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John Muir in Russia, 1903

by William H. Brennan


Part One

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 3, No. 4, Fall 1993)

[Editor's note: Bill Brennan, a Russian and Soviet specialist, recently completed a study of Lenin that is scheduled for future publication. He has taught history at the University of the Pacific since 1976. This is the first of a three-part series, prepared especially for this publication.]


Old Russia was still very much alive eleven years before the outbreak of World War One and considered itself to be a great power with a destiny to protect and preserve Russian culture, Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian Empire. Under the double-headed eagle and the banner of St. George, the empire's borders had expanded until they encompassed the largest country in the world and stretched nearly half-way around the globe. And this huge country was still relatively unknown to the outside world.

Since the formation of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great, Russia's image had been vigorously projected abroad as one of power, strength, bureaucratic efficiency and immense wealth. Europe's statesmen and generals reacted to the image with concern and fear, believing, as an article of political and military faith, that a modern nation-state would commit national suicide if it allowed itself to be drawn into a conflict with this northern giant. Indeed, despite the humiliating disasters of the Crimean War (1853-1855) and the Russo Japanese War (1904-1905), it would not be until the great battles of the Eastern Front during The Great War that a different reality would be noticed, namely, that this Russia was a giant with clay feet. But the image remained, until it was shattered by modern warfare.

To the Russian people, however, Mother Russia presented a far different picture. This was a land of brooding forests, endless steppes, rivers great and small, swamps and lakes, spectacular mountains and arid deserts. In the summer, the relatively short growing season kept the majority of the population busy working the land to feed the nation however inadequately and to provide agricultural produce for export. In the winter, the long, cold season dumped, seemingly without end, a huge blanket of snow over most of the land. This was a country which gave to most of its population a hard life and, in 1903, the first glimmering promises of industrialization. It was a land steeped in mystery, mysticism and folk-lore. These were people who lived their Russian Orthodox faith in isolation from the rest of the Christian world but who believed it was the only true form of Christianity left. For them, at least according to the image, life was formed by mystical experiences, the church, the Tsar, fate and a long, long cultural and historical foundation that stretched back beyond memory. To the people, this was the "land of the firebird", kremlins, myriads of churches and cathedrals, and a god-like ruler who was styled "Tsar Of All The Russias" and who wore a jeweled crown whose origins were claimed to be from Roman times.

Foreigners from the West who visited Russia, from the medieval times to the 20th century, were invariably mystified, puzzled and sometimes frightened by what they saw and found. Richard Chancellor, the English trader who "rediscovered" Russia in the sixteenth century, found it to be a "rude and barbarous kingdom". The French Marquis de Custine, who traveled through the Russia of Nicholas I during the 1830s, judged the Russian Empire to be a vast, nation-wide prison whose people lived in fear and dread of the dark forces of the autocracy and its secret police. There were others, of course, both before and after these visitors from England and France, but the common thread running through their observations always seemed to be the same: Russia, to quote another famous English statesman of the twentieth century, was "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of an enigma."

When the American naturalist, John Muir, added a trip to Russia to the itinerary of his European and World Tour, which he planned to take in 1903, he most likely was unaware that he was about to join a fairly distinguished list of visitors who saw Old Russia and who returned home with more questions than answers. What he brought with him, however, was not just curiosity and a sense of adventure. He brought the proverbial American practicality and the trained eye of a naturalist. Thus, he would have noticed what others might have paid no attention to whatsoever. And he did. Fortunately for later generations, Muir's diary of that trip presents a rare glimpse into a Russia that, for the most part, no longer exists.

Muir's introduction to Russia's mysteries probably came as a pleasant surprise. Russia's railroads, he noted from his night- train trip from Germany to St. Petersburg, were definitely an improvement over those of the west. He spent the journey in a cramped, two-person compartment which was no more than four or five feet wide. The ride itself was rough and unpleasant. At the border of Russia, after the inevitable baggage and passport inspections, his party switched to a Russian train and noticed immediately that it was much more comfortable and the ride much more smooth than that provided by the German trains [1] . One can almost imagine him settling in his compartment and preparing himself to observe who knows what sights through the windows. As those familiar with Muir's love of nature might expect, he immediately began to take note of the surrounding countryside. His journal simply recounts that they quickly entered a country of "natural forests" -- spruce, birch, and pine trees. But these were not merely wild woodlands. This was a living picture post-card, a quilt, as it were, of incredible variety. He noted the patches of trees that abounded, some of one variety exclusively, others of mixed groups. He marveled at the display of different kinds of plants, such as abundant holly, that were interspersed with lakes, bogs and incredibly large expanses of swamp that sported "waterpond lilies" in abundance and beauty. His comments indicated that he understood why this scene appeared to be so pristine and pure: most of the land along the railroad was privately owned, but the owners could not clear the land without the permission of the government [2] . This scene must have seemed to Muir to be a most auspicious beginning of his adventure.

>From the moment of his arrival in St. Petersburg, Muir was exposed to both the magic and the beauty of Old Russia, and he seems to have taken it all in with his customary insights. He marveled at the sheer opulence of much that he was shown -- the "fine buildings", palaces and parks; galleries of western and Russian paintings; an endless stream of jewels, diamonds, charms, clocks, weapons, etc.; the house of Peter the Great that had been made into a shrine; the church and monument dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, complete with a wax figure with the clothes the tsar was wearing when he was assassinated in 1881; and the great equestrian statue of Peter the Great that had been immortalized by Pushkin's epic poem, "The Bronze Horseman". And what did Muir think of all this even as he marveled? It was, he noted, "of little interest" to him, since he considered even one of the paintings to be worth more than "all the beautiful barbarian rubbish" [3] .

He seemed to be uncomfortable in the Russian capital, and one can almost sense his eagerness to get beyond civilization Russian style and to plunge into the natural world that awaited him. But first there were still sites to see and officials to encounter. In the "grand office of the Department of Agriculture", he was politely received with low bows and energetic handshakes by a "ruddy old gentleman", who was "grandly clad and decorated" and who urged Muir to stick to the "Siberian trees" in the vicinity, since the natural forests, supposedly, were so bad as to be not worth seeing. To ensure that he was duly impressed by the local scenery, a young forestry man was assigned to accompany the American on his rounds through St. Petersburg and nearby towns. And Muir was promised any and all assistance that he might need during his stay. Sounding like a typical tourist from any age, Muir made the rounds. He visited the zoological gardens, which included a zoo housing bears, lions, tigers and other animal curiosities, including an old elephant that turned a hand organ with its trunk while beating a drum and cymbals with its foot, after which it retrieved "pennies" with its trunk and handed them to the keeper. Muir noted the cheap restaurants and playhouses where the government put on performances at a very minimum cost to the customers. He visited the Botanic Gardens maintained by the Department of Agriculture, commenting on the different types of plants he observed there. And he visited the Winter Palace, which he found to be extravagant, "an immense, sumptuous set of rooms and halls." Some, he felt, were tastefully decorated, while others were "barbaric in gold and ivory, precious stones, etc.."

His account of this one-day tour captures the enigmatic side of Russian life as well. His praise of the beauty of Peterhoff was like that of the Winter Palace. He was enthralled, it would seem, by the majestic beauty of the long marble stairways, the marble and gilded statues and images, and the great fountain with its 365 waterpipes, one for each day of the year, which sent up a geyser some thirty or forty feet into the air. But he also noted the bizarre -- the chapel which contained "ghastly relics" like what was claimed to be the hand of John the Baptist, a finger of one of the Apostles, and other such attractions. While he found impressive classical paintings in St. Petersburg, here he found an abundance of works which seemed to stress military themes, uniforms and decorations. All in all, it was a busy day, and Muir saw all that he could [4] . It was when he finally left the capital area on the next day that his diary began to take on a different note, suggesting that he felt more in his element. The countryside was what he had come for, and he was about to see for himself the natural beauty of Old Russia.

Notes for Part One

  1. John Muir, AMSS Journal, Reel 29: World Tour Part I (June - July, 1903), pp. 9-10.

  2. Ibid., p. 10.

  3. Ibid., pp. 10-12.

  4. Ibid., pp. 13-19.


Part Two

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 1994)

During the reign of the Empress Catherine the Great, who lived over a century before Muir's journey to Old Russia, a curious incident occurred. The Empress, noted for being near-sighted, had prepared a boat excursion for a group of European royalty. She had wanted to show them the countryside with its prosperity and happy peasants. Her one-time lover and now chief advisor, Gregory Potemkin, knew that the visitors were bound to see a far different reality. To avoid embarrassing the Tsarina, he ordered the construction of the facades of peasant villages along the river route. As the boat passed by, Catherine showed her distinguished guests a pleasant pastoral scene. The royal tourists, not fooled, were astonished that a modern sovereign would go this far to create a false impression. Thereafter "Potemkin's Village" became synonymous with autocratic attempts to create images that were designed both to hide the unpleasant realities of Russian life and to keep foreign eyes from detecting them.

In an ironic way, John Muir confronted this odd dynamic almost as soon as he left the cities and palaces and turned to the countryside. There he discovered some of the most glaring contradictions of life in the Empire. What he had seen in the cities and palaces of Old Russia had interested him but not overly so. His journal entries reveal a hint of impatience and uneasiness with strange scenes of opulence intermingled with barbarism. When the opportunity came to travel through the Russian countryside, he felt much more comfortable. His notes took on more detail, and, at times, his observations became philosophical. The hinterlands was what he had come to see, and yet they seemed to have astonished him. He may not have known it, but he was glimpsing the other side of Potemkin's Village.

On July 4th, Muir's party entered Finland, which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. He fell in love with the country immediately. Traveling by rail, foot and carriage, he took note of the wild nature of the terrain. The land here was flat and the soil sandy and saturated with water. While it was capable of sustaining agriculture -- he noted patches of rye, potatoes and other vegetables -- its dominating feature was the thick forest and the many bogs that reminded him of Alaska. He was impressed by the government's controlled clearing of trees in an area of constantly draining swamps [1] . One can easily imagine him relishing in the rugged beauty.

In the midst of this pastoral scene he abruptly came upon what he exploring the countryside, he was especially intrigued by something he clearly did not expect to see. There in the midst of this wild and beautiful scenery, he came upon what he described as "...the tallest and most uniform patch of manufactured forrest I have seen." Pine trees towering 100 to 140 feet in the air and three feet in diameter had been planted in neat, straight rows about twenty feet apart. He described their bark as rough and their branches and leaves as "pale and feathery." This was not merely a clean pine forest; it was filled with "very grand spruce" and other varieties of trees and plants with a "wealth of boughs." The ground cover was a lush grass "tall enough for the scythe." To complete the scene, fire breaks had been "carefully cleared" through the trees [2] . A most impressive, if highly manicured, landscape.

Moving on, Muir noted the quaint reception his party was given by Russian officials who had been sent to guide them through still more forest. He didn't mind the traditional horse-carts ("droskies"), which carried them over rough country roads, but probably felt relieved by having to walk over half way to the destination. Whatever he expected to see he did not indicate, but he did revel in discovering what he perceived to be a typical Finnish farm. It was a log house built on the edge of the dense forest. He was captivated by the beauty of the surrounding landscape: lush, open pastures, fields of hay, clumps of trees and banks of wild flowers. The farmer's family welcomed the party with traditional hospitality. He found them simple, clean, extremely cordial, and generous with a quaint lunch: "milk, sweet milk, delicious tea in tumblers with lemon, brown bread and white boiled eggs and wild strawberries and huckleberries with milk." Delighted with his visit, he left the farm reflecting on how he could "live in that home always and I could not help thinking that if ever I was very tired and required a long calm rest ... [ he would want to go to a Finnish farm ]. No pleasure so fine is to be found in all Petersburg palaces." [3]

After a brief rest in a hotel and further meetings with Russian officials, one of whom, a prince, gave him a general letter of introduction to whomever Muir might meet, the party took a steamer up the Narva River to Lake Ladoga. This was a different Russia, which he noted immediately. The lake itself he described as a "magnificent sheet of water" framed by thick forests. He was impressed by the "immense rafts of logs of different varieties" that were drawn by horses down the canal that connected the lake with inland waterways stretching all the way to the mighty Volga and then on to the Caspian Sea. Obviously, Old Russia possessed a thriving timber industry. But one wonders if he thought of the delightful family that had so generously treated his party at the "Finland farm" when he looked at the city located on the banks of the lake and the population that kept the industry going. It was, he noted, an old town, and it was populated by "rough looking rafters and sailors who drink much voodka (sic) and often get drunk...." This was a "dirty, ancient disorderly place." [4]

As if this unpleasant side of Russia were an opening to the other side of life, Muir suddenly found himself staring at a grim symbol of suffering Russia. The brooding walls of a great prison rose from an island in the middle of the river flowing out of Lake Ladoga. This fortress, originally build by Peter the Great, overpowered the tiny island. A somber Muir took in this "immense, isolated, silent prison." He was apparently told that it was reserved for "important prisoners" whose fate was unknown -- they had simply disappeared behind the walls, as if "buried at the bottom of the water." His heart was moved with pity for those inside:

Only the highest officials are said to know who is in it and the reasons or suspicions which caused their incarceration. Buried alive. Let him who enters here leave hope behind. The majestic flood of dark water noisilessly dividing [and] sweeping past this glowering stronghold of horrors.

This vision made a deep impact on Muir. He promised never to forget either the brooding prison or the placid waters of the lake with their borders of dark forests reaching up to touch a "grey rainy sky." [5] Here was a poignant moment. Looking for scenery, Muir had perceived something profoundly different: the melancholic strain of Russian history.

Notes for Part Two

  1. John Muir, World Tour Part I (June-July, 1903), AMSS Journal, Microfilm, Reel 29, pp. 20-21.

  2. Ibid., pp. 22-24.

  3. Ibid., pp. 25-27.

  4. Ibid., pp. 28-29.

  5. Ibid., pp. 29-30.


Part Three

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer 1994)

When Muir left the vicinity of Saint Petersburg, then the capital of Imperial Russia, it was with an obvious sense of relief. He had found Peter the Great's pride and joy a "huge semi-dismal old town, of huge yellow public buildings, war monuments, barbaric colored churches, cathedrals and palaces filled with armor, jewelry and some fine paintings," [1] and not much to his liking. At the same time he had encountered the contradictions of Old Russia in that area -- signs of culture and elegance on the one hand, evidence of oppression and poverty on the other. He seems to have found Russia's "Window on the West" unpleasant at best. Not even the beauty of the countryside, with its ever- present forest growing right down to the edge of both river and lake and broken occasionally by old, "squalid villages" interspersed with "handsome residences" built in "comfortable looking seclusion", was enough to keep him interested [2] . He was more than ready to leave the sights and sounds of the capital and its hospitable and demonstrative people, who sent him off with "much kissing and handkerchief shaking." [3]

The remainder of his journey through Russia was scheduled to occur in two legs. The first would take him east to Moscow and then south to the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains; from there he would return to Moscow. The second would expose him to Siberia, from which he was scheduled to enter Manchuria. What he encountered on these adventures must have astounded even his naturalist's eyes, for the journal entries began to take on a sense of awe and to indicate a much more detailed interest. The Russia he now discovered did not look to the west; instead the country faced the south and east. This was the real "Old Russia", and Muir was about to discover the land whose traditions and customs dated back centuries while remaining an incredibly beautiful and varied landscape. At the same time, he would also see many of the contradictions he had noted before.

What strikes the modern reader of Muir's journal, especially if one is aware of the tragic and melancholic fate that awaited modern Russia, beginning with the First World War and the revolutions of 1917, is what Muir described concerning the sheer beauty and incredible richness of the land. There is not a hint that he found the countryside anything but prosperous. In fact, he seemed almost overwhelmed by what his eyes were able to take in.

From the moment he left Saint Petersburg on the final legs of his journey, he registered astonishment at nature's abundance in this strange land. Dense forests growing to the edge of roadways and railway tracks formed steep canyon walls unlike anything he had ever seen. He described huge tracts of forest that extended as far as the eye could see and varied in species of trees from locale to locale. Thick pine forests and mixed varieties that included fir, larch and birch trees among others seemed endless. He noted that the Urals were covered by the most densely growing pine forests he had ever seen, while in Siberia he marveled at birch forests that covered hills and valleys from horizon to horizon. To add to this natural beauty, there were whole regions that were covered for mile after mile with wildflowers of every variety, including some that were new to Muir.

It was not the wild vegetation alone that impressed him, however. This area of Russia included the main food-producing regions of the empire, and, as Muir saw it, it was a most incredibly abundant land. There is no indication in his notes that Muir was aware that this same land had proven itself capable of delivering catastrophic disasters upon the people, i.e., the great famine of 1891-1892. What he discovered was what clearly appeared to be an agricultural cornucopia. Corn and wheat fields that extended for miles and produced incredibly rich harvests were accompanied by fields of rye, oats, barley and other grains that seemed to overflow with production. There were huge areas of pastureland supporting abundant herds of cattle and other livestock animals, including geese, in great numbers. Even areas that had been cleared out of the ever-present forests and valleys nestled between towering Caucasian peaks seemed to be exceedingly fertile. But as if to remind the American observer of the realities of human existence in this land of plenty, there were also signs of hardship and labor: fields left to lie fallow rather than subjected to the benefits of modern or natural fertilization, harvesting done by hand rather than machine. Despite these signs, however, there must have been no doubt in his mind that this was truly a land flowing with milk and honey [4] .

Muir was also astonished at the varied geography unfolding before him. Breath-taking vistas awaited him on every side. He marveled at the enormous extent of the southern steppes, with areas displaying shoulder-high grasses as far as the eye could see side by side with the abundantly-producing cultivated fields. The barren hills and mountains on the northern coast of the Black Sea had a raw beauty of their own, which he duly noted. The towering peaks of the Caucasus Mountains rivaled anything he had ever seen elsewhere and clearly excited him. He described roadways carved out of solid rock, railways following rushing mountain streams of clear cold water, and occasional side trips through the scenic areas he loved best. In Siberia he encountered huge rivers and their tributaries flowing to the north and disappearing into the arctic regions as well as endless mountain chains interspersed with valleys under cultivation that were not as fertile as those of southern Russia but were still able to produce crops. There was such a variety of scenes that the country reminded Muir at different times of the American West, including the Grand Canyon and the Plains, Alaska, the Hudson River gorge and Canada [5] .

Interestingly enough, he had little to say about the cities he encountered, as if his experiences in Saint Petersburg had been enough for him. He noted the curious and sometimes odd architectural style that characterized Moscow at that time, including the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral, but was relatively unimpressed. Some of Russia's older cities, including the once great city of Tver, received a passing note, but little more. Sebastopol was a typical port city, and his brief stay there was highlighted by a trip to an old monastery perched precariously on the edge of the cliffs hundreds of feet above the Black Sea. Other cities were obviously not attractive to him at all. Tiflis, for example, he described as a "dirty, hot, dry town" with "crooked, ill-paved streets" and a market place "filled with curious traders and people." Its only redeeming quality for Muir seems to have been a botanic garden filled with thousands of plant forms from the region [6] . Others received hardly a passing note of recognition.

When Muir and his party entered Manchurian territory, he could not have appreciated fully the glimpse he had been given of Old Russia, the Land of the Firebird. For him, it was a mixture of barbarism and modernity populated by a wide range of peoples of vastly different classes and ethnic groups. The range of human experience had covered the spectrum from surly river workers to hard-working traditional peasants, from the highest aristocrats to the lowest workers. The extremes of creativity were obvious, whether he was passing through still another Palace of Arts or gazing reflectively on the walls of a tsarist prison whose inmates were supposedly doomed to a life without hope. And this was surely a land of endless surprises, apparent prosperity and incredible natural beauty. Muir's mind being what it was, how could he not remember Old Russia with anything but fondness? He had been given a glimpse into the past; he could only speculate about the future.

Notes for Part Three

  1. John Muir, AMSS Journal, Reel 29: World Tour, Part I (June - July, 1903), p. 38.

  2. Ibid., pp. 34-35.

  3. Ibid., pp. 35-36. While Muir found the young women of the upper classes to be generally attractive, he noted that the women as a whole were "too stout."

  4. Ibid., pp. 40-42. There is no indication in his journal that Muir was aware that hardly ten years earlier Russia had endured a catastrophic famine.

  5. Muir, AMSS Journal, Reel 29: Russia; Far East (July 25 - August 17, 1903), p. 5.

  6. Muir, World Tour, p. 63.


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