Undiscovered Russia — 1912

I recently ran across a book published in 1912 entitled ‘Undiscovered Russia’, by Stephen Graham, an English traveler.  The quotes by Merezhkovsky are particularly noteworthy.  It’s very interesting to read in light of the tidal wave of revolution that was to break upon Russia just after this was written —


Russian life is not known in England. The Slavonian land is not so far away but that the picture might have been visible had it not been for the dust raised between us in these years.

Russia is not a land of bomb-throwers ; is not a land of intolerable tyranny and unhappiness, of a languishing and decaying peasantry, of a corrupt and ugly Church that at least may be said right away in the forefront of this book.

The Russians are an agricultural nation, bred to the soil, illiterate as the savages, and having as yet no ambition to live in the towns. They are strong as giants, simple as children, mystically superstitious by reason of their unexplained mystery. They live as Ruskin wished the English to live, some of them, as he tried to persuade the English to live by his “Fors Clavigera.”

They are obediently religious, seriously respectful to their elders, true to the soil they plough, content with the old implements of culture, not using machinery or machine-made things, but able themselves to fashion out of the pine all that they need.

But they have all the while been doing this, and have never fallen away as the English have. There is no ” back to the land ” problem in Russia, nor will there be for a hundred years.

The Liberal press and the revolutionaries would like to educate the peasantry to give them a vote. They would at the same time place no restraints on Russian manufacture and the freedom of town life, and so once more betray the country to the town and rush into all the errors of Western Europe.

England has fallen away from the soil and ceased to produce its own food, and not Ruskin, nor all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could replace her where she was.

If Russia falls away, there will be one less humble toiling nation, one less bread-producing land. Someone has said, “It is the folly of democracy that it wishes to* make all lower orders upper orders ” that may turn out to be an international folly.

The English have done supremely well as a nation, but the inclination of their character and the way of their development is not the same as that of other nations.

Indeed it would be difficult to imagine two races more radically divergent from one another than Teutonic and Slavonic. Russian and Englishman are more unknown to one another than man and woman.

In the words of Merezhkovsky, speaking to the rest of Europe:

“We resemble you as the left hand resembles the right ; the right hand does not lie parallel with the left, it is necessary to turn it round. What you have, we also have, but in reverse order ; we are your underside.

“Speaking in the language of Kant, your power is phenomenal ours tran- scendental ; speaking in the language of Neitzsche, you are Apollonian, we Dionysian. Your genius is of the definite, ours of the infinite.

“You know how to stop your- selves in time, to find a way round walls, or to return ; we rush onward and break our heads.

“It is difficult to stop us. We do not go, we run ; we do not run, we fly ; we do not fly, we fall. You love the middle ; we, the extremities.

“You are sober, we drunken ; you, reasonable, we lawless. You guard and keep your souls, we always seek to lose ours.

“You possess, we seek. You are in the last limit of your freedom ; we, in the depth of our bondage have almost never ceased to be rebellious, secret, anarchic and now only the
mysterious is clear.

“For you, politics knowledge ; for us religion. Not in reason and sense, in which we often reach complete negation nihilism but in our occult will, we are mysteries.”

We have to tolerate and understand this new nation which is growing daily more articulate. Then, as the boundary lines become fainter on continental maps and the era of cosmopolitanism dawns, we may ask ourselves as Europeans rather than as Englishmen “Who are our brothers living away to the East, making food for us ; what are they to us, and what is their contribution to the whole.”

Russia lies at the back, an undiscovered country, peopled by a fresh and original peasantry. Far from the railways, round churches in forest clearings, in verdant half-forgotten river valleys, where Western clothes and Western culture never penetrate, lives a lost family of our brothers.

It is among them that I have been wandering and living. Here is Russian life as I have seen it and understood it in remote unknown parts where Western Europeans have never travelled.

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