The Role of Eastern Religions in Spiritual Quests of Young Orthodox Converts in the Late Soviet Period

Author: Barbara Martin

The religious revival characteristic of many post-Soviet societies is usually dated back to the Perestroika and the liberalization of legislation on religious cults after 1988. In fact, however, interest in religions and spirituality in a broader sense appeared among the late-Soviet youth, particularly from the intelligentsia, already in the 1970s. There was certainly a connection between the declining influence of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the rise of interest in alternative worldviews, particularly non-materialistic ones. In the framework of a research project on the religious revival among Russian Orthodox intelligentsia in the late-Soviet period[1], I have so far interviewed over thirty converts to Orthodoxy in Moscow and Leningrad to reconstitute their spiritual journeys from atheism to faith. Although all such journeys are unique, a number of respondents recalled having first been interested in Eastern religions before converting to Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, this later conversion often led them to minimize the importance of these early experiments, to downplay their importance. Yet they almost certainly played a role in opening up for them direct perceptions of the existence of a reality beyond the materialistic realm, which facilitated their conversion to Orthodoxy at a later stage.

Like many of his peers, Russian writer Viktor Krotov had a strong interest in Eastern religions in the 1960s. Was he merely following a fashion, did he turn his gaze eastwards because he was tired of dialectical materialism, or did he feel that Eastern teachings had the keys to how things really were? He could not tell exactly what had driven him, but he began to read avidly on Hinduism, taking advantage of the fact that many books on this theme circulated in samizdat – many of them typewritten copies of pre-revolutionary editions. He could find relevant readings in the Lenin State Library as well: “There were books coming out in the series ‘Monuments of Eastern Writings’ (Russian: Памятники письменности вотока). The volumes ‘Mahabharata,’ ‘Upanishad,’ Ramakrishna, and Vivekananda – everywhere I found vitamins, which I was missing.” He began to read practical and theoretical literature on yoga and do exercises in concentration, tried asana postures, pranayama breathing exercises. The goal of these explorations was to “feel whether there was something beyond the materialistic model of the world.”

A Samizdat copy of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on yoga

“Generally speaking, I succeeded. To a minimal extent I learned to reach what is usually called an altered state of consciousness. I became convinced that it is possible to break through the limits of the usual perception of reality – and there opens up some other sphere.” (Krotov 2014, 501-2)

During this period, Krotov once summoned the help of the spirit of Ramacharaka, whom he believed to be a Hindu master, to solve an important problem he faced relating to his father’s liberation from a Gulag camp. To his amazement, he did receive the help required, and successfully solved this thorny issue. Only years later did he realize that Ramacharaka was the pseudonym of William Walker Atkinson, an American occultist, but this did not affect his perception of this episode.

In spite of his spiritual experiments, Krotov remained little inclined to mysticism and always searched for rational explanations to various paranormal phenomena in his life. Still, the thirst for meaning, for hints to the existence of a reality beyond the materialistic worldview that the Soviet regime considered the only valid paradigm, continued to drive him. He experimented with energetic healing and received a Reiki training. And after years of growing interest in Christianity, Krotov decided to be baptized in January 1979. Although he described himself as “unchurched,” Christianity came to play a leading role in his life and writing. His younger brother Yakov followed his footsteps, but after reading Vivekananda, the Quran, and the Bible in his teenage years, his encounter with Father Aleksandr Men’ proved decisive. He was baptized at the age of 17 in 1974 and became a dedicated parishioner, later a catechizer, and in the post-Soviet period was ordained a priest by the schismatic Apostolic Orthodox Church.

Viktor Krotov in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, 1972 © Viktor Krotov’s archiv

The Krotov brothers’ itinerary was quite typical for the time. Vladimir Vinogradov, later member of an unofficial Orthodox youth circle, also remembered reading books on the lives of Vivekananda and Ramakrishna at the library while he was a student, as well as Romain Rolland’s works on India. An acquaintance even brought him books from India. He also began doing some yoga exercises. “It did not last for a long time, this passion, maybe two or three years, but it destroyed my materialistic worldview… I already felt and believed that there was something higher.” But he, like other later Orthodox converts, felt that Eastern philosophy was “too far away, too complicated.” By the time he was baptized, following his wife’s example, this early interest had already receded into the background.

Natalya Vinogradova (who later became a nun under the name of sister Anuvia) also remembered an early interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. In 1980 or 1981, as she worked as an archaeologist at the Moscow Institute of Eastern Studies, she traveled to West Germany, where she learned Tai Chi – a martial art she later taught at her institute. But these experiments failed to fulfill her spiritual aspirations, and she experienced frustration when she failed to “see” anything during meditation. When she traveled to a monastery in Estonia, she decided to get baptized. “It was also one of my spiritual experiments. What you tried in Buddhism, you tried in Islam, you have to try in Christianity as well… I didn’t know then that baptism was a sacrament. After being baptized, I began to have a wholly different perception of the spiritual world.” Later on, her confessor advised her to stop teaching Tai Chi, which she gave up without a regret.

Tatyana Goricheva, an Orthodox feminist who co-founded the Christian club and journal “Marija” in Leningrad retrospectively had a very negative view on her years of interest in yoga and Eastern religions. She radically changed her lifestyle, quit smoking, drinking and eating meat, even considered emigrating to India. But she also felt a sense of inner vacuity that did not recede, no matter how many mantras she sang. Her experiments with meditation made her realize how limited her own capacities were, and threw her into an existential crisis, without offering any positive worldview she could rely on. “I just understood that not everything comes down to logic, reason, that I am very limited, very unworthy, untalented, I don’t know anything, basically. And I haven’t even made the first steps.” Moreover, she felt that her yogi friends were devoid of compassion, self-centered, and unwilling to help others. Nor did she relate to the philosophy of “self-realization,” personal fulfillment that she identified in the brand of yoga that was “imported from America.” Only after a mystic experience opened to her the doors of Christianity did she find the spiritual place where she believed to truly belong. What she longed for, hadn’t found in Eastern religions, but then found in Orthodox Christianity was transcendence, repentance, and morality.

Alla Sariban, another member of the club “Marija” who was forced to emigrate to Germany, summed up this phenomenon as follows:

“Here in the West many people go from Christianity to Eastern religions in order to get mystic experiences that they have not found in the Christian church. In Russia the development generally goes the other way round. Through mystic experiences of Far-Eastern religious practices one discovers the values and mystery of Christendom and in the course of further developments many discover that mystic experiences are not the goal of religious life, but means to lead people on the way to salvation.” (Sariban 1989)


[1] This research project, entitled “Finding Faith in an Atheist Land: Russian Orthodox Intelligentsia and the Late Soviet National-Religious Revival,” is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

References

{Krotov} Кротов, Виктор. Навстречу своему лучу. Воспоминания и мысли [Towards your Ray. Memories and Thoughts]. Москва: Гео, 2014.

Sariban, Alla, and Eva-Maria Smolka. Der schmale Weg zu Gott: meine Erfahrungen im realen Sozialismus der Sowjetunion. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1989.

Cite this article as: Barbara Martin, “The Role of Eastern Religions in Spiritual Quests of Young Orthodox Converts in the Late Soviet Period”, in New Age in Russia, 30/05/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4641


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1 Response

  1. June 27, 2020

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