Relations between the Court at St. Petersburg and the Court
of the Grand Masters at Malta

Relations 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 Czar.(9)
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 : relations.

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)


   
 
 
 
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