Holly DeNio Stephens
Editor's Note: The East-West Church & Ministry Report seeks to assist Christians in countering the influence of religious systems that are antithetical to the Gospel. Our purpose in detailing the vast array of occult practices in Russia today is to better equip believers in Christ to identify and challenge teachings incompatible with Christianity.
Many of the occult ideas popular in the Russia of the 1990s are based on [late nineteenth and early twentieth century] graftings of Oriental philosophies onto the Western occult. New mutations of Theosophy and Anthroposophy and a renascence of turn-of-the-century spiritualism have given birth to extrasensitives and belief in energy vampirism. It is common to find on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg reprints of Madame Helena Blavatsky's theosophical classic, The Secret Doctrine, as well as other theosophical books by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbetter; tracts by the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner; Agni-yoga by Nikolai Rerikh (1874-1947) and his wife, Elena Shaposhnikova; and other works by admirers of the philosophies of India and Tibet, such as George Gurdjieff (born Georgii Ivanovich Gorgiades; 1873-1949) and Petr Demianovich Uspenskii (1878-1947). Small bookshops provide occult works, crystals, incense, and Western New Age recordings.
The Russian Occult in Infinite Variety
Reprints of prerevolutionary works that examine Russian mythology, sorcery, witchcraft, and folk belief, as well as new works examining pan-Slavic mythologies and the role of the shaman in all cultures, may be found in virtually every bookstore. Russian Gypsy fortune-telling cards and Russian versions of tarot decks are also for sale in many locations. Works have appeared on alchemy, the beneficial healing qualities of stones and crystals, Druidic astrology, the tarot, the Jewish Kabbala, the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, mystical Freemasonry, medieval alchemy, dream interpretation, and chiromancy, as well as on psychic healing, magic, spiritualism, and astrology. Interest is high in UFOs, abominable snowmen, poltergeists, and Tibetan herbal medicine for attaining supraconsciousness. Healers and psychics frequently appear on talk shows and recount their visions and paranormal experiences. Psychics analyze guardian angels; popular museum exhibits focus on the shaman; and huge exhibitions of stones and crystals promote their [alleged] inherent healing, protective, and divinitory qualities.
Many messianic apocalyptic sects are also surfacing in the former Soviet Union. One such cult, which has lost much influence since 1994, is Beloe Bratstvo (White Brotherhood). Its apocalyptic and messianic message appealed to large numbers of people in Russia and several other former republics. Its leaders staged large demonstrations and predicted that the apocalypse would occur in 1994. Its teachings were so popular and it controlled its members so completely that families were filing charges of kidnapping and brainwashing against the cult. When 1994 came and went with no apocalypse, the White Brotherhood lost many of its followers.
Curiosity about the occult pervades all elements of society. A survey conducted in the early 1990s revealed that 20 percent of respondents believed in Buddhism and the Hare Krishna movement, 40 percent were drawn to East Asian philosophies, 50 percent believed in astrology, 66 percent believed in ESP, and 70 percent believed in UFOs.
Events in the Soviet Union after 1985 revealed that occultism in general and Theosophy (and Anthroposophy) in particular had not disappeared from Russian consciousness. Russian Theosophists are once again holding meetings and giving lectures, and Theosophical societies have officially opened their doors in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Works of Blavatsky, Besant, and Steiner are readily available. Several specialized publishing ventures have emerged, such as the Yerevan-based Noi (Noah) publishing house, which plans to issue Steiner's complete works in its series Biblioteka Dukhovnoi Nauki [Library of Spiritual Science]. Russian Theosophists have added their voices to the new dialogue about spiritual values. Like their prerevolutionary predecessors, Russian Theosophists today come from the intelligentsia, the professions, and the middle bureaucracy. They have joined forces with the growing Rerikh movement in an effort to achieve a larger, popular spiritual renewal of Russia through the combined potency of two "touchstone" names, Blavatsky and Rerikh.
Gurdjieff and Uspenskii
Books by George Gurdjieff and his disciple Petr Uspenskii also are being reprinted, but in lesser numbers than those of the Theosophists, Anthroposophists, and Rerikh. According to Gurdjieff, people are basically sleeping, helpless victims of circumstance. There are occasional moments of lucidity, when a person may perceive flashes of ultimate freedom and Truth, but these are ephemeral. Humans must be taught to see beyond the banality of the world and strive for objective consciousness.
The Rerikh Cult
During the 1920s and 1930s, Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh (a Theosophist and Nobel Prize nominee), together with his wife, Elena Ivanovna Shaposhnikova-Rerikh, wrote Agni-yoga, a 10-volume work on yogic philosophy allegedly received psychically from Mahatma Moria (who was, coincidentally, also Madame Blavatsky's personal teacher). Agni-yoga reflects many of the neo-Buddhist ideas of earlier theosophical writings. The Rerikhs emphasize Agni, the Hindu god of fire, who served as a mediator between mortals and the gods. According to the Rerikhs, "Realization and participation in a new era is possible for spiritually enlightened people who recognize the purifying cathartic elements of fire, which consumes the past and lights up the future." The Rerikh Society has gained international repute for its call for cosmopolitan brotherhood [and] its denunciation of war and human suffering.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Rerikh cult has gained immense popularity in Russia; it is now possible to find the Rerikhs' works in all bookstores. In 1994 and 1995 lectures celebrating the Rerikhs' life and works and explicating their philosophy were quite common in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even during the period when the Rerikhs' writings were in official disfavor, Nikolai's paintings guaranteed him continued popularity in his native land. Their bright primary colors, their apocalyptic and religious themes, their exotic subject matter, and their stylized and often primitive manner of execution won him a loyal following that continues today. His art often engenders a desire to read and understand his ideas.
One of the most popular occult practices in Russia today is the traditional discipline of yoga (including Agni-yoga) to enhance one's psychic energies and abilities and especially to become an extrasensitive (ekstrasens) or healer (tselitel). Yoga and meditation have enjoyed considerable popularity among the Russian intelligentsia, not only in prerevolutionary society, but during the Soviet period as well. One of the most well-received and prolific authors on this subject is Yurii M. Ivanov, an extrasensitive who stresses the importance of the more conventional forms of yoga to achieve unification with the Absolute (kundalini). According to Ivanov, yoga enables a person to focus on others' biofields and to examine and interpret the colors of their auras, to develop the dormant psychic abilities necessary to become a healer. By a laying on of hands, the healer transfers to the patient his or her own psychic energy.
Two objects that are said to aid the extrasensitive are a pendulum and a sort of miniature divining rod (ramka or ramochka). A ring or needle suspended from a thread can function as a pendulum. When the extrasensitive is asked a question, the pendulum swings in one direction for a negative answer and in the opposite direction for an affirmative answer. The divining rod, used to find water and ore, buried treasure, lost items, or missing persons, can be used to diagnose a medical problem.
Evgeniia Iurashevna Davitashvili, Brezhnev's personal faith healer, conducted a series of experiments in Tbilisi, Georgia, as proof of her healing abilities in 1979. By far, the most famous psychic healer in Russia is Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who conducted mass psychic healings, filled stadiums with his followers, and hypnotized scores of people at a time. Kashpirovsky became a television personality when he "purified" cups of tea and coffee, glasses of water, and bottles of hand lotion on an early morning show using mesmeric passes. Viewers who used these "blessed" potions were reported to be promptly relieved of their afflictions. A minor scandal erupted, however, when people who believed themselves free of disease began to suffer symptoms again. Kashpirovsky's television show was canceled. Today, most Russians feel that he is indeed a charlatan, though some still claim that he did cure their maladies. He has been displaced in the world of the occult by scores of other healers, some well known, others not, but each with a following of believers.
Energy Vampirism (Psychic Attack)
Belief in energy vampirism (psychic attack or psychic vampirism) has become widespread. Discussions about energy vampirism may be heard in Russia on city streets, in cafes, in institutes and universities, and in private residences. "Energy vampire" has become a catchword for people with unappealing or exacting personalities and is frequently followed by a long discourse concerning the negative aspects of that person's character. Methods of defense vary: a cold or contrasting shower, a rapid dance, or coffee laced with black pepper.
An extremely popular pamphlet, Kak izbezhat energeticheskogo vampirizma i samomu ne stat vampirom [How to Avoid Energy Vampirism and How Not to Become a Vampire Yourself], published by the St. Petersburg School of Spiritual Development of the Personality (under the direction of A. Z. Gromokovskii) in 1992, offers a detailed explanation from a conservative religious and nationalist point of view. It is written collectively by teachers whose basic goal is to help people understand themselves and the system of the universe on the basis of Christian principles.
Astrology is extremely popular in Russia today, as it is in the West. Six-month horoscopes include biorhythm charts and numerological values for the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Each planet also has a corresponding Pythagorean numerical value, and it is possible to determine one's personality and one's purpose for existence by the total number of letters in one's first name, patronymic, and last name. Numerological and astrological charts are popular among a broad range of the Russian population, even among people who profess to have no other occult interests.
The widespread fascination with UFOs in Russia is attested by two monthly newspapers, Stalker-UFO and Anomalie, which regularly report on UFO sightings, publish photographs of UFOs, and conduct interviews with people who claim to have met extraterrestrials. Yurii Ivanov explains anomalies as beings who are able to traverse the boundaries between the physical and the astral worlds by controlling the vibrations of the bodies.
By Way of Explanation
Reactions to the dehumanizing effects of scientific doctrine, the overabundance of prescribed rational thought, and the proscription of alternative systems during the Soviet period have generated much of the energy directed toward the occult today. Many Russians are attempting to find new values and belief systems to replace those that have been jettisoned. The occult is seen as an attractive alternative, more consoling than the harsh reality imposed by the instability and chaos of the physical world. Intrinsically apolitical, occult systems serve as spiritual panaceas for the gravest and most trying conditions.
Holly DeNio Stephens teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Holly DeNio Stephens, "The Occult in Russia Today," in Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 357-376.
© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report