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Assassination of a Tsar: March 23, 1801

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


It was night. All was quiet in the Michailov Palace in St. Petersburg. The members of the imperial family were in their beds, asleep—all except the grand prince, Aleksandr Pavlovitch Romanov. He would not sleep that night. Agitated and fretful, he paced his room, fully clothed, waiting. At last, he threw himself on his bed. The night seemed endless.


Mikhailov Palace, St. Petersburg

The reigning tsar and emperor of Russia, Pavel (Paul) I, had made the Mikhailov Palace into a sort of fortress. The short, balding, and ugly Pavel had had a difficult life. His mother, Katerina the Great, had deposed his father, Tsar Pyotr III, who then was killed under strange circumstances. Katerina reigned for the next 34 years — years during which her son, Pavel, thought he rightly should have been ruler.


Tsar Pavel I

Upon becoming tsar after Katerina’s death in 1796, Pavel proved that he was not an entirely bad ruler; indeed, many of his policies had been wise. Yet Pavel was insane, and his insanity led him into acts of cruelty and into a strange admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. Pavel had made many enemies, powerful enemies – Russian nobles and leaders of the Russian army. To protect himself, he had raised towers and battlements around the Mikhailov Palace.


It is said that Tsar Pavel feared his own sons, the Grand Prince Aleksandr and his brothers, and was contemplating imprisoning them. At least, this is what Pavel’s enemies may have told Aleksandr. Such a tale, along with Pavel’s increasing insanity, were perhaps what convinced the grand prince to agree to a plot that the tsar’s foes had suggested to him — the deposition of his father.


Thus, on the night of March 23, 1801, the 23-year-old Aleksandr, fearful and alone, awaited the news that the plot against the tsar had succeeded. The hours passed slowly until about 1:00 a.m. on the morning of March 24, when Aleksandr heard a knock on his door. The prince sat up on his bed as in walked Count Nikolai Zubov. Standing before Aleksandr, Zubov said in a hoarse voice, “All is over.”


Tsar Aleksandr I

“What is over?” said the astonished prince. Zubov would not say, but he addressed Aleksandr as “Sire” and “Your Majesty” — titles given only to the reigning tsar. Frightened and full of foreboding, Aleksandr questioned Zubov further — until Zubov was forced to tell the whole story.


Tsar Pavel was dead. The conspirators, including Zubov, had climbed by a back stairway into the apartments of the imperial family in the Mikhailov Palace. They had entered the tsar’s apartment and demanded that he abdicate and name his son, Aleksandr, tsar in his place. Pavel refused. What happened next is uncertain; but in the end, Pavel lay dead on his bed. He had been strangled.

Horror overcame Aleksandr. He had agreed to his father’s deposition, not his death. What now would he do? How would the Russian people react to his father’s murder? Would they blame him? How could he justly take up his father’s authority, purchased at the price of his father’s blood?


A Composer Who United East and West


Dmitry Bortniansky (1751-1825) was a composer of Ukrainian origin who, beginning in 1796, served as director of the Russian Imperial Chapel Choir under both Pavel I and Aleksandr I. A prolific composer of opera and instrumental works, Bortniansky is perhaps most well known for his compositions of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. His liturgical works have elements both of Western and Eastern sacred music, including polyphony, which Bortniansky had studied in Italy. The following piece is an example of Bortniansky’s genius.