I. Novikov. It is not clear whether Bolotov himself was a Mason, but he certainly personally belonged to the same social circles as many leading Freemasons in Russia. In his Entsiklopediia, 128, 990, Serkov mentions Bolotov as a possible member of the Konigsberg military lodge of Joanna Krestitelia (John the Baptist) working in Elagin's system around 1773. (Cross, 105)
The Freemasons continued to grow and improve Russian society until the death of Peter III, when his wife Catherine took over the throne. During the reign of Peter III, the numbers and lodges grew substantially and it became fashionable in Russia to be a member of the Freemasons. In fact, many nobles from other countries were traveling to Russia to be a part of the new and growing movement.
Catherine the Great
One of the longstanding rules and traditions of the Freemasons is that members must be men, as women were believed to be easily corruptible and not of equal character. Thus, when Peter III died, so did the royalty's membership in the Freemasons. While Catherine did continue modernizing Russia and thus following in the footsteps of her father, she did not consider the Freemasons in a positive light. In fact, she detested and actively sought to end the group. According to Cross, even during her husband's reign, Catherine did not consider the group as highly as her husband and held them responsible for many political pranks and tricks in Russia. Once her husband passed away, she began a formal investigation into the Freemason society to determine whether they were attempting to bring her brother to the throne in her place. During this time, she required that all Freemason activities be held under police watch and all activities reported. Additionally, she began questioning known royal members of the groups, assuming ties with enemy countries. Those questioned by Catherine included Prince Golovin, Prince Zakhar, and Ivan Chernyshevs.
Under Catherine's reign, the Freemasons became a more secretive order to avoid further questioning and interrogations from Catherine. According to historians,
Looking back at the interrogation, General Prozorovskii pointed out that early lodges in Russia did not seem to have any serious intellectual interchange with foreign lodges. mentioning that the loges he inspected "did not have any correspondence with the lodges in other places." Prozorovskii's underestimation or unawareness of early international Masonic activities involving Russia can be attributed to the fact that the first Freemasons in Russia did not leave any significant documentary traces of their activities. During Elizabeth's reign, Freemasons were so cautious that they "met only occasionally, by stealth, and not in a regular house but often even in an attic of a remote building." (Beber, 556.)
It was a wise move of the group at this time to seek secrecy in its ranks, as Catherine's investigations would continue and become even more harsh toward the group. As a result of the secrecy, however, the group also lost much of its grounding with the original ideals of freemasonry. According to memoirs of Ivan Perfil evich Elagin,
He was intrigued by Masonic secrecy; on the other, he wanted to reap the benefits of mingling with the people "who ... accomplished a lot" and were superior in their "rank, stature, and recognition." As Elagin put it, by participating in a lodge, he "conceitedly hoped" to enlist "friends who could assist in reaching his happiness." But soon he became disillusioned with the brotherhood in Russia as it existed in the 1750s and made another attempt at discovering the secrets of the Craft under the guidance "of people well-versed in Freemasonry" only in the late 1760s. In the 1750s, Elagin could not find "any avail" in early Freemasonry in Russia because there was "no trace of any learning or moral advancement," but only "inapprehensible things, weird ceremonies, land irrational actions." During the lodge meetings, he "heard inconceivable symbols, absurd catechisms, stories contrary to any reasoning, land explanations not understandable by common sense, all of which was taught by tasteless and ineloquent Masters who did not want to explain or did not know anything themselves." To him, lodge meetings seem to be "an amusement for people who want to entertain themselves, sometimes inexcusably and indecently, at the expense of a newly initiated member," when everyone could 'joke with a respectable exterior at an open meeting, shout unintelligible songs in dissonance at the ceremonial banquet, drink good wine in excess at the expense of others, and end this dedication to Minerva with a worship of Bacchus...Thus Elagin was by no means the only one who did not take early Freemasonry seriously.
It is questionable as to whether these observations and actions by the group were intentional, to avoid more serious attention by Catherine, or unintentionally related to the fact that at this time the Freemasons had no official guidelines or rules that dictated how their meetings should be held or the responsibilities of the group.
Regardless of the intentions of the group, Catherine's investigations continued. According to Moss's a History of Russia,
Novikov's Masonic and publishing activities in Moscow, where he had moved in 1779 led to Catherine's distrust of him. By 1790, Catherine was highly suspicious of Moscow Masons and ordered them watched carefully. She believed Freemasonry had helped bring about the French Revolution, and by 1792 she also came to suspect Moscow Masons of being involved in a conspiracy against her fueled by suspricious papers found in a search of Novikov's estate, she feared these Masons were conspiring with more senior Rosicucian Masons in Berlin and with the Prussian court. She suspected they were attempting to recruit Grand Duke Paul and possibly put him on the Russian throne.
Although an investigation failed to unearth enough evidence to substantiate her worst fears, she belived it sufficient to sentence Novikov to fifteen years incarceration in Schlusselburg Fortress. (279)
His incarceration did not last long and he was freed four years later when Paul took over the throne. Once Catherine no longer ruled, the Masons were free to continue expanding their ideals and practices within Russia and continued to influence the modernization of the country as a whole.
Hostilities toward the group would continue for an entire century after Catherine the Great. In Russia, the freemasons would be forbidden from meeting and any Russian Masons were hunted down and imprisoned. Most Russian Mason leaders fled the country and sought refuge in France and England. Those that remained held meetings in absolute secrecy, typically in attics and were very careful to even invite new members to the group as there were always spies seeking out Masons. This began to change under the rule of Alexander II.
While freemasons were not given the same government endorsement that they had received under Peter the Great, they were also no longer actively hunted out and instead were permitted to meet and act, so long as their actions were peaceful. Alexander II was a very modern ruler who desired to pull Russia into the manufacturing and goods era that existed at the time. In order to do this, his first prerogative was to determine the necessary actions to take with the Serfs. Under previous kings, Serfs became tied to their land. They were not permitted to travel elsewhere and had to produce a certain required amount of farming goods annually. This kept the class of people poor and enslaved to their particular landlords. Alexander saw the abject poverty of this class and the futility of forcing so many citizens of Russia to do nothing but farming and decided to do something about it.
While not known for certain, this decision and many of Alaxander's late decisions as ruler were said to have been influenced by the Masons. Being a Mason himself, Alexander would hold to the same values as his fellow Masons for freedom and modernism of the people of Russia. In fact, had Alexander not been assassinated, he was to release a new Parliamentarian government for Russia, which would have completely modernized the Russian government and could have prevented the later overthrow (Radzinsky, 413).
Alexander had many other modern ideas that lead scholars to believe that he was actively learning and engaging with the Mason leaders at the time. Among these practice included are the elimination of capital punishment, the creation of serf committees in those areas less willing to eliminate their serfs entirely, and an attempt at making peace with the revolutionaries in Russia at the time.
The Napoleonic War, like many political wars, was an antecedent of everything that freemasonry stood for and hoped to accomplish. The entire purpose of freemasonry was to modernize the world in a way that countries got along and worked together to further science and invention. As a result, the Napoleonic wars revealed the true nature…