Russian Freemasonry began and grew in a period of Russian history similar to that of the present day. The great war with Sweden, which drew heavily upon the resources of the country, had just been terminated by Peter the Great, and his sweeping reforms were bringing great changes to the whole Russian life. The old culture of Russia was being uprooted, and the dawn of a new history was just breaking. (1)
(from "Freemasonry In Russia", in 35 Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, by Boris Telepneff, 1922 (2) )
While 1995 was the 175th anniversary of the celebration of the Grand Lodge of Maine, it also marked the rebirth of the Grand Lodge of Russia for the first time in 173 years. It was constituted by the Grand Lodge Nationale Francaise on June 24, 1995 in Moscow.
At the suggestion of Grand Master Walter Macdougal, this paper has been prepared to suggest the challenge of considering what Maine Masons can do to assist in ensuring the survival and growth of Russian Masonry at this time.
Many will be aghast and unbelieving of such a suggestion. Strong will be the sentiment and pronouncements from certain quarters that we should do nothing, while others will say do nothing now but wait and see, and most curmudgeonly of all will be those who will say wait until they seek us out for recognition.
How long might we have to wait before the Masons of the Grand Lodge of Russia decide that they wish to be recognized by the Grand Lodge of Maine? Somehow I suspect that the few brave Russian Freemasons will have much more on their minds for years to come. Really, what is the State of Maine in the eyes of a Russian? Almost guaranteedly an unequivocal "Unheard of!"
With no offense to the many Grand Lodges in Brazil or Mexico, how many Maine Masons know of those various Grand Lodges or feel a need to reach out to them? With no national grand lodge in those countries, as here in the United States of America, Masonic recognition can be very slow in coming and perhaps only then because it is part of a wave when other grand lodges are doing it.
The Masonic issue for us has to be what can we do today to help ensure the successful rebirth and growth of Freemasonry in Russia! Formal recognition and all that good stuff can and will come in time, if Russian Freemasonry succeeds. But if it does not, when might the light be rekindled?
Russian Freemasonry has been reconstituted by the Grand Lodge Nationale Francaise with which we are in fraternal relations. We could sit in lodge with one of those Russian Freemasons and not be in violation of our Masonic obligations. So, why not reach out and correspond, encourage, and assist these Russian brethren if we can? Would not one of their lodges, or better yet another new lodge, appreciate receiving a used set of officers' jewels or aprons that one of our lodges no longer needs? Would one of our lodges be interested in purchasing two dozen white cloth aprons or gloves as a gift for one of the lodges? There is much we could do in the finest tradition of Masonic Brotherhood and Charity.
Getting off the bully pulpit, let us take a brief look at the history of Freemasonry in Russia. This must be brief and detached from Russian history which profoundly affected its existence and demise. Yet, a few lines about the country's leaders are necessary to start to understand the conditions and circumstances under which Freemasonry existed.
Today our own Freemasonry is well established with no fractious bodies and eccentric leaders. Our Freemasonry is not derived from tablets of orthodoxy existing from time immemorial. While our system with its concordant bodies functions smoothly and without question in this day and age, such was not always the case. This observation is made so that we do not look too askance at the history of Russian Freemasonry which underwent birth and growing pains not unlike our own. The albatross for the Russians were their totalitarian rulers who were the norm for Europe at that time. Democracy as America brought to the world in 1776 with its Declaration of Independence was unknown and soon greatly feared. The French Revolution instilled fear throughout Europe. We must remember that it is only now that the seeds of true democracy are trying to catch hold and grow and be pursued to reach their ideals in Russia.
Peter the Great, the reformer, brought about the Imperial Age of Russia. He was the grandson of Michael Romanov, the founder of that line which ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. Peter opened Russia to the west, embracing its ideas and seeking association with it. He traveled throughout Europe and sent students to study and learn its ways. He built a city on the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg, better known in our life times as Leningrad, which became Russia's window to the west. He moved its government there from Moscow, the historical capital of Russia since the mid-thirteenth century.
Peter the Great was co-tsar from 1682 to 1689 with his half-brother, Ivan V. He was but 10 years old when ascending the thrown from which he solely ruled from 1694 to his death in 1725. One Russian tradition has it that Peter became a Mason on a trip to England and brought it back to Russia. There is no hard evidence of this and most likely it is but another example of trying to gain acceptability by reference to association with a revered leader. It must be remembered that organized speculative Masonry had only existed in England for eight years before Peter died. Peter's greatest contribution to Russian Freemasonry is that he made it possible by opening up Russia to foreign merchants who settled and traded in Russia.
The most influential group of foreigners in Russia in the eighteenth century were the Germans from their various states who were connected with the Romanov family. Also of significant importance, both masonically and politically, were the Swedes who were a dominant political power in Northern Europe.
The period following Peter's death until 1762 saw a series of five leaders who are of no great significance to us except for their German influence. Anne, 1730-1740, was a sister of Peter the Great, and the widow of the Duke of Courland. Peter III, 1762, a grandson of Peter the Great, was the Duke of Holstein-Gattorp, and ruled but a few months before being overthrown in a palace coup and replaced by his German wife, Katherine, Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst. She would rule until 1796, become known as Katherine the Great, and cause the first blows to fall on Russian Freemasonry.
As with English Freemasonry, little or nothing is known of the earliest lodges in Russia. They were most certainly in St. Petersburg and Moscow and were formed by foreigners, English or German.
Following the birth of speculative Masonry in London in 1717, grand lodges were formed in Ireland in 1730, Scotland in 1736, and in various continental countries. Those grand lodges were wont to appoint Provincial Grand Masters over vast territories to expand their authority wherever their people settled.
The earliest reliable information about Russian Freemasonry was the appointment by the Grand Lodge of England of Captain John Phillips in 1731 as the Provincial Grand Master of Russia. This would have empowered him to establish lodges in Russia which would have been ultimately under the control of London. No further information is known of him or of what he did, although it is speculated that he was a merchant captain.
The next Provincial Grand Master was General James Keith who was appointed in 1740 or 1741. He was of a celebrated Scottish family but made the mistake of supporting Charles Edward Stuart, Pretender to the Throne of England. He fled to Spain and eventually to Russia in 1828. He served its leaders with distinction while attaining the highest military honors. In 1747 he left Russia to serve Frederick the Great of Prussia.
While the earliest Masonic lodges in Russia generally were formed by foreigners, under Keith Masonry started to move into Russian society where its members were mostly young officers from the best families.
In 1756, under Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762), a daughter of Peter the Great who lead a reaction to foreign influences, Russian Freemasonry met an obstacle when the Secret Chancellery of the Empire made an inquiry into what was the foundation of and who constituted its membership. "The inquiry says first that Freemasonry was defined by its members as 'nothing else but the key of friendship and of eternal brotherhood'." (3) Masonry was found not to be dangerous and it was allowed to continue, "although under police protection." Until this time, Masonry had existed as a fraternal brotherhood of no exceptional interest to the government except for its foreign influence. It was under Katherine the Great that Russian Freemasonry was to bloom with its own national leaders and organization. Under her, the first suppression of masonry would begin.
The first prominent Russian Freemason was Ivan Perfilievich Yelaguin (1725-1794), Senator, Privy-Counsellor etc. etc. He belonged to an ancient family of Russian noblemen and enjoyed the confidence of Katherine the Great (1762-1796). In June 1771, the Lodge of Perfect Unity was constituted in Petersburg by the Grand Lodge of England and drew its members mostly from English merchants who lived there. Many Russian nobles were also masons and they requested that the Grand Lodge of England issue a warrant for Yelaguin to be the Provincial Grand Master in the Russian Empire. This was done and the English system of Masonry met with great success and growth under his leadership. In 1770, Yelaguin had been elected Grand Master of the Grand Provincial Lodge of Russia under the auspices of the Berlin Grand Lodge, "Royal York." On February 28, 1772, he was appointed by the United Grand Lodge of England as Provincial Grand Master of the Empire of Russia. Under Yelaguin, members of the best Russian families joined the craft.
In his memoirs, Yelaguin described early Russian Freemasonry "as rather superficial: 'The worship of Minerva was often followed by the feasts of Bacchus'." (4) Yelaguin considered "of paramount importance the Masonic teachings of self-knowledge, moral perfection, benevolence, charity and virtue." (5)
Throughout the 18th century, Freemasonry developed down several avenues, especially on the Continent and in Russia. Orthodox Craft-Masonry from England was known as "Yelaguin's System." Its chief rival was the "Zinnendorf System" which emanated from Sweden and came to Russia via Berlin and a Brother George Reichel. To the three blue lodge degrees the later system added certain "Knightly Degrees" which in Russia were felt to possess some mysterious knowledge.
In 1777, Grand Duke Paul Peter, son and political adversary of his mother, Empress Katherine, was initiated into Freemasonry by the King of Sweden who came to Petersburg for the occasion. By 1778 the major influence in Russian masonry was shifting to Moscow and that of St. Petersburg was declining. This was at a time when the Craft was faced with warrants from several different authorities and practiced many differing rites. There was no unifying national soul to Russian Freemasonry.
Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, in A History of Russia, writes that during the reign of Katherine the Great, Russian Freemasonry reached a zenith of about 2,500 members in some one hundred lodges in St. Petersburg, Moscow and some provincial towns. He further writes that "in addition to the contribution made by Freemasonry to the life of polite society, which constituted probably its principal attraction to most members, specialists distinguish two main trends within that movement in eighteenth century Russia: the mystical, and the ethical and social. The first concentrated on such commendable but illusive and essentially individual goals as contemplation and self-perfection. The second reached out to the world and thus constituted the active wing of the movement." (6)
The mystical aspect of Russian Freemasonry came through the Rosicrucians who were Christian mystics and students of mystical and occult lore. They were sometimes called "Martinists," from the great respect which they at one time held for the teachings of Louis Claude de St. Martin. At this time the Rosicrucian movement became dominant in Russian Masonry with one of its leaders being Nicholas Novikov (1744-1816), who was perhaps the most active publicist in Moscow. He, along with I. G. Schwarz, were prime movers in the Moscow period of Russian Masonry.
Mysticism permeated Russia during the reign of Katherine with St. Petersburg's fashionable society leading the way. The traditions of Russian Masonry and the Rosicrucian of the 18th century included: the practice of Christian virtues and self-improvement, philanthropy, Christian mysticism, and opposition to atheism, materialisms, and revolutionary tendencies.
Especially after 1782, the Rosicrucian movement was spread by I. G. Schwarz in Russia. He had gained the recognition of the independence of Russian Masonry from the Swedish system. In July 1782, he attended a Masonic Convention in Wilhelmsbad held by the Duke of Braunschweig, Grand Master of the Rite of Strict Observance. He also obtained from German Rosicrucians the authority to promote the Order in Russia.
In 1783 Schwarz broke from the Duke of Braunschweig and "Russian Masons joined the main body of the Rosicrucian brotherhood" (7) which became a dominant influence in Russian Masonry for some time.
The Rosicrucians relied on the "lower" Masonic degrees for a new brother to learn of his vices and shortcomings. He was to become a better man through instructions in science and ethics while being delivered from the seven deadly sins of pride, arrogance, gluttony, lust, greediness, laziness and anger. After he regained for himself the prelapsarian state of man, he could pursue a mystic union with God in the higher grades of the order.
In 1784 Schwarz died and the fortunes of Russian Freemasonry would not survive his loss. A board of three plus two elected Grand Wardens oversaw the Craft and it even developed and spread into provinces but intrigue and suspicion brought it down.
In the 1780's two other factors played in the demise of Russian Freemasonry. As Peter III had been very favorably disposed towards Freemasonry, Katherine was somewhat hostile to any favorites of her late husband. Since the estrangement from the Grand Lodge of England, Russian Freemasonry had become too much associated with German Masonry which was under the leadership of Frederick the Great of Prussia, archenemy of Katherine.
Katherine's leading political rival was her son, Grand Duke Paul, who was her open enemy. If he in fact was not a Mason he was favorably inclined towards the Craft, at least the symbolic lodges. He was Grand Master of the Knights of Malta which had a rivalry with the Masonic Templar degrees.
The Masonic Rosicrucian leader, Nicholas Novikov had a prominent bookshop in Moscow. Following a raid on it in 1786, books on Masonry were declared to be more dangerous than those of the French "Encyclopaedists" . This was in spite of a decision by the Metropolitan of the Russian Church in Moscow that the books, some 461 works, were all faithful to the church. At this time the schools and hospitals sponsored by the Masons were taken away from their control.
In 1787 a terrible famine swept over Russia. The Masons organized the most effectual help for the stricken population through the efforts of Novikov who formed a society especially for that purpose. There were fears that some Masons were trying to acquire popularity among the masses for political purposes through their charity.
Prior to 1790, Katherine had presented a front of being favorable to the teachings of the Enlightenment and of Voltaire but she became frightened by the French Revolution. Novikov was supportive of a book by Alexander Radishchev, Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, which showed the terrible plight of the Russian peasants. Radisheckev's call for the reform and emancipation of the serfs was the final straw and the pendulum swung back from any liberal views that Katherine had been masquerading behind.
In April 1782, secret societies were prohibited by the government but Masonry had not been subject to the regulation. In 1791, the General Governor of Moscow undertook to suppress Masonry. Novikov was arrested and confined while others received milder punishments. By 1794, Katherine made it known to her statesmen who she knew belonged that the Craft did not meet with her approval. While there was no open prohibition to the Craft many lodges in St. Petersburg voluntarily closed in compliance with the desire of Katherine. Yelaguin issued an Order closing all of his English orientated lodges which had generally opposed the Rosicrucian influence.
With the accession of Paul I to the throne in 1796 he abolished the sentences against Masons which had been passed on them under his mother's reign. While Masonry remained prohibited, officially, it existed and even began to increase again. He was killed in a palace revolution in 1801.
Alexander I, surnamed the Blessed, son and successor of Paul I, ruled Russia from 1801 to 1825. Under him, Freemasonry again rose high in the east only to be struck down again as its members deplored its lamentable condition following years of weak leadership and as it became a political concern to the Emperor.
The tradition exists that Alexander became a Mason in 1803 and there is evidence that he was a member of a lodge in Warsaw. While all secret societies were still banned in Russia, new lodges began to appear. In 1810 Masonic lodges were officially allowed and recognized and many bore his name. New lodges not only appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg but also in Siberia and the Crimea. Many military lodges were formed during the Napoleonic wars.
In 1810 the old adherents to the Yelaguin or English system of Masonry joined with the Rosicrucian Masons to form the Grand Directorial Lodge of Saint Prince Vladimir of Order as the unifying body for Russian Freemasonry. (8) By this time the Craft was growing so fast that it attracted the vigilant eye of the government who found a willing informant in John Boeber. He was the leader of the Swedish system of Masonry which was then the dominating influence in Russian Masonry. This system was closely akin to the Rosicrucian movement and was dominated by the "higher degrees" which were strictly Christian in character.
By 1815 their innate differences lead to its dissolution and the forming of two Grand Lodges by August 30th. The Grand Lodge Astrea was the dominant body which initially confined its interest to the blue lodge degrees and freely admitted members with diverse backgrounds and interests. The second, the Swedish Provincial Grand Lodge, was strictly regulated and of less concern to the government. While the Grand Lodge Astrea had to submit a constitution to the government for approval to exist, it remained a concern to the authorities.
By 1820, when the Grand Lodge of Maine was formed, the Grand Lodge Astrea was composed of 24 lodges but there was no real strength to it. Lodge ritual work followed one of five offerings:
In his article, Telepneff did an analysis of the Astrea lodges and it is clear that its predominant character was German followed by Russian and Polish. Russian Freemasonry had lost its national character from the days of Yelaguin. No unifying ritual further weakened the Craft. It was but a house of cards awaiting a strong wind.
Over the years, Alexander had grown from a young forward-looking ruler to reactionary ruler over a suspicious government. Masonry no longer held a favored position. Russian Masonry met its betrayer in a strong conservative politician and a Mason from the old school, Egor A. Kushelev, Lieutenant-General and Senator. He was elected Deputy Grand Master of Grand Lodge Astrea in 1820 even though his ideal was the Swedish System. He found himself at the head of a body whose members held entirely opposite views from one another, both Masonically and socially. Some held dangerous political strivings and could become nests of the "Illuminati."
This was all too much for Kushelev who sought to restore the old rules and doctrines as he understood them even though they were opposed by his members. In 1821, he wrote to his Emperor suggesting that Russian Freemasonry be placed more strictly under the control of the government or that the Craft be permanently closed.
On August 1, 1822, without warning Alexander decreed the closing of all Masonic lodges and all secret societies in general. This struck as a thunderbolt and it was meekly complied with by the lodges. On August 10th, the last open meeting of Russian Masons was held. There were isolated cases of lodges continuing to meet in St. Petersburg and Moscow and even more so in the provinces, but Russian Freemasonry was broken.
The reign of Nicholas I, 1825-1855, was even more stringent than the closing years of his father's. On August 21, 1826, he confirmed a decree closing Masonic lodges. This brought about the abolition of the Craft although secret meetings are known to have continued until at least 1830.
Masonry returned to Russia in the first quarter of the 20th century. Unfortunately, these Masons were mostly involved in the political turmoil of the age as witnessed by the 1905 uprising against the government and the revolution of 1917 which toppled the last Romanov Tzar, Nicholas II.
Telepneff gives a very good synopsis of Russian Freemasonry in the first quarter of this century from information provided from the Russian Assistant Counsul-General in Paris in 1922. I quote for its succinctness:
At the beginning of 1906 about fifteen Russians, well-known for their social and political activities, mostly members of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, joined French Lodges; some became members of the Grand Orient, but the majority entered two Lodges under the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite - Kosmos and Mount-Sinai. On returning to Russian, they formed two provisional Lodges - The Polar Star in Petersburg and Regeneration in Moscow. In May, 1908, both Lodges were solemnly opened by two members of the High Council of the Grand Orient, specially sent for that purpose from Paris. At the same time the Grand Lodge of France established two Lodges, one in Petersburg and one in Moscow. Russian Lodges obtained the right to establish further Lodges without interference from Paris, and accordingly in 1908 and 1909 two more Lodges were opened: The Iron Ring in Nijni-Novgorod and one in Kiev.
The existence of Masonic Lodges was discovered by the Russian Government in 1909; it also became known to the authorities that they were of French origin. It was then decided by the Russian Lodges to suspend work, and this was accordingly done till 1911, when some of their members decided to renew with due prudence their activities.
One would not call these activities Masonic in any sense, as their chief aim was purely political - the abolishment of autocracy, and a democratic regime in Russia; they acknowledged allegiance to the Grand Orient of France. This political organization comprised in 1913-1914 about forty Lodges. In 1915-1916 disagreements arose between their members who belonged to two political parties (the Constitutional Democrats and the Progressives) and could not agree on a common policy; ten Lodges became dormant. The remaining thirty Lodges continued to work, and took part in the organization of the 1917 March revolution and in the establishment of the Provisional Government. Their political aim being attained, the organization began to decay; twenty-eight Lodges existed on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, and since then most of their members have left Russia. (9)
Writing in the fall of 1922, Telepneff reported that two Russian Lodges had been formed in Paris under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of France while a Russian lodge existed in Berlin, The Northern Star Lodge, under a warrant of the Grand Lodge of the Three Globes.
Futile attempts to reestablish Russian Freemasonry met with the mandate of the 4th Congress of the Communist International in Moscow which required all Communist Masons to sever their lodge membership. They could not be considered for important posts in the new reign until two years after their severance. In 1925 Telepneff wrote that "regular Masonic activities of every description have ceased in Russia proper, due to the severe restrictions imposed by Bolshevist authorities." (10)
Simon Greenleaf, the second Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Maine, 1822-1824, compiled a book entitled A Brief Summary into the Origin and Principles of Free Masonry from a series of lectures he gave while he was the District Deputy Grand Master for the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in the District of Maine. He wrote, as regards the character of Masonry:
Yet still, the fraternity, bound together by the most solemn obligations, and these strengthened by the remembrance of the common danger to which they had recently been exposed, continued to assemble, at the customary periods, for purposes of charity and brotherly love. Masonry contained something too excellent and attractive, and its secrets were too curious and valuable, to be abandoned on light grounds. It was a strong bond of union. It possessed a key which unlocked the middle chamber of the heart. Its secrets always served as letters of recommendation, and to the present day have continued to entitle their possessor to the benefits of hospitality and protection.
At various periods it has declined, and sometimes has suffered severe oppression. Despotic governments have always been afraid of secret assemblies; and all the governments of Europe have, in their turn, been despotic, and have enacted laws against such associations. But by persecution, Masonry has never been suppressed; on the contrary its foundations have been strengthened. Even in times of war and anarchy its benign principles have continued their salutary operation on society, and the order still flourishes with increasing reputation. (11)
The persecution of Russian Freemasonry has been long and hard but like the Phoenix, the Craft is rising again. With the collapse of communism and with the greater opportunity of Russians to travel abroad, some have been exposed to and have embraced Freemasonry. What an affirmation these brethren bring to the observations of M.W. Brother Greenleaf. What an obligation rests on us to aid their endeavors.
This writer has been advised in a letter of April 22, 1996 of the following by George Dergachev, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Russia. On January 14, 1992, the first regular Lodge "Harmony" was constituted in Moscow by the Grand Lodge National Francaise. This lodge now has 41 members. September 8, 1993 will be a memorable day in Russian Freemasonry for three more lodges were constituted by the Grand Lodge National Franchise; Lotus #2 in Moscow with 36 current members; New Astrea #3 in St. Petersburg with 19 current members; and Gamaioun #4 in Voronezh with 13 current members. Voronezh is a city lying south southeast of Moscow on the Voronezh River shortly before its joining with the River Don.
M.W. Brother. Dergachev writes: "Most of the Brothers have graduated from the Universities. Among then there are scientists, journalists, businessmen, bankers, officers of the Army, Navy, policemen, engineers, writers, producers and lawyers."
These four Regular Daughter Lodges of the Grand Lodge Nationale Francaise formed the Grand Lodge of Russian on June 24, 1995. In addition to their Mother Grand Lodge, they have been recognized by the Grand Lodges of Poland, Hungary and New York. The Grand Master and Brother Vladimir Djanguirian, his Grand Secretary, attended by invitation the Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of New York this past May.
While this paper has only quickly hit upon some of the high points in the history of Russian Freemasonry as provided by Brother Telepneff, it is hoped that it will make us realize that the Craft has a long history in Russia. May we realize how it has suffered at the hands of autocratic and totalitarian leaders. May we be moved to seek to help our Brothers prevail in their endeavors to advance Freemasonry in Russia at this time.
The dawn of a new history is breaking in Russian Freemasonry, may its light never again falter, may it glow eternally. So mote it be! So say we all for charity.
Acknowledgement needs to be made that while not all of this paper should be in quotation marks with one big footnote to Brother Telepneff, a great deal of the material and many phrases have been used without the same. Any praise of merit for this article belongs entirely to the original writer.
Acknowledgement also needs to be made of an e-mail sent the author from Cyrill Gluskkoff on October 19, 1997 which corrected two errors. Most importantly he advised: "The city that Peter I had built was named by him Sanct Peterburg in honor of the saint after whom he was named. It was only during the war with Germany that the German sounding name of Sanct Peterburg was changed in 1914 to the purely Russian name of Petrograd (not a German name) reflecting the animosity towards the enemy. In 1924 the city was renamed Leningrad by the Communists in honor of their revolutionary dictator."
This paper dedicated to M.W. George Dergachev,
Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Russia, and his 108 brethren.
Presented to the Maine Lodge of Research
June 1996, Orient Lodge #15, Thomaston, Maine
Copyright © 1996 by the Maine Lodge of Research & Richard Rhoda
All rights reserved.