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Freemasons from War and Peace to We

June 10, 2020

Since I just finished Pisemskii’s novel The Masons (Масоны, 1880), here’s Vladimir Wozniuk on writing about Freemasonry in nineteenth-century Russia:

[…] with the passing of Nicholas I, and certainly by the late 1860s, there was much less reason to fear the police and the censor, certainly on the subject of Freemasonry. So, for example, Lev Tolstoy could exploit the subject in War and Peace: Pierre Bezukhov becomes a Freemason, and Masonic rituals and traditions are referred to many times. And when A. F. Pisemsky began researching a historical novel that he would title The Masons, the young Christian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who was a friend to Fyodor Dostoevsky and even then considered to be a storehouse of knowledge on all religions, cults, and quasi-religious movements, assisted him in this task. The novel, which was somewhat sympathetic to Russian Freemasonry, was published in 1880 without much reaction of any kind. (293–94)

Wozniuk cites Charles A. Moser, but Moser says there was at least a bit of reaction: a negative review in National Annals (“it was really, really sad to meet Mr. Pisemsky again”) and a positive one in The Russian Herald (one of the author’s “most successful works,” 183). According to Moser, there might have been more reaction if the novel had come out in the 1860s, but by 1880 there were no longer as many serious journals printing reviews.

Pisemskii aside, and even Russia aside, Wozniuk has interesting things to say about Masons, the Old Testament, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European politics: Masons “understood themselves to be children of the Enlightenment, but they also unabashedly laid claim to an ancient mystical heritage, back to the construction of Solomon’s Temple” (292). The building of that temple, however, was “discussed at some length” and “with considerable ambiguity” in the Second Book of Samuel and the First Book of Kings, and it was associated with “what was essentially a new political theology of dynastic monarchy,” which Samuel, “who had anointed first Saul and then David (but not Solomon) as kings,” prophesied would lead to disaster, as it amounted to “rejection of Israel’s God Yahweh” (292). Masons’ honoring “symbols associated with Solomon’s Temple at the expense of the authority of Christianity” had “political implications”: it recalled the Solomon-era departure from true religion for earthly empire, an association that supporters of the old monarchic order in Europe could use against republican-oriented Masons (293).

I won’t stray too far into the twentieth-century today to go through Wozniuk’s reading of Evgenii Zamiatin’s We (Мы, 1920) in detail, but I’ll quickly mention two points. In a discussion of Freemason-linked geometry themes in We, Wozniuk points out that INTEGRAL, the name of the spaceship being built in the novel, is an anagram of English TRIANGLE (Zamiatin had lived in England). Later he says that if we assume the Two Hundred Years’ War mentioned in the novel ended in 1917, it would have begun in 1717, the year that “witnessed the founding of the modern Order of Freemasons” (289–90, 299).

Much more in Vladimir Wozniuk, “Freemasonry in Evgenii Zamiatin’s We,” The Russian Review 70.2 (2011): 288–99.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 10, 2020 11:10 am

    Does Wozniuk mention Vasily Narezhny‘s Российский Жилблаз? It’s got a long and detailed description of a Masonic temple and the (fantasized) goings-on there.

    • June 10, 2020 11:22 am

      No—he mentions “the 1822 ban placed on secret societies by Alexander I” as early evidence of “suspicions and fears about Masonic political intentions in Russia,” but he doesn’t go back as far as Narezhny. Thanks for pointing that out! I wonder if Pisemskii was familiar with (at least the then published part of) Российский Жилблаз.

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