How and when Russians and English learned from each other

England and were not always rivals on the stage. In the beginning, their relationship was quite close and cordial.

Meetings between Russia and “Foggy Albion” were sporadic and short-lived until the New Age. Around 1074, Prince of Smolensk Vladimir Monomakh married Gita of Wessex, daughter of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold II, but no more such remarkable events occurred in the centuries that followed.

It was not until the 16th century that the powers really discovered each other. In 1525, the Russian envoys to , led by Prince Ivan Zasekin, stopped in London on their way to Spain, and 30 years later British sailors landed on Russian soil.

Unexpected guests

But the purpose of the flotilla sent by King Edward VI to the in 1553 was not at all to discover the mysterious Muscovy. The British were looking here for an alternative route to and .

Richard Chancellor's ship near the Russian coast.

Richard Chancellor’s ship near the Russian coast.

V.Kosov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The expedition failed, however. As a result of a storm, the two ships were off the coast of the desolate , where their crews made the fateful decision to wait out the winter and soon perished.

Captain Richard Chancellor’s ship ‘Edward Bonaventure’ was much more fortunate. On August 24, 1553, it dropped anchor at the mouth of northern Dvina near the Russian village of Nenoks. The locals knew Scandinavian sailors well, but it was the first time they saw an Englishman.

However, the foreigners were warmly welcomed and sent to the voivod (governor) Feofan Morozov in the village of Kholmogory, which at this time was the most important Russian outpost in the development of the north. He in turn arranged for them to travel to the state capital.

“Moscow itself is very large,” Chancellor later said wrote in his notes, “I think the city as a whole is bigger than London and its suburbs. But it is built very roughly and stands in no order. The houses are all made of wood, which is very dangerous when it comes to fire. There is a nice castle in Moscow, whose high walls are built of brick. They say the walls are eighteen feet thick, but I do not think so, they do not seem to be. But I do not know for sure, because no foreigner is allowed to see them … “

Richard Chancellor and Ivan the Terrible.

Richard Chancellor and Ivan the Terrible.


Tsar Ivan IV welcomed the foreign guests. The distant England aroused his great interest: both as a trading partner and as a possible political ally. As a result, it became the first Western European power with which Russia had a chance to establish lasting economic cooperation.

The first and the only

The establishment of diplomatic and economic contacts with Russia was also of interest in London, where the Chancellor returned the following year. For this purpose, in 1555, the ‘Moscow Company’ was formed and the captain himself, who had written a book entitled ‘On the Great and Mighty Tsar of Russia and the Grand Duke of Moscow’, was appointed royal envoy and sent back to the Moscow Sovereign Court.

Richard Chancellor arrived in the Russian north, accompanied by Moscow Company agents George Killingworth and Richard Gray. The cargo holds of his ship were full of a variety of goods, from cloth to gunpowder to weapons. Russia could offer them wood, , leather and furs.

English trading house in Moscow.

English trading house in Moscow.

GAlexandrova (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Just like on the last occasion, the meeting with Ivan IV was a success. The British were given the right to conduct duty-free trade in a number of northern Russian ports (Russia had no other “window on Europe” at the time). On behalf of the Tsar, a representative office of the Moscow Company (the building remains to this day) in the capital was soon opened.

The same privileges from the English were granted to Russian merchants. But they could not use them at all: at that time, Russia had no merchant navy.

Unfortunately, the man who had done so much for the development of bilateral relations between the two powers did not see the result of his . When he returned home in 1556, his ship was caught in a violent storm off the coast of Scotland and sank with its captain. Interestingly, the royal envoy to Mary Tudor dyak (clerk) Osip Nepeya’s court miraculously survived and was successfully delivered to London, where he was honorably received by the Queen.

Ivan IV sends Osip Nepeya to England.

Ivan IV sends Osip Nepeya to England.

General goods

After being the first Western European nation to break into the Russian domestic market, the British enjoyed the exclusive right to trade with the resourceful power for decades, expand their network of offices in its cities and even establish transit routes for their goods through Russian lands to West Asia.

England tried as long as possible to maintain this order. Only in the early 1580s did it move a little to its great dissatisfaction – Dutch and French merchants were able to break into the Russian domestic market.

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