What happened when John Cayley got his wig caught in the chandelier

Matthew Reisz

  • By the Banks of the Neva: Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in 18th-Century Russia by Anthony Cross
    Cambridge, 496 pp, £60.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 521 55293 1

‘Never, even in the Thames,’ a British traveller to Kronstadt wrote in the early 19th century,

did I observe a more extensive or denser forest of masts. It was gratifying to find that they were nearly all belonging to our country, and of course so many practical testimonies to our wealth, reputation and enterprise. Besides the crews of these vessels, every second person we saw was English; the beach, quays, streets and taverns (their keepers and servants also of the same nation) were crowded with them, bustling to and fro with the characteristic hurry of commercial business, and occasionally, it must be confessed, dealing out to each other, or to strangers unluckily in their way, some of the choicest flowers of nautical eloquence. This is not an occasional, but on the contrary, a constant scene all the months in which, from the absence of the ice, the Gulph of Finland is open to traders; so that the place might be taken for an English colony.

The fortress and town of Kronstadt, which protected the young St Petersburg from Swedish attack, are usually thought to have been founded a year after the city itself, in 1704. It is safe to assume that no installation of comparable strategic significance in Britain has ever been taken for a Russian colony. In an earlier book, On the Banks of the Thames, Anthony Cross attempted something like a comprehensive account of ‘Russians in 18th-century Britain’. Their profile was modest. Cross started with Peter I’s celebrated visit of 1698. Of around four hundred compatriots who followed in his footsteps, most enrolled as students, although there were also naval recruits, apprentices to shipbuilders and instrument-makers, and others (like British businessmen in today’s Japan) who looked enviously at the latest technology as displayed in industrial centres, mines, canals and factories. Even at the end of the century Grand Tourists would come here to marvel at ‘le pays de la richesse, de la sécurité et de la raison’, keen to acquire new perspectives on estate management or landscape gardening. But although there was an Orthodox church and an embassy (or at least a townhouse for the ambassador) in 18th-century London, we can hardly speak of a Russian community.

St Petersburg was quite different. When Peter the Great repaired to a little cabin near his western border and dreamed of a new ‘European’ city rising up from the swampland before him, he had little choice but to import skilled manpower on a scale which makes comprehensive treatment impossible in a single volume. Instead Cross offers ‘chapters from the lives and careers’ of the traders, doctors, clergymen, craftsmen and artists, who formed ‘a sort of transplanted City of London in miniature’. A commercial treaty exempting British merchants from the requirement to billet soldiers made them attractive to landlords. Often they rented houses on what became the English Embankment, with ‘balconies large enough to drink Tea on’. Few made any concessions to their surroundings: ‘Furniture, meals, establishments,’ wrote a chaplain, ‘everything is English – even to the chimney fire. Here where wood is in such plenty, the Englishman fetches his coal from home.’ Only a small minority attempted to learn Russian and a bilingual guide to the basic vocabulary was obliged to point out that ‘’tis a Language of great use in this country: & without it one labours under a great many inconveniences here.’ Even travellers who had left England to escape scandals or criminal charges tended to take a dim view of the Russian people, especially the servants, possessed, in one view, of ‘everything which attends Ignorance, that is Ingratitude, Dirt and Sauciness; they are, in my opinion, far inferior to a well-taught Bear.’

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