Britain and Russia. (Frontline)

History Today, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Britain and Russia. (Frontline)


ON MAY 10TH, 1553, IN THE FINAL WEEKS of the brief reign of Edward VI, Hugh Willoughby, gentleman, and Richard Chancellor, a sea captain, sailed north-east from London, bent on the 'Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places unknown'. Willoughby succumbed to storms and ice but Chancellor made it to the White Sea and thence to Moscow. On his return to what was by now Queen Mary's England, he described the land he visited as being 'very plentiful both of Land and People, and also wealthy for such commodities as they have', and carried letters from the Tsar--Ivan the Terrible--inviting trading contacts between the two nations.

In the 450 years since, the two nations have been at once excited and challenged by one another. The British have remained fascinated by the 'very plentiful' resources--both territorial and human--of Russia. It is true that at times they have also felt their wider interests threatened by those resources--but they have never forgotten that, on the two occasions when their own island was most acutely threatened by a continental neighbour, it was Russia and not Britain that actually suffered the invasion, and Russian heroism and sacrifice that made British survival and eventual triumph possible.

Some Britons found commercial opportunity in the commodities to be obtained in Russia, while others sought adventure or patronage in the service of the Tsar. At home, meanwhile, and particularly from the 19th century, the culturally inclined found rich inspiration in Russia's music, poetry and literature.

Conversely, in 1698, it was to England that Peter the Great came to learn the art of shipbuilding, and English--and Scottish--industry, literature and style have a special place in the hearts of many Russians. Some Russians, forced into exile, have found Britain a welcoming home, and contributed hugely to British life.

The affinities between the two countries continue--as evidenced by the friendship of the President of Russia and the Prime Minister today. It is both appropriate and exciting for History Today to work together with Rodina, Russia's own monthly history magazine, over the coming months, to celebrate these multitudes of contacts. We are sharing editorial material, and in this issue, in addition to Paul Dukes' survey of the ups and downs of those 450 years, A.A. Orlov of Moscow State University tells us about the shadowy world of the many Britons who stayed in Moscow at the time of its greatest trial, Napoleon's invasion of 1812; while Lev Anninskiy, a Rodina editor, describes vividly how history--a dead subject for him under the heavy hand of Soviet orthodoxy--caught his imagination when he began to interrogate for himself what he had been told about his national past. …

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