Russia and Scotland: Age-Old Links under the Saltire
A certain, deep affinity seems to exist between Scots and Russians in terms of national character. Perhaps no other peoples in Western Europe are so like Russians. Both dwell in a Northern environment with a difficult climate, both are Christian sharing a common Patron Saint, both are multiethnic and culturally diverse, both had to wage fierce and protracted struggles for self-determination, both exerted an enormous influence over large areas of the globe, and both societies have a strong sense of kinship.
What one writer describes as “the fiery imagination, incisive intellect, tough stoicism and gentle affection that are aspects of the Scottish character” can be applied to the Russian nature, too. Then there is the famous fighting spirit; experts would doubtless agree that few nations make better warriors than Scots and Russians. On the gastronomic plane, both prefer simple peasant fare, good grain spirits and plenty of sweets.
This closeness can account for the tremendous popularity of Ossian, Burns, Scott and Stevenson in Russia. It is also part of the answer why Scots settled in Russia in great numbers and, by and large, felt very much at home.
From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century many Scots flocked to the most immense and powerful country history has known. They came from every neuk of Scotland and their field of action was Russia’s whole expanse from the Baltic to Alaska, from the Arctic to the Chinese frontiers. They knew that she was unsurpassed as the land of opportunity. She sheltered and fostered many a braw lad, and some of them became the most famous men of the diaspora.
One need only recall the names of Peter the Great’s principal advisor, General Patrick Gordon; Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, commander-in-chief in the Napoleonic wars, or Mikhail Lermontov, the poet whose forebears sprang from county Fife.
It was not a one-way street, and we must not forget Russian visitors to Scotland. More of these have pursued the road to the Isles than could be expected, including members of the Romanov dynasty and major figures like Princess Yekaterina Dashkova, the writers Alexander and Ivan Turgenev, Admiral Fiodor Lutke, revolutionary Prince Piotr Kropotkin, chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev and philosopher Vladimir Solovyev, to name a few.
But the flow in the opposite direction was by far the mightier. Hundreds of Scottish names became distinguished in Russian history, industrial development and culture. An envious English engineer observed in 1805 that “to come from the North side of the Tweed is the best recommendation a man can bring to this city [St. Petersburg], the Caledonian Phalanx being the strongest and most numerous, and moving always in the closest union”. Besides, a substantial Scottish element lived in Moscow, Kronstadt, Archangel and Riga as well as in missions in the Caucasus, Crimea, Astrakhan, Orenburg and Selenginsk near Lake Baikal.
Scottish soldiers made a promising start already in the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and, significantly, Russia’s first serious military reform was entrusted to the supervision of a Scot: Alexander Leslie’s unparalleled recruitment drive of the early 1630s imported thousands of men and arms from the West. In the half century between the 1650s and 1700s alone there were 15 Russian generals from Scotland, and two of them (George Ogilvie and James Bruce) reached the supreme rank of field marshal.
Given their weight, it does not come as a surprise that the principal Russian order of knighthood and the saltire chosen by Peter the Great as the banner for his nascent fleet bear an obvious resemblance to Scottish prototypes. The debt is plainly acknowledged in the original statutes of the Russian Order of St. Andrew. On the other hand, as ancient legend has it, the Scots originated from “Greater Scythia”, i.e. the steppes of Southern Russia, so that the veneration of St. Andrew the Apostle was inherited by both the Kingdom of Scotland and the Tsardom of Russia.
The string of Russo-Scottish army generals is rivalled by an equally brilliant line of marine commanders. First place among them undisputedly belongs to Samuel Greig of Inverkeithing (1735–1788), full admiral, reformer of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, victor at Chesme and Hogland. Some celebrated naval dynasties were established; all four of Greig’s sons followed in his footsteps, and his grandson ended up Minister of Finance. All told, nearly thirty Russian Scots achieved flag ranks before the destruction of the Imperial Navy in 1917.
Scottish entrepreneurs and engineers, with their proud technological traditions, had ample chances to shine. Charles Gascoigne and Charles Baird created their own industrial kingdoms in St. Petersburg and beyond. Baird owned a wharf where in 1815 he devised and launched Russia’s maiden steamship, the Elizaveta. In 1856 Murdoch Macpherson founded his giant Baltic Works and Shipyard, still running today at the mouth of the Neva.
Scholarly and artistic contacts also prospered from the early 18th Century onwards. James Bruce and Robert Erskine, the most learned men in Petrine Russia, bequeathed their unique libraries and collections to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The architects Charles Cameron, Adam Menelaws and William Hastie stand on a par with any European master of their time. Scots doctors made an extraordinary contribution, directing Russian medical bodies, publishing novel essays and practising modern methods of treatment. Probably the most eminent of them was James Wylie, who rose to personal doctor of three Tsars, President of the Medico-Chirurgical Academy and Russia’s sole baronet.
William Carrick pioneered photography among the townsfolk and peasantry of Russia; a Scot named Denbigh engaged in fur trade, fishing and processing “sea cabbage” on the island of Sakhalin; Alexander Bisset introduced and supervised tea-planting and manufacture in Georgia, and in the 1890s, football kicked off in St. Petersburg largely thanks to the Scottish labour force who formed the bulk of the first champion side.
It is little known that Sergey Diaghilev’s first exhibition was mainly devoted to paintings by the Glasgow Boys. In 1901–02 two great masters of Art Nouveau, Fiodor Shekhtel and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, held an exchange of their work in Glasgow and Moscow; Shekhtel’s fairytale “Russian Village” in Kelvingrove Park, built by 200 Russian carpenters, drew millions of visitors and won him the diploma of the show’s best architect.
The first British production of a Chekhov play was also staged in Glasgow (“The Seagull”, 1909).
IMPORTANT SCOTS IN RUSSIA
RICHARD CHANCELLOR (d. 1556)
From Aberdeenshire, seaman and explorer Richard Chancellor laid the foundations for English trade with Russia following his visit to Moscow in 1553–54. Warmly greeted by Tsar Ivan IV, Chancellor brought back letters to English Queen Mary l that granted favorable conditions for trade between the two nations. Chancellor had been Pilot General of an expedition to try to find a Northeast Passage to China; the failure of the 3-ship expedition had taken him by land to Moscow.
Due mainly to Chancellor’s negotiating skills, the Muscovy Company, given a monopoly of Russian trade, was formed in 1555. The seaman-diplomat was drowned in a shipwreck off the Scottish coast while returning from a trading mission to Moscow.
PATRICK GORDON (1635–1699)
One of the earliest of the Scottish soldiers of fortune, famed throughout Europe, was Patrick Gordon, from Aberdeenshire that he made famous in his diary, Passages from the Diary of General Patrick Gordon (1859). In this, he described his life in the service of Peter l, the Great Tsar of Russia.
Patrick’s exploits as a mercenary soldier in the Polish-Swedish War of 1635–60 earned him his reputation and he entered the Russian Army in 1661 as a major, suppressing the Moscow riots of 1663. He later defended Chigirin against the Turks and was sent to England on a diplomatic mission by the regent Sophia, whom he helped Peter overthrow in 1689. He again helped the Tsar by crushing a rebellion in 1698. The Tsar allowed Gordon to build a Catholic Church in Moscow.
JOHN BELL (1691–1780)
In 1714, following some years in St. Petersburg on a diplomatic mission, physician and traveller John Bell did a great deal to explain the ways of the Russians and the Chinese to the West. He had left Russia to continue his mission in China in 1718, travelling through Siberia and Mongolia and recording his impressions there.
In 1722, he accompanied Russian Emperor Peter the Great on an expedition to the Caspian Sea and later spent some years in Istanbul. His account of his journeys appeared in 1763 as Travels From St. Petersburg in Russia to Various Parts of Asia.