Centuries-old ties between east coast Scots and Russia are being celebrated by a Moscow-based organisation which hopes to build further cultural links between the two nations, discovers Michael Alexander.
Russia has never been far from western media headlines in recent years whether it’s been rising tensions with Ukraine over Crimea, fears over rapid Russian troop deployments in eastern Europe, controversy over Russia’s role in Syrian air strikes or, more recently, the explosive doping scandal involving Russian athletics ahead of the Rio Olympics.
Add to that the prism of Cold War history and its Holywood interpretations, and the Kremlin-based government is often portrayed as an expansionist war-monger intent on using its vast resources and military power to take over the ‘free’ world.
But how much do we really know about Russia and her 144 million residents, and how much do they really know about us?
The answer, according to Vitaly Mironov, president of the non-profit Russo-Scots organisation the Moscow Caledonian Club (MCC), is very little.
He worries about the “propaganda on both sides” which he says gives a distorted view of the world and the potential implications for world peace.
Now the Moscow-raised 54-year-old is hoping that remarkable 300-year-old links between Scotland and Russia can be used to develop renewed social, cultural and economic bonds between the two countries.
And in particular, Vitaly hopes to highlight the achievements of a little known Scots explorer called John Dundas Cochrane, a naval captain who, 200-years ago, traversed 3000 miles of the pre-revolution Russian empire on foot.
Cochrane, known as the “pedestrian traveller”, published a travel chronicle so detailed that it was used by the architects of the great Trans-Siberian Railway.
Now the MCC are highlighting his achievements with a train journey following the route of his epic adventure.
And they hope it could lead to greater understanding between ordinary Scottish and Russian citizens and a greater fostering of friendship and peace.
“Cochrane is symbolic of the connections between Scotland and Russia and we want to strengthen that relationship,” Vitaly tells The Courier during an interview in Dundee.
“He brought the truth of the real Russia and that is what we want people to see. We want Scots to come to Russia and Russians to go to Scotland. From this we can both benefit from an enduring friendship.”
Vitaly, a former Soviet Army soldier who helped found the MCC in 1994 after studying history at Moscow University, said the train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok, planned for next year, will show journalists, business and cultural leaders and artists, that Russia is so much more than its stereotypes through western media.
The former professional historian has always been interested in Scots writers such as Burns, Sir Walter Scot and Robert Louis Stevenson. They are all “incredibly popular” in Russia, which shares Scotland’s Saint Andrew as its patron saint and uses a form of the saltire on its naval flag.
But during his studies, Vitaly was always particularly fascinated in the mainly east coast Scots who travelled to Russia from the middle of the 17th century onwards. Many went on to become Russian heroes.
Notable names include the 17th century Alexander Leslie, who became the first foreigner to be ranked general in the Russian army, to Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, whose family came from Aberdeenshire and who became the minister of war for Russia during the Napoleonic conflict.
Inverkeithing-raised Samuel Greig became ‘father of the Russian Navy’ during the 18th century whilst to this day the Leuchars-based Royal Scots Dragoon Guards still play the Imperial Russian Anthem in memory of Tsar Nicholas II, the colonel-in-chief of their predecessors, the Scots Greys, killed during the Russian Revolution.
Other Angus-origin names in Russia today include Affleck, Lyon, Rattray, Guthrie, Ogilvie, Graham and Scrymgeour with a Professor of biology called Auchterlonie at Moscow University.
“Scots have been better than others over the centuries, “adds Vitaly, stressing that the MCC are “completely independent” of the official Russian government.
“The Scots have been more understanding towards us. That’s why they have been adopted in Russia so quickly. That’s why so many Scots have been adopted as Russian heroes.
“But one of the huge mistakes of western politicians and western polity today is to ignore Russia.
“The western political elite do not understand Russia. But even worse they do not try to understand Russia and Russians. They know absolutely nothing about modern Russia. This is a huge mistake. It’s a huge problem.”
Vitaly, a father of three young children who is married to former Russian ballerina Helen, said that of course Russia has its own interests.
“I am not a fan of Putin, but I understand his mind,” he says, adding that he rarely thinks politicians anywhere in the world have the interests of the people at heart.
“It’s about protecting our borders from the possibility of war.
“But do not confuse this was Russia wanting to oppress anyone else. We are a peaceful country, looking to modernise our country towards our Far East. Russia will be great again. It is our future. It is our destiny for us. We are patriots.
“We can be the greatest friends to anyone – even America. But do us wrong and it is not possible to find a worse enemy than Russia. We are the worst enemies. We will never stop. That’s necessary to understand. Don’t touch us. Please respect us!”