Lewis Carroll In Holy Russia

Extracts from his Journal of a tour in Russia in 1867.

Lewis Carroll is known to us chiefly for his creation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other charming fantasies which delighted Victorian parents and children, and continues to be a source of pleasure even in the twenty-first century. However, Carroll was a man of many parts and we would be wronging him to think of him solely as a writer of nonsense stories and verse.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1897) was reared in a Christian home, being the son of a Church of England parson, and was himself typical of nineteenth-century Anglicanism. Originally intended for the Church he was ordained a deacon in 1861, but feeling himself unsuited for parochial work he did not proceed to priest’s orders, preferring instead to become a lecturer in Mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford.

It was in 1867, two years after the publication of Alice’s Adventures under the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll, that he and his friend, Canon Henry Liddon, decided to visit Russia. Travelling by way of Brussels, Cologne and Berlin they reached St. Petersburg on 27 July (N S) after a train journey of twenty-eight hours, Carroll was delighted with his first glimpses of the Imperial Capital and wrote excitedly:

“We had only time for a short stroll after dinner, but it was full of wonder and novelty. The enormous width of the streets … the little droshkies that went running about, seemingly quite indifferent as to running over anybody, … the enormous illuminated signboards over the shops, and the gigantic churches with their domes painted blue and covered with gold stars -& the bewildering jabber of the natives all contributed to the wonders of our first walk in St Petersburg.”

En route to the hotel they passed a wayside shrine,

“ … beautifully ornamented & gilt inside and out, & containing a crucifix, pictures, etc. Nearly all the poor who went by uncovered their heads, bowed towards it, & crossed themselves many times – a strange sight in the midst of busy crowds.”

The following day Carroll and Liddon visited St. Isaac’s Cathedral, but as the service was in Slavonic they found it beyond all hope of comprehension. They were much impressed by the unaccompanied singing, and also the size of the building:

“There were so few windows that it would be nearly dark inside, if it were not for the many ikons that are hung round it with candles burning before them.”

His Protestant upbringing manifests itself in the observations he has to make upon the worship of the congregation, whose only share in the service was to bow and cross themselves, and sometimes kneel down and touch the ground with their heads,

“One would hope that this was accompanied by some private prayer, but it could not have been so in all cases: I saw quite young children doing it, with no expression on their faces which even hinted that they attached any meaning to it, & one little boy …. Whose mother made  him kneel down and put his forehead to the ground, could not have been more than 3 years old.”

Carroll’s aesthetic sense found the vestments of the clergy quite splendid and the service with its processions and incense similar to the one he had seen at the Roman Catholic Church in Brussels. Yet his religious conscience caused him to feel,

“The more one sees of these gorgeous services, with their many appeals to the senses, the more I think one learns to love the plain, simple (but to my mind far more real) service of the English Church.”

During the next few days they visited all there was to see, including the markets. Here they found dozens of shops devoted to the sale of ikons, ranging from little rough paintings an inch or two in length, up to elaborate pictures a foot or more in length, where all the faces and hands consisted of gold. They visited the imperial tombs in the Fortress of SS Peter and Paul. In the Cathedral Church, which they found “magnificent rather than beautiful”, the tombs of the Tsars since Peter the Great presented a striking contrast to the grand array of gold and jewels. They were all exactly alike, of white marble, with a gold ornament at each comer, a massive gold cross lying on top, and the inscription on a gold plate; but no other ornament.

At the beginning of August, Carroll and Liddon set off to the old capital, Moscow, which they found even more wonderful than Peter the Great’s ‘Window on the West’,

“A city of white and green roofs, of conical towers that rise ono out of another like a fore-shortened telescope of bulging gilded domes, in which you can see as in a looking-glass, distorted pictures of the city; of churches which look, outside, like bunches of variegated cactus (some branches crowned with green prickly buds, others with blue, and others with red and white), & which, inside, are hung all round with ikons & lamps, & lined with illuminated pictures up to the very roof …”

On 5 August they attended an early celebration of the Divine Liturgy held at the Petrovski Monastery, it being the anniversary of the consecration. Bishop Leonide, suffragan to the Metropolitan of Moscow, officiated and after the service was over,

“The bishop, having been disrobed of the gorgeous vestments before the altar, came out in a plain black gown, while the people crowded round him as he went, to kiss his hand.”

After breakfast the two intrepid Englishmen visited St Basil’s Cathedral which they found as quaint (almost grotesque) within as without, it consisting of several churches under one roof. Then followed a tour of the Treasury where they saw thrones and crowns, and jewels “until one began to think that those three articles were rather more common than blackberries. On some of the thrones, etc. the pearls were literally showered like rain.” In the sacristy of the Patriarchal Palace they found a further untold wealth in vestments, thick-set with pearls and jewels, crucifixes and ikons. Here were also three enormous silver cauldrons in which the Holy Myron was made, for use in baptism etc, which was supplied from Moscow to the sixteen bishoprics of the Empire.        

In the Cathedral they found a wedding in. progress. Carroll was much impressed by the deacon who “delivered several recitative portions of the service in the most magnificent bass voice I ever heard, rising gradually (I should say by less than half a note at a time, if that is possible), & increasing in volume of sound as he rose in the scale, until his final note rang through the building like a chorus of many voices. I could not have conceived that one voice could have produced such an effect.” He was quite surprised by the; crowning of the couple, the Orthodox wedding service being called a “Coronation”, and thought it very nearly grotesque,

“Two gorgeous golden crowns were brought in, which the officiating priest first waved before them, & then placed on their heads – or rather, the unhappy bridegroom had to wear his, but the bride, having prudently arranged her hair in a rather complicated manner with a lace-veil, could not have put hers on, but had it held over her by a friend. The bridegroom, in plain evening dress, crowned like a king, ‘holding a candle, & with a face of resigned misery, would have been pitiable if he had not been so ludicrous.”

The following Sunday, after attending Morning Service at the English Church, they were received by Bishop Leonide. They were both delighted by his gentle winning manner – “the sort of manner that puts people at their ease in a moment.”

The next day they accompanied Bishop Leonide to the Troitsa Monastery, where they were placed in a side room which opened into the chancel. Carroll noted that from their position, 

“We enjoyed the unusual privilege of seeing the clergy communicate – a ceremony for which the doors of the chancel are always shut, & the curtains drawn, so that the congregation never witness it. It was a most elaborate ceremony, full of crossings, & waving of incense before everything that was going to be used, but also clearly full of much deep devotion. Towards the end of the service one of the monks brought round a dish of loaves, and gave us each one: these had been blessed, & their presenting the loaves to us was to signify that we had been remembered in their prayers.”

In the afternoon they were taken to the Metropolitan’s palace.by Bishop Leonide and there presented to the Metropolitan Philaret, one of the greatest Orthodox hierarchs of the nineteenth century. Afterwards they were conducted round by one of the theological students, who even took them to the subterranean cells of the hermits, in which some of them had lived for many years. Carroll comments, “We were shown the doors of two of the  inhabited ones: it was a strange & not quite comfortable feeling, in the dark narrow passage where each had to carry a candle, & to know that a human being was living within, with only a small lamp to give him light, in solitude and silence-day and night….”     

The following day Carroll attended at the ceremony of the “blessing of the water’, which took place partly in the Cathedral and partly on the banks of the Moskva. The procession was tremendous, consisting of some thirty, or forty large banners carried by three men, followed by a train of priests, deacons and other orders, in glittering robes and bearing large candles or ikons, the whole being terminated by four bishops and a crowd of singing men and boys in blue and red uniform. After the service a deacon carried a- vessel of water away from the river, “there was a wild rush made by everyone near him to put their lips to it, & the result was that the water was dashed in all directions over the bystanders & nearly all of it spilt.”

On 15 August they rode out to the New Jerusalem Monastery, which had been built by the Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century. Here they were put in the hands of a Russian monk, “the genuine article”, one who  ignored all other languages” and were guided around the churches which  formed the monastery. All were built in imitation of the actual shrines in the Holy Land, even including the “Jordan”, the “Pool of Bethesda”, and the “Well of Samaria”. They also, visited the “Hermitage”, where the Patriarch had spent his exile.

“It looks at a small house from the outside, but contains a great many rooms, some miniature as hardly to deserve the name, connected by low narrow passages & winding stairs: the bedroom is about 6 feet long & wide: the bed, which is of stone, with a stone pillow, is about 5ft 9in long, and as it reaches right across the end of the room, with a place hollowed in the wall for the feet, the bishop, who was a tall man, must always have lain in a cramped position. The whole thing looks more like a toy-model of a house than a real one, & the bishop’s life must have been one of continual mortification, only to be surpassed by that of the domestics, who lived in a tiny cellar entered by a door about 4 feet high, and with only a glimmer of daylight admitted.”

The rest of the stay was a full round of sightseeing, with Church services playing an important part. At the Greek Church, Carroll was able to follow the service book, and join in throughout “excepting one or two passages’ referring to the Virgin Mary.” They left Russia on 26 August and we have to be grateful to the creator of Alice for his most interesting and historic glimpse of Holy Russia.

These extracts have been taken from The Works of Lewis Carroll (Spring Books, 1968) edited by Roger Lancelyn Green.

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