The British Myth of Russia

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First impressions of Russia in the Booke are connected with the nature. It is described in a hyperbolic and contrasted way, in accordance with the aesthetics of the late Renaissance and the baroque and with a mythological basis of the British image of Russia. “Master Chanceler”, as it is written in the text, came “at last to the place where he found no night at all, but a continual light and brightness of the sun shining clearly upon the huge and mighty sea”. Further descriptions of the nature are also exaggerated: the cold in Russia is “horrible” and “very extreme” everywhere, the land congealed in the winter has “exceeding hardness” to it. In a similar way, many other characteristics of the Russian world are also hyperbolic, from descriptions of natural resources and goods (Russia has different wares “in great abundance”; “their fields yield such store of corn…”) to those of the cities (Moscow is “built out of order and with no handsomeness” in contrast to London) and people (the boyars are dressed in “cloth of gold”; the power of the tsar is “marvellously great”; the Russian people do not possess what they have).

The motifs of disorder, endurance and ignorance of the people are connected with the opposition between “cultivated” Europe and in all cases “uncultivated”, “savage” Russia. There is disorder in the city layout, in how the dishes are served and how wars are waged. The enduring Russian people can sleep on the snow and eat only “oatmeal” mingled with water. Like a colt, they do not know their full strength and allow to be controlled. They can eat “rotten”, “stinking” fish and have no desire for a better and healthier kind of food.

Ethical ignorance of a Russian “savage” is proved by their propensity for deceit, superstition, “idolatry” and intemperance of drinking. As far as the drinking is concerned, interestingly, Chancellor is apparently projecting the image that other European countries have of the English, which has just formed by that time, onto the Russians. Both French and English wrote in the 15th century that the English drank a lot. The Russians in the 16th century, on the other hand, mostly drank non-alcoholic beverages like kvass (based on grain), sbiten (based on honey, spices and jam) and low-alcoholic mead. When depicting corrupted and drinking religious men this projection of “domestic and bad” onto “Russian and alien” is coupled with a principal protest against the clergy which is typical of Protestantism.

This opposition with references both to a “cultivated” and a truly Christian image of England is directly expressed in the exclamation: “Now what might be made of these men if they were trained and broken to order and knowledge of civil wars?” It is followed by an equally tell-tale remark on the best and powerful Christian rulers who could never match the Russian tsar if he fought in a civilised way. As can be seen, here Russia is excluded from the Christian world, as well as from the civilized one. This exclusion from a truly Christian world is reiterated in Chancellor’s reflection on idolatry among Russians which is said to substitute for the inner faith in true God.

In Chancellor’s work, a new layer of the British myth about Russia is visibly formed, it inevitably communicates with the previous layer – the “core”. Systematic ties between them are shown in the negative perception of the Russian world as not only “alien”, but also monstrous, vicious and sinful.

Main motifs and images in Chancellor’s Booke that modified the already existing in the English culture and literature myth about Russia, were reinforced in other travel books written by English navigators, merchants and in the messages of English ambassadors to Russia in the 16th century.

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