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?)