Samuel Collins, On the Present State of Russia

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Samuel Collins on the Court of Aleksei Mikhailovich (1670)

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Samuel Collins (1619-1670) was an English physician invited in 1660 to serve as the personal physician of the Russian Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich. He spent nine years in Moscow before his death. In 1671 a volume entitled "On the Present State of Russia" was compiled by a publisher from a series of letters written by Collins to Robert Boyle, a well-known English scientist.

I shall now give you a further description of the Czar. He is a goodly person, about six foot high, well set, inclin'd to fat, of a clear complexion, lightish hair, somewhat a low forehead, of a stern countenance, severe in his chastisements, but very careful of his Subjects love. Being urged by a Stranger to make it death for any man to desert his Colours; he answer'd, it was a hard case to do that, for God has not given courage to all men alike. He never appears to the people but in magnificance, and on festivals with wonderful splendor of Jewels and Attendants. He never went to any Subjects house but his Governours when he was thought past all recovery. His Centinels and Guards placed round about his Court, stand like silent and immoveable Statues. No noise is heard in his Pallace, no more than if uninhabited. None but his Domesticks are suffer'd to approach the nward Court, except the Lords that are in Office. He never dines publickly but on Festivals, and then his Nobility dine in his presence. At Easter all the Nobility and Gentry, and Courtiers kiss the Emperours hand, and receive Eggs. Every meal he sends dishes of meat to his Favourites from his own Table. His stores of Corn, and dry'd flesh are very considerable, with these he pays his Strelsies or Janzaries, giving them some cloth, but very little money; for they have all Trades, and great Priviledges.

The Emperour with his Pottash, Wax and Honey, he buys Velvet, Sattin, Damask, cloth of Gold and Broad-cloth, with which he gratifies his Officers for their service. He hath now seven Versts off Moscow, built Work-houses for Hemp and Flax, in that good order, beauty and capacity, that they will employ all the poor in his Kingdom with work. He hath allotted many miles of wast Land for that design. The Czaritza is to govern the womens side for her use and profit. Thus the Czar improves the Manufactures of his Countrey, feeds all the Labourers as cheap as we do our Dogs. And lays up the money that comes out of the Cabacks, Bath stoves, Tarr, Pitch, Hemp, Flax, Honey, Wax, Cariare, Sturgeon, Bellusa, and other salted and dry'd fish from Astracan, Cazan, the Lake Belsira and many other Lakes and Rivers with which the Countrey abounds, especially Syberia in the latter. [....]

Every year towards the latter end of May the Czar goes three miles out of Moscow, to an house of pleasure call'd Obrasausky: In English Transfiguration, being dedicated to the Transfiguration in the Mount. And according to that, Master 'tis good for us to be here, let us make three Tabernacles ; So the Emperour has most magnificent Tents, his own is made of cloth of Gold, lined with Sables. His Czaritsa's with cloth of Silver, lined with Ermines. The Princes according to their degree. His and Czaritsa's, with those of his eleven children and five Sisters, stand in a circle with the Church-Tent in the middle, the most glorous show in its kind that ever I saw. There are Rails and Guards set Musquet shot from them, beyond which no man may pass without order: For the Czar will have none of the vulgar people to be eye-witnesses of his pastimes. Indeed the too near approaches of the common Rabble make discovery of Princes' infirmities, not to say vanities, Majesty is jealous of Gazers. This made Montezume King of Mexico keep his Subjects at such a distance that they aurst not behold him, familiarity breeds contempt, when Princes expose themselves too much unto publick view, they grow cheap, and are little regarded. Therefore in a Theatre, the State is rail'd in, that the Spectators may not crowd upon the Scenes, which show best at a distance. And so it fares with Princes, the more they are reserv'd the more they are observ'd, the more implor'd the more ador'd; otherwise they run a great hazard of being condemn'd, and reckon'd no better than their Subjects, seeing an equal mortality and frailty of flesh attends all men. When the Czargoes into the Country or fields to take his pleasure he gives strict charge that none should interrupt him with Petitions. A Captain of white Russia, and native of that Countrey being three years without pay, and finding no reliefs from Peter Solticove Lord of that Province, came and press'd too near the Czars coach; the Czar perceiving no petition in his hand, suspected he might be an Assassinate, and with his staff (once Cxar Juans) not unlike a dart, intending to push the fellow away, he struck him to the heart, and he died. The Nobility rid up to the coach, and searching what arms the man had, found nothing but a wooden spoon, and a petition for three years Arrears, Whereupon the Czar smote his Breast, saying, I have kill'd an innocent person, but Peter Solticove is guilty of his blood, whom God forgive; and immediatly sending for him, after a severe check, he turn'd him out of his place, banished him from the Court, and appointed Nashockin that great Minister of State to take his Office, and examine and find out the misdemeanours thereof. This hapned in June last, and this action was but whispered, and that too with too much peril of a mans tongue.

In the night season the Czar will go about and visit his Chancellors Desks, and see what Decrees are pass'd, and what Petitions are unanswer'd. He has his spyes in every corner, and nothing is done or said at any Feast, publick Meeting, Burial or Weding but he knows it. He has spyes also attending his Armies to watch their motions, and give a true account of their actions: These spyes are Gentlemen of small fortunes who depend on the Emperours favour and are sent into Armies, and along with Embassadors, and are present on all publick occasions.

'Tis death for any one to reveal what is spoken in the Pallace. I being curious to see the fine buildings for the Flax and Hemp, ask't to what end they were built, but not a Workman durst tell me, though they know it well enough; but they replied, God and the Emperour know best, this was all I could get from them. The Czars children are attended with children of their own bred up with them, and there is none of them but know their distance, and their degrees of bowing to all sorts of persons. None dare speak a word what passes in their Court.

Excepted from Samuel Collins, On the Present State of Russia, (London, 1671) On-line edition edited by Marshall Poe.  Used with permission of the editor.


1. Strelsies. Musketeers. From the Russian Streliat', meaning to shoot. The modern transliteration is Streltsy.
2. Verst. An old Russian unit of measurement. One verst = .66 miles.
3. Caback Taverns. Standard translateration is Kabak.
4. Obrasausky. Collins is referring to the estate known as Preobrazhensky which is located on the outskirts of Moscow.
5. Afanasy Ordin-Nashchokin, (1605-1680). One of the Aleksei Mikhailovich's key advisors during the latter part of his reign.