between Russia and Malta were just a century old when the knights fled
to St. Petersburg with the occupation of the islands by the forces of
the French Directory; they had begun somewhat casually, but they had also
grown closer and closer across the span of a century. In the earlier years
they were clouded with suspicions and uncertainties, but as time unfolded
the Magistracy grew to conceive of its tie to Russia as its principal
hope to escape the growing power of other countries that coveted the islands.
In the period just prior to the fall of the islands to the French, the
treaty ties to Russia became the final hope of the last two reigning Prince-Grand
Masters to save the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem from perishing.
An examination of this century of diplomacy reveals the evolving course
which drew these powers into a harmonious compact.
The earliest known tie was the mission, taken on the initiative of the
Czar Peter the Great, of Field Marshal Boyard Boris Petrovitch Sheremeteff,
who as the ambassador of the Czar, his cousin, arrived in Malta in 1698
in princely magnificence.(1) Grand Master Raymond Perellos de Roccafoull
heard in advance from his ambassador at Rome, Sacchitti, that the Russian
dignitary had asked Pope Innocent XII (Antonio Pignatelli) if he might
see the 'Church Militant' in Malta, and when his distinguished visitor
arrived both worlds, the east and the west, examined each other with mutual
awe and in the spirit of the novelty attached to the unknown. Sheremetoff
bore a letter of introduction from Holy Roman Emperor Leopold at Vienna.(2)
During the stately celebrations the Russian sat on the Bishop's seat in
St. John's, gave flowery speeches in Latin, slept in Cotoner Palace, and
sailed away on the eighth day with the diamond studded cross of devotion
of the Order. More significantly Perellos had listened attentively to
the Russian thesis of their unrelenting warfare against the Turks, further
confirmed by the Czar's letter, and so Perellos promised the Czar's ambassador
would forever be remembered in the prayers of the knights. Did the [p.10]
Russians want to conquer the
islands?(3) One can only suppose, and the general conclusion is that this
incursion into Mediterranean was merely part of the large scheme of the
progressive Peter the Great to 'open the window' of isolated Muscovy and
enter into good terms with Poland, Germany, Venice and other powers in
the general periphery of Russian interests, so long overdue at the time.
Matters appear to have drifted along through the reigns of three successive
Grand Masters until Catherine II, the Great, consolidated Czardom to such
an extent that it could once more turn its eyes toward the south. Catherine
displaced her husband as the Autocrat and reigned in her own right as
Czarina from 1762-1796. A vigorous foreign policy, a bristling army at
the throat of the Turks, and an active role in world affairs marked a
brilliant reign. From 1768 to 1772 and again from 1787 to 1792 she was
at war with the Sultan of Turkey; one of her tactics was to send agents
into Greece and the Imperial Army into the Danubian Principalities. It
may be presumed that it was during her first war with the Sultanate that
she chose to revive Russian ties to Malta, the method being the dispatch
of Admiral Sergius Bakinboff (or Babinoff) to wait upon Grand Master Emmanuel
Pinto de Fonseca.(4) Pinto was 'nearing ninety,' but he appeared eager
to welcome Catherine's diplomatic agent and arranged for Chevalier the
Marquis Sagramoso and Chevalier Count Giulio Renato de Litta to go to
Russia to aid and organize the Russian Baltic Fleet, as well as for Russians
to train with the Maltese Fleet. Whatever the suspicions there seems little
evidence to support the notion that the Russians had been in any way involved
with the uprisings against Pinto in 1741.
The Marquis Sagramoso was a globe-trotting adventurer in diplomatic and
royalist circles who had been in St. Petersburg as early as 1748 and was
known to Empress Elizabeth, as well as Catherine's sister. His third visit
to the Court in 1773 was of great significance since after 1774 Pope Clement
XIV (Lorenzo Ganganelli) endeavoured to use Pinto's successor, Grand Master
Francis Ximenes de Taxada, to further his scheme for putting a Roman Catholic
agent into St. Petersburg for grandiose religious projects involving the
revival of the Uniate Church, the restoration of the Polish-Ukranian Churches,
the expansion of the [p.11] Jesuits, and to name a bishop-in-ordinary
of Mohilev. Sagramoso ostensibly was there to liquidate the financial
claims arising from the first Polish Partition in 1772, a dispute with
regard to whether Russia or Malta had inherited the properties and revenues
of the Princes of Ostrog in Volhynia. Sagramoso was unable to do more
than convince Empress Catherine to talk to her ministers, and Pope Clement
died in September of 1774.(5)
Sagramoso must have been in St. Petersburg, in 1770, presumably on his
second visit, since he wrote to Grand Master Pinto unofficially as a knight
to warn him against Empress Catherine's ambassador, the Marquis Cavalcabo,
who arrived in Valletta that year. He asked for the harbour in operations
against Turkey, but aged Pinto confined him to four ships at a time as
Cotoner had once done with the English, and then made long speeches on
the historic neutrality of Malta. Russia was to continue to keep a minister
resident at the Court of the Grand Master from thenceforth, and in the
plot to overthrow Ximenes de Taxada, Cavalcado hastened to deny he had
any complicity or in any way sought to seize the islands during this brief
reign from 1773 to 1775.(6)
The illustrious and autocratic Emmanuel de Rohan of France succeeded to
the Magisterial throne in 1775, only to find Russian Admiral Spiritoff
on his doorstep; a regular 'Russian Party' had grown up in Valletta circles.(7)
Catherine made the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji in 1774 which pushed the
Christian cause deeper into Turkey, and six years later she launched her
'Greek Scheme' to create an Hellenistic throne for her grandson Constantine.
In 1783 a French knight named Dolomieu let out rumours in Naples that
Catherine was negotiating with King Ferdinand I (through Queen-Consort
Caroline of Hapsburg) 'for Malta.' A year later Chevalier Psaro, a Russian
agent, received cool treatment when he asked for Fleet stores, and de
Rohan was plainly concerned lest Russia grab Malta, so he let the Russian
fleet go on to the Levant without the Maltese Fleet sailing with it in
full force. De Rohan was keen on ties to Russia, but cautious. Various
Russian officers became involved in the island intrigues from 1770 onward,
and much uncertainty arose as to their objectives and aspirations in Malta.
After the French Revolution they appeared pro-British and anti-French.
Somewhere around 1780 they opened a Russian Naval hospital and flew the
flag of St. John over it.(8)
Grand Master de Rohan was the last, great reigning prince of Maltese history
and during his long reign from 1775 to 1797 he pursued a vigorous domestic
and foreign policy. He joined the Maltese with the Order's army, he [p.12]
took a stand on the restitution of the properties of the Order in dying
Poland, he expanded the Order into Russia, and he acquired the properties
of the Order of St. Anthony in France. The Order acquired some of the
properties of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Poland and even dreamed
of merging with the Order of Teutonic Knights. De Rohan became convinced
that the religion (the Order) could not survive the gathering storm around
Malta unless it turned to Russia as its grand ally. This point becomes
somewhat obscure, even though it was fundamental, due to the fact that
the Order's relations with Russia were overshadowed by the larger and
growing relationship between the Papacy and the Autocrat of all the Russias.
A unique harmony between the Courts of Rome and St. Petersburg was growing
rapidly into a brief, but brilliant pageant of Orthodoxy and Romanism.
Pope Pius VI (Angelico Braschi) wrote directly to Catherine in 1780, Czarevitch
Paul visited him in 1782, Nuncio Andrea Archetti arrived in St. Petersburg
in 1783, and Prince lousoupov arrived in Rome in 1784. While the knights
were the bridge over which these grander relations must cross, and while
they provided the background for West to meet East once again, they fell
into the background somewhat unseen by the mighty envoys now seeking an
understanding between the two great centres of Christendom.
The growing alliance between Russia and Malta was not without its temptations
for the Queen-Consort Caroline of Naples, whose aggressive correspondence
with the Russian Ambassador to Naples, Count Rosmowschi, in 1788 suggested
the Suzerain Power might be willing to sell its right to Malta to the
Bailiff Count de Litta arrived in St. Petersburg in 1789 as a young adventurer
and knight of twenty-six and took up Sagramoso's work, but with a keener
zeal for his military and diplomatic career. Soon distinguished in battles
against Sweden (1788-90 War), decorated with the cross of St. George and
clothed in the uniform of an Imperial Rear-Admiral he entered the inner
circle of Empress Catherine; de Rohan in 1795 appointed him as Minister
of the Order at the court, but the great lady regarded him casually until
she died, quite suddenly, in November, 1796.(10) The accession to the
throne of the son Paul [p.13] inaugurated a brilliant era of diplomacy
between Valletta and St. Petersburg. De Litta was soon joined by his brother,
Nuncio Lorenzo de Litta, both of whom became the court favourites in a
charmed circle rendered splendid by Paul's love of ceremony. In an unanticipated
burst of harmony Paul cultivated both the Vatican and Malta, and both
returned the compliments with zeal, Pius VI, Pius VII (a little less so),
de Rohan, and Hompesch all welcomed rapport with Paul. The latter's fascination
with the lore of chivalry became the sole hope of the Order for its survival
as the storm gathered around Malta in which some major European power
seemed certain to seize it. Urged on by the De Litta brothers de Rohan
concluded and Hompesch (his successor) ratified the Treaty of 1797 between
Malta and Russia; Paul then became the temporal 'Protector of the Order.'
The French Revolutionary forces moved too quickly for Paul to save Rome
or Malta, both thrones fell and the latter one to Napoleon himself in
1798. Paul accepted the 70th-Grandmastership from the hands of the knights
gathered in exile around his Court, while the deposed Pontiff exiled in
a Tuscan monastery first urged Paul on, then hesitated, and finally ended
by abstaining from the complex issues raised by the Czar becoming the
Grand Master. With the assassination of Paul in 1801 Czar Alexander I
was for a while regarded by the warring powers in Europe as the over-lord
of Malta, but other considerations entered into continental strategy so
that he simply let Malta slip through his fingers, thus closing an epoch
1 A cousin, or at least a near relation, of the Czar, probably Prussian
in origin, whose name may have been Szevemetieff, Sheremento, Kzeremetz,
Sheremetow, Sheremotoff, Czeremetoff, Kremer, Czeremeter, or Szerempsen.
The best account of the visit is Journal du Voyage du Boyard Boris Petrovitch
Sheremeteff, 1697-1699, trans, by Galitzen, Paris, 1859.
2 Louis de Boisgelin, Ancient and Modern Malta, II, London, 1805, p. 214.
Mons. L'Abbe de Vertot, History of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John
of Jerusalem, V, Edinburgh, 1757, p. 174 says he also brought a letter
from the Pope. One account says he was accompanied by his two brothers.
3 Boisgelin, ibid., a keen historian of the Order thinks conquest was
not the motive, but states one French historian believed to the contrary
(p. 218). Alexander Sutherland, Achievements of the Knights of Malta,
II, Philadelphia, 1846 believed the Czar wanted a friendly alliance with
knights who had five centuries of constant warfare with the Turks, but
that 'blended with the admiration of their renown, which he could not
fail to entertain, was a deep and mighty scheme of self-aggrandizement.'
Canon Monsignor A. Mifsud, Knights Hospitallers of the Venerable Tongue
of England in Malta, Malta, 1914 seems satisfied that the Russians sought
an alliance against Turkey and that Russian defeats in 1711 delayed any
further developments in the new tie with Malta.
4 Elizabeth W. Schermerhorn, Malta of the Knights, London, 1929 is not
very precise in fixing the date of this visit. Russian admirals came from
the Baltic to the Mediterranean to fight Turkey in July, 1770. The Czarina's
Minister at Vienna, Prince Galitsvne, in 1764 made enquiries as to the
use of Maltese officers to train the Russian Navy and six Russian naval
officers were trained at Malta 1766-1769; the Russian commercial agent
Vladimirov appeared in Malta in 1763 en route to the Adriatic: Count Zeininger
de Borja, Les Relations de l'Ordre de Saint-Jean avec la Russie sous le
Regne de Catherine II, November-December, 1957, Hidalguia, Madrid, pp.
855-856 5 P.
5 Pierling, La Russie et le Saint-Siege, V, Paris, 1912, pp. 68-76.
6 Boisgelin, op. cit., pp. 256-257. According to Zeininger de Borja, op.
cit., pp. 857-859, Marquis Cavalcabo of Cremona was sent ahead from Admiral
Alexis Orlov (a brother of Catherine's favourite Count Gregory Orlov),
whose fleet of eight war vessels and some frigates was in Minorca (1768?);
at least two Maltese knights collaborated with him.
7 Schermerhorn, op. cit., n. 285, Mifsud, op. cit., p. 283. Cavalcobe
left to everyone's relief in early 1776.
8 Schermerhorn fixes the date of this foundation as ten years after Babinkoff
s visit, but does not fix its location. Zeininger de Borja states Captain
Anthony Psaro received the Magistral Cross and went to meet his Czarina
in 1787 in the Crimea. Catherine also received Emperor Joseph II and Prince
Charles-Joseph de Ligne in the south and discussed her interest in using
Maltese knights to strengthen [Text missing]. Melanges historiques et
litteraires, Paris, 1827-1827, II, p. 9.
9 The reaction of the Kingdom of Naples as the Suzerain to Russo-Maltese
diplomatic relations was cool, at best. Zeininger de Borja, op. cit.,
cites: Pietro Colletta, Storia del reame di Napoli, Capolago, 1834, I,
Chapter 4; Alberto Serino, // S. M. O. Gerosolimitano e Carlo III, Review
of the S. M. O., 1939, No. 4; Louis de Rouvroy, Due de St. Simon, Memoires
(ed. P.A. Chernel) Paris, 1865, p. 221.
10 For Count de Litta see: Comte Fedor Golovkine, La Cour et La Regne
de Paul f, Paris, 1905; N.K. Schilder, Imperator Pavel Pervy i, St. Petersburg;
1901; Comte de Maisonneuve, Annales de l'Ordre Souverain de St. Jean de
Jerusalem etc., St. Petersburg, 1799.; Giuseppe Greppi, Un Gentiluomo
milanese G. Litta-Visconti- Arese, Milano, 1896; Entsihlopedisheskii Shevar,
Vol XVII-A, St. Petersburg, 1896: but the most valuable of all is Sbornik
Imperatorskago Rousskago Istoritchestkago Obtchestva, II, 1868, St. Petersburg,
which has (pp. 164-185) a summary in Russian of Russian relations with
Malta and (pp. 185-274) Count de Litta's correspondence with de Italian
in French from November, 1796 to February, 1797. Golovkine so disliked
the De Litta brothers that he cannot be trusted on the subject; he made
a special visit to Pius VI to endeavour to block their mission to Russia.
Prince Platonzoubov as a favourite of Catherine's out of jealousy also
tried to block the younger and handsome De Litta. De Rohan, nevertheless,
sent Catherine the Cross as a Dame in 1790.
11 The author discussed this lengthy subject in a series of articles beginning
in the April-
June, 1960 edition and running on into 1961 editions of Scientia. From
using the documents of Nuncio Lorenzo de Litta edited by M. J. Roue't
de Journel, Nonciature de Litta, 1797-1799, Vatican, 1942 he did not reach
the same conclusions as did: G. Castellani, Paolo I di Russia etc., "La
Civilta Cattolica," II, 5 settembre 1953; J. Cretineau-Joly (ed.)
Memoires du Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Paris, 1895; or P. Pierling, op.
cit., in interpreting the Pontiffs views whilst ill and exiled. Roderick
Cavaliero, The Last of the Crusaders, London, Hollis and Canter, 1960
beginning with Chapter VI onward has some scattered references to Cherementeff,
Orlov, Psaro, and the De Littas, as well as the Russian naval and military
officers in the Alliance French Malta, mostly directed from Corfu.
© This article was written by PROFESSOR HARRISON
SMITH, Ph.D., D.esL., O.S. J.
Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 3(1961)2(9-13)