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Pagan, Esoteric, and Mystical Traditions
Table of Contents
About The Book
Explores how the search for meaning in the post-Soviet era has given rise to a revival of ancient spiritual traditions and a plethora of new movements
• Reveals the survival of ancient Slavic deities, pagan practices, and folk medicine tradition in modern Russia, including the indigenous pre-Christian customs of the Mari people and the shamanic traditions of Siberia
• Examines the precursors to modern spiritual movements in the “Silver Age” (1880-1920) and discusses the impact of the Russian Revolution on spiritual and esoteric groups
• Offers a deep look at the controversial Book of Veles, branded by some as a forgery and hailed by others as an epic chronicle of the Slavic people
In this in-depth look at occult and esoteric traditions in Russia, Christopher McIntosh explores the currents of mysticism, myth, magic, and the spiritual to which the Russian soul has always been attuned. The author explains how the search for meaning in the post- Soviet era has given rise to a revival of ancient spiritual traditions and a plethora of new movements. He examines the precursors to these movements in the “Silver Age” (1880-1920) before the Revolution, when alternative forms of spirituality were finding new life as a reaction to the ongoing climate of violence, revolt, and repression. He discusses the impact of the Russian Revolution on spiritual and esoteric groups and shows how their activities were tolerated and even in some instances encouraged--until Stalin assumed power in 1924.
Discussing the spiritual reawakening after the fall of communism in 1989, the author explores the survival of Slavic deities and pagan practices in modern Russia, including the indigenous pre-Christian customs of the Mari people and the shamanic traditions of Siberia. He examines the resurgence of the Orthodox Church and the burgeoning of alternative forms of spirituality. He offers a deep look at the controversial Book of Veles, branded by some as a forgery and hailed by others as an epic chronicle of the Slavic people. He also explores the interface between spirituality and the arts and the unique qualities of the Russian language as a medium for the sacred.
Revealing the implications of the modern Russian spiritual and esoteric renaissance, McIntosh shows that it still remains to be seen whether Edgar Cayce’s prediction of Russia as the hope of the world will come true or if Russia will remain, as Churchill famously stated, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
It is a curious feature of civilizations in crisis that they are often marked by a sudden flourishing of creativity and intellectual exploration. This was the case in France around the collapse of the Second Empire and in fin de siècle Vienna, and the same phenomenon was seen in Russia in the troubled years before the First World War and the revolution. The cultural and intellectual scene at this time included an upsurge of interest in the esoteric and the occult, which was reflected in the work of a remarkable constellation of writers, artists, and thinkers.
In Nevsky Prospect we might notice a square-faced young man with a pince-nez and a pensive expression, called Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky, later to become known as a leading exponent of the Gurdjieff teaching. He is strolling along thinking about the fourth dimension. Noticing a passing horse-drawn vehicle, he reflects that the horse is only an atom of some “great horse,” just as each human being is an atom of the “Great Man,” only visible in the fourth dimension.1 Ouspensky had come from Moscow and settled in St. Petersburg, attracted by the vibrant esoteric scene in the imperial capital. In Moscow he had worked as a newspaper journalist, but during office hours, bored by the work, he had devoured books like A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World and Eliphas Lévi’s classic, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie.2 In these books he found a new kind of truth. As he later wrote:
“I had been living in a desiccated and sterilized world, with an infinite number of taboos imposed on my thought. And suddenly these strange books broke down all the walls round me and made me think and dream about things of which for a long time I had feared to think and dream. Suddenly I began to find a strange meaning in old fairy-tales; woods, rivers, mountains, became living beings; mysterious life filled the night.”3
At the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Pushkin Street was an apartment that was one of three properties owned by Ouspensky’s guru, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, then in the early stages of building his remarkable career as a promoter of his idiosyncratic teaching, the essence of which was that most human beings are kept in a kind of sleep.4 The Gurdjieff system or “the Work,” as he called it, was designed to wake people up through a variety of mental and physical exercises and challenges. Gurdjieff was in fact Greco-Armenian rather than Russian, but he was an important part of the remarkable constellation of spiritual teachers and thinkers in Russia at that time. Later he was impelled by the revolution to leave the country and continue his work elsewhere.
A mile or so to the northwest of Nevsky Prospect there still stands a magnificent neoclassical apartment building on the corner of Tavrichesky and Tversky streets—all turrets, mansard roofs, pilasters, decorative stonework, and wrought iron balconies. At the corner, resembling an enormous hinge, is an imposing domed tower, which earned the building the name of the House with the Tower. In a flat on one of the upper floors lived the poet, dramatist, and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov who, in his magnum opus The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), ingeniously managed to combine a celebration of the ecstatic cult of Dionysus with a profound Christian faith.
Ivanov and his second wife Lydia ran a weekly salon from their airie in the House of the Tower, which became a favorite venue for the St. Petersburg intelligentsia. After Lydia’s death in 1907 the distraught Ivanov leaned increasingly in a mystical and occult direction. Consolation came in the form of Anna Rudolfovna Mintzlova, a formidable grande dame of the esoteric scene in St. Petersburg and later in Moscow, who became Ivanov’s mentor and possibly lover. This many-faceted, multilingual and highly educated woman had, among other things, made the first complete Russian translation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Enthused by all things esoteric, she had attended the London Theosophical Conference of 1905 and a series of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures in Paris. She could hold forth on everything from Rosicrucianism to the mystical state of samadhi. In the words of her contemporary, the artist and poet Margarita Sabashnikova, she presented “a shapeless figure with an excessively large forehead . . . and bulging blue eyes, very short-sighted, which nevertheless always seemed to be looking into immense distances. Her reddish hair with a straight parting, curled in waves, was always in disarray. . . . Her most distinctive feature was her hands – white, soft, with long narrow fingers. When greeting someone she held their extended hand longer than usual, shaking it slightly . . . her voice lowered almost to a whisper, as if hiding strong excitement.”5
In 1910 Anna Mintzlova suddenly disappeared without trace. Whether she committed suicide or entered some enclosed mystical order remains to this day an unsolved mystery.6 As a transmitter of esoteric ideas she deserves more than a footnote in the history of Russia’s mystical quest.
Three years after her disappearance Ivanov married his stepdaughter Vera, who had already borne him a son. The gatherings in the House of the Tower continued, but in 1920 Vera tragically died at the age of thirty. Ivanov moved away from St. Petersburg and a few years later left Russia altogether.
Another popular haunt of literati, artists, and esotericists in St. Petersburg was the Stray Dog Café in Michaelovsky Square, a semi-basement hostelry (now reopened since 21). Ouspensky was one of its habitués, and another person who probably went there was the poet and novelist Andrei Biely, also a member of the Tower circle. He was best known for his extraordinary novel Petersburg, which vividly evokes the feverish atmosphere of anxiety and terrorist conspiracy that characterized Russia at that time. The main character is a young man called Nikolai Apollonovich Obleukhov, who becomes involved with a group of revolutionary terrorists. He is given a time bomb and the task of placing it in the study of a prominent Tsarist official, who happens to be his father. As the time bomb ticks away, he frantically seeks distraction in foolish ways such as by attending a masked ball dressed in a red domino mask and cape. The story moves relentlessly to an unexpected and slightly comical climax. A similarly feverish atmosphere pervades Biely’s novel The Silver Dove (1909) about a murder in a prerevolutionary Russian religious cult resembling the Khlysty.
Biely was a leading exponent of the symbolist school of literature, which had originated among French poets but soon spread to fiction, visual arts, and even music. Instead of simply portraying phenomena in a literal way, the symbolists sought to use the things they portrayed as metaphors or pointers to ideas, states of mind, metaphysical concepts, or perceptions of a reality beyond the mundane. In Russia, as elsewhere, the movement proved attractive to those of an esoteric turn of mind, and Biely was no exception. Biely combined the role of spiritual seeker with the persona of a character from one of his novels. Handsome, temperamental, elegantly dressed, and a womanizer, he led a restless life, traveling widely through Europe and North Africa, attracting attention everywhere by his eccentric behavior (dancing wildly in a Berlin nightclub like some whirling dervish), on account of which he gained the nickname Yurodivii (“Holy Fool”).
Much of Biely’s work is an attempt to give the written word a musical quality, since he believed that “the eternal is closest to us and most accessible in music.”7 As a boy in the 1890s he had come under the influence of the mystical philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, author of a visionary work called Short Story of the Antichrist, in which he predicted the Antichrist’s imminent coming. That figure would in due course be vanquished, the woman clothed with the sun would appear in the heavens, and Christ would descend, resurrect the dead, and reign with them for a thousand years, as predicted in the book of Revelation.8 Solovyov was therefore firmly in the Russian millenarian tradition. Biely’s belief in this prophecy is reflected in his work. Here for example is a quote from his complex “musical” novel The Dramatic Symphony, first published in 1901: “And the ascetic cried out along the nocturnal avenues: ‘Lo! We shall raise up against the beast the woman clothed with the sun as our sacred, snowy-silver banner!’”
Here again we have the ubiquitous “woman clothed with the sun” as in Gulbransson’s cartoon Melancholia, featuring a young woman riding on a bear against a rising sun, as mentioned in the Introduction.
There is something strikingly Russian in the fact that Biely was both a highly avant-garde writer and an apocalyptic visionary. Not surprisingly he became drawn to Theosophy and its offshoot, Anthroposophy.
- Publisher: Inner Traditions (December 27, 2022)
- Length: 280 pages
- ISBN13: 9781644114186
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Raves and Reviews
“In Occult Russia, Christopher McIntosh, master historian of the esoteric, presents a panoramic view of a Russia few people in the West know about or even suspect exists. From its very beginnings, Russia has been a nation of magic, mysticism, and profound spirituality, and its people the bearers of a deep inner life. For most Westerners, Russia means either the dark days of the Soviet Union or the more recent tumultuous times following the USSR’s collapse. But long before Lenin reached the Finland Station, a heady brew of pagan, Christian, and occult beliefs--and not Marx--informed Russia’s turbulent, apocalyptic heritage. ‘Occult,’ we know, means hidden, and in this painstakingly researched and finely written work, Christopher McIntosh brings this hidden side of Russian history, too long kept in the shadows, into the light.”
– Gary Lachman, author of The Return of Holy Russia
“Insightful, meticulously researched, and timely in so many ways, Occult Russia is a passionate journey to the heart and soul of Russia. Christopher McIntosh, author of many groundbreaking books, masterly uncovers the ‘hidden history’ of the vast northern land, introducing an amazing cast of dramatic and colorful characters, from shamans to commissars, artists to conspirators, mystics to messiahs. . . . This book may hold the key to understanding Winston Churchill’s observation, Russia is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’ You’ll not find a more fascinating or wonderfully written study of occult Russia and the powerful spiritual energies emanating from that enigmatic nation. I heartily recommend this book.”
– David P. Jones, New Dawn magazine
“This book of marvels might easily have been called The Spirit of Russia, or The Spirit in Russia, for that is its true trajectory. Christopher McIntosh wants to show us an unknown country with an immensely varied culture based on spiritual awareness of God or divine powers in humankind and in the natural world that brings us life. We cross the threshold from nature to super-nature with remarkable ease with the assistance of the uniquely Russian sensibility. It is enormously helpful to see this range of knowledge brought to bear with such vivid focus on a single country. That country is today one of the most controversial in the world. We hear much about Russia--or think we do. What we do not hear, and what I fear the prevailing mentality of our dominant news media does not want us to hear--you will find beautifully and simply expressed in this vital book. If ‘occult’ is taken in its true meaning of ‘something hidden,’ this book is indeed about an occulted Russia, hidden from the eyes of the West, which has so much to learn from it. This is a vital, engaging, always surprising text for anyone who wants to understand this massive neighbor of East and West, and who has the courage to build on the courage of those who have, against the odds, worked and suffered and died to maintain and promote spiritual consciousness in Russia. Christopher’s book also shows where spirituality can be harnessed to some rather unspiritual objectives. We see the beauty, and the warts, but all in all: a must-read. Occult Russia is sober, informed, provocative, clear, and important.”
– Tobias Churton, Britain’s leading scholar of Western Esotericism and author of Deconstructing
“Occult Russia is a study of the mystical, artistic, and neo-pagan ideals that are transforming Russia. This book is lively and urbane because Christopher McIntosh is deeply informed about the inspiring contemporary scene in the post-Soviet era. Many believe a huge spiritual revival is happening. Deliciously detailed, he describes a building wave of enchantment, exciting magic, and mystery that is awakening deep in the Russian soul. People inspired by Tolstoy’s ideals--pacifism, vegetarianism, and the use of potent folk medicine for vibrant health--are moving back to the land to live in communities. American New Age readers will be amazed to see that current Russian idealism is very much like their own! This book is a gem for anyone who has found deep richness in Russian culture and wonders what is going on now since the fall of communism. Thoroughly entertaining, informative, and deeply meaningful-- a page-turner!”
– Barbara Hand Clow, author of Awakening the Planetary Mind
“Occult Russia is a superb introduction to hidden aspects of Russian spiritual life, full of striking reflections and themes. To explore the richness of Russian spirituality, you can’t do better than this book.”
– Arthur Versluis, author of The Secret History of Western Sexual Mysticism and Sacred Earth
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