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Royal History Mystery: the murder of a Tsar that wasn’t discovered for half a century


As the only son of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, Tsar Paul I succeeded his mother on her death in 1796. He would rule the Russian Empire for the next five years. Probably, he would had ruled the Russian Empire much longer than that. But Paul was murdered. And his death was planned by his own son – a fact first discovered by accident 50 years later.

Tsar Paul was a pure despot. He was incredibly suspicious and probably suffered from a mental health problems. In addition to this, the Tsar had acquired many powerful and wealthy enemies by forcing through unpopular reforms and discovering widespread corruption. Despite this, there was little doubt that Tsar Paul was simply not fit to be head of state. His son, Crown Prince Alexander, saw the glory of Russia gradually decaying and became determined to change who held the reigns of power.

St. Michael’s Castle, a former royal residence in the historic centre of Saint Petersburg. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

He himself led a conspiracy and made plans to depose his father no matter what. He quickly received the blessing of the military which on the evening of March 23, 1801, sent an unknown number of officers to have supper with the Tsar at St. Michael’s Castle in St. Petersburg. The officer made sure that the Tsar had so much to drink that he would not be able to resist the coup.

When the Tsar was drunk enough, they tried to force him to sign a declaration of abdication which Paul refused. One officer drew his sword and Paul managed to escape from the dining room. He was found a short time later while hiding behind the curtains in his own bedroom. The officers suffocated the tsar to death before they put him in his bed and left. The next morning he was found by his doctor who assumed that Paul had suffered organ failure in his sleep and declared that as the cause of death. That morning the 23-year-old Alexander took over the Russian throne.

The murder of Tsar Paul. Photo: Russia National Museum of Art.

We still do not know the exact circumstances of the murder or who participated. The true story first became known 50 years later, when the diaries of one of the murderers, General Vladimir Mikhailovich Yashvil, were found. The General`s diary described the attack in detail. According to General Yashvil, an unknown number of infantry officers participated. Yashvil does not name the officers.

The plan to get rid of the Tsar was made several months in advance. Through historical research on the incident, it has been established that General Bennigsen, General Yashvil, Count Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, Count Nikita Petrovich Panin, and Admiral de Ribas and possibly Great Britain’s representative in Saint Petersburg, Charles Whitworth, were part of the conspiracy. However, it is uncertain if they were all actually present at the dinner and the murder.



About author

Senior Europe Correspondent Oskar Aanmoen has a master in military and political history of the Nordic countries. He has written five books on historical subjects and more than 700 articles for Royal Central. He has also interview both Serbian and Norwegian royals. Aanmoen is based in Oslo, Norway.