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The lure of the Kremlin

By news editor, on 7 February 2012

Having discovered Russia by accident in 1553, British representatives swiftly arrived at the view that Muscovy was a barbaric, isolated country, with a populace that was kept purposefully ignorant by its ruling classes.

At a Lunch Hour Lecture on 31 January, Ben Davies heard Dr Sergei Bogatyrev explain how this picture obscures the more complex reality of Russian integration into the cultural and commercial networks of the 16th century.

Dr Bogatyrev began by giving us a brief idea of the context in which Russia was operating under Tsar Ivan IV, better known as Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was an aggressive militarist, and British discovery of the country came during the middle of significant expansion of Russian borders. No doubt, this contributed to a perception of barbarism on the part of western Europe.

The view of Muscovy as rather ‘backward’ seems to have been established almost immediately.

Richard Chancellor, the captain whose boat was wrecked on Russian shores during a 1553 expedition to find a northern sea route to China, returned to Britain apparently astonished by Russian ignorance of Latin, Greek and Hebrew (although, as Dr Bogatyrev wondered pointedly, how many 16th century ship captains would have known these classical languages?)

A similar story is found in reports from ambassador Giles Fletcher. He claimed to have found a general populace that was purposefully kept from academic learning and military practice, discouraged from travel or from anything but suspicion to foreigners and generally kept in a state of ignorant disinterest, all in order to make them “fitter for the servile conditions” that suited their ruling classes.

Dr Bogatyrev acknowledged that there was a great deal of isolationism in Russia, especially by the time of Fletcher’s visit, when the country had suffered during the long and unsuccessful Livonian war.

Yet, he argued, the view espoused by Chancellor, Fletcher and others glosses over Russia’s steady alignment within the “global networks” of the 16th century.

We were first pointed towards the extensive and complex trade networks that Russia actively pursued during the 16th century. The country traded extensively with Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, Persia and, later, the rest of western Europe.

Imports included clothing, armour and weapons, luxuries such as sugar and paper, and glass; Russia hardly suffered a trade deficit, exporting local specialities in hemp, rope, skins, timber and “soft gold”, or furs.

So that was commercial integration; what about cultural networks? As Dr Bogatyrev noted, many of the imports were confined to luxuries for the Tsar’s court and the Orthodox Church.

To establish that there was cultural exchange, and not simply acquisitiveness, we need evidence that commercial imports were incorporated into the local culture.

There are plenty of examples to support such a claim. Dr Bogatyrev first pointed to several items of clothing.
The cap of Monomakh, used to crown Russian Tsars from Ivan onwards, seems to have been an Eastern import; the addition of a Christian cross to the top, making it appropriate garb for an Orthodox ruler, shows that Russia was not simply aping foreign cultures, but adapting them to local custom.

More subtle influence was evidenced by liturgical vestments, made from imported Italian fabrics. The penetration of foreign goods into religious practices, and indeed into relations between Russia’s two centres of power – the vestments were a gift from Ivan to the church – show a willingness to incorporate foreign expertise into the deepest elements of Russian elite society.

We were then shown examples from the world of art and literature. Dr Bogatyrev showed us an image from Ivan’s official chronicle – published towards the end of his reign – of Ivan sending a trade delegation to Britain’s Elizabeth I.

For me, this was the most telling example. As well as demonstrating an interest in establishing, and highlighting, western contact, the style of the image showed a fascinating interweaving of Russian and western styles.

While facial images and poses pinpointed the image as traditionally Russian, there were several elements that Dr Bogatyrev noted as western influenced.

The picture depicts Ivan and Elizabeth in their respective capitals, a ship en route between them. Both monarchs wear similar, western-style crowns: a stylistic decision intended, said Dr Bogatyrev, to convey dynastic equality between the two.

Similarly, Moscow itself is depicted in a gothic style that was true of very few Russian buildings during the period – possibly only the Kremlin could have been described as gothic. The style in the images was probably adapted from the western – especially German – prints that were in circulation in Russia at the time.

My limited knowledge of Russian history begins during the ‘Europeanised’ phase of Peter the Great and his building of St Petersburg – so it was interesting to note that a cultural exchange seems to have been well under way before that period, although clearly not on the same scale.

Dr Bogatyrev’s lecture convinced me that the British stereotypes of barbaric and insular Russians were at least exaggerated.

The source of examples – monarchy and church exclusively – makes me wonder whether Giles Fletcher might not have been right about the division between rulers and populace; but I’m not sure 16th-century Europe could claim to be particularly progressive in that respect either.

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