St Petersburg & Russia

"Rusluie" in St Petersburg

Russia had long remained inaccessible to the rest of Europe. An end came to that self-imposed isolation during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great. He opened a window to the West. In addition to the tsar’s journeys to Holland, many Dutchmen came to St Petersburg. Especially from one particular village in the province of Twente: Vriezenveen.

Vriezenveen was rich in weavers. Linen had brought in a steady income for many years, but around 1720 the cloth trade began to decline. People in Vriezenveen saw an opportunity in the city of St Petersburg to sell produce to a new market. Around 1740, cloth workers and weavers went to the new Russian capital, soon followed by traders.

Court suppliers

The first to visit St Petersburg from Vriezenveen with produce travelled back and forth between Holland and Russia. In St Petersburg they found lodgings. The journey was long: around three weeks by wagon through Berlin and Riga. Later, several villagers settled permanently in St Petersburg with their families. The Dutch became known as Rusluie. They formed companies with relatives and bought up shops, including premises at Gostini Dvor on Nevski Prospekt. They also bought housing, to accommodate their staff drawn from the gradual stream of migrants from Vriezenveen. Many of these companies were successful: the firm of Engberts & Co supplied tablecloths to the Russian court of Alexander II. Besides textile, the Dutch traders also sold wine, tobacco, tea, cacao and flowers. Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III came in person to the tobacconists Ten Cate & Co to select their cigars.

Carreer

In the 19th century many Dutch migrants pursued successful careers in Russia. And not only men. For example Aaltje van den Bosch, also from Vriezenveen, set up a sewing school in St Petersburg around 1800. It was prestigious enough for Tsar Paul I to visit a number of times. The Vriezenveen migrants maintained a close bond, reflected in their association with the Dutch church on Nevski Prospekt. They made up a large part of the community; in the 1850s it became known as the church of the Vriezenveners.

Final blow

Most of the Vriezenveen migrants returned to their village when they grew old, to spend their last years enjoying their wealth. For those who remained, the end of the 19th century proved a difficult period. Many Dutch firms closed down. The final blow came when revolution broke out in 1917. All private companies were nationalised and most of the remaining Rusluie returned penniless to Vriezenveen. Not all though: some of their descendants still live in St Petersburg.

Vriezenveen Historical Museum

To view tangible mementoes of the Vriezenveen connection with St Petersburg, visit the Russian department of the Historical Museum in Vriezenveen. On display here are examples of tablecloths made for Nicholas II, an account of a journey by a 14-year-old boy from Vriezenveen to St Petersburg and many other curiosities.

Westeinde 54, Vriezenveen (opposite Grote Kerk)
www.historischmuseumvriezenveen.nl

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on 25 December 2014 and 27 April 2015

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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