Anglo-Russian Relations during the 1730s: Evidence of the Impact of "Germans" at the Court of Anna Ioannovna

Article excerpt

Historians of Russia traditionally view the reign of Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740) as a period during which ethnic Germans dominated the Russian court and its policies, to the detriment of ethnic Russians. Yet few concrete examples exist of the way in which these German advisors to the tsaritsa interacted with each other and with foreign, especially British, representatives. Sources from a relatively obscure eighteenth-century diplomatic exchange demonstrate how the ethnic German members of the Russian court of Anna Ioannovna dealt with representatives of Great Britain. A clear example of this Anglo-German-Russian interaction can be seen in the negotiations for the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1734, particularly with regard to the counterbalancing roles of the two main Russian negotiators, Vice Chancellor Count Andrei Osterman and the infamous Count Ernst Johann Biron (Btihren), both ethnic Germans. Documents surrounding these negotiations also support the revised view of the influence of German-born advisors during the reign of Anna Ioannovna. They provide new insight into the historical role and perception of the tsaritsa's favorite, Count Biron, whose traditional image as the evil and controlling German influence behind the throne is so persistent that the reign continues to be described as the Bironovshchina, the "Era of Biron."

The negotiation of the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1734 provided the occasion for the ministerial interactions discussed here. The treaty has been described by Douglas Reading as post-Petrine Russia's first formal commercial agreement with any western European power. (1) It placed the substantial trade between the two signatories on a modern legal foundation for the first time in the history of their long commercial and diplomatic relationship. The treaty granted English merchants trading under the auspices of the Russia Company exceptional economic advantages and ensured their rights and privileges in Russia. Anthony Cross has credited this treaty with ushering in the "golden age" of the Russia Company's "power and influence" in St. Petersburg. (2) The British had pursued this type of commercial agreement with Russia for decades. The natural resources and agricultural products of the eastern Baltic region had long provided England with important naval commodities such as masts, pitch, tar, flax, and hemp. These supplies were essential to the maintenance and hegemony of the British navy. The navy, in turn, was essential to Great Britain's national security and commercial success. As Russia began to dominate the trade of the eastern Baltic, the stability and profitability of Anglo-Russian trade became increasingly important to the English court.

In 1733, the British crown dispatched to St. Petersburg a diplomatic mission with the explicit purpose of negotiating a formal commercial agreement. By the end of the following year, the English merchants of the Russia Company celebrated the signing of the Anglo-Russian Commercial Treaty of 1734. Commerce between Britain and Russia flourished in its wake. Later Anglo-Russian negotiators used this first treaty as a model for all subsequent eighteenth century commercial agreements.

The documents detailing this exchange are the official and personal papers of Great Britain's chief negotiator, George, Lord Forbes, who traveled to St. Petersburg expressly to conclude the Anglo-Russian treaty. Great Britain's King George II sent Forbes as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of the Russian tsaritsa, Anna Ioannovna, in May of 1733. He returned to England a year later having settled nearly every commercial dispute between St. Petersburg and London to Britain's advantage. His correspondence, diary, and journal of observations provide a wealth of information regarding Russia and the treaty that resulted from his mission. They describe the negotiations, as well as the Russian court and the individuals closest to the tsaritsa. …