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Shafirov: Diplomatist of Petrine Russia

Shafirov accompanied Peter the Great on his grand embassy to western Europe and, writes W.E. Butler, was one of the Tsar’s closest advisers on foreign affairs.

Peter the Great surrounded himself with a circle of friends and advisers, chosen sometimes from the noble boyar class, but more often from the barracks and streets of Russia’s towns and villages. One such man, Petr’ Pavlovich Shafirov, rose from the obscurity of an unpromising commercial career to become, under Peter’s patronage, the foremost diplomatist and adviser on foreign affairs of Petrine Russia.

Legend has it that the Tsar discovered Shafirov in a market-place, accusing the future Prince A. D. Menshikov - then a street vendor of hot-fried pies - of stealing a length of cloth worth five roubles.

Peter intervened in the heated argument and, upon finding that one of his attendants knew the alleged purloiner, appointed Menshikov to a detachment of his personal regiment.

Shafirov was ordered to report to the palace to collect his five roubles. There Peter learned of Shafirov’s gift for languages - French, German, Latin, Polish and Dutch - and is said to have promptly recruited Shafirov for state service, promising ‘One day I shall make you Minister of Foreign Affairs’.

This romanticized version of Peter’s meeting with Shafirov illustrates the Tsar’s keen eye for spotting new talent, and also helps to explain the basis for the intense enmity that troubled relations between Shafirov and Menshikov over the years and eventually contributed to Shafirov’s demise.

It is likely that Shafirov’s diplomatic career began in a more mundane manner. His father, a Jew and native of Smolensk, migrated to Moscow in 1667 where he was converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and christened Pavel Filippovich Shafirov. Russia’s expanding relations with western Europe required men with a knowledge of foreign languages, and P. F. Shafirov quickly found employment in the Ambassadorial Department as a translator of official documents, papers, and books into Russian.

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