Russia and the Russian Court in the Reports of European Diplomats, 1690-1730

The reigns of Peter I and his immediate successors stand for dramatic changes and constitutional crises. In foreign policy this was a key period in Russia as it saw the emergence of a diplomatic network which had already been in place in other European countries. In the rest of Europe, interest in the Czarist Empire had already increased significantly due to its increasing relevance in the 17th century, the beginning of Peter I’s reign in 1689 and his “Grand Embassy” in 1697/98 served as a catalyst for engaging in foreign relations. The narrative of a “Europeanization” of Russia is being questioned in the most recent research but it remains without a doubt that the Russian court became part of the public sphere which linked the European courts. The Russian court was closely connected to the other courts in matters including domestic, foreign, and marriage policies. Even more so than in the other absolutist European monarchies political, societal, and cultural life in Russia were dominated by the court. The newly founded capital of Saint Petersburg served as a stage for Peter I and his successors to enact the “Europeanization” of Russia. This was by no means simply an adoption of European ideals without any Russian traditions but rather an adaptation which at times turned into a conscious parody. After the death of the reformer Peter I, Russia entered a dynastic crisis which would last for decades and in the eyes of the West the court in Petersburg became a sight of singular events.

Russia around 1700 is a particularly interesting case for research and comparative studies to test results that have been established using Western European examples and to evaluate models from recent research on political and courtly culture. At the same time, research on this era has to deal with a limited amount of local written sources: Oral narration was dominant among the Russian upper class around 1700 and as a result very few written accounts of the events at the court in Saint Petersburg and its culture and politics are available. Consequently, the reports sent by foreign diplomats from Saint Petersburg to their home courts serve as vital sources for this crucial era of European history. They describe central aspects of Russian reality: Politics, trade, military, and, more than anything else, life, relationships, and intrigues at the court.

Due to the scientific value of these reports, some of them were already published by historians of the time of the late Czarist Empire. This includes first and foremost French, British, and Saxon reports, less so those from Prussia and Habsburg or from smaller courts of the Holy Roman Empire such as Holstein, which had a close dynastic relationship with Russia. This project of the GHI Moscow is continuing this editorial work from the 19th and 20th centuries applying new measures: The corpus of sources has been extended and modern standards on critical editions as well as modern information processing are being used: In technical cooperation with the University of Trier this large collection of files from German and Austrian archives (written in Latin, German, French, Italian, and Russian) are presented in an edited and commented version free of charge on “Perspectivia”, the data base for the Max Weber Foundation, including registers for names, places, and objects to facilitate the use for scientific purposes.