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M.M. Shcherbatov
A Russian Freemason in the Reign of Catherine the Great: Prince M.M. Shcherbatov (1733-1790)
by Bro. Anthony Lentin
RECENT RESEARCH ON the historian and writer Prince Mikhail Mikhailovich Shcherbatov has enlarged our understanding of one of the most prolific and thoughtful commentators on the Russia of Catherine the Great. An erudite and enlightened polymath, Shcherbatov was best known in his day as a historian and antiquarian, author of a History of Russia, and an expert on genealogy, heraldry and numismatics. Hidden from most contemporaries, however, were some 60 miscellaneous writings on a wide variety of topics relating to the Russia of his day, ranging from law, education, science and philosophy to politics and personality in the reign of Catherine. Often controversial and highly critical of government, they remained mostly unpublished until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when a fuller picture of his importance began to emerge.1
Shcherbatov belonged to one of the oldest Russian princely families which traced their descent from Riurik;2 and his concern as an aristocrat to preserve the political and social pre-eminence of the old nobility (including his unwavering defence of serfdom) remained a lifelong characteristic. He first came to public attention as deputy for the nobility of the province of Iaroslavl' at Catherine’s Legislative Commission in 1767-68. In 1768 he was appointed imperial historiographer, in which capacity he edited important historical documents and produced his monumental History of Russia from the Earliest Times, published in seven volumes (subdivided into 15 books) between 1770 and 1791. Shcherbatov attended Catherine’s court as Gentleman-of-the-Bedchamber (kamer-iunker) and later Chamberlain (kamer-ger) from 1768 to 1777. As Master-of-the Heralds (gerol'dmeister) from 1771 to 1777, he was in charge of the service-records of the nobility. In 1778 he was made a Privy Councillor, received the Order of St Anne, and was President of the State Revenue College (Kammer-Kollegiia) until its closure in 1786. In 1779 he was made a Senator and was commissioned by Catherine to investigate allegations of provincial maladministration in 1784.
Shcherbatov, who aspired to occupy the highest offices of state but was long denied promotion, regarded his official career as a bitter disappointment, and came to consider his secret essays as his most valuable legacy, though aware that they could not be published in his lifetime. His political essays, mostly written in the last 5 years of his life, reveal him as an aristocratic constitutionalist with republican sympathies, a life-long critic of 'despotism' and a self-styled 'good citizen' and a 'true son of his country'.3
The Lodge of Equality
Little attention has been paid to Shcherbatov as a freemason. He was initiated into Freemasonry as a young guards officer in the Semionovskii Regiment, his name being among a list of 33 identified as freemasons, submitted in 1756 to the Empress Elisabeth. A recent western innovation, Freemasonry was held in some suspicion by the authorities as a movement uniquely independent of government control and thought to smack of religious heterodoxy. It became a focus, however, for many of the country’s social, cultural and intellectual elite: at its height, in the 1770s and 1780s, there were some hundred masonic lodges; and several of Shcherbatov’s fellow-initiates became well known writers, historians, artists and musicians.
Shcherbatov was also a member of the Royal Arch Lodge, 'Capitulum Petropolitanum', at St Petersburg in the 1760s, and joined the Craft Lodge 'Equality' in Moscow in the 1770s. This lodge followed the English system, under the jurisdiction of Ivan Yelagin (1725-94), who became Provincial Grand Master of the Russian Empire under a warrant from the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1772. Shcherbatov, who made Moscow his principal residence in the 1770s, was an active member of 'Equality'. The lodge met in various private houses, including Shcherbatov’s own house in Krasnoe Selo, outside Moscow. We obtain some rare information about 'Equality', including references to Shcherbatov, from the diary for the year 1775-6 of a fellow member of the lodge, the 21-year-old, A. Il'in, published in 1908.4 The diary mentions summonses, ceremonies in each of the three degrees, and a 'masonic catechism', probably equating to the book of ritual. The average attendance at meetings was between 12 and 15, and the festive board usually ended around midnight. Attenders included members of the nobility, such as Princes Gagarin and Dolgorukov, and the Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Count Roman Vorontsov. Visitors at a meeting which was held at Shcherbatov’s house on 23 August 1775 were an officer of the Izmailovskii Guards Regiment, a clerk (protokolist) from the Senate, Chebotarev, a lecturer at Moscow University, and a French visitor, one 'Brother Lesage'. More than one ceremony might take place at a meeting. On 7 July 1775, Il'in records a Raising, after which the lodge was opened according to the Scottish ritual and an Initiation took place. On 18 July he and his brother were each presented with a pair of white kid gloves (perhaps on attaining the Second Degree), to the applause of the Brethren. Il'in gave from 20 to 25 copecks (about one shilling in pre-decimal currency) to the alms collection. He was raised on 5 August and on 7 September, only a month later, he officiated as Senior Warden during a Passing. On 10 October he records that there was a collection in lodge for the saying of prayers in church in memory of a departed brother. There was a lecture on human life and verses commemorating the deceased, written by one of the brethren and set to music, were sung by all present. Masonic songs were a characteristic of Russian Lodges.5
Religion, Philosophy and Freemasonry
Masonic lodges were initially tolerated by Catherine the Great, though her attitude was one of patronising scepticism. Her tolerance, however, grew increasingly thin. On 9 August 1775, Il'in records a rumour that the parish priest of Krasnoe Selo threatened to report to the Archbishop of Moscow an 'accursed masonic meeting' held at Shcherbatov’s house. While sincerely subscribing to the beliefs of the Russian Orthodox Church, Shcherbatov, as a highly educated man of broad and cosmopolitan outlook, considered himself a 'citizen of the world' and argued from a deist as well as a Christian standpoint. In the year 1788-89 he wrote several philosophical essays on life and death: Reflections on human life, Reflections on the hour of death, On the advantages of want, Reflections of a grieving father on the death of a beloved son,6 and, on the model of Plato’s Phaedo, a Dialogue on the immortality of the soul. The purpose of Reflections on the hour of death was to consider 'how to die well and without fear'. He also wrote verse of a philosophical-moralistic character.
Particularly noteworthy in the context of Freemasonry is Shcherbatov’s prose translation, from an Italian version, of Edward Young’s The Last Day (1713), subsequently part of his celebrated Night Thoughts. Young’s poem, including The Law Day, had masonic connotations across 18th-century Europe and Shcherbatov’s rendering, first published anonymously in 1777, appeared in a second edition ten years later under the imprint of the Moscow Typographical Company. This press, under the direction of the writer and freemason, Nikolai Novikov (1744-1818), played an important role in the history of Russian Freemasonry. Its activities, particularly the publication of numerous titles of interest to freemasons, reawakened the Empress’s suspicions. In 1792, Novikov was arrested and imprisoned. Together with other works of masonic interest, over 1,000 copies of Shcherbatov’s second edition of The Last Day were seized and destroyed. Catherine’s apprehensions with regard to Freemasonry were fuelled by her hostility, particularly at the time of the French Revolution, to anything resembling a secret society, and by the international affiliations of Russian Freemasonry, notably with lodges in Prussia and Sweden (Shcherbatov was an admirer of the aristocratic constitutionalist opponents of Gustav III).
Masonic Images and Ideas in Shcherbatov’s Land of Ophir
A work of Shcherbatov with clear masonic references is his unfinished utopian tale, Journey to the Land of Ophir by Mr S., a Swedish Gentleman, written between 1783 and 1784. This enigmatic narrative, his longest literary production, consisting of over 300 printed pages in double columns, was published only in 1896. It has recently been the object of research by scholars in half a dozen countries, many of whom have seen in it a reflection of ideas which Shcherbatov would have liked to see introduced in Russia. There is no doubt that in a fictional guise, the work is intended to relate to Russia: the place-names are clearly anagrammatic (Peregab=Petersburg, Kvamo=Moscow, etc). The name Ophir itself, however, has biblical and masonic connotations, relating to King Solomon and Hiram King of Tyre.7 In Shcherbatov’s narrative, indeed, an elder of the country confirms that Ophir was the land to which King Solomon sent his ships to collect gold.
Religion and public worship in Ophir are closely modelled on masonic ceremony and tenets. The citizens assemble in a 'temple', built of 'rough stone' (an allusion to the 'rough ashlar'), with two rows of columns along the middle of the interior, each column surmounted by a spherical ball ('cupola'). In the centre of the temple, on a raised pedestal stands an emblematic sun, 'or rather a circle with a silver centre and golden rays'. In the centre of the circle is depicted in blue enamel a ’symbolic letter, signifying unity', and around the circle are inscribed the following words: 'eternal, omnipotent, all-seeing, just, all-establishing, all-merciful, omnipresent'. The priest wears 'a sort of breastplate' (nagrudnik: the word also signifies 'apron') on which is embossed the same image of the sun. The religion of the Ophirians is a non-denominational deism, based on well-known 18th-century notions of 'natural religion' and belief in a ’supreme Being', derived from the 'argument from design'. 'Out of the temple funds', contributions to which are voluntary, one half is set aside for an almshouse for cripples and the incurably ill.
The prayers, which are short, are contained in a ’small booklet'. There is a 'moral catechism', containing 24 of 'man’s duties to the Supreme Being and to himself. These include the duty to avoid injustice, to do by others as we would be done by (since 'every man is a citizen of the world'), to be merciful to our fellow-men, to avoid falsehood, to guard our tongue and to keep the secrets confided in us. The 29 of 'man’s duties to society' include loyalty to his 'native land', obedience to the laws, modesty, secrecy, justice and trustworthiness. These seem to reflect the ’statute, or masonic regulation' of contemporary Russian Freemasonry and there are obvious affinities with the charge to the initiate. A 'catechism of laws' contains 22 further injunctions, all aimed at social improvement and moral perfection. Interestingly, the priests in Ophir also serve as members of the police, the citizens deemed 'the most worthy and virtuous' being elected to serve in this dual capacity. While as priests they superintended the public worship, their duty in the police was 'the maintenance of morals' and their task was to oversee and enforce obedience to the rules of morality. The narrator expresses his admiration for the high 'degree of consciousness of civic and moral principles and their exact implementation' in Ophir. While it is unlikely that Shcherbatov viewed his utopia as a practical blueprint for reform, the masonic echoes of the Land of Ophir certainly suggest the attractions for him of Freemasonry as a select movement of serious-minded men with an ethical mission.
Shcherbatov’s Memoir On the corruption of morals in Russia
Shcherbatov was indeed a rigid moralist. His best known work, his memoir On the corruption of morals in Russia, written between 1786 and 1787 (and first published in London in l858), is an account of what he felt to be the result of a combination of materialism and moral decline in the Russian nobility across the eighteenth century, culminating in the reign of Catherine the Great, 'a history', as he calls it, 'both of reigns and of vices'. His strictures extend to several fellow-masons, including the Provincial Grand Master, Count Ivan Yelagin, and the Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Count Roman Vorontsov, whose misdeeds as provincial governor Shcherbatov was commissioned to investigate in 1784. Shcherbatov is particularly critical of the character and rule of Catherine herself, whose 'moral outlook', he notes, 'is based on the modern philosophers, that is to say, it is not fixed on the firm rock of God’s Law'.
The concluding section of the work suggests masonic undertones. Shcherbatov looks forward to moral improvement under 'a better reign', and
a monarch who is sincerely attached to God’s Law, a strict observer of justice, beginning with himself; moderate in the pomp of the royal throne, rewarding virtue and abhorring vice, showing an example of assiduity and a willingness to take the advice of wise men; firm in his undertakings, but without obstinacy; gentle and constant in friendship, showing an example in himself by his domestic harmony with his wife, and banishing licentiousness; generous without prodigality at his subjects' expense, and seeking to reward virtue, good qualities and merit, without any bias .... possessing sufficient magnanimity and patriotism.
These qualities correspond to virtues particularly prized among Russian freemasons.8
Shcherbatov was thus among those who placed their hopes for the future in the heir to the throne, Catherine’s son, the Grand Duke Paul (the future Emperor Paul, reigned 1796-18O1), whose character and way of life were felt to contrast favourably with those of Catherine, and who was apparently well-disposed to Freemasonry. Catherine’s growing antagonism to Freemasonry as a focus of loyalties and a source of moral authority outside state control also stemmed from her suspicion that it served as a focus for political malcontents, who looked to Paul as a figurehead. In 1794, at her order, all Russian lodges were closed.
Shcherbatov - Humanitarian and Philanthropist
Shcherbatov was a committed member of Craft Freemasonry under the English system. Unlike Novikov, he did not join the Rosicrucian or other 'Higher Order' systems in Moscow, whose mystical interests were alien to his rational outlook. His Freemasonry was an ethical adjunct and a spur to his efforts to improve society. The idea of a voluntary association of enlightened men, inspired by moral ideals and dedicated to the improvement of society, had a particular resonance in Russian society. Russian Freemasonry not only complemented the ethos of a nobility whose primary function was service to state and society, but also contributed to the formation of a self-conscious, independent, critical intelligentsia, independent of the political elite. Shcherbatov’s critical essays not only served to compensate for what he felt to be an unfulfilled public career, but also served a significant moral goal. Without overt disloyalty to the Empress, towards whom nonetheless he felt bitterly disillusioned, he believed in a higher duty to his country. Freemasonry may have helped him to resolve, or at least to balance, these conflicting loyalties. Highly critical of Catherine’s expansionist foreign policy, for example, he wrote that only defensive wars were permissible, and he lamented the human costs. Likewise, he deplored the famine of 1787, relief of which was the concern of many Russian freemasons. In two essays on the famine, he shows compassion and sympathy and proposes practical relief measures.
With his stern moral views and his aristocratic pride of birth, Shcherbatov was often considered haughty. Despite his rigid social views, however, he insisted on human worth and dignity, and, in keeping with the tenets of Freemasonry in general and his own lodge, 'Equality', in particular on the natural equality of the individual, whatever his birth. Among the moral injunctions laid down in his journey to the Land of Ophir, was:
know that, inasmuch as you are a man, the least of men is your equal ... The greatest king is your equal by virtue of your common human nature; for you were born equal, your natural needs are equal, you are equally sick and equally you die ... Consider all those below you as your brothers in humanity.
Shcherbatov was much respected for his personal integrity. The Chevalier de Corberon, French chargé d'affaires at St Petersburg, a well-known freemason and a regular visitor at the Shcherbatov household, describing him as an impassioned critic of developments in Russia, adds: 'Mais il est de bonne foi, et c'est un des russes les plus honnêtes.' Shcherbatov’s obituary refers to his 'moral character and his particular fair-mindedness and impartiality' and cites his frequent mediation among friends and acquaintances. Extant letters to his son and daughter-in-law reveal him as an affectionate and solicitous parent.

1. On Shcherbatov, see A. Lentin, introduction to his edition of Prince M.M. Shcherbatov’s On the Corruption of Morals in Russia, CUP, 1969, pp. 1-102; and 'A la recherche du prince méconnu: M.M. Shcherbatov (1733-1790) and his critical reception across two centuries', Canadian-American Slavic Studies, vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter 1994), pp. 361-98.^
2. His father-in-law, Prince Ivan Shcherbatov (1696-176 1) was Russian Minister to the court of St James 1739-1742 and 1743-1746.^
3. V.I Savva, 'Iz dvenika masona 1775-1776' [From the diary of a mason 1775-1776], in, Chteniia v aimperatorskom obshchestve Istorii i Drevnostei rossiiskikh pri moskovskom universitete, 1908, Book 4, section 4, pp. 1-15.^
4. In-Ho Lee Ryu: 'Freemasonry under Catherine the Great: a Reinterpretation', unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1967, pp. 138-41.^
5. Shcherbatov’s Consolatory Reflections of a grieving father on the death of a beloved son was published in 1790 by the Moscow University Press, directed by Ivan Novikov 1779-89. Shcherbatov’s philosophical essays bear a resemblance to the genre published from 1784 in the Magazin Svobodnokamenshchicheskii [Freemason’s Magazine]. S.V. Arzhanukhin, Filosofskie Vzgliady Russkogo Masonstva [The Philosophical Views of Russian Masonry]. Ekaterinburg, 1995, pp. 63-90.^
6. Ophir is mentioned as a source of precious gold in I Kings, 9. 28; Isaiah, 13. 12, and Psalms, 45, 9. I Kings, 9 relates the assistance rendered to King Solomon by Hiram, king of Tyre.^
7. For a recent but hostile analysis of Voyage to the Land of Ophir, see Emmanuel Waegemans: 'A Russian 1984 in 1784: Shcherbatov’s vision of the future', in Literature, Lives and Legality in Catherine’s Russia, (ed.) A.G. Cross and G.S. Smith, Astra Press, Cotgrave, Nottingham, 1994, pp. 45-59.^
8. G.V. Vernadskii, Russkoe Masonstvo v tsarstvovanie Ekateriny II [Russian Freemasonry in the reign of Catherine III, Petrograd, 1917, p. 109. See generally Isabel de Madariaga: 'Freemasonry in eighteenth-century Russian society' in Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Collected Essays by Isabel de Madariaga, Longman, 1998, pp. 150-67.^

Reprinted, with permission from Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, vol. cxi. ed. Members of the Lodge. pp. 156-61. Portrait: early 19th century copy of a contemporary portrait possibly by Alexandre Roslin c. 1776.


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