May 01, 2001

Paul I: Russian Hamlet

On the night of March 12, 1801, three battalions of guards, headed by a senior officer, approached Mikhailovsky Castle, the recently completed tsarist residence in St. Petersburg. Easily overpowering the guards and posting their own people about the castle’s corridors, several of the guards climbed a narrow staircase and entered a room on the top floor.

There was no one on the wrinkled bed, and only after some time were the intruders able to make out from the shadows, behind one of the bed shades, a small figure in a nightgown—hunched in a fetal position and trembling with fear. They moved the shades and pulled the person hunched behind it to the center of the room.

A short, tense discussion followed. The guards presented a piece of paper to the person in the nightgown and demanded he sign it. He refused. Suddenly, one of the guards—tall and clearly a very strong individual—struck the master of the bedroom in the temple with his fist, which was wrapped around a golden snuffbox. The victim collapsed and the attackers fell upon him with a fury—someone began to strangle him with a long scarf while someone else kicked his little body.

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