A People Passing Rude
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11.  Stephen Graham and Russian Spirituality: The Pilgrim in Search of Salvation

Michael Hughes

The name of Stephen Graham (1884-1975) is familiar to every student of Anglo-Russian relations in the early years of the 20th century. Graham was, in the words of his obituary in The Times, ‘probably more responsible than anyone else in this country for the cult of Holy Russia and the idealization of the Russian peasant that was beginning to make headway here before 1914 and during the years immediately after’.1 In a series of books including A Vagabond in the Caucasus (1911) and Undiscovered Russia (1912), he painted an idealised picture of the way in which the spirit of Russian Orthodoxy had shaped the character of modern Russia, describing how on Easter Eve in Moscow ‘even the air is infected with church odours and the multitudinous domes of purple and gold rest above the houses in enigmatical solemnity’.2 Although he acknowledged that the Russian peasants he met during a long series of ‘tramps’ through the Tsarist Empire were not interested in abstruse questions of doctrine, he was struck by their natural piety, describing how they lived in a God-saturated world in which a sense of the divine permeated every aspect of their daily life. Graham always denied that he took an idealised view of Russian life, and in books like Changing Russia (1913) he certainly showed how the growth of industry and urban living was eroding the spirit of ‘Holy Russia’, but his claim to offer a realistic picture of modern Russia did not convince all his readers. Several years later, in 1916, Maksim Gor’kii penned a piece in his journal Letopis’ (Chronicle) condemning Graham—in the thinly disguised persona of one ‘William Simpleton’—for seeing in Russia a reservoir of spiritual richness where there was in reality only huge amounts of poverty and despair.3

Although Graham was struck by the extent of popular piety in Russia during his first two or three years living in the country, following his arrival there in 1908 he was also deeply interested in the cultural ferment of Russia’s silver age (among other things he attended a number of meetings of the Moscow Religious-Philosophical Society where he met luminaries ranging from Nikolai Berdiaev to Viacheslav Ivanov). He was also a huge admirer of the painter Mikhail Nesterov, even collecting material for a biography, although it is not clear whether Graham ever really grasped the full subtleties of Nesterov’s art.4 Graham was certainly interested in the whole phenomenon of Russian symbolism—he later translated stories by Fedor Sologub—but he never really understood its complexities and contradictions. What instead intrigued him was the ‘symbolist’ insight that the material world represented a series of signs pointing to deeper and more fundamental realities.5 There is in fact something of a paradox here. Graham was—as will be seen later—often at his best as a writer when providing his readers with lively pen-pictures of the human and natural landscapes he encountered during his long tramps across Russia. Many of his books contained a strange juxtaposition of vivid sketches and abstruse philosophising. Most pages of A Vagabond in the Caucasus, for example, focus on detailed—if picturesque—descriptions of its author’s hikes through the remote wilderness area between the Caspian and Black Seas.

The book nevertheless contains an astonishing confessional epilogue, written shortly after Graham’s return to London, in which he stood back from his travel narrative to reflect on how his physical journey had become for him something closer to a pilgrimage:

A youth steps forward on the road and a horizon goes forward. Sometimes slowly the horizon moves, sometimes in leaps and bounds. Slowly while mountains are approached, or when cities and markets crowd the skies to heaven, but suddenly and instantaneously when summits are achieved or when the outskirts dust of town or fair is passed. One day, at a highest point on that road of his, a view will be disclosed and lie before him—the furthest and most magical glance into the Future. Away, away in the far-distant grey will lie his newest and last horizon, in a place more fantastic and mystical than the dissolving city, which the eye builds out of sunset clouds.6

The sense of travel as pilgrimage—a search for meaning and insights that would help to reorient his life—was to become a powerful motif in several of Graham’s later books.

Gor’kii was not alone in disliking Graham’s frequent descents into a purple prose that one of his English reviewers described scathingly as ‘high-brow baby talk’.7 He also attracted controversy from time to time back in Britain, where he was sometimes seen in liberal circles as an apologist for a brutally anti-Semitic government, particularly in the months following the outbreak of World War I, which threw Britain and Russia together as uneasy allies in the war against the central powers.8 Graham’s prose was sometimes marred by a kind of mystical obscurantism which, although designed to capture in language emotions and insights that defied logical analysis, at times read as little more than an incoherent ramble. It is nevertheless worthwhile trying to make sense of what might—perhaps rather generously—be termed his poetic metaphysics. A little biographical detail can help to facilitate this analysis.

Graham was the son of the writer and journalist Peter Anderson Graham, who for quarter of a century edited Country Life, which following its establishment in 1897 sold its readership a vision of a faux rural life characterised by wood-panelled houses and country sports rather than mud and poverty. Anderson Graham was nevertheless genuinely concerned about the impact of economic change in the English countryside, writing at length about the flight of the rural population to the towns.9 He also penned numerous articles praising 19th-century writers and poets, like Wordsworth and Jeffries, who had in their writings articulated a kind of nature-mysticism that saw in the natural environment intimations of profound truths about the world. The burgeoning tradition of nature-writing in Victorian and Edwardian Britain was of course in large part a reaction to the challenges of urbanisation and industrial development. The idealisation of the countryside, seen not merely as a counterpoint to the soulless urban sprawl, but also as a repository of values more profound than any that shaped the contemporary world, was a common response to the unsettling challenges of modernity. Stephen Graham inherited much of his father’s distaste for the modern world, along with Anderson Graham’s shrewd assessment that there was likely to be a market for books and articles that provided an urban audience with a taste of the exotic and the pastoral, a fantasy world remote from the prosaic rhythms of life in cities like London or Manchester.

Stephen Graham himself grew up in the suburban sprawl of north London, and from the age of 15 he commuted daily into London, where he worked for a number of years as a civil service clerk, spending his leisure hours reading Browning as he walked alone through the lanes of rural Essex. In his autobiography, which was not published until he was 80, he recalled how his interest in Russia was first piqued when he bought a second-hand copy of Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment, which the youthful Graham found much ‘more profound’ than a simple ‘murder story’. He was instead mesmerised by a book that had ‘a hidden x in it. Let x be the soul of man, or let x be the meaning of life, something not familiar to the Western mind but, once sensed, forever haunting. I was on the trail of a religious philosophy more inspiring than Carlyle or Ibsen or Nietzsche’.10 In the years that followed he learned Russian, heading to the country for a month-long visit in 1906, where he was briefly detained on suspicion of being involved in revolutionary activities, before deciding in 1907 to move to Russia permanently where he planned to earn his living through writing.

Graham was determined to use his pen to show readers back home that contemporary Russia was not simply a country of revolutionaries, but also a land where (as he later wrote) the people lived ‘as Ruskin wanted the English to live… true to the soil they plough’, forsaking ‘machine-made things’, preferring to ‘fashion out of the pine all they need’.11 Russia quickly became for Graham not only a land where the coruscating effects of modernity had not yet succeeded in ripping apart old ways of living. It was also a kind of sacred space, where the traditions and rituals of everyday life embodied in their very substance a set of deeper spiritual truths. It was doubtless for this reason that Graham chose as the frontispiece of his second book, Undiscovered Russia, a copy of Mikhail Nesterov’s ‘Holy Russia’. It depicted a group of pilgrims seeking spiritual healing from Christ in a landscape that fused together a typically Russian background with more celestial elements designed to suggest the immanence of the divine presence. Russia appealed to Graham not only as a place freed from the commercialism and industrialisation of the West. It was also a place where the material and spiritual worlds came together in a way that made ‘Holy Russia’ a country fundamentally different in character from any other.

There is amongst Graham’s papers a youthful manuscript that helps to illuminate his early reactions to Russia following his move there at the beginning of 1908. The unpublished book was titled Ygdrasil, the name of the immense ash tree central to Norse mythology, which according to legend bound together heaven, earth and hell.12 Although Graham failed to mention the book in the published version of his autobiography, in which he worked hard to conceal his youthful interest in the esoteric and occult, many of the themes that emerge in this rambling ‘book on religion and philosophy’ shaped his ideas for many years to come. He made a distinction between two forms of knowledge—‘one is dead fact [whilst] the other is living power’—and argued that only the latter was truly worthwhile. Although his language was often convoluted and obscure, Graham in effect sought to articulate what would in later times be considered a form of existentialist epistemology, in which the truths of Ygdrasil could be encountered either as ‘dead fact’ or appropriated to provide a particular personal meaning. Two themes recur through the sometimes tortuous pages of the book. The first is that all creeds and dogmas are lifeless things, seeking to lay down artificial formal truths, whereas in reality ‘God has given to each person separate pairs of eyes’. This in turn set the scene for confusion ‘between what Christ is and what Christ is to me’. And, as a result, Graham argued that whilst it was true that there was one religion for all, the fact that ‘there is one for each is more important’. The second (and for our purposes more significant) theme in Ygdrasil was the distinction Graham drew between the ‘Little World’ and what he termed elsewhere the ‘somewhere-out-beyond’.13 The ‘Little World’ was the humdrum world of everyday life. The ‘somewhere-out-beyond’ represented a set of truths that could only be glimpsed from time to time, either through art, or via a dim sense that ‘we are in part substance of the immortal Gods’. The aim of for each individual was to enter metaphorically into the Garden of Asgard—which Graham not altogether accurately identified as the place where Ygdrasil grew—in order to ‘see the world as a whole, all the worlds as a whole, and from without the universe behold the interdependence of all’.

There is no space here to review the youthful Graham’s philosophy in any further depth, except perhaps to note that it was clearly inspired by the writings of Carlyle on the German Romantics. Although many of the ideas articulated in Ygdrasil are at best derivative, and at worst incoherent, its author’s search for a language capable of articulating his instincts and ideas helped to shape his views about Russia in the years that followed. Russia became—at least potentially—a place where supermundane truths were embedded in time and place. The paradox of many of Graham’s early travel books, to return to a point made earlier, is that he was as a writer skilled at painting pictures of the ‘Little World’. Some of his best pieces are concerned with such apparently mundane subjects as describing the seaside holidays taken by visitors to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. There is indeed often a profound disconnection in his writing between his views on the nature of ‘Holy Russia’ and his description of the day-to-day scenes he encountered during his long tramps through the country. Sometimes the ‘philosopher’ in Graham insisted on seeing Russian life through the prism of Ygdrasil—a kind of representation in time of principles and ideals that sat outside time—whilst on other occasions he simple described what he saw. A brief review of three of his books can provide some further insight into these various tensions and contradictions.

A Tramp’s Sketches was first published by Macmillan in 1912, based in large part on material collected by Graham during a tramp along the northern shore of the Black Sea, although an earlier version had been rejected by his previous publisher John Lane on the grounds that it was unlikely to find a sufficient market. The book is at times difficult to read and understand, for although it contains a number of sketches of daily life in the towns and villages of southern Russia, it was in Graham’s own words less about Russia and more about ‘the life of the wanderer and seeker, the walking hermit, the rebel against modern conditions and commercialism who has gone out into the wilderness’ (TS, p. 7). A Tramp’s Sketches begins with a diatribe against life in the ‘evil city’—in practice London but intended as shorthand for every major urban centre—which in time:

drove me into the wilderness to my mountains and valleys, by the side of the great sea and by the haunted forests. Once more the vast dome of heaven became the roof of my house, and within the house was rebuilded that which my soul called beautiful. There I refound my God, and my being reexpressed itself to itself in terms of eternal Mysteries. I vowed I should never again belong to the town (TS, p. 20).

Whilst Graham’s two previous books had been full of stories about the people he met on the road, he now presented himself as a kind of solitary pilgrim, seeking to enter ‘into a new relationship with the world’, submitting to ‘the gentle creative hands of Nature [in order] to re-shape his soul’ (TS, p. 23). The figure of the tramp was for Graham one of ‘the rebels against modern life’, seeking ‘a little more living in communion with Nature […] whoever has known Nature once and loved her will return again to her’. He also insisted that the tramp—or perhaps better the pilgrim-tramp—was best-placed to understand how the joys of rural life were linked to more fundamental questions about the nature of existence: ‘Whoever has resolved the common illusions of the meaning of life, and has seen even in glimpses the naked mystery of our being, finds that he absolutely must live in the world which is outside city walls’ (TS, p. 57).

The theme of Holy Russia did not loom large in A Tramp’s Sketches, although the book does contain a lengthy description of daily life at the monastery of New Athos, along with a number of other monasteries where Graham was given shelter. The informing philosophy was instead that of Ygdrasil: that the everyday world was a series of signs that showed the way out of the ‘Little World’ and into a place of deeper meaning. The final chapters of the book are at times almost incomprehensible, as Graham struggled to convey to his readers a sense of a universe that was irreducible to neat formulae or description. He told the story—or rather the fable—of a young woman called Zenobia whose youth and beauty were corrupted when she moved to the city and entered into local society. Her looks faded to grey as a result of a life lived with a ‘lack of sun’ and a ‘lack of life’, leaving Graham to lament how ‘in one place flowers rot and die; in another, bloom and live. The truth is that in this city they rot and die’ (TS, p. 250). The figure of Zenobia—whether real, mythical, or something in between—served for Graham as a symbol of the way in which true beauty and liveliness were crushed by the man-made world of cities. It is worth quoting at some length the passage that ended the main part of A Tramp’s Sketches, since it conveys more clearly than anywhere else in Graham’s writings his understanding of the universe, couched in terms that owe more to early 20th-century Theosophy than to any formal Christian doctrine:

But beyond the universe, no scientist, not any of us, knows anything. On all shores of the universe washes the ocean of ignorance, the ocean of the inexplicable. We stand upon the confines of an explored world and gaze at many blank horizons. We yearn towards our natural home, the kingdom in which our spirits were begotten […]. Some day for us shall come into that blank sky-horizon which is called the zenith, a stranger, a man or a god, perhaps not like ourselves, yet having affinities with ourselves, and correlating ourselves to some family of minor gods of which we are all lost children. We shall then know our universal function and find our universal orbit (TS, p. 326).

The only hint in this passage of a specifically Christian understanding of these perplexities comes at the very end with the words—which are frankly a non sequitur—that ‘It is written, “When He appears we shall be like Him”’.

A Tramp’s Sketches was not the only book to come out of Graham’s tramp along the Black Sea coast in 1911-12, although Changing Russia (1913) was so different in tone that it might almost have been written by another author. The first book was designed to articulate its author’s sense that there were complex truths that lay beyond the confines of the material world. The second book was designed to show readers how the process of social and economic change sweeping through Russia was threatening to undermine the country’s unique vocation as a sacred space where the boundary between heaven and earth was more porous than elsewhere in the world. Graham bitterly complained how in cities like Rostov-on-Don the population was abandoning the Church for the new ‘electric theatre’, where they watched ‘bloodthirsty, gruesome murder stories, stories of crime, of unfaithful husbands and wives, and of course the usual insane harlequinades’.14 Nor was the situation much better at other towns like Novorossisk with its ‘cement factories and soap-works’. Some of the most vitriolic passages in Changing Russia were reserved for the Russian bourgeoisie, which Graham believed was the defining product of the new economic and social order:

The Russian bourgeois […] wants to know the price of everything. Of things which are independent of price he knows nothing, or, if he knows of them, he sneers at them and hates them. Talk to him of religion, and show that you believe in the mystery of Christ; talk to him of life, and show that you believe in love and happiness; talk of woman, and show that you understand anything about her unsexually; talk to him of work, and show that though you are poor you have no regard for money and the bourgeois is uneasy. He would like to deny your existence there as you face him. He will deny your faith and belief the moment your back is turned (CR, p. 117)

Graham was particularly concerned at the bourgeoisie’s growing social and political influence, which he feared was ‘beginning to clamour in the press, to write, to define, to censure. It calls itself the democracy, and points out that it will pay for its likes, and that its sort of art and life will ‘pay’. That a thing ‘pays’ is to the bourgeois the test of democratic approval’ (CR, p. 121). Graham by contrast remained convinced that:

Russia has an extraordinary greatness to be attained through her Church, through her national institutions, and by virtue of her national landscape. It is a greatness that starts from the peasant soul, that draws out of all the store of national tradition and belief and experience, as the harvests grow rich out of the black mould that was once her forests… For the peasant is the root, and the root draws up mysteriously from those depths that which is its own, that which God has provided (CR, p. 210)

Although Graham bitterly lamented the changes which he feared were sweeping away the old Russia he had come to love, Changing Russia shows how adept he was at providing his readers with a sense of the ‘Little World’ through which he travelled, for the book contained numerous lively sketches of the individuals and scenes he encountered along the way.

By the time A Tramp’s Sketches and Changing Russia were published, some reviewers in Britain were starting to weary both of Graham’s philosophical ruminations, as well as his constant lament for an idealised Holy Russia supposedly fading in the face of an unforgiving rush of modernisation and decay. This may partly have accounted for the rather different tone of his next book—With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem—which described a journey he took with several hundred Russian pilgrims to celebrate Easter in the Holy Land. The book’s Prologue contained the kind of confessional cri de coeur that had characterised much of Graham’s earlier writing. Graham told his readers that he had for many years wished to undertake a pilgrimage, noting that ‘Whoever has wished to go has already started on the pilgrimage. And once you have started, every step upon the road is a step toward Jerusalem. Even steps which seem to have no meaning are taking you by byways and lanes to the high-road […] The true Christian is necessarily he who has the wishing heart’. He went on to recall how he had even as a child looked ‘wistfully’ at religious processions, seeing in them some kind of echo of a longer journey, adding that for years his heart had responded more readily to ‘march music’ than to ‘all the other melodies in the world’.15 Although Graham did not spell it out explicitly, he had begun to acknowledge that his years of tramping in the wilderness had themselves been a kind of pilgrimage, a restless search for some form of personal epiphany capable of resolving the personal sense of dissonance and longing that had first led him to Russia. The journey to Jerusalem seemed to him to have brought together the two main elements in his life: his love of the Russian peasantry and his sense of the incompleteness of human existence when lived purely in the material world.

Although the Prologue echoed many of the themes that had run through Graham’s earlier work, the main text of With the Russian Pilgrims was very different in tone, allowing a sense of the religious passion and individual idiosyncrasies of the pilgrims to emerge from a series of detailed pen-portraits. Nor did he seek to hide the fact that many of the pilgrims were flawed in both their spiritual character and behaviour. There was, for example, Philip, a peasant from a Ukrainian village close to the Austro-Hungarian border, who was making his fourteenth trip to Jerusalem. The extent of his piety was nevertheless called into question by the fact that he made a good deal of money by acting as ‘a tout for ecclesiastical shop-keepers’ on arrival in the Holy Land (RP, p. 152). Typical of his victims was another pilgrim, to whom Graham gave the name Liubomudrof, a man whose simple piety could not be doubted, even though he cheerfully acknowledged that he had earlier in his life been an alcoholic and an adulterer. Graham also wrote at length of a monk who was travelling with the pilgrims, Father Evgenii, who although honest and pious was often imperious in his treatment of those with whom he travelled. Graham made no effort to hide the human frailty of his companions, nor did he try to sentimentalise his description of the Holy Land itself, which appeared at first sight to be ‘a place where every stone has been commercialised either by tourist agencies or by greedy monks’. He nevertheless continued to believe in Jerusalem as an ideal—an ‘existence independent of material appearance’ (RP, p. 6)—and was convinced that this ideal could not be tainted by the omnipresent corruption and dilapidation. It was this same principle that ran through his description of many of his fellow-pilgrims. Whilst Graham openly acknowledged their faults, he also believed that the instinct to pilgrimage was driven by a genuine spiritual hunger, which was powerful enough to bring them to Jerusalem, even if it was not always strong enough to transform their behaviour.

Graham himself played a full part in the celebrations and rituals of the Russian pilgrims. He went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, ‘not to look but to pray’, and was profoundly moved by the experience of entering the burial chamber. He also travelled to Nazareth with dozens of other pilgrims, passing through the Moslem town of Nablus, before arriving at the ‘shabby’ birthplace of Christ. During the Holy Week celebrations he attended a Palm Sunday service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whilst on Good Friday he joined the procession to Golgotha, re-enacting the last journey of Christ. On Easter Day he went to the Russian Cathedral, along with thousands of other pilgrims visiting the city, and although he had been present at Orthodox Easter celebrations before he was still thrilled by the intensity of the experience:

Then at one in the morning we passed […] into the Russian cathedral, now joyously illuminated with coloured lights, and we heard the service in familiar church Slavonic. And we all kissed one another again. What embracing and kissing there were this night; smacking of hearty lips and tangling of beards and whiskers! The Russian men kiss one another with far more heartiness than they kiss their women. In the hostelry I watched a couple of ecstatical old greybeards who grasped one another tightly by the shoulders, and kissed at least a score of times, and wouldn’t leave off (RP, p. 296).

With the Russian Pilgrims is altogether more satisfying as travel literature than most of Graham’s earlier work. Graham himself was praised by the Athenaeum for ‘throwing off the bonds of society’ so that he could report ‘with a clear-eyed simplicity the story of a pilgrimage’,16 whilst the New York Times praised him as ‘the best modern writer of the saga of vagabondage’.17 The book was effective precisely because its author allowed the spirituality of the pilgrims to emerge from skilful pen portraits of their foibles and their piety, rather than seeking to link it to his more abstruse ideas about ‘Holy Russia’, or to complex pseudo-metaphysics, as in A Tramp’s Sketches. It was an approach that he successfully repeated in his next book, With Poor Immigrants to America (1914), which described a journey across the Atlantic with hundreds of émigrés bound for the New World from Eastern Europe. Both Russian Pilgrims and Poor Immigrants contained numerous photographs, most of them taken by Graham, which allowed readers to see for themselves the people and sites he described. Graham had not abandoned the spirit of Ygdrasil—if it can be so called—and he was throughout his life convinced that a genuine understanding of people and places required an ‘idealism’ that allowed insights that eluded those who adopted a materialistic view of the world. His early books on Russia cannot be fully understood without realising how his vision of the country was shaped by his ideas about the relationship between the ‘Little World’ and the ‘somewhere-out-beyond’. Much of Graham’s best work was, though, characterised by his sharp observation of the things he saw rather than his more convoluted ideas about Holy Russia and the nature of Russian spirituality. The 19th-century critic Dmitrii Pisarev once said of the Slavophile writer Ivan Kireevskii that ‘he was born an artist but for some reason imagined himself to be a thinker’. They are words that might usefully be applied to Stephen Graham as he sought to explain Russia for his readers back home in Britain.


  1   The Times, 20 March 1975.

  2   Stephen Graham, Vagabond in the Caucasus (London, 1911), p. 111.

  3   ‘Pis’ma znatnogo inostrantsa’, Letopis’ (April 1916), pp. 288-99.

  4   For the draft of an unfinished biography of Nesterov by Graham, see Florida State University, Strozier Library, Special Collections, Stephen Graham Papers, Box 576.

  5   On Russian Symbolism, see Avril Pyman, A History of Russian Symbolism (Cambridge, 1994).

  6   Graham, Vagabond, p. 288.

  7   Times Literary Supplement, 26 May 1927 (in a review of Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping).

  8   For a report of a public meeting at the National Liberal Club, where Graham faced sharp criticism for his supposedly negative views towards Russian Jews, see The Guardian, 19 January 1915.

  9   P. Anderson Graham, The Rural Exodus (London, 1892).

10   Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London, 1964), p. 14.

11   Stephen Graham, Undiscovered Russia (London, 1912), p. ix.

12   All the following quotations are taken from the manuscript of Ygdrasil, located in the Graham Papers held at the Harry Ransom Centre (University of Texas).

13   Stephen Graham, A Tramp’s Sketches (London, 1913), p. 206, hereafter TS.

14   Stephen Graham, Changing Russia (London, 1913), p. 28, hereafter CR.

15   Stephen Graham, With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem (London, 1913), pp. 3, 11,. hereafter RP.

16   Athenaeum, 20 September 1913.

17   New York Times, 9 November 1913.