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Home | Studying Russia | M. S. Anderson Collection of Writings on Russia Printed Between 1525 and 1917

M. S. Anderson Collection of Writings on Russia Printed Between 1525 and 1917

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The M. S. Anderson Collection of Writings on Russia Printed Between 1525 and 1917 documents western European perceptions of Russia between 1525, when Paolo Giovio wrote his Libellus de legatione Basilii Magni Principis Moschouiae ad Clementem VII, Pont. Max., and 1917.

Senate House LibrariesSenate House LibrariesIt comprises approximately 1,850 titles collected between about 1964 and 2004 by Matthew Smith Anderson, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, and given to the University of London by his Trustees in 2008. Travel narratives and other personal accounts of time spent in Russia form a major component of the Collection. Other significant subjects are Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Eastern Question, and various wars, especially the Crimean War. Broader histories are present, and the Collection includes works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction.

The Collection includes works in a variety of languages and forms. A particular strength is the number of translations it contains, indicating the spread of interest in works about Russia and the sharing of perceptions across Europe.


Travel writing about Russia began with an account of Moscow by the Austrian diplomat Sigmund von Herberstein, who first visited Russia in 1517 and published his description of the country in 1549.

The description of the Countrie of RussiaThe description of the Countrie of RussiaIt continued in the Elizabethan Age primarily with the accounts of Englishmen, notably Giles Fletcher (1591), whose information pervaded many later descriptions. Early modern travellers to and writers about Russia were primarily diplomats. They were hindered by the unfriendliness of the Russian people, difficulties of movement, and, in most cases, ignorance of the Russian language. 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 derivative.

Peter the Great’s foreign travel and contacts sparked interest in Russia in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and Catherine the Great encouraged German scientific writers in its last four decades. Some of the physicians, military men and professionals whom Peter encouraged 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’. 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, and the standpoint was one of superiority. Only in the early nineteenth century were detailed and substantial accounts published about the Crimea. The nineteenth century saw missionaries, such as Robert Pinkerton, join the ranks of travel writers.

Perceptions of Russia were European rather than national, with considerable translation of texts and with plagiarism both of texts and illustrations. From the sixteenth century until well into the nineteenth century western Europeans saw Russia as a vast, cold Asian land, peopled by backward, uncultured peasants with an inordinate love of drinking, ruled by a (sometimes enlightened) despot.

Travel accounts in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch form a substantial component of the M. S. Anderson Collection. Many – not all – are illustrated. They include well-known and obscure works from the sixteenth century to the Collection’s cut-off point of 1917. The items selected for display are landmarks of travel literature from the handpress era of printing.


An interest in costume has been part of the interest in Russian customs and manners since the first descriptions of travels to Russia appeared in the sixteenth century, demonstrating both the perceived quaintness of Russia and diversity across its vast territory. Because of its visual impact, illustration of costume, sometimes copied between books, has been a selling point even of works whose texts show little interest in it, both books by travellers to Russia and derivative descriptions. In addition to informing about an exotic country, they document developments in techniques of book illustration.


Peter the Great

Peter I of Russia, self-styled ‘the Great’, was tsar of Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725. He aimed to modernise Russia. To that end he centralised the government, enlarged, modernised and professionalised the army, introduced a standing army and created a navy. He subordinated the church to the state, kick-started economic reform, and founded St Petersburg, modelled on Amsterdam. Educationally, he founded schools and insisted upon all Russian children of a certain rank learning elementary mathematics and geometry. He encouraged Russian noblemen to visit western Europe, leading by example, and wanted the young and educated to westernise, even to the extent of shaving their beards. Westerners could not but be aware of him. In England, which he visited in 1698, he met William III and was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. He established permanent Russian consuls in all the significant capital cities of Europe. In the words on the back cover of M.S. Anderson’s Peter the Great (second edition, 1978):

Peter the GreatThe description of the Countrie of RussiaPeter the Great is one of the dominating personalities of early modern Europe. During his reign (1682/89-1725) Russia emerged from semi-Asiatic isolation on the remote fringes of the western world to become a great political and military power in her own right, and, for the first time, a principal actor on the European stage.

M.S. Anderson owned approximately fifty titles either about specifically Peter the Great or with substantial content pertaining to him, beginning with Foy de la Neuville’s eye-witness Account of Muscovy, as it was in the Year 1689  in both French (1698) and English (1699), and ending with a work of fiction for boys about Peter I’s youth, Frederick Whishaw’s The Lion Cub (1916). The bulk of the items are from the eighteenth century. Over one half of the titles are in English, with nearly one-third in French, and others in German, Dutch, Italian, Latin and Russian. Typically for the M. S. Anderson Collection as a whole, the books include several works in translation, with or without the original, and works in two or more editions. They provide an excellent source not only for the history of Russia under Peter the Great but also of historiography.


Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great (1729-1796) became Empress of Russia following the dethronement and murder of her husband, Peter III, in 1762, and made Russia one of the great economic and military powers of Europe. Under her, the Russian Empire expanded by 200,000 square miles to absorb among other areas the Crimea, the Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. Catherine pioneered for Russia a role as a mediator in European disputes and tied Russian interests inextricably with western European ones. She was a patron of the arts, literature and education, cultivating major French Enlightenment thinkers (most notably, Voltaire) and importing German mathematicians and scientists to work under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Administratively, she reformed local government, increasing the number of provinces and of government officials and decentralizing several important powers.

Catherine the Great Catherine the GreatCatherine wanted to be seen as an enlightened sovereign and to a large extent succeeded. Early on she was seen in western Europe as the heir to the policies and aspirations of Peter the Great, a politically progressive monarch civilising an immense semi-barbaric nation. Contemporary historians widely admired her, especially in France, although some criticised her personal morals, the way she gained power, and the corruption of some of her officials. They disregarded her extension of serfdom.

Catherine excited extensive literature by writers of her own day and of succeeding generations although, to use M.S. Anderson’s phrase, ‘the proportion of gold to dross is low’ between anecdotal, gossipy and sometimes scandalous accounts and serious studies of important aspects of her reign which relegated her to the background. The M. S. Anderson Collection contains nine titles by Catherine II, printed between 1772 and 1859, and some fifty titles about her. These range from biographies and histories of her reign to a eulogistic poem, imaginary conversations between her, Peter the Great, Louis XVI of France and Frederick II of Prussia, and a novel of 1899, The Turkish Automaton.


The Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars took place between approximately 1803 (immediately after the French Revolutionary Wars) and 1815, between Napoleon’s French Empire and changing sets of European allies. French forces routed the Russians ignominiously at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, and defeated them at Friedland on 14 June 1807, driving them out of Poland and forcing Tsar Alexander I to sign the Treaty of Tilsit on 7 July 1807. The tide turned when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. He entered the country with over 400,000 men and came out with barely 20,000 survivors (numbers vary), conquered by skilful Russian raids and ambushes, illness, hunger, snowstorms and appalling physical conditions. The Russian campaign marked the turning point in Napoleon’s fate.

Britain remained against France throughout the period of the Napoleonic Wars. This rendered her pro-Russian, except for the period of the Anglo-Russian War, 1807-12. In the long term, the Russian defeat of Napoleon forced Britain to face Russia’s strength and power as never before, and Russia was seen as a political threat. In the short term, Britain reacted to the Russian victory of 1812 with delight and admiration. The Russian rout of Napoleon was the source for many poems, dramas and non-fiction narratives.

The M. S. Anderson Collection contains some 46 items specifically about the Napoleonic Wars published between 1806 and 1910: drama, poetry, a diary, personal narratives and more general histories, some of them by participants in the Wars.

Captain Hamilton Roche

Captain Hamilton Roche

Over 40 per cent of these were written before 1816, during the Wars. Most are in English or French, but there is also a German background work on Russia and even some Dutch reminiscences.


The Crimean War

Exterior of hut in the camp

The Crimean War took place between 1854 and 1856 between Russia on the one hand and Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and, later, the Kingdom of Sardinia on the other. Its goal was to defend Turkish territory against Russia and safeguard Turkish independence; its immediate result was Russian defeat, although the Eastern Question concerning influence over the Ottoman Empire, of which the Crimean War was but a part in what was already a long-running contest, rumbled on until after the First World War. Major events of the Crimean War included the Battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and the Sieges of Sevastopol and Kars.

While anti-Russian feeling was lukewarm in France, in Britain it was virulent. The Crimean War was the first major European war to take place in the era of book mechanisation and cheap print. It excited numerous publications: personal reminiscences by military and medical personnel and others of both sexes and various nationalities, diaries, letters, pamphlets, parliamentary papers, histories of Russia generally and the War specifically, maps and fiction. Heightened awareness of Russia furthermore prompted the publication of general books about it. Interest began and was greatest during the War. The publication of memoirs continued, albeit at a markedly reduced level, beyond the end of the nineteenth century. The M. S. Anderson Collection contains 161 items specifically about the Crimean War or episodes of it, predominantly published in the English language before 1861. Authors vary from the well-known (e.g. Sir Austen Henry Layard; Sir Henry Atwell Lake; Sir Howard Douglas) to the obscure.



Allusions to Russia appear in English literature as early as the fourteenth century, the knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales having raided in Lithuania and in Russia -- ‘In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce’ (General Prologue, l. 54). As Elizabethan travellers began to write about Russia, so, too, literary allusions increased. Shakespeare makes a dozen or so references to Russia, and Russian characters or settings appear in works by the seventeenth-century playwrights Thomas Heywood, George Wilkins, John Fletcher and John Crowne. Peter the Great inspired poetry and plays about Russia in the eighteenth century, beginning with Aaron Hill’s The Northern Star (1718). Starting with The Siberian Anecdotes (1783) – which, as noted by M. S. Anderson, shows no acquaintance with the realities of life in Siberia – some novels also appeared. Byron, Robert Southey, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne were major nineteenth-century poets who wrote about Russia.

A marked upsurge of interest in the nineteenth century reflected greater awareness of Russia, now a formidable economic and military power of which through the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars all were aware, combined with a flood of novels and of children’s literature generally and the development of cheap and popular print.

Prose fiction in the M. S. Anderson Collection begins with an example of a very specific genre, imaginary conversations between Catherine the Great and other monarchs, L'Ombre de Catherine II aux Champs Elysées (1797). The earliest novel in the M. S. Anderson Collection, and one of the earliest overall, is the extremely successful children’s book Elizabeth, or, The exiles of Siberia, by Madame Cottin (1806; translated into English 1809). Most novels in the collection date from the 1850s onwards. In form, they range from three-deckers, published at the prohibitive price of thirty-one shillings and sixpence for the full work, to the yellowbacks commonly sold at railway stalls, penny chapbooks, and cheap, lurid novels with small print and woodcut illustrations. Some novels simply use Russia as an exotic backdrop for a religious or a love story. Others are about historical (or sometimes at the time contemporary) people and events, such as Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Crimean and the Russo-Japanese Wars and the First World War. When Britain and Russia faced a common military enemy, in the Napoleonic Wars and in World War One, Russia emerged positively in fiction. For most of the nineteenth century portrayals of Russia in fiction were largely negative, in accordance with popular British Russophobia.

For a detailed description of the collection, see: Karen Attar, ‘The M.S. Anderson Collection of Writings on Russia Printed Between 1525 and 1917: An Introduction’, Solanus, 22 (2011), 63-78.