January 01, 2008

The Jewish King of the Samoyed

The late Russian politician and general, Alexander Lebed, once mused that “a democrat-general is as rare as a Jewish reindeer-breeder.” Little did the general suspect that, a few years later, the hunters and reindeer-breeders of Chukotka would elect a Jew, Roman Abramovich, as their governor. Yet Abramovich is not the only Russian Jew to rule a northern people: two centuries ago, 

Peter the Great accorded his court jester, Jan Da Costa, the title of king of another ice-bound people: the Samoyed. As with so many tales from the court of Peter the Great (1682-1725), this one gets more interesting, the deeper you probe...

Jan Da Costa (written Лакоста in Russian) was a descendant of Marranos, converted Jews who fled Portugal to escape the fires of the Inquisition. Born in 1665, in the city of Sale, North Africa, he lived on the road with his family until he was 16, then settled with his father and brothers in Hamburg, where he opened a brokerage house. But he had no skill at trade, and could not make a profit. He did, however, have the exquisite manners of a marquis from Versailles, and considered giving lessons to all those “who desire to take part in the grande monde with ease, to learn the most wise art of making compliments and manifesting all sorts of polite behavior, appropriate to the specific time and place.” Yet polite manners also failed to turn a profit. So Jan decided to set off for faraway Muscovy “in search of fame and fortune.” According to one version, he received permission to go to Russia from the Russian diplomat (“resident”) in Hamburg. In this matter there is also the more authoritative testimony of Da Costa’s friend, the Russian court physician (leib-medik) Antonio Nunes Ribeiro Sanchez, who wrote: “When Peter I, emperor of Russia, traveled through Hamburg, probably in 1712 or 1713, Da Costa was presented to him. Peter I took him with him… along with his wife and children.”

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