New Worldviews at the Soviet Collapse and Transition

Author: Joseph Kellner

At the twilight of Marxism-Leninism, some Soviet citizens, mostly of the educated urban middle class, accepted Western-style liberal democracy and capitalism as the only worldview still worthy of the name. Many of their peers – likewise educated, urban, middle class – instead trained as astrologers or hypnotists, or sang Hare Krishna and sold the Bhagavad Gita in the streets, or fled a coming apocalypse, or anticipated a coming utopia, or sought salvation in a regimen of ice baths, or in fantastical pyramid schemes, or in pagan manuscripts, or in alien encounters, or even in Christ. Today, popular memory of the era is colored by blue Books of Mormon and saffron robes, while the graying prophets of American economics have returned to obscurity. My ongoing research is in the cultural history of the collapse. It reveals the history of this “seeking milieu,” and through them, assesses the larger societal crisis of the years of the collapse and transition.

An American Mormon Missionary in Moscow, 1991 © Joseph Kellner

Seen from the outside, the milieu appeared to many as yet more noise. The Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin counts himself among those on the outside – writing twenty-five years later, he recalled the period with a certain scornful distance:

“Today [in 2015 – author], when crowds of people line up to prostrate themselves before a holy relic, or to bow before an icon of the Mother of God, I chase away the thought that a good half of them, in their day, charged jars of water at the instruction of the ‘extrasense’ healer Chumak, and treated their kidneys, liver, and pancreas at the exhortation of the ‘extrasense’ healer Kashpirovsky [both popular TV-healers of the late 1980s author]. They stared at the television and charged themselves, with jars of water placed in a circle around them. That too had been a fashion once stunning, ubiquitous, inexplicable.

Strolling down the Arbat in August of 1991, even I – a teenager, 16 years old – was surprised that my wholly enlightened country had sunk to such depths of… of what? You name it: of dissoluteness, of gall, of foolishness, of baseness, of openness, of sincerity.

I was asked to sign a petition to restore the monarchy; people walked by singing “Hare Krishna!,” face-to-face with pagans holding gaudy pagan swastikas, and scurrying between them, people holding signs that read “Want to lose weight? Ask me how.” Gamblers played a shell game; Adventists, Scientologists, Baptists, Antifascists, telepathists, and eunuchs preached their faith; people in rags were saving Russia from Zionist conspiracy, sharply-dressed people in glasses were saving Russia from a massacre, the time of which they knew to the minute – a massacre, incidentally, being overseen by generals in the KGB, each of whom they could name; students called their country to arms, though they themselves had clearly never borne arms; others found salvation from all ills in ice water baths, and demonstrated it there on the street, leaving everything around them wet; still others, recreating the circulation of fluids in the body, drank things that I won’t mention in respectable company, and tried to serve it to others; and still more drank anything in sight and appeared the healthiest of all in this festival of life.” (Prilepin 2015)

To those on the inside, this festival of life looked quite different. Its currents, as it turns out, were intimately related, bound together by myriad intellectual and spiritual ties. These ties are complex and not a little mystifying, but that is very much the point the motley believers that Prilepin recalls actually belonged to a sprawling but interwoven milieu, whose connections and coincidences emerge upon scrutiny. We can be sure, for instance, that the ice-bathers shared certain ideas with the Hare Krishnas, and some were quite possibly personal acquaintances. The connection might be drawn as follows: they were linked by a shared elevation of an ancient Golden Age, described in a shared literature.

To begin with the ice-bathers: their ascetic guru was Porfiry Ivanov, who was among the most visible and influential neo-pagans in the Soviet period (see Zabiiako et al. 2006). Ice bathing was, to him, an ancient folk tradition. For him and his followers, ancient traditions of this type originated in a mythic and paradisiacal homeland for the Slavs in the Arctic Circle, the proof for which they find in several texts, which blur into the Hare Krishnas’ own corpus. First there is the Book of Veles, a popular (and forged, likely in the mid-twentieth century) manuscript of pre-Christian Slavs, which describes a northern paradise as part of an origins story. This one has no direct bearing on Hare Krishnas, and I’ve found no evidence that they read it. But another is the collected works of nineteenth-century occultist and theosopher Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), who called a similar northern paradise Hyperborea, in an elaboration on ancient Greek speculations. Her work was read very broadly in the circles from which the larger milieu developed.

And finally, there is The Arctic Home in the Vedas, a speculative history of early Aryans by the nineteenth-century Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856–1920), which posits a single Arctic origin for all Indo-Aryan peoples. Of these texts, the last two are highly likely to have reached would-be Hare Krishnas. Blavatsky was broadly read in the late-Soviet intellectual kruzhki from which Krishna Consciousness sprang (virtually all of my interview subjects were familiar with her), and the Arctic Home in the Vedas exalts an ancient Vedic civilization in or near contemporary Russia. Though that theory is non-canonical for Hare Krishnas, it is almost entirely founded in the Vedic writings that they revere, and two of my interview subjects mused about its plausibility in conversation. The ice-bathers and the Hare Krishnas would have had much to discuss with one another, and no cause for discord.

Sect Leader Vissarion in Ekaterinburg, 1993
© Joseph Kellner

I raise this point – and so many more could be elaborated – to demonstrate that we can speak of a single milieu, and that seemingly marginal spiritual movements did in fact reflect a much larger cultural event. The shape and assumptions of that milieu is specific to the intellectual and cultural world of the Soviet Union that forged it. But I would also posit that there is a universal quality in this particular mode of cultural upheaval, a transitional imagination that constitutes a worthwhile object for historical study in other times and places. Just as these seeking milieus are small in numbers but highly visible, so too are their tumultuous historical eras, however fleeting, outsized in historical memory and in their contribution to the future. They appear as an engine of new ideologies and, by the occasional whim of history, of new civilizations.

References

{Zabiiako, Krasnikov & Elbakian} Забияко, Андрей П., Красников, Александр Н. и Eкатерина С. Элбакян. “Ивановцы” [The Ivanovites]. Религиоведение: Энциклопедический словарь, 372–373. Москва: Сумма, 2006.

{Prilepin} Прилепин, Захар. “Оглянуться и не расплакаться [Looking Back Without Crying]”. Свободная пресса [The Free Press], 31.10.2015. Accessed December, 17, 2020. http://svpressa.ru/society/article/135035/

This text derived from Kellner, Joseph. “The End of History: Radical Responses to the Soviet Collapse.”, PhD Diss., U. C. Berkeley, 2018.


This blog post in Russian

Cite this article as: Joseph Kellner, “New Worldviews at the Soviet Collapse and Transition”, in New Age in Russia, 24/02/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/3058


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