The British Myth of Russia

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16th–17th cent. and the “savage” image of Russia

Historically, the 16th century is a new stage in relations between Britain and Russia. It is then that direct links between two countries are established; British merchants, diplomats and travellers come to Russia, they initiate direct trade and are even granted special terms later.

“Items of Anglo-Russian trade integrated straight into the everyday life of the English”: Russian “furs became available for a broader spectrum of Londoners. Russian falcons and gyrfalcons were considered the best for falconry, while Russian bears were the best option for a popular English entertainment – bear-baiting with dogs”.[1]

The way the Russians are perceived by the English at that time is influenced by four factors:

  • a genuine interest of England to trade with Russia;
  • the official conversion from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism and gradual transition to more radical denominations of Protestantism in England;
  • a particular perception of the world, special aesthetics characteristic of the late Renaissance and the baroque that was gradually replacing it, i.e. the ideas of contracted phenomena, the antagonism in the world and the grandeur of the universe;
  • the atmosphere of the epoch determined by the Age of Discovery, the beginning of the technological rise and dominance of the Western civilization.[2]

A collection of stories about Russia in the famous book by Richard Hakluyt (Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 1589–1600)[3] starts with the earliest records of British travellers about Russia – The Booke of the Great and Mighty Emperor of Russia, and Duke of Moscouia by Richard Chancellor (circa 1553). Richard Chancellor was the first traveller to come to Russia; as a result, he unintentionally became the first representative of England at the court of Ivan the Terrible. His “Booke” not only provoked a keen interest of English merchants and heavily influenced the establishment of an Anglo-Russian trading company (“The Muscovy Company”), but also “gave a start for a series of travel notes, diary entries <…> made by people <…> who visited Russia”.[4]

[1] Alekseev M.P. Shakespeare and Russia in 16-17th centuries. Annex // Alekseev M.P. Shakespeare and Russian Culture. Мoscow.; L.: Nauka, 1965. P. 784 – 805.

[2] It is no accident that in Richard Hakluyt’s book stories about Russia are put between chapters on America and China.

[3] A British expert on English perception of Russia A. Cross points out that the collection has had a great influence on the general opinion of the English about Russia: “Among the earliest and most influential Elizabethan accounts of Russia were those collected and published by Richard Hakluyt in two editions at the end of the 16th century”. См.: Cross A. By Way of Introduction: British Reception, Perception and Recognition of Russian Culture // A People Passing Ruse: British Responses to Russian Culture. Cambridge: OpenBook Publishers, 2012. 330 p. P. 1 – 36. P. 3.

[4] Mikhalskaya, N.P. The image of Russia in the English fiction of the IX-XIX M., 1995.: 152 p. P. 12.

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