A Historical Anecdote of How to Say "Screw the British" in Russian

By Leandra Bernstein

In Spencer Cross' morning report, he quotes Vladimir Putin's response to being asked, first, whether Russia is interesting in joining the EU, and second, whether Russia is interested in joining NATO.

To the first Putin said, ""You are offering us a membership in the EU? You should first solve your debt problem." The NATO offer, he declined as well, saying, "We are capable of guaranteeing our security on our own."

I can't help but think about the position Russia found itself in during the Napoleonic Wars--no, not standing back while Napoleon's freezing army ate their own horses--but their attempts at non-engagement in Europe, in particular with Great Britain. The idea, as was a common theme among many Russians from the American war of independence on, was to establish greater economic independence, hurt the British, and put that Mistress of the High Seas in her place.

At the time I don't think the word "neutrality" existed in the English (or at least British) vocabulary, and throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain stubbornly avoided all principled attempts to gain "the freedom of the seas" from HRM--even if it meant stomping on neutrals.

An interesting turn of events took place in October/November 1807 when members of the tsarist government signed a treaty of peace and friendship with France. The Russian government stating that if England refused to conclude an armistice by December 1807 "admitting that the flags of all nations must enjoy equal independence on the high seas, and to return all land seized by conquest from France and her allies since 1805", then Russia would be obliged to "act as one with France" [emphasis added]. In other words, if England did not permit freedom of the seas, the free commerce of neutrals as outlined in treaty of Armed Neutrality, then Russia would be forced to form an alliance against her (however temporary) with France.

So much for Russian neutrality... This led to the break with Great Britain and the complete embargo on British vessels and goods--the which comprised, overall, about 75% of Russian exports and a significant portion of her imports.

Whither to turn? Despite the intrigues in America to engage us on the side of the French against the very principles of Washington's Farewell speech, America was still a neutral and could provide to Russia the colonial goods she could no longer get from Great Britain. It was, in one sense, a practical alliance. In another, the United States was a kind of oasis from the worsening condition of Europe.

So the trade was shifted to the USA, intersecting other problems, including the ongoing impressment of American sailors by both the British and the French--oh, sweet neutrality! The increasing tension of these captures led to our 1807 Embargo in the United States, (...on everything!) forbidding all foreign trade, and the famous, or rather infamous remark of then Treasury Secretary Gallatin to President Jefferson, "I prefer war to a permanent embargo."

Granted, this is a VERY incomplete history and I consider it to be more of an anecdote. But, the thing to highlight, which I thought of after hearing Putin's remarks on joining the EU or NATO, is this former aversion by Russia at the time of the Napoleonic Wars to trade with Great Britain, to in any way participate or promote that empire and her control of international commerce. Did the break hurt Russia? Yes. Did it hurt the British? Hell yes.

But the choice to cut off, even temporarily, the immense British trade opened up a new era of Russian-American relations in circumventing the maelstrom of Europe--as much as was possible for Russia, a European power. Russian Commerce Minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, wrote of the situation with the British in 1805, before the embargo, that: “...England alone remained abundantly in the field of our commerce, and in this position could become the mistress of purchasing prices for our products. Intending to preclude such a disadvantage, I turned my attention toward the United States, to try to engage the Americans in a rivalry with the English, and to try, because of the abundance of their articles needed by us, to establish direct connection between our commerce and the American.”

And all of this was before official relations with Russia began in earnest with the appointment of John Quincy Adams as Ambassador to Russia in 1809--which is another story.

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