Russian Overseas Commerce with Great Britain during the Reign of Catherine II

Article excerpt

Herbert H. Kaplan. Russian Overseas Commerce with Great Britain during the Reign of Catherine 11. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Knowledge. Vol. 218. Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society, 1995. xxx, 309 pp. Tables. Bibliography. Index. End paper Maps. Cloth.

Kaplan contends that the benefits Russian trade (as opposed to foreign trade in general) brought to the British economy and to her military capability in times of war during the second half of the eighteenth century have not been appreciated fully. Rather than being one-sided, however, his purpose is to show that during Catherine the Great's reign Great Britain and Russia conducted a mutually advantageous commercial relationship that was "both profound and widespread" (p. xxv). From Russia, Britain acquired raw materials and vital naval stores and equipment. From Britain, Russia acquired a developed market, capital (helped by favourable trade balances) and (a mixed blessing, in Kaplan's view) British mercantile ships and crews to transport her goods.

Kaplan's broad interest concerns Anglo-Russian commerce during the reign of Catherine the Great. The bulk of his work, however, concentrates on Anglo-Russian trade activities conducted through Russia's northern ports of St. Petersburg, Kronstadt, Riga and Narva. Overland trade, as well as the operations of Russia's Black Sea ports, falls outside his scope. The focus reflects the material available in British archival sources. These extensive archives of customs and commercial data include, for example, records of the St. Petersburg Custom Office, as well as information the British Board of Trade and the Russian Company in Britain obtained (that is, required) from other British and Russian sources conducting business in Russia.

The study contains a Preface, four Parts (fourteen chapters in all) and a Conclusion. Parts I and III address Anglo-Russian trade relations during the latter half of the eighteenth century, set within the broader context of international trade and events. In Part I ("The Continuity of Commercial Policy: Elizabeth-Peter III-Catherine II"), the author studies Catherine's approach to the policies of her predecessors. In main, this includes examination of how Catherine responded to the renewal of the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1734. The protracted negotiations, started by Catherine's predecessors and completed only in 1766, reveal her struggle to balance trade with Britain (which had increased slowly throughout the century) with Russian freedom to act in international affairs and to develop its own merchant navy. Catherine's aim in the negotiations was "to emancipate Russian overseas commerce from the concentration of British mercantile influence, to extricate itself from its dependence upon the British trade, and in so doing to make Russia a competitive and formidable maritime power in its own right" (p. 47). This (unattained) goal remained a constant feature of Catherine's approach to Anglo-- Russian trade relations.

Part III--"War and Commerce on the High Seas: Conventions, Commodities, Contraband"-traces the turbulent Anglo-Russian commercial relationship during the remainder of Catherine's reign. Prominent (causal) features include Catherine's rising confidence, inspired in part by Russian victories against Turkey, and her promulgation of "armed neutrality" (Chapter 7, "Neutrality Unarmed"), reflected in the League of Armed Neutrality (1780). Russia's confidence led to increasing intransigence in commercial dealings. Britain hotly opposed armed neutrality as a provision in the renewal of the commercial treaty (Chapter 8, "The Expiration of the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1766"). Unwillingness to bend on both sides and irritations, such as tariff regimes unfavourable to British interests, resulted in protracted negotiations (Chapter 9, "International Politics and Commerce in Crisis"). Even temporising extensions of the commercial treaty were impossible. …