In time the strong and stately turrets fall,
In time the rose and silver lilies die,
In time the monarchs captive are and thrall,
In time the sea and rivers are made dry;
The hardest flint in time doth melt asunder;
Still living fame in time doth fade away;
The mountains proud we see in time come under;
And earth for age we see in time decay;
The sun in time forgets for to retire
From out the east where he was wont to rise;
The basest thoughts we see in time aspire,
And greedy minds in time do wealth despise.
Thus all, sweet fair, in time must have an end,
Except thy beauty, virtues, and thy friend.
(Giles Fletcher the Elder, Sonnet XXVIII in his Licia cycle)
Continuing my detour through the treatise by Giles Fletcher the Elder, his report of his Ambassadorship to Russia. Although Fletcher dedicated the book to Queen Elizabeth, he also intended it for the public, so it was a disappointment to him when the book was censored and suppressed in 1591. No reason is given for the suppression.
Fletcher’s muse, Lucy Harington, the Countess of Bedford.
Fletcher organized his book into 6 main sections:
- Cosmographie of the countrie
- Policy 1: The ordering of their state
- Policy 2: Their judicial proceeding
- Policy 3: Their warlike provisions
- Policy 4: Their ecclesiastic state
- Oeconomie or privat behaviour
All of which was “need to know” stuff for the talented diplomats of Her Majestie. Who, by the way, were head and shoulders above the ridiculous jackanapes that we see today in the British Foreign Office. After a brief (and probably erroneous) summary of Russian pre-history, Giles proceeds to the current state, with Russia’s current borders and domains (as of 1588). He notes Russia’s recent annexation of large chunks of Siberia, “where the people, though they be not natural Russes, yet obey the emperour of Russia, and are ruled by the lawes of his countrie, paying customes and taxes as his owne people doe.” This confirms, by the way, what I have always maintained about Russia, namely that its absorption of indigenous peoples in the Far East was never anything like the genocidal treatment of the indigenous peoples on the American continent, at the hands of European colonists. Siberian indigenous peoples were integrated into the rest of the Russian people as more or less equal subjects of the Tsar, while still maintaining their own identity. Which proves another point that I made in an earlier blogpost, namely that the concepts of biological racism and ethnic nationalism are simply alien to the Russian mentality, despite some recent attempts to import these duplicate poisons into Russia from Europe and the U.S.
Fletcher was impressed by the mighty Volga River.
Giles next proceeds to the “Soyle and Climate”, in which he notes that the Russian core geography is “a very fruitfull and pleasant countrie, yeelding pasture and corne, with woods and waters in very great plenty.” This would have interested the English, who were avid traders of every type of commodity. Giles does take note of the fierceness of the Russian winter: “Many times (when the winter is very harde and extreame) the beares and woolfes issue by troupes out of the woodes, driven by hunger, and enter the villages, tearing and ravening all they can finde..” but contrasts it with the beauty and charm of the countryside in summertime. When, presumably, the bears and wolves are on better behavior.
A Fruitfull Land
Giles reports that Russia is rich in “fruites” such as apples, pears, plums, watermelons, cherries, berries of every sort. For veggies, they have cucumbers. For grains, they have wheat, rye, barley, oats, peas, and buckwheat. He reports that grain harvests are bountiful, and wheat is cheap in the market. Whenever there is a “dearth”, as in the recent rye dearth, Giles notes that there is usually an anthropogenic cause, “the practice of their nobilitie that use to engrosse it”, and not an innate problem of the land itself.
A Russian fur merchant
Next Giles gets to a key point point of England’s keen interest in Russia: The Fur Trade! He lists the chief commodities here: “blacke fox, sables, lusernes, dunne fox, martrones, gurnestalles or armins, lasets or miniver, bever, wulverins, the skin of a great water ratte that smelleth naturally like muske, caliber or gray squirrell, red squirrell, red and white foxe.” Russia produced enough fur to clothe all its people, with enough left over to export to Turkey, Persia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia “and some other of Christendome, to the value of foure or five hundred thousand rubbels, as I have heard of the merchants.”
After furs, Russia’s second major export is wax. And the third is honey. (Both of these products deriving from bees.) Giles reports that the Russians use honey to make their own brand of mead. [Note: Vodka was not imported until later, under Peter the Great. Prior to that time, Russians only drank mead and beer.] According to Giles, the Russians drink the lower-quality mead themselves, and export the higher-quality product.
Russians also consume much tallow, in their candles. Of which they consume quite a lot, not just for utility, but also for religious holidays. And yet Russia is so rich in tallow that they are still able to export something like 100,000 “pood” of tallow yearly. Or at least were, until they recently lost the port of Narva.
Another principal commodity comprises the hides of cows and elks (which he calls “losh”). Goat skins are also exported.
Another principal commodity is seal oil, which comes from the annual seal hunt. Giles describes how the hunters go out in small boats, then ambush and brutally club the seals, while the latter are sunning themselves on the ice floes. The hunters operate like a communist collective, sharing the seal corpses equally among the boat parties. “And so they flay them, taking from the body the skin, and the lard or fat withal that cleaveth to the skin. This they take with them, leaving the bodies behind, and so goe to shore, where they digge pits in the ground […] and so taking the fat or larde off from the skinne, they throw it into the pit, and cast in among it hoat burning stones to melt it withal. The uppermost and purest is solde and used to oyle wooll for cloth, the grosser (that is of a red colour) they sell to make sope.”
The Beluga Sturgeon: How can such an ugly creature produce such a delicious product?
Next moving on other major exports such as beluga caviar (traded mostly to France and the Netherlands, some to Italy and Spain, a smaller amount to England); other types of lesser caviar; flax and hemp; Salt of course; Tar made from fir trees. In the case of these, and several other valuable commodities, Giles mentions that the quantity exported has gone sharply down in recent years, namely after the Swedes took the port of Narva away from Russia. The wars with Poland are also having a negative effect upon foreign trade. But the overall impression is still that of a wealthy country, fully involved in international trade, teeming with natural resources and an abundance of the human skills required to harvest those resources. It is not the comic-book version of Russia that Westies expect. Well, maybe that bit about the harsh winters and the ravening beares… Ordinary Russians, clearly, were people who worked hard, produced commodities of high value, and paid taxes to the government. This was before the entrenchment of serfdom. Which, by the way, was also a European import, but that is a story for another day…
The chiefe Cities of Russia
Fletcher describes Moscow as a “ring city” even at the time, albeit with only 3 levels of walled rings. Moscow and Novgorod are the two main cities of the Empire, the others pale before them. Although Yaroslavl [yalensis: which also happens to be my favorite Russian city!] gets a special shout-out, with its beauty and its envious position on the Volga River. “The other townes have nothing that is greatly memorable…”
Giles describes how the Russian people build their houses of wood, with moss insulation, which totally makes sense, and keeps them toasty warm in the winter; the only drawback being the frequency of house fires.
The Russian Elite
And now we get to the juicier stuff, namely the dynasties and the royal histories. Queen Elizabeth already knows what great stuff Russia produces; now she needs to know exactly whom she has to deal with, to get her regal hands on that lucrative trade.
Giles ditches the gossip, to those who need to know, that the current Russian dynasty (which for some bizarre reason he calls the “House of Beala”) is on the verge of extinction, as the Emperor is bound to die without progeny: “For besides the emperour that now is [=Fedor Ivanovich], who hath no childe (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured by the constitution of his body, and the barennesse of his wife after so many yeares marriage), there is but one more, viz., a childe of sixe or seven yeares old [=Dmitry Ivanovich], in whom resteth all the hope of the succession, and the posteritie of that house.”
Giles does not go into detail about why Tsar Fedor’s very physical appearance speaks to his impotence, one’s curiosity is aroused (was he, like, all twisty and stunted?) Just keep in mind that Fedor’s “barren” wife was the sister of Boris Godunov, in whose interest it was for her to not be with childe, just sayin’…
“Do you like my pwetty necklace? I use it to stwangle chickens!”
Giles goes on to dish the gossip about how Ivan the Terrible killed his eldest son, the best of the three, and then spent the rest of his life suffering the pangs of remorse: “Wherein may be marked the justice of God, that punished his delight in shedding of bloud with this murder of his Sonne by his owne hand, and so ended his dayes and tyrannie together, with the murdering of himselfe by extreame griefe, for this his unhappie and unnaturall fact.”
One may speculate that this passage, perhaps, is what led to the censorship of Fletcher’s book? Perhaps the discussion of domestic violence within royal households cut a bit too close for Elizabeth’s comfort (?)
Then follows the passage that I quoted in my earlier post, about the Great White Hope for the Rurik dynasty: Giles Fletcher never met the child Dmitry Ivanovich in person, yet has heard some strange rumors about him. How this young menace is a serial-killer in the making, who likes to watch animals getting slaughtered, and delights in beating up chickens, out there in the boondocks of Uglich. In Dmitry’s defense (if there is one), this kid grew up in a state of terror, and probably learned, at a young age, about his Papa’s killing of Elder Brother. Plus, his mom was probably always egging him on, telling him he had to be strong and cruel, if he was to survive this Scorpions Pit into which their family had been cast.
“I dream that someday I shall grow up to be a Pretender, and wear a tall Beaver-skin hat!”
Fletcher ends this section of his book with a propaganda treatise, bewailing the unhappy lot of the Russian people, and offering a pious hope for “regime change”, that sounds like it could have been penned just this morning by the British Foreign Office:
“Thus it standeth with the imperall stock of Russia of the house of Beala, which is like to determine in those that now are, and to make a conversion of the Russe estate. If it be into a government of some better temper and milder constitution, it will be happy for the poore people, that are now oppressed with intolerable servitude.”
Once again proving how Westies project their own complexes onto Russia. Always have, always will. Never ever changes, does it?
[to be continued]