September 01, 2013

The Pavlov Response

Catherine II's coronation took place in Moscow in September 1762. Although Russia's rulers had taken up residence in St. Petersburg a half-century earlier, the entire court relocated to the "first capital" (первопрестольная) for coronations, as settings such as the Kremlin and the Dormition Cathedral (also called Assumption Cathedral or Успенский Собор), built in the late fifteenth century, imbued the confirmation of royal power, the desired aura of divinity.

For Catherine, the symbolism of this event was particularly important – and not primarily because of her gender. By the mid-eighteenth century, a woman on the throne was no novelty in Russia – Peter I's widow Catherine I had ruled after him, as did his niece Anna Ioannovna and daughter Elizabeth. But Catherine II had been born a minor German princess, without a drop of Romanov blood. Furthermore, she had gained the throne by overthrowing her husband, Peter III, a direct descendent of "the Great," and, on top of that, Peter had subsequently died under mysterious circumstances while held captive in a little house in Ropsha outside St. Petersburg. The emperor had been killed by close associates of the empress, probably on her verbal orders. Few knew for sure whether Peter had actually been murdered, but the unexpected death of the 34-year-old, newly deposed sovereign was bound to provoke suspicions. Anyone wishing to challenge Catherine's claim to the throne would have plenty of ammunition.

There was another factor undermining Catherine's claim to the throne. She had a son, Paul. Although Paul was only eight, he was (supposedly) a direct Romanov heir. Recent Russian history had already seen minor children on the throne. Peter the Great's grandson, Peter II, was only 13 when he became emperor. And baby Ivan Antonovich was all of two months old when he was given this honor, only to be overthrown at the age of one and kept in strict isolation for the rest of his short life, never learning that he had "ruled" his vast land. So in theory young Paul (Pavel Petrovich) was fully eligible to be crowned emperor.

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