Malta Diary, Russia and Malta – friendly but at arm’s length, at a distance?
Not by the longest stretch of the imagination would one link Russia to Malta, the gigantic bear and a few square kilometres of land in the middle of the Mediterranean.
However, history shows otherwise. The Russians have long had designs on Malta, stretching back to the late Middle Ages, yet somehow or other they have always been thwarted.
This trend of thought was activated by the news two or three days ago that a substantial Russian naval fleet would be steaming past Malta on its way to Syria. Apparently, the Russian Authorities requested a re-fuelling stop-over in Malta, a request refused by the Malta Government, juxta-positioning between EU affiliations and Russian sanctions, a small island with a substantial and substantially fortified US Embassy and of course because of Malta’s long-standing loyalty to Great Britain. The refusal came despite the Maltese Prime Minister Dr Joseph Muscat shortly visiting Moscow to meet Russian supermo Vladimir Putin.
This is merely the latest episode in a long-standing love-hate relationship between the two countries, gigantic Russia and minuscule Malta.
A few thousand Russian families currently work and live in Malta and a Russian boarding school in Bugibba only recently called it a day and closed its doors in Malta in January earlier this year.
There is even a Russian Chapel at San Anton Palace, the residence of Malta’s President! This was designed by General Sir George Whitmore, originally for Protestant worship. When Queen Victoria’s second son Alfred, Ernest Albert was stationed in Malta he was accompanied by his wife the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna and the chapel was adapted to Russian Orthodox to enable her to worship. With her departure the chapel retained the name “Russian Chapel” but was used by all denominations.
It was lavishly restored in 2013 but is now used for Roman Catholic worship.
As fate would have it, on the 2nd and 3rd December 1989, US President George Bush Snr and Russian President Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev were due to meet in Malta to sign the pact to end the Cold War. Over the two days the weather was turbulent and eventually they met on a warship at sea just off Malta and the pact was signed to begin the process of ‘glasnost’ a Russian word loosely translated meaning “openness” and thus Gorbachev began dismantling the Communist hold on Russia – debateable of course!
In 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt were on their way to Yalta to meet Soviet President Josef Stalin to discuss Nazi Germany’s impending collapse and Allied and Russian victory.
Churchill and Roosevelt met in Malta at Montgomery House in Floriana (aptly named after ‘Desert Rat’ General Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery and now the HQ of the insurance company Mapfre-MiddleSea) to begin preliminary discussions before meeting Stalin.
Many believed that in the early 1970s Russia would be in the best position to clinch its hold on Malta. The Malta Labour Party’s Dom Mintoff was elected Prime Minister amidst long-standing Church and opposition propaganda that Mintoff was a “closet” Communist and highly sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
However, in the course of time Mintoff made it abundantly clear he did not harbour one single strand of sympathy for the Soviet Union and for many years even denied their opening an Embassy in Malta, rubbing Soviet noses even further into oblivion by his flying off to Beijing in 1974 to sign several pacts with their Chinese rivals.
So, why so much Russian expressions of interest in Malta? The Mediterranean has always been a Western and European hub of turmoil and conflict, but Russia did not have one single marine outlet in the Mediterranean, their nearest being the Black Sea.
Malta was earmarked as being the most vulnerable and the ideal harbour for the impressive Russian naval fleet, giving it a commanding position throughout the Mediterranean Sea. However, designs stretched even further back than the Soviet era.
Russian emperors had long relished their country’s participation in the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. When the Knights were ousted by Napoleon in the late 18th Century, most of the fleeing Knights sought refuge in St Petersberg.
In 1698, Peter the Great of Russia sent a delegation under Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev to establish links with the Order and discuss joint actions against the Ottomans as well as to investigate the possibility of a Russian naval base. Sheremetev was made a Knight of Devotion by the Order, but the Russian base did not materialise.
Undeterred, the Russians continued to court a special relationship with the Order into the 18th Century. Between 1766 and 1769 Catherine the Great sent a number of distinguished Russian naval officers to train with the Knights and thus from 1770 to 1798 there was a strong Russian presence in the Order’s fleet.
Catherine was a shrewd schemer and understood the potential of a Mediterranean base in Malta. In 1782 she even sent her son Grand Duke Paul to pay her respects to Grandmaster de Rohan and express her admiration for the Order – as well as to maintain Russian influence in the Central Mediterranean.
However, matters screwed up when in 1798 Grandmaster Hompesch surrendered to Napoleon and the French took and held Malta for two years before being ousted by the British under Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
The arrival of the British dispersed all Russian designs, and the British 150 year presence in Malta made sure of that.
In the meantime, the disgraced Hompesch (for surrendering to the French) abdicated in 1799 and with the presence of so many Knights in St Petersberg, the Russian Emperor Paul I was elected as the Order’s Grand Master, despite his Russian Orthodox religion on a Roman Catholic order.
Malta’s independence from Britain in 1964 ignited fresh hope but little optimism as Mintoff’s Malta Labour Party struggled to overcome its ‘Communist’ label slapped there by the country’s right wing. His election in 1971 set alight fresh hopes, but as already explained this was soon extinguished.
And there matters stand. The two countries are friendly, but keep each other at arm’s length. However, I was surprised when I visited Moscow in 1986 and to my great surprise discovered that many Russian people actually knew a lot about Malta, contrary to quite a substantial (at the time) reaction of “Malta – where is Malta? I’ve never actually heard of it”.