In 1786, Ivan Elagin, the Russian Provincial Grand Master, who had been patented by the Grand Lodge of England in 1772, began working on a book devoted to the history of Freemasonry and mystical doctrines from ancient times up to the end of the eighteenth century. According to his plans, the book was designed to be as all-encompassing as its title: Doctrine of ancient philosophy and divine knowledge, or knowledge of Free Masons and diverse makers, profane, ecclesiastic, and mystic, collected and presented in five parts by I. E., the Grand Master of the Russian provincial lodge.1 As a retired Privy Councillor and Senator, Elagin was able to devote a lot of his time to this project, but by 1788 he had only finished a part of what he had envisaged. To this day the work has never been published,2 and it was probably only meant to be read by the members of the secret governing body of the so-called Second Elagin Union that merged lodges loyal to Elagin with those of the Swedish Rite that espoused a decidedly mystical outlook.3 Elagin’s history of Freemasonry not only includes the description of the degrees, but also his ideas on faith, religion, God, Creation, the end of history and discussions related to Orthodox Christian tradition.4

This puzzling eschatological understanding of history permeates his work and is seen through the lens of the kabbalistic and mystical sources as well as Christian interpretations of the Old and New Testaments and of Russian history. As I establish, this approach is characteristic of the way many Freemasons in Russia constructed their histories by the end of the eighteenth century. In the eyes of their contemporary critics and in many later analyses, this approach consistently placed Freemasons on the fringes of the mainstream Enlightenment movement. Elagin, for instance, started writing another large work called An Essay on the Tale about Russia,5 which was extensively criticized in Russia at the time for its antiquated literary style and fantastical interpretation of facts.6 Catherine II, a fellow amateur historian and an enthusiastic supporter of ‘Voltairianism’,7 perceptively connected these shortcomings in Elagin’s Masonic interests in a letter to F. M. Grimm from 12 January 1794: ‘As for Elagin, he has died, and his history will probably remain unfinished; he left an incredible colossus of a work related to Freemasonry which proves that he had gone mad’.8

It is well established that, on an intellectual level, the rationalistically-minded monarch, who prided herself in carrying out personal correspondence with the leading figures of the European Enlightenment, considered Masonic rituals and ceremonies to be absurd and contrary to reason. In her private correspondence Catherine consistently treated Freemasonry as a disguised form of social climbing, aristocratic-corporatist politics and pseudo-religious ritualism that had lost touch with reality.9 She brought her private criticisms of the Masonic ‘stupidities and absurdities’ to the public level by publishing a series of plays in which she targeted fashionable interest in Western esotericism.10

While the Empress placed Freemasonry against the grain of the ‘rational’ Enlightenment movement, many Freemasons in Russia identified with the general confusion and perpetual search as indicative of the intellectual and emotional turmoil experienced by the educated Russian public in the second half of the eighteenth century. By the 1770s, the power of reason that Voltaire proposed, and, in a way, that served Russian Freemasonry in its early stages, became synonymous with moral nihilism and depravity. The majority of Russian Freemasons found the fraternity to be a crucible in which to resolve internal conflicts between their spiritual needs and the allure of ‘Voltairianism’. Furthermore, by the late eighteenth century Freemasons created a number of rites, with varying ceremonies and degrees, which led to a confusion about the uniformity of Masonic principles and rituals and conflicts among a myriad Masonic affiliations. The differences between the rites, which were often identified with the national allegiances of their propagators, became increasingly muddled throughout the century. As a result, by the end of the century Russian Freemasons had a vast and nuanced variety of models on offer: from the three-degree English version of Freemasonry, with its support of the established political and religious order of constitutional monarchy and tendency towards practicality and rationalism, to the various high-degree rites that espoused elements of so-called Western esotericism.

Given this variety, confusion about ‘national’ origins, and the personal intellectual predispositions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about a group identity of the intellectuals involved. However, I would argue that the growing fear throughout the eighteenth century vis-à-vis the likelihood that rational philosophy would undermine moral values and lead Russian society to total depravity became one of the leitmotifs in the writings of Freemasons in Russia, and this is reflected prominently in their writings in history.

As I explore the themes of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment through the lens of Freemasonry, and, more specifically, Freemasons in Russia who wrote history, I shall test the approaches of Masonic history writers against Berlin’s definition of the Enlightenment as a tradition and a movement with the central doctrine rooted in the belief ‘that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places’ and ‘that a logically connected structure of laws and generalizations susceptible of demonstration and verification could be constructed’ on the basis of methods similar to that of Newtonian physics.11 Whilst the definitive break between the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment seems attractive in its diametrical stance,12 I would like to advance a more nuanced picture of the plurality of religious and secular discourse in Russia by interpreting a ‘dialectical, not antithetical’13 conception of the Enlightenment and of its critics. As I argue, instead of opposing the Enlightenment, the late eighteenth-century Masonic writers of history whom I consider here provided their own, alternative interpretative models of history as a way out of the perceived crisis between the mind and the soul.

Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment Through the Lens of History of Freemasonry

Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace (1865–1869) contains one of the best known intellectual and spiritual journeys towards initiation into Freemasonry in nineteenth-century literature.14 A Russian nobleman, Pierre Bezukhov, is going through a deep crisis when he meets a charismatic Mason, Bazdeev, who invites Pierre to join the society of Freemasons. Feeling frustrated by his current spiritual and emotional life, Pierre hopes that the brotherhood will provide him with answers to the quintessential questions about the meaning of life. On a practical level, he sees Freemasonry as a means of devoting his life to serving humanity. These hopes do not come to fruition for Pierre. Instead of charting a path to enlightenment, early nineteenth-century Russian Freemasonry, as portrayed by Tolstoy, is an elitist organization that encourages its members to participate in bizarre rituals shrouded in mysticism. The latter is a point of poignant criticism for Tolstoy. Far from embracing a Masonic worldview and rituals, the writer uses Bezukhov’s journey within Freemasonry to demonstrate a false way out of a crisis of discord between reason and spirituality.

Tolstoy’s depiction of Freemasonry in War and Peace can be seen as one particular instance of his interest in the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity and between human agency and laws in history. According to Morton White, throughout the work Tolstoy ‘asks what he calls two fundamental questions: What is historical force or power? and What force or power produces the movements of nations?’ The first is addressed through a definition of force modelled on Newtonian physics: ‘power is the relation of a given person to other individuals, in which the more this person expresses opinions, predictions, and justifications of the collective action that is performed, the less is his participation in that action’. Relating force and movement in answering the second question, he postulates, ‘the movement of nations is caused … by the activity of all the people who participate in the events, and who always combine in such a way that those taking the largest direct share in the event take on themselves the least responsibility and vice versa’. It is this individual action, multiplied, that causes breaks in the fabric of history, revolutions and wars. Just as laws in physics are able to chart the connection between a cause and an effect in a deterministic way, so too can one trace the laws of history. A non-deterministic approach is ‘unthinkable’ for Tolstoy in history.15 As White indicates, in the concluding sections of the Epilogue and also in ‘Some Words About War and Peace’, published in 1868, Tolstoy ‘explicitly defends determinism as “inevitable necessity”’.16 When Isaiah Berlin considers Tolstoy’s early vision of history, he points out in a similar way:

History alone – the sum of empirically discoverable data – held the key to the mystery of why what happened as it did and not otherwise; and only history, consequently, could throw light on the fundamental ethical problems which obsessed him as it did every Russian thinker in the nineteenth century. What is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do? the study of historical connections and the demand for empirical answers to these proklyatye voprosy became infused into one in Tolstoy’s mind, as his early diaries and letters show very vividly.17

Berlin claims, however, that Tolstoy’s ‘sense of reality’18 would eventually translate into a large-picture view of causal determinism: ‘Tolstoy’s central thesis … is that there is a natural law whereby the lives of human beings no less than those of nature are determined; but that men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices’.19

It is not surprising then that when Berlin relates his vision of Tolstoy’s theory of history to how Freemasonry is presented in War and Peace, he confidently concludes, ‘Tolstoy stood at the opposite pole to all this … he was against unintelligible mysteries, against mists of antiquity, against any kind of recourse to mumbo-jumbo: his hostile picture of the Freemasons in War and Peace remained symptomatic of his attitude to the end’.20 In the same way as Berlin swiftly connects the ‘innate conservatism of [Tolstoy’s] outlook’ with ‘natural anti-intellectualism and anti-liberalism’,21 he also relates an emphasis on cultural differences and ‘protest against the authority of timeless general laws and rulers’.22 If Tolstoy’s perceived conservatism goes hand-in-hand with a mistrust of homogenous cosmopolitanism, this then provides another reason for Tolstoy’s charge against an institution that claims to unite men into a universal brotherhood. When this attitude towards Freemasonry is put against the historical context of the Great Patriotic War of 1812, it is the early Russian conservatives who make heightened accusations against Russian Freemasons as foreign agents, who were corrupting fellow Russians with irreligious ideas and subverting the war efforts of true Russian patriots.23

Tolstoy places the story of a Russian nobleman’s embrace of Freemasonry at the beginning of the nineteenth century, yet, in reality the protagonist’s spiritual journey towards Freemasonry is more redolent of earlier generations of Russian intellectuals, who tried to reconcile traditional Russian values with the confusing stream of ideas coming from the West in the second half of the eighteenth century.24 In eighteenth-century Russia, Freemasonry was intertwined with the country’s Westernization and effectively became one of its active agents. In the exaggerated rhetoric of a later commentator, if Peter the Great ‘hewed a window into Europe’, Freemasons ‘built the foundations of this window and the supporting pillars, bringing the whole building of the empire to the future’.25 After Freemasonry was introduced into Russia in the first half of the century, it became an important channel for the transmission of ideas from Europe to Russia and a means for the construction of a public sphere.26 By the last quarter of the century, however, while being closely allied with the intellectual and educational strivings of the Enlightenment and of the Russian State, Freemasons began producing their own reactions to cosmopolitanism and rationalism. Many increasingly concentrated on the uniqueness of Russian customs, traditions and history, and became involved in the construction of a public sphere in their motherland by choosing different Masonic systems and relating their own principles to the perceived needs of their country.

Enlightenment in Russia? Russian Enlightenment? Russian Counter-Enlightenment?

Freemasonry was a heterogeneous, multifaceted and ever-evolving phenomenon in the eighteenth century and its role at the time was hotly debated by contemporaries and subsequently by commentators and researchers. Interpretations of eighteenth-century Russian Freemasonry depend on conceptualizations of the Enlightenment and ideological attitudes towards the influence of Western ideas and values, due to its interconnections with both the Enlightenment movement in the context of European history and with Westernization in the Russian context. If we identify the Enlightenment as a general trend towards literacy, social and cultural mobilization, and national assertion, then Freemasonry can fit into the general movement towards ‘national awakening’.27 If we equate the Enlightenment with ‘rationalism, instrumentalism, scientism, universalism, abstract rights, eurocentrism [and] individualism’, then many Masonic variations laden with elements of Western esotericism can be seen as expressions of the Counter-Enlightenment.28 While some argue that Masonic modes of thought and practice were central to the Enlightenment, with Masonic organizations as a tool promoting Enlightenment ideas, others see Freemasonry as an inversion of Enlightenment views of human nature, social institutions and social processes and, therefore, essentially a reactive movement against the Enlightenment.29 Building on Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere, Margaret Jacob, for instance, has persuasively argued that European Freemasonry actively constructed a public sphere by promoting a new form of sociability that affirmed man’s natural inclination toward fellowship and articulated a discourse of politeness.30 Other historians, notably Reinhart Koselleck, attribute the beginnings of revolutionary and democratic activism to Freemasonry, which led to the French Revolution.31

What do these interpretations of the Enlightenment that centre on the rise of the public sphere mean when applied to Russia in the long eighteenth century? According to an established estimate in Russian-language scholarship, only 6.9% of the population of European Russia over the age of nine could read in 1797. While the indicators of literacy are higher for the urban population (21%), the Russian public as a social category was significantly slanted towards the nobility and state service bureaucracy.32 With this in mind, Douglas Smith considers the composition and role of Masonic lodges and puts forward a powerful argument for Russia developing a public sphere that was more limited than that in Western Europe, but that possessed great potential for social advancement due to its ‘porous’ social structure.33

Related to the problematic notion of a public sphere, there are continuous debates on the nature of the definition of ‘Enlightenment’ in the national contexts.34 How can we reconcile anti-clericalism, secularism, universalism and cosmopolitanism with the parallel developments of the irrational, the illiberal and elements supportive of autocracy within the same movement? After all, while there is an established tradition of the study of the transmission and reception of Western ideas in the course of the eighteenth century,35 some historians continue to deny that Russia participated in the Enlightenment movement.36 The ideas were available to them, but they postulated the superiority of the traditional and chose to concentrate on other principles, rather than adopt Western values of egalitarianism, democracy, tolerance and individual freedom. These are the grounds for Michael Confino, for instance, to stipulate that there was no Russian Enlightenment, but rather a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ that reacted to the European Enlightenment.37

Instead of associating the Enlightenment movement with the rise of the public, in his seminal work, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Peter Gay directly equates the Enlightenment with the westernizing campaign of Peter the Great. He emphasizes a connection between the Enlightenment in Russia and Enlightened absolutism, while reducing Russian intellectual and cultural developments to printing ‘a handful of technical manuals’ on the orders of Peter the Great, while ‘the bulk of Russian books remained religious tracts’.38 As the literary historian Viktor Zhivov postulates, while the Enlightenment in the West marked ‘the emancipation of culture from the state’, in Russia it led to the opposite situation. Far from being a lived reality, according to Zhivov, the Russian Enlightenment was ‘a Petersburg mirage’.39 The state-sponsored Enlightenment ‘firmly tied culture, secular as well as religious, to the state … Therefore the end of Enlightenment in Russia spelled the emancipation of culture’.40

There is also a growing body of literature on the role of religion, and especially Russian Orthodoxy, in shaping the directions of the Enlightenment movement in Russia.41 Thus, for instance, in her work on Metropolitan Platon, Elise Kimerling Wirschafter convincingly argues for the need to investigate ‘the interplay between Orthodox enlightenment and Enlightenment ideas’ in order to understand the ways Russians perceived European ideas and culture.42 In a similar vein, considering the impact of Westernization and Orthodoxy on writers in the public sphere, Colum Leckey demonstrates an approximation of the notion of ‘enlightenment’ with the values of the Russian Orthodox Church. According to Leckey, in defining enlightenment in the Russian context, Novikov’s Opyt istoricheskogo slovaria (1772) juxtaposes ‘the rich Orthodox Christian heritage of the Eastern Slavs’ to ‘the avalanche of secular European civilization triggered by the Petrine reforms’.43 If so, then a combination of the religious and political, the Christian humanism of Ukrainian churchmen and the state-supported westernization, can be taken as a feature of the Enlightenment in Russia.44 Rafaella Faggionato reaches a similar conclusion about reactions to perceived manifestations of extreme atheism and materialism in a retreat to religious values in her work on the Masonic and Rosicrucian groups in Russia.45

Novikov’s Dilemma

The historiography on the publisher Nikolai Novikov (1744–1818), one of the main public intellectuals in Russia, is especially indicative of the difficulty of one-dimensional interpretation. In the 1770s, Catherine’s Legislative Commission, of which Novikov was a member and which heralded the beginning of his public career, was the most enlightened project undertaken by the autocrat. But then Catherine and Novikov chose different paths.46 By the late 1770s, Novikov was already known as an author and the publisher of the popular Toward a Historical Dictionary of Russian Writers (1772), as well as the multi-volume Ancient Russian Library (1773–75) and several popular magazines. At this time, he also began to play an instrumental role in Freemasonry and, more specifically, in developing its social and spiritual agenda in Russia. In 1779 he leased the printing house of Moscow University for ten years with the help of Mikhail Kheraskov,47 the curator of Moscow University and an ardent Mason. As an official correspondent of Catherine involved in esoteric Freemasonry, Novikov suffered persecution as a publisher of books that fell foul of the Imperial censor. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1792.48

Is Novikov a representative of Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment or Super-Enlightenment,49 given the development of his interests and preoccupations, and the interactions between him as a public intellectual50 and the Empress (and the state)? Novikov’s arrest is often seen as the climax in the first struggle between the authoritarian state, which was anxious to maintain its critical function, and an increasingly self-conscious public.51 As Alexander Pushkin famously pointed out, ‘Catherine … admired the Enlightenment, and Novikov who dispersed its first rays went … to a prison cell where he resided until her death’.52 While this version of the events is still persuasive, in addition to using a particular definition of what Enlightenment was, on the factual level, it plays down important particulars, such as accusations of sectarianism and charlatanism, the political ambiguity of communicating with Grand Duke Paul (the heir to the Russian throne), dependence on the guidance of German princes and their ministers, and the state of European politics at the time. With strengthening opposition to everything foreign that developed in reaction to the French Revolution, and Russia’s increasing involvement in international affairs, Freemasonry, an essentially foreign import sustained by the efforts of foreigners, was becoming more and more suspect in the eyes of the Russian public and authorities.53 Paradoxically, while the majority of Freemasons in Russia set their lodges against the philosophy of the French, of which Catherine was a great admirer, and which, as Freemasons thought, preached godlessness and immorality, Freemasons’ practical activities and their very existence went counter to the idea that Russia’s development should be directed from above. Yet, from another perspective, it can also be argued that the dialectic development of Catherine’s attitude to Freemasonry through the last thirty years of the eighteenth century is indicative of a general European tendency. Tensions generated by the Revolution in France did contribute to government action against secret societies in Russia. Given the persistent rumours about the involvement of Grand Duke Paul in Freemasonry, and the participation of secret societies (without distinguishing between Freemasons, Martinists or Illuminati) in the French Revolution, the state’s measures against the Moscow Masons were dictated by important political and ideological concerns. If we consider the Novikov affair in a European context, it becomes clear that his arrest and state control over the activities of his group were not simply heavy-handed acts of a Russian autocracy.54

As Leckey points out, however, Novikov’s own definition of the ‘enlightenment’ that he provided in his celebrated publication, Toward a Historical Dictionary, ‘presented prosveshchenie as the pinnacle of Russian national achievement’, in which ‘an inner virtue manifested through personal charisma, evangelical zeal, and bookish erudition – all signifiers of the most prominent Russian churchmen of the age and the same qualities which Novikov would later try to cultivate in himself as a Freemason’.55 As I argue in the second half of this article, Novikov is one among many late eighteenth-century Masonic writers in Russia who tried to offset the tensions between the old and the new, the traditional and the foreign, by looking at the past through the lens of moralistic humanism. In particular, an interpretation of the Russian past served to counter the thoughtless adoption of foreign customs as well as perceived Western (Enlightenment) godlessness by introducing a Russian version of prosveshchenie directly related to morality and religious virtue.

Writing (Masonic) History in Russia as a Case Study

In 1830 a Russian literary critic Ivan Kireevskii remarked on the contemporary obsession with history: ‘history in our time is at the center of all intellectual quests and is the most important of all sciences; it is the indispensable condition for all development; historicism embraces everything’.56 A ‘remarkable decade’57 of the 1830s reflected the public preoccupation with history in the context of the rise of Romanticism and the formation of modern national identity after the Napoleonic Wars.58 However, it was already in the eighteenth century that the problem of identity was put in the language of historical inquiry.59 Hyla Whittaker identifies forty-seven Russian authors who wrote histories of Russia throughout the eighteenth century. Thirty-two of these works were not published.60 While they were not professional historians in the modern sense, their writing reflects a historical point of view nonetheless, along with attempts at defining an idea of progress and formulating causal interpretations based on moral judgements. Eighteenth-century Russian historians were ‘nearly all amateurs and thus more typical of the educated public’ than their nineteenth-century counterparts or pre-Petrine predecessors.61 As Uspenskii points out, eighteenth-century writing on history and the emergence of intellectuals who could ‘think historically … was one of the basic innovations of post-Petrine culture’ and an example of ‘real, not mythological Europeanization’.62

Writing history, especially the history of Russia, as well as the conscious and methodical collection of historical sources and artefacts, meant both participating in the public sphere and being a patriot, as encouraged by popular publications, such as Rossiiskii magazin, published in St. Petersburg (1792–1794).63 In a similar vein, Novikov directly connected the widespread research, writing and learning of Russian history to his idea of ‘enlightenment’: ‘What a great honor, and what great use for Russia! The most notable persons take part in the enlightenment of their fellow citizens. It is a sign of strongly rooted scholarship in the boundless Russian Empire when notability of lineage and learnedness do not contradict each other’.64 Nikolay Karamzin (1766–1826), in his twelve-volume History of the Russian State (1816–1826), proclaimed unequivocally, ‘the history of the people belongs to the tsar’.65 In this context, the writing of history contributes to the genesis and formulation of conservatism in early nineteenth-century Russia.66 As Grudzinska Gross points out, Karamzin’s great view of history ‘contained the idea of historical progress and of the irreversibility of the movement of history’.67 This stands in contrast to seeing history as a ‘return to the past’,68 but utilizes the past to define the future.69 In his 1815 foreword Karamzin puts forward a potent mixture of spiritual content and practical form view of history, proclaiming, ‘in a certain sense, history is the sacred book of a nation, the main, the indispensable book, the mirror of its existence and activity, the table of revelations and rules, the ancestors’ bequest to posterity, the supplement and explanation of the present, and the example for the future’.70 In both these directions Karamzin comes from an established eighteenth-century tradition of combining didactic writing with history that includes public intellectuals, such as Novikov, Kheraskov, Boltin and Shcherbatov, many of whom were associated with Freemasonry.71

When we take stock of the Russian intellectuals who were involved in Freemasonry and the writing of history, it is clear that a popular option was at the juncture of both. In addition to Karamzin and Novikov, there were a number of intellectuals associated with Moscow University, who were interested in history, languages and antiquity, and also participated in Masonic lodges.72 This perception led many of them to undertake a fundamental reinterpretation of the history of Freemasonry within national history. Thus, for instance, the Moscow Masonic group consistently conceived their efforts in Freemasonry as a rediscovery of what they, as Russians, already possessed. In this sense, writing about history and Freemasonry served as a gateway to a spiritual tradition.73 In a way, references to Russian Orthodoxy when considering sources of Freemasonry created a circular logic of mutual validation: Freemasonry was important because it acknowledged Russia’s spiritual tradition as authentic, true and unique; while Russian Orthodoxy was important because it was related to the eternal essence of the ‘ancient science of Freemasonry’.74

The stories about the origins of Freemasonry that eighteenth-century Russian brothers developed helped them reinforce their ties to Europe through shared Masonic memories, traditions, myths, symbols and values.75 In many ways they followed a European blueprint when they imagined the past.76 At the same time, they used their version of the history of Freemasonry for articulating hopes that Russia’s destiny was sanctioned by God, and, in many cases, was determined by the course of history, or for legitimizing their own innovations within Freemasonry. The path of moral rebirth that these Masons pursued was validated by a mythology that glorified Russia’s past. This mythological construction of the past reflected the Russian Masons’ concern with their Masonic identity as well as with a Russian identity. Historians who were Masons were looking for ways to make their eschatological dream about the coming kingdom of truth a reality. They used history to overcome the feeling of alienation from the past and the desire for continuity in order to pursue the utilitarian purpose of sharing a vision of a glorious self-invented future. They used the same idea of Russia as a paradise, Eden or the Third Rome,77 but chose a discernibly different view of history’s progression. By the 1780s many arrived at the conviction that Russia was historically different, instead of emphasizing Russia’s place in Europe and the similarity of their linear development.78

By pulling the past into the present through the use of mimesis, Masons in Russia effectively levelled history and created a sense that Russia not only deserved a space on the world stage but that the (Western) Enlightenment signifiers of civilization might not serve as a universal measure for every society.79 In doing so, they turned to the idea that Russia had a special spiritual mission and consequently a special role in world history.80 Russia was now imagined as a country that had developed as a consequence of its stability and spirituality in contrast to the West.81 In emphasizing the essence of Russia’s spiritual tradition and invoking (moral) continuity between the pre-Petrine past and the post-Petrine present, Russian Freemasons revealed their anxiety about history and Russia’s rightful place in it, and expressed their hopes for the future. Instead of being a backward late comer in the drama of historical progress and civilization, the country emerged as the site of the future Golden Age.

When we consider Elagin’s project of writing a history of Freemasonry, for instance, several important points stand out. First, it assumes that history starts with the creation of the world, while human history begins with Adam and Eve and ends with Judgment Day. Within this scheme, Freemasonry’s roots were to be found in ‘ancient times’ with Adam, Noah and Abraham, and then, via early Jewish mystics, the science of Freemasonry had been passed down in the Middle Ages to knightly Orders and thereafter to the high-degree eighteenth-century rite, which would ultimately culminate in the definitive end of temporal history. As Elagin asserts, ‘our science [i.e. Freemasonry] was already discovered in Eden’ and the tree of life, which was once planted in paradise, has remained in the center of our temples [i.e. lodges]’.82 He consistently treats Jesus of Nazareth as one of the ‘hieroglyphs’,83 or ‘effective images’ of the primordial Jesus and as a Freemason. Moreover, according to Elagin’s interpretation, the ancient science of Freemasonry was not a recent transplant onto Russian soil, but formed part of Russia’s spiritual tradition since her baptism in 988.84 Because of the purity and longevity of ‘True Christianity’ in Russia, Freemasons there had a higher chance of re-discovering the knowledge lost by Adam.

Confronted by a stream of ideas emanating from Europe, many educated Russians could not help but feel ‘the difficulty of their cultural situation’ by the middle of the eighteenth century.85 After the forceful introduction of Western science, technology and values to Russia the traditional way of living and thinking that had been familiar to the members of the Russian educated elite seemed old and irrational to many. They regarded this new situation as pointing the way to the imminent arrival in Russia of a new Golden Age. At the same time, those who opposed Westernization, often connected it to the proliferation of moral depravity and nihilism and viewed it as a sign of the approaching Apocalypse. In reaction to this they embraced the branches of high-degree Freemasonry that emphasised the role of religion and faith. Characteristically, Elagin reworked the principle, found in the Charges of Freemasons, according to which a Mason ‘will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine’. Instead, Elagin’s version asserts, ‘he who blasphemes will be abhorred as an ignominious stain to nature’.86

Late-eighteenth-century Russian Masonic ideologists insisted on Freemasonry and Christianity having a common goal, explicitly stating that the whole purpose of the fraternity was to ‘obtain the knowledge lost by Adam’.87 The Masonic goal of returning man to the image and likeness of God was deemed to be integrally connected with the resurrection of Adam’s lost paradisal knowledge. According to a legend used in a Russian high-degree lodge, after the expiration of Adam’s period of punishment, God sent a ray of light that enlightened the mind with knowledge not otherwise available to postlapsarian man. After being passed on to the biblical patriarchs, Noah, Moses and Jesse, and then preserved in the temples of ancient Egypt, this ray was ultimately transferred to Palestine by Hiram Abif. Through him this knowledge was transmitted to the Masons.88 Other high-degree Freemasons portrayed Jesus as the head of the first Masonic order and called him ‘the Alchemist who is rich with love’.89 In the opinion of J.-G. Schwarz, a leader of the Moscow Masonic circle, Freemasonry was a secret science, whose first adepts were Jewish sectarians, Essenes and Therepeutes ‘who had existed in the days of Christ and were renowned for their virtuousness’. They were the ones who received a ‘spark of light’, which was then transferred from one wise man to another through a ‘chain of Tradition’.90

If the essence of Freemasonry was Christianity, then the conversion of Kievan Rus’ in 988 becomes the single-most important event for Russians writing about the history of Freemasonry. In his epic Vladimir Reborn, Mikhail Kheraskov turned to the events surrounding the decision to convert to Christianity made by Prince Vladimir I.91 While Kheraskov’s story follows the basic plot of the Russian Primary Chronicle, which was originally compiled in Kiev about 1113, his Prince-Christianizer is presented as ‘a spiritual knight (a Mason)’, who set the country on the path to ‘True Christianity’. What is noticeable is that the phrase ‘True Christianity’ hints at Arndt’s mystical work of the same name, which was translated by a member of the Moscow circle and published in 1784 by the printing company of the Masonic circle.92 Moreover, Schwarz consistently used the phrase ‘True Christianity’ to denote Freemasonry in his university and lodge lectures in Moscow.93

According to Kheraskov, Vladimir Reborn is a story of the ‘wanderings of an insightful man along the Path of Truth, on which he meets worldly temptations, is tested by many enticements, falls into the darkness of doubt, struggles with his innate passions, finally overcomes himself, finds the path of Truth, and, after having attained enlightenment, is reborn’.94 After meeting ‘the ancient philosopher Cyrus’,95 Vladimir realizes that the true spirit resides within him, and thus turns to the ‘True Faith’ and enters a prototype Masonic ‘temple’, where he ‘will learn the truth and will come to know himself’.96 He hoped that after baptism Russia ‘will develop under the influence of the True Faith’.97

Besides the strong Masonic undertones and the attempts to fuse Christianity with Freemasonry, change was achieved in both Elagin’s and Kheraskov’s visions of Russia’s baptism through the actions of a powerful prince endowed with a sacred mission.98 In his unfinished history of Russia,99 Elagin goes as far as to claim that Christianity is directly associated with monarchy.100 The history of the Russian state starts only with the baptism of Russia.101 It was this powerful mixture of ‘True Faith’, Orthodoxy and enlightened monarchy that was supposed to ensure Russia’s special position among Christian countries.

Kheraskov presents an allegorical depiction of these themes through a Masonic lens in his novel Cadmus and Harmonia.102 Cadmus, whose story derives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is the builder of the city of Thebes. Searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus, the main character goes on a typical Masonic journey, following the path of enlightenment to rebirth. This was a path that Kheraskov hoped to replicate in his Moscow lodge, which was aptly named ‘Cadmus and Harmonia’. In the process Cadmus finds not only a wife for himself – named Harmonia – but also an inner harmony within himself. At the end of his journey he also finds the ‘promised land’ inhabited by a group of people called ‘Slavs’. His search for Europa is abandoned; he is now not just Cadmus, he is Adam Kadmon,103 the God-like man, reborn in the promised land of Russia.104


When the notions used in writing the history of Freemasonry are matched, the following common features become apparent in the constructs of Russian Freemasons: history is seen as organic, directional, unfolding toward a definitive goal which found expression in the moral sphere (and in this sense history was deterministic), didactic and divinely guided. Rather than investigating the particulars of events surrounding the introduction of the formal aspects of Freemasonry to Russia, these intellectuals chose to concentrate on what they called the ‘development of the human spirit’105 over time, the search for a direction of historical change, the role of God in the causal nexus, and the interconnections between Orthodoxy and Freemasonry. Far from being a mere compilation of information from various sources, history was thus not just about the past. Masonic ideologists altered the narratives of the past to present interpretations reflecting their fears about perceived dangers to modern society.

In this dualistic approach to continuity and disruption, there was a point of departure for the history of Russia (as well as the history of Freemasonry or the history of Christianity), which symbolized a sharp break with the past and the beginning of the new period. While this point was generally associated with a change in the political structure or a dynasty for the writers of non-Masonic official history, Masonic ideologues viewed the change as being directly connected to the alterations in the moral fibre of society. In this sense, the vital force of historical causality was in the sphere of ideas, in the juncture of ‘the idea, morality, and the national spirit’.106 Progress was thus seen by these Freemasons as not any form of material or intellectual improvement, but rather an idea that human beings can alter their world for the better in a fundamental way – the creation of heaven on earth.107 This heaven was supposed to have a space and a place in Russia. As Stephen L. Baehr puts it, ‘Russia’s emergence as the country most favored by God, the seat of a religious empire, was seen as the ultimate end (in both senses of the word) of history’.108

A juncture between faith and reason, rationalism and romanticism, a nascent public sphere and proto-nationalism, Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment as seen in the historical writing of Freemasons in Russia raises questions about the problematic use of generalizations and concepts. In application to Freemasonry in Russia, for instance, it can be argued that as a movement, organization and concept, it was far from being uniform. In the course of the long eighteenth century Freemasons borrowed and adapted intellectual currents that were new to them, including neo-stoicism, various strands of Christian thought, Renaissance ideas, Hermeticism, Cabbalistic thought and Pythagorean and Newtonian science, when seeking to come to terms with the range of ideas that the Enlightenment produced.109 Many Russian Freemasons tried to assess the spiritual legacy of the Orthodox Church and its overlaps with both ancient and modern Western philosophical traditions. They tried to fit their own hotchpotch of ideas with those of the High Enlightenment, which resulted in the creation of a body of thought plagued with contradictions.