In 1581 Antonio Posevino, papal legate and member of the Order of Jesuits, paid an official visit to Moscow. As the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin writes in A History of the Russian State, the main goal of the visit was “to unite the Faith and forces of all Christian states against the Ottomans” (Turks) as well as to assess the possibility of converting the Grand Prince Ivan Vasilyevich (the Terrible) and his subjects to the Latin faith (Catholicism). Naturally, the Italian diplomats’ efforts at the Muscovite court ended in a complete fiasco. But greatly impressed by his journey, the inquisitive Posevino published a few tracts, including Muscovy, which was published 420 years ago (1586) and is still highly regarded by historians. In his writings Posevino also used the travel notes of Pablo Campani, a member of the delegation, who knew Slavic languages.
Below are some notes made by these two educated 16th-century Italians, who visited Muscovy (as Russia was called at the time).
“The local people, called Muscovites, inhabit vast expanses from the extreme borders of Europe and Asia to the last northern frontier where people can live. In general, it is an unfriendly country, in many places there are no inhabitants, and the land is uncultivated. In addition, it is surrounded by enormous deserts and virgin forests.
“Neither envoys nor merchants of other nations, who arrive in Muscovy only with the Prince’s consent, are allowed to freely travel across the entire country, and in Moscow they seem to be under honorary arrest. Special people closely watch what they do and, especially, who they speak with. We and our servants were confined to our living quarters and could not even go out to water the horse. The Muscovites, in turn, were forbidden to approach and communicate with the Roman envoys. And whenever a letter was sent to the envoys, the Prince would either withhold it from us or ask us to translate it into Russian in order to be in the picture.
“The Muscovites can only travel to other countries by decree of the authorities. The Prince does not want his subjects to know anything other than their tsar and their land, and he does not allow traveling abroad even for studies.
“Every time after the Grand Prince has spoken to foreign envoys, he washes his hands in a silver bowl that is placed on a bench for all to see, as if performing a rite of purification. This makes the courtiers and other noblemen, who usually attend the reception in large numbers, feel further alienation from and disgust with us, Westerners. “The Muscovites show a very hostile attitude to the Latin church. The phrase ‘Latin faith’ is the strongest curse they use for their enemies. Meanwhile, the boyars once asked the envoys of the Roman pope, on behalf of their Sovereign, to explain the difference between the Catholic and the Orthodox faiths in writing. We also saw that, by tradition, Muscovy is extremely dependent in religious matters on Rus’, which is currently ruled by the Polish king: very recently the Kyivan metropolitan of the Ruthenian faith ordained some Muscovite bishops.
“In Muscovy a person who has memorized the Slavic letters is considered an extremely learned person. Very few people know the Lord’s Prayer, and almost no one knows the Symbol of Faith, the Ten Commandments, and the Holy Virgin, which is small wonder, because there is not a single collegium or academy there: there are only some kinds of schools, where boys learn to read and write. And if somebody wishes to take up advanced studies, he will not avoid suspicions and will not remain unpunished. For this reason, even the Bull of Union drawn up by Pope Eugene IV (Florentine Union) and handed over by us in the original was of little use in Muscovy, although it was written in Latin, Greek, and Ruthenian. (The papal envoys use the word “Ruthenian” to designate the language of the forebears of present-day Ukrainians, who at the time were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth-Auth.) For the number of local residents who know Latin (barring a few doctors at the Prince’s court) does not exceed three, and they are all Poles.
“Since childhood, the Muscovites, having obtained this instruction from the hands of their forebears, are accustomed to replying to all our questions thus: ‘Only God and the Great Sovereign know this,’ ‘Our Great Sovereign knows everything himself,’ ‘He can undo all knots and difficulties with a single word,’ ‘There is no religion, rite, or dogma that he does not know,’ and ‘No matter what we have when we achieve success and feel good, all this we have by the grace of the Great Sovereign.’
“The Grand Prince constantly seeks to demonstrate his grandeur. It can even be said that to the glorification of his person he has transferred even that which belongs to the veneration of God. The Prince wears a tiara richly bejeweled with pearls and precious stones, and not just one. He either keeps them with him when he is sitting on the throne or wears them on his head. He is dressed in a very long article of clothing that reaches the ankles, almost like the one worn by the popes when they hold a solemn liturgy; on his fingers are many rings with huge precious stones. In his arrogance, the Prince cannot endure being compared with others, and whenever envoys mention the names of powerful Christian sovereigns, he flies into a rage and shouts, ‘Who are they are in our world!’
“We soon understood that much of what we said the so-called interpreters translated to Grand Prince Ivan not according to the essence but with abridgements and often without any sense. They omitted everything that, in their opinion, will be unpleasant for the sovereign and thus constitutes a danger to them.
“No matter how influential a Muscovite might be, on the slightest suspicion of treason, they immediately execute the suspect, his family, servants, and people who are not involved. They are usually drowned in water or flogged to death. This is why servility and terror reign supreme everywhere, and no one dares even to open his mouth. Accustomed to enslavement since their childhood, the Muscovites seem to have changed their nature: they extol their tsar even when he tortures them. Moreover, they do not envy the life of other nations because they know nothing about this.”
The apogee of the visit to Moscow was the well-known debate “On Faith” between the legates of Pope Gregory XIII and the Grand Prince, in which the latter made four accusations against Catholicism: the pope is carried in a chair; he wears a cross on his feet (footwear); he shaves his beard; and considers himself divine. The sovereign replied to all the envoys’ arguments with indignation and shouts. Nevertheless, the next day he said that, in spite of the differences of faith, he desires fraternity and union with the Western Christian sovereigns and plans to send an envoy to Rome. But this was mere rhetoric: a serious anti-Ottoman alliance of Catholics and Orthodox was never formed.