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Regular version of the site

Drinking Diplomacy

Fraternal Culture in Early Imperial Russia


In the late 17th — early 18th centuries, various fraternities, societies and associations were gaining popularity throughout Europe among the elite. Their motives were often not particularly serious: the informal gatherings often served as an occasion for drinking and socializing. However, these associations often provided venues for discussing and solving important political issues, forging political alliances, and laying the groundwork for future political parties.

In 1728, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Duke of Liria, a Spanish Ambassador, sought to start such a club at Peter II’s court. It was to be called the ‘Order of the Anti-Sober’. HSE Associate Professor Igor Fedyukin, in collaboration with Robert Collis (Drake University, USA) and Ernest A. Zitser (Duke University, USA), reconstructs the context of the Spanish diplomat’s initiative and its political significance on the basis of the surviving charter of the order, which is held at the French archives. The historians’ research has been published in an article in The International History Review.

When James Francis Fitz–James Stuart (1696–1738), Duke of Liria and Spain’s first permanent envoy to Russia, was preparing to depart on his diplomatic mission, he knew in advance how he would go about achieving his objectives in St. Petersburg. As he intimated in a letter to his uncle and heir to the British throne James (III) Stuart, the envoy planned to rely on ‘the varieties of [his] wines’, since ‘in that part of the world all affairs are concluded on a bottle’.

Such assumptions should not be too surprising: during the reign of Peter the Great, the Russian court was known for its boisterous feasts and carnivals with heavy drinking. It appears only natural that Liria would have the same stereotype about the court of Peter the Great’s teenage grandson, Emperor Peter II (1715–1730, r. 1728–1730), who reigned by the time the envoy arrived.

However, the behavior and alcohol consumption of Russian elites of those times were in fact not so different from their European counterparts. In the 18th-century European royal courts, informal meetings with a narrow circle of confidants were quite popular, where the aroma of wine was an integral element. There is evidence of the existence of such societies as ‘The Order of the Wine Grape’ (Ordre de la Grappe) in Arles, France, ‘The Order of the Medusa’ (Ordre de la Meduse) in Toulon, and ‘The Order of the Drinks’ (Ordre de la Boisson) in Avignon. A ‘Collegium of Tobacco Smokers’ (Tabakskollegium) existed at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. According to the diary by Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholz, a gentleman of the bedchamber to Duke Karl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp, who resided in Russia throughout the early 1720s, the creation of mock orders was a common practice in the context of small northern European courts. These societies were a platform for entertainment and informal interaction for diplomats and the ruling elites. So the Duke of Liria’s intention to create a closed club named future ‘Order of the Anti-sober’ (Ordre des Antisobres) was quite in line with that era’s political culture trends.


Rules of the Club

The charter of the ‘Order of the Anti-Sober’, which was discovered in French archives, mentions the Epiphany of 1728 as the date of the order foundation. It is known that the Duke of Liria, who had come to Russia and had been introduced at the court not long before that, officially participated in a foreign diplomats’ assembly for the first time around these dates.

The surviving text of the charter has, of course, a boisterous, mocking tone. For example, the first article mockingly refers to the Old Testament and requires order members to exhibit ‘eternal antipathy’ towards the ‘sect’ of teetotalers and all those who practiced the ‘vice of sobriety’. Another rule had it that the ‘cavaliers’ of the order had to be pleasant in their interactions and be able to mock without turning to malice. Pointedly, the lack of these qualities could be forgiven if a candidate had a ‘good cook’ and ‘excellent wines’.

The planned order was intended as a space for socializing, uninterrupted by any personal or political tensions. The members were instructed to leave all their ranks and titles at the door and limit the length of their speeches to two minutes to avoid the ‘dread’ of ‘yawning’ and the ‘unpardonable crime’ of boredom.

No more than three dishes were to be put on the table during the meals, since ‘profusion is the irreconcilable enemy of delicacy.’ In addition, nobody was to force other members to eat and drink beyond the dictates of their own appetite.

The members of the order were to observe secrecy, in a manner similar to other secretive societies. There would also be special marks, signs, and rituals, allowing a member to recognize his fellows wherever they met. The members were supposed to greet each other by exclaiming ‘Long live the Epiphany at the 59th Degree!’ – a countersign marking the latitude of St. Petersburg, the location of the order foundation.

Women were barred from entering the order. This was explained by the necessity to temper the ‘ardor of certain desires’ and contribute to the ‘sweet harmony’ and ‘happiness’ to which the prospective members of this ‘august and incomparable order’ aspired.

Article 11 of the charter mandated that the members maintain sincere, close, and cordial relations with one another and exclude all prejudices, such as those that are caused by religious or national differences. To this end, the charter even banned all ‘ceremonial toasts’ honouring monarchs and any other ‘potentates’.

The violators of these rules were to be condemned to ‘travel 20 years in Russia without a bed and without a cook, in winter without a fur jacket, in summer without ice.’

According to the researchers, the exclusion of women and the explicitly apolitical nature of the meetings were very much in the spirit of English Freemasonry, as articulated in 1723 by James Anderson.


Motives to Create the Club

The Duke of Liria was, in fact, a servant to two masters: Philip V, the sovereign who appointed him Spain’s first official diplomatic representative in Russia, and James (III) Stuart, the Jacobite claimant to the British throne, with whom the duke maintained secret correspondence and to whom he professed boundless loyalty.

In 1725, Spain signed The Treaty of Vienna with Austria, which opposed the signatories of the Treaty of Hanover, most notably, France, Great Britain, and Prussia. Under such a balance of powers, Philip V commissioned Liria to persuade Russia to join the Treaty of Vienna and, probably, even dispatch a fleet that would land in England, overthrow George I, and restore the Stuart dynasty.

In St. Petersburg, Liria was going to count on Duke Karl Friedrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp, spouse of tsar’s daughter Anna Petrovna, member of Russia’s Supreme Privy Council and an important political player at the court of his mother-in-law, Empress Catherine I. Karl Friedrich’s claims to both the Holstein territory annexed by the king of Denmark and to the Swedish throne were very much central to the hostility between Russia and Britain. Liria was therefore hoping to talk Karl Friedrich into acting against the Hanoverian Alliance.

But over the course of the Spanish envoy’s six-month journey from Madrid to St. Petersburg, the diplomatic situation in Europe changed. In March 1727, the government of George I managed to persuade Sweden to join the Hanover alliance. In June, Catherine I passed away. These conditions led to the expulsion of the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, whose support was to be instrumental to Liria, from Russia.

The charter of the ‘Order of the Anti-Sober’ establishes Liria as Grand Master, but it also names Baron Mardefeld, Prussian Ambassador in Russia, ‘Protector’ of the order. It appears such courtesy towards the Prussian diplomat was made in pursuit of some clear political goals. On the one hand, by the moment of Liria’s arrival to Russia in November 1727, Mardefeld had spent a full decade in St. Petersburg and probably knew more about Russian domestic politics than most of the other foreign residents. On the other hand, Mardefeld had been charged with repairing the strategic relationship between Russia and the Hanoverian Alliance, a diplomatic rapprochement that Liria was specifically tasked with preventing. The Prussian diplomat also supported the candidacy of a Saxon prince to the Polish throne, whereas Liria was intriguing in favor of an alternative claimant for the crown. Apparently, some opportunities for close and informal meetings with the Prussian diplomat as part of a mock order would be very useful for Liria.

Meanwhile, researchers have no further evidence on whether the ‘Order of the Anti-Sober’ was created or not. Neither reports by Liria himself, nor known papers by Mardefeld, include any intentions on creating a closed drinking club in St. Petersburg. But this does not mean that informal interaction over a bottle of wine was not used by diplomats as a political tool. It is known that the Duke of Liria hosted regular dinner parties for diplomats, the young Russian monarch, and his confidants. At such parties, over 500 bottles of wine could be emptied, and, undoubtedly, political talk was an integral part of them. As a result, Liria managed to assume very good positions at Peter II’s court. Unfortunately, however, the teenage monarch died soon, and the international political situation quickly changed. As a result, Liria’s embassy did not achieve any outstanding diplomatic results. Mock orders as a space for informal socializing for the elites soon started to be replaced by Masonic Lodges: Jacobites, advocates of the overthrown Stuart dynasty in Europe, played a key role in their popularization.


Authors of the Study:

Igor Fedyukin, Associate Professor in the School of History, Director of the Centre for Modern Russian History, HSE
Robert Collis, Adjunct Professor of History, Drake University
Ernest A. Zitser, Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies, Duke University
March 29, 2019