Few sovereigns have ever ascended the throne more ignorant of affairs of state than was Paul I. Catharine had endeavored to protract his childhood, entrusting him with no responsibilities, and regulating herself minutely all his domestic and private concerns. He was carefully excluded from any participation in national affairs and was not permitted to superintend even his own household. Catharine took his children under her own protection as soon as they were born, and the parents were seldom allowed to see them. Paul I. had experienced, in his own person, all the burden of despotism ere he ascended Russia’s despotic throne. Naturally desirous to secure popularity, he commenced his reign with acts which were much applauded. He introduced economy into the expenditures of the court, forbade the depreciation of the currency and the further issue of paper money, and withdrew the army which Catharine had sent to Persia on a career of conquest.
Paul I. did not love his mother. He did not believe that he was her legitimate child. Still, as his only title to the throne was founded on his being the reputed child of Peter III., he did what he could to rescue the memory of that prince from the infamy to which it had been very properly consigned. He had felt so humiliated by the domineering spirit of Catharine, that he resolved that Russia should not again fall under the reign of a woman, and issued a decree that henceforth the crown should descend in the male line only, and from father to son. The new emperor manifested his hostility to his mother, by endeavoring in various ways to undo what she had done.
The history of Europe is but a continued comment upon the folly of the law of the hereditary descent of power, a law which is more likely to place the crown upon the brow of a knave, a fool or a madman, than upon that of one qualified to govern. Russia soon awoke to the consciousness that the destinies of thirty millions of people were in the hands of a maniac, whose conduct seemed to prove that his only proper place was in one of the wards of Bedlam. The grossest contradictions followed each other in constant succession. Today he would caress his wife, to-morrow place her under military arrest. At one hour he would load his children with favors, and the next endeavor to expose them publicly to shame.
Though Paul severely blamed his mother for the vast sums she lavished upon her court, these complaints did not prevent him from surpassing her in extravagance. The innumerable palaces she had reared and embellished with more than oriental splendor, were not sufficient for him. Neither the Winter palace, nor the Summer palace, nor the palace of Anitschkoff, nor the Marble palace, nor the Hermitage, whose fairy-like gorgeousness amazed all beholders, nor a crowd of other royal residences, too numerous to mention, and nearly all world-renowned, were deemed worthy of the residence of the new monarch. Pretending that he had received a celestial injunction to construct a new palace, he built, reckless of expense, the chateau of St. Michael.