THE SUNDAY TIMES (Malta)
Feature: September 2nd 2001 pages 40 & 41.



EMPEROR PAUL I of Russia, who became Grand Master of the Order of St John in 1798

On the road to reconciliation

Fr Michael Foster talks to DR FRANCIS CACHIA on valuable historical research leading to reconciliation

HISTORICAL RESEARCH should lead us along the road to reconciliation, not up the warpath. It seems better to bury hatchet and make peace than to flourish it triumphantly at the risk of causing conflict.

However, scholars intent on establishing the truth contend that research should be uninhibited and its results freely revealed, no matter the consequences. It is the spirit with which facts are discovered and diffused as well as how they are received, not the facts themselves, that can further concord or foment discord.

I read with interest that the Chancellor of the British Priory of the Sovereign Order of the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem. Fr Michael Foster, had completed "a book on the origin and continued validity and legitimacy of the Orthodox Grand Priory of Russia instituted by Emperor Paul I of Russia".

My immediate reaction was to wonder whether the publication of this new book, revealing the results of valuable research on a very sensitive matter, would be positively received. I asked myself: Could it lead to a rapprochement between the Catholic Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM) and the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem?

Since 1963 the SMOM has maintained relations with an alliance of non-Catholic orders and commanderies of St John, including the German Johanniterorden and the British Grand Priory of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem; founded in 1888 by Queen Victoria.

Cannot the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem join this alliance? This was the question uppermost in my mind when I interviewed Fr Foster about the results of his scholarly work. This development would surely by very much in the ecumenical spirit of our times, fostered not least of all by Pope John Paul II, as evidenced by his recent apostolic journeys, including his unforgettable two-day stay among us in Malta.

Fr. Michael, I understand that you have conducted some specialised research on the difficult period the Order of St John went through after Grand Master Hompesch was expelled from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte. Can you tell us something about the conclusions you have drawn from this research?

There is a Chinese curse; "May you live in interesting times" and certainly the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries was an interesting time. The French Revolution was being exported, and the Order was in its dying days in Malta, and almost begging to be put out of its misery. There was moral laxity and with the loss of the French Commanderies a severe loss of income - besides the Christian nations' accommodation with Turkey - the Order had lost its purpose.
If the Order had been undisturbed by Napoleon, it would have probably come to an end sooner than later - overturned by the Maltese and thence replaced by a administration perhaps under a World power - which is what happened, except in our historical reality its "Russian interlude" extended its life.
The present day Order in it's various guises and imitations is a world away from the historic Order, which occupied Malta. Even though such words as "military" and "sovereign" are employed for some organisations claiming an identity with the historic Order, the meanings or reality of those words are a world away from what they meant, say at the close of the 16th century!My main preoccupation is on the Russian tradition of the Order of St John created in the period in question. The fact of the creation of that tradition is beyond doubt - also that a Russian Johannine tradition survived within Russia to the Revolution and thence in the exile community of Russian nobles is also historically verifiable. What is in question is the status given to that tradition, by its critics.

These are the historic facts:
1. Emperor Paul I was declared Grand Master of the Order in 1798 creating a schism resolved when in 1799 Hompesch under pressure abdicated in favour of Paul I.
2. Paul created for Russian Nobles a "new institution" of 98 Commanderies, the largest element in the Order. Later in 1799 expanded by a further 20 Commanderies, with the addition of 21 Family Commanderies making 139 Commanderies all producing incomes for both the incumbents and the Order. In 1799 this became the Russian Grand Priory.
In addition there were Knights who belonged to the Russian Grand Priory, who did not have Commanderies - and did not rely upon any income from Commanderies, some of which were hereditary - five such Knights are listed in the Annals for 1799.
3. On July 21st (old style) 1799, Paul issued a decree (ukase) governing the family commanderies, not only providing hereditary rights to the commanderies but to the heirs of those commanderies! That is, they are not governed by instruments of the Roman Catholic Order, but were subject to a Russian understanding.
4. After Paul's murder Alexander instructed the Lieutenant Grand Master who had replaced the Bailiff de Litta to organise the election of a new Grand Master - subsequently deferring for one time only (but then becoming the pattern) the choice to the Pope.
5. In 1810 Alexander I removed the property and income from the ordinary commanderies, and disallowed any monies to be paid to the Order's Roman Catholic headquarters, creating a real fiscal and legal separation. However the ukase makes its clear that the Order in Russia Continued! In 1811 by ukase, the property of the family commanderies, which had been under question for 18 months was made the property of the Commanders themselves - via a one-off payment, or, as under the rules of 1799 by instalments.  The State income from this process was to be used to pay the expenses of the domestic Order!
6. In 1817 there was a ministerial decision issued not to allow a Russian Army Officer and his brothers to wear the Decoration awarded by the Roman Catholic Order - the decision states that the awarding Priory "was not in existence any longer in Russia". This ukase has been subject to classic misinformation begun in a book by Panov and Zamyslovsky called A Brief Account of the Russian Orders and their Statutes published in St Petersburg in 1891.
The book provided a reworking of the original words of 1817 to read "After the death of the Commanders of the Order of St John, their heirs will not have the right to be Commanders of the Order and will not be allowed to wear the badges and decorations of the Order any longer because the latter does not exist any more in the Russian Empire" (pages 28-33). This is a gross misreading of the original texts, intruding words, which did not exist in the originals and ignores other evidence available to a thorough author. Sadly authors critical to the Russian tradition have fallen headlong into repeating the errors of the book - easily corrected by reading the original ukases!
The awards in question were being issued by the Roman Catholic Order, using the rules of its Russian Priory. The discouragement for the awards would have prevented further sums of money going to the Roman Catholic headquarters.

7. In comparison to that Decision of 1817 are the existence of records of permissions by the emperors to allow Orthodox Christians to wear the Order who were not members of the Roman Catholic Order, dating 1867, 1889, 1912. There will be others. Also anyone examining collections of Russian Portraits painted in the period post 1817 (i.e. after the alleged statement that no-one could were the decoration - and not just Roman Catholic members!) will be surprised at the large number of nobles wearing the Order's decoration.
8. The listing of Russian members in the Court Almanacs right up until 1914. With a listing in 1914 specifically using the term "Hereditary Commander".
9. In 1907, Grand Duke Nicolas Mikhailovitch published a book on Russian Portraits in which he includes a biography of Prince Tufiakine - created from the State Documents. It is reported (I quote from my records) that "Prince Tufiakine emigrated abroad, where he passed the rest of his life. In 1841, he was stripped of his functions of Actual Chamberlain, and of his dignities of Master of the Court and of Commander of the Order of Malta. He spent his last years in Paris, where he died on 19 February 1845."
(i) In terms of the Order of Malta if it is a Roman Catholic Order member then the Russian State cannot strip him of that dignity.
(ii) if the Order in Russian was suppressed in 1810/1811/1817 - then the Russian State cannot strip him of that dignity - it has already been done! We are forced to conclude that a legal responsibility was continued by the State for the Russian Order in 1841. Nicolas Mikhailovitch in his books also provides biographies on a number of the other original Family Commanders.
10. We know that the Orthodox Church was involved in the Order. The Metropolitan Bishops for St. Petersburg were members of the Russian Grand Priory. Other clergy were members. Feasts of the Order were celebrated within Orthodoxy, and were found in the official Service books up to the Revolution in 1917.
11. In 1928, 12 Russian exiles, hereditary commanders (every one who could at that time be traced, except a thirteenth who joined in 1929) met in Paris to proclaim the continuation of the Russian Grand Priory, including the member listed in the Court Almanac of 1914.
12. After contacting Grand Duke Cyril, a Danish group was given contact with Grand Duke Andrew who had responsibility for the Russian Grand Priory. From this a Danish Priory was created in 1939.
13. If the issue of the survival of the Russian tradition was being tested in the Courts - expert witnesses would be called. Whilst there is no shortage of non Russians to pronounce on the survival of the Russian tradition, or as it often is alleged - its suppression, the expert witness is Russian-born Baron Michael de Taube. He was Professor of Law at St Petersburg University before the Revolution, was a member of the Council of the Empire, a Russian Senator and first advisor to the Foreign Office under Emperor Nicholas II.
In 1929 he became the legal advisor to the Paris group of Hereditary Commanders. His legal opinion has been recorded in his book (in French) Emperor Paul I and his Russian Grand Priory, published in Paris in 1955. He states the Russian Grand Priory continued legally.
14. In 1973 a group of hereditary commanders met at the home of one of the members of the 1928 group in New York to add to the Paris initiative a priory in New York. This became the basis for the headquarters in 1977 following the death of all the leading members of the Paris Group (most hereditary commanders were to be found in the USA by then).
From all of these points, any reasonable scholar is forced to conclude a Russian tradition of the Order has survived to this day! Those within the tradition claim they are continuing, the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
The full story of the survival of the Russian tradition has not been told.
What has got in the way, is (a) those who wish to discount the survival (using some form of suppressionist theory) and (b) the many mimic "Russian Orders" originating in the USA from a group led by a Charles Pichel 1953 onwards, who supplied a pre-history to his group, dating the beginnings to 1908 and crediting the beginnings to Russian hereditary commanders.
There is more than enough material on the Internet to discount Pichel's theory, rather than deal with it in this interview. But my aim is to tell the story fully in a book, hopefully later this year, or early next year. In this book I deal with those issues which get in the way, and to tell the full story. I also touch upon the main organisation, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and its allies, plus the mimic "Orders" ending with a plea, for a re-assessment of the historical place of the Russian Order.

You are Chancellor of the Priory of the British Isles of the Sovereign Order of Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. Do you consider it a separate Order from the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or a separate branch? Also, given your membership of an Order, how independent can your research be?

I have already touched upon the survival of the Russian tradition of St John. The headquarters are in New York. For an Order which claims to be Russian, the day to day leadership is of Russian Nobles Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy is the Grand Prior. I am secretary to the British branch. Again membership includes those of Russian hereditary commander's families, who are entitled to join by virtue of the rules on 1799. Some may question how we are an "Order", when there is the "Sovereign Military Order of Malta" (SMOM) who consider themselves to be the only survivors of the ancient medieval Order.

While some may consider the British Royal Order as part of the Order, and the Johanniterorden, from what I have read, thw SMOM accept them on the basis that the former is a Royal Order (it is not a British State Order), and the latter has state recognition.
Some of the perceptions are rooted in essential theological differences. The Catholics Church is monarchical in its leadership, and see itself as the Church. In Orthodoxy, the Church is considered as collegiate in leadership, and consists of self-governing units, which are collectively, the Church.
The Catholic Order (SMOM) considers itself to be the Order of St John/Malta. Members of the Russian tradition of St John, consider themselves to be members of "the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St John of Jerusalem", a part of the Order, but not The Order.
Technically, the Russian Grand Priory was founded by Paul I, when he was de facto Grand Master of the Order of St John. It was founded by imperial proclamation, and subject to imperial ukases in its government. It thus could never be a canonical part of a Catholic Order. It had a fiscal relationship with the Order, and came under the authority of the Order's de-facto Grand Master.

Although the fiscal relationship was broken in 1810/1811, since 1809 the Russian Grand Priory has never had its own Grand Master, but has always acknowledge the Grand Magistracy of Rome - a fact which separates it from the many mimic "Russian Orders".
The present name, which introduced the question, was one, forced on the Order, when registering a corporate status in the USA in 1977. Sadly the many mimic Orders had taken the proper title, or variations of it.
As to independence of research - of course I come to the matter from a specific point of view. In the book I am writing, I warn people about that, and ask them to make an allowance. Both writings critical of the Russian tradition and apologising for it share one thing in common - they come from certain viewpoints. However the book is fully annotated, and makes reference to documentary evidence, which can be followed up by the reader. Some of the items are already on the Internet "www.knights-of-st-john.co.uk".

The Jesuit Order, which was suppressed in Catholic countries by a papal decree, was saved from extinction, ironically enough, by Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Did something similar happen in the case of the Knights of Malta?

This observation about the Jesuits does have some bearing on our subject. In his Political Testament of 1752, Frederick the Great made it clear that he considered religion as superstition and would not declare himself for one religion or another. In that Testament he positively he discouraged all religious persecution, valuing all people irrespective of their beliefs.
He admired the Jesuits' provision of good education. Catherine the Great, was by origin also a Prussian, and had converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy in preparation for marriage into the Russian Royal Family. I believe that her admiration for the Jesuits was pragmatic, as the Jesuits offered a role model and practical assistance for the reforms in Clergy education within the Orthodox Church. It is from the Jesuits in Russia, (who were through Catherine's intervention exempted legally from the general Papal edict of suppression), that the Society was revived worldwide.
The Jesuit society in Russia began the provision of a cultural expatriate society for Europeans/Latin Christians. Catherine's interest in the Knights of Malta, I suspect was limited to their possible contribution in defeating Turkey. After the Knights had only offered assistance with naval training, when Catherine took her share in Poland she was not in a hurry to allow the revenues from the Polish Priory to be restored to the Order. Emperor Paul I, did rescue the Knights from oblivion. Even those originally supporting Hompesch subsequently flocked to St Petersburg, such as the Knight O'Hara.
He records that if were not for Paul I, the Order would have been totally ruined through to confiscation of properties throughout Europe. Paul was fascinated by a romantic view of the Order of St John. He idealised them as a model for chivalric behaviour - a model for his nobility to follow.
Such devotion to an idealised view of the Order dominated Paul's thinking to the extent that it blinded him from a more cautious approach in his political management and thus his undoing. Within the expatriate Latin Christian Community there was a great deal of contact between the Jesuits and the Knights of St John. It was home from home - French Theatre, Italian Opera, and good company - records O'Hara.
This influence from Latin Rite Christians was viewed jealously by the Orthodox - again contributing to the support to get rid of Paul.
Like the Jesuits, it was the Russian rump of the Order of St John, which became the salvation of a renewed Order. It was the Council at St Petersburg led by Soltikoff, the Lieutenant Grand Master which began the process to elect a new Grand Master - and thus restored as a Catholic Order.
The Order could have disappeared so easily had it existed only in those territories dominated by Napoleon. Even the restored Nations were only too happy to keep the revenues once belonging to the Order - for example France never restored the lost Commanderies! Thus the Russian interlude was able to keep the tradition alive over a short but critical period (1798-1803). Even after this Russian money continued to support the Order until the fiscal separation of the Russian Priories with the Catholic headquarters by imperial ukase 1810 and 1811.

In my book Preservation and Progress, A Tale of Two Towns: Kaster and Bedburg ISBN: 99909 41-22-x (Pietà, Malta, 1995), I tell a story of how civil and religious strife between Catholics and Protestants was appeased through a farsighted plan for unity proposed by Knights in Malta, This anticipated and reflected the cordial relationship that exists between the Johanniter and the Malteser, the Catholic and the Protestant Knights of St John, SMOM and the "Alliance Order". Cannot a similar arrangement be negotiated between SMOM and the Orthodox Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem?

First there was a long gestation period before the present situation was reached. The SMOM in the post-war period sought the possibility of becoming trustees of the holy sites in Jerusalem. Any support was valuable. The British Royal Order, until then distanced from the SMOM, also welcomed, and perhaps sought, some form of recognition.
The Alliance Orders (before 1962), the Johanniterorden in central Europe and Scandinavia, found a relationship with the British Order whose patron was the Queen.
Just after this (1963), an agreement between the SMOM and the British Royal Order was made, but avoided any mention of recognition of the British Royal Order as being accepted as a historic part of the Order of St John - Malta. In 1987 the London declaration was signed by the Johanniterorden, the British Order and the SMOM. Even in this agreement, only the SMOM is identified with the historic order. The Alliance Orders are accepted within the "Hospitaller tradition". The document states that the Orders are accepted within their own countries.
In any move towards the SMOM, first a historic reappraisal of the Russian tradition needs to be made, with a clear distinction between the very genuine Russian Grand Priory led by Russian nobles and the scores of mimic Russian Orders. I am sure then, if there is a willingness within the SMOM, a form of words could be found to allow them to take under their mantle the remaining part of the hospitaller tradition the Russian tradition - as they did with the Alliance Orders in 1987. It took the Alliance Orders 30 years to achieve a rapprochement with the SMOM. Once a reasonable account of the Russian tradition has been made, hopefully dialogue will follow!


Created 20th December 2002

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