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Giles Fletcher’s “Of the Russe Commonwealth”

“Of the Russe Commonwealth” is the work Giles Fletcher written in 1591. Giles Fletcher was an English scholar and diplomat who described Russia right after the reign of Ivan IV and before the Time of Troubles. He was sent to the court of Fyodor I Ivanovich, who was a tsar of Russia, to mitigate the disagreement on the rights of English merchants in Russia (Berry and Crummy 88). Fletcher’s travel account was written in the form of a book that consists of 28 chapters and was presented to Queen Elizabeth. The audience of the book was other Englishmen with higher social positions, for example, they might be merchants, nobles, political figures, and scholars, who were interested in Russia during the development of Russia-England relations. As such, Fletcher was sent to collect information needed to Englishmen. This essay argues that Giles Fletcher’s travel account is significant in understanding Russia before the Time of Troubles and examining the English-Russian relations.

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Fletcher had written this work specifically to the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth. This can be seen from his saying that “I have presumed to offer it in this small book to your most excellent majesty” (Berry and Crummy, 109). Due to this, it can be assumed that Fletcher might present Russia as appealing to the queen and English nobles. Indeed, he described Russia as barbarous and uncivilized, having no respect for foreign merchants. Fletcher’s account provides various insights about the Russian society of that time along with its government structure. Fletcher did not understand some Russian traditions and he was not allowed to go to certain places, thus having a bias perception of the state. Yet, his work is valuable as it reveals some aspects of the Russian state.

The perception of the Muscovite state by Fletcher was tyrannical as his writing often suggests that English people should be grateful for the rule of Queen Elizabeth. Such gratitude might be written to please the English authority and present Russia as not capable of managing the trade relations alone. This is because there was a disagreement between Boris Godunov, who was in charge of trade relations and Queen Elisabeth regarding the rights of English merchants on the land of Russia (Berry and Crummy 89). The English authority claimed to have free trade across the Russian state as it was during the time of Ivan the Terrible. In contrast, Godunov was limiting traducing privileges and arguing for more control from the Russian side. Due to such a dispute, it might be that Fletcher collected information on Russia to make the state look less capable of the trade relations. He was also under patronage of the English noblemen, Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Thomas Randolph. As such, Fletcher was intended to examine the Russian state and society from the lens of English noblemen.

Fletcher was in Russia for a short time and was always accompanied by the Russian people. Yet, what he saw was sufficient to write his book. He described how lands and the climate of Russia were diverse and that each region had its specialties. Fletcher also mentioned that people were open to communicate with him but they never talked about the government or nobles. He could not find any flaws regarding the Russian authorities form common people, but he could explain it by the fear of society. However, Fletcher could predict future political instability in Russia by pointing out Godunov’s abuse of power and that citizens were aware of it (Berry and Crummy 110). For example, Fletcher said that “And this wicked policy and tyrannous practice hath so troubled that country and…that it will not be quenched till it bum again into a civil flame” (Berry and Crummy 140). As such, the third-party perspective on the state of Russia after the reign of Ivan IV was insightful and allowed researchers to examine why the Time of Troubles had come to the Russian lands.

Fletcher’s work is valuable as the historical period of that time did not have much information regarding Russia and its societal life. The source describes how the Russian state had changed after the reign of Ivan the Terrible and what were the premises for the Time of Troubles that is considered as the darkest history of Russia. It also emphasizes the figure of Boris Godunov, showing him as “evil” in the story of the English-Russia relations. This might be due to the disagreement between the majesty of England and Godunov. Furthermore, Fletcher showed how the Russian nobles and authority were not fairly treating the population of the Muscovite state, limiting their abilities, and abusing public goods. For instance, he stated that education was not equally provided for the common people by saying that “for that a man of spirit and understanding, helped by learning and liberal education, can hardly endure a tyrannical government” (Berry and Crummy 214). As it can be seen, Fletcher revealed some important aspects regarding life in the Russian state during the reign of Fyodor I and Boris Godunov.

On the other hand, “Of the Russe Commonwealth” did not include cultural aspects of the Russian society and did not include the details related to the trade agreement between England and Russia. This can be due to the mission of Fletcher that was confidential and that he was collecting only relevant information for the English scholarship. I expected to find more detailed observation of cultural issues. However, cultural aspects of the society might not be interesting for the English nobles who had political and economic aims to establish control over the lands of Russia. Moreover, Fletcher might not include cultural aspects, particularly their religion, in order not to make a link between England and Russia complicated as although they were Christians, they had differences in their beliefs. In addition, the travel account lacks Fletcher’s analysis of the events during his trip. He simply described what he saw without thinking why it was happening. It can be due to his purpose which was to present Russia to Queen Elizabeth so that his analysis was not necessary. He could also disrupt Queen’s perception of Russia by his analysis and opinion.

To conclude, Fletcher’s study of Russia shows a comprehensive look at the trading and governing institutions of the state. Yet, his social status and origin of being an Englishmen dictated his perception of the Russian state. He could identify why the tyrannic attitude of the Russian state to its citizens, suggesting about the Time of Troubles. Fletcher also provided characteristics of the significant Russian figures, such as the tsar of Fyodor, Boris Godunov and other nobles. The travel account also allowed the researchers to examine the lands and people of the tsarist Russia, showing some insights into how it was after the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

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Work Cited

Berry, L. and Crummy, R. eds. Rude and Barbarous Kingdom: Russia in the Accounts of Sixteenth-Century English Voyagers. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

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