British Sports in Imperial Russia: As Part of Our Britain and Russia Series, and Also Our Sport and Society Series, Anthony Cross Describes the Introduction of British Games to Russia

By Cross, Anthony | History Today, November 2003 | Go to article overview

British Sports in Imperial Russia: As Part of Our Britain and Russia Series, and Also Our Sport and Society Series, Anthony Cross Describes the Introduction of British Games to Russia


Cross, Anthony, History Today


IT IS IN the NATURE of a truism that, wherever the British go, we take our games with us, to say nothing of our prejudices, our literature, our language, and other bag gage. It was not so much the burden of Empire as burdening the empire and we were not particularly put out if the empire in question happened to be someone else's. The Russian empire might not appear at first glance the most propitious arena in which to display and promote our sporting interests, but that would be to underestimate British adaptability as well as to be ignorant of what might be termed 'facilitating moments' in the 450 years of Brito-Russian relations.

Nevertheless, for the first two centuries or so of that intercourse the British had little time or opportunity to indulge their sporting instincts although the poet George Turbervile, visiting Russia in 1568-69, saw fit to inform his friend Parker, 'Because thou lovest to play', that:

   The common game is chess: almost
   the simplest will
   Both give a check and eke a mate; by
   practice comes their skill.
   Again they dice as fast: the poorest
   rogues of all
   Will sit them down in open field and
   there to gaming fall.

Two centuries later, in the 1790s, Jeremy Bentham's brother Samuel, who was in Russian service, sought to explain lapti, a popular Russian game, by a comparison with cricket; but by this time no less a figure than Catherine the Great had enquired of her official engraver, an Englishman by the name of James Walker, whether cricket might not be a proper sport for kings, or at least for her grandsons, the future Alexander I and his brother Constantine. Walker relates that he 'procured the apparatus' necessary to demonstrate the game, but the Grand Dukes' tutor, Baron Osten-Sacken, on examining a bat which he compared to 'the club of Hercules' and deeming the ball 'as dangerous as a four-pounder', declared 'no cricket for their Imperial Highnesses my pupils; it is too ninth to run the risk of a death-blow in play'. Alexander was to see a cricket match on his visit to England in 1814, but it is only towards the end of that century that the first cricket match to be played on Russian soil is recorded, and by then the British had tried their hands and skills at a huge variety of other sports.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the British colony, some 1,500 strong, had established itself as the most influential of foreign groups in the Russian capital St Petersburg. The last decades hall seen the setting-up of such worthy establishments as the English Subscription Library, the English Inn, the English Coffee House, the English Shop (several, indeed, vied for the name), the masonic lodge 'Perfect Union', and the 'most exclusive and most respectable' English Club (where billiards and whist were played), to accompany the English Church which commanded a central position by the River Neva on Galley Quay, which was later to be named the English Quay or Embankment, acknowledging the number of British citizens who owned or rented houses there or nearby. Prominent members in the British community were the merchants of the Russia Company, but there were hundreds of other British subjects, either in Russian service, principally the navy, or pursuing the crafts and professions which catered for the needs of their compatriots and of the growing section of the Russian gentry and nobility, for whom, it was said, 'almost every article of convenience, comfort, or luxury, must be derived from England, or it is of no estimation'. Catherine's was the reign when Anglomania, or its less virulent form, Anglophilia, first infected the Russian elite and the enthusiasm for England, its way of life, institutions and literature, inevitably included a cult of some of the English gentry's country pursuits and sporting pastimes. The British in St Petersburg, for their part, not only followed to the letter their own imported rituals but were equally happy to adapt to local conditions, especially with regard to winter sports. …

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British Sports in Imperial Russia: As Part of Our Britain and Russia Series, and Also Our Sport and Society Series, Anthony Cross Describes the Introduction of British Games to Russia
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