January 01, 2022

Early Foreign Views of Russia


Early Foreign Views of Russia
“Ivan the Terrible shows his treasures to the British ambassador Jerome Horsey.” Alexander Litovchenko, 1875

In 1992, in his last dispatch from Russia, British ambassador Rodric Braithwaite, who had been friendly with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, suddenly recalled the words of his sixteenth-century compatriot, the poet George Turberville, who served as secretary in the embassy of Queen Elizabeth I to Russia’s Ivan IV. As Turberville put it, the Russians were “a people passing rude, to vices vile inclined” and their land was “such a savage soil, where laws do bear no sway, but all is at the king his will to save or else to slay.” Braithwaite expressed the hope that such a state of affairs would remain a thing of the past. Today, alas, Turberville’s description feels painfully familiar.  

What was it that brought this Oxford graduate and scion of a distinguished Dorsetshire family (rumored to have been the model for the D’Urberville family of Thomas Hardy fame), as well as translator of Latin, including Ovid, to this cold, distant, and mysterious land? The answer is banally simple: debts and the need to urgently improve his fortune. Money makes the world go round, and it was straitened finances that led Turberville to traverse the treacherous waters of the northern seas, the same seas that just fourteen years earlier had doomed his fellow countryman, the explorer and “discoverer” of Muscovy, Richard Chancellor, who perished in a shipwreck as he and his son were returning from their second Russia expedition. After the sea voyage, Turberville spent a month under a sort of house arrest in a northern village, endured a long journey to Moscow, followed by another three-month imprisonment. This was 1568, the height of what would give Ivan his “Terrible” moniker: the oprichnina, a reign of terror during which lives were violently cut short (especially among the noble boyar class), lands were confiscated, and Ivan’s brutal oprichnik henchmen rode roughshod over the population.

All this must have been quite terrifying for Turberville, but in the end, the mission with which he and ambassador Thomas Randolph had been charged was accomplished, and the rights and privileges of England’s Muscovy Trading Company (founded by the aforementioned Richard Chancellor) were significantly expanded. Perhaps this is not surprising, given Ivan’s strong interest in an alliance with England and its queen, with whom he conducted a lengthy correspondence.


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