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Observer of a doomed empire

by
16 January 2015

Michael Bourdeaux on a travel writer forced off course in 1917

Beyond Holy Russia: The life and times of Stephen Graham
Michael Hughes
Open Book Publishers £19.95
(978-1-78374-012-3)

THIS comprehensive biography of a forgotten writer might have been called A Long Way Beyond Holy Russia. Stephen Graham was a remarkable man, who was considered to be the British expert on Russian Church and society in the years leading up to the Revolution of 1917, but he more or less abandoned his interest afterwards, when he could no longer receive a visa to travel to the Soviet Union.

Graham's travels in Russia as a young man resulted in five books between 1911 and 1913, the most remarkable of which was With Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem. Anyone who reads this today will be uplifted at the description of Russian popular piety and the author's identification with his subject. As a result, he was frequently consulted about the "real" Russia by leading politicians, though not so much, it seems, by archbishops.

Graham was in a unique position to expose Bolshevik persecution of religion, but he did not. His interests were deflected by travelling in the United States, while he transferred his spiritual allegiance to the Serbian Orthodox Church, describing Stalin as "a man of sagacity and will who carried the revolution to its present stage".

Michael Hughes has researched exhaustively throughout the voluminous but scattered archives that Graham left at his death in 1975, aged 90, by which time he had long been forgotten as a figure of influence. Hughes lists 51 full-length books, comprising novels, historiography, and autobiography, as well as a lifelong stream of travel writing. In the early part of his life, he was employed as a full-time roving journalist, not least for The Times (53 other newspapers and magazines are listed).

Surveying this massive oeuvre in detail, Hughes gives us the impression that his subject was a superb journalist and travel writer, but little better than a third-rate novelist (he actually withholds such a judgement). At heart, it seems, Graham never completely abandoned his early allegiance to theosophy, a pseudo-religion that was popular a century ago.

Beyond Holy Russia is a masterly biography. Graham's weaknesses and strengths leap from the page; and, though the focus is on one man, an era (the inter-war period) opens out before us: the book is compulsively readable.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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