Catherine the Great and Her Relations with the Freemasons


Born on the 21st April 1729, Princess Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst, later changed her name to Ekaterina Aleksevena when she embraced the Russian Orthodox Church prior to her engagement to Grand Duke Peter, and subsequent marriage to him as the heir to the Russian Throne. Catherine II, The Great Tsarina of Russia was a remarkable woman who, although not a native Russian, absorbed so much of its traditions, history and culture that by the end of her life, she had become Russia personified, and was referred to as Little Mother by her subjects.

In many respects her outlook was more masculine than feminine, and this was given credence by her predilection for dressing up in Men's clothes at any excuse, and riding astride a horse particularly when indulging in hunting and falconry or reviewing her troops. In what little leisure time she had, she enjoyed Masqued Costume Balls and almost always appeared dressed as a man. Indeed one of the best known paintings of Catherine as a young woman, by Vigilus Ericksen (1765), shows her astride her horse "Brilliant" dressed in men's clothing, following her triumphant entry into St. Petersburg, having deposed her husband. It may also be true to say that she was a very early promoter of what we would now call the "Women's Liberation Movement".

She was an extremely able administrator, Codifier of Law, Politician and above all extremely adept at picking her advisors, many of her closest, were or had been in fact, her lovers. The two most famous being Potemkim and Orlov by whom she is reputedly to have had an illegitimate son, Aleksei Bobrinskoi. History has labelled her as a voracious libertine, adulteress, murderess and tyrant, although more likely she was just lonely and required human comfort, without the aggravation of a husband, to whom she feared she would have to become subservient, as required by common custom in those times.

Her very efficient Secret Police were greatly feared, giving rise to the assertion that she was basically a cruel opportunist who had seized power and was determined to hang on to it at all costs. She is reputed to have had her Husband, Peter III murdered after she deposed him, but the evidence of her involvement is scanty. She was widely read and pursued her education and development of personal knowledge throughout her life. She was deeply fascinated by politics and followed the events in Europe very closely indeed, possibly to minimise any threats either real or imaginary, against herself and the Russian Throne, by having the best possible access to good intelligence.

To the Empress, Freemasonry represented Quote, "One of the greatest aberrations to which the human race had succumbed." She described it as, "a strange fad among males only" and scorned it as," a mixture of religious ritual and childish games". This can in part be explained by her suspicions of the motives of the Prussian Court and its political aims and designs on Poland, the Balkans and their repeated attempts at political intrigues in her own court at St.Petersburg. In addition she did not appreciate the Prussian connection with the "Indolent High Society in Moscow". Catherine was particularly vehement in this throughout her entire reign. She was constant, in her denunciation of the Muscovite High Society as being lazy, privileged and bent on the pursuit of pleasure, without a thought of the financial, political or social costs of their actions.

Other reasons that concerned her about Freemasonry, were the secretive nature of its organisation, the powerful standing of its members and the influence that they certainly had at the other Major Courts throughout Europe particularly the Prussian and French Courts. Their undoubted wealth and ability to mobilize substantial sums of money, she also considered and perceived as a potential latent threat, on the basis of wealth buying power, especially, if it were to be used to undermine the enjoyment of her privilege of absolute monarchy. In addition she was particularly incensed by the proselytism of Freemasonry amongst the "Do-nothing" Moscow Nobility. One of its leading members was Novikov, whom had been known to Catherine since the 1760's and had been in attendance at the Prussian Court, representing Russian interests there. He returned to Moscow during 1779, where he became deeply involved in Freemasonry, and was one of the pre-eminent publishers in Russia. He may have been partly responsible for the dissemination of Masonry amongst the Muscovite Nobility, due to his many connections there.

In fact Novikov had been in conflict with the state publishing regulations in 1778 for printing religious books without the permission of the Church Authorities. On the 13th of April 1792, reports reached Catherine that another unauthorised book had been published by Novikov and this time she issued an order to her secret police to search Novikov's residences for evidence of the original book or old church letters in which the text had been originally recorded. She also appointed Prince Prozorovskii, a former General not noted for either his tact or diplomacy in dealing with civil affairs, in charge of the operation. In fact there was a delay of eight days before the warrant was served, and the search for the evidence begun. The Book or documents in question were not found, however they did find twenty banned titles, piles of masonic books and Masonic personal documents belonging to Novikov, and seized the lot.

Later, Prozorovskii upon sifting through these seized documents, wrote to Catherine in inflammatory terms imploring her to put Stepan Sheshkovskii, whom had been the head of the Secret Police and although now retired and elderly, was considered the most Senior Operative of the organisation, in charge of the interrogation. meantime Prozorovskii continued his interrogation of the prisoner and continued to send alarming reports to Catherine, of all that transpired. Catherine ordered him to prepare Novikov for trial. Prozorovskii, however disagreed, stating that this would make a martyr of Novikov and urged discretion. Catherine took this on board and ordered that Novikov be treated as a nameless state criminal and incarcerated in the Schlusselburg Fortress to serve a sentence of fifteen years. The matter did not end there as fifteen booksellers were arrested and their shops sealed. Almost overnight following the first report to Catherine, the search for an illegal book had escalated into a political witchhunt. Three others were implicated as being Freemasons, whether by Novikov's testimony or by correspondence that had been found. they were Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi, retired Brigadier Ivan Lopukhin (The former Governor of Moscow) and Brigadier Ivan Turgenev. They too were subjected to rigorous interrogation by the Secret Police and finally banished from the Capital, under Catherine's personal orders. During her reign, it appears that Catherine was certainly paranoid about real or imagined conspiracies against her person, and her artfully gained occupation of the Russian Throne. This may well be because she, as a foreigner, had secured her throne by deposing her husband Peter III, in a carefully prepared Coup d'Etat. His strange death which was extremely convenient, shortly afterwards and the subsequent continual appearance of pretenders claiming to be Peter, evinced strangely repressive reactions on her behalf and appeared to underline her own personal insecurity, or possibly provoked her own conscience. In the period 1785-1786, Catherine herself wrote three crudely satirical comedies, "The deceiver", "The deluded" and "The Siberian Shaman", all of ewhich publicly ridiculing Freemasonry, its members as well as its practices. This was done in a mocking and disparaging attitude, which more than any other evidence underscores her hostility to the Craft. It obviously irked her, that as a woman whom had secured a place in a Man's World, she could not participate in the Craft and that what information she did have about it, was erroneous. From these it is possible to see that although she had been advised of some of the background, she was unaware of the humanitarian motives that actually lay behind the objectives of the Society.

This may well have been because of mis-interpretation by the non masons at Court and her Secret Police, whom she had instructed to investigate the society and who were anxious to give her information that "She wanted to hear!". Strangely enough her enlightened reforms for the administration of the Russian Estate were largely in line with many of the principles of Freemasonry.

In 1790 another book was anonymously published, entitled "A Journey From St. Petersburg To Moscow." This book was read by Catherine who is reputed to have said after reading the first thirty pages that the author was a Martinist, and that she considered the book extremely dangerous and subversive to the state, as it contained what she saw as extremely liberal political ideas. She ordered an immediate investigation into the circumstances of its publication by her Secret Police, perceiving this book as a pervasive threat to her administration and ultimately to herself.

The Martinists were so named after St. Martin a mythical Saint of the Freemasons of that time, who believed in the dignity, liberty and freedom of speech for all mankind. Catherine the Great who has already been shown to be considerably well aware and deeply suspicious of Freemasonry, considered both the Martinists and the Jacobins a considerable personal threat both to her throne and the established order of things. In her eyes, these reasons were real enough to elicit profound reactions in her. The Jacobins were certainly deeply involved in the new Government of France, following the French Revolution, and they may well have been the same as the Jacobeans who had attempted to remove the Hanovarian succession in Great Britain and to restore the hereditary Stuart Monarchy.

In February 1790 when Catherine appointed Prince Alexander Prozorovskii to be Governor-General of Moscow, she instructed him to look into rumours that "A certain gang of persons harmful to society under the name of Martinists" who had been multiplying there and had even enticed into their ranks Governor Lopukhin. Two months later in light of the Novikov Incident, she issued a resolve to the Moscow Police not to tolerate any covert meetings, a prohibition that applied especially to "Masonic Lodges and other Secret and absurd gatherings." In addition Pozorovskii was to determine quietly whether masonic membership was increasing or decreasing.

The prime movers of the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, were in voluntary exile from English repression and had based themselves in Paris under the traditions of the "Auld Alliance" between Scotland and France. Both countries being commonly united in their hatred of the English, over many years. The Jacobites headed by Charles Edward Stuart, The Young Pretender, (also known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie".) attempted to regain the British Throne for his father "The Old Pretender", depose George II of the House of Hanover and to restore the legitimate hereditary Stuart Succession in his place.

This popular armed rebellion was the last mounted by the Scots, to throw of the yoke of English Domination. After an initially successful beginning, with the Scots Army sweeping all before it and making huge territorial gains, they eventually reached within seventy miles of London. However, this early initiative was lost due to the indecision of the Scottish Army Commanders as to the best course of action. The other problem was that the Scottish Soldiers mainly drawn from the Highlands, had begun to return to Scotland with their looted booty, thus weakening the army. The Scots were gradually repulsed by the English, forced back across the Scottish Border, and finally the revolt ended in a crushing defeat of the Scottish Army deep inside Scotland, near Inverness.

This final defeat was inflicted by the Duke of Cumberland, the elder son of George II Hanover, at the Battle of Culloden, in 1745. The slaughter at Culloden was colossal, and a massive retribution was then exacted by the English upon the Scots for this rebellion. In reality, this retribution was nothing more or less than sanctioned genocide as evidenced by the "Massacre of Glencoe", and culminated in the infamous, Highland Clearances.

The English Parliament, at the personal request of the King George II Hanover, enacted a law which forced all the residents of a large part of the highlands to be transported to the American Colonies in the new world to release the land for the rearing of sheep. With these unfortunate Scotsmen, went Freemasonry, and the accumulated hatred of the Hanovarian succession, which later gave rise to the Boston Tea Party perpetrated by Lodge Saint Andrew Boston, as a rebellion against the Tea Tax, and concluded by the American War of Independence. Charles Stuart was hunted throughout Scotland following this decisive defeat and eventually fled to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life and maintained his own Court in exile.

The momentous event of the American War of Independence was conclusively influenced by the Masons, most of whom were of Scottish descent. The declaration of Independence itself, is a pure Masonic Document and enshrines the principals and tenets of Freemasonry. The majority of the Leaders of the dissident Colonists and the high command of the Continental Army, were almost all Freemasons. These included George Washington, Dr. William Franklin, Richard Montgomery, William Anderson, Lafayette, Paul Revere, John Paul Jones (later to be appointed by Catherine the Great, as a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy) and even Benedict Arnold, the reviled traitor to the Colonist's Cause, who sold the secrets of the winding mechanism, designed by the engineer Major General Tadiuz Kosciusko, of the boom across the Hudson River at Westpoint to the British, in return for money and a pardon from the Crown. There is now a considerable body of evidence as well as reasoned opinion, that Scottish Freemasonry, particularly the higher degrees, were deeply involved in this rebellion and were at that time very active at the French Court, which until the present day, has not really been considered as an influencing factor by the historians of that period. Perhaps this is the reason that English Masonry, only acknowledges three degrees and Chapter as recognised Craft Masonry, as it was then politically unacceptable to recognise the higher degrees, due to the suspicion that the higher degrees in Scottish Masonry were connected to subversive activity such as the Jacobite Rebellion.

Catherine The Great, for the reasons outlined above, was therefore extremely concerned about the book, and therefore instructed her Secret Police to initiate a prompt investigation of the publisher. He was interrogated at length by the secret police, and reported to them that he was merely executing a printing order, given to him by the author of the book, Count Alexander Radishev. He also managed to convinced the Police that he was not a Mason, nor a subversive and was therefore released, with a strict warning not to speak to anyone about what had transpired. Unfortunately for the publisher, he informed the author, although, by then too late to prevent the police reaching Count Radishev and executing a search warrant at his home. This search warrant turned up many articles and papers relating to Freemasonry, but did not find any book or Books concerning either the Constitution or the aims and objectives of masonry as had been widely anticipated.

Count Radishev was a wealthy Russian Nobleman, who had been educated at the Imperial Corps of Pages and afterwards at the Leipzig University, all at Russian State Expense. Catherine immediately ordered his arrest and interrogation. Following his arrest and after questioning, Radishev admitted that he was a mason and as far as can be ascertained, he cooperated with the Police, but remained in custody for several years on the basis that he was a potential threat to the Russian Government. Following Grand Duke Paul's ascension to the Throne following his Mother's death, Radishev was pardoned and released along with many other notable masons at that time.

After this episode and during 1791-1792, other documents came to light implicating Grand Duke Paul's association with the Masons, by way of letters intercepted by the secret police addressed to him by Vasilii Bazhenov, who was a notable Architect and a leading Russian Freemason. In these letters Bazhenov referred to masonic books which had been sent to Grand Duke Paul, for his further information about the Craft. By this time filial relations between Grand Duke Paul and his Mother, had deteriorated to a significant extent, with Catherine resisting all and every overture from Grand Duke Paul to be more effectively employed in the affairs of State.

This was already an area that had created considerable hostility between Mother and son, so that the possibility of Paul being a Freemason must have completely infuriated Catherine. An extremely acrimonius meeting took place between the two of them, when she eventually confronted her son with this evidence which he instantly refuted, but it is extremely unlikely that Catherine was convinced by his denial. However the subject does not appear to have materialized again, as there were no further reports of the incident and it was dropped. It was against this background in the Spring of 1794 that Thadeus Kosciuszko backed by the King, Stanislav II, led a long simmering revolution in Poland to remove the partitions created by the Austrian and Russian empires and free the people of Poland, re-unite the country and create a strong and unified state. The King of Poland, Stanislav Poniatowski, was a former lover of Catherine's, who had backed his strong claims to the Polish Throne against the Prussian claimant and succeeded in establishing him there as her puppet King.

This rebellion was launched in Cracow on March 13th to the 24th and spread to Warsaw during the period from the 6th to the 17th of April 1794. The rebels surprised the occupying Russian Garrison with the swiftness of their assault and seized the city. They then commenced a slaughter of all Russian Citizens found. More than 3,000 Russians were killed or captured, with many of the corpses, being stripped and severely mutilated. General Baron Ingelstrom, the Russian Plenipotentiary, barely managed to fight his way out of the City and seek shelter in the Prussian Camp. As a result of his actions, he was subsequently recalled to St. Petersburg in disgrace by Catherine for not only being totally unprepared, but ignoring the intelligence being submitted to him. To compound his relationship problem, he had lost control of the City, and was therefore seen as incompetent by Catherine who blamed him personally. The Russians Fears also have to be understood in consequence of the French Revolution and the extermination of the Royal House and France's Aristocracy, which must have given Catherine nightmares as her own personal relations were involved, and she was alert to the possibility that such insurrection was possible in Russia. France's territorial expansionist policies in Europe under Napoleon Bonapart's leadership of the French Army was also being seen by the Russians, as French intrigues aimed at the possible domination of Europe. Kosciuszko was alleged to have dispatched emissaries to Paris where he had considerable influence (or to have received French Funds for the uprising) and counting on revolts in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hungary and perhaps aid from Turkey as well, a sworn enemy of Catherine's. Reports of an abortive Jacobin Coup in Naples and rumours of another in Genoa also reached St. Petersburg, fanning the fears of widespread revolution and the overthrow of the Monarchial system of government in Europe.

Catherine reacted to this threat from Poland by appointing Field Marshall Count Rumiantsev-Zadunaiskii, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish War with a fearsome reputation in the field and whom had been in ill favour at the Russian Court in St. Petersburg (principally Catherine herself), to Captain the Russian campaign against the Poles. However Catherine limited his authority to only two Generals, Saltykov and Suvorov. The campaign engaged, with the Prussians laying siege to Warsaw, to enforce the partition, and Suvorov pressing into Poland from the Eastern Border with considerable force. Meantime the Anglo-Austrian-Prussian Alliance against the French were defeated, and as a result the Prussians lifted their siege of Warsaw and retired to re-inforce their western flank against the French.

On the Eastern Border of Poland, General Suvorov had defeated and routed a Polish Rebel Contingent, and with a clear field of advance was racing towards Warsaw. A second attack on the Polish Rebels led by Kosciuszko was mounted by General Ivan Fersen, who had caught up with the rebels at Maciejowice on the 28th of September and engaged battle on the 9th of October. Maciejowice is about sixty kilometres from Warsaw and it was here that General Fersen inflicted a devastating defeat on the Polish Army, although his losses were substantial due to a well prepared position by the Poles led by Kosciuszko and the grim determination of the Poles not to give in easily against a vastly superior force.

Kosciuszko was unhorsed, wounded in three places and captured by the Russians. Under orders from Catherine, who was suspicious that he was a Freemason, he was immediately dispatched to St. Petersburg under heavy escort, where he arrived on the 14th of November 1794. On route to St. Petersburg Kosciuszko was subjected to gross humiliation by his Russian captors who were under orders to inflict unbelievable indignities on the Patriot Leader. Worst of these was that each member of the Russian Escort was ordered to urinate over him at least once during the journey.

Meanwhile, General Suvorov reached Praga, the fortified suburb across the Vistula River from Warsaw, on the 18th of October. On the 24th of October, he launched a devastating assault which despite spirited resistance by its defenders, culminated in the infamous massacre of every living soul in the suburb, in revenge for the killing of the Russians in Warsaw earlier that year. Suvorov succeeded in capturing King Stanislav and all the revolutionary leaders, and at the same time captured and confiscated the Royal Regalia, Archives and Library which were all sent to St. Petersburg. For his exploits General Suvorov was presented with a Field Marshall's Baton, by Catherine.

On the 5th of November 1796, Catherine died suddenly of a stroke on the Toilet of her chambers at St. Petersburg, and her son, Grand Duke Paul the First, ascended the throne as Tsar of all Russia. His depth of feeling and antipathy against his Mother, were then revealed, particularly during the events leading up to and including her funeral. During the funeral service, Paul very obviously snubbed his Mother's memory, by ordering that the usual eulogy to the newly departed, should be severely curtailed, and instead ordered that the ceremonial should be used to re-habilitate the memory of his Father Peter the III. He ordered his Father's remains to be exhumed and a magnificent new coffin provided for the remains. He then ordered that all personal oaths of allegiance to him as the new Tsar, were to be sworn on his Father's bones, after which each vassal in attendance was obliged to kiss them. After this bizarre ceremony, the remains were placed into the new casket and re-interred, along with a similar casket containing Catherine's mortal remains which was also placed in the same grave, thus re-uniting Husband and wife by burying them alongside each other.

There is therefore very little doubt indeed, that Catherine was vehemently opposed to Freemasonry. From an initial ridiculing of the Craft by way of her three comedies, she eventually for the reasons discussed in this short paper, graduated to undertake some very repressive measures indeed to shut it down. However it is also evident that in this respect she did not fully understand what Freemasonry was about, nor was she successful in eradicating it despite the very determined efforts made by her secret police. It is very likely that the Masonic movement in the St. Petersburg Court and also in Moscow, rather than risk direct confrontation with her administration, merely went underground for those few years left of her reign and then re-emerged after her death.

Curiously, following Catherine's death within two months of ascending the throne, her son formally Grand Duke Paul, as Tsar Paul I, pardoned all the Polish Rebels including their leader Tadiuz Kosciusko and surprisingly gave him a present of 60,000 Roubles. He also appears at the same time to have pardoned almost all of the many Freemasons, who had been detained on orders issued by Catherine to her Secret Police. This leads one to speculate that perhaps Paul, contrary to his assertive denial to his Mother, four years earlier, was also a Freemason.

(1) “Catherine The Great, Life and Legend”, Prof. John T. Alexander (Kansas) Oxford University Press 1989.
(2) “The Dictionary of American Biography, The Oxford University Press.
(3) Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia”.
(4) Ian Grey “Catherine The Great” 1961 reprinted 1976.
(5) “Grollier’s Encyclopedia”.
(6) Vincent Cronin, “ Catherine, Empress of All the Russians.”
(7) “Comptons Encyclopedia”.
(8) “La Pologne Martyr”, par J Michelet (Paris1963)
(9) “The Temple and the Lodge” Baignant and Leigh.

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