The Siberian Village of Okunevo: Fieldnotes from a Place of Power

Yulia Senina (European University at Saint Petersburg)

In addition to the Russian Orthodox Church and Protestant movements (predominantly Pentecostal), there is a multitude of new and diverse religious movements, spiritual teachings, and practices in the Urals and Siberia that are commonly referred to as ‘New Age’ (cf. Chryssides 2007). The choice of these regions is not accidental, as they are widely believed to be places where one can find sources of non-confessional mystical inspiration or even a new ‘promised land’ (cf. Shtyrkov 2015, 65). Among the important centers of the Urals and Eastern as well as Southern Siberia, the most famous are the settlement of the disciples of Vissarion Christ in the south of Krasnoyarsk region (cf. Panchenko 2012; 2013), the site of the presumed ‘Shambala’ in Altai, allegedly found by Nikolay Roerich (1874–1947) in Uimon Valley, the ancient settlement of Arkaim in Chelyabinsk Region (cf. Shnirel’man 2011), and the village of Okunevo in Omsk region, where I conducted field research in August 2019.

From both emic and etic perspective, these settlements and landscapes are often called ‘places of power’ or ‘power places.’ ‘Place of power’ is an established term for a site of mass pilgrimage that attracts people throughout the year, especially on the occasion of religious holidays, festivals, seminars, and training programs. Pilgrimage to natural power places has become a mainstream phenomenon of the Russian New Age movement since the turn of the 21st century. However, such centers have their roots in the late Soviet period (e.g., the settlements of the Roerich adherents in the Altai villages, the first rural Krishna ashrams, etc.) (cf. Grigor’yeva 2017, 45).

The village of Okunevo, located in the north of the Omsk region, 240 km from the same-named megapolis, is one of the most popular power places in Russia. The population of the village varies depending on the season: While there are about 400 permanent residents during summer, in winter, this number can decrease by more than half. The villagers can be divided into two categories – residents and spiritual seekers. The locals are people who had already lived in Okunevo before it acquired the status of a place of power. Generally, they are engaged in seasonal work (for example, many men work in logging). Each house has a vegetable garden, some of the families keep cattle, and their way of living, in general, does not differ from life in the average Russian village. The other part of Okunevo residents is ‘religious’ people taken there by their spiritual quests. Today, these people represent most of the villagers, since many locals have chosen to sell their premises at prices that have increased with the popularity of the village and move to a calmer, more familiar environment.

The ashram of Babaji’s adherents on the main street of the village
© Yulia Senina, 2019

In Okunevo, there a several ritual sites, some of which are located outside the village. The most famous of them is called ‘Omkar’. Omkar is a hill on the steep bank of the Tara River with a small Orthodox Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, an Orthodox cross, a Hindu dhuni altar, and a pillar with a pagan kolovrat sign [1] on top of it. In their article devoted to Okunevo as a sacred space, Elena Golovneva and Irina Shmidt describe the practices performed at Omkar: “Old Believers pray at Omkar in the morning, then Orthodox worshippers, followed by devotees of Krishna, who sing at noon” (Golovneva and Shmidt 2015, 57). However, this statement could not be confirmed during my observation. Omkar is a major center of attraction for pilgrims and tourists but not for the village’s permanent residents. The Orthodox community of Okunevo built the small church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles’ on their piece of land and hardly ever visit Omkar for services and prayers. The Babajists try to perform their fire ritual (described below) at the dhuni on Omkar (rather than on the territory of the ashram) at least twice a month, but Krishnas and Vedic Orthodox people also come to Omkar for rituals on their main holidays.

A house with a pair of neopagan kolovrat symbols
© Yulia Senina, 2019

On the opposite side of the Okunevo territory, there is another ritual site – Tyub, an omega-shaped area surrounded by a bend of the Tara River. In its center, there is a circular trail called the ‘witch circle’. Various rituals are performed there, and in the imagination of the village’s inhabitants, the place is endowed with spiritual significance. Another ritual site is represented by the ‘Glade of Perun’ – a clearing in the forest with a pagan idol statue of Perun, the highest Slavic god of the pantheon, in its center. Within the village, there are further ritual sites, objects, and spots invested with sacred power, yet they are revered by fewer people since they are not open to the public.

The village of Okunevo stretches along the Tara river, the steep riverbanks that offer spectacular viewpoints frequented by both residents and tourists. Unlike many power places, Okunevo doesn’t exhibit any distinctive natural or geographical characteristics that would account for its status as a spiritual pilgrimage site (Ivakhiv 2011, 49). On the contrary, the landscape surrounding the village is typical of the northern Omsk region, where forest-steppe merges into the taiga, and most of the area consists of woods and fields.

The view of the Tara River from a steep slope
in the vicinity of Okunevo village
© Yulia Senina, 2019

Nevertheless, the village became a sacred site when Shaivites, followers of Sri Haidakhan Wale Baba (Babaji) (d. 1984) [2], appeared in Okunevo in 1991. In 1995, their ashram Omkar Shiva Dham (Engl.: ‘the place where creation began’) was officially registered as a religious community and later became the Russian center of an international organization of followers of Babaji’s spiritual teaching.

The first narrative about the special location and the spiritual role of Okunevo (Grigor’yeva 2017, 48) appeared in form of a legend that explains why the Babajists chose this village for their daily service and the foundation of their ashram. It is said that Hanuman, a monkey-like Hindu deity, inherited “a certain land (presumably Siberia)” (Golovneva and Shmidt 2015, 61), where a Vedic Temple had been erected in his honor. In the early 1990s then, the spiritual teacher Muniraj, appointed successor to Haidakhan Babaji and worshiped as the current incarnation of the god Shiva, sent one of his disciples, Rasma Rozitis, searching for this sacred site, where not only the temple of Hanuman was hoped to be found, but also the place “where civilization had supposedly first developed 300,000 years ago” (ibid.). In fact, just as the teaching of Sri Babaji, so also other currents of Hinduism consider Russia to be the ‘country of the sages’, and Siberia to be the cradle of all Indo-European peoples from where they eventually made their way to Hindustan (cf. Witzel 2000; Kuz’mina 2008; Guseva 2007) This is why Babajists believe that the events described in the ancient Indian Golden-Age epos the Ramayana took place in Siberia as the ‘spiritual pole of the Earth’.

Rasma Rozitis standing in front of an ashram building, the late 1990s
© Omkar Shiva Dham Ashram Archive

Therefore, Rasma Rozitis was especially interested in ancient findings, which Babajists later interpreted as evidence of the existence of an ancient Vedic civilization (Shnirel’man 2015). Since the first excavations had already been conducted in 1968, she could obtain information from local archeologists (ibid., 515). They told her about unusual archeological monuments [3] located in the vicinity of the village.

Rasma Rozitis, a US citizen of Latvian origin, known to the villagers by her spiritual name ‘Radjani,’ can indeed be considered the first to discover Okunevo as a place of power and the first to popularize it as a pilgrimage site. The reason why Radjani chose Omsk in the first place was “because the name of this town correlates with the holy syllable “Om,” which has, according to mystical Indian teachings, colossal divine energy, the purest of vibrations that penetrate the universe, and the name of the river and city of Tara (Muromtsevsk Region, Omsk Oblast) correlates with the name of an Indian goddess” (Golovneva and Shmidt 2015, 62). Upon her arrival to Okunevo village, Radjani meditated, fasted, and prayed for several days, until she received the necessary spiritual confirmation that Okunevo was the place for Babajists to establish their ashram.

The idol of the goddess Tara at the power place Tyub
© Yulia Senina, 2019

Thus, it becomes evident in the first narratives about the sacredness and magical energy of the Okunevo territory that attempts were made to legitimize one’s own teaching by resorting to scientific discourse, namely archeological research. Also, reviving ideas of a ‘Golden Age’ and referring to ancient monuments to justify the choice of a power place is typical both for Russia [4] and other countries (Lewis 2012).

During my fieldwork, the Babajists’ ashram probably was the most vibrant place in the whole village. It is unique; being the only Shaivite ashram in Russia, it is frequented not only by Shaivites, but also spiritual seekers and tourists, and revered by Babajists as a place of healing, spiritual purification, and learning. The number of permanent residents usually does not exceed five persons; in winter, the minister is often the only one to stay in the ashram. The ashramites, those who permanently live in the ashram, maintain a strict daily routine, and adhere to spiritual and bodily practices. Their day starts early before sunrise at 5 a. m. with the ritual washing, the havan fire ritual is performed at the dhuni. Once the fire is ignited, special mantras are read, a photograph of Babaji is worshipped, prasad (vegetarian food), and freshly-cut flowers are brought as sacrificial offerings, and the participants apply chandan (sandalwood paste) to their forehead as well as onto the photograph. Following the fire ritual, the ashramites enter the temple room, where they perform the second ritual of aarti, the service of worshipping the Supreme Deity. Aarti is conducted twice a day, in the morning and the evening. During the prayer ritual, all participants sing mantras in Sanskrit and Hindi and are musically accompanied by the minister playing the harmonium. They also offer fire, incense materials, ghee (clarified butter), camphor, flowers, rice, and sandalwood powder to the picture of Babaji as well as to murti-statues of other deities. The murtis are arranged explicitly in the altar part of the temple room and are daily washed, clothed with ritual garments, and fed with special food, thus being anthropomorphized. After a joint meal and a lunch break, the ashramites engage in karma yoga, conscious selfless work.

Omkar, the most popular power place in Okunevo, with the Hindu altar dhuni and a pillar crowned with the neopagan kolovrat
© Yulia Senina, 2019

According to Babaji’s teaching, everyone coming to an ashram becomes the property of the ashram and is called upon to fulfill his primary purpose – to work in order to arrive at the path of perfection. Depending on the season, the activities of karma yoga may differ. However, this practice is always aimed at providing for the needs of the ashram residents. In summer, this means working in the garden, collecting herbs for the traditional Ivan-chai, berries, and mushrooms, preparing for the winter months. In contrast, in winter, the ashramites attend to the heating of the residential and bathhouses. Regardless of the season, the ashram is to be kept clean and tidy. Since Rasma Rozitis first came here and bought a small, ruinous house in Central Street in 1991, the ashram has grown considerably. It now has a large garden for growing vegetables and flowers, several residential and dining buildings, two temple rooms (for summer and winter), a souvenir shop, and a venue for public events.

The most popular holiday for the Okunevo ashramites is Navaratri, celebrated in summer. In Hindu tradition, this festival of nine nights is celebrated twice a year, in spring and autumn. Due to difficult weather conditions in Okunevo, however, the ashramites decided to hold the festival in summer [5].

Ever since the Babajists established their ashram in the village, the “process of religious rebirth” (Golovneva and Shmidt 105, 54) has been unfolding in Okunevo, which led to the transformation of an ordinary Siberian village into a ‘place of power’ and pilgrimage site important for various religious movements and numerous seekers of a new spirituality [6]. It doesn’t prove easy to reconstruct how the following religious groups appeared in Okunevo. What can be noted, though, is that all of them insist on their ‘right’ to a place of power and claim priority in the appearance in Okunevo. However, they cannot challenge Rasma Rozitis’s discovery of the village. The Babajists, for their part, report that the period until the end of the 1990s was a time of solitude, as there was no one other in the village than ashramites. A festival held in 1999 finally attracted representatives of different confessions, to be sure, but interest in Okunevo had already been indicated before. In 1993, the Russian amateur writer and explorer Mikhail Rechkin (1950–2019) started to investigate ‘anomalous zones’ in the Okunevo area and later organized many expeditions, the results of which provided the basis for his books about this place. In them, Rechkin claims that there was indeed an ancient civilization resident in the territory of the village and that Okunevo will be a sanctuary in the case of cataclysmic events (cf. Rechkin 2011).

Now, in addition to the Babajist ashram, there are two other officially registered religious communities in Okunevo: a branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the local Russian Orthodox church parish dedicated to the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. All other religious groups and communities in Okunevo are incredibly heterogeneous, inconsistent in their teachings, and diffuse in their organization. It should also be added that adherents of one religious movement regularly join groups of another confession. Thus, it is not surprising to find Krishnaites participating in the Babajist Aarti ritual, which implies a ‘transparency’ and ‘instability’ of religious identity formations. For Okunevo, these cases of ‘spiritual wanderings’ are no exception but rather a rule [7].

At different times different religious groups appeared in Okunevo – Rodnovery (adherents of the neopagan ‘Slavic Native Faith’ movement), Orthodox Old Believers – Ynglings [8] (Yashin 2001), Rerikhovtsy (followers of Nikolay Roerich) as well as Cossack-Aryans. According to electronic resources, among the numerous non-confessional pilgrims were at times famous people, such as the Russian comedian Mikhail Zadornov, the lead singer of the band Aquarium Boris Grebenshchikov, the Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, the Moroccan prince Ibrahim Khalil, the princess of Nepal Himani Shah, the consul general of India in Russia, and many others (Y.G.K. 2013). The pilgrimage of prominent figures to remote natural places serves as a powerful advertising asset for New Age tourism that has grown extraordinarily popular in Okunevo over the past decades. Tourists coming to Okunevo are attracted by popular stories about the ‘Okunevo phenomenon’ (Rechkin 2011) inextricably linked to the ‘legend of the five lakes’: According to the legend, there are five lakes in the vicinity of Okunevo, to all of which are ascribed an extraterrestrial origin and curative effects, yet only four of them are known (Danilino, Lenevo, Shchuchye, and Shaitan) while the fifth, mysterious, lake remains secret. The legend of the five Okunevo lakes even inspired the advertising campaign of the famous Russian vodka brand Pyat’ ozer (Engl. “five lakes”) (cf. Glushkova 2011, 62).

Translated by Romina Heim


Yulia Senina is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at European University at St Petersburg. Her master’s thesis is dedicated to the practice of channeling in Okunevo.


Notes

[1] The kolovrat is claimed to be a Slavic pagan symbol of the Sun. Its name can be translated as ‘spinning wheel’ and it represents a form of Swastika, venerated by adepts of the Slavic Native Faith movement as a symbol with spiritual power.

[2] ‘Babajists’ adhere to the spiritual teachings of Haidakhan Babaji, who taught in India from 1970 to 1984. Babaji claimed to be the reincarnation of the Indian Yogi Mahavatar Babaji, known from Paramahansa Yogananda’s (1893–1952) Autobiography of A Yogi (1946). The teaching of Babaji postulates the three main principles of truth, simplicity, and love, on which all human actions should be based. To implement these principles, one must pursue the path of selfless service to humanity, which Babaji’s adherents realize in their main ritual practice, karma yoga, an activity dedicated to God (Devi 1990).

[3] In archeological literature, these monuments are referred to as the Okunevo Archeological Complex dating back to the late Bronze and early Iron Age. Of major interest was the discovery of a sacrificial altar situated at the border of two climatic zones, between steppe and taiga.

[4] The most famous examples are the dolmens of the Krasnodar region and the fortified settlement Arkaim in the Chelyabinsk region dating back to the Middle Bronze Age.

[5] For that, they had to ask for permission in India.

[6] At first, the Babajists disliked the local Russian Orthodox Church (ROC): In August 1993, a delegation of the ROC headed by Archbishop Theodosius of Omsk and Tara arrived in Okunevo. The Shaivites, unusual inhabitants for a Siberian village, were perceived as foreigners and dissenters. The pillar with the sign ‘Om’ was replaced by a massive Orthodox cross, and sometime later the Orthodox chapel of St. Michael the Archangel was built near the Babajists’ dhuni altar. As my informants noted, the conflict with the ROC went on for several years: delegations of Orthodox believers visited on Hindu holidays and sprinkled holy water on the dhuni, coming into dispute not only with the Babajists, but also with followers of neopagan movements.

[7] Among the less structured communities that I was able to identify during the time of my fieldwork, I can mention the following: followers of the neopagan Vedic Orthodox movement, the spiritual Hindu teacher Sai Baba of Shirdi, the Indian ‘mother of peace’ Amma, the Hindu philosophical teachings of Advaita Vedanta as well as members of the Academy of Human Universal Energy and Spirituality (HUESA) and the alternative healing center Fomalgaut.

[8] Contrary to its self-designation, the Ancient Russian Ynglist Church of the Orthodox Old Believers has nothing to do neither with the actual Orthodox Old Believers (starovery) nor the Scandinavian dynasty of the Ynglings. ‘Ynglism’ is a new religious movement, one branch of the neopagan ‘Slavic Native Faith’, headed by the initiator of the movement Aleksandr Khinevich (b. 1961) from Omsk. The central writings of Ynglism are the Slavo-Aryan Vedas according to which the territory between the Ural Mountains and Pacific Ocean was once the mythical country Belovodye with Åsgard as its capital (which now corresponds to the territory of Omsk). There, at the confluence of the rivers Om’ and Irtysh the Supreme Temple of the Earth is believed to have been located. Also, in the north of the Omsk region, in the area of Okunevo village, a secret hermitage was preserved even after the Christian onslaught, and, according to the Ynglist belief, it was there that the magi passed down their sacred knowledge from generation to generation, and eventually to Khinevich himself (Khinevich 1993, 7).

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Cite this article as: Yulia Senina, “The Siberian Village of Okunevo: Fieldnotes from a Place of Power”, in New Age in Russia, 11/03/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/3993


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2 Responses

  1. Райван Хольдсгот says:

    Бог-кристалл Ханумана правил в Сибири 7 метровыми гигантами ванарами и говорившими на иранских языках арийцами в 1800 г. До н. Э. Завоевавшими северную Индию. После этого враги напали и сбросили Хануману в циркониевую шахту. Вход в неё находится под искусственным холмом севернее озера Шайтан, 1,5 километра восточнее посёлка Инцисс.

  1. August 10, 2020

    […] about practitioners, power places like Arkaim, Dolmens in the Krasnodarsk region, the Siberian village Okunevo as parts of sacred geography, and (neo-)shamanism as a form of altered states of consciousness. The […]

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