Conference Report on the 5th Summer School on Esotericism: Facts, Meanings, and Texts

Birgit Menzel

The Association for the Study of Esotericism and Mysticism (ASEM), St. Petersburg, held by the Russian Christian Humanitarian Academy, together with the Center for the Study of Esotericism and Mysticism (online: June 24–27, 2020)

The 5th Summer School of the Russian Association for the Study of Esotericism and Mysticism (held online for the first time) showed once again the impressive activity of a scholarly community of highly motivated, mostly younger scholars in Russia. Even though the emerging field of interdisciplinary academic studies of esotericism in Russia goes beyond this organization, the papers and seminars offered by it may reflect in some ways the state of academic research in this country. Scholars come together from all parts of the country with varying degrees of access to research materials and sources. Some are able and lucky to pursue their research in the leading universities of the capitals, may have had peer-reviewed publications before, others have to do their research under more challenging conditions; some participate as independent scholars. The mix of topics and papers contains material that often may be new in the Russian context, but not in the West, or vice versa. Attempts are made to relate the sources to concepts and terms from Western scholars on esotericism (mainly authors around ESSWE). In general, the specific material is often not (yet?) situated or discussed within a larger historical, methodological, or theoretical context, which would help то articulate the specific features in Russia while also integrating these studies into a transnational scholarly discourse.

Conference poster
© Vestnik of the ASEM no. 9, 2020

Many of the presenting scholars have participated in the ASEM conferences for several years and are thus part of an established network. Some, like the St Petersburg orientalist Vladimir Rozov on Arabic Folklore Astro Meteorology, presented for the first time. There were four different formats (lecture with discussion, paper, seminar, book presentation). Of the two presentations one offered a new Russian translation of a German study (Florian Ebeling’s Das Geheimnis des Hermes Trismegistos, 2018; translation by Boris and Anastasia Dvinianinov); the other one presented empirical approaches to the study of esotericism in Russia (“Living esoteric traditions”). Igor Kulakov and Olga Borisova talked about a series of EsoPodcasts on YouTube which they organized between 2018–2020 and which had originally been founded by Kulakov and Boris Dvinianinov. They explored potential interests and audiences by presenting a series of thematic expert lectures and collecting feedback on them. To find out about contemporary New Age practices, in 2019, they had recorded 15 interviews with practitioners, such as ritual magicians, eco villagers, quantum healers, and orientalists: a fascinating display of current hybrid forms of New Religious Movements (NRM) in Russia was given, which illustrates the current merging of global practices with specifics of late and post-Soviet Russia: i.e., unusual hybrids of New Age, Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhist and Hinduist practices, or magic rituals with a mix of globally popular psychoactive plants with traditional domestic mushrooms.

The scholars found confirmation of general theses, such as a “psychologization of religions and sacralization of psychology” (Wouter Hanegraaff), the commercialization of gnosis, and the rapidly growing impact of the internet, virtual space, and the social media. At the same time, national social and cultural specifics of NRM could be identified, such as common features of young, second-generation practitioners after the parents’ and grandparents’ boom of esotericism in the first post-Soviet decade of the 1990s.

Instead of the usual cultural excursion, this Summer School offered a virtual tour by the curators of a fascinating, if small, exhibition on the Supernatural in Russian Art (1905–1969) in the Moscow Avantgarde gallery “Garazh.”

Since the organizers chose not to give any specific thematic frame for the conference, the topics were, as in previous years, extensive, while theoretical input remained sparse. Naturally, the academic quality of the 21 presentations also varied. Papers and lectures ranged from general historical topics – Alchemy, Hermeticism, Illuminati, Roger Bacon, literary fiction (Pasternak, Matiushin, Silver Age) – to various contemporary New Age practices in post-Soviet Russia. Methodological aspects were addressed in two seminars by Stanislav Panin (on “The Esoteric Text as a Form of Philosophy,” using as an example Uspensky’s “Tertium Organum”) and Jurij Rodichenkov (“Esotericism and Experimental Practice,” in this case, Roger Bacon’s alchemical recipes).

Stanislav Panin, who, next to Sergey Pakhomov, is one of the main organizers of ASEM conferences and publications, is now a Ph.D. student at Rice University in Texas. He takes much effort to bridge the gap between academic cultures and studies of esotericism in Russia and the West. Both he and Rodichenkov also gave a separate paper in this Summer School.

It may not come as a surprise that younger Russian scholars are more often interested in studying aspects of Western esotericism than NRM in late or post-Soviet Russia (Aldous Huxley and American Counterculture: Semen Petrukhin; C.G. Jung and Tarot: Larisa Kuznetsova-Fetisova; German fascist Neopaganism: Dmitry Galtsin; the Order of the Golden Dawn: Yaroslav Chusov). This is understandable since much material has become accessible only in the last two decades. The fact that only two papers addressed comparative and/or cross-cultural aspects of New Age (Birgit Menzel on the Esalen Soviet-American exchange program, Timur Islamov on Aleister Crowley in Russia) may also demonstrate that the time for comparative studies has yet to come. At the same time, research on esotericism in 20th– and 21st-century Russia still awaits to be done and is much in demand as more material surfaces.

Title slide from the presentation of Birgit Menzel, 2020

For me as a Western scholar, the growing number of papers focusing on New Age in Russia, esp. post-Soviet Russia, is most interesting, since this helps to fill what is still much of a white spot on the international academic map. Next to the above mentioned, I found two papers especially valuable for offering new material.

Pavel Nosachev presented a fascinating account of the recently growing practice of exorcism within the Russian Orthodox Church, giving rich examples for the revival of an almost medieval practice being turned into a popular performance which adds to the mesmerizing psychological impact together with the role of new media and technologies.

Sergey Pakhomov presented an overview of the Gurdzhiev movement in Russia during the 20th and 21st centuries which will be introduced in a special blog post. This material, just like new publications on Helena Blavatsky’s reception and legacy in Russia, can complement the history of these important spiritual teachers who traveled from the East to the West, but whose reception, impact, and legacy in Europe’s cultural East have been regarded very little so far. Instead, they have been studied exclusively and one-sidedly within Western culture (see for instance Joseph Azize’s recent monography (2020) that focuses on “mysticism, contemplation, & exercises” and is naturally only based on Western sources and perspectives).    

My last note is on Stanislav Panin, who offered a fine contribution to theoretical and methodological approaches with his paper on “Esoteriology as an Interdisciplinary Field.” After discussing other theoretical approaches (Asprem/Davidson, Pakhomov), their limitations, and problems of interdisciplinarity in academia, Panin provides an answer to the question, “What is Esotericism?”: “An attempt to describe a religious experience technically or scientifically.” Taking the academic discipline of medieval studies as an example, he then suggests a philosophical approach to Esoteriology, which he sees as a field in which religion, science, and ideology partly overlap. An essential question for the Study of Esotericism to be addressed by each scholar concerns the “value” and “mission” of research. By considering the value of studying esoteric phenomena in their utmost complexity, the motivation and personal experiential dimension should not be excluded. Esotericism can be approached, for instance, as a reflection of a specific culture (i.e., Soviet culture), or as a source for productive intuition (i.e., in physics, the Pauli-Kepler-Jung-debate), or, thirdly, the value of esoteric phenomena can be to structure an unusual mystical experience (astronaut Edgar Mitchell). Panin’s lecture was a condensed version of his recently published monograph (“The Philosophy of Esotericism,” 2019 (in Russian)). The controversial discussion following his presentation serves as an example for the continuously and lively engaged networking of the ASEM-scholars in Russia, even under the unfortunate conditions of restricted personal mobility and communication in these pandemic times.


This blog post in Russian

Cite this article as: Birgit Menzel, “Conference Report on the 5th Summer School on Esotericism: Facts, Meanings, and Texts”, in New Age in Russia, 29/09/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/5009


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