than a few eyebrows.

Paul I demanded the gentry wear military-style suits. Fiercely opposed to the French Revolution, he banned French books and fashions from his court. While trying to boost the economy and fight corruption at home, he pursued an inconsistent foreign policy.

With irritation among aristocracy spilling over, trouble was brewing. In March 1801, Paul was killed in his bedchamber by a group of civil and military officials, led by Count Peter von Pahlen, governor-general of St. Petersburg.

While for years historians dismissed Paul as crazy, today his legacy is being reassessed. His social policies, very unfavorable towards the nobility, are now seen as half a century ahead of their time, and he’s also credited for paving the way for the abolition of serfdom in Russia.

Was he indeed a madman or a misunderstood genius who tried to reshape his country? The exhibition might not give you the answer, but it will certainly help discover more about one of the most controversial personalities in Russian history.

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