Modern Russian Freemasons are numerously few. The overall membership nowadays is very unlikely to rise above the 1500 mark.
However, these scarce troops are unevenly distributed among a dozen of obediences, which spring mainly from French sources and most of the time follow the ways and customs of the same, delving nonetheless from time to time into the vast and deep gulfs of Russian authentic singularity.
Surely, this modern-day situation of Russian Freemasons might be viewed as a clear and definite result of treading the long and winding road of their history in this country. The history of Russian Freemasonry started in around 1731 and may be seen as a sequence of four epochal periods, each one being rather short though, and almost invariably ending up with total extermination of the members.
The first period (1731-1798) is marked by occasional lodges set by British, German and Dutch merchants and hired specialists (physicians, engineers, etc.) within Moscow and St Petersburg’s expat communities under Peter the Great.
After a while, in 1750-1770s, under Elisabeth the Benign and Catherine the Great, the lodges blossomed and spread throughout European Russia, practising mainly the first three degrees of the British Moderns and a vast variety of German and Swedish higher degrees of Ecossais and Templar character
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After the first two foreign Provincial Grand Masters – the obviously fictitious “Captain John Phillips”, of whom no record has survived anywhere, and field marshal James Keith, very real, but of doubtful amenability, – Russian Masonic throne was taken by Ivan Yelagin, who received his warrants first – from the Royal York Lodge of Berlin and then – from the Moderns Grand Lodge of London (1772).
The second half of the century was spent by Russian Masons in incessant fights for the predominance of one rite over all other ones, which was surely just a sort of ripples on the waters of the European Masonic history of the time.
The Swedish and German systems of Masonic knighthood cooperated, or conflicted, with the magical and alchemical traditions of the German Gold-and-Rose Cross, the rites of Melissino and Schroeder, French Martinism and the Rectified Rite of the Wilhelmsbad Congress of 1782.
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Despite the complexity of the inter-Masonic relations within her country, the Great Czarina, shocked and perplexed by the French Revolution and conspiracy theories therewith connected, decided to chop this Gordian knot once and for all.
She banned Freemasonry in the country and had some prominent Masons, including famous publisher, journalist and esotericist Nicholas Novikov, jailed or exiled. Her son Paul I, ascending the throne and revoking each and every of his mother’s resolutions he could lay his hands on, acquitted Catherine’s Masonic victims, but endorsed the ban of Masonic meetings, inducting some noble Masons into the Maltese knighthood instead, being the Grand Master of the Hospitalers at that time.
he voluminous and exhaustive dictionary of Masonic biographies by the most prominent Russian Masonic historian Andrey Serkov provides around 4000 life records of lodge members of the period.
Paul I is often called by Russian researchers “the Russian Hamlet”, presumably trying desperately to come up to the expectations of his dead father, assassinated by his mother’s minions. However, the tumultuous six years of his reign resulted only in his being assassinated by his son’s tutors and friends, after which his son Alexander declared to the court nobility, that under him “everything shall be like under the granny”. A year later, Alexander I issued an oral unofficial resolution permitting Masons to gather in lodges again, and thus the second period of Russian Freemasonry started (1802-1822).
It was characterized chiefly by the revival of old Templar systems of Swedish origin – and semi-secret operations of the very narrow Rosicrucian circle – until the end of the Napoleonic war of 1812-1814, after which some liberal French Masonic ideas penetrated Russia along with the victorious troops returning home.
In 1815, a new Grand Lodge “Astrea” was established in St. Petersburg, that proclaimed rejection of all higher degrees and hierarchy as well as intention to work only three symbolic degrees and promote democracy as the core of its internal government.
The next five years were traditionally spent in inter-Masonic quarrels and mutual accusations of high treason and espionage; accurately transmitted by the both parties to the Gendarmerie Headquarters. At the same time, many military Masons left their lodges to create quasi-Masonic and quasi-Carbonari Orders and societies to promote the ideas of democratic rule and prepare plans of a political coup. As a result, being expressly tired of the concurring accusations and gossip, Emperor Alexander issued an official ban of all Masonic organisations in 1822. In 1825, Alexander I died, the revolutionary military attempted a coup d’etat, failed and were sent to Siberia, while the next Czar, Nicholas I, reasserted the ban in 1826.
Serkov’s dictionary gives the overall number of Russian Freemasons in the 19th century as nearing 6000.
This time, the prohibition lasted longer; while Russians sometimes joined Masonic lodges abroad and worked there from time to time. But only the beginning of “the long Russian revolution” allowed Freemasonry to re-enter the country for the brief third period (1908-1918).
As soon as the manifesto of Nicholas II authorised unsupervised public assemblies, several lodges were installed in St. Petersburg by the Grand Orient of France and the Grand Lodge of France. Some contacts of new Russian Masons had been registered with the British lodges as well. But the anxious thirst for social life, felt by the majority of Russian Masons of the period, as well as the country’s history of autocracy and lack of public activities, now led to enormous politicizing of Freemasonry.
The lodges were joined mainly by the State Duma (Parliament) deputies, liberal journalists and members of numerous newly-hatched parties. So in 1910, the Supreme Council of Russian Masons decided to reject all the rituals, symbols, clothing, oaths and lectures and concentrate on parliamentary activities, still retaining the titles of “Freemasons” of “the Grand Orient of the Peoples of Russia”.
Those who disagreed had to resort to visiting foreign lodges again, or try to keep on their lights in smallest lodges ever. Be it one way or another, they all were squeezed out of the capital, then out of the European part of the country and, at last, altogether out of Russia by Bolsheviks – or executed.
Serkov’s records provide us with the list of around 900 Russian Freemasons of the period.
All the attempts to delineate, however briskly, the Russian mentality, tend to produce the statement that its dominating feature is evidently antipathy; the trend to regard and value the past more than the future, while the present is usually treated with almost total disregard and presumed to be a chimera, a shadow of the “bold old times”, or a foreshadow of the coming “happy new times”.
This speculation seems to be serving well as a key, in particular, to the problem of a Russian Masonic bibliography, which comprises hundreds of books and articles on the history of Russian Freemasonry of the ages past – and hardly half a dozen on either the Order’s contemporaneity or the general issues of Freemasonry, its symbolism and philosophy.
Russian Freemasons managed both to survive emigration after the Russian revolution of 1905-1917, and even to compile a valuable chapter in the history of world Freemasonry. They launched their lodges in France, the UK, the USA, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and even China. Surely, their community in France was the largest as well as the most industrious and active; establishing several blue lodges, a separate Russian temple and a library, charity services, all the Scottish Rite bodies and, finally, claiming the right to have their own Russian Supreme Council under the Grand Lodge of France.
The lights in their lodges had burnt until the late 1980s, when the natural causes started to exert their influence, mowing down the benches. And no new Russian-speaking members were showing up.
But history often seems to be acting consciously and sometimes – deliberately. This time, the tables were turned in 1985, when Perestroika started in the USSR. In 1986, a group of old Russian Freemasons of several obediences was established in Paris to try to facilitate for the Soviet citizens entering Freemasonry. Radio Liberty was used for this cause. However, it was not until 1990, when a philosophy tutor from Moscow, George Dergachev, used his French friend’s advice and connections to be initiated into Freemasonry in Paris, eventually to be raised to the Master’s degree and be granted a warrant to create the first lodge of the Grand Orient of France in Moscow.
Masonic diversity and its multi-layered structure are splendid, when speaking theoretically. However, there might be more than one point of view considering their impact on newly established jurisdictions. Not less than three French grand lodges launched at once their proselytist campaigns in Russia, and very soon a lodge of the Grand Lodge of France was established in the Soviet Union, which, almost in a split second became the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, exceedingly charismatic French-Russian Mason Michel Garder of the regular Grand National Lodge of France became a close friend of Dergachev and convinced him of changing the affiliation. In 1992, the newly regularised Worshipful Master Dergachev established the first lodge of GLNF in Moscow, greeting in it some of the former members of the GOdF and GLdF lodges. Several new regular lodges were installed in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Archangelsk, Voronezh and Yaroslavl. In 1994, an unofficial meeting was organised for all Russian Masons, with the aim to try to persuade them all to join Dergachev and unite their efforts, to no avail. All the three branches resolved to live and let live.
The staged growth of Russian lodges procured in 1995 the creation of the Grand Lodge of Russia by GLNF and its subsequent recognition by most of the world regular grand lodges. In 1996, the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite was installed as well. But the life and graft of the Grand Lodge have never been peaceful, quite as it used to be in the centuries past.
Various internal dissensions and feuds among the members led to the first schism in 2001, when six lodges separated themselves from the body of the GLoR and formed the Russian Regular Grand Lodge, which started seeking recognition of world regular grand lodges and failed. Another vortex of discussions concerning the notion of regularity and principles of recognition resulted in 2006 in the second schism within the GLoR, when six more lodges left it as well as two thirds of the grand line. They sided with the earlier dissidents of the Russian Regular Grand Lodge and formed an alliance.
For a whole year, the two organizations each retained the title of the Grand Lodge of Russia and waged wars, until an arbitrage was agreed on, under the fraternal supervision of the respectful representatives of the United Grand Lodge of England and the Grand Lodge of Columbia district. It was a sudden and sad experience for a considerable part of Russian Freemasons to be confronted with the fact that a marginal politician and owner of a political party mill, Andrey Bogdanov, had been generally acknowledged as the favourite candidate for the position of the “united” Grand Master, without consulting most of them. As a result, the whole procedure failed, leaving one of the Grand Lodges of Russia with the newly elected Grand Master Bogdanov – and the other Grand Lodge of Russia formally amalgamating with the Russian Regular Grand Lodge to form, in 2008, the United Grand Lodge of Russia.
The main course of the UGLoR activities has ever since followed the lead of the Grand Lodge of France and the Scottish Rite bodies affiliated with it. A small group of Masons, who were also members of the Martinist order, were disappointed by the situation development and resolved to leave the both existent Masonic organisations to join the Grand Symbolic Lodge of France of the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Memphis-Misraim.
In 2009, the first mixed lodge of this rite was established in Moscow. By 2015, this group had grown large enough to be granted the warrant for the Grand Symbolic Lodge of Russia and allied countries. It is mixed, it works exclusively the Memphis-Misraim rite up to its 95th degree, and consists of some 150 members.
Andrey Bogdanov Grand Master GLoR
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Meanwhile, the GLoR, under the permanent leadership of Andrey Bogdanov, adopted, beside the AASR, the Italo-Romanian version of the Memphis-Misraim rite. Later, a British Royal Arch chapter earlier established in Middlesex was transferred to operate in Moscow, a Supreme Chapter of the French rite was installed, and a group of GLoR members were received into the higher degrees of the Grand Rectified Priory of France.
In 2011, right out of the blue, a group of Russian Master Masons, previously demitted from different Russian obediences, appeared in Moscow claiming their right to establish anew the Grand Orient of the Peoples of Russia. This jurisdiction has since been accepted as a member of CLIPSAS, a liberal Masonic association under the patronage of the Grand Orient of France. It has established its own high councils of the A.&A. Scottish Rite, French Rite and Memphis-Misraim Rite of another Italian lineage. The GOPR is mixed and accepts candidates regardless of their religious beliefs or absence of such; its membership rising up to around 400 Masons.
Also in 2011, a group of former UGLoR members left the obedience and started communication with the French federation of the International Mixed Masonic Order, Le Droit Humain. A year later, they received the warrant to establish their first lodge in Moscow, and since that time, this mixed group has also installed two provisional lodges in St. Petersburg and Vladimir, and a Lodge of Perfection in Moscow. They practice only the AASR and have around 60 members.
Unfortunately, the United Grand Lodge of Russia inherited some of the dubious characteristics of the GLoR, because permanent conflicts and mini-splits continued to shake and rock this institution. In 2011-2012, the two early Russian lodges of GOdF and GLdF were unexpectedly revived by the fresh rivulets of members coming from the lodges of UGLoR, and soon they restarted, after almost a decade of semi-dormant state, their regular works, independently of all other Russian Masonic groups.
In 2013, a group of Russian Master Masons, members of UGLoR and GSLoR engaged in historical studies of the Rectified rite, visited France to join, as affiliated members, the bodies of the Grand Scottish Rectified Priory of Occitania. In 2016, a blue lodge of the respective Grand Lodge was founded and installed in Moscow, being later furnished with a corresponding Scottish Lodge and a Commandery of the Rite. Until now, they still consist mainly of affiliated members of the two older obediences, with around a dozen of GSRLO’s own initiates.
A group of Russian women – relatives or not of active Freemasons – have, since 2007, been actively and persistently seeking Masonic initiation. The country’s all-male and mixed organisations should be credited for providing them with all possible support and advice, building the bridges between them and foreign Masonic authorities. The very long and rough path these 40 ladies managed to pull through, brought them at last to the establishment of the first lodge of the Grand Feminine Lodge of France in St. Petersburg in October 2017. Another lodge was launched in Moscow in February 2020.
In February 2019, several former members of the Moscow GOdF lodge sought and received permission to work under the auspices of the French Traditional and Modern Grand Lodge and initiate candidates into Masonry according to the Traditional French rite.
In January 2020, a considerable number of former UGLoR members announced the creation in St. Petersburg of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of Russia, with yet unclear philosophy, rites and affinities.
In 2018-2020, two “Egyptian Sanctuaries” were introduced in Russia by the representatives of the Bertiaux-Duez and Frank Ripel lineages. Being non-Masonic gnostic fraternal organizations by their origin, they still claim Masonic character and seek fraternal relations with various Russian obediences, sometimes with a hint of success.
Topping the list of Russian Masonic references are the portents of the digital epoch. Several websites and social media communities are owned in the RuNet by the so-called “Grand Lodge of Siberia”, recently restyled as the “Liberal Grand Lodge of Russia” and offering membership options. As far as some volunteers’ investigation allows to judge, this is just a high school amateur art project gone too far. A remarkable Russo-Ukrainian instagram-model, the “Odessa Barbie” Valeria Lukyanova, who permanently resides in Mexico and has been recently initiated in a lodge of the Grand Female Orient of Mexico City, offers some sort of “astral initiation” into Freemasonry to her online followers.
Except for the Grand Lodge of Russia, which severely abides by the Principles of Recognition and often demonstrates uttermost hostility towards all other groups self-defined as Masonic – and except for the entities described in the two passages above – all the numerous Russian Masonic groups are tied together by quite labyrinthine and meandering strings of contacts, relations, sporadic conflicts, as well as by various types of kindred, friendly, anacreontic and other personal ties. They engage sometimes in collective publishing, charity, scholarly or art projects, but this hardly seems to be systematic, more often stemming from initiative and efforts of some particular members.
The chief challenges facing modern-day Russian Freemasonry, to name just a few, are the following:
First, the astonishingly low membership figures throughout the whole fourth period of the existence of Freemasonry in this country, starting in 1991 and now coming close to the 30-year mark. Incidentally, the average initiation rate in all the Russian obediences has always been, and is now considerably high, while the permanent internal discords and instability seem to cause membership drain, which is also constant, even at low and medium rates.
Second, the modest membership numbers and dominating social background of the members (the military, office personnel, educators, physicians, students), that positions them somewhere between upper-middle and low income classes in this country, with predominance of the low-middle sector, make it hardly possible to have the members engaged in any massive charity, publishing or educating projects, which could, in their turn, have added to integrity and unity of the lodges.
Third, the territory of the country is so vast that communication outside the Internet, arranging ritual events and initiations has been, and will ever be, a great problem for the rather few Russian Masons having rather little sums to spend on travelling the country in search of light.
The fourth and fifth points are the internal Masonic complexities of one and the same origin; that is, the rigidity of the regular and traditional lodges and the laxity and lawlessness of the liberal ones. The former causing rejection of many good brothers (and sisters), and the latter forcing erosion of the landmarks and allowing almost any profane self-identify as a Freemason.
Having proven to anybody who would attempt to argue that it can survive almost any challenge and live on despite several deaths, Russian Freemasonry is now, as it has ever been, a very complex phenomenon.
A kingdom divided against itself, a state where something is always rotten, it still shepherds, in the name of charity and goodwill, the weak through the valley of darkness, and as long as it is capable of carrying on, it should and will live.
Article by: Eugene L. Kuzmishin
Eugene L. Kuzmishin, 33º-95º – historian, educator, interpreter, author of “The Scythe and the Stone” (Moscow, 2010) and “Masonry” (Moscow, 2017), author of an MA study course on Freemasonry (Russian Christian Humanities Academy, St. Petersburg, 2017-2020), translator of Cagliostro, A. Pike, A. Mackey, A. Waite, J. Yarker, R. Ambelain, etc.
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