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Peacocks, Pepper, and Petrol

‘Oriental’ goods imported into Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries: the early history of parallel imports

Wikimedia Commons

Petroleum for equine care, wood oil for lighting, sandalwood for Easter celebrations, and lemons and olives for entertaining unexpected guests. Russian monasteries often used these and other eastern goods in the period leading up to and during the reign of Peter the Great. Analysing their account books leads to a revision of the traditional assumptions about the primary consumers of oriental goods in Russia. These consumers, in addition to the royal and aristocratic circles, included monastery estates, as discussed in the paper ‘“Three altyns worth of petroleum…”: Oriental goods in Russia at the second half of the 17th and early 18th century’ by historian Arthur Mustafin of HSE University. Based on his paper, IQ.HSE explores the types of goods that were shipped from the East to Russia in the latter half of the 17th to the early 18th century, including the routes and purposes of these shipments.

Raisins, Sandalwood, Saffron, and Peacocks…

It is widely believed that in the era leading up and to during Peter the Great's reign, oriental products were predominantly purchased by the emperor's court, feudal elites, and affluent city dwellers in Russia. A study by the HSE Centre for Modern Russian History research fellow Artur Mustafin challenges this assumption. The historian suggests that there is evidence, including the account books of monastic estates, pointing to monasteries as significant consumers of oriental goods.

Oriental goods found use in church rituals—for instance, frankincense and wood oil (a lower-grade olive oil) were employed in altar lamps, while rice, nuts, and dried fruits were perhaps procured for ceremonial meals. While the intended uses of these goods were not specified in the records, their authors did indicate that raisins, sandalwood, and silk were acquired for the needs of the church. Raisins were added to kutya , a ritual cereal dish; sandalwood was employed for decorating Easter eggs, and silk was used for crafting church vestments.

Other oriental goods, mainly spices such as cloves, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, pepper, rosemary, sugar, and saffron, were not specifically intended for religious use. Cardamom and saffron were the most expensive ones, and some other oriental foods, like lemons, melons, and olives, were considered exotic for that era. According to sources, these were often purchased for entertaining unexpected guests. On one hand, the diversity of purchased products reflects the material prosperity of the monasteries, while on the other hand, it indicates extensive trade with the East, Mustafin explains.

The monastery account books also record gifts for government officials, but typically, such gifts were items produced on the monastery estate or acquired within Russia, rather than imported. A rare and notable exception was a peacock featured in one account book: 'Three roubles for the purchase of a peacock bird as a present for Governor Alexei Saltykov,' the source reports. Later, the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow learned to breed these birds on its premises.

Petroleum by the Spoonful

It is well-documented that Peter the Great had an interest in the petroleum trade. Thus, in November 1722, following the capture of Baku during Russia's Persian (Caspian) campaign, the emperor instructed General Mikhail Matyushkin to 'investigate' the matter of petroleum. Perhaps the emperor was intrigued by the potential of using petroleum in the production of incendiary mixtures, but it is possible that he was also contemplating civilian applications of petroleum, both within and outside of Russia. At that time, petroleum served various purposes, including illuminating homes, as a medicinal substance, and as a paint solvent. The latter essentially indicates the use of petroleum for religious purposes.

Petroleum was mentioned in a 17th-century Medicine Book: '[Called] petroliem in Latin and Greek, and neft in Russian. <...> That oil flows from stone and is found in the crevices of mountains <...>. Its colour is black, but when heated over a fire, it turns white and becomes pure.' A somewhat unusual attempted medicinal use of petroleum was to treat scurvy in military personnel, such as streltsy and soldiers.

However, had the use of petroleum for paintings been prevalent, it would have been as frequently documented in monastic records as drying oil, leucas, turpentine, and other substances commonly used in iconography. It is likely that petroleum was frequently acquired for the treatment of horses.

Parallel Import

Thus, the demand for oriental goods was predominantly shaped by religious tradition. Due to its geographical location, Russia probably imported these goods directly from the East, and perhaps re-exported some of them to Europe. The latter, though, was more characteristic of medieval Russia but changed significantly in the early modern period.

According to a number of studies, certain oriental goods, mostly spices, were brought to Russia by Western European merchants through a roundabout rather than direct route.

'Russians purchased spices from foreigners who shipped them from India by a circumferential sea route, even though, as [Juraj] Križanić rightly says, Russians could have imported all Indian goods (spices and precious stones) directly via Kalmyks, and even resell these goods to foreigners,' as noted in one of the papers.

However, many studies only acknowledge the re-export of oriental goods through the West without providing a means to evaluate the extent of such re-export or the prevalence of specific items in re-exported goods. Mustafin's study, grounded in an analysis of price dynamics and geography, addresses many of these knowledge gaps.

Examining Prices Closely

Frequently, the trajectories of imported goods are researched using customs books, which are documents generated at customs offices and containing details about revenue and expenditure, duty payments, transportation fees, and the outcomes of goods inspections. However, the customs books of the period did not capture all trade transactions, and therefore did not provide a complete representation of the variety of goods available on the Russian market. Researchers attribute this to the prevalence of contraband and often doubt the reliability of data from customs records, including price information.

There is, however, an alternative source of information, as mentioned earlier: the account books of monasteries. Even though they recorded the weight of goods in funts (Russian pounds) rather than poods (obsolete Russian units of measurement: a funt equals slightly over 0.4 kg and a pood equals 40 funts , or approximately 16 kg), these account books provide a better idea of any shifts in the product range, sources and purposes of products, and the dynamics and geographical distribution of prices, because the books contain the primary data on income and expenses and specify the quantities purchased and the expenditures associated with each item, making it possible to verify the accuracy of the original transaction records through calculations.

Specifically, one can estimate the rate of re-exports from Europe by comparing the price dynamics of certain oriental goods in Europe and in Russia. If the price fluctuations are not concurrent, it probably means that the proportion of the product re-exported by Europeans to Russia was minimal. Conversely, if a correlation exists, this proportion may be substantial.

It is also possible to compare the price trends of a particular oriental product in Russia with prices of imported Western products and with prices of other oriental products with well-established origins, such as Persian goods like petroleum, rice, and silk, produced in the Caspian provinces of Iran near Russian territories.

The presence of a correlation in price fluctuations in the former case, but not in the latter, indicates that the goods were likely brought to Russia by European merchants. The most popular oriental product in Russia—black pepper—can serve as an illustration.

Just Add Pepper

Black pepper was a very marketable commodity at the time. Foreigners of the era observed that Russians added excessive amounts of pepper to their food and beverages. Thus, in Relazione di Moscovi a..., a book about his travel to Russia in the mid-16th century, the Italian aristocrat Raffaello Barberini wrote that Russians used 'an awful lot' of pepper. In late 17th-century Holland, it was widely believed that spices were among the most favourable commodities for trading with Russia.

The popularity of pepper was not solely a reflection of Russians' culinary preferences. Its uses were varied, including as a preservative added to caviar, which was one of Russia’s primary export items. Pepper was also employed for medicinal purposes; a 17th-century medicine book recommended consuming pepper 'for dryness and warmth,' emphasising its ability to 'eliminate moisture from the body.'

The ample supply of pepper in the Russian market during that era can be attributed to European merchants, as evidenced by the noticeable synchronisation of pepper prices in Russia and in Europe. Hence, in Moscow and Vologda during the 1650s and the mid-1660s, pepper prices were at their peak, followed by a decline, reaching the lowest point by the 1680s. During that decade, prices began to rise, with the upward trend decelerating in the first half of the 1690s and remaining relatively stable during the subsequent two decades. In the Western Netherlands, a region with which Russia had strong economic connections, the pepper price dynamics were similar, although the prices in Moscow were higher. A correlation was also observed between pepper prices in Moscow and in Augsburg, Germany.

Furthermore, pepper prices showed little correlation with the price fluctuations of Persian goods, such as silk, rice, and petroleum. Indeed, the prices of Persian goods in Moscow experienced minimal fluctuations over the studied period. Conversely, pepper prices show a significant correlation with the price trends of Western-imported goods. This is illustrated by the price charts for silk fabrics, paints, paper, and mirrors, as presented in a study by Richard Haley. European goods, much like pepper, clearly experienced price increases in the 1660s and 1690s, and their pricing, akin to that of black pepper, remained relatively stable in the first two decades of the 18th century.

Furthermore, pepper prices in the Russian North were typically lower than in Central Russia. During that era, Arkhangelsk and, to some extent, Vologda, served as 'windows to Europe.' Thus, in 1684, a pound (funt) of pepper was priced at 7 kopecks in Arkhangelsk, 7.5 kopecks in Moscow, and 10 kopecks in Ryazan. In 1685, a pound of pepper cost 9 kopecks in Vologda, 10 to 12 kopecks in Moscow, and 13 kopecks in Zvenigorod, a city located near Moscow. These disparities can be attributed to the influence of shipping costs on the pricing. The farther from Arkhangelsk, the higher the cost of the product. Lastly, there is no available data regarding the purchase of pepper in the Volga region, which could suggest that pepper was imported from Europe rather than Persia.

Salted Lemons

European merchants also shipped frankincense to Russia. The price trends for this oriental commodity closely mirror the fluctuations in prices for goods imported from the West. Lemons, it seems, were also brought by European merchants, whereas raisins were shipped from the East.

There is evidence that monasteries in Arkhangelsk purchased salted lemons from Dutch merchants for half a kopeck apiece. In Moscow, the fruit retailed at prices ranging from 1.5 to 6 kopecks apiece.

Why did a portion of oriental goods find their way into Russia through a circuitous route, by way of European countries? There are two main reasons. First, shipping via the Volga and Kama rivers was perceived as perilous by Eastern merchants who feared potential attacks by robbers. Second, the Russian government prohibited Eastern merchants from engaging in direct trade with European merchants within Russia. Consequently, Armenian merchants found it more advantageous to transport oriental products from Iran to Europe through the Ottoman Empire.

While there was a demand for oriental products, especially among monasteries (significant economic players of the era), the extent of direct trade with Eastern countries was probably quite modest, according to Mustafin. Indeed, for specific products like pepper, lemons, and frankincense, European imports dominated the Russian market—European merchants acquired these goods from their counterparts in the East and subsequently re-exported to Russia.

The notion of Russia holding a favourable intermediary position in modern times for transit trade between the East and Western Europe seems to be more of a long-standing assumption among many generations of Russians and Europeans, rather than a historical reality, the researcher argues. During that era, there was no significant flow of goods from the East passing through Russia.

Price Spikes or Price Revolution?

Assuming that numerous oriental goods reached Russia via Europe, another crucial question arises: how did the ‘price revolution’ that occurred in Europe and the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period (16th–17th centuries) impact the Russian market? During that era, a surge in the import of precious metals from the New World, coupled with increased extraction within Europe, along with population growth and urbanisation in European nations, led to significant increases in the prices of nearly all commodities.

Logically, the increase in Russian prices during that period should have primarily affected products imported from Europe. Hence, it is reasonable to track the price changes for goods imported into Russia. When considering what is referred to as the ‘price revolution’ in Russia, many historians have restricted their analysis to bread prices. Certain scholars believed that this development took place in the 16th century, while others dated it to the 17th century. Still others argued that there were two separate revolutions, one in the 1550s–1620s and another in the 18th century. Present-day historians highlight the spikes in grain prices during the 1660s and 1670s. Did a true ‘price revolution’ occur in Russia in the mid-17th century?

Let us consider the prices of pepper once again. 'There was hardly a substantial influence of European prices on the Russian spice market in the 16th to early 17th century, as trade through Arkhangelsk was still in its early stages,' explains the researcher. 'However, the mid-17th century witnessed a sharp increase in prices for both pepper and other commodities, such as cereals.'

While it may be tempting to characterise this trend as a 'price revolution,' we should note that pepper prices in the mid-17th century can hardly be labelled as 'revolutionary.' They remained relatively stable in Vologda during the 1610s. Indeed, they only experienced a brief spike and, on the whole, were more stable than oat prices.

Average prices in grams of silver for pepper and oats in the Central Non-Blacksoil region from the 1610s to the 1710s

















Pepper (pound)









Oats (quarter)









Note 1: *Prices in Vologda, which is categorised as part of the Central Non-Blacksoil region.

Note 2: ‘Quarter’ is a measure of volume.

Source: paper by A. Mustafin.

However, an essential aspect to consider is the underlying reasons for the price surge. To a large extent, the fluctuations in pepper prices in Russia were influenced by the European trend. The increase in real prices for pepper in Russia in the mid-17th century can be attributed to the impact on the European market of the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–1654, 1665–1667, 1672–1674) for maritime and economic supremacy. Subsequently, prices decreased, as pepper lost its popularity in Europe during the latter half of the 17th century, and this trend had a ripple effect on the Russian market.

The surge in bread prices in the mid-17th century can be largely attributed to the repercussions of the Russian-Polish war (1654–1667) and the social upheaval that affected different regions, including the uprisings of the Don Cossacks led by Vassily Us and Stepan Razin, and the rebellions of Old Believers and Bashkirs. In other words, the price spikes in the mid-17th century were not a result of a broad economic trend, but rather stemmed from very specific causes. Therefore, characterising this trend as a 'price revolution' in Russia is a misrepresentation.

It would be interesting to examine Russia's trade with Eastern countries at a later period. For instance, how did the trade in oil, silk, and saffron change when the regions in Iran producing these goods were briefly incorporated into Russia as a result of Peter the Great's Caspian campaign? However, this is a matter for future studies, including research into the history of prices in Russia.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, November 07, 2023