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Russian tradition of the Knights Hospitaller

Brother Gerard created the Order of St John of Jerusalem as a distinctive Order from a previous Benedictine Establishment of Hospitallers. It provided for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. After the success of the First Crusade, it became an independent monastic Order, and then as circumstances demanded grafted on a military identity, to become an Order of Knights. The Home or Convent of the Order moved to Rhodes in 1312, where it ruled as a sovereign power, then to Malta in 1530 as a sovereign/vassal power.

In 1797, Paul I, Emperor of Russia signed a Treaty with the Order of Malta, establishing a Roman Catholic Grand Priory of 10 Commanderies in Russia in compensation for the loss of income from the former Polish Grand Priory (of 6 Commanderies), which lay in the Polish territory annexed by Russia.

In 1798, following Napoleon's taking of Malta, the Order was dispersed, but with a large number of refugee Knights sheltering in St Petersburg, where they elected the Russian Emperor, Paul I as their Grand Master - a rival Grand Master to Ferdinand Hompesch then held in disgrace. Hompesch abdicated in 1799, under pressure from the Austrian Court, leaving Paul as the only Grand Master. As the Order was under the obedience of the Roman Catholic Church, Paul I as an Orthodox Christian and of another obedience could never be accepted as Grand Master under Roman Catholic Canon Law. However, Paul I of Russia, without question, was Grand Master from the point of view of International Law, and accepted as so, by the community of nations.

As de-facto Grand Master, in addition to the Roman Catholic Grand Priory, Paul I created a Russian tradition within the Hospitaller Order - the "Russian Grand Priory" of no less than 118 Commanderies dwarfing the rest of the Order. The Priory was open to all Christians - which whilst it could not be accepted as a canonical part of the Roman Catholic Order, it was never-the-less a de-facto part of the ancient Order (the Roman Catholic HQ was only too happy to receive money from the Russian Grand Priory from 1798 to 1810).

Following Imperial Decrees of Alexander I of Russia in 1810/1811, a fiscal and legal separation of the Russian tradition of St John from the main Roman Catholic HQ was created (The main motive of the Decrees was undoubtedly to gain the property and money of the Russian branch for Alexander's war chest in his struggle against Napoleon). As early as May 1802, Lord St. Helens (British Minister to the Court of Russia) informed the Hon. Arthur Paget (Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Austria) that the Russian Emperor was going to make the Russian Priory “an independent and separate Community”, which would have stripped “perhaps nine-tenths of the Revenues that constituted the” Order’s principal income! Although the Emperor did not take this action in 1802, by 1810, necessity forced the independence. The Russian Order from 1810, was akin to the German JohanniterOrder, a Johannine tradition, but legally separate.

This Russian Hospitaller tradition of St John continued within the Russian Empire, and then into Exile following the Revolution in 1917. Headquartered at first in Paris (1928-1976) under the leadership of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch to 1933, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovitch to 1956, Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovitch to 1977, and then in New York under the elected Grand Prior, Count Nicholas Bobrinskoy, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great, and Prince Michael Androvitch, Grand Duke Alexander’s Grandson.

Paul I had created under Russian Laws Family Commanders of the Russian Grand Priory with Hereditary Rights. It is the descendants of these Commanders who have, with the support of members of the Imperial family, continued that Russian tradition in exile.