Quick historical brief of the Russian Freemasonry
The first masonic organizations appeared on the Russian territory relatively early, the first Lodge was regularly founded in Saint Petersburg in 1731, though its members seem to have been British and Dutch only. Some persistent legends concerning the masonic membership of the tsar Peter have absolutely no historical confirmations. It is known that Peter was interested in building societies, in particular he had some attested contacts with Christopher Wren, but is seems that this interest concerned the pure operative side of the work, he had a country to rebuild, so the architectural connections in that context were completely understandable.
Gradually, more and more Russian members came to the Lodges and at late 1760s Freemasonry became an important part of the Russian society. The highest point of the Russian masonry development is the end of the 18th century when Ivan Yelaguine, who was invested as the provincial Grand Master by the English Premier Grand Lodge, managed to unify the English and Swedish branches of the Craft on the Russian territory. Lodges were flourishing in all the country, including the expanding Eastern part, many hundreds of Brethren are reported, which means that a considerable part of the socially active people were members of our Fraternity.
After some political difficulties in the early 19th century a new development started with the accent moving from the core Craft masonry to different philosophical side degrees systems (essentially Swedish) and to paramasonic Rosicrucian movements. After the Napoleon wars, with the renewed closer contacts with western Europe, the Russian masons started to come back to the original core three-‐degrees Freemasonry. In 1815 the so-‐called Astrea Grand Lodge was founded in Saint Petersburg, it was the first completely independent regular masonic body in the country. Unfortunately, it only existed till 1822, the year when the Freemasonry was forbidden in the country by decree of tsar Alexander, freemason himself, and this was the end of regular Masonry in the country till the late 20th century.
The interest in Freemasonry didn’t decrease in the country despite the formal interruption of works; many Russians were initiated abroad, essentially in France. The first attempts to recreate something masonic started in 1906 when the law concerning the non-‐government organizations was largely liberalized. France was always the privileged partner for the ruling social classes, so naturally the first obediences coming to Russia were the Grand Orient and Grand Lodge of France, both irregular. The lack of communication made that the first created lodges rapidly diverted from the initial working standards and became in the next few years kinds of political clubs with simplified ritual layer and without any connection with the world masonic movement, even the Grand Orient of France, well-‐known as irregular, not recognizing the Russian structures as masonic.
We can consider December 1921 as the starting point of the modern Russian Freemasonry. At this date, a group of Russian emigrants established in France
after the Bolshevik coup of 1917, created the first Russian-‐speaking AASR Chapter and a month later, a Lodge under the Grand Lodge of France. The international situation of those structures was slightly complex. From the purely masonic point of view they were clearly irregular: the Grand Lodge of France was not created following the landmarks and masonic rules and didn’t work regularly. On the other extent, the Supreme Council of France was participating in the Lausanne process and had masonic relationship with the American A&AR structures despite the fact that its members were not properly speaking freemasons.
The new Russian Brethren in France hoped that Freemasonry, as they understood it, would become a heart of spiritual rebirth of the Russian nation after the Bolsheviks’ fall, that they hoped would come soon. They’ve rapidly seen that the rituals of the Grand Lodge of France and those of the French Supreme Council were not rich enough for that noble goal. The reason for that was the fact that the French freemasons did at the end of the 19th century a lot of work in order to remove as much as possible any religious references from their rituals, and thus emptied them from a big part of their sense.
After the WWI the trend was inversed, the French Brethren started to return to their spiritual roots and thought about the return to regularity. The newcomers from Russia, most often very well educated, were among the most active in that trend. They started a deep rewriting of the existing rituals. Their new texts in Russian language were not at all any kind of simple translations. The first two degrees of the Craft and the 18th degree of the AASR were completely rewritten, based on some elements of English working, considered as a standard of regularity, but also taking parts of some very old French rituals translated in Russian in the late 18th century. For the AASR part, the sources were even not always purely masonic; some references came from the Russian Rosicrucian paramasonic movements of the early 19th century.
After the WWII, the hope of a rapid fall of the communist rule vanished, so did also that of the return of regularity to the Grand Lodge of France. The Russian Brethren, who actively participated to that regularization work, were naturally of those who left the Grand Lodge of France in 1965 to join the GLNF, the only regular Masonic body of the country. A big part of the Supreme Council of the AASR spited from their original body and recreated new Supreme Council to which finally belonged regular freemasons only. This one was globally recognized as continuation of the first SC for France and overseas territories, created in 1802.
AASR and the Craft degrees related to it were almost unknown in the French regular Freemasonry until 1965, the GLNF following the English “Emulation” working standard and the Rectified Scottish system also known as CBCS. The new “AASR” branch coming from the Grand Lodge of France became then an important part of the French masonic life. In the late 80s nearly a half of French Lodges followed the Craft rituals brought from the GL of France that were largely inspired by the works of the Russian Brethren in the 1920s.
In the beginning of the 90s, most of the remaining Russian-‐speaking Brethren, less and less numerous, stayed in this AASR-‐related part of the GLNF and when the masonic work became possible again in Russia after the fall of communism, they naturally brought those rituals to Russia, together with their version of the side degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Rite that they considered as their spiritual inheritance.
The first freemasons of the modern Russia were initiated in France in 1989-‐ 1990, among them was George Dergachev, who became some years later the first Grand Master for the whole country. Their path in Freemasonry was not simple at the very beginning, most of them started in the Grand Orient of France, clearly irregular but also the most publicly active on the French territory. But very rapidly they learned, by contact of some ancient Russian emigrants, the real meaning of the masonic regularity in the world and they passed through the regularization process, joining the GLNF.
The first Russian-‐speaking French Lodges were installed in Russia in early 90s; after some years of supervised learning track they became independent under the name of the Grand Lodge of Russia, solemnly installed in 1995 and recognized since by more that a hundred Grand Lodges in the world, including of course the UGL of England that stays the worldwide guarantor of masonic regularity.
As any young organization, the new Grand Lodge had some difficulties at the beginning. Masonic work is a slow process and a rapid growth in the first years of the Grand Lodge is not an easy thing to manage. In the first twelve years of existence of the GL of Russia there were two major crises resulting in split of an important part of former Brethren going to irregularity and building new pseudo‐masonic structures.
The new period started in 2007 with the election of Andrei Bogdanov to the head of the Grand Lodge. In his professional life he is politician and political analyst and, though it can seem kind of a paradox, he understood like nobody the importance of the absolute separation between Freemasonry and politics. His team managed to exclude the “power games” from the masonic life in Russia and at the same the Lodges were left absolutely free to build their own vision of the masonic work, strictly respecting the tradition and the ritual.
Freedom to work and enthusiasm means growth. We still privilege quality rather than quantity, we are more than selective when choosing new candidates, so the number of Lodges and Brethren in the country is still relatively low, today we count a little bit more than a thousand of regular Freemasons in Russia working in less than three dozens of active Lodges, but that is many times more than ten years ago and the growth is now nearly exponential.
Russian masonry continued to build itself in many directions during the last few years. The number and, what’s even more important, the geographical distribution of the Lodges becomes much larger than in the past. Outside of Moscow where about twenty Lodges are active, we do have now Saint
Petersburg as a new Masonic center with two very powerful Lodges working. The Ural region managed to open five Lodges if four different towns, the central Russia follow with Lodges in Saransk and Nizhny Novgorod and another one that will be soon created in Samara. Many other regions either do already have a Masonic activity in their main towns or are preparing to do so.
From the point of view of rituals and research, there are many developments too. The local Quatuor Coronati Lodge leads the masonic research project, many ordinary Lodges are systematically publishing research articles and organizing masonic education meetings for their members and visitors. The Craft working is not anymore limited to the “Russian emigration” ritual related to the AASR, there are also many Lodges following the French working of the 1786’s Moderns Rite, one Lodge works following the English Union Rite in its Emulation version. Recently appeared a possibility for the Master Masons to continue their education in a Royal Arch Chapter under the English constitution.
For the side degrees there are some important development too. The Ancient and Accepted Supreme Council is still active and growing. Next to it, the new Supreme Council of the Moderns Rite was created by its French equivalent in 2009 and it is working very actively, especially in the regions; four local Chapters are already installed outside of Moscow.
The regular world organization of Memphis-‐Misraim has also created its independent sanctuary in Russia. It is actually considered as paramasonic, but it works in close cooperation with the Grand Lodge and it only accepts regular Master Masons as members. Negotiations are in progress in order to bring to Russia the order of CBCS and some of British site degrees including the order of Knights Templars.
The Grand Lodge of Russia comes to its twentieth anniversary in July 2015 with extensive plans of development both inside the country and internationally. We’re actively participating to major masonic events in Europe and North America, we also have active relationship with many Lodges in Africa and Pacific region. Masonic charity becomes an important part of our activity. We understand that we are building the foundation for tenths and hundreds of years of future masonic activity in the country. And we are looking forward for more and more cooperation with foreign Grand Lodges to maintain together the building of the World Freemasonry.