Drink and Diplomacy at the Muscovite Court

‘To drink drunk is an ordinary matter with them every day in the week’, remarked the English ambassador Giles Fletcher in his reflection on the state of Russia in the sixteenth century.[i] Anthony Jenkinson, one of the Muscovy Company agents, likewise reported hearsay of Russian men and women who ‘drunke away their children’.[ii] These observations echo an image commonly painted by other European diplomats and travellers to Muscovite Russia, contributing to the image of a perpetual Russian drunk that has made its way into academic scholarship relatively uncontested.[iii] However, as recent Russian scholarship has emphasised, this perception had little in common with the realities of Muscovite life, where access to strong alcohol was not as widespread as assumed, and the harsh actuality of war and famine severely limited people’s ability to feast and drink themselves senseless.[iv]

Drunkenness was also just one vice European observers bestowed upon the Russians. Idolatry, wife-beating, sodomy, and occasional instances of cannibalism likewise make an appearance in European accounts, often sensationalising the customs of this ‘rude and barbarous’ kingdom.[v] While alcohol, and its consumption, were neither exclusive nor excessive to the Russians, its use and purpose in diplomatic practice, for instance, still present a worthwhile historical investigation. In this blog post, I draw attention to some of my preliminary findings on the role of alcohol and drinking rites in Muscovite diplomatic ceremonies, specifically as expressions of royal hospitality and generosity.

In his Estat de l’Empire de Russie (1607), the Frenchman Jacques Margeret commented on one such element of royal hospitality: ‘serving’.[vi] Margeret remarks that in instances where no official dinner followed a diplomatic reception, food and drink were instead sent from the Tsar’s table to the diplomat’s house. On one such occasion observed by the Frenchman, this procession included a dozen silver vessels (each just under two litres) with different varieties of strong wine, mainly Spanish, followed by eighteen or twenty large jugs filled with mead of different varieties, and two or three wagons of lesser mead for the commoners.[vii] Alongside drink, twelve large goblets and a dozen people, each carrying five or six large drinking bowls, completed the procession. It should be noted that serving could also take place in instances where ambassadors partook in royal dinners. After the dinner, for example, beer and mead could be given to departing ambassadors or sent directly to their houses. While the practice of ‘serving’ had its roots in tradition, it developed as one of the diversified forms of ‘direct’ contact between the Tsar and members of his court. It was likewise not limited to lavish diplomatic receptions or large-scale feasts and was used for events with fewer guests. It fulfilled a similar function in a diplomatic setting.

Sbitenshchik (seller of sbiten). An old postcard based on lithography from the ‘Russian Type’ Series. Photo: Anna P., ‘Lori’ Photo Bank.

In addition to ‘serving’, another distinct aspect of Russian (and broadly Eastern) diplomatic ceremonial was the provision of accommodation, transport, and victuals for visiting diplomats. Here, we will focus on the royal instructions concerning the drink provision. The provision began as soon as the visiting embassy entered Russia and continued until it left Russian lands. The quantity and quality of drink were determined based on precedence and the rank of the visiting diplomats, though it could fluctuate as a mark of royal (dis)favour. The daily provision of alcohol for Sir John Merrick (English Ambassador Extraordinary) in 1614, for instance, dictated that the ambassador was to receive four charki (equivalent to ½ litre) of bread wine (polugar), one cup of grape wine, three cups of assorted mead, 1 ½ buckets of lesser mead and one bucket of beer.[viii] The five royal gentlemen accompanying the ambassador were each given four charki of lesser wine, a cup of mead, ¾ of a bucket of lesser mead and ½ a bucket of beer. The ambassador’s servants, twenty-five individuals, each received a daily provision of two charki of wine and ½ a bucket of beer. In practice, however, Russian officials struggled to fulfil this requirement, partly due to ongoing Cossack raids and the fact that a few weeks before Merrick’s arrival, several other visiting and returning embassies had travelled through the same route. The ambassador had also refused to accept monetary compensation in place of a decreased provision. The resolution was to hurry the ambassadorial party towards Moscow. Thirty years earlier, the complaints of another English ambassador, Sir Jerome Bowes, about his inadequate provision resulted in a new list, which consisted of 4 ½ gallons of cherry and raspberry mead, half a gallon of ‘burnt wine’ (brandy), 25 gallons of assorted mead and 19 gallons of beer.[ix]

It is tempting to view these provisions as evidence of Russian fondness for drink. However, I would argue that the provision’s primary purpose was not to supply the diplomats with plenty of drink but to display the Russian sovereign’s generosity and hospitality, which was a direct reflection of his brotherly love for his English royal counterpart. There was also the unspoken understanding that the Russian envoys in London were to be accorded the same level of care in reciprocity. This was one of the reasons why by 1621, the Muscovy Company, which was financially responsible for this provision, declared itself disabled by ‘the extraordinarye charges’ of the ambassadors to and from Russia.[x] Tracking the provisions across English embassies, or in comparison to those of other European states, lends itself to a fascinating investigation into the course of Russian foreign policy. The sudden changes in the provisions offer little clues into the political context of each embassy. At the same time, a flurry of letters exchanged between the Ambassadorial Chancellery in Moscow and the local officials of Russian towns each time the dictated provision was in jeopardy emphasises the importance of this ceremony to the Russians. The choice of alcohol is likewise worthy of note since that reserved for the diplomats was to be of the rarest and most expensive variety, at least from the Russian perspective. Wine was an exclusively imported product, while the best mead required 10-15 years of production.

By Dr Tatyana Zhukova, University of Edinburgh, UK.

Tatyana is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, where her research focuses on the diplomatic and visual/material culture of Muscovite Russia, c. 1500-1700.


[i] Giles Fletcher, ‘Of the Russe Commonwealth’ in Lloyd E. Berry and Robert O. Crummey (eds), Rude and Barbarous Kingdom: Russia in the Accounts of Sixteenth-Century English Voyagers (Madison, WI.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972), pp. 109-246 (p. 242).

[ii] ‘The voyage of M. Anthony Ienkinson into Russia […], Anno 1557’, in Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiqves and Discoveries of the English Nation, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), pp. 413-25 (p. 423).

[iii] See for example R.E.F. Smith and D. Christian, Bread and Salt: A Social and Economic History of Food and Drink in Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Mark Forsyth, A Short History of Drunkenness (London: Penguin Books, 2018).

[iv] For example, see Igor Kurukin and Elena Nikulina, “Gosudarevo kabatskoe delo”: Ocherki piteinoi politiki i traditsii v Rossii (Moscow: Ast Liuks, 2005).

[v] See Berry and Crummey (eds), Rude and Barbarous Kingdom.

[vi] Jacques Margeret, Estat de l’Empire de Russie et de Grand Duché de Moscovie (Paris, 1607). For an English translation, see Jacques Margeret, The Russian Empire and Grand Duchy of Muscovy: a 17th century French account, trans. and ed. Chester S.L. Dunning (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983).

[vii] Margeret, Estat de l’Empire de Russie (Paris, 1669, reprinted 1821), pp. 103-5.

[viii] The Ambassadorial Chancellery Book on Anglo-Russian relations (1614-1617), RGADA, fond 35, opis’ 1, d. 4, fos. 50v-51v.

[ix] ‘A briefe discourse of the voyage of Sir Jerome Bowes knight […] to […] the Emperour of Muscovia, in the yeere 1583’, in Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiqves and Discoveries of the English Nation, Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), pp. 315-29 (pp. 322-23).

[x] Sir Thomas Smith to Sir Albert Morton, 25 October 1621, The National Archives, Kew, SP 14/123, f. 81r.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (November 23, 2022). Drink and Diplomacy at the Muscovite Court. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uh


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