Roerich’s Shambala Journey: Dany Savelli on Her Ongoing Project

Author: Dany Savelli

Agni Yoga, the spiritual teaching that the painter Nicholas [Nikolai] Roerich (1874–1947) and his wife Elena Roerich (born Shaposhnikova) (1879–1955) elaborated in the 1920s–1930s, is endowed with the important millenarian, messianic, apocalyptic, and utopian components that clearly distinguishes it from Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy. The explanation for that is largely to be found in the biographies of the Roerich family, especially in their reactions to trauma of emigration and statelessness they experienced. Don’t we see in the messages of Mahatma Morya (the omnipotent and omniscient being imagined by Blavatsky), who was in regular communication with Elena Roerich, that Russia is more and more glorified while Nicholas Roerich is more and more distinctly portrayed as a messianic figure capable of saving the homeland lost in 1917? 

Elena and Nicholas Roerich. Novgorod, 1905
©Courtesy of Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

Roerich’s messianism with its strong patriotic character gave rise to the elaboration of some astonishing geopolitical thoughts, which have combined many elements taken from Slavophilism and Theosophy: The rejection of the West, traditionally advocated by the Slavophiles, has exacerbated the Buddhist-oriental tropism which was for its part inherited from Blavatsky’s theosophical teaching. That meant that Russia had to lead the Asian nations, at the cost of a much more radical revision of Russian-Asian relations than it was proposed at the same time by the Eurasian movement and earlier by Nikolai Fedorov’s cosmism as well. To grasp Nicholas Roerich’s mastery of combining art and politics and putting them at the service of his mystical project, one should look at the expedition which he organized between 1924 and 1928 and which took him to Sikkim, Kashmir, Ladakh, Xinjiang, the Soviet Union (Moscow, Altai), Mongolia, and Tibet.

This ‘pilgrimage to the heart of Asia’ revealed Roerichs’s desire for the quest of human origins inherited from Romanticism; it was also an epic journey in order to find but also to create a special, sacral space (the “New Country”) capable of hosting the New Era to which the painter and his wife aspired. The story of this “senseless journey” (to use the expression of the novelist Vasily Golovanov (2002)) also makes it possible to grasp the stunning contrast between the delirious phantasmagoria of the Roerichs (or “folie à deux”) and the rationality of geopolitical concerns, if taking into account the reality of that time. The four-year expedition represented in a concentrated form the major questions raised by Nicholas Roerich’s artistic, scientific, diplomatic, and spiritual quest.

Nicholas Roerich. New York, 1929
  © Courtesy of Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York

In my project, I propose to approach this extraordinary journey by considering separately the different types of documents about it – archives, official reports, travel narratives, diaries, essays, scientific writings, press articles, paintings, etc. – and by applying to each one an appropriate analysis (historical, literary, scientific, artistic, etc.). Indeed, how can such disparate writings as, for example, the official expedition reports by the British diplomats and spies and the almost daily communications with Mahatma Morya by Elena Roerich be put on the same level? On the one hand, since the course of the expedition is well described (thanks in particular to the work of the historians Alexandre Andreyev (2008) and Vladimir Rosov (2002), there is no need to write a new linear account of it. On the other hand, it is a good opportunity to identify the deep motivations and astonishing strategies of Nicholas and Elena Roerich that make this expedition one of the most fascinating of the 20th century by studying different facets of this journey to the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, namely: How the expedition was experienced by its various members (Nicholas Roerich, Elena Roerich, and their son Yuri Roerich as well as their traveling companions, Nikolai Kordashevsky, Konstantin Riabinin, Pavel Portniagin); how it was reported in the American press informed by the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York; how it was interpreted by Russian emigration circles, and finally, how it was suspected by the Indian Office and the Foreign Office.

I think that the “case” of Nicholas Roerich constitutes a remarkable thread to approach the question of the ‘Imaginary East’ in the West (Russia included) and to shed light on the debates on Russian national identity in relation to Asia.


{Andreev} Андреев, Александр. Гималайское Братство. Теософский миф и его творцы [The Himalayan Brotherhood. The Theosophical Myth and its Creators]. Санкт-Петербург: Издательство Санкт-Петербургского Университета, 2008.

Andreyev, Alexandre. The Myth of the Masters Revived. The Occult Lives of Nikolai and Elena Roerich. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014.

{Golovanov} Голованов, Василий. Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [The Island or the Justification for “Senseless Journeys”]. Москва: Вагриус, 2002.

{Rosov} Росов, Владимир. Николай Рерих: Вестник Звенигорода. Экспедиции Н. К. Рериха по окраинам пустыни Гоби [Nikolay Roerich: The Messenger of Zvenigorod. N. K. Roerich’s Expeditions to the Outskirts of the Gobi Desert]. Книга I: Великий План [The Great Plan]. Санкт-Петербург: Алетейя; Москва: Ариаварта-Пресс, 2002. Книга II: Новая Страна [The New Country]. Москва: Ариаварта-Пресс, 2004.

Cite this article as: Dany Savelli, “Roerich’s Shambala Journey: Dany Savelli on Her Ongoing Project”, in New Age in Russia, 13/01/2020,

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Anna Tessmann (January 13, 2020). Roerich’s Shambala Journey: Dany Savelli on Her Ongoing Project. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from

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