Report on Our St Petersburg Workshop, 1–3 October 2019

Author: Andrei Tiukhtiaev

The second workshop of our German-Russian research group “New Religious Cultures in Late and Post-Soviet Russia” was conducted from 1 to 3 October 2019 at European University at Saint Petersburg.

Each participant is currently working on an individual research project focusing on some form of “new,” non-institutionalized religiosity. Everyone presented his or her current state of research and preliminary results; theoretical and methodological issues were also discussed.

Current State of Research

Alexander Panchenko studies ufology as a religious phenomenon, relying on the cognitive science of religion. In particular, he makes use of Pascal Boyer’s concept of “full access agents” that refers to all religious forms of life, including “traditional” churches as well as conspiracy theories. According to this approach, any kind of religion is based on the belief that specific agents exist in this world or another and possess strategically important information, to which humans have only limited access. Alexander’s research seeks to elaborate the common ground of esotericism and conspiracy theories by presenting these domains as parts of a broader religious field. Other scholars of the projects approach New Age spirituality from cultural and historical perspectives.

Anna Tessmann has been studying Zoroastrianism and astrology in the USSR and Russia for many years. In 2012, she published a book on how Zoroastrianism is presented through different discourses in academic communities, religious practices, popular fiction, and the media. Now, Anna’s research focuses on the study of astrology in the late Soviet Union and contemporary Russia, which implies the collection of various data gained from interviews, participant observation, contemporary literature, Soviet underground compilations and manuscripts, as well as from official print media touching upon astrological topics. Having shed light on the issue of sources, Anna shared her plans on the creation of a database about Soviet and post-Soviet astrology, which would make use of quantitative methods. Statistics can reveal peculiar linguistic and discursive features of Russian astrological schools in comparison with Western branches of astrological thought.   

Andrei Tiukhtiaev presented some of his preliminary research results concerning his study of pilgrimage to archaeological sites in Southern Russia, a practice that was established by followers of the new religious movement “Anastasia” at the end of the 1990s. Today, there is a well-developed pilgrim and tourist infrastructure near the dolmens (megalithic burial sites of the Bronze era) supported by various esoteric groups, attracting people of different social and cultural backgrounds. What unites the pilgrims despite their sometimes radically opposed views is a “culture of authenticity”, i.e. the attempt to construct subjectivity independent from the experience of socialization in mainstream institutions. This common tendency of contemporary tourism presents one of the features of modern individualism when a person tries to be free from external authorities, while such a language of modern individualism turns out to be a result of specific religious socialization.

Our German colleagues paid attention to the fact that the idiom of so-called self-spirituality in the West usually refers to liberal ideals, while in Russia it expresses conservative political values. The discussion revealed that the reason for this lies in the genealogy of Russian New Age. Post-Soviet esotericism stems rather from the late Soviet intellectual underground than from the Western counterculture. Participants of underground esoteric groups opposed themselves to everything associated with Soviet official ideology, including internationalism, gender equality, or any social justice agenda. As a result, contemporary Russian New Age followers share ideas of ethnic nationalism and patriarchal values. 

Conservative attitudes of adherents of Russian new religious cultures were also discussed in other presentations. Julia Andreeva’s research is devoted to the so-called courses of femininity, where entrepreneurs suggest that women cultivate traditionally understood gender roles following the images of ancient Slavic and Vedic cultures. This is a fast-developing segment of the business, products of which include seminars, trainings, lectures, publishing, films and so on. Julia’s research is based on ethnographic methods, and the collection of field data is an on-going process.

Sergei Shtyrkov’s presentation was about ethnic activism and conservative political movements in the republic of North Ossetia-Alania. Typologically, traditionalism in Ossetia can be described as neopaganism, wherein some elements of the idiom applied by traditionalists to express their views remind of the language of New Age spirituality. In his talk, Sergei drew attention to the phenomenon of what he is calling “practical religious studies,” academic or quasi-academic activity aimed at legitimizing ideas of ethnic traditionalism. Apologists of “practical religious studies” tend to adopt concepts from academic as well as esoteric discourses. Special attention was paid to the fact that ideas from Stanislav Grof’s transpersonal psychology borrowed from the texts of the Russian buddhologist and historian Evgenii Torchinov.

The connection between specific forms of esoteric religiosity and intellectual circles (especially artistic and scientific ones) throughout various epochs is a significant topic that has frequently been touched upon during discussions. Svetlana Tambovtseva presented the results of her study of the genealogy of neopagan aesthetics, dealing with the case of amateur linguistics. The alphabet “VseYasvetnaya Gramota” had been invented (reconstructed, from an emic point of view) by neopagan activists in Soviet times to find mystical meanings in traditional culture, and had become especially popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This alphabet is not necessarily used for writing texts, much more important is the aesthetics of its lettering. The letters’ stylistics embodies the protest against the contemporary “simplified” Cyrillic alphabet and stems from, as Svetlana demonstrated, Russian modernist art. The latter proves the modern status of traditionalists’ revivalism but also shows how intellectuals’ interpretations of traditional culture appear to be a part of modern mass religious culture.

Esoteric ideas have for many years been popular mostly among Russia’s academic and artistic intellectuals, especially in the early 20th century, and have affected philosophical and political teachings. One of such teachings was “Mystical Anarchism” representing the object of study of Romina Heim. Romina raised a question concerning the reliability of sources, especially in the case of memoirs, diaries, and other first-person accounts. One of the possible methodological decisions suggested during the discussion is to find texts about mystical anarchists that were were written by outsiders instead of the movement’s followers. Interesting data can be derived from sources of personal origin produced by people of art, for example, Russian symbolists, who were interested in mystical and esoteric ideas and practices.

The relationships between intellectuals who shared New Age beliefs across countries is the primary concern of Birgit Menzel’s research. In her presentation, she described how so-called “citizen diplomats” and adherents of the Human Potential Movement from the US and the USSR had been collaborating during the Cold War. Various people – journalists, scientists, writers – from both sides of the iron curtain believed that the end of the conflict between the socialist and capitalist world would contribute to a breakthrough in human spiritual development. Quantitative methods appear to be relevant for such kind of research, since they allow for an accumulation and visualization of a huge amount of data for a further network analysis.

It has been more than a year since our project group has taken up work which is now increasingly taking shape. The results of our research will be published in academic sources both in English and Russian. If you are interested to read about our project, events, and research activities in more detail you are welcome to visit our homepage.


Photo credit: Anna Tessmann

This blog post in Russian


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