“The Mystery of Childbirth”: Esoteric Practices of the Late and Post-Soviet Home-Birth Movement
“Babies-dolphins” swimming freely underwater, “babies-psychics” (Russian: sensitivy) possessing paranormal capacities; women giving birth underwater in bathtubs or portable pools at home, and in the sea; “cold strengthening” of pregnant women and infants by bathing them in ice holes, and metaphysical connections with dolphins… All these ideas were inspired by the charismatic teacher and psychic healer (Russian: ekstrasens) Igor Charkovsky (born 1936) and implemented by enthusiastic parents, members of the wide grassroots movement for a healthy lifestyle and home birth that arose in the late Soviet Union and reached its peak of popularity during the Perestroika years. It was a phenomenon where reality was closely intertwined with mystification and rational innovations. The spiritual search went along with human tragedies: drowned babies and physically and mentally injured mothers.
The media myth about Charkovsky began to form in the early 1970s with several popular magazines’ publications about his daughter Veta. She was born premature but grew up healthy and strong thanks to her father’s aquatic workouts in 1962–1964 from the first days of her life until the age of two. The title of one of these articles – “Amphibian Girl” – refers to the science fiction novel The Amphibian Man (1928) by Alexander Belyaev, which was very popular among Soviet readers. In fact, Veta spent many hours in the water, where she ate, slept, dove for toys, and watched filmstrips projected onto the pool wall (Schenkman 1974).
At the laboratory of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Physical Culture and Sports (VNIIFK), where Charkovsky worked as a research fellow in the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s, he conducted experiments with land insects, birds, and other animals – flies, cockroaches, hens, mice, and cats. He found that water fear could be overcome through training, which was especially effective for animal newborns (Korop 1979a, 44). Scientists, officials, artists, and journalists supported the ideas of Charkovsky, namely the physiologist professor I. Arshavsky; the then-director of the VNIIFK professor I. Ratov; the academician V. Kaznacheev; the chairman of the USSR Swimming Federation, the author of the swimming training program for babies “Swimming before walking” Z. Firsov, the host of the popular TV show “You Can Do It” (Eto vy mozhete) V. Soloviev, and many others. At the same time, Charkovsky gained fame as a psychic healer, participating in various public events at which psychics demonstrated their paranormal abilities.
For many years Charkovsky dreamed of water birth, which he considered crucial to human evolution. He believed that, when born on land, the newborn experienced a “gravitational shock,” which significantly limited his or her abilities, and was convinced that brain volume, and consequently intellectual potential, increased in the weightlessness of water (Sargunas and Sargunas 1986). According to Charkovsky, dolphins could provide indispensable assistance in the human adaption to water and take babies born in water into their pod (Korop 1979b, 47).
Thanks to the efforts of Charkovsky’s followers, these dreams began to come true. The first home water birth happened in 1980, and the first sea birth took place in 1986 in Crimea: a girl named Eya was born to the Bagriansky family. In the late 1980s, a complex method called “Aquaculture” took shape. It included intensive training of pregnant women (swimming, diving, gymnastics, and “cold strengthening”); giving birth in water (ideally, in the sea); baby yoga immediately after the cutting of the umbilical cord; the parents helping the baby to swim and dive 8–9 hours a day from the first day of life; the baby breastfeeding, sleeping, and playing in water; dynamic gymnastics with infants (a set of exercises that consisted of twisting, rotation, and throwing).
One of Charkovsky’s followers, Tatiana Sargunas, explained that there were three directions in the Aquaculture method: A “clinic” was for healing, a “sports school” was valuable for developing physical capabilities, and a “spiritual school” or “ashram” was aimed at extending extrasensory abilities (Interview) 1). These directions can be considered three stages of human enhancement, which was perceived as an endless path to unlimited possibilities. Wellness practices were interpreted as a form of spiritual search, and waterbirth – as a spiritual practice that gave parents (mothers, first of all, but also fathers) invaluable spiritual experience and potential for spiritual growth. “This is a return to the mystery…” – with these words, the mystical philosopher Vasiliy Nalimov, whom V. Bagriansky reveres as his teacher, commented the experience of sea birth (Bagriansky 2006).
The hope for the emergence of “new” children or psychics who could radically change the future world was also associated with the new practices of out-of-hospital births: “I think that the value of these practices is that they create the possibility of the arrival of new souls, that is, the incarnation, the birth of people with a different type of consciousness” (Interview 2).
The Soviet and Russian home-birth movement has come a long way in its development from the 1970s to the 2000s: from the Soviet modernist utopia of creating a “new man” to the Russian New Age, which absorbed a variety of discourses and practices: parapsychology and transpersonal psychology, yoga and tantra, the teachings of Porfiry Ivanov and Aquatic ape theory. Members of the home-birth movement endowed Aquaculture practices with different meanings depending on their spiritual and intellectual preferences. At the same time, these practices remained esoteric: There was an oral transmission of knowledge belief in sacred meanings, hidden forces, and essences. On the whole, Aquaculture was perceived as an “inner path” to certain spiritual experiences (Menzel 2012, 20).
[Bagriansky] Багрянский, Владимир. “Василий Васильевич Налимов: учёный, гностик и рыцарь 20-го столетия [Vasily Vasilievich Nalimov: scientist, gnostic, and knight of the 20th century].” Нагуализм нового цикла (2006). Accessed November 25, 2020. https://archive.omway.org/nagualism/paraleli/Nalimov/nalimov.html?fbclid=IwAR2RWrEXkQ94e3OkmpTvNe7ofpStywwdn0cY6Q18hgHIvNt-4VdSYxefmrA
[Korop] Короп, Петр. “Бегство от гравитации? [Escape from gravity?].” Техника молодежи 3 (1979a): 42–46.
[Korop] Короп, Петр. “Тропа, ведущая в океан [The path leading into the ocean].” Техника молодежи 12 (1979b): 44–47.
Menzel, Birgit. “Introduction”. In The New Age of Russia Occult and Esoteric Dimensions, ed. by B. Menzel, M. Hagemeister, B. G. Rosenthal, 11–28. München / Berlin: Otto Sagner, 2012.
[Sargunas and Sargunas] Саргунас, Алексей и Tатьяна Саргунас. “Пять бесед с И. Б. Чарковским [Five conversations with I. B. Charkovsky].” AQUA 1 (1986): 4–18.
[Schenkman] Шенкман, Стив. “Девочка-амфибия [Amphibian Girl].” Физкультура и спорт 11 (1974): 36–37.
Interview 1. Tatyana Sargunas. Moscow, 2018.
Interview 2. Vladimir Bagriansky. Moscow–Poissy (France), 2020.
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This blog post in Russian
Cite this article as: Anna Ozhiganova, “The Mystery of Childbirth”: Esoteric Practices of the Late and Post-Soviet Home-Birth Movement”, in New Age in Russia, 01/12/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/5204