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Sophia Wellbeloved reviews: THE NEW AGE OF RUSSIA

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THE NEW AGE OF RUSSIA: OCCULT AND ESOTERIC DIMENSIONS

edited Birgit Menzel, Michael Hageneister and Bernice Glazzeer Rosenthatl

SLCCEE, Volume17, – Berlin,Verlag Otto Sagner 2011

Hardcover, 451 pages,

Select Bibliography Michael Hagemeister

Twelve illustrations

ISBN 978-3-86688-197-6)

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This volume is divided into four sections:

Prerevolutionary Roots and Early Soviet Manifestations  (five chapters)

Manifestations in the Soviet Period (1930 – 1985)  (four chapters)

The Occult Revival in Late and Post Soviet Russia (1985 to the Present) (seven chapters)

Comparative Aspects, Continuity and Change (two chapters)

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Birgit Menzel provides a comprehensive introduction. Especially useful in addition to her summaries of individual chapters are some of the reasons she gives why the borders between science, religion and the occult in Russia have differed from those in the West, along with other difficulties for researchers in these fields. Some, as may be imagined, are due to the search for scattered material, some arise from language and translation differences between scholars. Others which must pose considerable problems are due to differences in terminology:

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The terms Occult and New Age have been rejected by most Russian members of, what I will call here the occult underground,(p 18).

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Terms defined in Western scholarship need modification, or further explanation when applied to Russian material, (p 19).

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Specialist and General Readers

My own reading of The New Age in Russia is from the perspectives of both the specialist and general reader. I fit into both categories, having some specialist knowledge of G. I. Gurdjieff and Fourth Way teachings, but little background in Russian studies.

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Although primarily a book for the specialist reader in Russian 20th century studies in relation to occultism and esotericism, this collection of essays which examines the origins and influences that formed the kaleidoscope of changing networks of esoteric and occult teachings, their interaction with changing political establishments, together with the prevailing political and international geo-political conditions, will also be of value to the general reader.

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There are two factors which, without in any way lessening the value of individual essays, may cause the non-specialist reader to take things slowly. The first is because the time indicated in the first three sections starts in the late eighteenth century and ends in ‘the present’, that is 2012, however; the essays could not be expected to form a sequential series. Most of the scholars need to establish what is happening before the period they focus on, and as the author of the introduction tells us some overlapping is inevitable. The effect of this on a reader who starts at the beginning and continues on sequentially is a kind of dizzy slippage as time seems to moves forwards, backwards and then forward once more. This displacement of the reader is intensified by the change in focus from essay to essay. Some offer a wide lens view of their subject matter whilst others present more of a close up.

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The second factor is that much of the subject matter, the influence of esoteric and occult teachings, their sources and backgrounds, the lineages of esoteric and occult teachings together with their relation to cultural influence, political actions and reactions, occur throughout most of the essays, and some of the same people occur in one, two or more essays albeit from differing perspectives and emphasis. For example, my own area of interest as mentioned above, is in Gurdjieff studies and the accounts given here have usefully expanded and repositioned my own understanding, placing him and his ideas in a common context relating to life in Russia before the flight to Europe and America. But these references occur in a number of different essays. Although there are some useful pointers within essays to related chapters, an index would have helped me to navigate this and other subject matters.

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New Age and New Identity

The overall impression given by these essays is that Russia was seeking a ‘New Age’ and a new identity for itself during the whole of the period covering at least the century from the 1880s to the 1980s, which saw almost continual turmoil, revolt, and repression manifesting in ways which often ran counter to uninformed Western assumptions. Russians faced a continuing need for redefinitions of interrelated forms of identity: at individual, local, national, and international levels, together with the simultaneous and contradictory need to preserve, hide or obliterate these identities. All of which makes for a tendency towards multiple, separate, blurred, ambiguous or contradictory personal and ideological identities in Russia.

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For example Jeffrey Kripal in his On Reading Russian Mystical Literature Upside Down (pp 421 – 431) reminds us of:

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the multiple censorship of the mystical,‘ [citing the] ‘almost total annihilationof members of the secret society the United Workers’ Brotherhood shot during the Great Terror 1937 – 38, (p 427).

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This might accord with stereotyped Western expectations. However: we learn from Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal that:

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In the 1920s and early ’30s, the secret police worked with the occultist Barchenko [of the United Worker’s Brotherhood] and the government funded Roerch’s search for Shamhala. In the 1960s and ’70s, the government denounced yoga as spiritual contraband, even while studying yogic breathing techniques, that could help astronauts, and it supported research on parapsychology, (Occultism as a Response to a Spiritual Crisis,p 400).

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The activities of Barchenko and Roerich are each the subject of essays. Barchenko in Oleg Shishkin’s The Occultist Aleksandr Barchenko and the Soviet Secret Police (1923-1938)(pp 81-100), and Nicholas Roerich in Markus Osterrieder’sFrom Synarchy to Shambhala: The Role of Political Occultism and Social Messianism in the Activities of Nicholas Roerich(pp 101-134)

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The Illustrations

The illustrations are a welcome and instructive addition to the text. Two of the images in colour are Married by Satan (1917) p 47, and KonstantineTsiolkovskii. A Polish lacquer miniature, ca. (1980) p 150. Both suggest a close association between the erotic and the occult/esoteric.

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The first, a poster for the film looks more like the sexual assault of a naked helpless woman by demons than a marriage, and appears in Julia Mannherz’s The Occult and Popular Entetainment in late Imperial Russia (pp 29-51). She explores ambivalent attitudes to the supernatural which nevertheless appeared as commercial attractions in newspapers.

Even instruction manuals and occult journals mirrored the same ambivalent attitudes … the boundaries were even more blurred in the circus arena, on stage or on the silver screen. In the performing arts, the rational and the mysterious merged within single productions, (p 38).

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[Artist Kukulieva Kaleriya Vasillievna b 1937]

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The portrait of Tsiolkovskii (1857-1935), regarded as the father of space travel, was made forty-five years after his death when ‘he had been made into a hero by Soviet propoganda‘. See see Michael Hagemeister’s essay Konstantine Tsiolkovskii and the Occult Roots of Soviet Space Travel (pp 135-150) which shows that Tsiolkovskii ‘s scientific resaerch into space travel was but a means to his esoteric ends which while they aimed for cosmic evolution leading to imortality demaded the horrifying notion of the destruction of all imperfect human beings, animals and most plants. Hagemeister writes that ‘The magical-esoteric understanding of science and technology is still prevalent in today’s Russia‘ p 148).

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The image shows him sitting with his feet on plans for space rockets, behind him a table of scientific equiment, and behind that again a dark sky with a suggestion of constellations and of the zodiac. His male sexual power has been emphasised by the use of phalic imagery (the rocket, his leg, the drapery), which here unites his career in both rocket science and esotericism, although, as we learn from the essay referred above, he ‘condemned sexual reproduction as ‘humiliating‘, p 139).

 

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Two black and white portraits emit extremes that express the times they belong in. The first on page 23 showing Gleb Ivanovich Bokii (1897-1937) in 1918, so thirty-nine or forty years old, looks more like a painting than a photograph and seen on the page it combines extreme contrasts between black and white to show the left side of the image with a dark face against a light halo shaped background and the right side of the face bright against a dark background, the ear seems to be pointed, the eyes glance upward showing white rims underneath in a way that, for those familiar with them, are remeniscent of images of Gurdjieff. This seems a staged image of occult/esoteric power but is of a member of the OGPU (the principal secret police agency responsible for the detection, arrest, and liquidation of anarchists […] in the early Soviet Union, (see note below) who was nevertheless attracted by esotericim. This image suggests the crossover, and/or interconnections between notions of political and occult power .

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The second striking image on p 178, is that of “Tosha” (Vladimir Shuktomv (1957-1987)), this is most probably a photograph which has a degenerating grainy surface quality that is also clearly of the time when dissidents transfered their allegence from political ideology to the rock music of Boris Brebenshikov and the couter-culture (see p 178).

I’ve given attention here to some of the illustrations because in my view though valuable additions, these are mostly underused and undervalued in academic texts.

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Cultural Influences

Russian culture was influenced both by esotericism and occultism, and by politics throughout the periods examined in The New Age of Russia, and I have not attempted a summary of what are in effect a series of summaries of the complex inter-relation of these influences. In brief, areas looked at include medicine, academic institutions and classifications, science, space travel, interplanetary travel, utopia, technology, science fiction, novels, popular culture, theatre, cinema, Shamanism, Tibetan Buddhism, Neo-Hinduism, Eastern mysticism, Theosophy, parapsychology, and Transpersonal Psychology, amongst others.

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Occult and New Age Movements in Russia from the 1960 s to the 1980s (pp151-185)

Birgit’ Menzel’s essay enables us to trace the complex paths taken from the first of these dates to the second, to acknowledge Russian connections with the East. and on the way to revise general Western assumptions about the New Age in Russia.

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Although there were some similarities with the New Age in Western countries: an interest in changing states of consciousness, experimentation with psychedelic mushrooms, (Castaneda’s writings arrived in Russia) and a love of rock music, this overview shows that there were also major differences and that these are worth understanding. She writes that the state system supported research into the occult or paranormal which would not have been regarded as science in the West, that the Russian New Age was mostly a province of the predominantly male intelligentsia, while in the West it was transmitted via popular culture. Western interest in sexuality and in perfecting the body, via diet, yoga, homoeopathy, and sexual expression. did not occur in Russia where the occult underground was more cerebral, with a stronger emphasis on theory than practice, ‘the ultimate goal was ridding oneself of the body rather than unifying, body mind and soul‘ ( p 185).

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Comparative Aspects, Continuity and Change.

In the first essay of the fourth section of the book Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal writes about Occultism as a Response to a Spiritual Crisis, (pp 391-420), covering a series of spiritual crises causes by the loss of faith in specific ‘myths’, or ‘all encompassing ideas’ to live by during the period from prerevoutionary and early Soviet Russia, through to Late and Post-Soviet Russia. When agrarian socialism, Marxism, Symbolism, and Futurism each failed in turn interest in occultism surged, in Theosophy and Theosophically influenced teachers amongst others.

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The United States has seen a similar series of crises aroused by ‘the fading appeal of the American civil religion, also known as the American Dream’ p 403). War, fears of nuclear war, the revelation of Nazi death camps, and a recognition of social injustice induced a refusal to accept the restrictions of prevailing cultural norms and were some of the factors that contributed to the counter-culture of ‘hippies’ and ‘beats’. This became an unprecedented surge in occultism from the 1960s to the present. She concludes that the uncertainties current in Russia and the USA that are likely to encourage a continued interest in occultism

 

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In the second essay of this section Jeffrey J. Kripal’s On Reading Russian Mystical Literature Upside Down (pp 421 – 431), observes the globalisation of esoteric movements which unlike religions are usually ‘very bad at maintaining stable communities, p 421). He wonders if:

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a mystical event may not only be culturally or politically dissident: it may also be cognitively and epistemologically dissonant, (p 424).

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and raises a number of issues that face the scholar of esotericism. These include the ‘censoring and suppressing ideologies of the modern-day academy, p 425), and he goes on to write that in this volume only Natalia Zhukovskaia in her Shamanism in the Russian Intelligentsia (Post Soviet Space and Time) (pp 328-3470, has been willing to recount her first hand experience as researcher-scholar, and in doing so shows the reader:

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Russian anthropologists and intellectuals taking on the practices and roles of the shaman themselves, in essence, going native, (p 430 431) emphasis added.

Kripal’s use of the poetic and archaic phrase, ‘going native’ is a telling one. With it he refers to  notions of an abandonment of ‘civilised values’, a descent into an irrational and inferior way of life. These are familiar nineteenth, if not eighteenth century attitudes, all of which we must assume are not his own attitudes but those of the ‘suppressing ideologies of the modern-day academy‘ (p 431 ).

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These are almost the final words in The New Age of Russia, and bring this intricate and detailed overview of a century and more of academic study firmly into one of the major contemporary academic debates.

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Acknowledgements and thanks are due to the editors who brought this valuable contribution to esoteric and occult studies to publication. It offers evidence of the human refusal to obey or stay within defined boundaries, while simultaneously longing for security. In Russia during the 20th century these conflicting desires were expressed by politically repressive boundries, serially accompanied by a refusal to accept or to be bound by fixed, enprisoning ideologies. The two unbounded areas that continued to defy definition and which remained open for exploration during the whole century were those of the inner life, and outer space.

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Notes

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This photograph  of Gleb Ivanovich Bokii (1897-1937) found in Google images, is clearly the source for the image described above.

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As a post script to the above here are a couple of definitions of terms and initials used in the text which may be of use to fellow non-Russianists, (retreived from Wikipedia (5.6.2012).

Samizdat(Russian: самизда́т; IPA: ) was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader.

Tamizdat,Samizdat,OGPU ,NKVD

refers to literature published abroad (там, tam, “there”), often from smuggled manuscripts.

Initials

The OGPU (1922-1934) was responsible for the creation of the Gulag system. It also became the Soviet government’s arm for the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Catholics, the Latin Catholics, Islam and other religious organisations […] The OGPU was also the principal secret police agency responsible for the detection, arrest, and liquidation of anarchists and other dissident left-wing factions in the early Soviet Union.

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NKVD stands for The People’s Commissariatfor Internal Affairs, Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del), abbreviated NKVD (1934 – 1954).

from the entry for State Political Directorate Wikipedia retrieved 29.5. 2012

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