In the early modern period, different branches of international trade were controlled by large groups of merchants linked in a single company with its own charter, monopoly rights, membership, directors, and regulations. The Russia Company (also known as the Muscovy Company), founded in the mid-sixteenth century, was one of many such organizations in England. It was the first company to be organized on a joint-stock basis, thus laying the foundations for one of the most important forms of economic association and investment in the West. In addition, through its discovery of a viable water route to Russia (the White Sea or Archangel route) and its establishment of direct, regular trade with Russia, the Russia Company introduced an important new element into Western international trade and relations in general. Prior to the company's arrival, Russia's relations with the West were almost nonexistent. Russia was truly at the far periphery of Europe, both physically and conceptually. The Russia Company's activities brought Russia into the Western orbit.
The Russia Company's trade revolved around several key commodities. Its main export to Russia was woolen cloth, the staple of English foreign trade for centuries. Because of its cost, the market for English cloth was largely limited to the elite segments of Russian society, beginning with the tsar's household. Metals were another important export, particularly from the perspective of Russian state interests. England, a major exporter of metals in this period, appears to have provided mine-deficient Russia with substantial quantities of iron, copper, and lead for use in weapons manufacture. These exports were supplemented by armaments of all kinds. Exports of gold and silver went primarily to the Russian treasury, largely for the purpose of minting the country's currency. Russian commodities handled by the Russia Company revolved heavily around products needed in the construction, outfitting, and refurbishing of ships (i.e., tar, hemp, flax, cordage, and timber). The key commodity for the Russia Company was cordage (ropes), which it produced on site in Russia. The English navy and shipping industry and other trading companies were important customers for Russian cordage. Besides cordage, the company also traded in fine Russian leather (yufti ), tallow, and potash. Russian caviar, already a renowned delicacy in the sixteenth century, was shipped by the company to Italian ports and the Ottoman Empire.
According to traditionally accepted views, The Russia Company's considerable success in Russia in the second half of the sixteenth century was followed by decline to near oblivion by the beginning of the seventeenth century, largely as a result of strong Dutch competition in the Russian market. A comprehensive reexamination of company activities, however, challenges this long-held view, providing evidence of a substantial English presence and trade in Russia into the 1640s, Dutch activities notwithstanding. According to this revised view, the company's very success in an atmosphere of growing Russian merchant opposition to foreign competition accounts for the abrogation of the company's trade privileges in Russia in 1646 and its expulsion from the country in 1649, events that brought to an end a historic century of Anglo-Russian trade and relations.
See also: caviar; foreign trade; merchants; trade routes
Phipps, Geraldine M. (1983). Sir John Merrick, English Merchant-Diplomat in Seventeenth Century Russia. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.
Salomon Arel, Maria. (1999). "Masters in Their Own House: The Russian Merchant Elite and Complaints against the English in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century," Slavonic and East European Review 77:401–47.
Willan, Thomas S. (1956). The Early History of the Russia Company, 1553–1603. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Maria Salomon Arel
J. A. Cannon