The Knights Hospitaller:

Emperor Paul I of Russia

(Biographical comments from the St. Pachomius Orthodox Library)

The Emperor Paul was assassinated by members of his own court in 1801, and his murderers (who went unpunished) justified their actions in numerous widely-read memoirs. As a result, Paul's image in history books of the XIX Century and in popular accounts to this day has been unflattering. In the XX Century, however, professional historians began to reassess the Emperor more favourably: his social policies, very disagreeable to the aristocracy, were half a century ahead of their time and would have led to the early emancipation of the serfs; his foreign policy was unusually ethical (he objected vehemently to the anti-French Revolutionary alliance using its lofty rhetoric as a cover for imperial expansion against small and weak states, and refused to do so himself.)

The common people of Russia, who saw Paul as the champion of their interests, have traditionally venerated him as an uncanonized saint and martyr. His religious policies would repay investigation, as would his attitude toward European culture. On the one hand he was an unabashed Westernizer who admired Renaissance France and Frederick the Great's Prussia; he put much energy into somewhat unrealistic schemes to inculcate the virtues and idealism of chivalry in the Russian nobility. Paul's admiration for mediæval knights (and also his geopolitical desire for a base in the Western Mediterranean) made him a supporter of the Knights Hospitaller, a dying chivalric order in Malta. When Napoleon captured the island, Paul made a startling proposal which the Order had little choice but to accept: he (a married Orthodox Christian) would become Grand Master of the celibate Roman Catholic Order, which in turn would create a new subdivision called the "Orthodox Grand Priory", open to any Christian nobleman, married or not. Paul's hope (and command) was that the entire Russian aristocracy would join this new subdivision of the Order, effectively making the Hospitallers an all-Orthodox group. This project, however, fell apart after the assassination.

Apparently the Emperor had similar plans to exploit the weakness of the Papacy itself (then in Napoleonic captivity) to reunify the Eastern and Western churches on terms dictated in Moscow. A proposal to this effect was sent to the Pope as virtually the last important act of Paul's rule. There has been a subsequent attempt by the Vatican to use these negotiations as proof that Paul secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, but his actions in the Knights of Malta affair alone seem to make this unlikely. Moreover, Paul's devotion to Orthodoxy is well attested (and in writing -- the "pre-nuptial contract" which he personally wrote before his second marriage lays great stress on the importance of Orthodoxy as the imperial family's religion.) It is unfortunate that the details of this ecumenical project have never been given close study by qualified historians of the Church.

One can only speculate on the course of XIX Century history if Paul had lived: Would France, Italy, and Spain be Western-Rite Orthodox countries? Would the unexpected 1799 alliance with Napoleon to drive the British out of India have led to a Russian Raj, and this to the spread of Orthodoxy on the subcontinent? Or, on the other hand, would things have gone much more disastrously than they did, with ecumenism and Roman influence eroding the Church? God alone knows, but the high opinion of Paul held by canonized Eastern saints like John Maximovich suggests that his memory is rightly honoured by the Orthodox people.