Giles Fletcher and the Russians

By Paul Wickenden of Thanet

Giles Fletcher served as English ambassador to Russia in 1588, renegotiating terms of trade between the two countries. But far more important than his diplomatic exploits were the record that he left of his trip. This account is one of the few outside observations of the Russians in period. Like other foreign observers, both preceding and antecedent, his comments were far from complementary. And, while his observations were colored both by his prejudices against the government (he was badly treated during his embassy) and his loyalties towards his own government over the Russian one, his feelings were undoubtedly shared by most other Westerners of the time.

To provide a flavor of these feelings, I will summarize some key points from his treatise, Of the Russe Commonwealth (published originally in 1591 and reprinted in facsimile in 1966).

On the Government
Fletcher describes the Tsar as a tyrant and compares the Russian government poorly against Elizabeth I’s reign at home. For the 21st century reader, the nuances may be lost, but Fletcher’s complaints (the lack of hereditary officers, the handing out of political patronage by whim of the Tsar, and the “corrupt” role of the Church) had a hidden agenda that had more to do with politics at home than with the affairs of Russia. The criticisms were rooted in the concept of Constitutionalism in England which had been slowly growing since the arrival of the Normans and the signing of the Magna Carta, and would eventually explode within a short few years into the English Civil War. A good ruler, by Elizabethan standards, ruled with “enlightenment” and according to “natural principles.” The Tsar was neither enlightened nor for that matter even aware of these principles (it would not be until Peter I that enlightened rule would come to Russia, and Constitutionalism and Rule of Law would remain elusive much longer than that).

Fletcher went further and described the Tsar as a person in unflattering prose. The Emperor, he said, “is for his person of a mean stature, somewhat low and gross, of a fallow complexion, and inclining to dropsy, hawk-nosed, unsteady in his pace by reason of some weakness of his limbs, heavy and inactive, yet commonly smiling almost to laughter. For quality otherwise, simple and slow-witted, but very gentle and of an easy nature….”

On the Church
If Fletcher’s opinion of the Tsar is colored by his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, than his feelings towards the Russian Orthodox Church reveals absolute distaste and religious intolerance, for the Russian Church was far removed from the Anglican (bearing a best a small resemblance through the Catholic church, for which Fletcher expressed no love): “it is framed altogether after the manner of the Greek: as being a part of that Church, and never acknowledging the jurisdiction of the Latin Church, usurped by the Pope.”

In his chapter “Of the Doctrine of the Russe Church, and What Errors It Holds,” he highlights a series of objections. First of all, Fletcher, as a Protestant, objects to the hierarchical nature of the Orthodox Church, especially its deferral of the interpretation of the Scriptures to the Patriarch and the Synod (as well as to the Tsar). He notes that there is a overly cozy relationship between Church and State, observing that the people give what little money survives the state’s capricious taxation to the monasteries out of fear and “superstition” – an arrangement that suits the Tsar quite well.

He complains that the Church ignores large sections of the Old Testament, carefully selecting the portions that are read publicly. And they also avoid Revelations and sections of the New Testament that they disagree with.

But the major “error” pointed out by Fletcher is the idolatry of the Church, with its fixation on icons and symbols (like the Cross). Fletcher describes their use of the Cross as “abuse,” and accuses them of giving the sign of the Cross a reverence “which is due to God only.” He chides them also for being “superstitious” about holy water and other “profane ceremonies.”

This compliant is hardly a new objection and had divided East (Orthodox) from West (Catholic) long before. To a Protestant, the heavy reliance on ceremony and ritual smacked of “superstitious” practices, not true worship: “Many other vain and superstitious ceremonies they have, which were long and tedious to report. By these it may appear how far they are fallen from the true knowledge and practice of Christian religion, having exchanged the word of God for their own vain traditions, and brought all to external and ridiculous ceremonies, without any regard of spirit and truth, which God requires in his true worship.”

All this being said, his criticism of the Russian Church is more aimed at home and seems to have another target: the Roman Catholic Church. He faults the Russian faith as being led by ignorant priests who follow and promote “Popish superstition.” In other words, to the extent that the Russian Orthodox resembles the Roman Catholic, they are guilty of deviations and “errors.”

On the People
Under the tyranny and greed of their rulers and the “superstitions” of their Church, the common people suffer and naturally are “mean and coarse.” As Fletcher put it, “they are robbed constantly, both of their hearts and money.” And in an observation of practices that bear eerie similarity to late Tsarist and Soviet life, Fletcher comments on the Tsar’s monopoly on drinking establishments, where men often starve their families by drinking away their earnings: “While they are in these [taverns], none may call them forth whatsoever cause there may be, because he would hinder the Emperor’s revenue.”

The Russian, treated harshly by his rulers and Church, returns the favor to anyone he has power over, including his family: “In living with their wives, they show themselves to be but of a barbarous condition: using them as servants, rather than wives.” Fletcher seems to pity the Russian and he observes that “the Russe neither believes anything that an other man speaks, nor speaks anything himself worthy to be believed.” They are good people, but ignorant (and the Tsar wants to keep them that way).

On Material Culture
But moving beyond Fletcher’s unflattering portrait, he does make some empirical observations about everyday life that are helpful to us, in his final chapter (“Of the Private Behavior, or Quality, of the Russe People”).

The Russians are for the “most part of large size and of very fleshy bodies” on account, he reckons of the cold climate and the typical diet (“roots, onions, garlic, cabbage, and such like things that breed gross humors”). They sleep, an exasperated Fletcher observed, after they midday meal and bathe at public bath houses at least two or three times a week! The latter behavior may keep them healthy, but it is disastrous for their complexion, Fletcher claims. And he observes that its heinous effects are seen more so on the women, who then paint their faces with make-up to cover over these flaws.

The nobles dress in a “Greek fashion” (by which Fletcher probably means Byzantine) and a woman is always adorned with jewelry: “Without earrings of silver or some other metal, and her cross about her neck, you shall see no Russe woman, be she wife or maid.”

Fletcher provides us with an interesting window onto the Russian world in period, giving us a sense of how the Russians were seen from Western Europe. And the portrait, unflattering as it is, does more to actually expose the world of Elizabethan England even as it never directly comments on affairs at home. Through Fletcher’s writing, we see what the West considered “normal” and proper, far more than what the Russians might have been like as actual people.

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