A History of;
The Russian Grand Priory, Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in Exile.

Source: Archives of the British Association, Russian Grand Priory, Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

The Russian tradition of St. John had survived from 1798 through to 1917, as evidenced by continued listings of Orthodox Knights in the Court Almanacs, who were not part of the Roman Catholic Order. This tradition continued through the vicissitudes caused by the Revolution of 1917, outside of Russia, with the activities of the Russian Grand Priory re-established in Paris in 1928 within the Russian exilic community In recent years, the Russian Hereditary Commanders of this group have continued the ecumenical nature of the original non-Catholic Russian Grand Priory, and admitted a wider group into membership. In this way the Grand Priory has expanded beyond its original Russian exilic group and become an International Order within its own rights.

The Russian Revolution placed the Russian society in disarray. A number of Russian Nobles settled in France escaping the Revolution. On the 24th November 1925 the "Union de la Noblesse Russe" was formed and incorporate under French Law on the 14th February 1926. The maintained unity of Russian Nobles in Paris led to discussions about the Order of St. John. On the 24th June 1928, the Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, twelve Russian Hereditary Commanders and three aspirants met and signed a declaration whereby they re-established the activity of the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of Malta and declared that the re-establishment was by virtue of their inviolable privilege as Russian Nobility. The organisation formed by Hereditary Commanders took the title of the "Union des Commandeurs Hereditaires et Chevaliers du Grand Prieure Russe de l'Ordre de St. Jean de Jerusalem". The meeting made Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch the Grand Prior, who out of courtesy informed King Alfonso XIII of Spain about the revival of the activities of the Russian Grand Priory, by the association of Hereditary Commanders, as King Alfonso had been given the protection of Russians abroad by Emperor Nicholas II.

The Hereditary Commanders who sought to re-establish the activities of the Russian Grand Priory were those whose ancestors as the first Hereditary Commanders belonged to the non-Catholic Priory, with the exception of one Roman Catholic of Polish descent. The First World War, and the subsequent Revolution of 1917, deprived the Roman Catholic Knights of contact with the Magistracy in Rome bringing the Catholic Priory, or whatever organisation that existed to bond the Knights together, to an end. The continuing Priory was that which was created by Imperial Authority - the Russian Grand Priory, which from the first allowed Christians of other denominations into membership.

Whilst there is a gap of some 11 years between 1917 and 1928, What must be taken into account is that not all those who took part in the gathering were able to leave Russia at the time of the Revolution and its aftermath, but fled subsequently. Most were concerned about the very survival of their families. The Union of Russian Nobles founded in 1925 and the establishment of the activities of a Priory in exile in 1928, are only an official statement of a process that would have gone on haphazardly before those dates, and occurred after those involved were able to settle in their new homelands.

The pedigree of the Paris group is assured with its well documented beginnings and has not produced the plethora of offshoots to which an American organisation (founded or led by a certain Charles Louis Thourot-Pichel) claiming a Russian Pedigree has given birth. Pichel's organisation claimed to have been founded in the USA in 1908 by Russian Hereditary Commanders - a claim later repudiated in 1980 as being false by Crolian Edelen de Burgh, one time Grand Master of Pichel's Order (1966-1979).

Prince Paul Alexandrovitch Demidoff who was listed in the Almanach de St. Petersbourg 1913-1914 page 178 as "ancient officer du reg. des chevaliers gardes, commandant Hereditaire de l'Ordre de Malte" was one of the Hereditary Commanders who re-established the Russian Grand Priory's activities in exile, thereby providing unquestionable proof of the continuous existence of those of the Russian tradition of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

Between1929 and 1932, the Association of Russian Hereditary Commanders approached the Order in Rome to seek rapprochement. The overture was rejected because the applicants were not Roman Catholic in religion.

The 1928 Paris group was originally formed as an Association of Hereditary Commanders who were continuing the activities of the Russian Grand Priory. They were not claiming that the Russian Grand Priory subsisted in themselves. Their concern was to ensure legitimacy, which they saw in the continuation of the Royal Household of Russia providing a Protector to the Order, and that this 'protection' was a commitment made by Emperor Paul I, and binding on his successors. Hence the contact with King Alfonso XIII, whom they saw as a custodian of the Royal Protectorship, to confirm Grand Duke Alexander as the Protector of the Order. The model of their existence was akin to the National Associations of the Roman Catholic Order, which had replaced the defunct Langues and Priories in various European States.

Grand Duke Alexander died in 1933, after which Grand Duke Andrew Wladimirovitch was elected President of the Association. Andrew was the son of Alexander's cousin. There is a suggestion that Grand Duke Kyrill Wladimirovich, Andrew's elder brother and claimant to the Russian throne acted as Protector. He was certainly involved in the renewed activity of the Russian Priory but died in 1938. On the 31st July 1950 Grand Duke Andrew formally accepted the role of both Protector and Grand Prior to the Order and revised the statues for the Association in 1953. On the 15th February 1955, in conformity to French law the Association registered as the "Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem".

The pressure to resolve the Association's identity came from the fact that the original members were becoming scarce. Grand Duke Andrew died in the following year, 1956. Grand Duke Kyrill's son Grand Duke Vladimir then took on the role of Protector of the Order.

There had been strong Imperial Russian links with Denmark prior to the Revolution. Emperor Nicholas II's mother, Marie Feodorovna, had been the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark After the Revolution, following a short stay in London, the Dowager Empress returned to her native Denmark, where she died 13th October 1928. In 1938, discussions took place between the Paris group, and a group of gentlemen in Denmark;   Baron Palle Rosenkrantz., Prebend Ahlefeldt Bille, and Prebend Holger Christian Wenck von Wenckheim. In 1950 H. K Ostenfeld joined the "Danish Initiative Committee". Authorisation for the creation of a Danish Priory was granted by Grand Duke Andrew, October 19th, 1938, and the Priory under the name of "The Ecclesiastical Knightly Order of Malta of Saint John of Jerusalem, Priory of Saint Andrew", and began its formal life on April 10th, 1939. It was later to be known as "The Autonomous Priory of Dacia of the Order of Malta".

In the summer of 1938, the Danish Committee wrote to Commander G. Gadd, Grand Duke Cyril's personal representative in Copenhagen, about the possibility of joining the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Gadd suggested, that a direct approach to Grand Duke Cyril ought to be made. When Grand Duke Cyril received the Danish Committee's letter, he passed it on to his younger brother Grand Duke Andrew, who had accepted responsibility for the Russian Grand Priory. Grand Duke Andrew, then asked Baron Michael de Taube the legal consultant to the Hereditary Commanders to discuss the matter with the Danes. Baron Michael de Taube had been Professor of Law at St Petersburg University and first legal adviser for the Russian Foreign Office, Senator of Russia and a member of the Council of the Empire.

Initially the first consideration was to widen membership of the Russian Grand Priory itself to include in a seamless way, a Danish group. The final conclusion of the discussions, was that a Priory would be created to serve the "North", under the title of Dacia. Prebend Wenck von Wenckheim as leader of the group became the first Prior. The war years halted any real activity of the Priory, and Baron Michael de Taube and Grand Duke Andrew gave assistance in continuing the work in the post war period.

After the sudden death of Wenck von Wenckheim in 1957, John K Ostenfeld who had joined the Committee in the post war period, became the Prior but retired from Office in 1968 succeeded by Baron Niels Sandberg Stouge 1968-1969. In the period of 1968 to 1970 disputes caused the separation of a Swedish Commandery. Part of this period was during the leadership of acting Prior, Helmuth Kieldsen 1969-1971. The problems were put to a firm end when in 1971 John K Ostenfeld was re-appointed Prior. By the mid 1970s, the Priory and the Paris Headquarters had lost contact with each other. Two factors had conspired to bring this about; the disputes within the Dacia Priory and its changes of personnel, and the increasing isolationism of the aging Paris administration which was in stark contrast to the previous pro-active role undertaken by Baron Michel de Taube.

Author: The Reverend Dr Michael Foster SSC MIWO
Date of Publication. First published 8th May 1998
Revision 27th August 2001.
Revision 28th July 2004.

Revision 18th November 2004.

© The Reverend Dr Michael John Foster SSC MIWO.
© British Association of the Russian Grand Priory of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Registered Charity at Law No. 1049553

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