Russia Through the Looking Glass
Russia gets into your blood. It got into mine when I studied Russian at the United Nations Language School in New York in the 1980s and 90s while working as a UN information officer, having already learned the basics when I was 19.
I can still hear our teacher Alla coming into the classroom and saying: “Today, my dear students, we going to study our beautiful Russian verbs – first the imperfective and then the perfective verbs.” Who could fail to fall in love with Russian verbs with such a charming teacher? If you happen to read this, Alla, I send you a big wave.
But it was not only the verbs. Other intricacies of Russian grammar intrigued me – rules like “don’t forget that if the verb is negative the noun has to be in the genitive.” And the beautiful Cyrillic alphabet would dance before my inner eyes. Then there was my Russian girlfriend around the same time, who told me that “to sound like a Russian you must smile inwardly when you speak.” Indeed, they do this even when they are conveying something sad or, more likely, sad and funny at the same time – a combination at which the Russians excel.
Russian literature, too, captivated me. I became familiar with Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, Andrei Bely’s extraordinary novel Petersburg and the equally extraordinary Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Reading these works, one becomes aware of the deeply spiritual nature of the Russian soul. Furthermore, these last two authors revealed another side to Russia that intrigued me, namely a strong current of fascination for things magical, esoteric and other-worldly. I decided to go deeper into this domain, and my latest book Occult Russia was the result.
Of course, I was devastated when the war in the Ukraine began, and I feel deeply for all my Russian and Ukrainian friends. As I write I can only pray that the conflict will not be prolonged. As a stop-press item, I must express my deep outrage and sadness at the death of Alexander Dugin’s daughter Darya who was killed on 20 August 2022 by a car bomb possibly intended for her father. Through this cowardly act, the life of a radiant human being has been tragically cut short. My deepest sympathy goes out to all her family.
I offer the book Occult Russia in the hope that it will contribute to a deeper understanding of the Russian mind and soul. What follows is a foretaste of it, abridged and edited from the Introduction.
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Upon hearing the word “Russia” you may think of military parades in Red Square, the war in the Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimea, gangsters, internet hackers, assassinations of journalists and imprisonment of opposition politicians. This book is not about those things but about a different Russia that is invisible to many people in the West – namely the inner Russia, the Russia of mysticism, myth, magic, the esoteric and the spiritual. Like a vast river, long ice-bound, the spiritual force deep in the Russian soul is moving again. In the wake of the collapse of communism, the Russian people are seeking new – or often old – ways of giving meaning to their lives. This search has given rise both to a revival of ancient spiritual traditions and to a plethora of new movements, cults, sects, -isms and -ologies, most of which would have been banned in the Soviet era. Out of this ferment exciting things are emerging.
Today’s spiritual quest in Russia covers an enormous spectrum. Millions are turning or returning to the Orthodox Church, and thousands of new churches are being built. As for alternative forms of spirituality, many people are turning to doctrines such as Theosophy, Anthroposophy and the teachings of Nikolai and Helena Roerich. Another group is turning back to the pre-Christian gods of Russia or to shamanism, often of the variety practiced by the urban intelligentsia. Meanwhile the indigenous pagan communities such as the Mari and the various shamanic peoples of Siberia are enjoying a new lease of life. In Russia the shamanic and pagan traditions have long existed side by side with the Orthodox religion – if not always in peaceful co-existence at least in a modus vivendi that the Russians call dvoeverie (dual faith).
History can be driven by mythical motifs, and this perhaps applies particularly strongly to Russia. One useful term for such a motif is the word “meme,” coined by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Originally used in the biological context, it has come to mean an idea or notion that spreads like a message through a society, transmitted from person to person or through the media.
A phenomenon with some similarities to the meme, but operating at a deeper level, is that of the egregore, a collective thought-form on the invisible plane, created by many people focusing on the same ideas and symbols. Deriving from a Greek word meaning “watcher,” an egregore can take an infinite variety of forms – an angel or demon, a god or goddess, a hero or heroine, an object of special veneration, a sacred place or a compelling narrative. The concept of the egregore overlaps to some extent with the notion, developed by the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, of the archetype, an inherited motif in the collective unconscious of humanity. In exploring Russia’s mystical quest we find various powerful memes, egregores and archetypes at work. They include the following:
The notion of Holy Russia is searchingly explored by Gary Lachman in his book of that title. Deeply engrained in the Russian collective soul is the conviction that Russia has a special spiritual mission. This is reflected in the powerful mystique of the Orthodox Church and the concept of the “Third Rome” – the first Rome being the city on the Tiber, the second being Constantinople and the third and final one being Moscow. All of this has given rise to an egregore of enormous vitality, which has enabled the Orthodox religion to flourish anew after the communist era.
The Warrior Hero
An early example of this figure is the semi-legendary Ilya Muromets, who features in various Russian epics as well as in films, novels and art. Probably a composite of various different people, he appears as a defender of Kievan Rus in the 10th century and in later incarnations he fought the Mongols and saved the Byzantine Emperor from a monster. He eventually became a saint of the Orthodox Church. The role of the warrior hero has also been played by certain real historical figures such as Prince Alexander Nevsky who defeated the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century, Tsar Peter the Great, and even Joseph Stalin.
The Never-Never Land
This motif crops up repeatedly in Russian history in various forms and under various names: Byelovodye (Land of the White Waters); Opona, the utopia of peasant folklore; and Hyperborea, the vanished promised land in the north. The Never-Never Land is also thought of as the source of an ancient wisdom tradition that has the power to transform human life if one could only access it.
The Rustic Sage
This figure is typified by Tolstoy’s character of Platon Karataev, the wise peasant who is a fellow prisoner of the hero Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace. Tolstoy himself adopted this persona in his later years.
The Holy Fool
Alternatively “fool for Christ,” this term is applied to someone who adopts an apparently mad way of life, marked by great austerity and extreme piety. It can overlap with the concept of the starets, the independent, god-illuminated holy man or woman. It has been pointed out to me by my correspondent Dana Makaridina that there are two kinds of holy fool, namely the blazhennyi (“blessed”) and the yurodiviy (“foolish”). The distinction is subtle. The former are characterised by a state of saintly bliss, whereas the latter are conspicuous by their craziness and weird, antisocial behaviour. Both are associated with freedom, being unconstrained by any social norms and able to communicate directly with God. Dana Makaridina mentions a friend who has had the nickname blazhennyi since childhood because of his strange, otherworldly behaviour. She writes that “now he is an extravagant rock musician and performance artist dealing with topics of freedom and death.”
The New Messiah
Prophets and messiah figures have abounded in Russian history, overlapping somewhat with the starets and the fool for Christ, and they continue to appear in the present day. A typical example is the case of Sergei Anatoljewitsch Torop, an artist and jack-of-all-trades who, in 1991, proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ returned. Adopting the name Vissarion, he founded a community called the Church of the Last Testament, gathered several thousand followers and established an ecospiritual settlement in Siberia. At the time of writing he is in prison facing a charge of extorting money from his followers and subjecting them to emotional abuse.
The Woman Clothed with the Sun
This figure originates in a passage in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation in the New Testament. To quote the King James Bible:
And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.
This image of the woman clothed with the sun crops up repeatedly in Russian prophetic writings.
My own perception of Russia has been through different stages. As far as I can remember, the country meant little to me until 1953, when I was nine years old, and one morning at breakfast my father picked up the newspaper and remarked that Stalin had died. I may have asked who Stalin was and been told that he had been the leader of our powerful eastern ally during the Second World War.
Later I absorbed the Cold War propaganda. Russia came to mean the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, defectors from the West like Burgess and Maclean, Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at United Nations General Assembly, the Cuban missile crisis, the crushing of the Prague Spring, the persecution of dissidents.
At the same time I was fascinated enough by Russia to start learning the language when I was nineteen years old, a process that I resumed in my fifties, by which time I had witnessed the advent of Gorbachev and perestroika, shortly to be followed by the break-up of the Soviet empire and the collapse of communism itself. While these tumultuous changes were going on I visited Russia for the first time in 1991 with an American contingent of very amiable born-again Christians, whose tour group I was able to join through the facilitation of an acquaintance.
A particularly vivid memory of that trip was visiting a Russian Orthodox seminary near Saint Petersburg. On entering the building I found myself transported into another world, marked by candlelit icons, the fragrance of incense and an atmosphere of still reverence. There was a quiet dignity about the priests and seminarists moving about in the dim corridors. One of them, looking startling like the photographs I had seen of the wild-eyed prophet Rasputin, was a young man with long, black hair and a solemn expression, dressed all in black in a sort of peasant’s tunic, trousers, and boots. We were shown to the chapel of the seminary where a service was held, and I began to understand why Madame Blavatsky, non-Christian though she was, always vehemently defended the Orthodox Church.
At the present time, in the wake of the collapse of communism, the Orthodox religion is once again playing a central role in the life of the nation. Churches are full, and thousands of new ones are being built, with the state playing a supporting role. But not everyone is happy with the current situation, and some of the initial post-perestroika religious enthusiasm is waning. Many believers oppose what they see as an increasing tendency towards a merger of state and Church, while people of other persuasions do not want Orthodox Christianity to be imposed on the population.
Visiting Russia reinforced my view that it has a special destiny, as many prophets have predicted. One of them, the German writer Oswald Spengler, wrote in an essay entitled “The Two Faces of Russia” (1922):
The bolshevism of the early years has thus had a double meaning. It has destroyed an artificial, foreign structure, leaving only itself as a remaining integral part. But beyond this, it has made the way clear for a new culture that will some day awaken between “Europe” and East Asia. It is more a beginning than an end.
Thirteen years later Spengler’s vision for Russia was illustrated in a cartoon by the artist Olaf Gulbransson, which appeared in 1935 in a literary-satirical journal originally produced in Munich under the name Simplicissimus, but by then published in exile in Prague under the title Simpl. The cartoon, entitled Melancholia, is a parody of Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving known under the same title.
In the foreground sits a melancholy Spengler, quill pen in hand, beside an even more melancholy dog and various other objects including an obstetric forceps, perhaps indicating that the New Age in Russia will have a difficult birth. In the background is an image of the New Age itself in the form of a naked young woman riding a rather complacent-looking bear, both framed in a large rising sun. The woman in the background riding a bear symbolises Spengler’s prediction that a new culture will come out of Russia.
Gulbransson’s cartoon appeared in 1935 during a troubled time. Germany had been through a military defeat, followed by the ravages of inflation and depression and then by the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. In Russia the Bolsheviks ruled. Another war was on the horizon. But Gulbransson pictured a bright future coming from the direction of Russia and symbolised by the maiden riding the bear. Between then and now there are certain parallels. The present era is overshadowed by war and by high tensions between Russia and the West. But I believe the maiden riding the bear still carries a hopeful message. J
Christopher McIntosh’s book, Occult Russia: Pagan, Esoteric, and Mystical Traditions, is available from Inner Traditions International (ISBN-13: 9781644114186).