George Gurdjieff in post-Soviet Russian Mass Media

Author: Birgit Menzel

The Greco-Armenian spiritual teacher, philosopher, and composer George I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949) has remained one of the major figures in 20th-century Western esotericism. Both the Enneagram and New Age Sufism, but also certain artistic practices in theater, dance (“the Movements”), and music are closely connected with his name.

In the West, Gurdjieff’s reception has developed in two directions. Since the 1970s, his teachings, based on the Enneagram and a cosmic philosophy, have become part of both esoteric practice in New Age culture and professional practice in psychotherapy. But his work has increasingly turned into an object of academic study, as cognitive and consciousness studies, neuroscience, and spiritually oriented psychology have emerged as major fields of interest. In the past two decades, a number of scholarly studies about various aspects of his work have been published (Beekman 1998; Challenger 2002; Wellbeloved 2003; Claustres 2005; Pittmann 2005, 2013; Azize 2010, 2013; Cusack 2014; Petsche 2015; Sedgwick 2017; Lipsey 2019). The growing number of publications, including new translations of Gurdjieff’s memoirs, shows a new interest in his personality and work as a critical discourse about his legacy.

George I. Gurdjieff, 1935 © Wikimedia

While for Western adepts Gurdjieff has also become part of what is believed as “the mysticism and wisdom of the East,” which includes projections of Russia, the Caucasus, a greater Eurasia being part of the Russian Empire, in Soviet Russia, Gurdjieff’s publications were banned and unknown to a wider public until recent years. Just like Blavatsky and others, Gurdjieff became one of the key figures only in the late Soviet occult underground and was studied from Samizdat sources, which were conveyed by emigrants, or directly from former disciples after they were released from the Gulag since the late 1950s. Today the adaptation of his teachings, including publications of his Russian adepts (Rovner 2002), continues in small circles of the intellectual elite in the two metropolises and major cities of the former Soviet Union, as well as in transcultural social media, the vast virtual empire of the Russian internet. In the 2000s, academic studies about him have also appeared in Russia (Nikoll 2003; Kucherenko 2006; Rudnev 2010; Grekov 2013 et al.).

Dervish dancers, 2006 © artdoc.media, Yuliya Ageeva

At the same time, however, a peculiar popularization of Gurdjieff in mainstream media can be observed since the 1990s in post-Soviet Russia, which will be in focus here. We can observe several tendencies of popularization: Between 1996–2006, translations of foreign literature riding on the new wave of “mystical Russia” were setting the tone. In 1996, the Moscow publisher Enigma opened up a new series of popular mystical novels, “Rozarium”, with a translation of René Daumal’s (1908–1944) unfinished novel Le Mont Analogue (1939–1944, published in 1952 in French; Russian: Гора Аналог, 20.000 copies). In the foreword it was promoted as inspired by Gurdjieff. Critics spoke of the “Gurdjieff sect” (Zenkin 1997). Two years later, Louis Pauwels’ book Monsieur Gurdjieff, which includes a collection of first-hand memoirs by his disciples, was published and after it sold out fast, it was reprinted in 2006 (Povel’ 2006). The French journalist and (ex-)Gurdjievist was also known as the co-author of the international bestseller Le Matin des magiciens: introduction au réalisme fantastique (English: The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, 1960; Russian: Утро магов, 1994), a work of key significance for a whole New Age generation and the international occulture of the 1960s, which had popularized the idea of a Nazi occultism that circulated in samizdat since the late 1960s. Short excerpts of this part of the book had even been published in the Soviet journal Science and Religion (in Russian: Наука и религия) in 1966 (Povel’ and Berzh’e 1966). When it was published in France only five years after Gurdjieff’s death, Pauwels’ anthology of memoirs had caused a controversy because of an alleged involvement of its author in conspiracy theories. In Russia, the Независимая газета (English: Independent Newspaper) introduced Gurdjieff ironically as the enigmatic “Caucasian mystic,” “prophet for some, charlatan for others,” (NG 2006) while the publisher announced it as a sensational document and a study “lifting the secret about the Russian readers’ great compatriot”. An emphatic foreword was provided, taken from the first edition, by the late Yurii N. Stefanov (1939–2001), a well-known non-political Russian traditionalist (Stefanov 2006).

The second period from approximately 2008 to 2014 is marked by an increasing appropriation of Gurdjieff to Russian culture. This time, another foreign source provided the occasion for claiming Gurdjieff’s transnational impact from Russia into the world. Pamela L. Travers (1889–1996), Australian-British author of the famous novel series  Mary Poppins (1934–1988), was introduced in the Независимая газета as a writer who was always fascinated by mythology and occultism and who also became a personal friend of Gurdjieff, “an emigrant from Russia”. This statement for which evidence cannot be found vaguely turns Gurdjieff into someone who was either born in Russia or who left Russia. When in 2014, the blockbuster movie Saving Mister Banks (directed by John Lee Hancock), a biopic of Pamela Travers, was released also in Russia, the boulevard paper Комсомольская правда (English: Komsomol Truth) revealed the real background of how Mary Poppins was written. The idea for the book miraculously appeared right after its author had made a journey to the USSR in the early 1930s where she sought to relax and recover from a life of hardship. After her journey, Travers wrote the travelogue Excursion to Moscow (1934). The paper also reveals that for Travers, who was always involved in mysticism, at a certain point the “Russian mystic Georgy Gurdjieff” became a true guru (Korsakov 2014). This fabulous discovery of Russian impact, especially the one by the “Russian mystic Gurdjieff,“ on the making of Mary Poppins became a story echoed by other papers (see, for instance, Lesin and Shcherbak-Zhukov 2014).

Gurdjieff’s appropriation to Russian culture as esoteric culture was also promoted on stage, for instance, in the theater play In Search of the Miraculous, by Vladimir Mirzoev in the Moscow State Stanislavsky Music Theater (1998). The title is a quote from Petr Ouspenskii’s (1878–1947, Russian esotericist and admirer of Gurdjieff’s teachings) book on Gurdjieff, posthumously published by Ouspenskii’s students (Ouspensky 1949). The play helped to further popularize Gurdjieff as a person by using many quotes from Pauwels’ book of memoirs Monsieur Gurdjieff.

The cover of The Duke’s Case,
2004 © Eksmo, Algoritm /
Oleg Vakulovskii & Olga Demina

The third stage is marked by more popularization with pulp-mixing Gurdjieff into pseudo-documentary cocktails of totalitarian ideologies, conspiracy theories, and figures of mainstream, popular 20th-century mystics and occultists. In Russian pulp-fiction novels, Gurdjieff has now turned into a literary figure. Igor’ Minutko’s hard-boiled detective novel The Throne of Chingiz Khan. The Secret of Georgii Gurdjieff (2002) of the book-series Occult Wars of the 20th Century, set the tone in which Gurdjieff acts as one hero next to Hitler, Stalin, Blavatsky, Crowley, and Rasputin. A follow-up novel of the seemingly successful debut was called Georgii Gurdjieff. A Russian Lama (2005) in the series Historical Investigation. Part of a blossoming new genre of parallel history, which plays with pseudo-documentaries, often presenting themselves as based on scientific evidence and serious sources, is the novel The Duke’s Case (2004) by the two TV-journalists Oleg Vakulovskii and Olga Demina. It opens up the new series In the Name of Russia about the history of the Russian secret service and was reviewed by several papers (AiF 2004; E. L. 2005). The inclusion of Gurdjieff into the booming wave of conspiratorial pop-mysticism and supernatural spy stories peaked in 2006 with two TV films, which were accompanied by numerous press articles: I am Gurdjieff, I will not die (by Martiros Fanosjan, 2007) and Stalin, Hitler and Gurdjieff (by Yulia Ageeva, 2006), which was even awarded for its value as a non-fiction film.

The frame of the film Stalin, Hitler, and Gurdjieff, 2006 © Yulia Ageeva

Both films were shown on the main TV channel Russia. Pauwels’ connection of Nazism and Gurdjieff now merged with the revival of Russian secret service populism and the officially contradictive policy of Stalin cult-cum-curse. In the second film, Gurdjieff is shown as an indirect inspirator of Hitler, through trips to Tibet and offering the swastika, and as an accomplice of Stalin, all three being powerful magicians, who were obsessed with creating “the new man”. Not enough that Stalin and Gurdjieff were connected by their Caucasian origin, they also allegedly went to the same theological seminary school in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), and Gurdjieff exerted a certain influence on young Dzhugashvili there and later in the post-revolutionary Petrograd. Here again, the script writer Oleg Shishkin, just like other journalists (Zakharov 2003), read Pauwels’ influential semi-fiction as documented facts.

The poster of the film I am Gurdjieff, I will not die, 2007 © Martiros Fanosian

In post-Soviet Russia, New Age has become part of mainstream culture. For a short while, going popular, it offered itself as an escape from growing ideological pressure for some esotericists of the late 1990s intellectual elite. What we witness here, however, is that nothing is about Gurdjieff’s work. All is about sensation around his persona in relation to Russia. In post-Soviet mass media, Gurdjieff morphed from a leader of a sect, from a philosopher and mystic into a “Caucasian magician,” from a would-be Messiah into a Russian compatriot and a true Russian mystic and, in line with the perfectly contradictory official policy, at the same time into Hitler’s indirect teacher and Stalin’s secret accomplice.

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{Povel’; Berzh’e} Повель, Луи и Жак Бержье. “Какому богу поклонялся Гитлер [What God did Hitler Worship]?” Наука и религия [Science and Religion] 9–10, no. 63–69, 11 no. 82–89 (1966).

{Rovner} Ровнер, Аркадий. Гурджиев и Успенский [Gurdjieff and Ouspensky]. Москва: София, 2002.

{Rudnev} Руднев, Вадим П. Гурджиев и современная психология [Gurdjieff and contemporary psychology]. Москва: Аграф, 2010.

Sedgwick, Mark. Western Sufism: from the Abbasids to the New Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

{Stefanov} Стефанов, Юрий Н. “Маленький кузен Люцифера [Luzifer’s Little Cousin].” // Повель, Луи. Мсье Гурджиев. Документы, свидетельства, тексты и комментарии [Mr. Gurdjieff. Documents, testimonies, texts, and commentaries]. Перевод с французского A. Бахмутской и А. Давыдова, 5–22. Москва: Энигма, 2006.

{Vakulovskii; Demina} Вакуловский, Олег и Ольга Демина. Княжье дело [The Duke’s Case]. Москва: Эксмо, Алгоритм, 2004.

Wellbeloved, Sofia. Gurdjieff. The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2003.

{Zakharov} Захаров, Александр. “Иосиф Сталин: годы одиночества [Joseph Stalin: Years of Solitude].” Красная звезда [Red Star] 38 (01 марта 2003).

{Zenkin} Зенкин, Сергей. “О сакральном – для профанов [About the Sacred – For the Profane].” Иностранная литература [Foreign literature] 6 (15 июня 1997).

Films

Гитлер, Сталин и Гурджиев [Hitler, Stalin, and Gurdjieff], produced by Yulia Ageeva, 2006, 45 min. Accessed December 8, 2020. https://smotrim.ru/brand/10335.

Я – Гурджиев. Я не умру [I am Gurdjieff. I Will Not Die], produced by Fanosian, Martiros, 2007, 52 min. Accessed December 8, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoAlQYWDEv.


This blog post in Russian

Cite this article as: Birgit Menzel, “George Gurdjieff in post-Soviet Russian Mass Media”, in New Age in Russia, 06/08/2019, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/1303


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