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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Natural Allies

One of the oldest buildings in Moscow is a small late-medieval house that has traditionally been known as the English Embassy. It is reputedly where the Ambassadors sent by Queen Mary I [Mary Tudor] stayed when they had made the overland journey to Moscow from Archangel, the northerly port to which they had made a hazardous voyage right round Scandinavia. At that time, the Swedish empire cut Russia off from the Baltic; making the far north the only maritime access to European Russia. To this day the Kremlin exhibits superb pieces of Tudor silver: ambassadorial gifts brought for the Tsars by Ambassadors from Mary and later from Elizabeth I [to whom Ivan the Terrible proposed marriage as the firmest form of alliance that could be forged]. While Elizabeth was conscious of the relative isolation of her protestant regime in western Europe, she recognised affinity with the almost-landlocked empire of Muscovy and possibilities for joint working were sketched out.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century contacts were maintained intermittently, while England established the first overseas empire, and Russia concentrated on consolidating its territory and probing for expansion into central Asia. When the gigantic Peter I - the Great - decided to break out into Europe via the Baltic Sea, he decided that he must learn about ships and navies: so he travelled under a very flimsy incognito to western Europe. He learned about military science in Germany and France, then about shipbuilding and naval operations in the Netherlands and England where he spend many months working in the Deptford shipyard. Returning to Russia, he decreed that a muddy estuary in the northwest corner of European Russia should become a port and the capital city: bringing in architects and engineers to the new St Petersburg to make his dream a reality. Then by waging war successively against Sweden and Turkey he opened coastal access to the Baltic and the Black Sea.

During the eighteenth century Britain expanded as a global economic power by the processes of trade and colonisation, all based on marine trade and a strong navy; and Russia emerged as a power by virtue of fabulous wealth in natural resources as it spread its sovereignty over more of the Eurasian continental mass. Right at the end of the century, revolutionary France - especially after Napoleon took power - found that their emergence as the predominating power in Europe was threatened by Britain and by Russia. Napoleon's Moscow campaign was a disaster on land which was even greater than the catastrophic destruction of French and Spanish naval power at Trafalgar. Britain and Russia triumphed globally: Britain compensated for the loss of the United States by consolidating power in India, settling Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and adding a network of coastal colonies in all the continents.

Then began the 'Great Game': as the British Raj spread northward towards Afghanistan, Russia was capturing colonies in Central Asia and was shortly to establish colonies adjacent to Afghanistan. By 1850 colonial rivalry in Asia also spread to the Turkish empire. Russia wanted to emancipate the millions of fellow-slavs who were Turkish subjects, and also wanted to gain a longer coast on the the Black Sea. Britain and France decided to curb Russia's ambitions in the Balkans and attacked Russia in the Crimean war. That descended into costly stalemate, and was ended in a face-saving peace. By the end of the nineteenth century the British and the French recognised in Russia their natural ally for the containment of a newly-united and aggressive Germany. Then came the tragedy of the First World War: which I will examine next.

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