26 August 2015
Mystic musings and Thomas Cook: Esper Ukhtomskii in the Orient
August 26th is the anniversary of the birth of Esper Esperovich Ukhtomskii, Russian orientalist scholar, collector, journalist and poet. His most famous and lasting work is Puteshevestvie na vostok Ego Imperatorskogo Vysochestva Gosudaria Naslednika Tsesarevicha, 1890-1891, highly competently translated into English as Travels in the East of Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia when Cesarewitch, 1890-1891.
Portentous title apart, the book is readable and beautifully written, a cross between a lush evocation of tropical travel and a manifesto for his pupil, the young Nicholas II. Ukhtomskii accompanied Nicholas on his educational “grand tour” as an informal tutor, and the book expounded both foreign and domestic policy. Ukhtomskii was as convinced as Nicholas was that Russia could only thrive under the Tsar’s autocratic rule, and both men believed that this gave their country a mystical link to Asia. “[Russians have] a totally different character from the spirit of the average modern European, stifled as it is by rational materialism,” Ukhtomskii writes. “Countless times has Asia flooded Russia with her hordes, crushed her with her attack, transforming her into something akin to Persia and Turkestan, India and China. To the present day, beyond the Caspian, the Altai Mountains and Lake Baikal, we cannot find a clearly defined border … beyond which our rightful land ceases to be.”
His “Asianist” views coloured his perception of every country they visited. The party passed through Greece before setting sail for North Africa, and Ukhtomskii was notably unimpressed by the remains of classical civilization: “our imagination still sleeps. It does not see the majesty of bygone days, nor has the dry list of ancient names anything to say to it.” His ennui was probably at least in part because he did not think that Russia had any classical roots.
In British-run Egypt, he sat on the deck of their Nile cruiser dreaming of “hundreds of ships, bearing to Thebes the treasures of the south and of the east” - only to be rudely interrupted by “the unsightly outline of one of [Thomas] Cook’s narrow two-storied steamers, bearing a party of foreign tourists, who with feverish haste attempt to ‘do’ Upper Egypt.” Herein lies an irony, for Ukhtomskii’s own lush writings are quite similar to the guidebooks that the other foreign tourists consulted as they swarmed the decks of Cook’s steamers and rode donkeys into the desert in search of ruined temples. All are preoccupied with oldness and exoticism, with colours and smells; all talk nostalgically, as visitors have done since the dawn of time, of the days when sites were less crowded and true travellers not forced to share their holidays with groups of ignorant trippers!
In India, where he was closely watched by a British agent, Ukhtomskii dismissed “the supposed brotherhood between the Anglo-Saxon and the Aryan race of India,” as “no more than a sentimental fiction,” before claiming that Russia’s village communes were remarkably like India’s. Yet, just like other mystically-inclined Europeans of his age, he revelled in the mythology of Rajputana, "a civilization which has survived many and many a revolution, retaining the purity of its blood and of its spirit....That real, almost prehistoric India, of which each one of us has had his unconscious daydreams as he read extracts from Ramayana and Mahabharata.”
As the convoy of ships bearing the imperial party steamed on across the Indian Ocean, he immersed himself in the scenery. “The nights! What words can describe the phosphorescent glow on the stormy horizon. The silver crests of the waves rise with a measured motion out of the impenetrable gloom beneath it; furrows of sparks spread, like a diamond fan, in the wake of the frigate. The whole of the Milky Way seems to be reflected in the mysterious blue depths beneath us and above us, while in the distance the lightnings blaze and flash.”
Ukhtomksii most enjoyed the countries which were not under colonial rule, notably Siam. In China, he was saddened by the degeneration of the great civilization, but heartened to think that the Mongols provided a cultural and religious link between Russia and China. Here, he decided (in this nation whose territory happened to be useful to her trans-Siberian railway project!), Russia would play her vital role as the empire which straddled eastern and western civilizations. “Who and what can save China from dismemberment and the foreign yoke? Russia alone, I am inclined to think.”
His view of Japan was less benevolent, and more nuanced than his opinion of some other eastern nations. He found it a country with “a very peculiar past and a very problematic future…a rooted tendency to exalt in their most secret thoughts and feelings their ancient world, while carrying the imitation of contemporary Europe and America to the greatest extremes…despising the stranger in their hearts yet submissively learning of him.” Nicholas followed an eastward-focused foreign policy in the early part of his reign which would culminate in a disastrous war with this nascent modern power.
Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager, Metadata Creation Programmes
Ukhtomskii, E. E. Puteshevestvie na vostok Ego Imperatorskogo Vysochestva Gosudaria Naslednika Tsesarevicha, 1890-1891 (St Petersburg, 1893-6). Two copies at 1790.a.11 and X 691
Ukhtomskii, E. E. Travels in the East of Nicholas II., Emperor of Russia, when Cesarewitch, 1890-1891, translated by R. Goodlet (London: 1896-1900).Two copies at Tab.439.a.7. and Wf1/0786