Russia's First Embassies

Trade was the impetus for early contacts between Russia and England, though each country had its own view of how the relationship should function. Helen Szamuely examines the first two centuries of Russian embassies to London.

Russian delegation of Tsar Ivan IV to the Holy Roman Empire of Emperor Maximilian II at Regensburg, bringing gifts of animal pelts. Print by Michael Petterle, 1576. V&AAccording to an article by the Jewish historian Joseph Jacobs, published in the Academy in December 1888, the first Russian in England was a Jew, Rabbi Iza or Isaac, who arrived in 1181 from Chernigov, at that time the largest grand principality in Kievan Rus. The evidence for this claim is a little scant but there were sporadic Anglo-Russian links in the following centuries, mostly before the Tatar invasion of the Russian principalities during the 13th century. The English ‘discovery’ of Russia and the subsequent difficult but more or less continuous relationship can be dated to the mid-16th century. In May 1553 the recently chartered Company of Merchant Adventurers sent three ships under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby to find a northern passage to Asia and another market for English woollen cloth.

The journey, described in detail by Richard Hakluyt (c.1552-1616) and the pioneer student of Anglo-Russian relations Joseph Hamel (Iosif Khristianovich Gamel, 1788-1861), had its share of disasters: the ships were separated and Willoughby perished in Lapland together with the crews of two of them. The diaries and other papers were recovered later together with the ships, which sailed again. The explorer Richard Chancellor, captaining the Edward Bonaventure, was more successful: he reached Archangel and at the end of November set out on a sled to Moscow, on the way meeting Tsar Ivan’s messengers who issued an official invitation.

Ivan the Terrible was pleased to receive the English, happy to accept their offers of trade and eager to grant them various privileges, which subsequently caused him problems with his own merchants. However what he really wanted was a political and military alliance against the various hostile states that surrounded Muscovy, especially Poland, Livonia and Sweden. The English, on the other hand, were interested in trade, while making general assertions of friendship. These differences in what each country sought from the relationship remained the case throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Chancellor returned to England in 1554, avoided any implication in the Duke of Northumberland’s conspiracy to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, which had already ended with multiple executions under Queen Mary, and participated in the creation of the new Muscovy Company. He went back to Moscow in 1555 and it was his planned return to England the following year that instigated Russian (or Muscovite) representation. Chancellor sailed from the mouth of the river Dvina on August 2nd, 1556 in the Edward Bonaventure on which he carried Ivan’s ambassador to England, Osip Nepeia (whose real name may well have been Grigoriev, with Nepeia being a nickname). The other three ships were the Philip and Mary and Willoughby’s two, Bona Esperanza and Bona Confidentia. Nepeia was accompanied by a large retinue and carried a great many gifts, as well as goods such as furs, wax and oil for private sale. The journey was difficult once again. Three of the ships were apparently lost, though the Philip and Mary turned up in England the following April having wintered in Norway. The Edward Bonaventure managed to reach Pitsligo, near Aberdeen, on November 10th but another storm tore it from anchorage. Chancellor and his son concentrated on saving the Russian ambassador, in which they succeeded though both lost their lives, together with other sailors and seven of the Russians. Nepeia, his interpreter Robert Best and a number of others, Russian and English, managed to get ashore, though all their goods and gifts were lost. As Hakluyt observed, ‘the rude and ravenous people of the Country thereunto adjoining rifled, spoyled and carried away’ whatever had not gone down in the storm.

Warm welcome

Nepeia spent some weeks in Scotland and journeyed south in a leisurely fashion, arriving at Berwick on February 18th, 1557, where he was met by Lord Wharton, the lord warden of the East Marches. By February 27th he was within 12 miles of London, where he was received by ‘fourscore merchants with chains of gold and goodly apparel’, accompanied by various attendants. Though Nepeia was the tsar’s ambassador and though he was to be received by Mary and Philip, primary care of him was taken by the Muscovy Company and the City of London. The following day he was escorted to the gates by 140 merchants and further attendants, having been given a fine gelding to ride and a quantity of other presents. Diverse entertainments en route included a fox hunt. The procession was led by Viscount Montague. At ‘Smithfiled barre’ the ambassador was met by the lord mayor ‘with all the Aldermen in their scarlet’ and they rode through the City:

... into his lodging situate in Fant church streete [Fenchurch Street], where was provided for him two chambers richly hanged and decked, over and above the gallant furniture of the whole house.

Nepeia was well supplied during his stay and was attended every day by ‘divers Aldermen and the gravest personages of the said companie’. The procession brought out many of the City’s inhabitants ‘running plentifully on all sides, and replenishing all streets in such sort as no man without difficultie might passe’.

The house in Fenchurch Street belonged to a Dutch-born merchant and member of the Drapers’ Company, John Dimmock, and it was in Drapers’ Hall that a final banquet was given in honour of the Russian delegation on April 29th. Nepeia was informed at this event that the Muscovy Company would bear all his expenses. He had already been received with much pomp and circumstance by Philip (unusually in England at the time) and Mary, who presented him with friendly missives and many expensive gifts. The first Russian embassy departed on May 3rd, accompanied by ‘divers Aldermen and merchants, who in good gard set him aboord the noble shippe, the Primrose Admiral at the Fleete’.

According to Hakluyt, the Russians and the English took tender farewell of each other and even shed tears. For all of that, the Muscovy Company was not entirely happy with Nepeia, writing in a letter to one of their agents on May 10th:

Hee is very mistrustfull, and thinketh everie man will beguile him; therefore you had neede to take heed how you have to doe with him, or with any such, and to make your bargaines plaine, and to set them downe in writing.

Suspicion, too, became a feature of Anglo-Russian relations. Nepeia seems to have fallen foul of Ivan in 1570 and was exiled to Vologda.

Subsequent ambassadors came to London for a few months at a time, usually to announce certain events in Russia, and stayed in the City. It is not clear how much Ivan trusted any of them, as he tended to send important messages via the English representatives of the Company. At various times he suggested a marriage between himself and Queen Elizabeth or between himself and Lady Mary Hastings, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Huntingdon. Perhaps the most extraordinary message was the one Ivan sent in 1567 with Anthony Jenkinson, the main representative of the Muscovy Company after the death of Chancellor. This was the proposal of a mutual promise of asylum should the need arise. Elizabeth graciously promised to shelter him and his family if needs be but rejected the notion that she would ever need to flee from her people.

An embassy headed by Grigory Mikulin came in 1600 to announce the succession of Boris Godunov, a man who was considerably more enlightened than his reputation – at least according to Pushkin’s play (1825) and Mussorgsky’s opera (1873) – suggests. The new tsar was anxious to have friendly relations with many western countries but especially with England. He sought to bring into Russia experts in many fields and even sent students abroad, thus creating the first refugee scandal between Russia and England.

In 1602 a number of students were sent to various countries, including four to England, where they managed to disappear. With Boris’ death in April 1605 (probably from poison) and Russia’s subsequent collapse into anarchy and civil war, known as the Time of Troubles, it was not until 1613, after the election by a national assembly of Mikhail Romanov to the Russian throne, that anyone remembered the students and thought to demand their return. Repeat demands were issued in 1617 and 1622 but the English government, having at first denied all knowledge of the four, refused to help the Russian authorities, even when the ambassador, Mikhail Zyuzin, made a special request for them to do so. The ambassador eventually met one of the students, Nikifor Olferyev, and invited him to return with him. Olferyev sensibly refused. He later entered the Church of England and, as Mikipher Alphery, became Rector of Woolley in Huntingdonshire. Ejected from his position by the Puritans he lived long enough to have his property restored to him and to die in Hammersmith in 1668. The other three students went in various directions.

Peaceful and orderly

In November 1645 the embassy of Gerasim Dokhturov arrived, which, apart from the usual reports, produced a description of London, its streets and houses and such events as the burning of holy pictures by the Puritans, who refused to allow him to present his credentials, nor the letter that told of Tsar Alexei’s (peaceful and orderly) succession to the throne. The account was probably written by the interpreter, Fyodor Arkhipov, though it is hard to tell how much English he really knew. The embassy was first lodged at Greenwich then brought to the City by the Company to the Golden Key, a sizeable house at Cheapside, which may have been a well-known linen draper’s establishment. The embassy left in June 1646 and took back to Russia tales of the Civil Wars and the rebellion against the king and church.

A break in relations

The news of Charles I’s execution in 1649 shocked Tsar Alexei, who broke off relations with England and banished English merchants from Russia, making an exception for those in Archangel. His decision was also influenced by the constant petitions he received from Russian merchants, who had viewed the privileges granted to their English rivals with some anger. In 1650 the future Charles II, who considered that he had become king on his father’s execution, sent an ambassador to Moscow to announce his succession and to raise a loan. Astonishingly he succeeded. Even more surprisingly, the loan was repaid to Alexei’s ambassador, Prozorovsky, in 1662. The tsar was not entirely consistent in his attitude: Alexei received Cromwell’s first ambassador in 1655 but the second one he sent, in 1657, was stopped in Riga and ordered back to England.

Relations were resumed after the Restoration and in November 1662 the embassy of Prince Pyotr Prozorovsky arrived with a three-fold aim: to congratulate Charles on his accession, to restore the privileges of the Muscovy Company and to negotiate a loan. Only the first of these was successful.

There is some doubt as to how many ambassadors were present in the entourage on this occasion. Prozorovsky is usually described as the head of the mission but contemporary references treat Ivan Zhelyabushsky as being of equal rank. The Russians brought their own interpreter, Andrey Forot. The splendid spectacles of the embassy arriving and, a month later, presenting its credentials to the king were reported in the English newspapers and described by several diarists, including Pepys and Evelyn. They both wrote of the entry into the City with ‘the Citty Companies and Traind bands ... all in their stations, his Majesties army in greate order’. Evelyn also referred to the king giving orders for the ambassador to be treated with especial courtesy, ‘the Emperor his Master having not onely ben kind to his Majestie in his distresse, but banishing all Commerce with our Nation during the Rebellion’. Some inconvenient truths had clearly been suppressed for the furthering of good relations.

Pepys, too, was impressed both by the ambassadorial procession and by the City’s welcome, sighing over his countrymen’s stupidity: ‘But Lord, to see the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange.’

The Russian diplomats were accommodated in York House in the Strand, at that time the possession of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. As was customary, the envoys were the guests of the English government (no longer the Muscovy Company) and the Wardrobe paid £850 for their lodging. York House was sold off in 1672 for £30,000 but its memory and owner’s name survives in a number of nearby street names, such as Villiers Street.

On December 29th the ambassadors presented their credentials and gifts to the king. Both Pepys and Evelyn were there. Evelyn gave all the details:

The King being sate under the Canopie in the banqueting house, before the Ambassador went in a grave march the Secretary of the Embassy holding up his Masters letters of Credence in a crimson-taffaty scarfe before his forehead: The Ambassador then deliverd it, with a profound reverence to the King, the King to our Secretary of State; it was written in a long and lofty style: Then came in the present borne by 165 of his retinue, consisting [of] Mantles and other large pieces lined with Sable Black fox, Ermine, Persian Carpets, the ground cloth of Gold and Velvet, Sea-morce teeth in aboundance, Hawkes, such as they sayd never came the like; Horses said to be Persian, Bowes & Arrows etc. which borne by so long a traine rendred it very extraordinary.

The ambassadors brought another present: a pair of pelicans and a heron that were placed in St James’s Park, where Evelyn inspected them on February 9th, 1665. Some of the pelicans in the park today are allegedly descended from that pair. Pepys also noted:

One thing more I did observe, that the chief Embassador did carry up his master’s Letters in state before him, on high – and as soon as he had delivered them he did fall down to the ground and lay there a great while.

The usual obeisance due to the Russian tsar may well have puzzled the English king and court.

Having at first been impressed by the appearance of the Russian embassy, Pepys found it necessary to remark on June 6th, 1663, just before its departure, that he saw his people at York House ‘go up and down louseing themselfs’.

Trade with Russia was resumed: it was of vital importance that the navy was able to import tar and hemp. The rest of the 17th century saw occasional ambassadors, such as Prince Pyotr Potemkin, an experienced diplomat and military leader, who came to London in 1681. His task was to discuss common action by various countries against the Polish king, John III Sobieski.

The fascinating episode of Peter the Great’s Great Embassy took place in 1698. Though Peter spent time with the king and with various other statesmen (as well as religious leaders and divines), his primary purpose was to learn about the navy and ship building. To this end he rented Sayes Court in Deptford, which John Evelyn had leased to Admiral Benbow, and the depredations he and his attendants inflicted on it and Evelyn’s carefully tended gardens have been well documented.

The tsar stayed there from February 6th until April 21st and on May 6th Benbow petitioned for restitution. George London, ‘his majestie’s master gardener’, drew up a report on the garden, fabrics and furnishings and this was forwarded by Sir Christopher Wren on May 9th. Evelyn did not visit the place for another month and soon afterwards the warrant for payment was approved. As Benbow’s tenancy was expiring shortly, he was given £133.2s.6d for furnishings and Evelyn was awarded £107.7s for the damage to the house and £55 for that to the garden, where hedges were said to have been destroyed because of the Russians’ drunken habit of pushing Peter through them in a wheelbarrow.

Permanent embassies

The year 1707 saw an important change in diplomatic relations: permanent embassies were established in the two capitals, with Count Andrei Matveyev heading the mission in London. He had already spent time in Paris, negotiating a trade deal between France and Russia, and the primary aim of his embassy was, again, to talk the British government into a closer alliance with Russia against Sweden and to talk it out of supporting Stanislaw Leszczynski’s claim to the Polish throne. Peter was so anxious to secure British support that he indicated his readiness to join the Grand Alliance in the War of the Spanish Succession, though nothing came of it.

Matveyev influenced British legislation in an unexpected fashion. He lived at Northumberland House,  one of the grand palaces on the Strand, for which the British government paid £300 a year in rent. On July 21st, 1708, when Matveyev was returning home from a visit, he was attacked by a group of ruffians and, though initially rescued by people in the street, he was taken to prison: the ruffians had been sent as unofficial bailiffs by creditors to whom he owed around £50. The outrage united all the ambassadors and diplomats then present in London and Parliament paid attention. In April 1709 it passed an act ‘preserving the Privileges of Ambassadors and other Publick Ministers of Foreign Powers and States’. Diplomatic immunity has survived into the 21st century.

Despite the embassy now being permanent, few ambassadors stayed in England for long, though the next one, Prince Boris Kurakin, came for a year in 1710, was recalled but came back twice later with other ambassadors in between. Kurakin seems to have stayed in Northumberland House as well, though at some point Angerstein’s House at 100 Pall Mall was leased for the Russian ambassadors. Clearly, Kurakin’s successors, such as Count Bestuzhev-Ryumin, who lived there in the 1720s, were better behaved than Peter the Great, as there is no record of them damaging John Julius Angerstein’s collection of paintings, which eventually formed the basis of the National Gallery.

Two of the constant themes in Anglo-Russian relations emerged under the ambassadorship of Fyodor Veselovsky, in London as an official emissary of his government from 1717 to 1720. His stay coincided with some of the strongest anti-Russian feelings, as the politicians and the populace began to grasp Peter’s expansionist ambitions in international affairs. A number of pamphlets were published, which purported to reveal the tsar’s dangerous designs. Veselovsky attempted to respond in kind by publishing two of his memorials, in which he tried to explain that Britain had nothing to fear from Peter the Great. The documents were ineffective in achieving their purpose but are of interest as the first Russian attempt to use the comparatively free English press for their own purposes.

Peter was displeased with Veselovsky’s apparent ineffectiveness but even more disappointed with his brother Avraam, who had been Russian Resident in Vienna and who was accused of helping the Tsarevich Alexei in his escape from Russia. (Alexei was eventually enticed back, imprisoned, savagely tortured – it is said by Peter himself – and executed for treason.) All those involved were ordered to return but Avraam refused, for understandable reasons. He fled to London and was sheltered by his brother, who was dismissed by Peter. His successor, Bestuzhev-Ryumin, was ordered to arrest the brothers but found the task impossible, as the British government refused to co-operate. The pair escaped to Geneva but, much to Peter’s fury, the British government defied him yet again, by not refusing them asylum. On the other hand, Avraam’s attempt to become a naturalised British subject was thwarted, possibly through Russian influence on some politicians.

For his part Bestuzhev-Ryumin’s career was inglorious: he expressed the tsar’s indignation at the British-Swedish alliance of 1720 in a memorandum that was considered to be far too strongly worded and which was presented to the court, wrongly, in the king’s absence. He was ordered to leave by the British government, though before doing so he published the memorandum. For some years there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries and it was not until 1730 that Prince Antioch Kantemir, the envoy of Empress Anna (r.1730-40), arrived. Whether his taste was more modest than his predecessors’, or whether the British government decided not to spend too much money on him, he lived in a house at 6 Golden Square. One of Kantemir’s first jobs was to publish an English version of Empress Anna’s manifesto, which extended an amnesty to all those who fled or found themselves exiled in Britain during the 11-year break in diplomatic relations. It was not, however, until 1743, when the Empress Elizabeth pronounced a general amnesty, that the brothers Veselovsky returned to Russia.

According to the historian Anthony Cross, few of the Russian ambassadors in the first half of the 18th century achieved anything, but neither did they harm Anglo-Russian relations. In the wake of Peter’s victories over Sweden in 1721 and in view of his expansionist policy, Russia was now perceived as a power of growing importance in European politics. The notion that, perhaps, she and Britain were ‘natural allies’, primarily against France, began to take root in British political thinking, while the trade between the two countries continued to grow. More Russians came to Britain, some to study in the universities, some to train with the navy, some simply to visit the country whose fame as the home of constitutional liberty was growing in Russia, as much as in other European countries (often through the reading of French philosophers). Britons travelled to Russia for trade, for employment in the government’s service, even for pleasure (though the complaints would indicate that there was very little of that). Whereas the Russians may have admired Britain, the British retained their superior attitude, mostly viewing the country as a barbaric place, though one showing signs of development.

Helen Szamuely is Editor of the Conservative History Journal