Russia has always been something of a misfit in the playground of international politics; nobody really understands what she is saying or where she has come from. Rumours have spread that something is not quite right with her—that she is cruel and has a violent past. Despite the danger, a boy on the opposite end of the playground, England, is completely obsessed.
In order to understand Britain’s strange relationship with Russia, one must look to the beginning of the 16th century. It has been forgotten that at that time, Britain and Russia were dependent on one another—the English navy spent a quarter of its total expenses on Russian rope, while the Russians were using English ammunition to conquer Livonia. This trade was managed by the Muscovy Company, which was suitably rewarded for its service. Merchants would risk their lives travelling across Ivan the Terrible’s Russia in the hope of finding the best quality rope, wax, and fur. Needless to say, when they came back home, English merchants had quite a story to tell…
The myth of Russian barbarism begins in a typically British way. In the second half of the 16th century, and for a few hundred years afterwards, English merchants would complain bitterly of the discomfort they experienced when travelling around Russia. Getting around the country was unpleasant, expensive, and slow, and at the end of a long day, English merchants would recoil in horror at the food that was brought to them. The English explorer Anthony Jenkinson wrote that anyone travelling in Russia should be well prepared, “for there is small succour in those parts, unlesse it be in townes.” No doubt, accounts of these travels made it back to Elizabethan England and cruel jokes were had at the expense of Russian cuisine.
A second, less amusing reason for the development of this myth is distrust. In the summer of 1556, Londoners witnessed a peculiar spectacle—a Russian, Osip Nepeya, the first ambassador to England, strolling along with the founder of the Muscovy Company, Richard Chancellor. Few had ever heard of Russia, let alone seen a native. Despite an encouraging start, the English soon became suspicious of Nepeya, “Hee is verie mistrustfull, and thinketh everie man will beguile him,” they wrote of the ambassador, “therefore you had need to make your bargaines plaine, and to set them downe in writing.” A fundamental factor in this suspicion was language. Elizabeth’s enthusiasm to learn some Russian herself was made all the more difficult by the fact that no book of Russian grammar would appear until the end of the seventeenth century. The explorer Jerome Horsey was one who did master Russian and described it as “the most copius and elegent language in the world.”
Similarly, back in Russia, Ivan the Terrible’s paranoia was visceral to foreign merchants. They were watched closely by court officials, the stolniki, while travelling. The routes chosen had to be strictly adhered to and were often disrupted by the will of the unpredictable Tsar. Contact with ordinary Russians was also forbidden. Such attempts to restrict the freedom of the merchants fuelled a desire to uncover what lay beyond in the great Russian wilderness.
Rumours started to circulate. It was written that the Samoyeds of Siberia “doe eate one another sometimes among themselves. And if any merchants come unto them, then they kill one of their children for their sakes to feast.” The belief that cannibalism existed in Russia was widespread by the end of the century. Looking further west, the reputation of the Crimean Tatars suffered a similar fate. It was said that they would “receveth straungers lovingly and after thei kylleth them and ete them and drynke bloude myngled with mylke.”
Russian superstition is famous today but back then it played an important part in the belief that Russians were an ignorant people. This ignorance was thought to be responsible for the other great defects in Russian society, namely drunkenness and cruelty. George Turbeville wrote “Drinke is their whole desire, the pot is all their pride,” while the English ambassador, Giles Fletcher, commented that “to drinke drunke, is an ordinary matter with them every day in the weeke.” The cruelty of the Russians extended to their wives, who were said to be kept in almost total seclusion, only appearing in public at church or at marriage ceremonies. Turbeville does make the important point that this excessive drinking was at least in part a result of the misery and oppressiveness of the system. In addition to this, a number of Englishmen speculated that the ignorance found there was likely to have been fostered by the ruling classes, i.e. the Church and the State, as a means of maintaining power.
It was not only Russia’s apparent barbarism that fascinated. A series of peculiar phenomena was said to be happening in Russia that caught the attention and imagination of the English. On the banks of the Ob, there were said to be the bodies of men, camels, and livestock who had suddenly turned to stone. Zlata Baba, the Golden Hag, was said to live in Northern Siberia and give local priests insight into the future. There were also rumours about the boronets, a creature which was the exact shape of a lamb but grew like a plant with a stalk that was attached to the lamb’s stomach.
With all this rumour and intrigue sweeping through the streets of Elizabethan England, Russia was certain to develop an extraordinary reputation. This, combined with subsequent twists and turns in Russian history, is the reason why so many on the international playground were and continue to be fascinated by her. Whatever the truth, we should be grateful to Russia for the drama it adds to history, but, at the same time, remember those who suffered profusely as a result.