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  • Freemasonry and the Public in Eighteenth-Century Russia
  • Douglas Smith (bio)

Once primarily the province of its official chroniclers and conspiracy theorists of various stripes, Freemasonry has gained increasing scholarly attention in the past several decades. While numerous studies have been devoted to the history of the lodges in western and central Europe—focusing particularly on their importance for early modern political culture—Russia’s significant Masonic movement composed of over 3,000 members active in more than 135 lodges in the eighteenth century has long been ignored and remains poorly understood. 1

By raising a series of new questions about Russian Masonry, this essay seeks to reexamine some of the traditional interpretations not only of the Masonic movement but also of the history of Imperial Russia. To assess adequately Freemasonry’s historical significance necessitates laying bare its connections to a host of comparable institutions and practices that were then emerging to form a new Russian public sphere, one not unlike those taking shape in other parts of Europe. Before turning to the discussion of Masonry and its relationship to the changing structures of élite life in Russia, however, a few words on the established historiography are in order.


Although the history of the lodges has been little studied for most of the past seventy years, Russian scholars working in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century did produce a sizable body of literature on the subject. 2 It is not at all surprising, therefore, given the lack of any substantive [End Page 25] reinterpretations, that this literature continues to shape greatly our understanding of the Russian Masonic movement. By adopting the existing interpretive framework, which, as I discuss below, is deeply flawed methodologically, the handful of recent studies fail to rethink Freemasonry and its importance for Russian history and uncritically reiterate the outmoded assumptions of earlier works. 3

Traditionally, scholars have relegated Freemasonry to the domain of intellectual history. More specifically, it has been problematized as a component in the history of the intelligentsia. According to this historiography, the pervasiveness of Voltairism (vol’terianstvo) and free-thinking (vol’nodumstvo) in eighteenth-century Russia’s intellectual climate and, others sometimes add, the social tensions with which society was rife combined to produce a flight on the part of some of the educated élite into the lodge’s sanctuary of quietist self-contemplation and a more secularized religiosity. Historians’ interpretations of this flight, however, have varied and can generally be divided into two opposing camps.

For most positivist and Marxist historians, both pre- and post-revolutionary, Masonic membership marks the dividing line between progressive action and reactionary withdrawal. Thus, in his multi-volume study of Russian social thought, Georgii Plekhanov (1856–1918), the “father of Russian Marxism,” saw Russian Masonry as an expression of a broader “reaction against liberating philosophy” (osvoboditel’naia filosofiia) coming out of France that characterized the socially “backward” countries of eastern Europe. Equating Russian Masonic ideology with mysticism, Plekhanov attributed its popularity to Russians’ intellectual immaturity vis-à-vis the West which, according to him, accounted for their shock and psychological discomfort when confronted with the age’s “most progressive ideas” and their ensuing “flight from our sinful world” into the Jenseits of the lodge. 4 The influential Soviet historian G. P. Makogonenko expressed a similar view in the 1950s, arguing that, unlike the intelligentsia who remained socially and politically engaged, the Masons represented those who “simply ran from the world of reality into an inner universe, into a moral world.” 5

The opposing interpretation has perhaps been best articulated in the writings of the historian and leading figure in Russia’s Constitutional Democratic Party, Pavel Miliukov (1859–1943). For Miliukov, Voltairism was homologous to the court, the sphere in which it had most currency: while it initially attracted the literate classes with its sparkle and brilliance, Voltairism’s charms, like those of court society, were artificial, superficial, fleeting, and ultimately rejected. In Milukov’s view, many educated Russians floundered in a spiritual and intellectual no man’s land between Voltairism and the traditional religious world view of their fathers, which they had earlier renounced but now felt lost without. Therefore...

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