The historical ties between the Netherlands and the Russian Federation date back to the 16th century. It was Peter the Great's visit to the Netherlands in 1696 that has generally been considered to be the starting point for bilateral relations between the two countries. However diplomatic and trading relations had already begun many years before. The first contacts were established in the 16th century between representatives of Ivan the Terrible and Dutch traders who set up in the northern city of Archangelsk. Dutch traders also moved and settled in Moscow, Yaroslavl, Novgorod and Vologda.
In 1596-7 there was also a fatal expedition led by Willem Barentsz, who set off to discover a northeast passage above Sibera to the Far East. He never returned. This has become a key feature in Russian-Dutch heritage cooperation in searching for tangible evidence of the expedition, but also intangibly through the tales and folklore surrounding the disappearance. Peter the Great visited the Netherlands in secret, as part of the Grand Embassy Mission. During his time here Peter studied shipbuilding and carpentry in Zaandam and Amsterdam, including experiencing work at the Dutch East India Company shipyard. Peter introduced Dutch craftmanship and techniques to Russia, believing that it would help to modernise the country, and in particular benefit his newly founded capital at St. Petersburg.
Peter met with many Dutch artists and scientists, including the anatomist Frederik Ruysch, whose collection of curiosities were bought by the Tsar in 1717. This scientific collection served as the basis for the foundation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and can still be seen today displayed at the Kunstkamera. Peter's activities in the Netherlands resulted not only in the arrival ideas, but also of personnel, many Dutch scientists, military advisors, craftsmen and artists travelled back to start a new life in Russia. Dutch-Russian relations intensified following the liberation of the French rule over the Netherlands in 1813, within which Tsar Alexander I played a key role. The relationship was cemented when King Willem I married Anna Pavolvna, the Tsar's sister.
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the execution of Tsar Nicholas II, there was a breach in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Many Dutch citizens living in Russia were forced to leave the new Communist republic. The relationship improved slightly in 1942 when the Soviet Union joined the Allies during World War Two, however the relationship only seriously began to improve following the end of the USSR.
In 1996 there were celebrations for the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great's visit to the Netherlands, and in 2003 was also the 300th marker of the founding of St. Petersburg. These two events resulted in an intensification of Dutch-Russian cooperation in the field of culture and heritage. The shared cultural heritage resulting from these long centuries of interaction between Russia and the Netherlands can be evidenced in social, cultural, religious, economic and political spheres. This interaction influenced both the tangible and intangible heritage of both countries.
There are many tangible traces of Dutch-Russian history across many places, sites, museums and estates, particularly around the northwestern regions of Archaengelsk, Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Novgorod and Moscow. Within the waters there is further evidence for shared maritime heritage, as the remains of many Dutch ships rest along the bottom of the Baltic Sea and within the Gulf of Finland. Within the Netherlands the influence of Russia can also be found in the houses of Peter the Great in Zaandam and Amsterdam, as well as through the legacy of Anna Pavolvna.
Due to the sheer wealth of mutual or shared heritage which can be found within both countries, attesting to this long standing friendship, the Dutch government decided to make the Russian Federation a Priority Country within the framework of the Dutch Mutual Cultural Heritage Policy.