Russian Freemasonry 1731-1979

C. N. Batham


AT THE OUTSET, I WANT TO emphasise that there is no Freemasonry in Russia today. It exists only in exile, and let there be no misunderstanding about that. What I propose doing, therefore, is to detail the times when there was Freemasonry there and, afterwards, to give a brief description of its continuance in exile.

In Russia, as in other countries where Freemasonry exists or existed, there are romantic stories about the early days. There are stories of how Peter the Great was Initiated in a London Lodge by Sir Christopher Wren, presumably in what is now the Lodge of Antiquity No. 2, of which Wren was supposed to have been Master.

After his return to Russia, Peter the Great is said to have introduced Freemasonry into that country, and, so the story goes, there was a Lodge in St. Petersburg of which he was Junior Warden!

I have been in a Lodge in which the Senior Warden was a Bishop, but I have never known one in which the Junior Warden was a reigning monarch. It must have given the Master quite a thrill. Fancy being able to tell Peter the Great what to do!

There are stories that Peter III was Worshipful Master of a Lodge in Oranienbaum and that he presented it with a house to be used as a Masonic Hall.

There are anecdotes of how Catherine the Great would manifest chagrin on finding there was but one chamberlain in attendance on her because the others had gone to a Lodge meeting. Can you really imagine that happening to Catherine the Great?

Nevertheless, so the story goes, she remained well enough disposed towards the Craft to have her son, Paul I, Initiated as soon as he became of age, and some reports say that she actually witnessed the ceremony.

In spite of this, Paul outlawed Freemasonry when he ascended the throne, but this, we are assured, was only because he allowed himself to be influenced by some dastardly schemers.

His successor, Alexander I, renewed the ban but, after ordering an enquiry into the nature of the Craft, he canceled it and, supposedly, was himself Initiated.

It would be nice to think that at least some of these stories were fact, but there is not a word of truth in any of them.

The first authentic record we have of anything connected with Russia (and it is far more mundane) is in the minutes for 24th June 1731 of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, where it is recorded:

Then the Grand Master [Lord Lovel of Minster Lovel, created Earl of Leicester, 1721] and his General Officers signed a Deputation for our Rt. Worshipful Brother John Phillips Esqr. to be Grand Master of free and accepted Masons within the Empires of Russia and Germany and Dominions and Territories thereunto belonging, and his health was drank wishing Prosperity to the Craft in those parts.

The appointment in those days of a Provincial Grand Master (for that is what he was, in spite of the reference to "Grand Master") did not necessarily indicate the existence of a Provincial Grand Lodge, or even the existence of a single Lodge within the Province. Indeed, we have no reason to think that Brother Phillips had any Lodge in his Province, gigantic as it was.

Certainly there is a record of a Lodge constituted in the free city of Hamburg in 1733, but there is no certainty that John Phillips was in any way concerned with it, or even that it was within his jurisdiction.

No other Lodge is recorded during his term of office, either in Germany or Russia, though that is by no means conclusive as continental Provincial Grand Masters at that time did not always report events to Grand Lodge. Further, it is known that Lodges were formed on occasions, without any authority whatsoever, Lodges that did not report their existence or delayed applying for recognition, sometimes for many years. An obvious example of this is the English Lodge at Bordeaux that was founded in 1732 but did not apply for a Warrant until 1766.

The identity of this John Phillips is a mystery. In the list included in the minutes at the Quarterly Communication of Grand Lodge on 27th November 1725, a John Phillips is shown as a member of the Lodge meeting at the Sun Tavern, near St. Paul's, and also of the Lodge meeting at the Three Tunns in Newgate Street.

On the other hand, in the 1738 edition of his Constitutions, Dr. Anderson refers to him as Captain John Phillips, and records his appointment as being Provincial Grand Master for Russia only.

In the list I have previously mentioned, there is a Captain Phillips shown as being a member of the Lodge meeting in the Rummer Tavern at Charing Cross, and he is also included as a member of this Lodge in an earlier list of 1723, the year in which Grand Lodge records commence.

Whether these two were one and the same person, what was the reason for his appointment, and what connection, if any, he had with Russia are matters of conjecture. Certainly there is no record of his presence in that country, nor of any activity on behalf of Freemasonry there.

When we come to 1740, however, we are on somewhat firmer ground. At the Quarterly Communication of 28th March 1740, John, 3rd Earl of Kintore, was proposed for election as Grand Master, and among those present at this meeting was his cousin, James Keith, "a Lt. General in the service of the Empress of Russia."

Although there is no reference to it in the minutes, the Grand Master appointed him Provincial Grand Master of Russia, though what had happened to his predecessor, Captain Phillips, is unknown.

James Keith came of a noble Scottish family and, from an early age, exhibited outstanding military talents. He fought for the Pre- tender in the 1715 Stuart uprising and, after its collapse, he fled to Spain where he entered the service of Philip V.

In 1728 he moved to Russia, where he had an outstanding military career. Numerous victories on both land and sea were due to his leadership, and in 1740, the year in which he became Provincial Grand Master, the Empress Anna appointed him as her ruler in the Ukraine.

As so often happens in such cases, his outstanding success in these various fields aroused the enmity of some of the Russian generals and also of some influential courtiers. Their schemings caused him to leave Russia in 1747 and transfer his allegiance to Frederick the Great.

His military career in Prussia was probably more outstanding than in Spain or Russia, not only in the field, but as adviser to the king. He was appointed General Field-Marshal and, finally, on 14th October 1758, at the age of 62, was killed in the battle of Hockirchen when the Prussians were defeated by the Austrians.

It is said that Keith was Master of a Lodge in St. Petersburg in 1732-34, several years prior to his appointment as Provincial Grand Master, but there is no proof of this. The first Russian Lodge to be mentioned in the English records was certainly at St. Petersburg, the Lodge of Perfect Union, but it was not Warranted until nearly forty years later, on 1st June 1771.

What seems to be certain is that the early Lodges in Russia were founded by foreigners, mainly from the British Isles and from Germany, though obviously it would have been necessary for them to work in complete secrecy, by reason of the uncertainty as to the attitude of court and government. Thus there are no records of these Lodges, only reminiscences.

Russian Lodges that appear in the English register are eight in number and are as follows:

  1. Lodge of Peace and Union, No. 414, St. Petersburg, 1st June 1771.
  2. Lodge of the Nine Muses, No. 466, St. Petersburg, 1st June 1774.
  3. Lodge of the Muse Urania, No. 467, St. Petersburg, 1st June 1774.
  4. Lodge of Ballona, No. 468, St. Petersburg, 1st June 1774.
  5. Lodge of Mars, No. 469, Yasay, 1774.
  6. Lodge of the Muse Clio, No. 470, Moscow, 1774.
  7. Phoenix Lodge, No. 451, Helsinfors (Finland), 1777. (Warranted 9th November 1767—Finland incorporated in Russia, 1777.)
  8. Lodge Astrea, No. 504, Riga, 21st August 1787.

In addition, the Lodge of Integrity, a military Lodge in the Fourteenth Regiment of Foot, worked in both Sebastopol and Balaclava in 1856, but this, of course, was a travelling Lodge and met wherever the regiment was stationed, being directly under the authority of the United Grand Lodge of England.

That five Lodges, three in St. Petersburg, one in Yasay and one in Moscow, were all Warranted in 1774 could mean that they had been in existence prior to that date and were only then seeking official recognition.

Part II

THE FREEMASONS' calendar (1777-78) reported on Russian Freemasonry as follows:

The first regular Lodge which was established in the vast Empire of Russia was Lodge Peace and Union No. 414 constituted 1771 in Petersburg. The chairman and most of the members were English merchants residing there, who conducted this new institution with great regularity and activity.

As many Russian nobles were Masons at the period of the establishment of this Lodge, at their request they received from the Grand Lodge of England in 1772 a Warrant for his Excellency John Yelaguin (Senator) to become Provincial Grand Master in the Russian Empire. This gentleman exercised his office with such success that many excellent Lodges were erected in Petersburg and other places.

John (or Ivan) Yelaguin, who was an intelligent and learned person, came of an ancient noble Russian family, and for many years enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Catherine the Great. Apart from being her adviser, he was also tutor to the heir to the throne.

The Grand Lodge minutes of 28th February 1772 confirm this appointment:

The Grand Secretary informed the Grand Lodge that the Grand Master had been pleased to appoint His Excellency John Yelaguin, Senator, Privy-Counsellor, Member of the Cabinet, etc., to Her Imperial Majesty the Empress of Russia, and Knight of the Polish Order of the White Eagle and of St. Stanislaus, to be Provincial Grand Master of the Empire of Russia.

Thus, after a lapse of fourteen years, there was once again a Provincial Grand Master of Russia, and Yelaguin certainly accomplished more than either of his predecessors. Only two years after his appointment there is, for the first time, a record of a Provincial Grand Lodge and its officers. From then onwards, Freemasonry in Russia assumed a more serious and responsible role.

Their ceremonies also, while remaining basically those of the Grand Lodge of England, had dramatic incidents added to them. For instance, the Candidate was called upon to make three "journeys" around the Lodge, during which he underwent various tests and trials. Naked swords were turned towards him, and he was shown a "corpse" covered with a blood stained cloth, to indicate what would be his fate if he betrayed his oath. He was called upon to seal his oath with his own blood, though he was spared this ordeal at the last moment.

There is also a record in the Grand Lodge of England archives of five of the first six Lodges in the list I have mentioned together with details of their members, varying in number from 21 to 68. What is important, however, is that Lodge membership, drawn from the leading and most influential families, was almost entirely Russian.

The one exception was the first Lodge on the list, the Lodge of Peace and Union at St. Petersburg, which consisted mainly of English Freemasons and which, in spite of its name, Peace and Union, apparently sought neither peace nor union with the Provincial Grand Lodge.

On being advised officially by England of the appointment of Yelaguin as Provincial Grand Master, the members passed a resolution congratulating him on the honor, saying that it could not possibly have been in better hands, but denying that he had any authority over their Lodge. Rather understandably, Yelaguin could not accept this and wrote to say so in no uncertain terms, but the members maintained their attitude until eventually, on 28th October 1772, they were instructed by England to submit to his authority.

It is interesting to note that in addition to the three Craft Degrees, this Lodge also practiced the Scotch Master and Elect Master Degrees.

Yelaguin, however, introduced or at least authorised the introduction of other Degrees, seven in all, the three Craft Degrees, followed by:

4° — The Dark Vault

5° — The Scotch Master

6° — The Philosopher's Degree

7° — Spiritual Knighthood.

In addition, there was a Chapter in St. Petersburg that practiced the Strict Observance Rite, a system of Knight Templar Masonry imposed on the three Craft Degrees, viz:

4° — Scottish Master

5° — Novice

6° — Templar

7° — Professed Knight.

These Degrees are based on the legend of the martyred Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques DeMolay, and Provincial Grand Master of Auvergne, Pierre d'Aumont, who, with a small band of Knights, fled to Scotland in the guise of operative masons and reestablished the order of Knights Templar there. D'Aumont was elected Grand Master on St. John's Day, 1314, and, in 1361, established the headquarters of the Order at Old Aberdeen, and from there it spread to all the principal continental countries.

That, as I said, is the legend behind the Order, but the facts are difficult to ascertain. It seems to have been introduced or at least established in Germany, somewhere about the year 1755, by Carl Gotthelf Baron Von Hund and soon spread to Russia and other European countries. For a time, it was quite a powerful Order, but it began to die out with the discrediting of Van Hund and his ultimate death in 1776.

The position of Freemasonry in Russia became even more complicated in 1771 with the introduction from Germany of the Zinnendorf system, a Christian order of Masonry, and once again a mixture of the three Craft Degrees and various Knightly Degrees, and with the later introduction of the Martinist system.

Yelaguin fought against these foreign importations, but the opposition was too strong for him. It consisted of the opposition of influential Russian Freemasons who were not satisfied with the English system of three Craft Degrees, ending with the loss of a secret. They were seeking deeper mysteries and more secret and mysterious knowledge about the transmutation of metals and the making of "philosophical gold" and of "the elixir of life."

The outcome was the formation in 1776 of the National Grand Lodge of Russia, created for the purpose of working a Rite of seven Degrees.

Freemasonry had thus become firmly established in Russia, even though not of the orthodox type, and it enjoyed the support of members of all the important families, but the situation was confused by the practicing of various Rites and the introduction of even more, and not only had the original connection with England been virtually severed, but the seat of Russian Freemasonry had been transferred from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

It spread even to the remote parts of Russia, but again it changed in character. The Rite of Strict Observance had become the dominant Rite, but gradually it became permeated with Rosicrucian ideas, essentially those of self-knowledge and the attainment of moral perfection.

The position became even more complicated in 1779 on the establishment of a Swedish Provincial Grand Master of Russia, with Prince Gagarin at its head, to work the Swedish Rite. This followed a visit to St. Petersburg two years earlier by the King of Sweden, as head of Swedish Freemasonry, for the purpose of Initiating the Grand Duke Paul, while in 1785 a famous Russian patriot and historian was Initiated, and his example was soon followed by many prominent intellectuals and aristocrats.

Unfortunately for the Craft, the Empress Catherine viewed this growing power with some concern. She had always been opposed to secret societies, which had been outlawed in 1782, though Freemasonry had been exempted. However, she remained suspicious of anything the late Emperor, Peter the Third (who she had skilfully removed from the throne) had favoured, and it was widely known he had been favourably disposed towards Freemasonry.

Equally, her political rival and personal enemy, the Grand Duke Paul, was a prominent Freemason. Further, since the break with England, Russian Freemasonry had come under the influence of German Freemasonry, of which Frederick the Great, the archenemy of Catherine, was a dominant figure. To Catherine, it must have seemed that everyone she disliked intensely was a Freemason.

Russian Freemasons had been active in acts of charity and benevolence. They had established schools and hospitals, and they were quick to aid the stricken population in the terrible famine of 1878.

Nevertheless, in 1794 Catherine made it known that she wished the Secret Societies Decree to apply to Freemasonry. Yelaguin issued an order, closing all Lodges immediately, and General Prosorovsky, Governor of Moscow, undertook to be responsible for the complete suppression of all Masonic activities. However, although abolished officially, Freemasonry must have continued in existence secretly as otherwise it could not later have revived so quickly or so completely.


WHEN PAUL I OF RUSSIA ascended the throne, hopes for Freemasonry rose again. Although no official action was taken and the Craft began to revive, it continued to remain prohibited by the government. After the short reign of Paul I and also under his successor, Alexander I, Freemasonry gained considerably in strength, and in 1810 the official ban was removed. In that year, a new Grand Lodge was formed.

On the surface, everything seemed fine, but from the beginning Russian Freemasonry contained elements of its own destruction as it was composed of two irreconcilable groups, those loyal to the three basic Craft Degrees as practiced in England, and those who thought that the Knightly Degrees were the most important, in fact the essential part of Masonry.

Thus, in 1815, it split into two, a Swedish Provincial Grand Lodge of Russia to work the Swedish Rite, which regarded the so-called "higher" Degrees as the acme and perfection of Masonry, and Astrea Grand Lodge, which confined its attention to the three Craft Degrees, though it left its Lodges free to work additional Degrees if their members so wished, such Degrees being under the control of a Grand Chapter General.

Within a matter of only four or five years, however, it became quite evident that the new Grand Lodge was built on an unstable foundation. By this time, no less than five different Rites were being practiced, and Russian Freemasonry had lost its national character by coming under German domination. Thus it was not in a strong enough position to withstand the storms that lay ahead.

Its position declined further by the Initiation of men who entered the Order for political reasons, liberal thinkers who thought they saw in the Craft an opportunity to fight class privileges and the dictatorial form of government.

Some of the more extreme elements were even revolutionaries and terrorists who formed links between Russian Freemasonry and the secret political and pseudo-Masonic societies on the continent that were the avowed enemies of organised government. In other words, Freemasonry in Russia had drifted very far from its English origins, and it had become infused with revolutionary politics.

Nevertheless, in the 1812 war against Napoleon, members of the Craft were exemplary in their behaviour and patriotic in their actions. The Russian Commander-in-Chief, Prince Michael Kutusov, was a prominent Freemason, as were many of the high-ranking officers, and during the course of the war several military Lodges were founded.

Alexander I had been well-disposed towards Freemasonry initially, but he became increasingly influenced by Prince Metternich, who was well aware of the dangerous political elements within the Craft in Russia, especially the fact that it harboured some highly suspicious members of secret political organisations. The final act of destruction, however, started within the Craft itself.

Igor Andrevich Kusheleov was elected Deputy Grand Master of the Astrea Grand Lodge in 1820. He was what one would call "a member of the old school," extremely conservative in politics, deeply religious, and certainly a very sincere Freemason. He was a firm believer in the Freemasonry he had known in his early days before it had become distorted by innovations that had destroyed what he believed to be its true doctrines, and he was alarmed by the fact that some Lodges were becoming nests of revolutionary political activities. He decided that a determined effort must be made to restore the true Masonic doctrines as he understood them, but in this he was opposed by members holding views very different from his.

As a result, he felt it his duty to Freemasonry, as well as to his native Russia, to lay a report on the situation before the Emperor. He did so, giving an account of the history of Freemasonry in Russia, a report of the current position as he saw it, and stressing the dangers if steps were not taken to rectify it. His solution was that Freemasonry should be placed under very strict government control and that, if necessary, Masonic Lodges should be closed down.

For a space of nine months the Emperor took no action, but gradually he became more and more alarmed by the activities of revolutionary societies in different continental countries. Finally, in 1822, a Prussian Mason, Count Gaugwitz, presented to the Austrian and Russian Emperors a report in which he advocated the closing of all Masonic Lodges in both countries.

Suddenly, without warning, Alexander issued a decree on 1st August 1822 outlawing Freemasonry and closing all Russian Lodges immediately.

Freemasonry in Russia ceased to exist overnight. There are stories that it continued for a time in remote provinces and elsewhere in secret. Certainly Nicholas I found it necessary to confirm the decree in 1826, but even assuming these stories contain an element of truth, Masonic activities must have been on a very small scale.

We can blame neither the Emperor nor his advisers for this. Russian Freemasonry perished because it had departed from the basic principles of the Craft.

It had introduced politics and, once introduced, these had become uncontrollable.

It had admitted members unworthy of becoming Freemasons, men who had entered it for the furtherance of their own desires, political and otherwise,

It had swerved in its loyalty to the basic Craft Degrees by seeking novelties in so-called "higher Degrees," which eventually became dominant.

I have referred to stories about Freemasonry continuing to exist in secret in Russia. There is no evidence of this and present-day Russian émigré Freemasons cast serious doubts on such stories. For all practical purposes, therefore, Freemasonry as we know it ended in Russia in 1822.

However, in the early days of the present century, it seems there was a revival of Freemasonry of a certain kind in Russia though, perhaps understandably, precise details are unavailable. In any case, the term "quasi-Masonry" might be more appropriate as it was very different from Freemasonry as generally understood.

In 1908 a number of Russians, who had been Initiated in irregular French Grand Orient Lodges, opened two Lodges in Russia, one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow. The irregular Grand Lodge of France also established two, and subsequently other Lodges were opened in Nijni-Novgorod and Kiev, but when the Russian government started to take notice of them in the following year, operations were suspended. รพ In 1911, meetings were resumed on a more judicious basis, and at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, there were some forty Lodges owing obedience to the irregular Grand Orient of France. Some became dormant during the war but twenty-eight were in existence at the time of the March 1917 revolution, and their members took an active part in these events. It is even claimed that there was a Grand Lodge of the Ukraine during this period, but there is no evidence of its existence, and the Lodges themselves gradually collapsed.

As I have already mentioned, these Masonic gatherings cannot be called Masonic Lodges in the orthodox sense. Owing allegiance to the irregular Grand Orient of France, they were essentially political in their aims as well as being anti-religious.

There was, however, a separate Masonic revival about this time which seems to have been due partly to the White Russians and the return to their native land after the war of Russians who had been Initiated while in exile. In exile, many members had joined or sought Initiation in foreign Lodges or founded Lodges of their own under foreign jurisdictions, where they are keeping Russian Freemasonry alive to this day.

The fate of those remaining in Russia is a sadder story. In spite of official decrees against them, Masonic Lodges and those of other initiatic orders met without hindrance until 1922, when, at a meeting of the Fourth Communist International, a decree was issued declaring such orders were incompatible with Communist ideology.

Some Lodges, Masonic and otherwise, closed as a result of this announcement, but a few remained in operation and continued without interference. Despite the decree of 1922, it was a period of relative liberalism, the era of the New Political Economy and, after a while, even new Lodges were founded.

Members of the Communist Party itself were prohibited from Initiation, and any who had previously been Freemasons were deprived of office for a period of two years by a decree of this same Congress. Even so, certain prominent members who had been Freemasons continued in office, and the celebrated writer Maxim Gorki, who was widely known to have been a Freemason, continued in favour with the new regime.

Who knows, perhaps Freemasonry might have continued even today on this basis—officially outlawed, but unofficially allowed— had it not been for two events and, once again, one arose within the movement itself.

A Russian Mason named Astromov, who was concerned with a Rosicrucian form of Masonry, rather than the orthodox Craft Freemasonry, and who had founded Lodges in Leningrad, Moscow, Tiflis and Kiev, very unwisely addressed a letter to Stalin in 1926, begging him to legalize the existence of Freemasonry.

Stalin may have been influenced by the rumor rapidly gaining ground in Russia, but nevertheless quite untrue, that Leon Trotsky was an enthusiastic Freemason. Be that as it may, Stalin's reply was typical of the man, being both immediate and drastic. Astromov and some thirty others, including all the officers of his four Lodges, were arrested and imprisoned, where Astromov died shortly afterwards at the age of 76. The fate of the others is unknown, but it is reasonable to think that it was by no means pleasant.

Three years later, in 1929, an agent of the Russian Secret Police discovered that meetings were still being held in secret. As a result, Pierre Mikhailovich Kaiser, Professor of Oriental Languages at the Moscow Institute, and two other Masons were executed by a firing squad.

It is said that there are still secret meetings of Masons who hope that one day Freemasonry will be permitted once again in Russia. I doubt it very much, and even if it should happen, it is likely to be a Rosicrucian or other irregular form of Masonry, rather than the Freemasonry we practice.

A French trade delegation, including representatives who were irregular Grand Orient Masons, visited Russia a few years ago. At an informal meeting, one of them asked Kruschev if he would allow Masonry to be practiced once again, the political, atheistic form favored by the Grand Orient. The reply was not encouraging.

There are Russian Freemasons in exile who are practicing regular Freemasonry in their native language and await the day when they will return to the land of their birth and practice it there once more. That, I fear, is even more of a pipe dream.

[Editor's Note: Though Brother Batham is pessimistic about the revival of Freemasonry in Russia, it should be noted that the Craft has been restored in Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia and that steps are going forward for the renewal of Masonic Light in Romania. The Supreme Council, 33°, S.J., has taken a leadership role in assisting the rebirth of Freemasonry and Scottish Rite in these and other countries formerly under the Soviet yoke. While the restoration of Freemasonry in Russia is clearly a distant goal, it is worthy of the support of Brethren everywhere.]

{Skirret Note: The Grand Lodge of Russia was constituted by the Grand Loge Nationale Française on June, 24, 1995.

Reprinted from the Transactions, Lodge of Research No. 2429 (E.C.), Leicester, England.