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Over the years, I have sold a lot of leather to Russia but until two weeks ago I had never been there. I went on a brief trip to St. Petersburg, although it was an “accidental” trip as my real plan was to see the Hanseatic Ports of the Baltic. I find the Hanseatic League utterly fascinating.
St. Petersburg did not exist in the days of the Hanseatic League, and the Baltic exports of Russia came from the inland town of Novgorod. Furs were of major importance.
The Hanseatic League came about through the power of the middle classes. UK kings gave control of trade to the north German cities as it did not want a middle class of rising merchants, and Russia have never had one. Indeed, Russia’s huge success with fur has been followed by, until recent price volatility, similar success with oil and gas. Writing a few years ago in the World Financial Review, Alexander Etkind suggested that this has had only bad outcomes as high value commodities give Russia “no reason to develop the governance mechanisms that enable fair taxation, competition, and rule of law. Instead, it develops a security apparatus that protects the source of wealth, its transportation routes from external and internal enemies as it sees fit, and a bureaucracy that redistributes the wealth and demands respect.”
Things could have been different. For all the centuries of the Hansa, and beyond, it appears that leather from Russia was also important. Russian leather was highly thought of throughout the world. Marco Polo found it on his travels and remarked about its qualities. As well as good looking and distinctive it was very durable, water resistant to a worthwhile degree and insect repellent. It was known that currying with birch oil gave the powerful Russian leather odour, but no one outside of Russia could fathom the process in detail and successfully copy this leather.
Out of this, an industry could have been built. It would have been an industry of craftsmanship and technology that, today, would have evolved into light engineering with high employment. This is just what is happening now in Ethiopia, and has all Africa watching closely, for this is how to develop a tax base that allows the country to move away from either aid dependency or, as in Russia’s case, the taxation of all exportable commodities. The latter is the perfect formula for corruption.
Instead in Russia, after they had exploited squirrel furs around Novgorod and beavers trapped around Moscow, they moved out East and began to search for sable, which was much more valuable. Not only did this perpetuate their structural economic problems but it made them worse as obtaining these skins involved a most unpleasant colonisation, forcing indigenous people to hunt by holding women and children to ransom, at the same time killing off the local lifestyle which had been neatly balanced with nature.
In 1786 a Dutch brig (ship), The Metta Catharina, carrying Russian leather from St Petersburg to Genoa sank in Plymouth Sound, in the South of England. We spent the weekend in Portsmouth looking at some of what was recovered (quite a lot) and wondering what might have been if Russia had managed this valuable business differently. The process was lost in the Revolution in 1917 and, while we can make some good guesses, we will never know precisely how Russian leather was made.
15th June 2016
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