England – Russia, an Old Partnership – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Today concluding this 4-part review of Chapter X in the book by English diplomat Giles Fletcher the Elder, “Of the Russe Common Wealth“, published in 1591.  Giles was an astute political observer and, like Machiavelli, understood perfectly how power and government worked.  His language, with all the arcane spellings, is astonishingly modern, as are his calls for regime change in Russia and his professed concern for the lot of the common people, oppressed under such dire tyrannie, and whom he generously wishes to free from their servitude.

Giles dedicated his book to Elizabeth I

Where we left off, Giles had broken down the system of local government in Russia, and especially in Moscow, where the “Vertical Power” model was implemented to the hilt.  The attention to every household, and the military-style “reporting up” at every level, all the way to the Emperor, led to good governance and a well-ordered society in the townships.  Taxes were collected, work was done, thieves were punished, etc.  People raised in the Westie philosophy will object:  “But there was no personal liberty.”  But the concept of personal liberty (from the government) was a later invention.  Verily, in those days, there was no such thing as personal freedom.  Giles himself lived under the whim of an absolute monarch (her powers curbed only slightly by the Magna Carta) who could arrest him at any time and have his head cut off, if she pleased!  The only difference between Elizabeth I and Ivan the Terrible, is that the latter knew how to pronounce the word “Sheremetyevo”.

Russian Prince Boris Sheremetyev (1652-1719)

As we continue with the chapter, Giles himself shows some grudging admiration for the Russian way of governing such a large entity:  “This manner of government of their provinces and townes, if it were aswell set for the giving of justice indifferently to al sorts, as it is to prevent innovations by keeping of the nobilitie within order and the common in subjection, it might seeme in that kinde to bee no bad nor unpollitique way for the conteyning of so large a commonwealth, of that breadth and length as is the kingdome of Russia.”  But then laments that the Russians simply go too far in their totalitarian ways:  “But the oppression and slaverie is so open and so great, that a man would marvell how the nobilitie and people shoulde suffer themselves to bee brought under it, while they had any means to avoid and repulse it; or being so strengthened as it is at this present, how the emperours themselves can be content to practice the same, with so open injustice and oppression of their subjects, being themselves of a Christian profession.”

Giles then proceeds to the practical business:  Under such a system, how is regime change even possible?  Just as the modern regime-change expert looks to the Russian oligarchs (such as Khodorkovsky), so Giles looks to the Russian nobility.  But what he sees there is hopeless, given that the hereditary nobility are under the constant supervision of the Tsar’s men, the dyaks.  The dukes have no power or authority, and are hated by the common people.  Not one of them can be envisioned as the leader of the popular revolution.  Not to mention that the Emperor, like Stalin drawing the boundaries between Caucasian tribes, has craftily split up the duchies into smaller and scattered, non-contiguous pieces, like a patchwork quilt!  “Which giveth them no scope to make any strength, nor to contrive such an enterprise, if happily they intended any matter of innovation.”

By “innovation”, Giles means, of course, Revolution.  The English were already learning the Roman art of “divide and conquer”; I reckon their goal at the time, if they could achieve it, would be to grab a part of Northern Russia in order to control the fur trade.  These dreamers also had hopes of controlling the Volga River trade.  But were thwarted in this by the Tsar’s absolute rule over these geographical hotspots.

But What About The Common People?

When Giles talks about the “commoners” we should understand that he is most likely talking about townspeople, and not about the peasantry or serfs working out there in the fields, and in the developing latifundia.  The peasants, who were referred to as simply “Christians” (Russian Krestyane) were not even considered to be barely human, let alone citizens.  Still, they were subjects of the Emperor in their own way, but as the years went by, their lot grew worse and worse.  (Historians call this period the beginning of the “second serfdom” in Russia and Eastern Europe, this process continued for the next three centuries.)

Polonius: “When we invade Russia, we should land our sailors in Murmansk.”

So, what about these urban commoners?  Could they possibly be a viable engine of “innovation” ?  All of Russian history shows that the answer is a resounding YES.  Giles, however, is pessimistic.  He notes that the commoners would not be able to stand up to regular soldiers, as they are not mustered into the army nor given weapons, nor trained in the art of war.  [That was to change later, under Peter the Great.]  And always kept in a state of poverty, through the routine fleecings:

“So that there is no meanes, either for nobilitie or people, to attempt any innovation,” Giles concludes pessimistically, “so long as the militarie forces of the emperor (which are the number of 8,000 at the least in continuall pay) hold themselves fast and sure unto him and to the present state.”  And if you’re thinking that the soldiers and the commoners might unite together against the Tsar, well, forget that thought too.  There is a natural hostility between the two blocs, caused by the former wronging and despoiling the latter.  In other words, it is a perfect tyrannical system that Ivan created, in which everybody hates everybody, and no two forces can unite in alliance against the tyrant!

The only possible solution, according to Giles, is that ultimate Sword that cuts through even the most the perfect Gordian  Knot:  Foreign Invasion!  And Giles ends his chapter arguing eloquently for that solution, at least in theory, his only wish, of course, being to rid the good Russian people of such a crass tyranny and bring the joy of hope to their little faces:  “This desperate state of things at home, maketh the people for the most part to wishe for some forreine invasion, which they suppose to bee the onely meanes to rid them of the heavy yoke of this tyrannous government.”

Well, Giles died in the year 1611, so he lived to see Tsar Boris Godunov kick the bucket, in the year 1605.  If Giles was still keeping up with Russian events, one wonders if he would have been thrilled to see the Time of Troubles and the False Dmitry ride into Moscow with the Polish army and Jesuits.  Maybe not, since these were Catholic forces, and not good Englishmen.  Giles would not have lived to see Michael Romanov coronated in 1613 and found a new Russian dynasty, one even more brutal and effective than the previous tyrannie!

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3 Responses to England – Russia, an Old Partnership – Part IV

  1. nicolaavery says:

    Fantastic series. Appalling to know that the Brits have been pointing the finger at Russia whilst ignoring any of their own tyrannies – for hundreds of years. Perhaps a Blackadder special 😉


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