Thus spoke Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov (d. 1800), using the word Anglichanka (English woman) to describe England and the verb gadit (befouls) as a hint at rather stormy Anglo-Russian affairs.
This should contradict those who claim that relations between Britain and Russia are at the nadir. The indefinite article would be more appropriate, for there have been many such nadirs throughout history.
Russia as a unified political entity with imperial ambitions appeared in the second half of the 16th century, in the reign of Ivan IV ‘the Terrible’. He earned that nickname by launching a murderous punitive raid on his own people immediately after ascending to the throne.
But before he struck, Ivan had prudently tried to secure a fallback position in case of failure. To that end he sent his brocade-gowned, fur-hatted, shaggy-bearded emissaries to propose marriage to Queen Elizabeth I.
Her putative virginity must have been a factor in Ivan’s proposal, for he prized chastity in his brides as much as he decried its absence. For example, when his fifth wife turned out to be not quite virginal on their wedding night, Ivan had her drowned in a pond, as one does.
In case the Queen was unable to overcome her maidenly qualms, Ivan suggested a second-best option: a mutual guarantee of asylum should rebellious subjects throw either monarch out.
Giles Fletcher, Elizabethan traveller to Russia, renders this offer more eloquently, if a bit archaically, in his memoir: “Further, the Emperor requireth earnestly that there may be assurance made by oath and faith betwixt the Queen’s Majestie and him, that yf any misfortune might fall or chance upon ether of them to go out of their countries, that it might be lawful for ether of them to come into the other countrey for the safeguard of themselves and theyr lives…”
Elizabeth wasn’t so much reluctant to accept either offer as perplexed. Since Her Majesty had only a vague idea of Muscovy (or Tartary, as contemporaneous English maps identified Russia), she was unlikely to regard it as a suitable haven.
And since she probably had never heard of Ivan she was reluctant to let his wooing succeed where Leicester’s had failed. She did however suggest out of politeness that Ivan was free to settle in England if he so chose. Forget about the nuptials though.
Fletcher, by the way, was an agent of the Muscovy Company, a trading concern chartered in 1555 that had a monopoly on trade with Russia until the reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (d. 1676). The father of Peter I harboured suspicions of England, which he expressed quite succinctly.
When the Muscovy Company applied for an extension of its licence, it was floored by the short uppercut of the tsar’s ukase: “Inasmuch as the said Anglic Germans have slaughtered their own King Carolus to death, we hereby decree that none of the said Anglic Germans shall henceforth be admitted to Russia’s land.”
The tsar’s statement suggests that, while vague on the English ethnicity, he grasped the main point about the contemporaneous England. It was becoming dangerous to the well-being of absolute monarchs or those who, like “King Carolus” (Charles I), attempted to regain a fraction of the kind of absolute power that was taken for granted in Russia.
Since then relations between the two countries have been up and down, mostly down. They usually belonged to different and hostile coalitions, as they did during the Northern War (1700-1721), the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), and also the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
During the Napoleonic wars, the two countries set out to give the lie to the proverb about our enemy’s enemies. In spite of having common problems with Napoleon, they were officially at war with each other since 1799.
Apart from a short interlude in 1812, Russia fought not so much against France as against England. And even in 1812, when Napoleon attacked Russia, her state of war with England continued, if only formally.
Britain’s policy was always designed to prevent the emergence of a dominant continental power. As Russia’s imperial ambitions grew, she was increasingly cast in that very role. Hence ‘the Great Game’, a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and other territories in Central and South Asia.
That cold war heated up when Russia’s expansion threatened the existence of the Ottoman Empire, which Britain saw as an essential counterbalance to Russian power in the region. This led to the 1853-1856 Crimean War, in which a small expeditionary force sent over by Britain, France and Sardinia thrashed the Russian army despite being outgunned and outmanned.
In the run-up to the war, England had forced Russia to disband her Holy Alliance with Austria and Prussia, which prevented those countries from coming to Russia’s aid. However, Britain couldn’t press the strategic advantage of her Crimean victory – dysentery turned out to be a more formidable adversary than the Russian army and navy.
In 1833, exactly 100 years before you-know-what, Prussia formed the Zollverein, a customs union with other German principalities. The aim was to bribe or coerce them all eventually to form a single German state under Prussia’s aegis. In hindsight that can be seen as a rehearsal for a larger-scale operation known as the European Union.
That process led to Prussia defeating France in 1871. Immediately thereafter Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire, and a new candidate for continental supremacy was born. Britain saw the signs with unerring clarity and made a mental note that Germany was the greater danger. That’s why Britain and Russia were allies in the Great War, at least until 1918, when Lenin betrayed the Entente by signing a separate peace with Germany.
We can now fast-forward to our own time, leapfrogging the seven decades of Bolshevism, the Second World War and the Cold War. Suffice it to say that, a few years in the 1990s apart, Britain and Russia have been in a relationship that honesty prevents me from describing as amicable.
In fact, I can’t think of any other major Western country as incompatible with Russia as Britain is – and has been for centuries. America, Germany, France all have many common features with Russia. Britain has none that are immediately obvious.
The restrained, pragmatic, self-deprecating yet quietly self-confident English personality weaned on centuries of civil liberties and the rule of law is the exact opposite of Russian effusiveness, bombast and delusions of grandeur born out of a deep-seated sense of inferiority.
That at least partly explains why Britain was the first country to support the Ukraine both morally and materially. The reason for such unequivocal support isn’t so much strategic (although that too) as cultural, historical and, if you will, visceral.
England is – or rather used to be – the epitome of Western civilisation, which the Russians both envy and hate. (For confirmation, see the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.) The history of animosity between the two countries reflects irreconcilable differences that will persevere in eternity.
The main one is the perpetual conflict between civilisation and barbarism, in which only one adversary can ever be left standing. If you still doubt which side is which, I suggest you follow the day-to-day accounts of Russia’s ongoing bandit raid on the Ukraine – and look up the statistics of the overwhelming support for the war among the brainwashed, but otherwise unwashed, Russian population.
One hopes Britain still retains enough of her erstwhile civilisational spunk to keep up her support for the brave people dying to stop Russian barbarism in its tracks. Let history be our guide.
P.S. In this regard, the BBC has finally done something right. I wholeheartedly recommend its documentary series Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone.