In Good Spirits

Alcohol was an integral part of diplomacy in early modern Russia.

Silver Bowl of Grace, or ‘drinking to health cup’, Kremlin Workshops, 16th century © Sergiev Posad State History and Art Museum, Russia/Bridgeman Images.

‘To drink drunk is an ordinary matter with them every day in the week’, said Giles Fletcher, ambassador to Russia, in 1588. His observation echoed an image commonly painted by other early modern diplomats and travellers, one that still permeates popular assumptions about Russia and its people. Yet, there is some truth to this image of a Russian drunk, for alcohol has long played an important role in Russian culture. From family celebrations to religious observations, secular festivities to extensions of hospitality, drinking rites and rituals were a cornerstone of Russian cultural tradition. Even reluctant drinkers often found themselves forced to partake in such activities. A refusal was regarded as an act of dishonour and in a diplomatic context as a serious breach of etiquette. Thus, early modern English ambassadors, despite their objections, had no choice but to sit up drinking with the Russian officials until some, as Sir Jerome Bowes recalled in 1583, ‘had too much’. We may be inclined to dismiss these interactions as cultural inconveniences, but engagement with various sociocultural rituals was an indispensable part of early modern diplomacy. 

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