Siegmund (Sigismund) Freiherr von Herberstein

(1486- 1566)

In 1486, in the Duchy of Carniola (Herzogtum Krain, part of the Holy Roman Empire), in the town of Wittach (now Vitava, Slovenia), in the old noble family of Leonhard von Herberstein, a third son named Siegmund was born. The family was German-speaking, but the local population spoke a Slavic language, a variant of Slovene, and the boy picked it up very well. Since Wittach was near the Adriatic shore called Karst (a word that along with alpine, geyser and tundra morphed from the name of a specific object to a generic term of geography), where Italian was also common, he learned Italian. At the age of 11 he was sent to school in Vienna where he was taught Latin and Greek. Later he got some knowledge of French, Spanish, Polish, Czech and Russian. In short, this was a man after my own heart!

No wonder when the boy grew up, after a brief but honorable military service, he became an indispensable adviser and diplomat to four Habsburg monarchs: Maximilian I, Charles (Karl, Carlos) V, Ferdinand I, and Maximilian II. The crux of diplomacy for his bosses at the time were the border lands, Poland and Hungary. One of his greatest achievements was the mission to the Ottoman sultan, the main threat to Europe and the Habsburgs in particular. But he would have remained one in a long list of forgotten statesmen of his rank, had he not gone on another mission – to the little known theretofore land of Muscovy, and even more importantly, had not written an extensive report about the trip. The task at hand was related to the dynastic problems with Poland and Hungary, as well as the geopolitical ones with the Ottoman Empire.

Fast forward 500 years. It’s June 2000 and I and my son are in Ljubljana (formerly Laibach), the capital of Slovenia (see my report on that trip here). Through common acquaintances we met the Director of the National Gallery of Slovenia, who is giving us a personal tour of his museum (and then of the city). And the blockbuster exhibit in his museum is about the life and deeds of the Freiherr (Baron) von Herberstein, or simply Žiga (Siegmund) in Slovene. The exhibit was organized jointly by the national archives of Slovenia and Russia. The main book by Herberstein, RERUM MOSCOVITICARUM Commentarij, its many contemporary editions, illustrations, and other writings by and about the statesman were displayed at the exhibition and described in the lavishly printed bilingual Slovene-Russian catalogue. The catalogue also provided a review of the historic situation in Russia and Slovenia and its surroundings at the time and the impact the book had on European diplomacy and culture in general. The book was first written and published in Latin, then translated and published several times in German as well as in Italian (an especially beautiful contemporary edition). 

Here are some observations and ideas from the book that I found particularly noteworthy [translations mine].

Tyranny and Slavery

“All of them [Muscovites, regardless of the station in life] call themselves slaves (chlopi, kholopy) of the ruler.“

“These people find more pleasure in slavery than in freedom. Upon death, masters usually free many slaves, but the latter sell themselves at once to other masters for money.”

“It’s hard to tell whether the people need the ruler-tyrant due to their rough ways or they become rough, insensitive and cruel due to having a ruler-tyrant.”

The preeminent Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin uses Herberstein’s work extensively when describing this period of Russian history, though he misquotes the passage above replacing “tyrant” with “autocrat” and “rough ways” with “features.” Right after that he proceeds to claim that autocracy, which he believes is the supremely suitable and the only possible form of government for Russia, is not normally tyranny, but  may only become one when it’s abused. And in any case, Ivan III and Vasily III were great for Russia’s integrity (read – expansion) and wellbeing. No wonder Alexander Pushkin, in one of his best epigrams, says that Karamzin “proves with elegance and simplicity the necessity of autocracy and the charms of the whip.”

In the Chorography (geographic-historical description) section of the book Herberstein shows what that “integrity and wellbeing” meant in reality. In the grim echo of today’s events, when in 1477 Ivan III decided to completely subjugate the Republic of Novgorod, he invaded it under the false pretense that the Novgorodians are scheming to abandon the Russian Orthodox faith and convert to the Latin version of Christianity. He occupied the city, plundered the very considerable riches of its leaders, merchants and artisans, as well as of resident foreigners, exiled a large number of its citizens and transferred thousands of Muscovites to take their place. Herberstein observes the effect it had made on the nature of the population:

“People of Novgorod used to be very courteous and honest, but nowadays, due to the contagion of the Muscovite newcomers they have been spoiled to the extreme.”

Reception of Ambassadors

Being an ambassador, Herberstein dwells on the peculiarities of the Russian treatment of foreign diplomats.

In Moscow, Herberstein invited to dinner the Swedish ambassador staying in the city at the same time, with Muscovite pristavs (assigned watchers, as centuries later in the Soviet times) also attending. The Muscovites were amazed that the two ambassadors were soon conversing with each other and laughing in a friendly way. They could not believe that these foreigners had never met before.

After dinners with the Grand Prince, the ambassadors are taken back to their assigned quarters, where they are “entertained” by the attached to them hosts. The entertainment consists of making sure the foreigners get utterly drunk. The method to make them drink is straightforward: say a toast to either their or the Muscovite monarch, which loyal subjects cannot refuse to honor. The only way to avoid drinking the next bowl (yes, a bowl) was to pretend to be already deathly drunk or asleep.

Taken by Vasiliy to a royal hunt, where hundreds of hares were brought by the servants to be released and chased by dogs for the delectation of the court, Herberstein refused to unleash the dog he was given to hold on a running hare, saying he did not want to harass the poor beast already chased by several other packs of dogs.

With respect to his own ambassadors, Vasiliy appropriated for himself any gifts received by them in the foreign countries (giving such gifts was traditional in most states at the time, stripping of them ambassadors was not). To be sure, the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 1966 prohibits US officials from keeping foreign gifts over $415 and requires reporting and transferring them to the Federal Archives or the General Services Administration, though the officials have an option of keeping them after paying their full value. The gifts are not, of course, going to some omnipotent ruler. Nevertheless, during the 2017-2020 presidency, 100 gifts valued at nearly $300,000 were not reported and transferred to the appropriate agency, nor were they paid for by the president who received them.


One of the tasks for Herberstein was to investigate the religion of Muscovy and particularly the differences in theology, organization, liturgy and regulations compared to Catholicism. As with history and geography, besides his own observations he relied on many local often highly placed informants, as well as written sources. Among the latter were “Rules of Ioann the Metropolitan” and “Responses (catechism) of Bishop Nifont.” Some of the interesting points from those documents:

It is important for Christians to reject Jewish rules, like Sabbath, circumcision, and especially unleavened bread, since Christ [presumably] rejected that. (Herberstein notes that Catholics accept unleavened bread.)

The learned Metropolitan, taking pains to distance himself from the hated Jews even more, declares in the letter to the pope that, since Christ during the Last Supper reclined with his disciples, it was surely not a Passover meal, because Jews celebrate Passover standing upright. A claim, as they say, without evidence, considering that in the answer to the main Passover question “how this night is different from the other nights” reclining is listed among the main features of the feast.

What should one eat during the Great Fast? Fish on Saturday and Sunday, caviar on all other days.

Icons of saints cannot be present and should be removed from the room when a sexual intercourse is conducted.

Sodomites are to be punished appropriately by bishops, but a variety of rules about handling bestiality are mentioned in several places leading one to think that it was fairly common at the time.

Travel and Geography

Herberstein traveled extensively in what was then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Thus, besides “meeting” him in Ljubljana, we had crossed paths with him in many obscure places, where we hitchhiked 450 years after him (Drisvyaty, Braslav). Although he did not need to spend the night in a wet haystack, as we were prepared to do, he and his companions faced big obstacles due to the lack of roads and bridges and the extremely severe winter. They traveled in open carriages or sleighs exposed to tremendous frost. While Herberstein was able to thaw his frozen beard and nose, some beasts that accompanied them (a rooster, a dog, a horse) were not so fortunate and lost body parts to frostbites.

Traveling for his other missions, Herberstein visited Kyiv, then also part not of Muscovy, but of Lithuania: “Magnificence and truly regal greatness of this city are apparent in its ruins and the remains of its monuments.”

Contribution to Vocabulary

Herberstein introduced the word “czar” into the vocabulary of the west, in this spelling. Presumably, it reflected Polish phonetic spelling of the sound “ts” at the time, though it would not be so today. Eventually, those languages that do not have one letter representing this sound (like English and French, but not German, which does have it) switched to “tsar.” “Czar” is now limited in English to specially and usually temporarily appointed officials tasked with a particular urgent problem, e.g. “cryptocurrencies czar.”

See more on the trip to Slovenia here

Exhibit at the National Gallery of Slovenia
Catalogue of the exhibit
Dressed going to Muscovy
Dressed going from Muscovy (in a gift from Vasiliy III)
The first German edition (in Latin)
The Italian edition