KEITH A HENRY
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The vicissitudes of the Order of St. John in its manifestation as the Grand Priory of Russia, founded upon the fall of Malta to Napoleon Bonaparte, read like a romantic novel. The predominantly Roman Catholic order was previously in close communication with the only European sovereign outside the rising tide of republicanism and Napoleonic despotism, Emperor Paul I of Russia (1796-1801). Already under Peter the Great, there had been communication between Malta and Russia, whose envoy, Count Cheremeteff, returned to Russia as a member of the Knights of Malta. Catherine the Great sent her heir, Paul, to Malta to study the naval arts.
In 1797, the Order made the Russian Emperor their royal protector and patron, and in June of the following year a formal treaty was entered into by the Order of St. John, still sovereign on Malta, and Emperor Paul I. The Emperor created—for “times eternal”—a branch of the Order for his Orthodox (and other non-Catholic) subjects. However, this did not help the knights to keep their stronghold of Malta. Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, instead of defending his nearly impregnable city fortress of Valetta, for reasons still debated today surrendered and sought an armistice in June 1798. He left the island with a few items of the Order’s regalia, among them the hand of Saint John and the icon of Our Lady of Filerimos. Both of these relics were eventually sent to Emperor Paul I.
Many of the knights, especially those of noble French blood, saw the betrayal to the upstart autocratic republican Bonaparte as high treason. Emperor Paul, his status as autocrat notwithstanding, in his desire to head and protect the Order permitted himself to be elected its Grand Master by the majority of the Roman Catholic knights on October 27, 1798. His election, though, was in theory disqualified by the Catholic Order’s rules. He was neither Roman Catholic nor celibate. At this point in its history, except for a branch in Prussia, the Order’s fully professed membership was bound under religious vows, of which one was celibacy. Emperor Paul, as a married man with a large family, could never become a professed knight. However, his election was entirely valid according to the rules of the Russian Empire. Emperor Paul legitimately became Grand Master of a new Order which retained the trappings of the old.
The Emperor had embarked on a novel ecumenical path, with a Grand Priory for his Catholic subjects (since all of Lithuania and much of Poland were part of the Russian Empire, where there was a priory called the Anglo-Bavarian Tongue), and an Orthodox branch for his Russian noble subjects. Both branches included a majority of married non-celibate members. As Emperor Paul’s powers were absolute and sovereign, he opened the Order to lay females as members. (Previously, women served as nuns in convents of the Order.) In the membership list of 1799, female members of the Imperial family are listed with honors, including the Empress and eight Grand Duchesses. Among others included was the wife of the original ambassador from Malta, the now lay and married Catholic Count Litta. The Order assumed a new persona. The involvement of the Orthodox Church is evidenced by the appointment of Orthodox bishops as Chaplains of the Order, as well as the appearance of the Cross of the Order on their vestments. The Order—previously a celibate institution aside from the Protestant Bailiwick of Brandenburg—was opened to all Orthodox or Catholic males and females, married or celibate. The celibate character of the Order all but disappeared when the Emperor, guaranteeing the continuity of the Order in the Russian Empire, promulgated by Imperial Decree the institution of Hereditary Family Commanderies.
The Emperor, since his first visit to Malta in 1782, always admired the teaching skills of the knightly Order. As the bulwark of Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire, it served as a prime military academy offering instruction in the arts of naval and land warfare, its hospitaller nature assuming a secondary role. The Order became a model for the Russian nobility, especially for students of military arts developed in the West. The Emperor granted a seat of power to his reformulated Order: the Woronzoff Palace in St. Petersburg. It became part training school for newly minted knights, and part spiritual center for the Order. A Roman Catholic and a Russian Orthodox chapel were created by Emperor Paul. Restored by Emperor Nicholas I, they exist to this day. The Woronzoff Palace eventually became the home of the Corps des Pages, from which the young nobles graduated into the privileged regiment of the Chevaliers-Gardes. The palace still houses the elite Suvorov Military Academy.
Although the Grand Mastership was not accepted by Emperor Alexander I, he remained as Protector and the Orthodox branch of the Order survived till the Russian Revolution of 1917. Eventually, in a period characterized by pomp, decorations and the ideals of chivalric life which the Order represented, the identity of the Order merged with that of the Corps des Pages.
The late Grand Prior of the Orthodox Order of St. John, His Excellency Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy, and Countess Bobrinskoy.
The Pages were given the right to wear the eight-point white cross of the Order on a round gold plaque and continued wearing it as Chevaliers-Gardes. The Order by the mid-19th century was—according to Auguste Wahlen’s Ordres de Chevalerie et Marques d’Honneur (1844) and Sir Edmund Burke’s The Book of Orders of Knighthood (1858)—a house order under the Romanoff family loosely based on the mother Order of St. John of Jerusalem, with a Grand Priory for the Roman confession and one for the Orthodox and Protestant confessions. Ties with the Roman Order slowly loosened. Emperor Alexander II continued to favor the Orthodox Order and confirmed the princely family of Troubetskoy in the rank of Hereditary Commander in 1867 (among various events proving the Order’s existence). Mention of membership in the Order by nobles, high military officers and Orthodox clergy appears in most Court Almanacs prior to 1917. The crown of the Order remained in St. Petersburg (with a copy eventually sent to the Catholic Order by Emperor Alexander I). It was displayed at the funeral of Emperor Alexander II. The Catholic Order sent emissaries to St. Petersburg in 1909 on a mission to restore the Catholic branch in Russia. Count V. Armfeld was given official permission to wear the Orthodox Order’s cross in 1912.
Before World War I, Emperor Nicholas II sent an image of Emperor Paul I in full regalia as Grand Master to the seat of the Catholic Order in Rome. Although he was acknowledged only as a “de facto” Grand Master by the West, the portrait is shown in many photographs of recent ceremonies of the Roman Order and occupies a prominent place in the audience hall of Palazzo Malta on Via Condotti in Rome, as well as at the Venerable Order’s headquarters in London.
After the revolution of 1917, all Imperial establishments were abolished. The nobility of Russia escaped in large numbers to France. In 1928, a group of prominent White Russian refugees representing some of the most important families of Imperial Russia—Hereditary Family Commanders—met in Paris to reconstitute the historical Russian Grand Priory. They formed the Union of Hereditary Family Commanders under the leadership and protectorship of the surviving Romanoff Grand Dukes and appointed former senator Baron de Taube to explore the possibility of a union with Rome. After two years of silence, Rome declined their overture, as they were not Roman Catholics. During the following years, remaining Family Commanders, acting under Imperial edicts—never rescinded—re-established the Order in Paris. During World War II the remaining relics of the Order, sent to Emperor Paul I and preserved by Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna (a Danish princess), were transferred to a monastery in Montenegro. The last Grand Duke, Vladimir Kirilovich (after receiving the high honor of Bailiff Grand Cross from the Roman Catholic Order as head of State) recognized Count Alexis Bobrinskoy as a Hereditary Family Commander in 1962.
His Highness Prince Michael of Russia (Protector and Grand Prior, 2006-2008), dubbing knights, New York.
After the war, the Order continued weakly in Paris and then—in 1973—came to the United States. Under the leadership of Prince Serge Belosselsky-Belozersky (whose father was a signatory of the 1928 group), at a meeting of senior Russian princes, Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy (younger brother of Hereditary Commander Count Alexis, who by then had died, having passed his nomination to his brother) was asked to “re-revive” the Order in the U.S.A. As it was inactive in Paris, due to the aging and death of the original signatories, the Order became active in the U.S.A. In 1977, it was officially incorporated as a charitable organization in the State of New York. In that same year, Count Bobrinskoy was elected Grand Prior with the acceptance of H. H. Prince Andrew of Russia, who became its Imperial Protector. Upon Prince Andrew’s death, in 1981, his youngest brother, H. H. Prince Vassili, became the Order’s Protector, succeeded at his death by the eldest son of Prince Andrew, H. H. Prince Michael, who assumed the role until his death in 2008. In 1992, with the fall of Communism in Russia, Patriarch Alexii II of Moscow and all Russia gave the order his blessing, adding to those previously bestowed by the heads of the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. In 1996 a branch of the Order was restored in Moscow, in 2002 in St. Petersburg, and subsequently in Ekaterinburg and Orenburg. Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy, head of the revitalized Order, passed away in 2006, and H. H. Prince Michael became the Grand Prior until his death in 2008. He was succeeded by the present Grand Prior, Count Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff (a seventh-generation Hereditary Family Commander from Emperor Paul’s original list).
A problematic aspect of the history of the Russian Grand Priory from the 1950s, which has caused complications and confusion, is the repeated appearance in different forms of other groups representing themselves as the Russian Grand Priory. In almost all instances, these pseudo-Russian groups claimed as their head a Grand Master, while the legitimate group has always maintained that—as established by Emperor Paul I—it is a Grand Priory, headed by a Grand Prior. The best- known example with ties to Russia was the Order headed by His Majesty King Peter I of Yugoslavia. As an exiled king, he created a legitimate—albeit Yugoslavian—knightly order under his protection, with many members of the Russian nobility joining his group. However, the Russian Hereditary Commanders never surrendered their hereditary privileges and continued as a separate Order.
In the years following the Grand Priory’s transfer to the U.S., ceremonies were established and small but important philanthropic endeavors began. It was originally decided to aid victims of natural calamities, regardless of location, nationality or religion. Since 1976, when six tons of foodstuffs were delivered to hurricane-stricken Honduras, the list of such assistance spans the globe, with beneficiaries including flood and hurricane victims in the U.S.A. (where the Order helped rebuild a village after Hurricane Katrina). After the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Grand Priory initiated humanitarian efforts in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, supporting orphanages, assisting in the restoration of damaged churches, and aiding the ill (especially children) with the help of our members, in particular medical specialists.
Count Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff, Grand Prior, 2008 - Present (seventh-generation Hereditary Family Commander). (ISLAND PHOTOGRAPHY)
At present, the Order is active throughout the world—in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Granted a charter by H. M. King Leopold of Belgium, the Order became a member of the U.N. as an NGO/DPI organization. It is divided into Priories and Commanderies, each with its own council composed of professional people from a variety of backgrounds.
It is meet for the largest Priory of the nearly 1000-year-old Order to have as its head a person whose lineage is even more ancient. Prince Ivan S. Obolensky, the Order’s Prior of New York, is a direct descendant of the Rurikide princes, founders of Russia. His ancestors occupied high positions throughout Russian history, especially as officers of the most prestigious Imperial regiments, and proudly served their country from its inception to the present time. Prince Ivan Sergeevich Obolensky-Neleditsky-Meletsky—son of the dashing Col. Serge Obolensky and Ava Alice Muriel Astor, daughter of John Jacob Astor IV—was born in England but came to the U.S. as a small child. First trained as a concert pianist, he enlisted as a pilot in the U.S. Navy during World War II and majored in physics and government at Yale. He subsequently became a book publisher, whose list notably included James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family (1957). Turning to finance, he became an investment banker and member of the New York Stock Exchange as vice president of Wellington, Shields & Company.
A member of several philanthropic organizations, Prince Ivan Obolensky serves the Russian Nobility Association of America as a director and treasurer. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became chairman and CEO of the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club of New York, an organization which assists enlisted personnel of the U.S. armed forces and its allies. In earlier years, he served on the board of the Tolstoy Foundation, which helped to resettle refugees and displaced persons after World War II. Following the death of Prior Judge Julius Cardile, Prince Ivan was asked to become Prior of New York. On November 14, 2010, he was officially installed at a ceremony in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in New York and took the oath of service to the Russian Grand Priory.
Coat of Arms of the Orthodox Order of St. John (COUNTESS BOBRINSKOY)