Freemasonry or Masonry has been a longstanding object of conspiracy theories, urban legends and misunderstanding. Even nowadays, with an abundance of information and literature on the fraternity, the organization is often labeled secret, occult or plain evil. Freemasonry in Russia, is no exception – having arrived in the 18th century, its role in the Russian Enlightenment remains a matter of debate. Introduced by foreign officers, it's often associated with the activities of Franz Lefort and Jacob Bruce – close associates of Peter the Great.
Given that the architecture of St. Petersburg is filled with masonic symbols, it's unsurprising that its founder, Peter the Great, is often considered instrumental in bringing masonry to Russia, even though it's not documented. Obsessed with Amsterdam, Peter sought to build a version of the city on the banks of the Neva River. Wooden architecture wasn't going to survive the swampy environment so, after an alleged audience with Isaac Newton, Peter appealed to the stonemasons.
Masonic architecture features archetypal symbolism. In St. Petersburg the Eye of Providence or Radiant Delta – an ancient religious symbol incorporated into standard Freemasonry iconography in 1797 – appears on the city's cathedrals and monuments. Representing enlightenment and awareness towards the world and each other, the Eye watches over the work of the Masons and guides them in their quests. Kazan Cathedral, Smolny Convent and the Admiralty building are among the most prominent structures featuring the symbol.
Much of freemasons’ symbolism is drawn from their tools: the square, compasses, level, plumb rule, the trowel and others. These instruments don’t just symbolize the masonry trade, but they are also a means of understanding the world and establishing the distinction between God's wisdom and human intelligence. Here, the pair of compasses symbolizes Heaven – the realm of God, while the jointing rule measures Earth, where Masons perform their labour. The symbol encourages to aspire towards the divine and, at the same time, to remember one’s place.
Other universal symbols, such as spheres, don’t bear a direct connection to the tradition and their origins remain unclear. In any case, St. Petersburg remains an example of exceptional architectural design and execution – Freemasons or not.