Meetings with Remarkable Men: Evgeny Shiffers (1934–1997)

Emanuel Landolt

Evgeny Shiffers was a spiritual seeker and charismatic personality whose life and works had an impact on underground intellectuals in the two Russian capitals in the 1960–1990s. Shiffers embodies a paradox: Few people had such a deep impact on Moscow’s intellectual milieux during the late Soviet period, without being properly recognized and given barely any scholarly attention appreciating his place in cultural history. The remarkable biography and life of Evgeny Shiffers could serve as a perfect case study for the general complex and fruitful relation between art and spiritual practices, but more specifically between the rising interest in spiritual practices and occultism in the late Soviet Union and unofficial artistic circles. Of course, it could be said that from a traditional perspective, there should be no specific differentiation between art and spiritual activity, both leading to the same ‘Truth,’ “the common focus of seer and seen” described by Coomaraswamy[1]; yet, considering the ideological apparatus impregnating art in general, the identification of both fields wasn’t obvious. Although a small fraction of painters went in that direction, it must be said that the large part of the artistic underground community kept a critical distance from the spiritual awakening of the late 1960s as a way to look away from Western art and perspectives. The peculiarity of Shiffers’ work lies in his position between those two fields: the artistic and the philosophical-spiritual; two fields that can be in inner rivalry but also merge together. Another tension between two polarities, creative freedom and ideological constraints, is deeply inscribed in Shiffers’ biography. His father, and then himself, were forbidden to work in their respective fields (translation and theatre) for ideological reasons and were to lead a precarious life.

Between 1959 and 1964 the young Shiffers studied theatre in Leningrad at the prestigious State Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema (today it is called the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts). He rapidly became famous for his original stage productions. However, he was accused of formalism, and denied the right to work in theatres. In 1967, he moved to Moscow. After a mystical experience in the same years in Tarussa, where he envisioned the Holy Virgin of Kazan, the philosopher wanted to testify and research into what he witnessed. Compulsively reading and writing into personal notebooks he built a gigantic work in progress until his death, which turned out to be not only a philosophical religious work but also a coherent aesthetic system and, as he put it in a late interview in 1992, the result of “20 years of spiritual practice”.

Shiffers at work on his desk, May 1970. Photo by A. Politkovsky

Shiffers stayed artistically active throughout his life; his strong commitment to theatre even prevailed in his last projects, especially his film Put’ Tsarei (1991) which could be closely associated with his earlier theatrical experiments – ascetic, anti-illusionist, and oriented towards interiority. Remembering their collaboration with Shiffers, actors underlined his unconventional way of directing, depriving the actors of the classic plastic? means of expression in order to show the audience “reality” as such. His project Dostoyevski’s memorial theatre, initiated in 1977 as a research hub (Shiffers collaborated to a certain extent even with Yuri Liubimov, the director of the Taganka Theatre), was an attempt to express the theme of inner freedom against the backdrop of harsh political constraints. Identifying theatrical role play with spiritual activity, the drama theorist, as his daughter recalls, tried to conceive theatre as “what happens with us”. According to Shiffers, the mystery of life found its staging in art and thus a way out of the prison of the mind. The artist would assume the role of a shaman or healer helping humankind to open new horizons for self-transformation. His authority sometimes aroused revulsion among the various characters who followed his teaching.

The whole artistic curriculum of Shiffers expresses the quest for a juncture between art and the sacred in a wholly atheistic society, identifying cult and culture from both esoteric and religious perspectives. He paid close attention to aesthetic and spiritual questions, believing in a continuum embracing the two spheres of spiritual and artistic experiences. Should art be reserved for the expression of religious, holy, or esoteric knowledge? What could be the artist’s role in a period where all aesthetic criteria were blurred? The specific modernist orientation of his work, remarkable in his film The First Russians (Pervorossiiane) directed in 1967 together with Alexandr Ivanov[2] about a group of Bolchevik pioneers who travel to the Altai to establish an agrarian commune, as well as the spiritual orientation it gradually took, help us situate the character in a field of contradictions and tensions. Between the will to experiment and research, and a conservative turn in the 1980s, there is a strange modernist conservatism at work. Projecting himself as a figure of the outcast occupying the margins, Shiffers identifies himself with Dostoyevsky, embracing even his antisemitism. The last decade of Shiffers’ activity sees a shift towards polemic writings, largely addressed against the political dissidents (his virulent text on Vladimir Bukovsky) and is marked by a desire to return to the ‘holy center’ of Russian culture.

Frame from the film Pervorossiiane, 1967

Art as Experiment

Kabakov in company with Shiffers and his children, 1976.

“Experiment” could be regarded as a key word, which was often used by Shiffers and other important actors of the unofficial artistic circle, including Ilya Kabakov, in the 1970s to describe the kind of process that art was required to fullfil both in artistic and intellectual needs. But “experiment” could also designate the new forms which art was meant to embody in order to express the religious revival that Shiffers ardently wished for. While art became more and more closely associated with research and experiences among the pioneers of Moscow conceptualism, spiritual experiments were conducted more intensely. In the 1970s, the most productive and inspiring years for Shiffers and the Moscow art scene in general, those parallel processes between artistic and spiritual experiences merged for a brief moment. The encounter between Shiffers and the young and ambitious artist Ilya Kabakov in 1970 emphasizes this parallelism and the link between the two fields. At that time, Kabakov was transforming art forms with analytical experiences on the relation between word and image, at the same time searching for asceticism and purity in his work. In his series of Almost white monochrome he experienced the spiritual effects of light. Light burst out upside-down from the center of the canvas itself, blessing the artist or the spectator. At the same time, Shiffers read the Hymns of Symeon the New Theologian – a Byzantine theologian – and was impressed by the mystic experience of light he found lyrically described there.

As both outstanding artists met, one was looking for artistic recognition in an art world where critics were absent, and the other for an exceptional work to rely on for his own theological research. The strange encounter between these processes materializes in the specific role that Shiffers played in that milieu as an “idea incubator”, as the painter Eduard Steinberg put it, but also exemplifies the circulation of various concepts between art and philosophy. Kabakov’s studio is now well-known for having been also a kind of seminar room where famous intellectuals of that time held lectures, often on religious themes. Shiffers, for example, maintained a close friendship with Alexander Piatigorski whom he often mentioned as a privileged interlocutor and who sometimes participated in those gatherings. Concepts, such as “screen,” used to describe the specific capacity of the canvas to reflect holy light, or “emptiness,” borrowed from Buddhist sutras, were used as much by Shiffers as by Kabakov, creating an area of emulation. Interestingly enough, in order to underline that the same concept could semantically vary from one context to another, Shiffers used, among other things, a specific cinematographic terminology to describe spiritual phenomena (“consciousness montage” for example).

But the migration of concepts wasn’t the only exclusive circle of exchange. Shiffers also got influenced in a way by the artistic activities of his friends (the now so-called Group of the Sretensky Boulevard, the name of the street where Kabakov’s studio was located). The ‘album,’ a specific genre developed by Kabakov and Pivovarov in the early 1970s, was one source of inspiration. From there, Shiffers borrowed ideas for the montage of different media (drawings, pictures, handwriting, newspaper article) and used it as a way to put emphasis on his quest for spiritual self-diagnosis. Originally, Kabakov’s albums consisted of a series of leaflets telling a picture story that were to be shown to a small group of spectators. Their originality lay in their unconventional articulation between word and image and their mise-en-scène of philosophical and theological questions (sometimes ironical). Multiplying the perspectives and the genre of discourse, the albums proved to be as much a literary genre as fine arts. Often directed towards existential and philosophical questions, the albums were crucial dialogical tools. Between diary and self-analysis, they were a way of exploring the inner self, not only from a spiritual perspective, but also from a psychological and analytical one. A few years later, in 1974, shortly after Kabakov had produced his first album, Ten characters (Десять персонажей) (dedicated to Shiffers), which would become the canonical moment of the beginnings of Moscow conceptualism, Shiffers produced his own album, Beyond Gutenberg (Preodolenie Gutenberga). Originally intended to be a family album, exploring the personal archive, this album goes beyond this classical genre. Presenting itself as a biographical sketch exploring different existential sequences, Shiffers classified it as an

Experience of AUTO

a) bio

b) psycho

c) pneumo

graphy “I”,

insisting on the various approaches it would convey, again in a sort of experiment, which went beyond simple narrative or linearity.

Page 16 and 17 from the album “Beyond Gutenberg”, 1974.

While some artists from the inner Kabakov circle kept a close relationship with Shiffers, or fell under his charismatic influence, others perceived him as a direct competitor or rival for supremacy in the religious and spiritual fields. Such was the case with Mikhail Shvartsman (1926–1997), a distant relative of the philosopher Lev Shestov (1866–1938), another important figure of the unofficial artistic milieu. A professional graphic artist and free-time painter, his studio became a meeting point for artists looking for guidance and mediumistic experiences. As his painting process was guided by an external force, Shvartsman conceived what he called ieratury. Animated by visions, the artist becomes only a mediator of a flow of signs translated onto the canvas. Shiffers and Shvartsman shared a common path beyond institutions and the ecclesiastic authority, embodying their own church, so to say, and were “not needed by anyone” (Russian: “никому не нужны”). But there was no space for two exceptional personalities at once. If they first kept a constant dialogue, a conflict arouse about the status of the painters’ works. Because Shvartsman called his paintings Liki (faces) or Ieratury, Shiffers criticized their absence of name. If Shvarcman’s works were created under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, thus icons, why did they not have names? Icons should make the personality visible, and the name should be a testimony to it. Viktor Pivovarov, a witness and active participant of the unofficial life of the late 1960s–1970s, who showed skepticism towards Shiffers, created an album in 1996 dedicated to the important characters in Moscow at that time. In a drawing representing Shvarcman and Shiffers posing side to side, one is first struck by the similarity of their postures with both of them raising a finger towards the sky as a reference to the dominant Platonism of their thought and their common reference to transcendence. Shiffers is also shown with a distinctive detail, a “third eye,” alluding to his interest in Eastern mysticism. Buddhism and yoga also played a significant role in the rich concept apparatus that Shiffers deployed in those years. His effort towards a synthesis of different religious traditions, what Shiffers expressed as the “experience of Buddha to Christ” (Opyt Buddy-ko-Christu), his mystic vision of a white Buddha worshipping an icon, put down in his notes, account for the relevance he attributed to Eastern spiritual practices as techniques or specific ways to reach Christ.

Viktor Pivovarov, Shiffers and Shvartsman, from the album “Characters”, 1996.

The Occultist Turn

Shiffers considered himself a prophet and wanted to testify about what he had seen and understood. He conceived the artistic inspiration and conceptualization as something dictated from an eternal tradition; therefore, he saw great writers and poets of the past as secret bearers of a truth allowing for an emancipation from authority and institutions. His interest in the most progressive works of art in the 1970s could not be maintained indefinitely without renouncing his religious convictions, especially as conceptualism tended to become a deconstructive and philosophical discourse in direct concurrence with his own speech. Some artists, mocking spiritual themes, distanced themselves at the end of the 1970s from his guru-like influence. A famous public quarrel burst out in 1978 between the young and trendy philosopher Boris Groys and Shiffers at the exhibition of two artists pertaining to the close circle around Kabakov (Vladimir Yankilevsky and Eduard Steinberg). This conflict publicized the separation of a previous unified field of unofficial artistic practices repeating the olddispute betweenSlavophiles and Westernizers, even though any such assimilation would have to be more complex.

From then on Shiffers saw his interest in occultism grow more and more as a reaction to his isolation from the artistic milieu. We can understand Shiffers’ religious eclecticism as a consequence of his accumulative research process, which finds its source in both his artistic skills and ambitions. As said earlier in his case, artistic and religious practices should be seen as a unified field of experimentation. Experiencing rejection from a part of the artistic community, a broader indifference to his work, as well as the collapse of Communism in the 1990s and the ensuing political and ideological repression and poverty, Shiffers saw his personal realm constantly under threat. On the margins of Soviet dissidence, Shiffers tried with much effort to building his own school, his own “church” against what he saw as a usurpation of power. But this project never succeeded. His own precarious institution remained at the level of projects or ideas, at first mainly because of political censorship, and later because of (?) hermeticism. His radicalism and proselytism created conflicts and ruptures. Even as a typical representative of the Russian occult dissident culture, he still doesn’t fit completely into the picture. Firstly, he did not belong to any specific group or movement (theosophy, Agni Yoga, anthroposophy), and secondly, his impressive ability to move between various milieux and discourses prevented community building around his activities.

In the 1980s, Shiffers kept his primary interest in a synthetic approach, adding to it some elements drawn from the occult tradition (Gurdjieff, Blavatsky, Bailey, Roerich, astrology). Gradually, the occult became more important to him. He used these readings for an intensification of his “national consciousness,” a step that he had already taken in the 1970s but without any specific interest in the historiosophical issues of Russia. A remarkable sign of that change is his desire, since 1984, to dig further into the conspiracy motives throughout Russian history, inciting  revealing an “occult war against Russia”. His specific historiosophical approach consisted in searching for meaningful coincidences: The same day Pushkin composed his famous poem To the Slanderers of Russia, Saint Seraphim of Sarov conversed with Mary mother of Jesus about the holy election of Russia. Here, the philosopher tried equating prophetical artistic and spiritual geniuses. Through the prism of the specific archetypal structures of Russian culture, Shiffers got interested in the murder of the Czar’s family. Exploring those archetypal ramifications he identified the monastery called Diveevo, located in the Nizhny Novgorod region, as a spiritual center, in the same way that Florensky saw the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius as the best place to wholly express Russian culture. Diveevo, besides being known as s holy place ruled by Mary – embodying the specific Russian feminine ruling power (mariokratija) – is also known for hosting the famous holy fool called Pasha Sarovskaya (1795–1915), an icon of the popular religion, admired by the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna. Due to her exceptional prediction abilities, she’s known to have predicted the fall of the Empire and the murder of the Romanov family, a detail that couldn’t leave Shiffers indifferent and reinforced his identification with this prophetic figure. As a line of renewal for Russia’s specific role, Shiffers relied on Eurasian motives. Russia should look towards East for a secret spiritual alliance, a source which he discovered in the foreign policy at that time (noting the specific active role of the Russian Empress on that matter).

One notices a slight turn from the occult as power to the occult as a way of reinterpreting history. Shiffers’ occultist turn, it should be mentioned, was reinforced by his break with the Church – he was rejected by Father Alexander Men’, probably the most influential non-conformist Orthodox priest of the late Soviet period,  for “spiritual illusion” after attempting to obtain acknowledgement for his mystical visions – and the general lack of understanding of his ideas. Basically everything that Shiffers undertook until the 1990s, with the exception of his last film “Put’ Tsarei” (1992), mostly remained written in private notebooks). “Put’ Tsarei”, directed in 1992, resulted from an invitation from the Neva studio in Leningrad. The film should be considered as an enactment of Shiffers’ research and meditative efforts on screen. It should also be seen as a result of his long-time readings (eight years) on the killing of the Czar’s family, that he saw as a conspiracy against Holy Russia (“the murderers killed God”) and as the most important spiritual and geopolitical knot in the fate of Russia. The film is meant to continue judge Nikolai Sokolov’s inquiry into the murder of the Romanov family at the level of cinema. It is built with minimal resources and conceived as a spiritual exercise, on the model of the creation of an icon, intended to reveal the definitive truth, not only on the murder but also, as Shiffers puts it, on the specific experience of “man facing death”. Fully conceived as a montage of symbolic forms, this “anti-movie” never reached his audience, but kept his mysterious testimonial style.

Frame from the film “Put’ Tsarei”, 1992.

As a Socratic figure, not only did he read and write but also always aspired to teach, educate, and transmit. His view of history as the result of the struggle of occult forces was too hermetic to reach a larger audience, and, contrary to other charismatic figures with an occult leaning, such as Alexander Dugin, Shiffers was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain a more substantial reception during the Perestroika, even though his efforts also tended indirectly to advise the new State power. Adding to that, the specific philosophical-speculative approach he embodied kept him away from public success. His defense of true spiritual knowledge in a period of crisis and persistent diagnosis of a crash of civilization resulted in his support of state power from the 1980s to the 1990s, leaving some of his supporters skeptical. In 1997, he died at home behind his desk from a third cardiac arrest.

[1] Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Transformation of Nature in Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1956, p. 6.

[2] Soon after the premiere, the film was forbidden by the local Party and for 40 years wasn’t screened.


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Cite this article as: Emanuel Landolt “Meetings with Remarkable Men: Evgeny Shiffers (1934–1997)”, in New Age in Russia, 30/04/2021,

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