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The Petersburg Crucible – Alchemy and the Russian Nobility in Catherine the Great’s Russia

Posted on by Robert Collis

The Petrine Instauration
Religion, Esotericism and Science at the Court of Peter the Great, 1689-1725
by Robert Collis, Ph. D. 

 – BRILL Academic Publishers, 2011 –

The reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725) was marked by an unprecedented wave of reform in Russia. This book provides an innovative reappraisal of the Petrine Age, in which hitherto neglected aspects of the tsar’s transformation of his country are studied. More specifically, the reforms enacted by the tsar are assessed in light of the religious notion of instauration – a belief in the restoration of Adamic knowledge in the last age – and a historical and cultural analysis of the impact of Western esotericism at the Russian court. This book will appeal to scholars of Russian history and religion, as well as being of wider interest to those studying Western esotericism in Early Modern and eighteenth-century Europe.


The Petersburg Crucible – Alchemy and the Russian Nobility in Catherine the Great’s Russia

Leverhulme Research Fellow
The Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies
Jessop West Building, The University of Sheffield
ffield S3 7RA, UK

This article studies the cultural significance of alchemy among the Russian nobility in St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great. It is argued that Catherine the Great perceived alchemy as a Western practice promoted by foreign charlatans and by mystically-inclined Freemasons, which threatened to under- mine the foundations of her vision of Russia being a beacon of reason and enlightenment. The first section of this paper concentrates on Petr Ivanovich Melissino and examines the manner in which this prominent Russian aristocrat incorporated alchemy as a core component of his seven-grade Masonic Rite. The highgrade system came to prominence in St. Petersburg in the mid 1760s and it is argued that it acted as a focus for Russian and European aristocrats. The second part of this article studies the impact on the Russian nobility of the visit of Cagliostro to St. Petersburg between 1779 and 1780. This section includes an in- depth examination of the empress’s personal response to Cagliostro’s visit, which included a series of remarkable letters to Grigorii Potemkin. The final part of this article studies the public response of Catherine to the attraction of alchemy among her nobility in the 1780s, via the medium of theatrical comedies.

*) I would like to thank Anthony Lentin, Tat’iana Artem’eva, Natalie Bayer, and Kocku von Stuckrad for commenting on earlier drafts of this article. The writing of this article has also been made possible by The Leverhulme Trust, which generously awarded me an Early Career Fellowship in October  2010.

Keywords: Russia; 18th-century History; Alchemy; Catherine the Great; Freemasonry

On the evening of 4 January 1786 the elite of St. Petersburg society were entertained by the premiere of The Deceiver (Obmanshchik),  a comedy written by Catherine the  Great. Set in the  Russian capital, the  play provides a lacerating critique of the  harmful influence  of a western European alchemist-healer, named Kalifalkzherston, on the circle of an impressionable Russian aristocratic family.[1]   The audience would have immediately recognized parallels between the  foreign protagonist of Catherine’s play and the infamous Count Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo [1743–1795]), who had been sympathetically received by large sections of Petersburg’s aristocracy during his six-month residence in the city between the autumn of 1779 and the spring of 1780.[2]

Yet, whilst the play does draw inspiration from the notoriety engendered by the visit of Cagliostro to St. Petersburg, it also expresses Catherine’s wider, and more long-held, concerns with the corrupting influence of alchemy on the Russian aristocracy. In essence, her fear was that St. Petersburg had become a crucible in which alchemical (and more broadly mystical) philosophy emanating from Western Europe was corrupting the Russian nobility.

In this paper, it will be argued that Catherine the Great was not mistaken to be concerned that St. Petersburg had become a melting pot for the fermentation of alchemical doctrines. In this regard it is useful to perceive the Russian capital as a key European centre of late eighteenth-century interest in esotericism, which was prevalent among sections of the continent’s aristocracy during this era.[3] Namely, St. Petersburg became a cruci- ble of activity for a loose-knit network of Russian and European aristocrats who did not reject the ideal of social and moral improvement, nor repudiated the belief that ‘science’ and ‘reason’ were capable of transforming the world. However, these aristocrats sought to realise their lofty visions via alchemical lore, cabbalistic numerology, mesmerist séances, Sweden- borgian spiritualism and the Scriptures.[4]

Thus, a study concentrating on the alchemical interests of the Russian nobility in St. Petersburg in the second half of the eighteenth century broadens the valuable work of Monika Neugebauer-Wölk and her group of researchers at The University of Halle, which has largely concentrated on the German cultural domains.[5]  As Kocku von Stuckrad notes, the work of the Neugebauer-Wölk circle highlights the “intrinsic links between dis- courses of higher knowledge in esotericism on the one hand, and the philo- sophical, cultural and social developments of the eighteenth century on the other.”[6] Such an approach accords with the pursuits of a number of prominent Russian and European noblemen in St. Petersburg between the 1760s and the 1780s. However, as will be shown in this article, Catherine the Great vehemently rejected such intrinsic links, which posed a threat to her own vision of enlightened thought that was largely based on that of the Philosophes.[7]

The first part of this paper will examine how high-grade forms of chival- ric Freemasonry played a crucial role in the dissemination of various eso- teric doctrines—including both  philosophical and  practical doctrines of alchemy—among the Western European and Russian aristocracy in St. Petersburg in the second half of the eighteenth century.[8] This will be followed by a study of the reaction to Cagliostro’s use of alchemy to seduce the Petersburg elite.

Whilst drawing on Masonic networks, the Sicilian adventurer also drew on the potent appeal of the Western European tradition of the Adept-Physician. The study of this reaction will include an in- depth analysis of Catherine the Great’s attempts to undermine the appeal of alchemy among her aristocratic subjects. This section will focus on how the empress was initially content to ridicule Cagliostro and the appeal of alchemy in private correspondence to the author Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm  (1723–1807). Moreover, a study will be carried out of the remarkable way in which Catherine privately (and playfully) chastised her lover and confidante  Grigorii Potemkin (1739–1791) for his attraction to Cagliostro’s alchemical doctrines. It will then be demonstrated that the empress later used the public medium of theatrical comedies to ridicule the status of the alchemist as healer, as well as to attack the Masonic framework that promoted alchemical worldviews within the closed space of the lodge and also increasingly in the public sphere.

Thus, rather than merely being an anachronistic pastime of a handful of misguided Russian aristocrats, alchemy assumed a far more pervasive hold over the elite of Petersburg society. Indeed, the threat supposedly posed by alchemy on the Russian aristocracy was deemed to be such that it warranted a systematic response from the empress. Far from being a whimsical distraction, Western European alchemical doctrines offered an alternative vision of the world (dressed up in quasi-scientific language), which ran counter to the Enlightenment ideals so cherished by Catherine. Catherine the Great’s acute awareness of the dangerous allure of Western European alchemists was manifested as early as her coronation celebrations in 1763. Thus, during the traditional carnival period of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), in late January, an extraordinary street pageant, directed by F. G. Volkov  1729–1763), and lasting three days was held in Moscow in honour of the monarch’s recent accession to the throne. The public spectacle, which involved nearly four thousand people and two hundred floats, was entitled “‘Minerva Triumphant’  in which the vileness of the vices and the glory of the virtues are presented” and served as a grand elucidation of the new monarch’s vision of authority in her vast realm.[9] The pageant portrayed Catherine as Minerva—the Roman goddess of wisdom—whose reign would herald the  return  of the  Golden Age, envisioned in terms of Enlightenment ideals of science and learning. As Richard Wortman has noted, the Minervan monarch was promoted in a benevolent light as a ruler who would usher in an era of unparalleled knowledge, justice, moral- ity, and civic virtue.[10] Fittingly, the masquerade culminated in a triumphal procession of virtues, including personifications of Parnassus, legislators, philosophers, the sciences and arts, and finally Minerva in her chariot, accompanied by choruses extolling the glorious victory of virtue.[11]

However, much of the preceding masquerade was dedicated to presenting a withering satirical attack on the vices that needed to be overcome in order for Russia to follows its ruler into the Golden Age. Hence, the proces- sion included a series of floats  depicting Momus (jealousy), Bacchus (drunkenness), discord, ignorance, bribery, arrogance, wastefulness and the world turned upside-down.[12]

Alongside these vices, the spectacle also featured a concerted attack on deceit (obman), which significantly first reveals Catherine the Great’s vehement hostility to alchemists and other speculative schemers. Most telling, in this regard, is the masquerade’s special poem dedicated to the dangers of deceivers:

Weaknesses are repugnant to nature,
if they give power over the heart to sorcery,
which is only a stupid chimera;
But of all deceptions, those of the cunning projector are the most evil.
Because he aspires to describe benefits to society,
In order to suck profit with his new projects,
And if we do not forestall his deceits,
He would be even more evil than sorceresses and gypsies.[13]

This verse was accompanied by characters in face masks depicting male and female gypsies, who sang and danced, as well as sorcerers and sorceresses and several devils, and lastly a charlatan with his projects.[14] As the poem makes clear, the threat posed by gypsies and common sorcerers paled into insignificance compared to the supposedly evil machinations of cunning projectors. In this regard it is noticeable that the Russian terms for sorcery (koldovstvo) and gypsy (tsygan) are counterpoised with the  decidedly Western European-sounding projector (prozhektyor).  In short, with Catherine’s approval, Volkov stressed the grave danger faced by Russian society from foreign charlatans promoting false notions of science and knowledge. In the masquerade the association between such projec- tors and alchemy is reinforced by the inclusion of a figure of Vulcan, who is accompanied by fourteen smithies as well as a depiction of part of Mount Etna, where the god built his forge.[15] The link between alchemy and Vulcan was repeatedly stressed by Paracelsus (1493–1541), the Swiss maverick phy- sician, and can be found in late eighteenth-century alchemical literature in Russia.[16]  In the Russian translation of The Cradle of the Stone of the Wise (Kolybel kamnia mudrykh), published  in 1783, for example, it states, “if you want to work on matters of nature, then it is necessary to extract the help of Vulcan.”[17]

Since at least the early seventeenth century the term ‘projector’ had been commonly used in a highly derogatory manner to describe individu- als who sought financial gain via claims that they possessed secret knowledge that would benefit (rich) patrons.
The projector was closely associated with alchemy and speculative medicine and the quest to obtain the elusive Philosophers’ Stone, or universal elixir. In 1713, for example, James Puckle wrote that a projector “was an Adept [who could] fix Mercury, and transmute lead into Gold.”[18] Moreover,  in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift satirised the exploits of various projectors in the Grand Academy of Lagodo, including “the universal artist,” who is described performing curious chemical experiments “for the improvement of human life.”[19]

Russia attracted a number of more rational and Enlightenment-minded projectors during the eighteenth century, whose schemes for improvement of the government economy, for example, reflect the spirit of entrepre- neurial adventurers.[20] Yet, as the negative characterisation of projectors suggests in the Minerva Triumphant spectacle, Russia also attracted a host of alchemical speculators, who sought to promote their esoteric knowledge at the courts of Catherine’s predecessors.[21]

Thus, in April 1740, Johannes de Wilde from Amsterdam, wrote to Empress Anna Ioannova (1693–1740) and outlined how he could teach one of her appointed subjects a secret method whereby one-hundred ducats of gold and fifty marks of the finest silver would be delivered to St. Petersburg every month.[22]

Furthermore, in January 1741 an alchemical projector by the name of the Baron de Chevremont entered into a lengthy correspondence with the Russian Vice-Chancellor Andrei Ivanovich Osterman (1686–1747), the most prominent statesman during the brief regency of Anna Leopol’dovna (1718–1746). The projector offered Osterman a poudre de projection, or universal elixir, and expressed his willingness to demonstrate his skills at the Russian court by “curing all illnesses reputed to be incurable and the transmutation of 20 kilos of lead into gold.” In return, Baron de Chevremont sought a series of rewards, including being made a state advisor in St. Petersburg, as well as receiving the rank of Count and the Order of St. Andrew.[23]

Similar alchemical proposals by European projectors were outlined dur- ing the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–1762) between 1741 and 1762. In October 1752, for example, an Austrian alchemist named Ignatius Edlinger wrote a letter to the empress via the Russian resident in Vienna, in which he  promoted  his  astrological-alchemical tincture  (tinctura astrali). According to Edlinger, a person possessing this tincture would have no need of a physician as it was akin to the Tree of Life in paradise, which gave eternal life to anyone eating the fruit from its branches.[24]

Moreover, in February 1761, a Swiss alchemist in Amsterdam wrote to Empress Elizabeth in order to recommend a doctor who could heal “all orders of disease through the Sleeve of Alchemy.” The projector also adds that knowledge of such alchemical practices would “enable the secret study of finances,” which promised to provide tens of millions of roubles every year to the Imperial treasury.[25]

Catherine the Great was aware of Elizabeth’s susceptibility to such alchemical projectors, who promised wondrous elixirs and the prospect of great wealth for Russia. In her memoirs, for example, she wrote that Elizabeth “believed in magic and sorcery,” after narrating how her prede- cessor had been alarmed at discovering a magical charm (hair wrapped around the root of a vegetable).[26]   Yet, in spite of the scenario depicted in the ‘Minerva Triumphant’ spectacle, in which the pernicious influence of foreign alchemical projectors and their false teachings would be banished from Catherine’s virtuous realm, the reality during her long reign was somewhat different. Indeed, just as the empress was publicly announcing her desire to rid Russia of foreign esoteric doctrines, an international Masonic network was taking hold in St. Petersburg, which embraced alchemical philosophy. In other words, whilst lone projectors still remained a threat, a new, dynamic powerbase for fermenting esoteric philosophy was emerging in Russia.

1.Alchemy and the Masonic Circle of Petr Ivanovich Melissino

1.1.Alchemical Rituals and Symbolism within the Masonic Lodge

In 1765,  Catherine the Great was immersed in formulating her Grand Instruction (Bolshoi nakaz), which, as Simon Dixon notes, was intended as a “guide to the Enlightened principles on which a better government and society might ultimately rest.”[27] At the same time as the empress was composing her Nakaz,  the  eminent figure  of Colonel Petr Ivanovich Melissino  (1726–1797) established a form of Freemasonry in St. Petersburg inspired by chivalric and clerical symbolism and rituals, which advocated an alternative worldview in which alchemy played a pivotal role.

Over the course of the following two decades Melissino’s high-grade system of Freemasonry acted as a key crucible in which both Russian and European aristocrats indulged their passion for alchemy in the Russian capital.[28] A  contemporary French commentator, Claude François Masson, described Melissino as “a man who may, in some measure, be considered as the Richelieu of Russia.”[29]  This lavish praise is backed up by asserting that he combined “great practice with scientific theory” in every aspect of the arts and sciences. Moreover, he “cultivated literature, and had a decided taste for the French theatre.”[30]  Of Greek origin, Melissino was flu- ent in Russian, German, Italian, French, Greek, Latin, and English. This ease with European languages was combined with a “gallant and magnifi- cent” comportment, which ensured that he was a prominent figure in Petersburg society during Catherine’s reign.[31]  It is fitting, therefore, that when Casanova arrived in St. Petersburg in December 1764, he went straight to Melissino with a letter of introduction.[32] The Greco-Russian invited Casanova to sup with him every night and entertained him throughout the adventurer’s stay in St. Petersburg. Thus Casanova escorted Melissino to an Epiphany celebration, as well as to a military review and banquet.[33] Furthermore, Melissino acted as an intermediary between Casanova and Catherine the Great.

Claude Masson also describes how his “military entertainments, his camps, his parties, and even his orgies and follies, will long be the subject of conversation.”[34] This testimony is corroborated by Johann-Albrecht Euler, the son of the celerbated mathematician Leonhard Euler, who in the summer of 1775 attended a public Masonic entertainment organised by Melissino:

After this dinner, that is to say at 10 o’clock,  we went straight to Kammenyi Ostrov, where the freemasons gave the best festival in the world. General Melissino of the artillery, who is Grand Master of the lodge was at the head. There was a grand banquet and masked ball […] [and] a sumptuous and magnificent fireworks display.[35]

Thus, Melissino was a consumate socialite, who was able to publicly flaunt his Masonic grandeur and elevated status in Petersburg’s elite circles.

Yet, whilst Melissino was a master of sociability on the Petersburg stage, personal charm alone does not account for his prominence in Masonic circles.36 Rather, one must look to the distinctive features he developed in the mid 1760s within his own seven-grade Masonic system.37  Herein, as mentioned, one is particularly struck by the way in which he combined chivalric and clerical mythology and rituals linked to the Knights Templar and Orthodox and Catholic liturgical practices alongside Rosicrucian-style esoteric philosophy immersed in alchemical lore.

This is most apparent in the seventh degree entitled Magnus Sacerdos Templariorum. The opening ceremony of the initiation into this degree imitates Orthodox (and Catholic) rites associated with Chrismation, in which the initiate is consecrated with holy anointing oil. The head priest then sung the opening line from the Catholic hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus, known as the Golden Sequence, seven times, which is traditionally sung at Pentecost. In other words, the clerics were invoking the Holy Spirit to descend upon them. The high priest then approached the altar, on which he placed a ceremonial rod of Aaron seven times. The altar was also adorned with six small candles and in the middle were seven lit candles. What is more, in front of the altar could be seen a white curtain, which was decorated with a red cross produced from the convergence of four black daleths.[38] It is worth mentioning here that the use of the colours black, white and red had an alchemical meaning, symbolising death, purification and rebirth,[39] as well as relating to the passion and resurrection of Christ. Thus, from the very beginning the ceremony for initiates into the seventh degree fused Orthodox and Catholic liturgical rites, Templar garb, and ‘magic crosses’ composed  from a Hebrew letter.

After the initial consecration ceremony, the high priest cited the opening line of Psalm 47—“O clap your hands all ye people”—before beginning the catechism. Thus, in answer to the question of “what is the conclave?,” the high priest answers by proclaiming that it was a “genuine assembly of true disciples of ancient wise leaders of the world, now called Brethren of the Rose Cross and also Clerics.” Fascinatingly,  the high priest then empha- sizes the difference between this Rosicrucian Order and its predecessors. First, it is stressed that “this most-venerable name has been abused in former times by fraudulent ‘base’ chemists,” which would seemingly be a reference to the seventeenth-century  Rosicrucian sympathizers. Next, the high priest states that “in recent years …  a certain society of so-called German Rosicrucians has been established,” who are apparently numerous but they “have but little knowledge of the Royal Art,” that is alchemy.

In addition, the high priest speaks of a third (unnamed) group, which he concedes had “some shallow theoretical concepts of wisdom but [is] still very far from the true purpose.” The importance of alchemy within the conclave is stressed further in the next question and answer of the catechism, which adopts a Paracelsian understanding the so-called Royal Art as “the Art and Wisdom of Nature.” Moreover, wisdom itself is pronounced to be “the knowledge of God and the whole of nature.”[40]

The catechism then discusses Genesis, whereby it is stated that the divine spirit formed from Chaos and took the form of the light. This light is understood in an alchemical sense; namely it was divided into the pure (from which the sky was formed) and the impure, from which the volcanic matter of the earth’s crust was formed. After the discussion of Creation, the ceremony switches dramatically to the ritualistic death of the initiate, which involves the candidate washing his hands in holy oil seven times, before the high-priest invokes death by pronouncing the Latin phrase Ecce homo (“Behold the Man”), which was uttered by Pilate in the Vulgate ver- sion of John  19:5 when he presents a scourged Jesus before his crucifixion. After lying face down on a straw mattress for several minutes, the initiate is ‘resurrected’ and anointed with holy oil.

The candidate then swears three oaths of loyalty. Significantly, these protestations of devotion are uttered in the names of “Harris, Aumont, David and Jonathan.”[41]  Here, the Melissino Rite once again draws on a Templar legend, which narrates that Pierre d’Aumont, the Provincial Grand Master of Auvergne, fled to Scotland in 1313 and was met by George Harris, the Grand Commander of the Order. Hence, whilst the first part of the catechism promotes the Rosicrucian heritage of the Order, the oath-swearing ceremony reinforces Templar associations.

The high priest then pronounces that the candidate is ready to receive the light and to obtain theosophical, cabbalistic, and hermetic knowledge. Indeed, the initiation ceremony concludes with a long lecture by the high- priest, which reveals the full extent to which the cleric-masons led by Melissino embraced the richness of the Western esoteric tradition. The entire speech fused Templar symbolism, complex cabbalistic interpretations, Christian theosophy, Hermeticism, and abundant  alchemical imagery based on the stages necessary to produce the philosophers’ stone.[42]

The degree to which the Melissino lodge acted as a crucible for various strands of high-grade ritual practice is epitomized by the high priests ruminations on the meaning and significance of the letters J, B, and M that made up the three pillars of Masonry. First, the high priest explains that it refers to Jachin, Boaz, and Macbenac, with the last name laden with Templar symbolism. The Templar associations are then stressed still further by the explanation that the three letters in the Scottish Master degree also refer to Jacobus Burgundicus Molaius, or in other words Jacques de Molay.

Moreover, the high priest adds that initiates in the seventh degree are privy to the Hermetic meaning of the three initials, which are expressed in Latin as Ignis, Materis Balneum (“fire and the sea-bath”) or ignis et beata material (“fire and the blessed matter”). This Hermetic explanation of the three pillars of Masonry is then followed by a highly esoteric alchemical description of the process towards the creation of the philosophers’ stone, which includes the following passage:

The second material is green foam in which sea the philosophers swim. One without the other can create nothing. Those in our conclave who have received the proper instruction in order to combine both these materials, following our splendid Cabbala, have the luck to see this first water emerge. Out of it comes afterwards the grey salt, known as the or the Saturnine Antimonium, and finally from these salts the mercurial water which dissolves all metals, minerals, precious stones and all natural matter and which benefit the days of mankind with complete health until the very end.[43]

What is more, the high priest also included a cabbalistic interpretation of the number 666, as calculated according to the numerical value of the Greek letters and how this also equates to the Hebrew numerical value of the phrase “to anoint oneself to the cross,” that is, alluding to the crucifix- ion of Christ.[44]

The Melissino Rite was only practiced in Russia between the mid 1760s and 1781, but its importance and influence should not be underestimated. Whilst Melissino directly drew on Rosicrucian and Templar traditions when formulating his rite, he was also highly innovative in his adoption of clerical symbolism and in incorporating Orthodox and Catholic liturgical rites. Melissino’s notion of a select clerical order that was privy to an intricate form of Judeo-Christian theosophical knowledge, interlaced with Cabbala and alchemy was contemporaneous with Martines de Pasqually’s development of the Order of Elus Coens in France in the 1760s. Yet, the Melissino Rite was entirely independent from the Martinist Rite and, moreover, was distinct in its use of Orthodox and Catholic rituals.

A very similar Masonic system was propagated  in St. Petersburg in 1768 by Johann August Starck (1741–1816),  when he inaugurated a Clerical Chapter in the city.[45] Between 1768 and 1769 Starck was private secretary to Prince Viazemskii, but had also taught Oriental languages and archaeology at the Petrinum school in St. Petersburg between 1763 and 1765.[46] The pre- cise connection between the Melissino Rite and the system introduced into St. Petersburg by Starck is difficult to ascertain. It has been claimed (with- out proof) that Starck frequented Melissino’s lodge in the city between 1763 and 1765.[47] However,  what is clear is that Starck’s chivalric  and clerical vision of Masonry closely mirrored that expounded by Melissino in the same city. In terms of alchemy, this is most evident in the rituals and symbolism associated with the seventh degree of Magus or Knight of Clearness and Light. As Boris Telepneff has noted, the ceremony was cloaked in the language of spiritual alchemy, whereby the “mystical process of regenera- tion” was enacted via the “separation of [the] Spiritual essence of Man from his Terrestrial Nature.”[48]

The emergence of the Melissino and Starck systems of high-grade Freemasonry in St. Petersburg in the 1760s was symptomatic of a wider European trend.
As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke  has observed, esoterically- minded Masonic sects in the second half of the eighteenth century, such as the Strict Observance in Germany, provided “a vehicle for the transmission of theosophical and alchemical traditions.”[49]  Within the security of the Masonic lodge, a section of Europe’s aristocratic ruling class craved an alternative worldview to the  rational and materialist doctrines being expounded by the likes of the Philosophes. Hence, they sought inspiration from the Western esoteric tradition that had flourished in the early modern period, alongside an acceptance of mystical Christian doctrines.

In Russia, this sentiment is epitomized by Melissino, who espoused the dynamic potential of the Western esoteric tradition to transform and impact upon both the individual and the surrounding environment. In other words, Melissino did not simply utilise the alchemical tradition for Masonic rituals and symbolism; he also succeeded in establishing an active circle of fellow adepts from across Europe in St. Petersburg, who collaborated on harnessing what they saw as the inherent potential of alchemical transmutation.[50]

1.2.The Melissino Circle and the Search for the Philosophers’ Stone

The ultimate goal of alchemists is to produce the philosophers’ stone, which as Lyndy Abraham notes is “the arcane of all arcane, possessing the power to perfect imperfection in all things.”[51]  Remarkably, Melissino was the   linchpin  of  an  international  coterie  of  would-be-adepts and fellow Masons who enthusiastically pursued this long-cherished goal in St. Petersburg in the 1770s and early 1780s. The evidence of such active alchem- ical experimentation overturns the view, expressed by Iurii Lotman and Stephen Baehr, among others, that Russian Masons in this period did not undertake alchemical experiments.[52]

The extent to which the Melissino Masonic circle indulged in alchemical pursuits is revealed in the journal of Marie-Daniel Bourée, Baron de Cor- beron (1748–1810). The Frenchman arrived in St. Petersburg  in November 1775, where he was secretary to the French legation until 1777 and then chargé d’affaires until returning to Paris in 1780.[53] On arrival  in the Russian capital Corberon immediately entered into a Masonic-alchemical network. Thus, within days of being in St. Petersburg the Saxon nobleman Count Carl Adolph  von Brühl (1742–1802) lent the French diplomat a 1754 edition of Bibliothèque des philosophes alchimiques ou hermétiques.[54]  Corberon and Brühl were soon joined in their alchemical experiments in early 1776 by a French aristocrat named the Chevalier Duménil and the Abbé Pasquini, a Sienese man of letters.

However, as Antoine Faivre has noted, of all the Masons in St. Petersburg it was Melissino who made by far the strongest impression on the French diplomat. On 5 May 1776, Corberon records in his journal that he had a meeting with Melissino in a lodge.[55]  At this meeting Melissino evidently boasted to Corberon that he was in possession of a vial that contained an elixir capable of bringing about good health and youthful vigour.[56]  A little over a year later, in June  1777, both Corberon and his friend von Brühl were initiated into the seventh degree of Melissino’s Masonic system. The foreign aristocrats had been recognised as worthy adepts by Melissino, who in accepting them into his inner sanctum would consequently instruct them in perfecting their alchemical labours.

Baron Karl von Heyking  (1751–1809), a nobleman from Courland, was also initiated into the seventh degree of Melissino’s Rite at the same cere- mony as Corberon. In his reminiscences, von Heyking writes that Melissino had “a  passion for alchemy” and that on initiation into the Russian’s Masonic Rite he realised that its purpose was to explore “the hermetic mys- teries or the philosophers’ stone.”[57]

Corberon’s journal provides ample evidence of such alchemical pur- suits, especially immediately prior to his departure for France in the autumn of 1780. In September 1780, for example, Prince Fedor Sergeevich Gagarin (1757–1794),  a captain in the Izmailovskii  Guards, offered  to show Corberon a book in which he claimed he was able to obtain “the true mercury without fire, which was itself created in a bottle of vulgar mercury.”[58]  Moreover,  in the same month the aspiring alchemist Ivan Matveevich  Tolstoi  (1746–1808), a major in the Preobrazhenskii Guards, asked Corberon whether he could subscribe to the latter’s “mytho-hermetic archive.” The flurry  of alchemical activity prior to  Corberon leaving St. Petersburg also included receiving one-and-a-half pounds of alchemical matter from a certain Gedin, on condition that he did not reveal how to make it. Corberon describes the alchemical substance as being composed of a certain powder mixed with a few pieces of metal called vulcain luna- tique, and adds that “we shall see whether I find a small laboratory in Paris” in order to utilise the concoction.[59]

However, undoubtedly the  most prized alchemical possession that Corberon took back to Paris with him was Melissino’s ‘great manuscript,’ along with six of his designs for lodge carpets.[60] It would seem Melissino had entrusted Corberon with the necessary means to export the Russian’s esoteric form of high-grade Masonry to France. Whilst the French diplomat later became attracted to various other esoteric groups, including Swedenborgians and the Illuminati of Avignon, he continued to extol the alchemical mastery of Melissino, as contained in the Russian’s manu- script.[61]  In 1787, for example Corberon wrote to von Brühl regarding this cherished manuscript. According to the Frenchman, the document relates to an incident in 1772, when Melissino had purportedly seen, handled and smelled “transmuted gold and the elixir of life,” after assisting in an alchem- ical experiment carried out by a certain German doctor based in Moscow named Kerstniz. Corberon himself writes that he was keen to meet with the German alchemist in 1780, but was informed that he had suddenly left Moscow in 1773 and had not returned.[62] It seems highly likely that the doc- tor in question was Johann Christian Kerstens (1713–1802), who in 1758 became the first professor of medicine, chemistry, natural history, and physics at Moscow University.[63]
However, before leaving Moscow Corberon notes that Kerstens gave Melissino a manuscript outlining how to carry out his alchemical method of acquiring the philosophers’ stone. In turn, Melissino entrusted Corberon with a copy of this alchemical manuscript, which was written in hieroglyphs and also contained a short passage in German. Corberon confesses to von Brühl that “it is well, my friend, that Providence has allowed me to find here, without searching, a man who can unveil these emblems.” The Frenchman then offers a tantalising fragment to von Brühl “in the utmost secrecy,” which reveals that it is necessary to labour for nine months, but that neither metal, coal, or fire is necessary.[64]

The value Corberon attached to Melissino’s alchemical manuscript is also demonstrated by the manner in which he promoted it in France in the 1780s. Thus, in July  1781, for example, Corberon met with Cardinal de Rohan (1734–1803) in Strasbourg and lent him Melissino’s manuscript. Several years later Corberon also lent the Melissino manuscript to Count Angiviller  (1726–1810), a leading patron of the arts and personal friend of Louis XVI.[65]

Corberon’s journal throws invaluable light on the almost obsessive interest displayed by the Melissino Circle in alchemy between 1776 and 1780. This cosmopolitan group of Masonic adepts included noblemen from France, Denmark,  Saxony, Tuscany, and Russia, who all looked to Melissino for instruction in their alchemical pursuits. Moreover, the journal also demonstrates how the Melissino Circle in St. Petersburg formed part of a wider pan-European alchemical-Masonic  network, which actively sought to exchange knowledge. In October 1776, for example, Corberon describes how von Brühl had assisted in an alchemical transmutation in Holland and that the alchemist had agreed to correspond with the Saxon.[66]  In the summer of 1777, Corberon also wrote down an alchemical recipe for anti- mony that had purportedly enriched a man in Warsaw and which had been relayed to him by Colonel d’Aloy,  the Courland Ambassador in St. Petersburg via Baron Heyking in Poland.[67]

2.Cagliostro, Alchemy, and the Petersburg Elite

Despite the wealth of information vis-à-vis alchemy contained in Corberon’s journal, it is unfortunate that one of the many gaps in the Frenchman’s manuscript coincided with the six-month residence of Cagliostro in the Russian capital between the autumn of 1779 and April 1780. However, argu- ably one of the most revealing—albeit biased—insights into the six-month residence of Cagliostro in St. Petersburg is provided by none-other than Catherine the Great.

In a letter to Baron Grimm, written on 9 July 1781, Catherine expounds upon the futility of Cagliostro’s visit to St. Petersburg  the previous year. She immediately brands the Sicilian adventurer a charlatan who misjudged the gains he would acquire in Russia, as “we do not have the fire of sorcerers.”[68]

Furthermore, she adds that “I have already reigned for twenty years and only one situation occurred in which sorcery was observed.”[69]  The incident in question involved the Senate requesting to see some suspected sorcerers, who it quickly transpired were merely “fools, but completely innocent peo- ple.”[70]  In other words, Catherine is trumpeting her success in banishing magic and superstition from her realm—as promised in 1763 in her triumphant coronation street pageant.

Yet, in the very next sentence she rather contradicts herself by admit- ting “Cagliostro arrived at a highly favourable minute for himself, when many Masonic lodges, nourished by the teachings of Swedenborg, without fail wanted to see spirits.”[71]   What is more, Catherine attests that these Masons “fell upon Cagliostro, believing that he possessed all the secrets of Doctor Falk, intimate friend of Duke Richelieu, who had once sacrificed to him in the very midst of Vienna a black goat.”[72] Catherine is here referring to Dr. Samuel Falk (1708–1782),  the  well-known London-based rabbi, Cabbalist and alchemist.[73]

The empress then writes that Cagliostro presented his “secret wonders” via the use of chemical curatives. Thus, Catherine states that “they believed that he could obtain mercury from a gouty foot.”[74] However, according to the monarch his scam was exposed when someone observed Cagliostro mixing a spoonful of mercury into the water in which the person suffering from gout had placed their afflicted leg. Despite this setback, Catherine describes how Cagliostro then promoted tinctures and chemical composi- tions that were useless.[75]

Significantly, Catherine then reveals to Grimm that Ivan Elagin had become embroiled in what she portrays as Cagliostro’s pathetic charlantry. Thus, in a comical passage the empress describes how when Cagliostro was “ultimately entirely in debt he ran to the cellar of Gospodin Elagin, where he drank as much champagne and English beer as he could, as well as helping himself to pastries.” Then, according to Catherine, Cagliosto apparently got into an altercation with Elagin’s secretary when drunk, who subsequently hit him in the face. This sorry tale is said to have enraged Elagin, who threatened to send Cagliostro away in a gypsy caravan, but who finally provided a carriage and escort in order for the adventurer to reach the border with Courland.[76]

Catherine does not directly accuse Elagin of harbouring Cagliostro, but it would seem she felt the need to chastise her servitor for his lack of judgement in the letter to Grimm.
The description of Cagliostro’s residence in St. Petersburg concludes by Catherine stating that there was “nothing miraculous” in the story and that both John Rogerson  (1740–1828), her Scottish physician, and Prince Grigorii Orlov (1734–1783) had not been swayed by his deceits. Yet, her final statement that such “charlatans by the most stupid and ignorant methods make a hubbub in large cities” hints that less discerning members of Petersburg society had been seduced by Cagliostro.[77]

To Catherine Cagliostro embodied the worst features of the foreign alchemical projectors that she had sought to banish from her realm. Hence, she must have been bitterly disappointed at the ‘hubbub’ created by Cagliostro in St. Petersburg. However, Cagliostro did not solely rely on har- nessing the residual potential associated with alchemical projectors; he also astutely used the burgeoning Masonic networks across Europe to pro- mote his renown. Moreover, his brand of Egyptian Freemasonry was open to women, thereby creating a broader audience among aristocratic circles.

Prior to arriving in St. Petersburg Cagliostro spent several months resid- ing in Mittau (modern-day Jelgava) in neighbouring Courland. It was here that he first established his own distinctive Masonic rite, which fused alchemy, Egyptian mythology, necromancy, and embraced the so-called adoption system that included women. A fascinating account of Cagliostro’s exploits in Mittau is provided by Charlotta Elisabeth von Recke (1754–1833), the daughter of Friedrich von Medem, a prominent Courland aristocrat and Freemason.[78]  Von Recke was among one of three women (along with her aunt and cousin) who were admitted into Cagliostro’s mixed lodge on 29 March 1779. According to von Recke, Cagliostro had persuaded the city’s Masonic grandees, including her father and Count von der Howen, to allow him to open a lodge in the city by performing a number of alchemical experiments.[79]

Subsequently, Cagliostro used the space of his Masonic lodge to forge a seemingly magical environment, in which he conducted a series of eight séances using the six-year-old son of von Medem as his spirit medium. Alongside conjuring up spirits, Cagliostro also delivered a number of lectures on alchemy and other magical arts. Von Recke records one such lecture that concentrated on alchemy:

The science of bringing every metal to the maturity of gold is one which will never be possessed by he who only desires to make use of gold for gold’s sake and for furthering vanity, and not for beneficent ends. He said he would acquaint some of our members with the red power, or, to put it more plainly, the raw material by means of which they could bring metals to maturity, in order to see how they would use this to the best advantage. But at a distance of a hundred or more miles he can check the power of this powder and punish every unworthy member of our Society.[80]

However, no comparable first-hand account from a devotee exists vis-à-vis Cagliostro’s subsequent residence in St. Petersburg. Von Recke herself only noted that her aristocratic (and Masonic) peers in Mittau had received several letters from Cagliostro in St. Petersburg, in which he described how his magical experiments had created a profound impression on the city’s elite.[81]

Cagliostro’s entrance into Petersburg society had been brokered through Masonic connections, as Count von Howen wrote a letter of introduc- tion to Baron von Heyking, a fellow Courland Mason.[82] Yet, no doubt much to  Cagliostro’s consternation,  von  Heyking treated  him  with  the utmost scorn. In his memoirs von Heyking describes Cagliostro as “a most brazen and ignorant charlatan” who had no intelligent conception of phys- ics or chemistry.[83]  It is noteworthy, however, that von Heyking concedes that  he  “had the  talent  to  win over Count Melissino, the  Chevalier C[orberon] […] and many more.”[84] In Heyking’s mind this ‘moral blindness’ was inexplicable and was “a delusion of this time which prepared other fooleries.”[85]

From the surviving evidence it would seem Cagliostro concentrated his efforts in St. Petersburg  on a mixture of alchemical experimentation and healing.
In regards to experimentation, the German Rosicrucian Mason Baron G. Schröder, recorded  in his diary that “Elagin wanted to learn from Cagliostro how to make gold.”[86] Apparently,  the latter wanted the neces- sary ingredients to be sent from Poland, but they never materialised. A con- temporary French account also claims that Cagliostro resided at Elagin’s home whilst in St. Petersburg, where Cagliostro is said to have announced that he was “in possession  of the secret, which is becoming less and less common day by day, of how to make gold.”[87] Moreover, Cagliostro appar- ently offered to “teach his wondrous art in a short time and with the least possible cost.” The narrator also states that Cagliostro had previously car- ried out alchemical experiments in Poland, in the company of Prince Adam Poninski (1732–1798).[88]

In terms of alchemical healing, Corberon noted in his journal on 2 July 1781  that  Cagliostro had  treated  the  prominent  official  (and  leading Freemason) Count Aleksandr Sergeevich Stroganov (1733–1811), “who  had fits of madness from nerves,” as well as curing the ailments of Elagin and Buturlin.[89] A  German pamphlet published in 1781  also attested that Cagliostro had cured Ivan Isleniev of an open cancer, after his physicians had failed to successfully treat the ailment.[90]

A number of sources also vouch that Grigorii Potemkin attended some of Cagliostro’s alchemical meetings and even developed something of a crush on  Lorenza, his wife.[91]
What transpired between Lorenza and Potemkin is unknown, but it is fascinating to note that Catherine the Great wrote a number of letters to her famed lover, in which she seemingly teases him regarding his attraction to the séances and alchemical experiments carried out by Cagliostro.

Thus, in a letter evidently written in 1781, she wrote in a mocking tone to Potemkin about his predilection for Cagliostro’s  spirits and chemical concoctions:

My dear friend, despite the pleasure that the spirits of Cagliostro produced, I am in great apprehension that I may have exceeded your patience and may have been a nuisance to you during the visit. […] I have yet another regret that instead of this soupe a la glace you did not have under your hands a year and a half ago the chemical medicine of Cagliostro that was so sweet, so pleasant and so convenient that it embalms and gives elasticity of the spirit and the senses.[92]

Shortly after this stinging rebuke, Catherine wrote again to Potemkin announcing, “Matushka, the spirit of Cagliostro will walk on the embankment opposite the Hermitage. Will you go to the Hermitage or not?”[93]

Clearly Catherine was able to enjoy a lot of fun at Potemkin’s expense regarding the Cagliostro affair. However, the most extraordinary letter Catherine wrote to Potemkin on the subject of Cagliostro utilised a new technique: an account of a dream the empress attests to have had in which the spirit of Cagliostro appeared to her to warn her from taking a harmful alchemical remedy that had been prepared by her famous lover:

‘I write this letter to you in order to say that last night the spirit of Cagliostro appeared to me in a dream and he said “All dreams are false” but he wrote: “Prince Potemkin has used all manner of excellent and very healthy herbs for you in a chemical mixture in an alembic; I have named all the herbs by name and surname”  […] But, the small spirits who were one and a half inches tall added that there are two herbs growing on one and the same stem that he scorns or neglects to bring here. However, it is extremely vital for you and for your happiness that these herbs are found here, as they are tender and deli- cate. They have no other name but the stem from which they emanate, and they have a sacred name for the genesis of noble souls. I was struck by what the spirits said to me. I hurried to bring a sprig of herbs to your alembic, with- out which, the spirits told me, everything would be in vain. But whilst I was walking on tiptoes and had almost reached your alembic, I came across you on my way. You repulsed me with such vehemence that I suddenly awoke, and my eyes were bathed in tears because the only herbs which could render the mixture healthy and pleasant for me were namely those which you neglected and did not even want to hear. Awaking, I called the spirits and said: “He must know my dream.” Here it is. If it does not amuse you, you ought to tell Cagliostro to keep his spirits in check, so that they cease appearing to me and I will pass easily’.[94]

In writing this astonishing piece of dream literature Catherine brilliantly reflects the two principal magical techniques employed by Cagliostro; namely the conjuring up of spirits and alchemy. Moreover, it would appear to act as a withering attack on Potemkin’s own amateur (and badly mis- judged) attempts at alchemy.

Yet, in terms of audience, both her letter to Grimm and her series of sarcas- tic notes to Potemkin, which were all penned in 1781, remained firmly out of the public eye. Indeed, it is somewhat intriguing that the Russian empress waited until  1786  to  unleash  a  series of three  plays—The Deceiver (Obmanshchik); The Deceived (Obol’shchennyi); and The Siberian Shaman (Shaman sibirskoi)—all of which to varying degrees attack alchemy as a corrupt (and foreign) influence on the St. Petersburg elite.[95] This trilogy of comedies has more commonly been referred to as anti-Masonic.

However, a more accurate description was used in a German translation of the works  from  1788, which referred to them as “three comedies against enthu- siasm and superstition.”[96]  Thus, whilst anti-Masonic themes are certainly present in all three plays (especially in The Deceived), the unifying thread that links them is a distaste of magic and mysticism. More specifically, a study of how Catherine the Great portrayed alchemy in particular has hith- erto not been carried out.[97]

However, it is also probable that Catherine wrote the plays as a response to the proliferation of alchemical literature being published in Russia; especially by the Moscow Rosicrucians Nikolai Novikov and Ivan Lopuhkin through  the  Moscow University Press  and  the  Moscow Typographical Company.[100]   Between 1783  and  1785,  for example, the Novikov-Lopukhin  circle published Russian translations of Paracelsus’ Chymischer Psalter, Michael Sendivogius’ Novum lumen chymicum, as well as the German alchemical tales Chrysomander and The Cradle of the Philosophers’ Stone (Kolybel kamnia  mudrykh).[101]

Whilst all of these books were published in Moscow, they were naturally also disseminated in the capital. Moreover, alchemical literature was also published in St. Petersburg  at the time. Thus, in 1787, the prestigious and respected Imperial Academy of Sciences published a collection of alchemi- cal tracts by Johann Isaac Holland. The collection had originally been pub- lished in 1746 in Vienna, and represents a treasure-trove of alchemical knowledge, as well as being replete with a fine collection of esoteric prints, including the illustration below (see Fig. 2), which relates  to the philosophical egg.[102]

Thus, it was against a cultural backdrop in which alchemical literature was increasingly being circulated among the Russian elite that in January 1786 Catherine premiered (and published) The Deceiver.103 The comedy is by far the  most blatantly anti-alchemical work written by Catherine the Great. Furthermore, in the figure of Kalifalkzherston—the play’s anti- hero—the empress is directing her ire against Cagliostro. The monarch acknowledged as much in a letter written in January 1786 to the Swiss phi- losopher  and  physician  Johann  Georg Zimmermann  (1728–1795).[104]

However, the rather awkward, foreign-sounding name of the comedy’s per- fidious protagonist seems to play on a combination of alchemical projec- tors, including Cagliostro, Samuel Falk, and possibly Saint-Germain.[105]

Indeed, the opening two scenes of the first act place stress on both the foreignness of Kalifalkzherston’s name and link him to the equally foreign Martinism that was based on the esoteric theories promoted by Louis Claude Saint-Martin (1743–1803). Thus, when Dodin, the (rational) hero of the play is introduced to Kalifalkzherston, he asks “What? What kind of name is that?”

Fig, 2. Illustration of the philosophers’ egg, in Sammlung unterschiedlicher bewährter Chymischer Schriften (Vienna, 1746), 65.


He then requests to “write down the name for memory” as it is “not ordinary.”[106]  When Dodin is in conversation with Mar’ia, a house servant of the Samblin family, who have been duped by Kalifalkzherston’s alchemical charlatanism, she reveals that the master of the house has become associated with a secretive  group: “My master knows … only  very secretly … such people … how do you say … Mif … mish … myt … miar … mart … marty … I almost said marmosets … I cannot remember.”
Catherine reinforces the comedic value of this allusion to Martinists by having Dodin reply that “they are quite the poseurs … are they affected?”[107]

The principal victim of Kalifalkzherston’s deceit is the gullible Samblin, who in act one, scene three, is shown to have been thoroughly seduced by the mystique of the foreign alchemical projector, who he fondly refers to as ‘Kalifalkushka.’ Thus, Samblin, who A. V. Semka directly compares to Elagin, credulously accepts the Kalifalkzherston’s claims that he has “unlimited power” and is captivated by his account of personally knowing Alexander the Great during his Persian campaign.[108]

After establishing the foreign mystique of Kalifalkzherston among the family of the innocent, but simple-minded, Samblin, Catherine then moves on to exposing how the fraudster goes about his deceptions. Thus, in act two, scene three the drama focuses on Kalifalkzherston’s  ‘healing’ of Samblin’s wife, who had fainted. Kalifalkzherston establishes that Samblina had fainted whilst a guest named Kvarkov had been singing and she had been accompanying him on the clavichord. Using psychological guile and dramatic talent, Kalifalkzherston consequently drew a magic circle with a stick and requested Kvarkov to reenact the scene. To the delight of the on-looking audience, which includes the family doctor and a physician, Samblina makes an instant recovery.[109]  Basking in the acclaim, Kalifalkz- herston then confides in the medical pair about the extent of his alchemical activities with Samblin:

For three months already the crucible of Gospodin Samblin has boiled day and night with pure gold on the fire; in seventeen days, that is, at the birth of the new moon, I will remove it from the fireplace in front of witnesses, and then will be found inexhaustible wealth.[110]

In this passage, Catherine hints at the close links between alchemy and astrology.
What is more, in act three, scene two, she directly addresses the contemporary wave of esoteric publications in Russia. In particular, she mocks Ivan Lopukhin’s publication of Raiskie tsvety pomeshchennye v sedmi tsvetnikakh in 1784,  which was translated from a mystical text by Angelus Silesius.[111]  The Russian title plays on the double meaning of the word tsvet as both ‘colour’ and ‘flower,’ as well as on the mystical symbolism of the number seven. With this in mind, Catherine has Kalifalkzherston predict that the groom of Samblin’s daughter “must be composed from the roots of seven colours/flowers” (tsvetov).[112]

The charmed existence enjoyed by Kalifalkzherston begins to unravel in act three, scene three, when the household servant reports that the crucible had exploded after it flared up and made ‘shu, shu, shu’ noises.[113] In act four, scene two, Kalifalkzherston is depicted as trying to exploit this unfor- tunate turn of events by protesting that he needs the diamonds owned by Samblin’s wife in order to rectify the situation.[114] At this stage, Samblin still volunteers the diamonds, thinking that they are being sacrificed for a more precious prize.[115]  However, Kalifalkzherston is finally exposed in act five, when he runs off with the diamonds, along with Madame Gribuzh, a French friend of Samblin’s daughter. Fortunately, a happy ending is assured when the foreign deceivers are caught at the city gates by the dependable, honest, and, above all, rational figure of Dodin, whose reward is to be able to take the hand of Sofia, Samblin’s daughter.[116]

In essence the message of The Deceiver is exactly the same as that pre- sented at the coronation pageant in Moscow in 1763: the foreign (European) projector is a cunning charlatan, whose esoteric schemes to enrich and benefit gullible Russian aristocrats will ultimately be exposed and driven out of the country (much like Cagliostro himself). Whilst the play alludes to Martinism, it is far less a play about Freemasonry than a comedy about the folly of believing in alchemical charlatans.

However, a month after the premiere of The Deceiver, Catherine the Great showcased another comedy—The Deceived—in which Freemasonry assumes a much more pivotal (and sinister) role. Yet, once again the empress also combines this  Masonic dynamic with a  more general attack on the negative effects brought about by the influence of Western esotericism on formerly upright and honest Petersburg aristocrats.
Hence, in act one, scene one, the wife of Radotov (an aristocratic Petersburg patri- arch), laments the change in her husband since he met a group of pale and thin individuals “who dressed in an ugly manner” and “spoke in an incomprehensive language.”[117] Significantly, not only has Radotov become increas- ingly attracted to mysticism and esotericism since meeting this mysterious group, but also, in various scenes, Catherine portrays his daughter, Taisa, as having come under the spell of their doctrines. At one point, for example, Taisa expounds upon her belief that “on every leaf dwells a spirit,” whilst she later expresses her faith in astrological influences.[118]

In The Deceived, Catherine uses the character of Britiagin to embody her ideals of virtue, honesty, and rationality. It is Britiagin who explains to Radotov’s wife that her husband spends his time with the group, who has turned his head with cabbalistic ideas and alchemical notions of boiling gold and diamonds and concocting metals from dew.[119]  In act four, scene two, Catherine then exposes the absurd rituals practiced by the Masonic group, who had turned Radotov’s head, via the voice of the family servant Praskov’ia. She secretly spies on a Masonic gathering, and describes how the ceremony reminded her of blindman’s buff and yuletide rituals that involved mummers.[120]   Two of the Masons—Barmotin and Bragin—are then depicted drunkenly stumbling across the brotherhood’s alchemical crucible after the ceremony. Barmotin explains to Bragin, a recent initiate, that the vessel is used for concocting gold, precious stones and for remedies to treat all manner of illnesses.

The following scene switches back to the lodge setting, where Protolk, the grandmaster, is shown conducting a séance with the aid of a young boy. Protolk instructs the boy to bang his feet on the ground and then to tell the assembled group what he is able to see.[121]  Only in act five, scene five, does the young boy confess to Britiagin and others that Protolk had instructed him on what to do during the séance.[122]   Once again, this scene high- lights how Catherine directly draws upon Cagliostro; in this instance his technique of using young boys as spirit mediums, as described in detail by Charlotta von Recke.

The downfall of the Masonic group headed by Protolk is further assured when Bragin reports about their plans to extract money from rich people in order to establish schools and charitable institutions. This information follows immediately after an account of how Protolk had tried to convince his fellow Masons, “and above all Radotov,” that “happiness would occur at the turn of the moon.”[123] Thus, Catherine concludes the play with an attack on both the means by which Freemasons sought to benefit society (independ- ent of the state) and their dubious attachment to esoteric philosophy. In short, they are presented as a disreputable bunch of scoundrels, who have only succeeded in bringing misery and misfortune to honest Russian (aristocratic) families in St. Petersburg.

It  is noteworthy that  the  last of Catherine’s comedies against enthusiasm—The Siberian Shaman—is largely devoid of alchemical refer- ences.[124]  The Siberian shaman (Amban-Lai) arrives in St. Petersburg  with the Bobin family from Irkutsk, where he had become their healer.[125]  Yet, throughout the comedy Lai is not portrayed as being a dabbler in alchemy; rather he is depicted as a mystical (and highly exotic) Eastern healer. Only at one point in the play is alchemy mentioned (act three, scene three), when someone asks Bobin whether rumours she has heard about Lai are true: “Is it true, matushka, what they say about him, that he secretly locks himself up in a cellar, where he dissolves solar rays in a pot, and concocts some kind of ointment from them?”[126]  Bobin simply replies that he has never heard anything of the sort, thereby putting an end to the topic of the conversation.

The manuscript notes on the character of the shaman are also enlightening in terms of his esoteric interests. Thus, in the section on “the doctrines and principles of the shaman” it states, “he submits to the destiny of astral influences.
He dabbles in magic, cabbala and astrology.”[127] No direct men- tion is made to alchemy. Moreover, in the general notes on his powers as a healer, it states that he practices his art only through studying the external characteristics of individuals, such as their face, movements, hair, and dec- orations. To reinforce this message, the notes add that he only heals via his own intuition.[128]  In other words, the shaman is categorically not an alche- mist. Thus, whilst Lai is an exotic outsider practicing esoteric doctrines, he is portrayed as distinct from Western alchemical projectors, who use pseudo-scientific craft and guile to execute their deceptions.

In the wake of the anti-alchemical themes in Catherine’s plays against enthusiasm a number of Russian writers continued the empress’ work in mocking aspiring adepts and their flights of fancy.[129]  In 1788, for example, V. A. Levshin’s  Russkie  skazki contained a tale about Baba Iaga in which the devil is portrayed as an alchemist.[130] The following  year G. A. Derzhavin wrote an ode “To Fortune,”  in which he chastises her for allowing alchemy to flourish among mankind.131  Moreover, in 1793, A. I. Klushin published Alkhimist,  in which he scornfully attacks those drawn to the  arcane pursuit.[132]

Parallel to staging and publishing her comedies against enthusiasm, Catherine also employed the strong arm of the state to investigate the “many strange books coming from the Novikov press.” In 1786 she also established a commission to censure all privately printed books on matters of faith, but this significantly  also included tracts containing “absurd and schismatic  reasoning.”[133]  In the short term alchemical texts were still published in St. Petersburg and in Moscow. One can cite the collection of tracts by Johann Isaac Holland that was printed in St. Petersburg  in 1787 (mentioned above) for example, and an assorted work, entitled Izbrannaia biblioteka arabskikh, turetskikh, kitaiskikh, angliiskikh, frantsuzckikh,  pas- tusheskikh, volshebnykh i drugikh  povestei i anekdotov, that was published in 1788 in Moscow. However, by the close of the decade, the empress had largely succeeded in banishing such ‘absurd’ works from the Russian pub- lic. The subsequent general ban on Freemasonry enacted by Catherine in 1794 temporarily removed another platform by which esoteric doctrines, including alchemy were supported.


According to Iuri Lotman, interest in alchemical philosophy in eighteenth- century Russia combined an “obscurantist denial of science, open charlatanism and social utopianism.”[134]  In terms of scientific obscurantism, it is impossible to categorise Melissino as such a figure. In his contemporary biographical account of Melissino, for example, Claude François Masson describes how the Russian “succeeded in restoring to good condition the founderies of St. Petersburg, improved the composition of the metal by the invention of an alloy which bears his name, and introduced a new method of boring cannon.” Furthermore, Melissino’s alchemical collaboration with the eminent and respected Dr. Kerstens, the first professor of medicine, chemistry and physics at the University of Moscow, illustrates how an enthusiasm for actively seeking alchemical secrets did not necessitate a detachment from progressive scientific inquiry.

I would argue that alchemical philosophy and practice allowed for a combination of spiritual and pseudo-scientific elements. In this sense alchemy promoted the idea of spiritual and material perfectibility. Thus, alchemical symbolism—with its emphasis on death and rebirth—was in harmony with Masonic ideals and could easily be fused with the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection. Moreover, it can be argued that the ardent belief in being able to concoct the perfect alchemical receipe contributed much to scientific advancement, and, as in the case of Melissino, produced real benefits for the Russian state. In short, alchemy provided a means for nobleman, such as Melissino, to combine esoteric philosophy, faith, and scientific pursuits (expressed most strongly in the space of the Masonic lodge).

The charge of open charlatanism, which would be wholeheartedly endorsed by Catherine the Great, is also problematic. The very public exploits of Cagliostro in St. Petersburg provide the most clear-cut example of opportunism. However, one must remember that the Melissino Circle and Ivan Elagin, for example, carried out their alchemical experiments within an exclusive Masonic sphere restricted to initiated adepts. Thus, the Masonic brothers were on a level with each other and did not seek personal gain and fame from their shared alchemical endeavours.

One is also hard-pushed to discern any elements of social utopiansim in the alchemical worldviews of Petersburg Masons. The likes of Melissino and Elagin, for example, did not pursue the same philanthropic and social goals pursued by Novikov in Moscow. However, this does not mean that the Petersburg group were insular and cut off from the world around them. Rather, their outlook was more cosmopolitan and elevated above their immediate environment. The Melissino Circle of Russian and Western European aristocrats embody the growing sense of a shared worldview that was becoming increasingly threatened  in both intellectual and social terms. Thus, whilst aristocratic Russian Mason-alchemists in St. Petersburg posed no threat to the status quo, they did challenge the philosophical foundations underpinning Catherine’s vision of reform. In this regard, one can understand the ferocity of the campaign waged by the empress against alchemy in her capital city and in her realm in general.



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1) A. N. Pypin, Sochineniia Imperatritsy Ekateriny II, vol. 1 (St. Petersburg, 1901), 247–288.

2) On Cagliostro’s residence  in St. Petersburg, see M. S. Khotinskii,  “Graf Kaliostro, charodei XVIII-go stoletiia”  in M. S. Khotinskii,  Charodeistvo  i tainstvennyiia iavleniia v noveishee vremia (St. Petersburg,  1866), 187–329; V. P. Zotov, “Kaliostro: ego zhizn i prebyvanie v Rossii,”  Russkaia   starina,  12 (1875), 50–83;  E. P. Karnovich,  “Kaliostro v  Peterburge,” in E.  P. Karnovich, Zamechatel’nyia  i zagadochnyia lichnosti XVIII i XIX  stoletii,  2nd   ed. (St. Petersburg, 1893), 98–124; Boris B. Ivanoff,  “Cagliostro  in Eastern  Europe (Kurland, Russia and Poland),” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 40 (1928), 45–90.

3) Clarke Garrett refers to a “mystical international”  when discussing pan-European inter- est in Western esotericism. See Clark Garrett, Respectable   Folly: Millenarian  and The French Revolution in France and England (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 97–120.

4) Ibid., 99.

5) See Monika Neugebauer-Wölk  and  Andre Rudolph, eds., Aufklärung  und  Esoterik: Rezeption – Integration – Konfrontation (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2008).

6) Kocku von Stuckrad, review of Aufklärung  und Esoterik:  Rezeption – Integration  – Konfrontation, by Monika Neugebauer-Wölk and Andre Rudolph, eds, Journal of Religion in Europe, 3 (2010), 381.

7) For more on Catherine the Great’s links to the French Philosophes, see Irina Gorbatov, Catherine the Great and the French Philosophers of the Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Grimm (Palo Alto: Academica Press, 2006).

8) For  general  studies  on  freemasonry in  Russia in  the  eighteenth  century,   see M. N. Longinov, Novikov i moskovskie martinisty (Moscow: Tipografiia Gracheva, 1867); A. N. Pypin, Russkoe masonstvo XVIII i  pervaia chetvert XIX v.  (Petrograd: OGNI,  1916); G. V. Vernadskii, Russkoe masonstvo v tsarstvovanie Ekaterinyi II (Petrograd: Tip. Aktsion- ernogo O-va Tip. Dela v Petrograde, 1917); In-Ho L. Ryu, “Freemasonry under Catherine the Great: A Reinterpretation,”  Ph.D. thesis, Harvard  University,  1967; In-Ho  L. Ryu, “Moscow Freemasons and the Rosicrucian Order,” in The Eighteenth Century in Russia, edited by J. G. Garrard (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973), 198–232; S. P. Mel’gunov and N. P. Sidorov, eds., Masonstvo v ego proshlom i nastoiashchem, 2 vols. (Moscow: IKPA,  1991); Isabel de Madariaga, “Freemasonry in Eighteenth-Century Russian Society,” in Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Collected Essays by Isabel de Madariaga (London: Longman, 1998),  150–167; Douglas Smith, Working the Rough Stone: Freemasonry  and Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia (DeKalb:  Northern Illinois University Press, 1999);  Raffaella Faggionato, A Rosicrucian Utopia in Eighteenth-Century Russia: The Masonic Circle of N. I. Novikov (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005); Natalie Bayer, “‘Spreading  the  Light:’  European Freemasonry and  Russia in  the  Eighteenth Century,” unpublished Ph.D thesis, Rice University, 2007; Jean Breuillard and Irina Ivanova eds., La franc-maçonnerie et la culture russe (Toulouse: Crims, 2007); Andreas Önnerfors & Robert Collis, eds., Freemasonry and Fraternalism in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Sheffield: Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, 2009).

9) For a reproduction of the programme for the masquerade, see “Torzhestvuiushchaia Minerva,” Moskvitianin (October 1850), Otd. Nauki i khudozhestva, 109–128. Also see Iu. A. Dmitriev,  ed., F. G. Volkov i russkii teatr ego vremeni (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1953), 170–189.

10) Richard   S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian  Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 57.

11) “Torzhesvuiushchaia Minerva,”  123, 128.

12) “Torzhesvuiushchaia Minerva,” 116–128.

13) “Torzhesvuiushchaia Minerva,” 113.

14) “Torzhesvuiushchaia Minerva,” 118.

15) “Torzhesvuiushchaia Minerva,” 122.

16) In the work Labyrinthus medicorum errantium (1538), for example, Paracelsus states that “alchemy is an art, Vulcan is its artist.” See Paracelsus,  Paracelsus: Essential Readings, edited by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999), 102.

17) Kolybel kamnia mudrykh (Moscow: I. Lopukhin Typography, 1783), 28.

18) James  Puckle, The Club: or, a grey-cap for a green-head. Containing maxims, advice and cautions. Being a dialogue between a father and son (London: John and Thomas King, 1733), 42. In 1642, Thomas  Heywood  also described a projector as “in his faith an Alcumist.” See Thomas Heywood, Hogs caracter of a Projector wherein is disciphered the manner and shape of that Vermine  (London,  1642), 1. Ben Jonson also portrayed projectors as conjurers in The Devil is an Ass, when it was first performed in 1616. See Ben Jonson, The Devil is an Ass (London, 1631), 14–15. On Johann Joachim Becher (1635–1682) as an alchemical projector, see Pamela H. Smith, “Alchemy as a Language of Mediation at the Habsburg  Court,” Isis, 85:1 (Mar. 1994), 1–25. Also see Pamela H. Smith, The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

19) Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, vol. 2 (London: Jones & Company, 1826), 43. For further negative portrayals of projectors by Catherine the  Great, see her  dramatic  fictions, Peredniaia znatnogo boiarina (1772) and Imeniny  gospozhi  Vorchalkinoi  (1774). For more on these works, see Lurana Donnels O’Malley, The Dramatic Works of Catherine the Great: Theatre and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 22, 62. For a negative satire by a late eighteenth-century Russian aristocrat, see A. I. Golitsyn,  Novye chudaki ili Prozhekter (Moscow: Universitetskaia tipografiia, 1798).

20) For more on more rationally-minded Western European projectors in Russia in the eight- eenth century, see Roger Bartlett, “Utopians and Projectors in Eighteenth-Century Russia,” in Russian Society and Culture and the Long Eighteenth Century: Essays in Honour of Anthony G. Cross, edited by Roger Bartlett and Lindsey Hughes (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2004), 98–115. Also see Roger Bartlett, “Projects and Peasants: Russia’s Eighteenth Century,” SSEES Occasional Papers, No. 44 (London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2000). For a more general study of adventurers in Russia in the eighteenth century, see A. F. Stroev,  “Te, kto popravliaet fortunu:” avantiuristy  prosveshcheniia  (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1998).

21) The association between alchemy and western European physicians in Russia dates back to the sixteenth century. For more on the alchemical and occult practices of Western physicians in Russia prior to the eighteenth century, see T. Rainov, Nauka v Rossii XI-XVII vekov (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1940); N. A. Figurovskii, “The Alchemist and Physician Arthur Dee,”  Ambix,   13 (1965),  35–51; J. H. Appleby, “Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities” Ambix, 24:2 (1977), 96–109; David B. Miller, “The Lübeckers Bartholomäus  Ghotan and Nicolaus Bülow in Novgorod and Moscow and the Problem of Early Western Influences on Russian Culture,” Viator, 79 (1978), 395–412; R. A. Simonov, “Russkie pridvornye ‘matematiki’ XVI-XVII vekov,” Voprosy istorii, 1 (1986), 76–83; W. F. Ryan, “Alchemy, Magic and Poisons and the Virtues of Stones in the Old Russian Secretum Secretorum,” Ambix, 37:1 (1990),  46–64; Valerie Kivelson, “Political Sorcery in Sixteenth-Century Muscovy,” in Cultural Identity in Muscovy 13591584, edited by A. M. Kleimola and G. D. Lenhoff (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Its-Garant, 1997), 267–283; W. F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia (Stroud: Sutton Publishing,  1999); Sabine Dumschat, Ausländische Mediziner im Moskauer Russland (Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006); Robert Collis, “Maxim the Greek, Astrology and the Great Conjunction of 1524,” The Slavonic and East European Review, 88:4 (Oct. 2010), 601–623.

22) Wilhelm Michael von Richter, Geschichte der Medicin in Russland, vol. 3 (Moscow, 1817), 402.

23) Richter,  Geschichte, vol. 3, 404–407.

24) Richter,  Geschichte, vol. 3, 410–411.

25) Richter,  Geschichte, vol. 3, 411–412.

26) Dominique  Maroger, ed., The Memoirs of Catherine II (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 226.

27) Simon Dixon, Catherine the Great (London: Profile Books, 2010), 157.

28) Melissino may have been influenced by the Swiss Freemason Baron Théodore-Henri de Tschoudy  (1727–1769), who was in Russian service between 1752–1755 and 1757–1760, and who championed alchemical and cabbalistic symbolism  in his Masonic rites and philosophy. On the influence of Tschoudy’s esoteric strand  of  Freemasonry in Russia, see Smith, Working the Rough Stone,   19; A. I. Serkov,  Russkoe masonstvo. 17312000 gg. Entsiklopedicheskii  slovar (Moscow:   ROSSPEN, 2001),  21–22;  Faggionato, A Rosicrucian  Utopia,  13. On Tschoudy’s career in Russia, see Vladislav Rzheutskii, “V teni Shuvalova. Frantsuzskii kul’turnyi posrednik v Rossii Baron de Chudi,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, vol. 105 (2010),  91–124. On Tschoudy’s incorporation of esotericism into his Masonic doc- trine, see T.-H de Tschoudy, L’étoile flamboyante ou la Société des Francs-Maçons considerée sous tous les aspects (Frankfurt-Paris: Antoine Boudet, 1766).

29) Claude François Masson, Secret Memoirs of the Court of Petersburg, vol. 2  (London, 1802), 346.

30) Masson, Secret Memoirs, 339.

31) Masson, Secret Memoirs, 340.

32) Giacomo Casanova, The Complete Memoirs of Casanova (Salt Lake City:  Project

Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2004), 2158.

33) Casanova,  Memoirs, 2160–2161, 2178.

34) Masson, Secret Memoirs, 340.

35) Letter from  Johann  Albrecht Euler to  Samuel Formey, 24  July/5 August  1775. Staatsbibliotehk zu Berlin, Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Handschriftenabteilung,  Nachlass Formey, Berlin. Also see Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire,  “Marie-Daniel Bourrée de Corberon et Karl-Heinrich von Heyking: Deux Itinéraires Maçonniques entre Paris, Varsovie et Saint- Pétersbourg à la Tombée des Lumières,” in Breuillard and Ivanova, eds., La franc-maçonnerie et la culture russe, 48.

36) On Melissino’s Masonic career, see N. S. Tikhonravov,  ed., Letopisi russkoi literatury i drevnosti, vol. 4, sect. 3, (Moscow: Tipografiia Grachkva  i komp., 1862), 49–52; Vernadskii, Russkoe masonstvo, 37-8; Serkov, Russkoe masonstvo, 966.

37) The seven degrees according to the Melissino system were as follows:  1.  Entered Apprentice; 2.  Fellow-Craft; 3.   Master-Mason; 4.  Dark  Vault; 5.  Scottish  Master; 6. Philosopher; 7. Spiritual (Ecclesiastical or Clerical) Knight, Magnus Sacerdos Templari- orum. The first three degrees followed the traditional Craft (or Blue) lodge system. For an in-depth description of the Melissino Rite, see C. Lenning, Encyclopädie der Freimaurerei, vol. 2 (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus,   1824), 460-81. For a brief description of the rite, see Allgemeines Handbuch  der Freimaurerei, vol. 3 (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus,  1865), 306–307.

38) Lenning, Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 473.

39) This alchemical colour symbolism is similar to that used by the Académie des Vrais Maçons after 1766. See Henrik Bogdan, Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 107.

40) Lenning,  Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 474.

41) Lenning,  Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 476.

42) Lenning, Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 477.

43) Lenning,  Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 479.

44) Lenning,  Encyclopädie, vol. 2, 479–480.

45) On Starck’s Masonic activities in St. Petersburg, see Boris Telepneff, “Johann August Starck and his Rite of Spiritual Masonry,” Ars Quatuor  Coronatorum,  41 (1929), 238–284; Alain Bernheim, “Johann August Starck: The Templar Legend and the  Clerics,” Pietre- Stones Review of Freemasonry.  (accessed 26 March, 2011).

46) Telepneff, “Starck,” 239.

47) Jean Blum, J.-A. Starck et la querelle du crypto-catholicisme en Allemagne 17851789 (Paris: F. Alcan, 1912), 13.

48) Telepneff, “Starck,” 256. For a full description of the initiation ritual, see Johann Christoph Wöllner, Die Signatstern, oder Die Enthüllten Sämmtlichen  Sieben Grade der Mystischen Freimaurerei, vol. 3 (Berlin: Schöne, 1804), 223–225.

49) Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 131.

50) Known members of the Melissino Masonic Circle who actively engaged in alchemical pursuits, as testified by Marie-Daniel Bourrée, Baron de Corberon (1748–1810) in his Journal, include Corberon himself as well as Carl Adolph Brühl (1742–1802);  Louis-Auguste le Tonnelier, Baron de Breuteuil (1730–1807); Baron Karl Heinrich von Heyking  (1752–1809); Henri-Frederic Levetzan (a Danish officer); Victor Amadeus of Anhalt-Schaunburg; Abbé Pasquini (a Sienese man of letters); Prince Fyodor Sergeevich Gagarin  (1757–1794); Ivan Matveevich Tolstoi; Aleksandr Ivanovich Odoevskii and a certain Chevalier  Duménil.  The original six volumes of Corberon’s Journal are stored at the Musée Calvet in Avignon. See Ms 3054 and Ms 3069 [hereafter Journal]. Whilst the Melissino Circle has been used as a case- study in this article, it should also be noted that Ivan Perfil’evich  Elagin (1725–1794), a lead- ing Freemason in St. Petersburg  and one of Catherine the Great’s most trusted advisors, also actively embraced alchemy within his Masonic and Christian theosophical worldview. In an unpublished manuscript on the history of Freemasonry, for example, Elagin bemoans what he perceives to be the soul-destroying and corrupt influence of “athiests and deists,” such as Nicolas Antoine Boulanger, the Marquis d’Argens, Voltaire, Rousseau and Helvetius, who had at one time seduced him from “the path of truth.” See I. P. Elagin, “Zapiska o masonstve I. P. Elagina,” Russkii arkhiv, 1 (1864), 594. Instead,  he argues for a Masonic science founded on “the science of medical perfectibility … the knowledge of the Hebrew language and the most supreme Cabbala [and] in theosophy” and in a “profound [knowledge] of physics and chemistry.” More specifically, he recommends reading works by Louis Claude de Saint- Martin, Georg von Welling, Robert Fludd, and Elias Artista. See Elagin, “Zapiska,” 602. For extensive alchemical notes by Elagin on the creation of the Philosophers’ Stone, see Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv drevnikh aktov (RGADA), fond 8, folder 238. Bearing this in mind, as will be seen in the next section, it is unsurprising that Elagin was an enthusiastic devotee of Cagliostro, in light of the latter’s reputation as an alchemical adept. On Elagin’s links with English Freemasonry, see A. G. Cross, “Severnye brattia: nepublikovannaia perepiska I. P. Elagina s Velikoi lozhei Anglii  (1772–1780),” in XVIII vek: sbornik,  25 (St. Petersburg: Nauka,  2008), 272–332; Anthony Cross, “Anglo-Russian Masonic Links During the Reign of Catherine the Great,” in Önnerfors and Collis, eds., Freemasonry and Fraternalism in Eighteenth-Century Russia, 85–108.

51) Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 145.

52) Lotman writes, “alchemical experiments did not occupy a significant place for Russian Masons in the 1780s.” See Iurii Lotman,  “‘Sochustvennik’ A. N. Radishcheva:  A. M. Kutuzov i ego pis’ma k I. P. Turgenevu,” in O russkoi  literature:  Stat’i i issledovaniia  19581993 (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo- SPB, 1997), 278. Stephen Baehr argues that “the quest for the phi- losopher’s stone, the prima material, the elixir of life, the tincture of perfection, and the homunculus had largely lost their actuality” by the 1770s and 1780s in Russia.  See S. L. Baehr, “Alchemy and Eighteenth-Century Russian Literature: An  Introduction” in Reflections on Russia in the Eighteenth Century: Sixth International Conference of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century  Russia, edited by Joachim Klein,  Simon Dixon & Maarten Fraanje (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2001), 163–164. Aleksandr Semeka also argues that the majority of Russian Freemasons in the  eighteenth century  were not  interested in alchemy. See A. Semeka, “Russkie rozenkreitsery  i sochineniia imperatritsy Ekateriny II protiv mason- stva,” Zhurnal ministerstva narodnogo prosveshcheniia, No. 2 (1902), 366.

53) For an abridged two-volume edition, see Marie-Daniel Bourré, Baron de  Corberon, Un Diplomate Français a la cour de Catherine II 17751780: Journal Intime du Chevalier de Corberon, edited by L.-H. Lablande,  2 vols. (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1901). For digital images of the original journal, covering the period between January–December 1775,  see (accessed 4 April 2011).

54) Journal, vol. 1, 393,  12 November 1775. Also see Antoine Faivre, “Un Familier des Sociétés

Ésotériques au Dix-Huitième Siècle: Bourrée de Corberon,” Revue des Sciences Humaines, vol. 126 (April–June 1967), 261.

55) Journal, vol. 2, 115, 5 March 1776. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 266.

56) Journal,  vol. 2, 295, 298, 5 May 1776. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 261–262.

57) Heyking,  Mes réminiscences vol. 2, 1st  part, Chapter 6, n. p. Also see, Beaurepaire, “Deux Itinéraires,” 46.

58) Journal, vol. 5, 316, September 1780. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 263.

59) Journal, vol. 5, 447, October 1780. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 264.

60) Journal, vol. 5, 368, September  1780. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 271.

61) Marie-Daniel Bourrée, Baron de Corberon,  Recueil de Corberon, Ms 3060, 63. 21 July 1787. Musée Calvet in Avignon. Also see, Faivre, “Corberon,” 265.

62) Journal, vol. 5, 316. September 1780. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 263.

63) For more on Kerstens, see Richter, Geschichte, vol. 3, 342–243; A. A. Polovtsov, ed., Russkii biograf cheskii slovar,  vol. 8 (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia  Glavnago Upravleniia  Udelov, 1897), 621.

64) Recueil, 63. 21 July 1787. Also see, Faivre, “Corberon,” 265.

65) Recueil, 37-8. 27 March 1786. Also see Faivre,  “Corberon,”  285.

66) Journal, vol. 3, 344. 26 October 1776. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 262.

67) Journal,  vol. 4, 252, 254. 12 June  1777. Also see Faivre, “Corberon,” 262–263, fn. 30.

68) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma Ekateriny Vtoroi k baronu Grimmu,” Russkii arkhiv, 3 (1878), 68.

69) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 68.

70) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 68.

71) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 68.

72) Catherine the Great,  “Pis’ma,” 68. Catherine’s description of the sacrifice of black goat matches an earlier account recorded by Count Jorgen Ludvig Albrecht Rantzau in 1741. See Memoires du Comte de Rantzow, ou Les Heures de Récréation à l’usage de la Noblesse de l’Europe (Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier, 1741), 197–198.

73) For more on Falk, see Hermann Adler, “The Baal-Shem  of London,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, vol. 5 (1908), 148–173; Joscelyn Godwin, The Theo- sophical Enlightenment (New York: State University of New York Press, 1994), 94–95; Raphael Patai, The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 455–462;  Marsha Keith Schuchard, “Dr. Samuel Jacob Falk: A  Sabbatian Adventurer in the Masonic Underground,” in Millenarianism and Messianism in Early Modern  European Culture: Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World, edited by M. D. Goldish and R.  H. Popkin (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001),  203–226;   Goodrick-Clarke,  Western Esoteric Traditions, 166–168.

74) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 68.

75) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 68.

76) Catherine the Great, “Pis’ma,” 69. For a slightly inaccurate English translation of this let- ter to Grimm, see George H. Lathrope, “Count Cagliostro: An Excursion into Eighteenth Century Charlatanism,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine,  13:8 (August  1937), 475–476.

77) Lathrope, “Count Cagliostro,” 475–476.

78) Charlotta Elisabeth Konstantia von der Recke, Nachricht von des berüchtigten Cagliostro Aufenthalte in Mittau im Jahre  1779, und von dessen dortigen magischen Operationen (Berlin and Stettin: Friedrich Nicolai, 1787).

79) Recke, Nachricht, 30. Also see Ivanoff, “Cagliostro,” 52.

80) Recke, Nachricht, 132-3; Ivanoff, “Cagliostro,” 73.

81) Recke, Nachricht, 147; Ivanoff, “Cagliostro,” 61.

82) Karl Heinrich Heyking, Aus Polens und Kurlands Letzten Tagen: Memoiren Des Baron

Karl Heinrich Heyking (Berlin: Verlag von Johannes Räde, 1897), 223; Ivanoff, “Cagliostro,”  60.

83) Heyking, Aus Polens, 225.

84) Heyking, Aus Polens, 226.

85) Heyking, Aus Polens, 226.

86) Ia. L. Barskov, ed., Perepiska moskovskikh masonov XVIII-go veka 17801792 gg. (Petrograd, 1915),216.

87) Jean  Benoit Scherer, Anecdotes Intéressantes et  Secrètes de  la  Cour de  Russie, vol. 1 (London, 1792), 223. Among  Elagin’s manuscripts one can also find a handwritten col- lection of alchemical recipes entitled “Various notes on medicines that I myself sampled in my home by various people over several years” (Zapiska razyym lekarstvam mnoiu samim ispytannym v moem dome pod raznymi i raznykh let liud’mi). The beginning of the manu- script contains contains notes on how to produce the philosophers’ stone and the philoso- phers’ egg. See RGADA, fond 8, folder 238. Also see P. P. Pekarskii, Dopolneniia k istorii masonstva  v rossii XVIII stoletiia (St. Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Sciences Typography, 1869), 56.

88) Pekarskii, Dopolneniia, 56.

89) Corberon, Un Diplomate Français vol. 2, 396. The Buturlins were a prominent aristocratic family in Russia, although it is not certain which member Corberon is here referring to.

90) Tröpflein aus dem Brunnen derWahrheit ausgegossen (Frakfurt am Main, 1781). Cited in Marc Haven, Le Maître Inconnu, Cagliostro. Etude sur la haute Magic (Paris: Dorbon aîné, 1912), 77.

91) See  Zotov, “Kaliostro,” 65; Ivanoff, “Cagliostro,” 62; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin (London: Phoenix  Press, 2001), 209.

92) RGADA, F.5 D. 85, Ch. 1. L. 370, Moscow.  Also see V. S. Lopatin,  ed., Ekaterina  Vtoraia i G. A. Potemkin: lichnaia perepiska (1769-1791) (Moscow:  RAN, 1997), 15; N. Ia. Eidel’man, ed., “Pis’ma Ekateriny II G. A. Potemkina,”   Voprosy  istorii,  No. 12  (Dec. 1989),   115.  Lopatin wrongly attributes three of the letters in which Catherine mentions Cagliostro (nos. 6, 9, 10, and 35) to a period between February 1774 and March 1774. See Lopatin, Ekaterina, 13, 15, 16, and 48.

93) RGADA. F. 5 D. 85. Ch. 1. L280. Also see Lopatin,  Ekaterina, 48; Eidel’man,  “Pis’ma,” No. 10 (Oct.  1989), 115.

94) RGADA. F. 1  Op. 1/1. D. 54 L. 18–18ob. Also  see Lopatin, Ekaterina, 284-7; Eidel’man, “Pis’ma,” No. 7 (July 1989), 128–129.

95) For the text of Obmanshchik, see Pypin, Sochineniia, vol. 1,  247–288; for the text  of Obol’shchennyi, see Pypin, Sochineniia, vol. 1, 289–346; for the text of Shaman Sibirskoi, see Pypin, Sochineniia, vol. 1, 347–419. For commentaries on the three plays, see P. Shchebal’skii, “Dramaticheskiia i nravoopisatel’nyia sochineniia Ekateriny  II,” Russkii vestnik, 93 (May– June 1871), 105–168,  538–579; Semeka, “Russkie rozenkreitsery,”  343–400; O. L. Roganova, “Komedii Ekateriny  Velikoi ‘Obmanshchik,’ ‘Obol’shchennyi,’ ‘Shaman Sibirskii’ v kontekste istorii russkogo masonstva,”  Ekaterina Velikaia: epokha rossiiskoi istorii, edited by T.  V. Artem’eva and M. I Mikeshin (St. Petersburg: Sankt-Peterburgskii nauchnyi tsentr, 1996), 157-60; Smith, Working the Rough  Stone,  145–152. For an English translation of The Siberian Shaman, see Lurana Donnels O’Malley, ed., Two Comedies by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998), 33–79.

  96) O’Malley, The Dramatic Works, 73, fn. 4.

97) For brief references to alchemy in Catherine’s plays, see O’Malley, The Dramatic Works, 73, 75, 83–85.

98) German translations of the three plays were published in St. Petersburg and Riga in 1786: The Deceiver as Der Betrüger, The Deceived as Der Verblendete, and The Siberian Shaman as Der Sibirische Schaman. A collected German  edition of the three plays was published in 1788  by C. F. Nicolai in Berlin and Stettin as Drei Lustspiele wider Schwärmerey und Aberglauben.

99) On the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, see Sarah Maza, Private Lives and Public Affairs: The Causes Célèbres of Prerevolutionary  France (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1995), 167–211. It is noteworthy that Cardinal Rohan was also implicated in the affair.

100) In  1782 the Senate Typography in Moscow published Novoi sposob, kak uznat mozhno kazhdago cheloveka svoistva. The work is a translation of tracts on physiognomy and chiro- mancy by Michael Scott, and also includes A Dialogue between Mercury, Alchymist and Nature by Michael  Sendivogius  (1566–1636). For information on this text, see Svodnyi kata- log russkoi knigi grazhdanskoi pechati XVIII veka 17251800, vol. 3 (Moscow: Izdanie gosu- darstvennoi biblioteki SSSR imeni V. I. Lenina  , 1966), No. 6533, 124. In 1783 Ivan Lopukhin published the German alchemical novel Khrizomander through the Moscow Typographical  Company. See Svodnyi katalog, vol. 3, No. 8066, 344. In the same year, Lopukhin published Kolybel kamnia mudrykh throught the Free Typography in Moscow. See Svodnyi katalog russkoi knigi grazhdanskoi pechati XVIII veka 17251800,  vol. 2 (Moscow: Izdanie gosu- darstvennoi biblioteki SSSR imeni V. I. Lenina, 1964), No. 3042. In 1784, Ivan Lopukhin pub- lished a Russian translation by Aleksandr Mikhailovich Kutuzov (1748–1790) of Paracelsus’s Chymischer Psalter through the Free Typography in Moscow. See Svodnyi katalog, vol. 2, No. 5150, 394. In 1784 a Russian translation of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s occult text entitled On the Nobility and Preemnience of Women was published  in Moscow under the supervision of Archpriest Petr Alekseev of the Archangel Cathedral in Moscow. The publicaiton of this work met with predictable displeasure from Catherine II. See Svodnyi katalog russkoi knigi grazhdanskoi pechati XVIII veka 17251800, vol. 1 (Moscow: Izdanie gosudarstvennoi bibli- oteki SSSR imeni V. I. Lenina,  1962), No. 62, 24. Also in 1784, Nikolai  Novikov published a Russian translation (Raiskie tsvety) of a work by the German mystic Angelus Silesius (1624–1677) entitled Cherubinischer Wandersmann. See Svodnyi katalog, vol. 3, No. 5834,  13. In 1785 Lopukhin published Novoe khimicheskoe  svetilo, a translation of Michael Sendivogius’s Novum lumen chymicum.  See Svodnyi katalog, vol. 3, No. 6456, 113. For more on Novikov’s publishing activities, see W. Gareth Jones, Nikolay Novikov: Enlightener of Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

101) For the original German edition, see Chrysomander, eine allegorische und satyrische Geschichte (Berlin and Quedlinburg:  Biesterfeld, 1774).

102) For more information on the Russian translation, see Svodnyi katalog, vol. 1, No. 1502, 239. The second edition of the German version is entitled Sammlung unterschiedlicher bewährter  Chymischer  Schriften,  … Hand der Philosophen, Opus Saturni, Opera Vegetabilia, Opus Minerale, Cabala, de Lapide Philosophico, Nebst einem Tractat von den Irrgängen derer Alchymisten. For more information on this text, see John Ferguson, Bibliotheca Chemica: A Catalogue of the Alchemical, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Books in the Collection of the Late James Young of Kelly and Durris, vol. 1 (Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1906), 413–414.

103) For studies on alchemical literature in eighteenth-century Russia, see Semeka, “Russkie rozenkreitsery,” 365-7; David  J. Welsh, “‘Philosophers’ and ‘Alchemists’ in Some Eighteenth- Century Russian Comedies,” The Slavic and East European Journal, 8:2  (Summer 1964), 149–158; Baehr,  “Alchemy,”  151–165; 500 let gnozisa v Evrope (Amsterdam:  In de Pelikaan, 1993).  On Catherine the  Great’s anti-Masonic satire entitled “Taina protivo-nelepago obshchestva (Anti-absurde),” written in 1780, see Natalie Bayer, “The ‘Société Antiabsurde:’ Catherine the Great and Freemasonry,” in Önnerfors and Collis, eds., Freemasonry and Fraternalism  in Eighteenth-Century   Russia,  109–132. For a  gendered interpretation  of Catherine the Great’s anti-occult plays, see Ruth P. Dawson, “Catherine the Great: Playwright of the Anti-Occult,” in Thalia’s Daughters: German Women Dramatists from the Eighteenth- Century to the Present, edited by Susan L. Cocalis  and Ferrel Rose (Tubingen and Basel: A. Francke  Verlag, 1996), 17–34.

104) H. M. Marcard, ed., Zimmermanns  Verhältnisse mit der Kayserin Catharina II (Bremen: C. Seyffert, 1803), 324–325.

105) As mentioned above, Catherine compared Cagliostro to Falk in 1781 in a letter to Grimm.

106) Pypin,  Sochineniia, 251.

107) Pypin,  Sochineniia,  250. Also see O’Malley, Dramatic  Works, 77. The translation from Russian is by O’Malley.

108) Pypin,   Sochineniia,  251, 254. On the comparison between Samblin and Elagin, see Semeka, “Russkie rozenkreitsery,”  375.

109) Pypin, Sochineniia, 259.

110) Pypin, Sochineniia,  261.

111) See footnote 101 for information on this text.

112) Pypin, Sochineniia, 268.

113) Pypin, Sochineniia, 270–271.

114) It would seem Catherine the Great is alluding to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

115) Pypin, Sochineniia, 274–275.

116) Pypin, Sochineniia, 281–286.

117) Pypin, Sochineniia, 292.

118) Pypin, Sochineniia,  294, 313.

119) Pypin, Sochineniia, 307.

120) Pypin,  Sochineniia, 321.

121) Pypin, Sochineniia, 323–324.

122) Pypin, Sochineniia, 332.

123) Pypin, Sochineniia, 328.

124) The play was first performed on 24 September 1786  at the Hermitage Theatre  in St. Petersburg. See Nikolai Platonov Barsukov, ed., Dnevnik A. V. Khrapovitskogo (St. Petersburg: A. F. Bazunov,  1874), 16. For an in-depth analysis of the play in English, see Lurana  Donnels  O’Malley, “The Monarch and the Mystic: Catherine the Great’s Strategy of Audience Enlight- enment in The Siberian Shaman,” The Slavic and East European Journal, 41:2 (1997), 224–242.

125) The shaman was born in China, reared by members of the Tungusic people and then studied with Mongolian shaman. Bobin reveals these details in act one, scene two. See Pypin, Sochineniia, 351.

126) Pypin, Sochineniia, 372.

127) Pypin, Sochineniia, 417.

128) Pypin, Sochineniia, 418.

129) For an overview of the anti-alchemical literature in the late 1780s and 1790s, see Baehr, “Alchemy,” 160-3.

130) V. A. Levshin, Russkie skazki, vol. 5 (Moscow, Tipografiia Kompanii Tipograficheskoi, 1788), 245.

131) G. R. Derzhavin,  Stikhotvoreniia, edited by D. D. Blagoi and V. A. Zapadov (Leningrad, 1957), 125.

132) See  A. N. Klushin, “Alkhimist,” in Russkaia komediia i komicheskaia opera XVIII veka, edited by P. N. Berkov (Moscow: Iskusstvo,  1950), 467–484.  For a brief description of the play in English, see Baehr, “Alchemy,” 162–163.

133) See “Materialy o presledovanii Novikova ego areste i sledstvii,” in N. I. Novikov, Izbrannye sochineniia, edited by G. P. Makgonenko (Moscow-Leningrad: Goslitizdat), 578–579. Also see Faggionato, A Rosicrucian Utopia, 197.

134) Lotman, “‘Sochustvennik,’” 278.

One Response to The Petersburg Crucible – Alchemy and the Russian Nobility in Catherine the Great’s Russia

  1. Bruno Marty says:

    Thanks for this interesting paper.
    Please find here some little precisions concerning the footnote 50 :
    The Journal de Corberon is now preserved at the Bibliothèque Municipale Ceccano, in Avignon, not in the Musée Calvet (in which the library was previously but…2O years ago)
    -this Journal covers the 5 manuscripts quoted 3054 to 3058 (five volumes), the volume number 3059 (and not 3069) is not part of this Journal but only a bundle composed of several original correspondances from various correspondants and on various subjects. The document is now only available on microfilm as it is seriously dammaged.

    -the Journal (edited by Labande) is also available on

    -In the list of references, you must add the (only) french translation of the Catherine’s works, published by W.R. Chetteoui, in Cagliostro et Catherine II, éd. des Champs-Elysées, Paris 1947 pp. 63-201 (Obmanchtchik = Le Trompeur; Obol’chtchennyi = Le Trompé et Chaman Sibirskoï = Le Chaman de Sibérie)

    -always in the references : add the modern edition (german) of the book of E. von der Recke (among other texts), by Klaus Kiefer in Cagliostro, Dokumente zu Aufklarung und Okkultismus, , Munchen, Beck, pp.20-143.

    -note 99, you need some serious french sources and bibliography as the Sarah Maza, Private lives…is quite short and too general.

    Truly yours,

    Bruno Marty

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