Myth of Russia in German Culture

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The first mention of Rus’ in Germany can be found in the written sources dated back to the 9th century when there were no Russians or Germans (not even ethnic groups). In her work Russen und Russland aus deutscher Sicht (Russians and Russia from a German point of view) researcher Mechthild Keller writes about people inhabiting the eastern territories of Europe in St. Bertrand Abbey Annals; it refers to Rhos which was a part of a diplomatic mission in Ingelheim am Rhein.

Savagery and barbarism are the characteristics which back then were formulated for the first time and later became fundamental. They were put forward by the Churchmen who deemed everyone who was not baptized to be savages. The reason behind such attitude is the fact that Russia became Christian later than Western Europe.


An Austrian, Kaiser’s counselor and envoy to the Russian court Siegmund Freiherr von Herberstein (1486-1566) is considered to be the founder of “the study of Russia”. He is most famous for his work Notes on Muscovite Affairs (Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii). Between 1515 and 1553 he took 69 journeys abroad among which there were two notable trips to Russia. His first journey to the Grand Principality of Moscow in 1516-1517 proved him to be “an expert on Eastern Europe” in the service of the House of Habsburg. His next journey to Russia in 1525-1526 took him to the court of the Grand Prince of Moscow. Herberstein’s travel notes saw the light in 1549. They were published in Vienna in Latin entitled Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii. In 1551 they were reprinted with minor changes in Basel, and in 1556 an expanded edition came out and was later republished many times. In 1550 his travel notes were published in Venice in Italian entitled Comentari della Moskovia et parimente della Russia et delle altre cose belle et notabile. Based on the 1556 Latin edition Herberstein managed to republish an updated and expanded version of Notes on Muscovite Affairs in German (Vienna, 1557). It was called Moscovia der Hauptstat in Reissen. Regardless of this edition, in 1563 Doctor of Arts and Medicine in Basel Heinrich Pantaleon (1522-1595) published the second German translation of the book entitled Moskoviter wunderbare Historien (Muscovites’ wonderful stories) which was reprinted many times under the title of Die Moskovitische Chronica (The Muscovites’ Chronica). At the initiative of Catherine the Great, in 1795 Herberstein’s Chronica was published in Saint Petersburg.

Herberstein’s accounts still have historic and cultural value as they include the lists of sources and documents, the information received from interlocutors and author’s observations (apparently Herberstein knew Russian and would double-check and critically assess all sorts of information).

Let’s cite some noteworthy fragments showing the diversity and at the same time the objectivity of these descriptions: “<…> all the races using the Sclavonic language that observe both the faith and the forms of Christianity in accordance with the ritual of the Greeks, and are called in conventional language Russians, and in Latin Rhuteni, have increased to so great a multitude, that they have either driven out all intermediate nations, or have absorbed them into their own habits of living ; so that all may now be designated by one common word, Russians. <…> Of the princes who now rule over Russia, the first is the Grand Duke of Moscow, who holds the greatest part of it; the second is the Grand Duke of Lithuania; the third is the King of Poland, who now is sovereign both of Poland and Lithuania. <…> From that time, namely in the year 6745 (1237), up to the present Grand Duke Vasiley, not only were nearly all the princes of Russia tributaries of the Tartars, but every princi pality was deferred to the will of the Tartars when Russians were making any interest to procure them. <…> Confession is made about the feast of Easter with great contrition of heart and reverence. <…> The principal monastery in Moscow is that of the Holy Trinity, which is twelve German miles to the west of Moscow, where St. Sergius was buried, and is said to perform many miracles. He is honoured by the prayers of a wonderful assemblage of nations and peoples. <…> It is held to be dishonourable and a disgrace for a young man to address a girl, in order that he may obtain her hand in marriage. It is the part of the father to communicate with the young man upon the subject of his marrying his daughter. <…> They consider no woman virtuous unless she live shut up at home, and be so closely guarded, that she go out nowhere. <…> But shut up at home they do nothing but spin and sew, and have literally no authority or influence in the house. <…> In all houses and dwellings they have the images of saints, either painted or cast, placed in some honourable position: and when any one goes to see another, as he enters the house, he immediately takes his hat off and looks round to see where the image is, and when he sees it he signs himself three times with the cross, and bowing his head says, “O Lord, have mercy.” He then salutes the host with these words, “God give health.” <…> Every second or third year the prince holds a census through the provinces, and conscribes the sons of the boyars, that he may know their number, and how many horses and serfs each one has. Then he appoints each his stipend, as has been said above. Those who have the means to do so, fight without pay. Rest is seldom given them, for either they are waging war against the Lithuanians, or the Livonians, or the Swedes, or the Tartars of Cazar; or if no war is going on, the prince generally appoints twenty thousand men every year in places about the Don and the Occa, as guards to repress the eruptions and depredations of the Tartars of Precop”, etc.

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