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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3.4 (2002) 685-697

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In the Shadow of Catherine the Great:
Mythologies and Biographies of Peter III and Paul I

Maia Lavrinovitch

Aleksei Mikhailovich Peskov, Pavel I. Seriia: Zhizn' zamechatel'nykh liudei. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1999. 422 pp. ISBN 5-235-02344-7.
Gennadii L'vovich Obolenskii, Imperator Pavel I. Moscow: Russkoe slovo, 2000. 384 pp. ISBN 5-8253-0003-1.
Aleksandr Sergeevich Myl'nikov, "On ne pokhozh byl na gosudaria...": Petr III. Povestvovanie v dokumentakh i versiiakh. Seriia: Istoricheskie fakty - Literaturnye versii. St. Petersburg: Lenizdat, 2001. 670 pp. ISBN 5-289-01910-3.

There is a certain regularity to the Russian literature on Peter III and Paul I: the more scholarly and popular works are published on Catherine II and her epoch, the more books and essays are devoted to her husband and son. This rule emerged in the last third of the 19th century, with the beginning of research on Catherine II, 1 and reappeared in the 1990s after a long interval in which works on the history of her reign were rare (one could even say, absent). The growing body of research on the 18th century in the 1980s and 1990s, 2 which presented Catherine II as a successful European reformer, also drew attention to Peter III and PaulI as independent figures who opposed her political course. They were [End Page 685] even interpreted as a reasonable conservative opposition to her modernizing and - what was more significant - Westernizing reforms, an urgent issue for some circles in Russian society in the 1990s. The fates of the two emperors are often regarded as similar, to the point that some of Peter's characteristics (such as his passion for wine) are sometimes attributed to Paul, yet both remain in the shadow of the person of Catherine II. It is likewise significant that the authors of all the works reviewed here approach both emperors in terms of a comparison with Catherine. This is rendered especially problematic by the fact that Catherine's Memoirs remain even now one of our principal sources of information on the history of both Petr Fedorovich and Pavel Petrovich. It should come as no surprise that the authors seek to discredit the Memoirs, which leads them to present the empress as a "malicious" wife and mother (Myl'nikov, 444) and to contrast "mendacious" Catherine with the "honest," "frank," and "open-hearted" Peter III and Paul I (Obolenskii, 60-69).

A noteworthy exception to this pattern is the Moscow philologist Aleksei Mikhailovich Peskov, the author of a biography of Paul I that has appeared in the well-known Soviet and now Russian series "Lives of Famous People." The picture of Paul I's life presented by Peskov differs from what might be expected from such a traditionally titled book. The book's structure itself challenges the conventions of the biographical genre. The first part, titled "The Tsar," deals with Paul's reign and is divided chronologically into six chapters, from 1796 to 1801. In the second part, "The Realm," the author recounts the events surrounding the appointment of the duke of Holstein-Gottorp (the future Peter III, Paul's father) as heir to the Russian throne by empress Elizabeth, his marriage to the princess of Anhalt-Zerbst (the future Catherine II), and her usurpation of the throne. The third part, devoted to the longest period of Paul's life (from 1762 to 1796), is titled "Tsarevich." Thus, the book lacks a narrative structure, and the author evidently seeks to avoid being trapped by the logic of historicism. Instead, by beginning his book with the last phase of Paul's life - its culmination - Peskov gives his readers a chance to develop their own ideas about the possible origins of Paul's character traits.

The history of PaulI, Peskov insists, is a kind of mythology. Our cherished notions about the man and his reign, whether favorable or unfavorable to Paul, are grounded in two myths, one accusatory, the other sympathetic: quite...


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