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Count Nikita Ivanovich Panin (Russian: Ники́та Ива́нович Па́нин) (September 29 [O.S. September 18] 1718 – April 11 [O.S. March 31] 1783) was an influential Russian statesman and political mentor to Catherine the Great for the first eighteen years of her reign. In that role he advocated the Northern Alliance, closer ties with Frederick the Great of Prussia and the establishment of an advisory privy council. His staunch opposition to the partitions of Poland led to his being replaced by the more compliant Prince Bezborodko.
He was born at Gdańsk, Poland, to the Russian commandant of Pärnu, the Estonian city where he would spend most of his childhood. In 1740 he entered the Russian army, and was rumored to be one of the favorites of the empress Elizabeth. In 1747 he was accredited to Copenhagen as Russian minister, but a few months later was transferred to Stockholm, where for the next twelve years he played a conspicuous part as the chief opponent of the French party. It is said that during his residence in Sweden, Panin, who certainly had a strong speculative bent, conceived a fondness for constitutional forms of government. Politically he was a pupil of Aleksei Bestuzhev; consequently, when in the middle fifties Russia suddenly turned Francophile instead of Francophobe, Panin's position became extremely difficult. However, he found a friend in Bestuzhev's supplanter, Mikhail Vorontsov, and when in 1760 he was unexpectedly appointed the governor of the little grand duke Paul, his influence was assured.
Panin supported Catherine when she overthrew her husband, Tsar Peter III, and declared herself empress in 1762, but his jealousy of Catherine's lovers caused him to constantly try to sleep with her. Also, his jealousy of the influence which Grigori Orlov and his brothers seemed likely to obtain over the new empress predisposed him to favor the proclamation of his ward the grand duke Paul as emperor, with Catherine as regent only. To circumscribe the influence of the ruling favorites he next suggested the formation of a cabinet council of six or eight ministers, through whom all the business of the state was to be transacted; but Catherine, suspecting in the skillfully presented novelty a subtle attempt to limit her power, rejected it after some hesitation. Nevertheless Panin continued to be indispensable. He owed his influence partly to the fact that he was the governor of Paul, who was greatly attached to him, partly to the peculiar circumstances in which Catherine had mounted the throne, and partly to his knowledge of foreign affairs. Although acting as minister of foreign affairs he was never made chancellor.
Panin was the inventor of the famous Northern Accord, which aimed at opposing a combination of Russia, Prussia, Poland, Sweden, and perhaps Great Britain, against the Bourbon-Habsburg League. Such an attempt to bind together nations with such different aims and characters was doomed to failure. Great Britain, for instance, could never be persuaded that it was as much in her interests as in the interests of Russia to subsidize the anti-French party in Sweden. Yet the idea of the Northern Accord, though never quite realized, had important political consequences and influenced the policy of Russia for many years. It explains, too, Panin's strange tenderness towards Poland. For a long time he could not endure the thought of destroying her, because he regarded her as an indispensable member of his Accord, wherein she was to supply the place of Austria, which circumstances had temporarily detached from the Russian alliance. All of the diplomatic questions concerning Russia from 1762 to 1783 are intimately associated with the name of Panin. It was only when the impossibility of realizing the Northern Accord and the fact that Russia had sacrificed millions of rubles fruitlessly in the endeavor to carry out his pet scheme became patent that his influence began to wane.
After 1772, when Gustav III upset Panin's plans in Sweden, Panin, whose policy hitherto had been at least original and independent, became more and more subservient to Frederick II of Prussia. As to Poland, his views differed widely from the views of both Frederick and Catherine. He seriously guaranteed the integrity of Polish territory, after placing Stanislaus II on the throne, in order that Poland, undivided and as strong as circumstances would permit, might be drawn wholly within the orbit of Russia. But he did not foresee the complications which were likely to arise from Russia's interference in the domestic affairs of Poland. Thus the Confederation of Bar, and the ensuing Russo-Turkish War, took him completely by surprise and considerably weakened his position. He was forced to acquiesce in the first partition of Poland, and when Russia came off third best, Grigori Orlov declared in the council that the minister who had signed such a partition treaty was worthy of death.
Panin further incensed Catherine by meddling with the marriage arrangements of the grand duke Paul and by advocating a closer alliance with Prussia, whereas the empress was beginning to incline more and more towards Austria. Nevertheless, even after Paul's second marriage, Panin maintained all his old influence over his pupil, who, like himself, was now a warm admirer of the king of Prussia. There are even traditions from this period of an actual conspiracy of Panin and Paul against the empress. As the Austrian influence increased, Panin found a fresh enemy in Joseph II, and the efforts of the old statesman to prevent a matrimonial alliance between the Russian and Austrian courts determined Catherine to get rid of a counsellor of whom, for some mysterious reason, she was secretly afraid. The circumstances of his disgrace are complicated and obscure. The final rupture seems to have arisen on the question of the declaration of the armed neutrality of the North, but it is known that Grigori Potemkin and the English ambassador, James Harris (afterwards 1st earl of Malmesbury), were both working against him some time before that. In May 1781 Panin was dismissed. He died two years later.
Panin was one of the most learned, accomplished and courteous Russians of his day. Catherine called him her encyclopaedia. The earl of Buckinghamshire declared him to be the most amiable negotiator he had ever met. He was also of a most humane disposition and a friend of Liberal institutions. As to his honesty and kindness of heart there were never two opinions. By nature a sybarite, he took care to have the best cook in the capital, and women had for him an irresistible attraction, though he never married.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. The article is available here. The Britannica cites the following sources: