On the Banks of the Neva: British Merchants in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution

In the final article in our series on Britain and Russia, Stuart Thompstone visits the long-lasting community of Britons in the Russian capital.

For two centuries after the foundation of St Petersburg in 1703, the British merchant community exercised a remarkable influence over the city’s economic relations with the wider world. This community operated as a ‘City of London’ in miniature, and where the merchants led others – diplomats, travellers, soldiers, sailors, engineers, craftsmen and others – followed. 

To the English in the sixteenth century the idea of a northern route to the Indies had a particular appeal, and in 1553, in search of such a passage, the Edward Bonaventure cast anchor off the southern shore of the White Sea. For England, this venture established a thriving trade with Russia through Archangel; for Russia, it offered the prospect of secure and direct commercial links with Western Europe. The ship’s return to England heralded the formation in London of the Muscovy Company, which sent annual cargoes of cloth, silks, tropical and Mediterranean goods in return for pelts, wax, tar and pitch. Finding it more economical to export Russian hemp in a processed form, English merchants set up a rope works near Archangel. It soon enjoyed a high reputation.

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