Catherine also invited the Encyclopediste Denis Diderot to St Petersburg. Their daily talks became so animated that the Empress was forced to place a table between them to stop the Frenchman from grabbing her knees in his enthusiasm. In 1765 she had bought the impoverished Diderot’s library and made him its salaried librarian for life. Like her correspondence with Voltaire, the purchase was partly driven by private intellectual curiosity and partly by a calculated public display of cultural diplomacy. The acquisition of the library was Catherine’s grand reproach to a French society which had failed to support his genius. ‘Would you ever have suspected fifty years ago that one day the Scythians would so nobly recompense in Paris the virtue, science, and philosophy that are treated so shamefully among us?’ wrote Voltaire.
In 1779 Catherine caused a similar sensation when she bought the art collection amassed by former British Prime Minister Robert Walpole from his spendthrift grandson. Its 204 pieces included works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals and Guido Reni, and was probably the greatest single art purchase of the eighteenth century. It formed the basis of a new public museum attached to the Winter Palace that Catherine called the Hermitage. The English public was indignant, and the export of the Walpole collection became a national scandal. ‘How sad it is to see passing into the hands of Scythians things that are so precious that ten people at most will admire them in Russia,’ wrote the French collector and art dealer Jean-Henri Eberts of an earlier purchase of Catherine’s in September 1769. It was not the last time that Russian money would buy great British institutions, to the titillated disapproval of London’s chattering classes.
‘You forget that we are in different positions – you work with paper which forgives all while I, the poor Empress, must work with human hide,’ Catherine had written to Diderot after his departure from St Petersburg in 1774. That human hide had proved, by the late 1780s, less tractable than she had once imagined.
13 October 2015
From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 900-916:
12 October 2015
From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 418-486:
Spain and Russia were medieval Europe’s marcher kingdoms. Spain held the North African Moors at bay in the west, while in the east Russia battled the Mongols and their successors, the Muslim Tatars. Both Spain and Russia, as a result of the demands of centuries of military effort, remained more autocratic, more religious and more deeply feudal than their less-threatened continental neighbours. But both Madrid and Muscovy were richly rewarded for their struggles against the infidel in the form of vast unexplored lands full of worldly riches. Divine providence gave Spain the New World – or so Spain’s Most Catholic monarchs believed. Likewise Russia’s most Orthodox Tsars were convinced that their divine reward was Siberia, whose boundless natural resources funded the emergence of Muscovy as a European power, and forms the foundation of Russia’s oil wealth today.
The grand princes of Muscovy had had dreams of empire since 1472, when Ivan III married Zoë Paleologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XII. Zoë brought not only her double-headed eagle coat of arms to Muscovy but also the idea that Moscow could be the successor to her fallen Byzantine homeland – a third Rome. Russia’s expansion to the west was blocked by the powerful kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Baltic trading cities of the Hanseatic League. But to the east the power of the Mongol-Tatars was weakening.
It was Zoë’s grandson Ivan the Terrible who decisively turned the balance of power on Christendom’s eastern flank when he took the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1553. Ivan crowned himself caesar – in Russian, tsar – in recognition of his conquest. In 1556 he pushed his armies south along the Volga and annihilated the southern Tatars in their stronghold at Astrakhan. At a stroke Ivan had made the Volga, the great southern artery of European Russia, into a Muscovite river, opening trade to the Caspian and beyond to Persia.
The capture of Kazan had also given Muscovy easy access to the Kama River, the Urals and the riches of Siberia itself. At the same time Europeans in search of furs and a north-east passage to China began arriving at the Arctic village of Kholmogory – later known as Arkhangelsk – at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River. The first was Richard Chancellor, head of the English Muscovy Company, London’s first chartered company of merchant adventurers, who visited in 1553.
Meanwhile Spain’s conquests in distant America were transforming the economy of Europe with a huge influx of gold. Northern Europe was also undergoing a boom in trade and manufacture centered on wool-cloth. With this new prosperity came a burgeoning demand for luxury goods from the East, particularly for the sixteenth century’s two greatest luxuries – spices and furs. Portuguese and English seafarers were driven to prodigies of navigation and discovery by the search for high-value spices – particularly peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice – to flavour the foods of the wealthy. In the same way Russian adventurers drove ever deeper into Siberia in search of the fox, sable and marten with which the rising merchant classes of Europe trimmed their clothes.
Fur, in a cold and poorly heated world, was not only a symbol of wealth but also a bringer of comfort and, in the case of Russia, literally a lifesaver. Fine furs were staggeringly valuable. In 1623 one Siberian official reported the theft of ‘two black fox pelts, one worth 30 rubles the other 80’. The thief could have bought himself fifty Siberian acres, a cabin, five good horses, ten cows and twenty sheep on the proceeds, and still have had some of his ill-gotten money left over. No wonder painters of the new bourgeoisie, from Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands to Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome, painted their subjects’ sable collars in such loving detail. They were often worth more than the artist could hope to make in years.
Siberian fur transformed Muscovy from a minor principality on the fringes of Europe into a great power. In 1595 Tsar Boris Godunov had so much of it that he sent Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II fur in lieu of military assistance against the Turks. Boris’s tribute was a dazzling show of Russia’s new wealth. The 337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins Boris sent took up twenty rooms of Prague Castle. At the beginning of the seventeenth century ‘soft gold’ accounted for up to a third of Muscovy’s revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable.
Like the Spanish captains of the New World or the seafarers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the conquistadors of Siberia were essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown. The Stroganovs, a trading dynasty from the Hanseatic city-state of Novgorod, which had been incorporated into Muscovy in 1478, financed the first fur-trapping expeditions into the uplands of the Urals and pioneered the use of licensed privateers. In April 1558 Ivan the Terrible gave Anikei Stroganov rights over five million acres of Urals forest, effectively making him viceroy of the unexplored territory responsible for its development and security. Beyond the Urals, however, lay the Tatar khanate of Sibir, an obstacle both to obtaining furs and to the expansion of the Tsar’s dominion.
In 1577 the Stroganovs recruited a young buccaneer named Yermak Timofeyevich. Yermak was a scion of a family of notorious river pirates who had plied the middle Volga but had found themselves out of business with the fall of Kazan and the establishment of Muscovite control over the great river. With his band of professional – and temporarily jobless – marauders Yermak headed eastwards, pushed deep into Tatar territory and in 1580 took Sibir. To placate the Tsar for taking such a step without royal permission, Yermak sent a vast haul of 2,500 sables to Moscow. Ivan was suitably impressed. In return for his gift, he made Yermak Muscovy’s viceroy in Siberia – just as Yermak’s former employer Stroganov had become lord of the Urals. Yermak also received a handsome suit of armour from the Tsar, which was to prove his undoing five years later as he attempted to swim away from a Tatar ambush but was drowned by his heavy breastplate.
Yermak was a Cossack, one of a growing community of men who had fled serfdom in Poland, Livonia and Muscovy and sought freedom in the no-man’s-land of the mid-Volga and the south-east steppes of European Russia. Cossacks were a social caste, not a racial or national group. Their freedom was a precarious one because of the regular Tatar slaving expeditions which filled the markets of Constantinople with hundreds of thousands of new Slavic captives every year. Moscow itself had been raided and burned by Khan Devlet Giray of Crimea as recently as 1571, and the Crimean Khanate would not be finally subdued until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1783. Ivan the Terrible, borrowing the Stroganovs’ methods, was the first tsar to harness these outlaws to the service of the state. In the absence of any natural boundaries to his fledging empire, Ivan offered the Cossacks freedom from serfdom and a licence to exploit native peoples in exchange for their service as guardians of Russia’s eastern and southern borderlands.
The Tsar organized the Cossacks into ‘hosts’, a military and administrative term for a tribe of armed colonists who could be instantly turned into a military force. The names of the successive hosts is a chronicle of Russia’s growing empire – Don, Kuban, Terek, Asktakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Turkestan, Transbaikal, Amur, Ussuri. The Cossack sotni, or hundreds, elected leaders known as atamany, and when the host was not in state service it was free to explore – and maraud – on its own account.
These Cossacks were tough men. ‘I believe such men for hard living are not under the Sunne, for no cold will hurt them,’ wrote Richard Chancellor of the men he saw on the northern Dvina in 1553. ‘Yea and though they lye in the field two monthes at such times as it shal freeze more than a yard thicke the common soldier hath neither tent nor anything else over his head.’ Of the three drivers of Russia’s eastward expansion – the quest for security against the Tatars, a consciousness of its imperial destiny as the inheritor of Byzantium and the adventurous avarice of Cossacks – it was the last which was by far the most potent.
07 October 2015
From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3063-3070, 3254-3269:
If the Cossacks were the cowboys of Russia’s Wild East, the Old Believers were its Mennonites or Mormons. In time they split into sects or were joined by others yet more extreme. All were marked by ascetic simplicity or violent self-deprivation. They rejected baptism, churches–even prayer. The depraved ‘Wanderers’ cursed the Czar as Satan, baptised their babies in lakes and buried their dead in forest glades. There were literalists who became herdsmen in obedience to holy writ, and milk-drinking Molokans thirsty for the ‘milk of the Word’. There were self-baptisers and non-baptisers, ‘Sighers’ who prayed breathily in honour of the Holy Spirit, and the ‘Prayerless’ who abhorred any outward observance at all. There were the pious Stundists and the Dukhobor ‘Spirit-wrestlers’, pacifists, who believed in the primacy of an indwelling spirit, turning even the Bible superfluous. There would even be a sect that deified Napoleon.
Later Sergei and I went on to the hills and gazed down. ‘It’s beautiful, my village!’ It was. It shone foreshortened through his field-glasses, like a painted land: a horseman herding his cattle, a cart gliding over snow. Yet the place fell oddly into two halves, with pasture between, and long tracks lay empty which had once been bordered by houses.
‘Those farms fell into ruin. Hundreds of them. Their owners were shot or exiled in Stalin’s day for being too rich. There were twelve hundred houses in my village then, and now only three hundred!’ Their vacant spaces disturbed him. They were the village which should have been: the homes of the diligent and frugal. As we walked they took on a sad presence round us. He remembered their dates and names like a personal hurt.
A modest opulence had followed the Old Belief wherever its people settled. In 1917 they had numbered fifteen million–one tenth of Russia’s population–and owned more than half the country’s capital. Newly tolerated, they had prospered among the merchant-industrial class, the Cossacks and wealthy peasants. (Sergei himself came from the Don Cossack Pahle family.) They were ripe for Stalin’s sickle.
Inside a broken corral two men asked us for cigarettes with the fawning of the chronically drunk. Sergei steered me away. ‘Yes, they were Old Believers.’ We were wading fast through shin-deep snow. ‘Things here aren’t like they were. There are five village families who are total drunkards. People are starting to live just for themselves. Our collective for livestock and wheat is falling to bits. We used to have seventy tractors, but now there are only sixteen. Its workers hardly ever get paid, so they pilfer. As for drink, if they can’t afford official vodka, they make their own–just sugar, yeast and water mixed. It can kill you.’ His eyes lifted to heaven. ‘More than half our villagers are pensioners. Young people have gone away to the cities, to Ulan Ude, hoping for work. We’re becoming a village of the dead.’
From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2868-2883, 2923-2939:
Buryatia. Mongols who had settled here a millennium ago, absorbing the local tribes, her people had sometimes allied themselves with czarist Russia against the harsh Mongolian regimes to their south. They were skilled stock-breeders and metallurgists, more numerous and organised than the tribespeople in the far north. Their ancestors had ridden with Genghis Khan. In the ungiving pastures of Transbaikal which we were entering, they had been converted to Buddhism by Mongolian and Tibetan missionaries, and alone among indigenous Siberians they possessed a written language. But even during childhood the woman had sensed in her parents the terror and bewilderment of the thirties: the forced collectivisation, the disappearance of the kulaks and lamas, the destruction of the monasteries.
She sees her Buryat identity fading down the generations. She has not thought of it much before, she says; but now I sense her hunting after half-discarded memories, a definition of her people, her mother, herself.
In a village somewhere east of Ulan Ude, she remembers, her grandparents kept a scroll painted with the Buddha and fringed in blue silk. It seemed very old. But it was the caressing silk border which the small girl remembered, not the sage it enframed. There were three statuettes of the Buddha too, to which the old people burnt incense and offered meat and fruit. Sometimes the girl would watch secretly to catch the Buddhas eating. She remembers the cupboard where they sat, how its doors opened after Stalin’s death, and the sleepy fumes of incense.
‘Every morning they offered the Buddhas tea and milk, then sprinkled it to the corners of the porch. That’s how Buddhism survived–in secret, the old people remembering. In Stalin’s day they rolled up the scroll with their prayer-books in a wooden box, and buried them under the house. But our family’s clan still had an altar on a hill, where they offered sacrifices.’ She frowns with remembered rebellion. ‘I wasn’t allowed to go, because I was a girl. But my brother told me about it.’
I had heard of a whole museum mured up in the cathedral, but it was closed to public view. Was it possible to…? The cat walked between us like a mascot.
Yes, it was possible. As the woman mounted the tower’s stair and unlocked door after armoured door a rich and incoherent maze came to light. Inside had been hoarded not the relics of Christian Orthodoxy but the accumulated treasures of Buddhist monasteries and temples salvaged in the hours before their demolition. Earmarked for display in a museum to promote atheism, then preserved for some future archive of their own, they waited here in glimmering profusion, sometimes stacked pell-mell among Cossack ploughs and harness, more often ranked in half-documented cabinets to themselves.
I examined them in ignorant wonder. In the gloom hundreds of Buddhas lifted their gilded hands in peace or teaching. Gifts from Tibet, Mongolia, China, even Cambodia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a few were very old. They sat or stood in bronze, gold, gypsum, papier maché. Their smiles filled the dark. Three thousand scroll-paintings crowded the shelves with Tibetan manuscripts and Chinese silks and a medley of temple instruments and regalia–ceremonial horns and the masks of lamaist mystery plays, whose actor-monks glowered out through slavering jaws or demon eyes. Sunlight penetrated only in mote-heavy beams, too weak to fade the sacred banners or illumine the fertility deities coupled in Tantric bliss. I began to lose all sense of age or worth. A horse-headed lute curved beside a ninth-century Indian Buddha, the household altar of a Buryat chief among the bric-a-brac of early tea-merchants.
The collective memory of Buryatia, it seemed, had been incarcerated in these once-Christian walls, and left to die. Of the forty-seven monasteries flourishing in the 1920s, all were gone by 1939. But Buddhism was reviving, said the woman, as she locked the last doors behind me. There were many little monasteries and temples she knew of, newly scattered through the region, and the greatest was only twenty miles away. The outer door clanged shut. The white cat was waiting in the grass. You could take a bus anywhere into the country, she said, and hear the lamas praying again.