The Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Past and Present II

Author: Sergey Pakhomov

Gurdjieffism in Russia – its Heyday and Subsequent Development

The third period in the development of the Gurdjieff Movement in Russia falls into the post-perestroika years. As Communist ideology faded, Gurdjieffism flourished, especially in the 1990s: The few groups that had been active in the 1970s and 1980s were now able to operate openly; many new groups were emerging, subject literature was being published and republished, and representatives of the Western mainstream Gurdjieff Movement started to arrive in Russia. This heyday period lasted approximately until the end of the 2000s and has been followed by a period of stabilization, which has seen some decline in activity and a shift of attention toward other areas. Russian Gurdjieffism became globally recognized, and its development was moved forward by its Western adepts (or by former compatriots who had gained experience in the West). There also emerged other currents of Gurdjieffism that had previously been neglected by the Soviet Gurdjieff groups and were oriented toward theoretical knowledge rather than bodily practices.

In 1994, Arkadii Rovner returned to Russia. The appearance of such an authoritative figure inevitably turned Rovner into a leading force of Russian Gurdjieffism, although Rovner did not consider himself a follower of Gurdjieff. In an interview for the newspaper Putevodnaya zvezda in July 2002, he explicitly stated (Iuzhanin 2002): “I am not a follower of Gurdjieff or Ouspenskii, although they’ve had a strong influence on me. I am an independent person. […] My perspective doesn’t comply with the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.” When the interviewer Alexander Iuzhanin asked him about the differences in their viewpoints, Rovner first spoke of similarities, agreeing with the two prominent esotericists on the susceptibility of human nature to suggestion and on the two main strands of suggestion, the social and the cosmic. The main difference between them, according to Rovner, lay in him being open to other “mythologies” and systems of practices depending on the situation (ibid.). At the same time, the topics Rovner touches upon, his close contacts with Gurdjieff groups, his active participation in the organization of the Russian Gurdjieff Movement, and his books make him appear as an at least indirect follower, of which he himself may not have been aware. Rovner indeed tried to distance himself from the great founders of the Fourth Way at some point, though he did not succeed completely.

One such attempt was made in the late 1990s when Rovner set up a group of like-minded people called “Arthur,” inspired by King Arthur’s Round Table. In an interview with Vlad Lebedko, author of the well-known Chronicles of Russian Sannyasa (published in four volumes in 2000), Rovner said: “We have no common system, although we agree on the main points. In general, we try not to educate or reeducate anyone” (Lebedko 1999). In reply to Lebedko’s question about the group’s main goals, Rovner first mentioned the task of “working on a new language of tradition,” referring to the importance of adapting the meanings of various sacred texts to present-day conditions. As a second goal, he named “the development of a new paradigm … or a universal hierarchy of values that would respond to the challenge” of a “new globalism.” Their goals further included “working with people, mostly young people, and choosing those who are ready to join in the work we have begun.” The group’s main purpose, according to Rovner, was to embark on both “a collective and individual spiritual quest” (ibid). Remarkably, this set of tasks corresponds to the aims announced by the Theosophical Society at its foundation in 1875, just as to those of Gurdjieff himself.

One of the group’s projects was the so-called Institute for the Culture of Inner States (ICS), which is presented on the corresponding website as follows: “Drawing on a wide range of spiritual traditions, the ICS is dedicated to the development of practical methods for working with inner states and stabilizing the achieved results. Our focus on inner states relates to the “level of being” and represents a key element of leading spiritual traditions. Regardless of the ideas affecting a person and of the self-development techniques applied, it always comes down to a certain inner state that defines one’s particular state of mind and quality of one’s inner life.” In some respects, their concept of “inner state” echoes the concept of “being” developed by Gurdjieff.

Rovner also initiated the website Gurdjieff Club, which serves as a database of many similar organizations in Russia and Ukraine. This implies that Rovner saw himself as the ideological unifier of all Gurdjieff groups, as someone reflecting on the heritage and history of Gurdjieffism.

Until recently, the Institute held various events, retreats, and seminars with Rovner as the driving force. However, since he passed away on Christmas Eve in 2019, the Institute has temporarily stopped its activities.

Alan Francis ©samopoznanie.ru

As mentioned above, in the third period, various foreign adepts of Gurdjieffism were visiting Russia, offering seminars and training. One of the most frequent visitors was the US-American Alan Francis (born 1949). His intense spiritual quest had led him to the John Pentland Center, whereupon he became the disciple of John Pentland, studying with him from 1969 until 1984. After that, he continued his studies of the Fourth Way under the guidance of Michel de Salzmann and other Western followers of Gurdjieff. At the same time, Francis took an active interest in Taoism and shamanic practices, which was perfectly in line with the syncretism of Gurdjieffism itself.

In an interview with Your Grace magazine (2007), Francis held Russia to be “the most significant country in the world. It can play the mediating role of a shaman between East and West” (Gulinkina 2007). In fact, it is he who has assumed the role of such mediator. He first visited Russia in 2005; since then, he has been returning several times a year. His group is called the Russian Center for Gurdjieff Studies, presented by Francis as “the only Fourth Way organization in Russia that can be traced back to Gurdjieff himself.” Subsequently, his group was renamed the “Moscow Gurdjieff Group” (also the “Moscow Experimental Gurdjieff Group”). In the same interview (Gulinkina 2007), Francis stated that he does not mix Taoism, Shamanism, and Gurdjieffism but teaches them separately. He perceives the practices of Gurdjieff as valuable tools for regulating everyday life. Francis said: “Gurdjieff’s work begins with practical ideas that can be directly applied in everyday life. To recognize oneself, as Socrates said, to remember oneself, and to be present in one’s body and life situation. […] The exercises and tasks enable people to implement and apply Gurdjieff’s ideas in their daily lives. The communication and exchange of information within the group lead to deeper questions, to a conscious inner quest. […] It is not uncommon to experience a state close to the one that follows having unraveled a kōan in Zen Buddhism. Something opens up inside, and one is able to grasp a higher vibration. I would like to speak in detail about the Gurdjieff Movements. By practicing the sacred Gurdjieff Movements, a person is able to see and understand who he or she is, to see oneself as in a mirror. There comes a moment of incarnation, of merging and harmonization one’s inner and outer worlds” (ibid.).

The Moscow Gurdjieff Group is affiliated with the International School of the Fourth Way, also founded by Francis.

Elena Szenicer ©samopoznanie.ru

Another well-known representative of the ‘New Wave’ Gurdjieff tradition is Elena Szenicer, who successfully combines Western and Russian ideas. Szenicer was born in the Soviet Union (Belarus), where she obtained a degree in journalism. Then, due to personal circumstances, she settled down in France, where she was taught by numerous remarkable people, including Gurdjieff’s senior disciples (Madame Lecomte, Solange Claustres). She even held a leading position at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, revived by Georges de Maleville. The services Szenicer offers cover a striking range of fields, including all kinds of meditation, Japanese martial arts, Shamanism, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. In 2010, she organized the “Paris Group” in Russia. Here is what another follower of Gurdjieff, Suren Oganezov, wrote about Szenicer on the website of the “Gurdjieff Club”: “Elena Szenicer’s work is characterized by an individual approach to each participant of the group, due to which the Paris Group cannot have a multitude of members. […] Szenicer is currently the only person in Russia who is entrusted with leading the group on the path of direct transmission from Gurdjieff.” This remark of Oganezov, regarding the “uniqueness” of the line of transmission, contrasts with that of Alan Francis but demonstrates the significance of the idea of continuity: The traceability of contemporary practices and ideas based on Gurdjieff himself would not only legitimize the group but make it the leading force within the field of Gurdjieffism.

As already mentioned above, the third stage in the development of Gurdjieffism in Russia is also characterized by the popularization of Gurdjieff’s “dance movements.” For these movements, the term “eurythmics” was coined [1]. This has led to an even greater differentiation of Gurdjieffism, as the practitioners’ emphasis shifted from theory to practice. Moreover, the interest in Gurdjieff’s dance movements was accompanied by the introduction of all sorts of practical techniques drawn from the most diverse traditions.

The history of the Gurdjieff dance movements is inextricably linked to the history of Gurdjieffism itself. Gurdjieff was quite musical – without any knowledge of music theory, he easily composed various melodies, which were transcribed and turned into finished pieces by his closest disciple Thomas de Hartmann (1885–1956); together, they created more than three hundred compositions. Their collaboration lasted for twelve years (from 1917 to 1929).

Back in the days, when Gurdjieff’s following had just come into being, there were only a few and incomplete body movements. The dancer Jasmine Howarth, Gurdjieff’s second wife, mentioned six body movements, namely “First Mandatory,” “First March,” “Counting,” “Length of Notes,” “March Forward,” and “Mazurka.” “March Forward,” for example, involved falling to the ground and freezing in the pose into which one had fallen. In the last years of his life, Gurdjieff worked intensively on his compositions, creating 39 movements (in the US, there were 46), which have become canonical. There are, however, many more compositions that are not included in the canon.

Gurdjieff’s body movements are aimed at overcoming the automatisms of human behavior and thought. According to an unknown author on the website of the New Age “School of Psychoanthropology,” “the movements are a means of self-observation, of developing body sensitivity, emotional depth, and the ability to think. […] [It is] […] meditation in movement, aimed at increasing awareness and bringing attention to both the inside and the outside, i. e., to the movements performed: head, arms, and legs follow different rhythms in a sequence of movements, thus changing the habitual automatisms of the body. This allows becoming conscious of each movement and the impulse behind it.”

Performing these movements is meant to bring about significant changes in a person’s life, shake up one’s routine, and mentally structure and stabilize the practitioners.

After 2010, the Gurdjieff body movements became part of the standard set of practices taught by various coaches.

Here is the curriculum of one of the world’s most respected instructors of Gurdjieff dance movements: Amiyo Devienne was trained in various body-oriented psychotherapeutic techniques at the Californian Esalen Institute, studied African dance in Cameroon, modern dance in France, and the Gurdjieff body movements with Avrom Altman, a student of John Bennett, who had been taught by Gurdjieff. For many years, Devienne lived in an Osho commune in Pune (formerly Poona), worked under of Selim Eissel, and is now teaching Gurdjieff’s body movements and dance therapy at her own school in Alsace. Devienne is a perfect example of a modern instructor working with psychophysical techniques. The Gurdjieff body movements, aimed at self-development, have become part of artistic pluralism.

Now, what is the relationship between the Fourth Way groups and the Gurdjieff ‘dance’ groups? It is the relationship of the whole to the part: The former study the Fourth Way, of which the movements are but one part. In general, these groups represent associations of like-minded individuals organized around a particular charismatic leader. They take their “work” seriously, carefully studying Gurdjieff’s writings and the works of his associates. The latter groups can rather be described as temporary gatherings of random people getting together according to the instructor’s schedule and learning how to move their bodies in a specific manner. Practice is perceived here from an aesthetic rather than a soteriological point of view. After class, they resume other activities, putting the practice aside until the next lesson. These groups may include both experienced practitioners and novices since the training is free of charge and thus open to everyone.

Hence, the teacher is no longer expected to share any revelations or great truths but is perceived simply as a “coach” or “instructor” providing information for a fee.

The dependence of Russian Gurdjieff groups on Western Gurdjieffism, both “pure” and “mixed,” is quite high (it is primarily the “mixed” type that is interested in the Gurdjieff body movements). One example of this dependence is the “Free University of Samadeva,” a “mixed” Western center of Gurdjieffism. This “university” is located in France, near Strasbourg (see French and Russian versions). It was founded in 2003 by Idris Lahore (aka Selim Aissel, real name Patrick Jean Petri, 1953–2020) after he had established contacts with a Sufi brotherhood.

Samadeva yoga – а class at one of the “Free University of Samadeva” centers ©congressminsk.by

According to the university’s website, “Samadeva” sees its mission in “passing on methods of well-being and personal development to feel good about life, about one’s relationship with others and the world in general.” As their values, they list humanity, respect, benevolence, simplicity, universality, and awareness, which are to be implemented and strengthened by means of various methods, such as Samadeva yoga, Soul Yoga, Lahore Nadi yoga, Qigong, Gurdjieff body movements, Ayurveda, systemic family constellations, massages, applying the Enneagram, and meditations. As one can see, the Gurdjieff body movements are listed here along with several other practices. Samadeva trains specialists in positive psychology, energetic healing, systemic constellation therapy, psychophysiology, and massage therapy. “The peculiarity of Samadeva lies in the quality of the relationship between students as well as between students and teachers. This helps the students to learn our techniques and to become people who know their worth and respect others.” Samadeva represents a typical New Age school of our time, offering services to cope with stress, prevent ruining one’s mental health, and benefit from positive thinking. It is not about delving into the teaching of Gurdjieff. The institution has established twelve branches in Russia, two of which are located in Moscow. The others are operating in Achinsk, Barnaul, Ekaterinburg, Izhevsk, Kaliningrad, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Perm, Saint Petersburg, Tomsk, and Ufa. Obtaining a training certificate from Samadeva, especially its French headquarter, has become an important part of the professional curriculum of Russian coaches that can hardly be missed in their self-presentations.

About ten years ago, this third period of Gurdjieffism, a time of rapid development, passed relatively unnoticed into the fourth period, which continues to this day and has led to a further blurring of Gurdjieff’s teaching and to a greater differentiation of the movement it once engendered. More and more experts, instructors, and coaches are appearing on the scene, all equipped with a wide range of psychophysiological techniques. The number of groups devoted to Gurdjieff’s body practices is steadily increasing and even exceeding the number of Fourth Way groups, which are becoming less active and visible. Thus, “pure” Gurdjieffism is gradually being marginalized by “mixed” Gurdjieffism with its practice-orientated approach. As in the past, various types of subject literature are being published, republished, and complemented by serial publications.

The esoteric dimension of Gurdjieff’s teaching is inevitably impaired by the growing interest in its practical and artistic aspects. Gurdjieff’s music is now performed in classical concert halls. For example, in February 2016 at the Saint Petersburg Philharmonia, the pianist Alexey Lyubimov played for the first time Gurdjieff’s and Hartmann’s “music for spiritual exercises;” the concert was given the title “Seekers of Truth. Journeys to Inaccessible Places.” Also, the Armenian Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble frequently tours Russia. The ensemble was founded in 2008 by its artistic director Levon Eskenian” in order to preserve and popularize the Armenian ethnic music outside Armenia,” performing the music of Komitas and Gurdjieff on various folk instruments. In 2011, their album “The Music of George Gurdjieff” was released with great success, receiving prestigious music awards. In 2012, the ensemble performed Gurdjieff’s original compositions at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

Summing up, Gurdjieffism has existed for over one hundred years, and in the course of this period, it has undergone an inevitable transformation. Most of the time (approximately 70–75 years), Russian-Soviet Gurdjieffism had been existing in a hermetically sealed environment. It was only in the late 1980s that it began to join in the international Gurdjieff Movement. Today, Russian Gurdjieffism is tightly integrated into the international community and greatly influenced by it. Russian Gurdjieff-body-movements instructors regularly visit Western spiritual centers, such as Samadeva, for further qualification. The arrival of Western specialists in Russia is always considered a significant event of transmitting knowledge from the experienced initiates to their younger brethren.

This overt (ideological, practical, and organizational) dependence of Russian Gurdjieffism on its Western counterpart entails a certain paradox: Even though the Russian Empire was both Gurdjieff’s place of origin and the first place where he implemented his ideas, it wasn’t able, for well-known historical reasons, to retain his teaching that was then brought to the West, where it started to thrive. And after many decades, this long-lost heritage gradually returned to Russia from the West, first via samizdat publications, then through living bearers of the Gurdjieff tradition who were able to preserve and enrich it.

The growing syncretism evermore permeating Gurdjieffism reflects the nature of Gurdjieff’s teaching itself, which, on the one hand, included elements of various religions, philosophies, and occult traditions, and, on the other hand, had already changed while Gurdjieff was still alive, who had thus unwittingly sanctioned the process of transformation that was to unfold in the years to follow. As a result, Gurdjieffism presents itself today as a dynamic and diverse phenomenon, responding well to the spiritual demands of our time and offering a wide range of practical and theoretical tools. Be it the serious, withdrawn devotees of the Fourth Way gathering in small groups to read “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” the practitioners of Gurdjieff’s self-development techniques following their teachers to various places, ordinary people interested in dance and music sporadically gathering to improve their physical and mental health rather than to seek for truth – all of them, whatever their relationship to each other, are inscribed within the fuzzy framework of Gurdjieffism, which continues to develop, expand, and deepen, becoming increasingly eclectic, blurred, and private.

Translated by Romina Kaltenbach (née Heim)

Notes

  1. The term “eurythmics” was used early in the 20th century but is now associated with the expressive movement art developed by Rudolf Steiner (1961–1925) and his wife Marie von Sivers.

References

{Gulinkina} Гулинкина, Ольга. “Алан Франсис: “Олени видят ногами” [Alan Francis. Deer see with their feet].” Accessed November 15, 2021. http://ezotera.ariom.ru/2007/01/22/oleni.html, 2007.

{Iuzhanin} Южанин, Александр. “Интервью с Аркадием Ровнером. [Interview with Arkadii Rovner]”. https://arkadyrovner.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/интервью-с-аркадием-ровнером/, 2002.

{Lebedko} Лебедько, В. “Хроники российской саньясы [Chronicles of Russian Sannyasa]”. Accessed November 15, 2021. http://sannyasa.narod.ru/chronicles/vol1/rovner.htm, 1999.


Featured Image: “Gurdjieff movements”  ©gurdjieff-movements.net


Read this blog post in Russian.

Cite this article as: Sergey Pakhomov, “The Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Past and Present. Part 2: Gurdjieffism in Russia – its Heyday and Subsequent Development”, in New Age in Russia, 16/12/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/6175.


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