John Muir in Russia, 1903
by William H. Brennan
(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
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
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
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
It was a land steeped in mystery, mysticism
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
The ride itself was rough and unpleasant.
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
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.
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
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
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"
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.
there were still sites to see and officials to encounter.
"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.
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.
like a typical tourist from any age, Muir made the rounds.
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
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
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
AMSS Journal, Reel 29: World Tour Part I (June
- July, 1903), pp. 9-10.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., pp. 10-12.
Ibid., pp. 13-19.
(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
. One can easily imagine him relishing in the
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
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
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."
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
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
Here was a poignant moment. Looking for scenery,
Muir had perceived something profoundly different: the melancholic
strain of Russian history.
Notes for Part Two
John Muir, World Tour Part I
(June-July, 1903), AMSS Journal,
Microfilm, Reel 29, pp. 20-21.
Ibid., pp. 22-24.
Ibid., pp. 25-27.
Ibid., pp. 28-29.
Ibid., pp. 29-30.
(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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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
AMSS Journal, Reel 29: World Tour, Part I (June - July, 1903), p. 38.
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."
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.
AMSS Journal, Reel 29: Russia; Far East (July 25 - August 17, 1903), p. 5.
Muir, World Tour, p. 63.