The English national team beat the odds and made it to the semifinals of the World Cup. Their success comes at one of the tensest moments in Russian-British relations in living memory. Any England fan may feel a little out of place donning St. George’s cross and singing “God Save the Queen” amid the onion domes and Cyrillic lettering of the Russian capital.
But the fact is that England has been a significant part of Moscow’s history since the 16th century. The historical saga involves a spurned marriage proposal, the swankiest gentleman’s club in Moscow and the invention of art nouveau. Three architectural spots spanning four centuries represent the long history of England in Moscow and may leave England fans feeling more at home than they expected.
Old English Court, 1550s-1640s
Nestled under the Kremlin’s shadow on Varvarka Ulitsa, the Old English Court is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Moscow. The 16th-century Tudor mansion with its thatched roof seems out of place on a street otherwise crowded with onion-domed churches. Passersby may feel as if they have time-traveled into a hybrid of Elizabethan England and Tsarist Russia.
This isn’t far from the truth. In 1553, English navigator Richard Chancellor blundered while searching for a naval passage to China and India, and instead arrived smack dab in an entirely different country: Russia. When Tsar Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, learned of the Englishman’s arrival, he enthusiastically invited him to his court in Moscow for a formal reception.
Chancellor made his way across 1,000 kilometers of ice and snow to reach the tsar’s court. When he finally arrived, Ivan made sure the journey was worth it. Chancellor wrote that the tsar’s palace was literally dripping with precious stones and that the feasts on offer were ambrosial. Chancellor also found it odd that outside the tsar’s golden palace, the enormous city of Moscow (much larger than London) was constructed almost entirely out of rudimentary wooden houses.
The visit was a success, resulting in the establishment of trading routes between the countries. In 1555, the Muscovy Company was founded and the Old English Court was subsequently built as a trading post, home and embassy for English merchants. England traded wool, metal and Mediterranean goods in exchange for Russian hemp, tallow and rope.
Relations between England and Muscovy were sweltering, making Ivan IV so bold as to ask for Queen Elizabeth I’s hand in marriage. He hoped that the marriage would provide him political asylum in case surrounding countries encroached on Russian territory. The Virgin Queen coolly declined his proposal. She told him that he could come to England if he wanted, but would have to pay his own passage. Ivan never made it to England.