Russian Travel Writing

Travel writing about Russia began with an account of Moscow by the ambassador from the Habsburg Emperor, Maximilian I to Moscow Baron Sigmund von Herberstein, who first visited Russia in 1517 and published his description of the country in 1549. It continued by the Jesuit theologian and Papal legate Antonio Possevino, in the Elizabethan Age primarily with the travelogues by Englishmen, notably Giles Fletcher (1591), whose information pervaded many later descriptions. Early modern travelers to and writers about Russia were primarily diplomats. They were in most cases hindered by their ignorance of the Russian language, difficulties of movement, and, in some cases, aloofness and apprehension of the local people. Knowledge about Russia was geographically patchy and was distorted by myths and prejudices. Interest and knowledge grew gradually. In the seventeenth century, Sir Dudley Digges recorded the flora and fauna of south Russia (1618), and Pierre Chevalier provided the first systematic account of Cossacks and the Ukraine (1672). Much writing in this period was full of fantastic stories.

In the first quarter of the eighteenth century Peter I's travels abroad and contacts sparked interest in Russia, and Catherine the Great encouraged German men of letters and scientists to come over in its last four decades. Some of the physicians, military men and professionals whom Peter invited to Russia left accounts – notably a physician, Samuel Collins, who described the Russians as 'a People who differ from all other nations of the world, in most of their Actions'. Close friend of Peter I, general-in-chief Patrick Gordon left a diary of his life and military campaigns (Tagebuch des Generals Patrick Gordon), Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg provided the first systematic account of Siberia in 1730, while Johann Gottlieb Georgi supplied the first systematic account of the non-Russian peoples of the Volga Basin, the Urals and the Caucasus in 1776. The later eighteenth century saw an increase of travel accounts, some by women, some the result of a 'northern tour' which encompassed Russia and Scandinavia and emerged as an alternative or complement to the traditional Grand Tour. The focus of description remained Moscow, St Petersburg and the Baltic provinces.