Soviet Esotericism: A Quest for Personal Autonomy in a Totalitarian Society
One of the most intriguing questions in the study of esotericism for me always was why esoteric interests are so omnipresent and persistent throughout history. In other words, what is it that attracts people to esoteric practices and ideas?
It is in part due to this interest that I turned to the study of Soviet esotericism. For the most part of the seventy years of Soviet history, people pursuing esoteric interests were persecuted by communist authorities; they were arrested, could lose their jobs, or were sent to mental facilities for mandatory “therapy.” Yet people continued to secretly copy and share esoteric texts and gathered to discuss medieval alchemy, the story of Atlantis, or extraterrestrial civilizations, or engage in esoteric practices.
Why was this the case? The answer, I think, is that there is something fundamental about esotericism – broadly defined – and the role it plays in culture. This role can be described best as deconstructing an established social order that allows a person to act outside usual social norms, behavioral models, and hierarchies, thus being inherently inimical to the established status quo. Esoteric practices are deconstructive in nature because they provide an alternative frame of explanation of social reality (e.g., religions and political parties can be explained as “egregors”) that is independent of established institutions and claims to be of a higher order than traditional (“exoteric”) explanations. This new frame is not just a different description of reality – it provides a completely new system of orientation in the world, different ethics and values.
The challenge presented by esotericism is not limited to the religious dimension. An important quality of esotericism is its ability to incorporate various distinct elements in all-encompassing worldview systems. This ability can be attributed to the fundamental character of esotericism itself. By “fundamental character” I mean that esotericism deals with a deep layer of culture that underlies other spheres. For instance, a notion of political power historically cannot be separated from a “magical” or “miraculous” power that reflects a person’s charisma (for a classic description of this connection see Frazer 1900, 7-10). The same goes for economics – I can refer here to Mauss’ observation that the notion of economic value in native cultures of the Pacific region goes hand in hand with the idea of an object’s magical power (Mauss 1966, 8). Magical power is also often attributed to art, and the notion of a magical dimension of an artistic act seems to be omnipresent both chronologically and geographically (Lindberg 2016, 606). In other words, the notion of “magical” or “spiritual” power that underlies esotericism is not solely metaphysical, but can be also political, economic, and artistic; it refers to an ability to somewhat miraculously capture imagination and inspire a certain behavior.
An established social system usually attempts to cement and monopolize this power, providing, at the same time, controlled access to these forms of power (political charisma through political institutions, economic value through monetary monopoly, spiritual experience through religious institutions, and so on). In totalitarian societies such access is limited and highly controlled, and any attempt to bypass established institutions may lead to a severe blow back.
Esotericism, on the other hand, serves exactly as a bypass, because it claims that an individual can have direct access to this abstract “power” by means of esoteric practices. Hence, it inevitably undermines social stability even if it starts as complimentary to a certain political group. In the Soviet context, for instance, some of the early Bolsheviks were interested in esoteric topics, and esoteric communities flourished during the 1920s, but they were decimated when Stalin started his quest to cement his power and unite the Soviet Union under his rule.
It explains the controversial status of esoteric practices, which are fascinating but at the same time always frightening and often problematic from the point of view of current social norms. An ambivalence of attractiveness and fear, according to Rudolph Otto, is a pivotal element of experience of the holy (Otto 1958, 31). Historically, a fear of esoteric practices took many forms from witch hunts and conspiracy theories to horror movies and novels. Despite the fear, people are attracted to esotericism – similarly to how the audience enjoys horror while watching a horror movie. I think that the horror element of esotericism has something to do with the feeling that normal, everyday reality falls apart revealing tremendous ancient non-human powers underneath it. This feeling is also the source of esotericism’s deconstructive potential, since it makes esoteric practices conductive for creativity and social change, and allows them to flourish in periods of social transformation, while during periods of a firmly established status quo esoteric practices could act as an instrument to preserve personal autonomy and spiritual freedom.
Consider some topics that were recurring in the Soviet esoteric milieu, such as gnostic motifs or the legend of Atlantis. What they had in common is that they constructed an alternative to actual social reality, allowed to make sense of an imperfect social environment and navigate through it in the direction of personal autonomy.
Widespread interest in Gnosticism in the Russian intelligentsia started several decades prior to the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The philosopher Vladimir Solovyov was one of the first to bring this interest to Russia. Through Solovyov, Gnostic ideas began to spread in esoteric communities. The poet and writer Andrei Bely recalled that the discussion of Solovyov’s works was typical at Anthroposophical meetings, which he attended (Bely 2000, 312), while one of the leaders of Moscow esoteric circles of the 1920s, Vladimir Shmakov, discussed Solovyov’s philosophy at length in his books (Shmakov 1994, 106).
What was the reason for this interest? Gnostic myths focus on a story about a fallen world in which we are imprisoned. At the same time, they maintain the fundamental spiritual freedom of a human being. In the Soviet context that meant a way towards true freedom outside the prison of an oppressing social order, which was established by means of a materialist ideology. People interested in Gnosticism saw it as a middle way between atheism and the conservative rigid spirituality of the mainstream religious institutions.
Furthermore, Gnosticism – as far as it existed as a set of ideas and ancient texts rather than in the form of an established institution that would enforce a normative reading of these ideas – was perceived as more open to both spiritual and social innovations. Such an approach is visible, for instance, in works of the mathematician and philosopher Vasily Nalimov who considered Gnosticism a philosophical option preferable for a critical and rational spiritual seeker, a philosopher who is not content to follow ready-made answers provided by mainstream religions but would like to pursue the knowledge of spiritual realms (Nalimov 1994, 316).
The story of Atlantis is different but similar in some respects. In the most general sense, it is a story about a catastrophic social change that destroyed a highly developed civilization that was a source of certain spiritual knowledge – something that sounds familiar, if we keep in mind the experience of the collapse of empires characteristic of twentieth-century Russian culture. But it is also a story that empowers a person to have – at least potentially – access to this ancient transformational knowledge in an act of astral projection or past-life regression.
Although most people in Russia live far from oceans, the myth of Atlantis seems to be extremely appealing. In the Soviet Union the myth of Atlantis was preserved primarily in the form of science fiction. In mainstream literature Atlantis sometimes appeared as an image of “the other” and ultimately as part of the criticism of capitalist and pre-modern societies as opposed to socialist utopia – a salient example of this kind is Alexander Belyaev’s novel The Last Man of Atlantis (1925). However, being “the other” – both in a spatial and in a temporal sense – also made Atlantis the perfect location for the source of secret spiritual knowledge, a knowledge other than the normative knowledge provided by materialist science and Marxist ideology.
This version of Atlantis, clearly inspired by esoteric narratives, appears in the novel Aelita (1923) by Alexei Tolstoy, where a Martian princess, Aelita, described as a remote heir of ancient Atlanteans, teaches the protagonist a form of idealist esoteric philosophy, according to which “the true world is a movement of the mind”, which “manifests itself in the visible world through human beings” (Tolstoy 1963, 367-8). In the late Soviet period this philosophical part of the novel attracted the attention of a new generation of writers who elaborated and expanded it with a new gamut of esoteric references showing a constantly growing interest in this topic.
Esotericism deals with symbols more than with physical objects, or, to be more precise, it deals with objects as symbols. This distinction was already present in the early modern concept of occult qualities as presented most clearly by Agrippa in Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Agrippa defined occult qualities as qualities that are not directly related to the material constitution of a thing and attributed them to forms, in the Aristotelean manner, also pointing out that forms are the same as Platonic ideas (Agrippa 1651, 30). These qualities are primarily symbolic in nature. For instance, the lion as a predatory mammal with a sharp tooth is an object of biology. Yet, the lion as a symbol of courage and of the Sun is an object of natural magic, and these symbolic correspondences are essential in talismans and rituals. The same could be applied to Atlantis – regardless of possible historical prototypes of this myth, it is the symbolic meaning of the story that is of utmost interest from the point of view of the history of esotericism.
Describing the nature of human beings, German philosopher Ernst Cassirer introduced the concept of animal symbolicum, an animal that produces symbols (Cassirer 1953, 44). The activity of creating symbolical orders of reality is fundamental for us, and that might explain why a quest for personal freedom is almost inevitably supported by the construction of a related myth, a myth that establishes an alternative order of being – in the time immemorial, or in a completely different spiritual dimension.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. London: Printed by R. W. for Gregory Moule, 1651.
[Bely] Белый, Андрей. Собрание сочинений. Tom 7 [Collected Works. Vol. 7]. Москва: Республика, 2000.
Cassirer, Ernst. An Essay on Man. Garden City. NY: Doubleday, 1953.
Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion. London: Macmillan, 1900.
Lindberg, Christer. “Magical Art – Art as Magic.” Anthropos 111, no. 2 (2016): 601-607.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift. London: Cohen & West LTD, 1966.
[Nalimov] Налимов, Василий. Канатоходец [Ropedancer]. Москва: Прогресс, 1994.
Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958.
[Shmakov] Шмаков, Владимир. Основы Пневматологии [The Foundations of Pneumatology]. Киев: София, 1994.
[Tolstoy] Толстой, Алексей. Гиперболоид инженера Гарина. Аэлита [The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin. Aelita]. Москва: Издательство Детской Литературы, 1963.
Cite this article as: Stanislav Panin, “Soviet Esotericism: A Quest for Personal Autonomy in a Totalitarian Society”, in New Age in Russia, 07/08/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4763