Intellectual history

How to Act Friendly: Informal Diplomatic Relationships in 18th-century Russia

By Anastasiia Lystsova

By Anastasiia Lystsova

What was friendship in the eighteenth century? What did people mean when referring to each other as friends? What kind of sources might shed some light on these questions? Without a doubt, the question “what is friendship?” is always intriguing since it is as much a part of our everyday life as it was for people who lived in previous epochs. It would be anachronistic, however, to conceptualize friendship centuries ago in the same way that we would today. Though many historiographical works are devoted to trying to answer this question, most of them deal with the question’s theoretical dimensions. A far smaller number of works investigate the concept of friendship on a micro-historical level, mostly via case studies. One explanation for this disparity in focus could be the simple lack of primary sources since friendship is so frequently constituted by verbal interpersonal connections rather than by written remarks.

It is especially fair to say that this was the case in previous centuries, when writing culture was not quite as expansive as it is today. For instance, the genre of memoirs and diaries only emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In some countries, including the Russian Empire, they became popular only by the end of the eighteenth century. For historians of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century, it is not a stretch to say that there are not many ego-documents that might shed some light on friendship or other intimate relationships in the early modern period. In light of the near-absence of memoirs, diaries, and other such sources, letters serve as particularly rich material for defining the concept of friendship between the courtiers in the middle of the 18th century.

In this post, I turn specifically to the correspondence between three Russian diplomats: Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Chernyshev, and Vorontsov. All three served at the Russian imperial court (and in Chernyshev’s case, also in European courts) from 1742 to 1762. This primary source is very hard to define as either strictly professional or strictly intimate correspondence—though the main questions discussed within its pages are about diplomacy and Russian foreign policy, the correspondence is also shot through with information about the diplomats’ families, as well as a variety of other intimate details. One of the most prominent historians of emotions, William M. Reddy, has argued that the epoch of sincerity and sensitivity reached its zenith in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. His argument suggests that the border between public and private was very blurry in the decades before the Revolution, and that such blurriness was also reflected in most written sources. This was certainly the case for the source I have identified above. Following Reddy’s work, I believe that the value of the correspondence between Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Chernyshev, and Vorontsov lies precisely in the vagueness between professional and private that it so well captures. I argue that intimacy, sensitivity, and friendship in the eighteenth-century Russian imperial court were impossible to separate from the professionalism to which it was attached. Friendship was both intimate and professional, exceedingly private and completely public.


Who were the men responsible for penning the letters that I will examine? Their names were Count Alexey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin (1693-1766), Count Petr Grigorievich Chernyshev (1712-73), and Count Mikhail Larionovich Vorontsov (1714-67). All of them belonged to the Russian aristocracy. All three courtiers came from noble families with fathers who had made careers under Peter the Great, the first Russian emperor (1682-1725), and all three had received the best possible education at that time (Bestuzhev and Chernyshev even abroad). The correspondence between them covers the twenty years between 1742 and 1762. This period was critical in Russian imperial history—during just these twenty years, three rulers were in power: Empress Elizaveta, Emperor Peter III, and Empress Catherine the Great. The coup d’état in 1741 that brought Elizaveta, daughter of Peter the Great, to power also initiated a fraught political climate. Her nephew, Peter III, ill-suited for imperial rule, succeeded her upon her death in 1761. He held the throne for only a few months before his wife, Catherine the Great, a genius political conspirator, overthrew him in a speedy coup d’état in Saint Petersburg. In other words, the period in which these letters were written and exchanged was marked by a tense and unstable political climate.

Despite the instability of court dynamics, the courtiers in question who wrote and exchanged these letters remained powerholders. Due to their high positions in the court’s hierarchy, they were still able to affect the court’s overall temperature. Bestuzhev-Ryumin, the most senior out of the three, was a Chancellor of the Empress Elizaveta and later a General Field-Marshal under Catherine the Great. In his early years, he served the court abroad and returned to Saint Petersburg in 1740, only to be imprisoned following the coup d’état that brought Ivan VI to power. He did not spend long in jail, however, because the following year, another coup d’état took place in the Russian court, after which he was released. He began his career over again under the new empress, Elizaveta Petrovna, a daughter of Peter the Great. From 1742 onwards, Bestuzhev-Ryumin returned to his daily activities as a courtier and consequently began corresponding with other courtiers, including Chernyshev, who served as a diplomat to the Danish, German, British and French courts from 1740 to the early 1760s.

During this period, Bestuzhev was also in constant contact with another high-ranking courtier, Count Vorontsov. The letters suggest that Chernyshev acted as a mediator between Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Vorontsov; in 1746, for instance, Bestuzhev wrote the following: “your Excellency [Chernyshev], I ask you with all my obedience to forward under your address this enclosed letter to count Mikhail Larionovich as well as all subsequent letters to him or other individuals.” According to the specialist of court intricacies in eighteenth-century Russia, David Ransel, in the 1740s, both Vorontsov and Bestuzhev had the same client, N. Panin; favoring the burgeoning career of the same man would have put both diplomats into the same camp. Despite their common interests, however, Vorontsov would later consciously bring about Bestuzhev’s disgrace at court. The moving parts that made up these diplomats’ relationships with one another were well-captured in the letters they sent and received. Let me turn here to the correspondence itself. When and in what context did the word “friendship” appear in their letters?

First, they often exchanged “friendly” letters or greetings, as well as New Year’s cards. For instance, Bestuzhev wrote to Chernyshev from Saint Petersburg on December 9th, 1748, that he was very thankful for Chernyshev’s “friendly greeting” during the holiday and that it “excited complete gratitude” from him. On another occasion, Vorontsov made sure to notify Chernyshev that he had indeed received his “friendly” letters. Similarly, Vorontsov stated that he was thankful for the “friendly” greetings he’d received from Chernyshev in 1760 upon his successful expedition to Berlin.

Though these greetings were meant partly to fulfill a code of politesse, they were not empty of meaning. These greeting cards were part of a complex process of ritualized and symbolic gift-giving. For instance, the quantity and quality of cards sent and received conveyed a sender’s positionality vis-à-vis the recipient in much the same way that his or her word choice or tone might. Additionally, though many stock phrases for New Year’s greetings existed, a writer still had to choose between them. The fact that Chernyshev, Bestuzhev, and Vorontsov all chose to inflect their holiday greetings with the notion of friendliness is thus quite significant. They could have, and in other instances, sent greetings without such inflection. For instance, Bestuzhev once sent Chernyshev a letter with the following greeting: “I am very grateful for your greetings of New Year, Your Excellency. I wish you mutually prosperity and good health. I do not look anything but to show my devotion and confederation in my service, and for that reason, I make reference to your dear wife, my Madam, who will approve benevolence of my sentiments.” This type of greeting could be opposed to a far more intimate and friendly one such as the following: “I want to use this chance and congratulate you with New Year as well, and wish you with my heart and your dear wife, my Madam Ekaterina Andreevna, and you dear children a good health and other things that you wish to yourself in this year in the following years as well.”

Finally, understanding the three diplomats’ holiday greetings as a larger part of a system of ritualized gift-giving also helps to understand that receiving a New Year’s card in return was also an act laden with meaning. Codes of politesse might compel individuals with less institutional power to send holiday greetings to those above them in the court hierarchy, but it certainly did not uniformly compel those individuals to send greetings in return. That these higher-ranking individuals might choose to send a greeting in return was thus no trivial matter and almost certainly indicated a desire on their part to continue a reciprocal relationship. The fact that Chernyshev, Bestushev, and Vorontsov did reciprocate one another’s “friendly” greetings certainly indicated their deep interest in their relationships, whether on an amicable or professional register.

Second, their letters sometimes contained direct evidence of “friendship” as a specific state of informal relationships between them. In this sense, for instance, Vorontsov wrote to Chernyshev in 1760 when he noted that he was happy to take any chance to show his friendship to him. In another instance, he thanked Chernyshev for enquiring after his illness and said that due to their “friendship,” he could not help but share details about his health. Indeed, a close reading of the entire letter series reveals that the topic of health came up quite often between the men. In one of the letters, Vorontsov even noted that he was in debt to Chernyshev since he had asked after his health so “sincerely.” If one were to focus on the term “sincerity,” it would be quite easy to interpret this interaction as an exchange of intimate information between friends. “Sincerity,” after all, gave an emotive color to their relationship and implied that their friendship was based upon feelings of honesty or earnestness. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that in the very same sentence, Vorontsov recognized his “debt” to the other man—and this kind of rhetoric, as opposed to ideas of intimacy and honesty, could be considered as part of the patronage letter code.

While the notion of friendship was applied to New Year’s cards and discussions of illness, health, and support, the word “friend” also served to label people as participants of someone’s professional network and, consequently, as a part of their web of interests. A “friend” was an ally at court who could be counted on to help advance one’s interests. This was especially true in a century known for its coup d’états, wherein the only way to assuage one’s paranoia over being the next to fall was to build a strong foundation. Indeed, Chernyshev, Bestuzhev, and Vorontsov, as well as other participants of their social network, were both courtiers and diplomats.

They did not quite understand diplomatic “friendship” in the same way they would have understood the “friendship” that existed between their families. For example, in 1761, Vorontsov wrote to Chernyshev about French diplomats in the Russian court and stressed that the ambassador, Baron de Breteuil, did not follow the court’s expected etiquette while looking for Vorontsov’s “friendship.” Instead, Breteuil used his “friendly” connection with another powerful French official, Étienne François de Choiseul, to try and improve his status at the Russian court. But not following the rules of court etiquette and relying on his “friendly” connections back home was read as rude and politically suspect by the other courtiers. Circumventing court etiquette and attempting to capitalize on one existing friendship instead of making new ones made it seem as if Breteuil was unwilling to tie himself too closely to any particular alliance. Almost as if he wished to share in the benefits of various alliances’ successes but disassociate himself from them in the case of their fall from grace. When a patron fell from grace, after all, his many “friends” and “clients” were also liable to lose their posts. Making “friendships” at court was thus something that was not done lightly; the only thing worse than choosing to pursue the wrong “friendships” was to pursue none at all. 

Ultimately, when “friendship” was understood as a professional state of relations, the stakes were not purely personal—they were also political. Vorontsov thus recommended that Chernyshev report on Breteuil’s behavior to Choiseul, though in a manner elegant enough not to compromise Her Majesty’s name (Catherine II) nor the status of the other French diplomat, the Marquis de l’Hopital. Unlike the Baron de Breteuil, the Marquis de L’Hopital (who served as an ambassador in Russia from 1757-60) was very well-respected by Vorontsov and Chernyshev, both of whom referred to him fondly and in a friendly manner in their letters. Vorontsov would even ask Chernyshev to “support a friendship” with L’Hopital, hoping the Marquis would return as ambassador again to the Russian court. In the end, “friendship” between these men, though certainly colored by sincerity and personal concern,  ultimately aimed at building up a future where more allies than enemies populated the Russian court. The value of a “friendship” lay not only in the current connections it helped to maintain but in its incredible potential for exponential growth—every new friendship introduced new networks of individuals that could consequently be added to the alliance, each time reigniting dreams of political fortitude and success.


Russian State Library. F. 064. Vyazemy. K. 82. D. 73., D. 74, D. 75 for various quotes from letters and diplomatic communication.

Anastasiia Lystsova is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University, specializing in the social, legal, and gender history of the Russian Empire. Her dissertation is about Russian imperialism and political projecting in the borderlands of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Edited by Stephanie Zgouridi

Featured Image: The Imperial Palace in Saint Petersburg, (Flickr)

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