The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

Series Of talks on Malta’s relations with other states - Exploring the links and relationship between Malta and Russia

Malta Independent Sunday, 31 July 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the initiative of the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tonio Borg, and in collaboration with Embassies and High Commissions present in Malta, started a series of talks on Malta’s relations with other States in October 2010.

Following an opening speech by Dr Borg, Dr Mario Tabone delivered a talk on relations between Malta and Russia. Afterwards, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Malta, H.E. Boris Yu Marchuk, addressed guests prior to a closing speech by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

During a week-long celebration of Russian-Maltese friendship, the Embassy of the Russian Federation and the Russian Culture and Science Institute organised an exhibition in the Pardo Hall of Palazzo Parisio, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Valletta.

Dr Tabone started his speech by saying that talking about Russia and Malta is a study in contrasts: one of the smallest countries in the world and the largest one in the world. Both have been victims and beneficiaries of their respective geographies: one, in the north, bordering on the Arctic and sweeping across the whole of Northern Asia and rolling down to the Black and Caspian seas; one smack in the centre of the hot and turbulent Mediterranean, in the eye of political, military and cultural hurricanes. And, of course, both have been buffeted by the vagaries and happenstance of history. They also share a burden of size; one too big, the other too small and both had to struggle to achieve nationhood and a sense of identity.

Two cardinal features which Malta and Russia have shaped to their respective psychologies and history: the first is that Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, has been a frontier region between Europe and the Arab-Turkish empires; similarly, Russia’s geopolitical hallmark is its frontier character between Europe and Asia. The second is the coming of Christianity to Malta in 60 AD and its arrival in Kieran Russia in the 9th century, inspiring a splendid medieval civilisation. These events are deeply rooted in the psychology of our peoples and conditioned the course of our history and culture. Not without reason did Putin remark in August 2001, on his visit to the hallowed Solovetsky camp that “without Christianity Russia could hardly exist”. What Tibor Szamuley once said about Russia also applies to Malta: “Of all the burdens Russia has had to bear, heaviest and most relentless of all has been the weight of her past.”

Long before any official relations were established between Malta and Russia, Malta witnessed the arrival and liberation of Russian Christian slaves.

The year 1698 marks the first official relations between Russia and Malta; although this year witnessed the arrival in Malta of a number of Russians. That of Boris Petrovich Sheremetyev was the most significant. Sheremetyev was a distinguished diplomat and military leader. His diary was later published by his son Pyotr in 1773 and was probably the first account of Malta published in Russia.

Another visitor to Malta in 1698 was Pyotr Andreevich Tolstoy, an ancestor of the famous novelist; his visit does not appear to have been official. These visits have to be seen in the context of two perspectives, one Maltese and one Russian.

With the rise of the Ottoman Turks and their absorption of the residual Ilkhanid Mongols and their relentless expansion culminating in the fall of Byzantium in 1453, in the popular imagination, the Mongols and Turks were merged. In this light, Russia and Malta were facing the same enemy.

In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire and Russia were bound to clash. This brings us to Peter, Peter the Great was a colossus of a man, a man of great physical strength, indomitable will and boundless energy who was ruthlessly determined to wrench Russia from the late medievalism of Muscovy into a European power. He realised that to compete with the other European powers, two objectives were essential; one, to acquire skills, knowledge and technology; two, a navy. Peter saw Russia as landlocked or bordering ice-bound seas. He had to break into the Baltic to break the stranglehold of the Ottomans on the Black Sea and he had to hedge Turkey to the south, hence the interest in the Mediterranean.

Catherine II, though of German extraction, originally Sophia Augusta Frederika, saw herself following in the footsteps of Peter. Her interest in the Mediterranean intensified and targeted Malta. Early in 1762, Catherine sent a message to Pinto requesting the services of two experienced knights to serve with the Russian fleet. The Grand Master refused but, later on, Catherine sought the possibility of Russian officers being trained in Malta. This, in fact, happened and six officers arrived and stayed three years.

It seems that Russo-Maltese relations did not sour; in fact, in 1788, General Saborovski who was bound for Eastern Mediterranean to scout for volunteers for another offensive against the Turks, described Russo-Maltese relations as very good and close.

Chevalier Psaro, was sent to Malta in 1784 to act as Russian charge d’affaires and developed a network of Maltese and foreign contracts, travelled several times to Sicily and Italy and appears to have acted as a clearing agent for Russian intelligence in the central Mediterranean; he was also rumoured to have incited popular feelings against the Order. There were two other Knights who had furthered Russo-Maltese relations during Catherine’s reign.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Russian maritime and naval activity in the Mediterranean increased and Russian ships called at Malta for supplies, repairs, and to enlist able seaman. Maltese businessmen were also involved in ship chandling and in providing capital or credit. Catherine died in 1796 and was succeeded by her son Paul; in Malta de Rohan was succeeded by Ferdinand von Hompesch in 1797.

The French armada arrived in Malta on 9 June 1798. After the capitulation of Malta to the French, Tsar Paul I had himself declared Grand Master of the Order by the Russian Grand Priory. With the death of Paul I in 1801, the Russian Empire lost all interest in the Order.

Hompesch was not allowed to take the Archives of the Order with him and the French had ordered that the papers, parchments and various documents should be recycled to produce cartridges. Only weeks later the Maltese rose up against the French.

After the expulsion of the French from Malta, colourful confabulations went on about the fate on the islands, especially at the Treaty of Amiens − a return of the Order, guaranteed neutrality, and there were even strong rumours of a Russian occupation.

Maritime trade flourished in Malta in the 19th century. There were a number of Maltese merchant families who conducted a brisk trade, especially in grain between Malta and Black Sea ports. A founder member of the Chamber of Commerce was Biagio Tagliaferro, a Genoese by birth who settled in Malta very early during the British presence. He was an important agent in the development of Russo-Maltese maritime trade.

The Russian Imperial Consulate was established in 1806 by a decree of Emperor Alexander I, who appointed a Maltese merchant Antonio Regnaud Carcas consul, who was followed by Francesco Tagliaferro, the longest serving Russian Imperial Consul, from 1836 to1878. Russian interests in the Order were represented by Fra Amabile Vella. (His grandson, Ruggiero Vella, was the last Maltese head of the Russian consulate).

During the Crimean War, Malta became a beehive of activity with thousands of troops, horses and war material. Maltese ships were requisitioned for war service and many Maltese seamen served in the British navy and merchant fleet. A number of Russian ships were captured at sea. The Maltese crew of a naval vessel battered by ferocious gales were taken prisoners by the Russians. After the war a strong Russian naval force visited Malta commanded by Vice-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin, and the Imperial Yacht “Strandart” called regularly at Malta up to the outbreak of the First World War. It has been observed that the patron saint of the Russian navy is St Andrew, who is also the patron saint of the fishing communities in Malta.

The sad but rich experience of Russian refugees in Malta covered the years 1919-1922, sad because not only most these people found themselves destitute, but also, and most poignantly, because their world had crumbled leaving them in a state of psychological disorientation and whose destinies were not only precarious but depended on others. It was also rich because many were urbane, highly educated and cultured and contributed to the cultural and social life of Malta.

The number of Russian refugees in Malta probably never exceeded 800 to 1000. It is interesting that among the refugees was a Maltese, Consul E.W. Caruana. He seems to have been held in high esteem by the refugees and, like others, he was naive enough to believe that the situation in Russia was reversible, and so, he encouraged young Maltese to seek jobs in Russia rather than in distant America.

An interesting refugee, Konstantin Adamovich Voyensky, left a detailed diary covering the years 1919-1922, with an invaluable account of the life of the Russian refugees in Malta. With his talents as a historian and his meticulous diary keeping, Voyensky could have left a precious chronicle of the events. Voyensky worked on the Archives of the Order and even contemplated writing a history of Malta.

Princess Olga Putyatin and her husband Pavel came to Malta in 1919 accompanied by her sister Princess Caterine Putyatin, who was married to Pavel’s brother, Mikhail. Princess Olga’s only daughter, Nathalie, settled in Malta and married Edgar Tabone. She was a woman of refined culture, well acquainted with the classics of Russian literature and founded the first academy of Russian classical ballet in Malta, which has flourished ever since.

Boris Edwards was an artist-sculptor born in Odessa where he trained and later continued his studies in St Petersburg and Paris. Edwards was quite active and well-known in Malta and participated in the cultural life of the country. He sculpted the monument in bronze at the Addolorata Cemetery commemorating the four men shot by the British troops during the Sette Giugno riots. He also executed a bas-relief bronze portrait of Fortunato Mizzi.

Another outstanding refugee was Nikolai Petrovich Krasnov; he graduated as an architect in Moscow but later moved south and was city architect of Yalta in the Crimea. He was elected to the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and appointed Imperial Court architect. In Malta, he gave art lessons to Nathalie Putyanin and, with the help of a Maltese friend, Lawrence Lungaro, painted postcards.

In the Second World War, Malta and the Soviet Union were on the same side in the stand against Nazism. Both countries suffered destruction, famine and loss of life. But both countries were crucial for the course and eventual outcome of the war. The peak period of trial in both countries overlapped: the infernal siege of Stalingrad and the implacable bombing of Malta in 1942.

In January 1945, an important conference was held in Malta at Montgomery House in Floriana. Apart from military top brass, it was attended by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Yalta Conference was attended by Churchill, Roosevelt and General Secretary Joseph Stalin. In practice, spheres of influence were worked out that inevitably led to the Cold War and the bipolar division of world politics. As a touch of poetic justice, on 2-3rd December 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chairman Gorbachev and President Bush met in Malta to proclaim the end of the Cold War. The axis of Malta-Yalta-Malta is quite historic.

Malta established diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1967. Mikhail Smirnovsky, USSR ambassador to London presented his credentials as ambassador to Malta. In February 1968, the Maltese ambassador in Washington, Dr Arvid Pardo, presented his credentials as ambassador of Malta to the USSR.

Official relations between Russia and Malta have naturally increased rapidly in recent times; perhaps it is sufficient to name a number of agreements to illustrate the range: Exchange of Aides Memoires on the establishment of Diplomatic relations between Malta and the USSR (1967); Protocol of exchange missions (1981); field of health and medical services (1984); tourism (1995); Recognition, Respect and Support for Malta’s status as a neutral State (1981); Cooperation between the Ministry of Justice of Malta and the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (2001); Programme of Cultural and Youth Exchanges and others.

Knowledge of other countries is not only interesting in itself but also vital for mutual understanding. Winston Churchill once referred to Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. For whichever way you look at the world, Russia is a dominant factor in the equation of international stability and prosperity.

In his speech, the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Malta, H.E. Boris Yu Marchuk said that the relations between Russia and Malta have deep historical roots and rest on a solid foundation of traditional friendship and mutual respect between the Russian and Maltese people. Since the two countries established diplomatic relations more than 40 years ago, the relationship has grown from strength to strength in the areas of political and diplomatic interaction, trade and economic cooperation, cultural ties, and people-to-people contracts. The Ambassador highlighted the fact that the bilateral agenda between the two countries is one of the most promising areas of cooperation that relate to trade and economic ties.

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