Tsar Paul: Freemason or Orthodox Saint?
Destroying the myth surrounding one of Russia's most Christian monarchs.
Whenever discussions of conspiracy arise in relation to Imperial Russia, the figure of the short-reigned Tsar Paul appears from beyond the historical horizon, bringing forth equal amounts of accusations and praise. Paul’s brief era as Tsar ushered in a rebirth of Orthodox Christianity, amidst a general dominant presence of 18th century Freemasonry, causing much confusion among historians.
It seems appropriate to provide a summary of the arguments brought forward in this article: Tsar Paul was never a member of any Freemasonic lodge whether at home or abroad, the reasons are succinctly presented below.
1. His deep devotion to the Orthodox faith, in particular, his role as both the Crown Prince (Цесаревич) and later anointed Tsar during his short reign between 1796 and 1801. The correspondence between the Tsar and Metropolitan Plato do not speak of freemasonry or of any synthesis of enlightenment values into Orthodox Christianity. There is no implicit or explicit integration of freemasonry, its worldviews, and rituals into Russian Orthodox Christian Tradition during Tsar Paul’s reign.
2. The absence of any written or real evidence showing Tsar Paul’s membership in either a Russian or any other European masonic lodge. Masonic membership of Tsar Paul, either in his youth or during his reign, is nothing more than a speculative historical hypothesis. One which could be entertained and researched, perhaps if more relevant material existed supporting this hypothesis. The thoroughly researched 2005 paper by Professor Sorokin breaks down any longstanding myths of the Tsar’s membership in Freemasonry by analyzing the works of previous historians. Professor Sorokin’s findings lead him to the unavoidable conclusion that despite the many theories provided by previous non-fictional writers of history, the absence of facts related to the Tsar’s participation in freemasonry is overwhelming.
3. Lack of motive:
a). Not utilizing Freemasons during his reign for any political gains (unlike many others European monarchs, namely Napoleon Bonaparte who made them his ally). This absence of benefit is made even more evident when one observes how Tsar Paul used other organizations during his reign, this is reflected in his utilization of the Knights of Malta Order, employment of his loyal men at Gatchina (many of whom were not Freemasons) and placed seemingly no reliance on enlightenment Free-masonic philosophical values during his reign.
b). The Russian people swore allegiance to the young Paul in 1762 when his mother took power from his father, Tsar Peter iii. Catherine the Great famously was only supposed to reign for a short while as regent, albeit circumstances changed and she personally decided to unlawfully hold onto power for a few more decades. Most importantly though, we should note that the people of Russia knew, loved and prayed for Paul as the ‘future Tsar’ long before he ascended to the throne of Russia. He never needed a union nor the cooperation with the freemasonic lodges. One of the most intriguing anecdotes speaking to Paul’s status among the Russian population was the notorious Pugachev revolt. A Russian Cossack, Yemelyan Pugachev, proclaiming himself as Paul’s father, Peter iii, started a bloody civil war in the Russian provinces. Lawless Pugachev would always carry with himself a portrait of the young Crown Prince Paul, and whenever he would setup base-camp, would always have the portrait of his ‘son’, who he wanted to ‘bring to the throne’ behind him on the wall.
The myths about Tsar Paul’s friendship with freemasonry began a long time ago. For almost two centuries historians and appreciators of Russian history have pointed towards the apparent membership of Tsar Paul in the secret organization of Freemasonry, which apparently became clear during his granting of unprecedented amnesties at the beginning of his reign.
One of the most famous Freemasons of the late 18th century, Nicholas Novikov, a prolific writer and publisher was imprisoned by Paul’s mother, Catherine the Great towards the end of her reign in 1792. This coincided with the first official banning of freemasonry in the Russian Empire, however it is still unclear if freemasonry was the sole reason of Novikov’s 4-year prison sentence.
What saved Novikov from languishing in some dark cell was the sudden passing of Empress Catherine and the ascension of Paul to the Russian throne. Broad amnesties and clemency was granted to a variety of political prisoners, including liberal writers like Alexander Radishcev and Polish revolutionary Andrew Kosciuszko. In Paul’s defense, the Tsar personally spoke to Kosciuszko and asked him to ‘promise’ to never fight against the Russian Empire again. Surprisingly, the Polish statesmen kept his oath, and even during the most politically enticing years (The Napoleonic wars) he did not side with the French against the Russians. These amnesties, as suggested by some historians and popular writers, were not specifically granted to Freemasons, but generally to a broad collective of political prisoners. As seen in the case of Kosciuszko, Tsar Paul did not change the Russian political attitude towards its Polish citizens and their aspirations for independence. Royal clemency was not a sign of agreement with the men Tsar Paul released, it was an act of Christian mercy.
On the 18th of April 1800, Tsar Paul decreed the banning of all ‘foreign musical notes and books’. As one can imagine, this particular Russian law had a significant impact on the importation of Revolutionary as well as Masonic materials, especially from the den of both of these enlightenment diseases – France. It can be comfortably stipulated that no patron of freemasonry would create such obstacles of enlightening the broader Russian populace. This ban on foreign books would not last long however, as after Tsar Paul’s murder in March of 1801 his son Alexander rescinded this decree.
The unfortunate reality of the 18th century was that Tsar Paul was born, grew-up, and died surrounded by Freemasons, including notable Russians such as General Peter Panin and Sergey Pleshcheyev (grandfather of Aleksey Plescheyev). His childhood friend and well-known diplomat Prince Alexander Kurakin, was also a member of one of Russia’s freemasonic lodges pre-1796. General Panin’s son, the freemason Nikita Panin, became Tsar Paul’s tutor and teacher. This tutelage was selected by Empress Catherine personally, as she was probably trying to ‘enlighten’ her son and broaden his perspectives through the means of a Europeanised, yet Russian, teacher. We should note that this education did not seem to impact Paul’s understanding of Monarchy or its apparent alternatives (Republicanism, Democracy) as he remained a firm believer in Orthodox autocracy.
As Paul was preparing to the throne for over 20-years after turning 16, he began surrounding himself with figures completely foreign to freemasonry. Most notably General Peter Obolyaninov, the great artillery reformer Count Aleksey Arakcheyev, Cavalry General Andrey Kologrivov, and others (mostly those from his life at Gatchina). Paul did not require the patronage of freemasons to become the Tsar. This is clear because of his already strong private ‘army’ which he developed during his life at Gatchina, in total they numbered close to 2,400 men, deeply loyal, devoted to his cause who of course acted with impunity when the time came for their master to ascend to the throne in 1796.
One of the only historically legitimate anecdotes we have from Paul’s pre-rule period relates to his three meetings with Freemason and Architect Basil Bazhenov, who attempted to ‘gift’ a series of esoteric books written by the aforementioned Novikov to the Crown-Prince directly. According to Novikov, the Crown-Prince responded to Bazhenov’s preaching about freemasonry in a very harsh way:
“I love you, and accept you as an artist, but not as a Martinist (Russian term for Freemason), I do not wish to hear anything about them and don’t you dare open your mouth regarding them”.
According to historian Shumigorsky, when Novikov was investigated by Catherine the Great in his connection to Bazhenov, it was discovered that the Crown-Prince has been approached by the latter and potentially incited into joining the secret society. Her state-secretary, whose writings are still an important primary source into the court politics of Empress Catherine’s reign, Alexander Khrapovitsky (Ancestor of future ROCOR First-Hierarch, Metropolitan Anthony) wrote in relation to this investigation of Novikov, Bazhenov and Paul: “He is not yet a freemason”.
One of the prominent Russo-American historians George Vernadsky suggested that the Freemasons of Empress Catherine’s court has specific plans for Crown-Prince Paul, and even alluded to him being invited to join freemasonry at the age of 15 in 1769. This however would simply not be possible, because Freemasons only allowed adults to join their ranks, and adulthood in Russia at the time begun at the age of 16, and sometimes later. Perhaps the most intriguing claim about Tsar Paul’s membership in the lodges was made by the aforementioned historian Eugene Shumigorsky. The Russian Imperial historian makes an outright fanciful suggestion that Senator Elagin brought the young Paul into freemasonry in the summer of 1777, under the influence of Panin and Paul’s best friend Kurakin. This ascension to freemasonry occurred ‘in secret’ and at Elagin’s private house (not inside of a Lodge). The only citation Shumigorsky brings to support this hypothesis is one belonging to a Russian liberal historian Basil Semevsky, who was only born in 1849, but according to Shumigorsky somehow published a note in 1807 which spoke about this secret entry of Paul into Freemasonry. This does not make much sense, as modern historian Yuri Sorokin rightfully concludes that perhaps Shumigorsky simply made a mistake. Besides the historian Shumigorsky and his inappropriate citation of a document which may or may not have existed, all other historians simply build theoretical hypotheses about the young Tsar Paul’s alleged allegiance to the Freemasons. As of early 2024, there are no respected historians (especially Orthodox historians) who even dare suggest that the Tsar was an active Freemason after his ascension to the throne in 1796.
Ludwig Hass in his article on Russian Freemasonry aptly summarizes the investigation of this or that monarch being members of the organization in one simple sentence:
“The only irrefutable evidence of membership in a lodge is the membership lists of lodges and other Masonic documents.”
In the case of Tsar Paul, neither before nor after his passing, no documents of this kind have ever come to light.
Given the obsession of early Russian Freemasons with geometry and architecture, A brief explanatory excursion should be made into the Mikhailovsky Castle, or St Michael’s Castle, named after the Holy Archangel himself. It’s beautiful symmetry and visual design brought many to speculate that perhaps free-masonic inspiration was behind it, ignoring the fact that Tsar Paul, from the time of his schooling, was very adept at mathematics (obsessed with order and exactness, which is a theme throughout his reign). A contemporary teacher even commented that “If Paul was not destined to rule Russia and he could attend one of the European universities to develop his mathematical skill, the world would know a new Pascal and Leibniz”. Despite the various inspirations for Michael’s Castle, one story stands out as the most profound (Michael Pilyaev, ‘Old Petersburg’, p. 206):
‘Paul Petrovich was born in the Summer Palace on 20 September in the year of our Lord 1754. And many years later, one day, a young man appeared in radiance to a soldier standing guard at this Summer Palace and told the dumbfounded sentry that he, Archangel Michael, was ordering him to go to the Emperor and say that on the site of this old Summer Palace a temple should be built in the name of Archangel Michael. The soldier reported the vision he had to his superiors, and when this was reported to the Emperor, Paul replied: “I already know the desire of Archangel Michael; his will be done”. Following this, He ordered the construction of a new palace, inside which a church should be built in the name of the Archangel Michael, and the palace itself was ordered to be called St Michael’s Castle.’
Another obvious sign of the Tsar’s distance from masonic concepts of republicanism and enlightenment values, was his direct involvement with the Orthodox church, as it’s valuable member - the Anointed One of God. We have a clear recording of the way Tsar Paul conducted himself during the Divine Liturgies he would attend, in a regal fashion he would adorn a special vestment in the style of the late Roman Empire. “The world is held together by Liturgical staples” wrote the late Father Pavel Florensky, the Russian Leonardo Da Vinci, and we certainly see a strong reverence towards the services of the Church throughout Tsar Paul’s life.