Myth of Russia in German Culture

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Herberstein’s work was the first remarkable written account created by a Western European about Russia, the country long perceived in Europe as secondary and insignificant due to the Golden Horde’s rule over it.

In the 17th century a German writer, scientist and diplomat Adam Olearius (born Oehlschlegel or Ölschläger, 1599-1671) visited Russia. For some time he worked as an assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy in Leipzig. In 1633 he joined the service of Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. The Duke had a plan to establish economic ties between Northern Germany and Russia. To accomplish this, he sent there a delegation, led by a merchant Otto Brüggemann and a ducal adviser Philipp Crusius, which set off on November 6, 1633 from Altona. The delegation’s first destination was Moscow to where it arrived on August 14, 1634. The delegation consisted of 120 people. Olearius was its secretary. The purpose of the visit was the conclusion of a trade agreement with Tsar Michael I of Russia. In 1637 the goal was achieved but Otto Brüggemann’s arrogant behavior towards local authorities led the mission to a failure. During their expedition to Persia Olearius was a secretary as well. His travel notes are dedicated to two journeys – to Russia and Persia (Adam Olearii Außführliche Beschreibungen der kundbaren Reyse nach Muscow und Persien: So durch gelegenheit einer Holsteinischen Gesandschaft von Gottorf auß an Michael Fedorovitz den grossen Yaar in Muscow und Schach Sefi König in Persien geschehen…) [2:WDB-Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek-drucke/xb-4f-140]. They were first published in 1647 and were later reprinted several times. This work of Olearius laid the foundations for the genre of travel notes in Germany.

Already the contents of the book indicates various spheres of life and activities of the Russians which the author was interested in. Olearius writes about Russian borders and fortresses, about land fertility and long beards and big stomachs of the Russians. He is surprised that the Russians, though being “barbarians”, are quick at learning everything. The author notes that people in Russia are healthy and live to reach old age. The Russians take great pleasure in swimming, it is usual for them to have a nap during the day. On the other hand, the Russians seem to him immoral, they dance frivolously. Their mindset is one of a slave, of a reckless soldier; they are cunning, deceitful, and arrogant. The Russians like holding high-ranking positions, they tend to be rude in their letters to foreigners. The Russians love brawling, they are very negligent. A whole passage is devoted to Russian profanities. Some chapters are dedicated to family values of the Russian population. Olearius describes wedding ritual and ceremony, wedding garments, bride’s preparation for the wedding and her bathing. Olearius also brings to notice Russian houses, their bedrooms, and women’s clothing. What catches his eye is that women use skin care products and makeup. He is critical in his descriptions of men beating up their wives and women’s patience after facing the beatings. The officials who love presents and demand them with no remorse also receive their fair share of criticism from Olearius. The Russians are well armed. Their fortresses are well fitted with protective equipment. Their horses are strong. The author also pays tribute to the Russian Tsar who gives his confidants remuneration on a regular basis.

The author describes the Russian calendar, mentions their writing and tells the European audience that the Russians are Christians and indicates the time when they were baptized. The traveler is much interested in the Russian religion and faith. He notices that the bell toll is an essential part of a church service. The music in the Russian church is prohibited. In Russia a priest can come from an artisan milieu. Their biggest holiday is Easter. He explains what a Russian pectoral cross means and how they cross themselves. He also notes that the Russians do not coerce anyone into their faith but are not very fond of the Greeks and cannot stand Catholics. According to Olearius, Russian monks and priests like to have a drink, the faith does not preclude their engagement in trade, they are illiterate and even perverted. He describes different ethnic minorities, for instance, Tatars living on the Volga river as well as the Samoyedic people and their reindeers.

Here are the key words from some parts of the book: Mikhail Fyodorovich (Michael I of Russia) becomes the Grand Prince. On metropolitan bishops in Russia. On Patriarch Nikon. The Muscovites take pleasure in receiving and demanding presents. As we can see, thanks to the travel notes, in the 17th century the Germans had a clear idea of the State structure, lifestyle, mores and customs of the Russians.

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