Surrounded by a modern city, St Michael Castle, formerly known as Mikhailovsky Castle or Mikhailovsky Palace, is one of the most intimidating structures in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Built during the turn of the 19th century, this imposing structure tells the tale of a strict mother, an erratic son, and a plot against the monarchy.
Was Paul I of Russia paranoid? Yes, probably. Was he murdered? Definitely. Is his former home haunted by his ghost who wanders around by candlelight and plays the violin in the window? Well, we’ll leave that for you to figure out.
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History of Mikhailovsky Castle
A Castle Built on Paranoia
Mikhailovsky Castle rests on the corner of the Fontanka and Moika rivers, a strategic placement chosen by one of the most notably erratic Tsars of Russia, Paul I. He designed the castle for years before officially breaking ground in 1797.
The imposing walls boast four different styles of architecture reflecting Paul’s obsession with chivalry, mysticism, and the good ole Russian military. With the only entrances through three drawbridges over a moat, cannons pointed around the city and heavily military-guarded doors, it’s everything you could imagine a grand fairytale castle being—just with a little added protection. There’s even rumors of an escape tunnel underneath it.
While the walls looked sturdy on the outside, the inside of it was crumbling. Paul’s intense paranoia caused the grand project to be rushed and it wasn’t long before the walls started to crack and deteriorate. It was said to be impossibly humid in the summer, causing the walls to peel off, and freezing in the winter, letting ice form across them.
The palace itself kept a small staff, whether because of the eccentric tsar or the terrible working conditions is not clear. This paved the way to Paul’s extremely brief—shorter than Kim K’s marriage to Kris Humphries—40-night stay in his new fortified castle. Because the paranoid, erratic tsar was assassinated in 1801.
After the assassination of Tsar Paul I, his son moved the monarchy back to Winter Palace, and the castle sat empty for 18 years before being taken over by the Russian Army. It’s still affectionately known as Engineers to this day. One of it’s most famous students was novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. The school remained there for many years until the State Russian Museum started using it as a branch to hold their portraits gallery in 1895. A building built for keeping people out, is now letting them in for the price of admission.
Paul I: the rise of trouble
Paul I was born to Catherine the Great and Peter the Third of the Russian Romanovs. In case you’re wondering, this is the same family of Romanovs that would later be murdered in cold blood by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. Thought to be the result of a liaison between Catherine and courtier Sergei Saltykov, he was the only child between the Tsar and Tsarina.
Though there were murmurs of his paternity, Paul loved Peter until Catherine killed him in 1762. This was said to be the seed from which his paranoia sprouted. One can only imagine the childhood trauma this young boy endured.
When he was seventeen his emotionally-distant and cold mother sent him off to the country to marry a young German aristocrat, Natalia Alexeievna. Paul was only married for a short time before his wife and firstborn daughter died in childbirth, making him a widow at 21.
His mother then married him off to Maria Fyodorovna. The two are married for 22 years and have 10 kids together, impressive even among the world’s monarchies.
Though the children didn’t reside with Maria and Paul—when the first sons were born, Catherine whisked them away, bringing them, especially eldest Alexander under her wing. It was apparent from a young age that she was grooming Alexander to take over the throne, leaving Paul completely out of the line of succession.
During this time, Catherine sent Paul away to Gatchina, where he was able to play Tsar and hold random parades and parties. During this time he does manage to influence the politics of the area, much to the anger of its aristocracy.
Many of his political ideas come in direct contrast to his mother’s strict rulings. Paul put limits on what landlords could ask from their serfs and ultimately undermined the power of the nobles.
It was said that upon Catherine’s death in 1796, she was actually preparing to pass her throne directly over Paul and to his eldest son Alexander. But she ended up dying before she could implement her plan, Paul became Tsar of Russia. A role he was underprepared for, since it he was never supposed to be there.
Paul’s reign, while short lived, was filled with terror for the upper class. He ruled with his paranoia and reversed most of his mother’s policies. He banned most foreign diplomats because of his fear that his people would get ideas from the French Revolution, banned foreign texts, and weakened the aristocracy’s gorilla grip on power by appointing bureaucrats for positions in local and central governments.
If you know anything about people in power, they hate when people threaten, and it makes no difference who your parents are.
It turns out Paul’s paranoia wasn’t for naught. He inadvertently spoiled his own assassination by banning the foreign diplomats. There was a plan to overthrow the erratic tsar so he could be replaced by his trained son, but when the ban was enacted, it quickly dissolved.
The murder of Paul I
From the time of his father’s murder, Paul was convinced that people were planning to murder him (clearly, rightly so) and whether it was a crazy coincidence or an otherworldly-prediction, it came true in 1801 when he was murdered by his closest advisors.
On March 12, 1801, the Tsar of Russia hosted a dinner party where he retired early. Late in the night, Count von Pahlen, Catherine’s last reported lover, and General Leo Bennigsen were let into the castle by an unfaithful servant.
The pair, along with a small and notably drunk group of officers, broke into the Tsar’s room. Paul must have somehow been alerted (it was probably the drunks) because a first glance into the room revealed only a burning candle beside an empty bed. But after a quick look around, they found the trembling Paul cowering in the corner.
The cause of Paul’s death was strangulation. It’s unclear what his son Alexander’s involvement was, but it’s rumored that he knew of the coup and did nothing to stop it. And it’s said that Alexander was haunted by this knowledge for the rest of his life. Alexander I of Russia served as tsar for a little more than 20 years until ultimately dying from malaria in 1825.
Paul was buried in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia. There are no words for how relieved much of Russia felt after his death. Between his outbursts of rage and his paranoia of dying, he led the country in utter fear.
The Ghostly Tsar
There’s not a lot of talk about what is haunting the castle, but many believe that the murdered tsar still resides there. Reports say that you can hear random sounds like moans, footsteps and dim lights coming from the castle. Could it be candlelight?
In 1823, when the castle became Engineers, a group of soldiers were staying there. They decided to go on a brief walk around the castle. They were led into a room and came back not a half hour later, furiously crossing themselves and muttering about a man with a candlestick. It is this figure that is said to be Paul I.
Its reported that Paul has also been seen in a window of the castle, playing the violin, which was said to be his favorite instrument. All of this activity led to an unofficial investigation by the Russian Geographical Society to look for paranormal activity. Though we’re not sure what the results were
Other legends around the castle include a hidden treasure box filled with mystical relics that no one has found to-date. This rumour was fueled by one of the architects, Vincenzo Brenna, who burned the plans and drawings for the castle after Paul’s death.
Paul also gave refuge to the Knights Hospotaller, a branch of the Knights Templar, so there are stories about his involvement with the group.
There’s also a mysterious figure guarding the castle. While standing on the drawbridge, if one looks right and down, they’ll see a metal figure, who legends tell, will predict your future if you throw a coin at its head.
The castle was also supposedly named after the Archangel Michael, who visited a soldier guarding the building.
Visiting Mikhailovsky Castle
Today, Mikhailovsky Castle welcomes visitors throughout the world. You’ll find it at Sadovaya Street in Saint Petersburg. While you visit, you’ll not only want to look around but check out the museum that’s inside.
It costs 450 Rubles ($6.25) to get in, but you are greeted by gorgeous grounds and historic artwork, which are probably well worth it—at least judging by the 4.5 that the Russian Museum inside has on Tripadvisor. When you’re there, be sure to check out the snuff boxes on display. It’s said that one of them was used in Paul’s gruesome murder.
While you’re in Saint Petersburg, also consider checking out the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, where Alexander took the ruling family after his father’s death, or the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Tsar is buried.
Looking for more ghost stories? Check these out:
- Head down to Tennessee to learn about the Bell Witch.
- Hear about ghosts in the air with the story of Flight 401.
- If you’re looking for a little true crime diddy, Jazz It Up with the Axeman of New Orleans.
The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with this information themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- San Fernando De Bexar Cathedral, Tripadvisor.
- San Antonio, Texas, United States, Britannica.
- Apache (people), Britannica.
- Comanche (people), Britannica.
- Coahuiltecan Indians, Texas State Historical Association.
- San Fernando Cathedral, Texas State Historical Association.
- Giraud, Francois P. (1818–1877), Texas State Historical Association.
- Canary Islanders, Texas State Historical Association.
- San Antonio The Saga, Visit San Antonio.
- The Ghosts of San Fernando Cathedral, Ghost City Tours.
The Lady Dicks was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion and Tae Haahr. “Ghosts of Mikhailovsky Palace & the Murder of Paul I” was written by Julianna Foster, produced by Tae Haahr, and edited by Rory Joy. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.