Growling the very purest Russian: Punch and Tsar Nicholas I’s visit to London in 1844

Milosz K. Cybowski received his PhD at the University of Southampton. His thesis (The Polish Questions in British Politics and Beyond, 1830-1847) discussed political and public reactions to the widely defined questions of Polish independence and Polish refugees who started arriving in Britain after the failed anti-Russian November Uprising (1830-31). Currently, he is an independent researcher working on a research project (funded by August Cieszkowski Foundation) devoted to the subject of British public opinion and its reaction to the question of Poland in the long nineteenth century. You can contact Milosz at mkcybowski@zoho.com

As Marion Spielmann noted in his history of Punch, no one ‘has been too exalted or too powerful for [Punch’s] attack’.[1] From the very beginning the journal made fun of British nobility, MPs, ministers, not even sparing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It should not surprise that Punch was even less restrained when it came to foreign monarchs. The case of Tsar Nicholas I’s visit to Britain in mid-1844 is one of the most intriguing ones. Punch’s reaction was a mixture of its usual, merciless caricature and strongly anti-Russian sentiment which had been growing in Britain for over a decade.

Among the events which led to growth of nineteenth century British Russophobia was beyond doubt the outbreak and the failure of anti-Russian Polish Revolution (known also as the November Uprising) of 1830-31. British public opinion remained strongly pro-Polish throughout the whole struggle and continued to express its sympathy even after the eventual defeat of the Revolution. At the same time the Poles (many of whom sought refuge in France and Britain) willingly supplied British press with information about Russian atrocities in Poland. While it did not lead to change of British foreign policy (as the Polis exiles hoped), it certainly made a strong impact on the way in which British public perceived Russia.

Until 1844 Punch did not had too many occasions to express any pro-Polish or anti-Russian feelings. When the first rumours of Nicholas I’s possible visit to Britain began circulating in London in first half of 1844, Punch suggested that, should it become true, the Tsar “should have guard of honour composed of Polish refugees, and an offering from English Jews – a dinner in the Minories”.[2] Soon it also informed that “a bear (late the property of Mr. Cross) is already under the tuition of certain Polish refugees at Camden Town, in order to welcome the autocrat with a most affectionate hug”.[3]

Shortly before the Tsar’s arrival, Punch published “Rules. To be observed by the English People on occasion of the Visit of his Imperial Majesty, Nicholas, Emperor of all the Russians”. The magazine urged Englishmen to be polite and welcoming, offering the guest “a politeness so frigid… that the Autocrat shall consider himself in Siberia”. Every sign of sympathy or enthusiasm towards Nicholas I should be punished. Moreover:

“[h]e will be dropping his money, snuff-boxes, brooches, orders, and what not, wherever he goes. Money costs him nothing, remember, and he can afford to lavish it. Friends, Countrymen, swear with Punch! – Carry every shilling the man leaves to the Polish Fund. Remember what is the hand that offers those honours. Don’t touch his money. Hand it over to Lord Dudley Stuart.”[4]

It was only the beginning of a series of mocking, anti-Russian articles. Among them we can find “Toasts and sentiments for the Emperor of Russia” (with such suggestions as “Universal Despotism”, “The Extermination of the Poles” and “Long Life and Misery to the Exiles of Siberia”),[5] “The Royal Arrivals” (a detailed presentation of Nicholas I’s arrival to Britain)[6] and “Sights seen by Nicholas”. The last piece was an imagined tour around London by Nicholas I and friendly policeman, who took him to Punch’s office, the sheriff’s court and the Court of Queen’s Bench. In all this places the visiting monarch was acquainted with examples of British liberties: freedom of press, trial by jury and a motion made for a writ of habeas corpus. Thankful for his assistance, the Tsar presented to his guide “a gold snuffbox, filled with sovereigns”. The “noble fellow”, faithful to Punch’s appeals, “immediately sent both box and sovereigns to Lord Dudley Stuart, to be devoted to the Poles”.[7]

These were, however, mere overtures to two highly interesting articles. The first one, “A Plot! Russia’s trousers”, was based on a real event which resulted in an arrest of a Polish exile, Count Antoni Ostrowski, under suspicion that he was “making use of violent and threatening language respecting the Emperor of Russia, to the effect that he would assassinate His Majesty by shooting him the first time he should have an opportunity”.[8] According to Ostrowski’s own account (published in the Morning Chronicle and quoted by Punch[9]), after finding out that his tailor, Mr. Inkson, was making a pair of trousers for the Tsar, Ostrowski said, “in a jocular manner, he should like to have the trying of them on”. Punch mused that the tailor “saw no difference between his jokes and bullets; they were of one and the same material”. It concluded that:

“[t]he historical moral of all this is, let no man joke on the trousers of emperors. They are serious, solemn things, not to be lightly spoken of”.[10]

Nicholas I’s visit to the Zoological Gardens gave Punch the opportunity to present a long conversation between the Tsar and “Russia’s bear” residing there. Upon seeing the emperor, “the sagacious beast began to growl the very purest Russian, and was answered in its native sounds by Nicholas”. The bear warned Nicholas I of “those rascally newspapers” and public opinion, but the tsar had a ready answer to all warnings, which were, in fact, a vicious critique of British upper classes and their conduct. “I know them” said the Tsar,

“They abuse me when I’m at St. Petersburgh, but they love rank too well when it comes to them to question its little failings. If the Prince of Darkness himself were to come as a Prince, there are plenty of people there – high ones, too – to cheer him for his horns and tail.”

When the bear pointed out that knowledge of persecution of Poles in Russia was well known in London, the Tsar was unfazed and, referring to his visit at Ascot, he observed that “John Bull at such a time doats too much upon horse-flesh to think of the flesh of a few thousands of men, women and children”. Even thePolish Ball, with Lady Palmerston being ‘the most devoted supporter’ of the event,[11] did not worry the Tsar. “I shall talk to the Lady Patronesses, and offer to give them any money for their very benevolent purpose” he replied to the bear’s question.

01

Nicholas I’s subscription of 500 guineas yearly for a cup for Ascot races was welcomed with similarly ironical approach which attacked both English society and the Tsar himself. “Surely a donation of 500 guineas annually is an all-redeeming act of virtue. We would canonise a Nero on the strength of it” Punch mused. The magazine felt a necessity to offer its own project of the Emperor’s Cup, which consisted of all possible symbols of Russian atrocities. It included a skull, small models of the knout, engravings with groups of exiles, corporal punishment, deportation of Jews and weeping Polish women.

While anti-Russian feelings were visible in all Punch’s publications relating to Nicholas I’s visit to Britain, these articles were not written in order to present further criticism of Russian conduct in the Kingdom of Poland. It had been done many times before in various publications, pro-Polish events and parliamentary debates. Instead, Punch presented and ridiculed British reactions. As the magazine illustrated, British public was capable of, on the one hand, despising Russian atrocities in Poland, and, on the other, welcoming the Tsar as if he had nothing to do with them. Punch’s attacks were, therefore, not aimed at Nicholas I’s himself, but at British hypocrisy. As the magazine observed shortly after the visit:

“[f]rom the quantity of jewellery given away by Nicholas on his late visit, it is evident that he thinks the surest way to lead John Bull by the nose, is to put a diamond ring in it”.[12]

***

Further reading:

For a classic study of British Russophobia, see J. H. Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain (Oxford, 1950). The only monograph devoted to the subject of the November Uprising available in English is R. F. Leslie, Polish Politics and the Revolution of November 1830 (London, 1956). For a brief overview of british interest in Poland see L. Lewitter, ‘The Polish Cause as Seen in Great Britain, 1830-1863’, Oxford Slavonic Papers, 28 (1995), pp. 35-61.

Works Cited:

[1] M. H. Spielmann, The History of “Punch” (London, 1895), p. 3.

[2] Punch, or the London Charivari, VI (London, 1843), p. 124.

[3] Punch, VI, p. 130.

[4] Ibid., p. 243. From the early 1830s Lord Dudley Stuart, the vice-president of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland, was widely recognised as the most dedicated supporter of the cause of Poland and Polish refugees in Britain.

[5] Ibid., p. 244.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 251.

[8] The Times, 8 June 1844.

[9] I was unable to locate the original article.

[10] Punch, VI, p. 253.

[11] Lord Dudley Stuart to Władysław Zamoyski, 16 May 1844. Jenerał Zamoyski (Poznań, 1914), IV, pp. 322-323. Polish Balls were organised annually from the early 1840s at the London Guildhall, but none of the previous ones attracted so much attention.

[12] Punch, IV, p. 262.

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