This is an account of Stallybrass and Swan, two protestant missionaries who spent the 1820s and 1830s trying to evangelise the Buryat Mongols of eastern Siberia. It is a dismal tale, very capably told, of dogged heroism ground down to nothing by misfortune, apathy and oriental politics.
The diligence of the missionaries was stupendous. They learned Russian in order to learn Mongolian, then translated the whole Bible into the latter tongue — not from any English version, mind, but from the original Hebrew and Greek! For relaxation they compiled dictionaries of Tibetan. Mrs. Stallybrass, in between the annual pregnancies which soon killed her off, ran a girls’ school and served cream teas to very occasional European visitors.
It was all futile. For one thing the Buryats already had a religion just as profound as that on offer from the missionaries, for they had taken up Buddhism some decades before. Like the Tibetans who had converted them, the Buryats fortified this mild faith with infusions of their own aboriginal shamanism.
The mixture, though no doubt it seemed weird to Stallybrass & Co., proved sufficient for all the spiritual needs of Siberian nomads. They saw no point in abandoning a God they had so recently acquired.
C.R. Bawden puts his finger on the problem when he asks: “Did Edward [Stallybrass] ever stop to wonder how a wandering Buryat lama would have been received … if he had made his way into the church at Stepney and started handing out lamaist prayers?”
Furthermore the lamas were less censorious than their Christian competitors in the matter of Siberian leisure-time activities which, then as now, centred around drunkenness and fornication. There was also the question of race. The Buryats suspected that the evangelists wanted to turn them into Russians — a fate which they felt, quite rightly, it would be wise to avoid.
For all that the ground was so stony, the missionaries’ faith never wavered. They would have gone on preaching and translating till they dropped, given the chance. It was not given. They had been admitted to the Russian Empire while Protestantism was enjoying a vogue at the court (remember Pierre in War and Peace flirting with the Masons). When that mood changed, the Siberian authorities — both lay and clerical — fell to plotting. In 1840 they engineered an Imperial ukase expelling the mission.
The failure of the enterprise was total. Within a generation the locals had forgotten all about it. Now, 150 years later, the Russians are farther from Christianity than ever. Farther, indeed, from spiritual consolations of any kind, for they have been swallowed up in the great slave empires of modern oriental despotism, whose rulers enforce the belief — if it can be called a belief — that the universe contains nothing but lumps of stone and flesh. Whether this pitiless dogma is any more welcome to the Buryats than was the gospel of Christ, we cannot know, for they are not allowed to tell us.