The Russian Empire’s Pauline Laws (and why they needed revisions)

Tsar Pavel Petrovich, Catherine the Great’s firstborn child, is easily my most-hated Tsar, either Romanov or Ryurikovich. Not only is he personally my most-hated Tsar, but he’s also rightly judged by history as being one of the worst Tsars. On a human level, I don’t think he deserved to get assassinated (by his own men no less), but he really wasn’t a good ruler or generally decent person. Exhibit A in why I hate him so much:

Catherine wanted to designate her oldest grandson Aleksandr as her successor, and groomed him in her own image as an enlightened, progressive ruler with a modern education. Almost as soon as he and his younger brother Konstantin were born, she took them away from their parents to raise herself. Catherine loved Aleksandr so much, she saw no reason to designate Pavel as successor. Pavel knew about this, and when his mother unexpectedly died before she could put this in writing, he stole her will just in case she’d put something in there stipulating Aleksandr succeed her.

Pavel hated his mother, and the mere idea of a woman being allowed to rule again. Russia had been ruled quite well by six women throughout its history—Regent Olga, Regent Sofya, Empress Anna, Empress Yelizaveta, Empress Catherine I, and Catherine the Great. However, Pavel put a stop to all that, and declared a dynast could no longer designate the successor. Primogeniture became the law of the land. Not only that, but women could only inherit the throne if all male dynasts were dead or disqualified. Pavel also wanted to posthumously stick it to his powerful mother for deposing his alleged father, Peter III (who probably wasn’t as weird or terrible as most historians have cast him as).

After Pavel’s assassination and Aleksandr I’s rather brief rule, there was a succession crisis for a few weeks. This included the famous Decembrist revolt of 1825. Grand Duke Konstantin had married morganatically and didn’t want anything to do with the throne anyway, and Aleksandr’s two daughters had died very young. Pavel had had ten children, but after Aleksandr and Konstantin, he’d had six girls in a row. The throne ended up going to penultimate child Nikolay, who’d had no reason to have any real training to become Tsar. No one expected he’d ever get the throne, since he was a third son and so much younger than his brothers.

Nicholas I, while not a great Tsar, became known as the Iron Tsar for his tough, iron willpower and how strict he was. (I particularly dislike him because of his cruel policy of force-conscripting young Jewish boys into the military.) Whatever his faults as a ruler, he had seven kids, four of them boys. All Romanovs alive today are descended from Nicholas I, because he was such a prolific procreator. It seemed logical to believe these semi-salic laws of primogeniture would serve the dynasty well. All the male-line dynasts had a lot of kids, including more than one son.

And suddenly

Any monarch in touch with reality would’ve realized that was an excellent time to make some much-needed revisions to the House Laws, but not Nicholas II. When you have four girls in a row, and your only son has a serious health condition (though not an automatic early death sentence as many people think!), it kind of really behooves you to declare women can inherit the throne and/or that the Tsar can designate his own successor.

Nicholas had more reasons to worry about the succession than just that. Many of the grand dukes in the closest line of succession weren’t leading very proper lives, either morally or in line with the House Laws. There were lots of morganatic marriages, inappropriate affairs, and just general bad behavior. In particular, his uncle Vladimir’s family was riddled with serious problems.

The Vladimirovichi have always been extremely ambitious, to put it mildly, and even today make no bones about how they want the throne should the monarchy be restored. But Vladimir’s wife refused to convert to Orthodoxy until her children were adults, when she realized that was kind of a really big roadblock standing in the way to legitimate succession. Grand Duke Kirill also married his own blood first-cousin (the hilariously nicknamed Ducky), who was also divorced. Another huge no-no in both House Laws and Orthodox laws.

Vladimir_Aleksandrovich_of_Russia_with_family_by_S.Levitskiy_(c.1883)

Some modern revisions to the House Laws would’ve meant Nicholas could’ve either let his oldest daughter Olga (who was very intelligent and sensitive) succeed him, or that if the worst happened with Aleksey, he could designate one of the grand dukes or princes further down the line as a successor.

So many of his relatives were breaking the House Laws through unequal marriages and other prohibited behavior. This should’ve been an obvious clue they weren’t working out so well for many people, and that letting people marry non-dynasts might protect the dynasty in the long run. After all, a number of earlier dynasts married unequally, and they weren’t kicked off the throne or forbidden from taking power.

This system couldn’t indefinitely sustain itself. They were fast reaching a point where they’d have to look elsewhere for potential spouses in a realistic age range, since all these marriages back and forth meant most spouses were related at least twice over. Orthodoxy prohibits first-cousin marriage, which made it even trickier.

Rules written in 1797, by a petty, vindictive, woman-hating failure of a Tsar should never have remained virtually unedited for that long. It’s ridiculous how many people even today act like they’re still so binding and relevant to the surviving Romanovs, and that they should be kowtowed to even in alternative historical stories.

Nicholas_II_of_Russia_reading_the_St_Petersburg_News

Nicholas was only a constitutional monarch on paper after 1905. For all intents and purposes, he still acted like an autocrat, and could’ve done whatever he wanted. A true constitutional monarch wouldn’t have kept disbanding the Duma every time they displeased him, and gotten away with it! It’s ridiculous to claim he would’ve had to have any changes to the House Laws approved by the Duma after 1905 when he refused to cooperate with them anyway.

He punished his relatives (including his only surviving brother) so severely for violating the laws, and then turned around and abdicated in a manner which was completely illegal under those very same laws he treasured and kowtowed to so much.

To be continued.

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6 comments on “The Russian Empire’s Pauline Laws (and why they needed revisions)

  1. ChrysFey says:

    I’m part Russian but I don’t know Russian history or their laws. I feel very inadequate now. I need to looking into my heritage! Your posts are a good start though. 🙂

    Like

  2. Can’t consider them laws when the ruler can just keep changing them to suit his needs.
    Like the new look, Carrie-Anne!

    Like

    • Carrie-Anne says:

      Thanks! I played around with the text typeface and its size for awhile before finding one that looked just right. The typeface I initially used with this template wouldn’t display boldface, which was the main reason I switched it.

      Like

  3. eternalised says:

    God, I hate this guy already. Sounds like a really lousy ruler.

    My blog.

    Like

  4. Nick says:

    Hi there. There were many changes made to the fundamental laws over the years. There were exceptionally broad and sweeping changes made in the period of Alexander III to the structure of the Imperial Family, and then again, changes were made to the marriage laws under Nicholas II in 1911 just to deal with the problems that you have cited here. The laws were an extraordinary and valuable document which prevented the illegal transfers of power which had become the norm in Russia. Peter the Great was illegally succeeded by his second wife (a foreigner of non-noble birth) and then by his daughter and nephew when the line went extinct. Peter III was murdered by his wife and her allies, and she succeeded him (also illegally) usurping the throne from her own son. Paul I created the laws based on the stable monarchies of central european German, so that Russia would have the chance never to be in these politically unstable transitions of power between reigns. “That the throne should never be vacant, and Russia never without a successor determined by law rather than public opinion.” The Fundamental Laws were and remain a valuable legal document of extraordinary complexity and solid succession practice.

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