Report on the international workshop on the study of New Age in Russia

On October 23–24, 2021, an international webinar on New Age Studies in Russia was held at the University of Mainz by the German research group of the project “New Religious Cultures in late and USSR and Post-Soviet Russia: Ideologies, Networks, Discourses.” The seminar’s guests and speakers included Vladimir Wiedemann, Sergey Moskalev, Anna Ozhiganova, Solveiga Krūmiņa-Koņkova, Joseph Kellner, Pavel Nosachev, Stanislav Panin, Marina Alexandrova, Julia Andreeva, and Svetlana Tambovtseva.

Vladimir Wiedemann defined New Age as a postmodern movement in religious discourse. According to Wiedemann, New Age challenged the established society in an effort to find truths that would meet the demands of a new generation. The latter meant liberation from the rigid thinking of previous authorities, new forms of knowledge, and the achievement of natural and social harmony. Such searches and aspirations led to the emergence of a new religion with an emancipatory character, i.e., the New Age. Integral traditionalism, with its archaic idea that all religions have a common origin, has become a critical component. However, traditionalists themselves speak negatively about the New Age, accusing it of distorting “sacred knowledge.“ Traditionalists reject a free understanding of sacred literature in favor of a literal interpretation. Wiedemann suggested that the literal sense devastates religious discourse with its tendency to “banalize reality.“

Sergey Moskalev noted that the tradition of religious dissent has existed for millennia: old religions have been replaced by new ones as humanity tries to find the truth and its own way. For example, in the early Soviet Union, there was a movement led by Anatoly Lunacharsky that sought to create a new religion. This movement contained elements of worship of the leaders of Bolshevism, created special sacred places, etc. In response to the state’s desire to deify power, intellectual circles renewed their efforts to find new ideals. The New Age is one example of this development. Representatives of spiritual search groups in the Soviet Union did not seek contact with dissident (political, protest) circles. It was considered a departure from the “path.“ In addition, dissidents attracted the attention of the security services, which hurt the activities of the members of such groups. As a result, there was no New Age movement until 1991, but there were individual groups who did not identify with this notion. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the New Age blossomed, helped by the collapse of ideology and the need for rethinking and searching for truth. Moskalev sees the emergence of the “New Age” concept primarily in the scientific and technological intelligentsia, which enjoyed much freedom in contrast to the creative professions, which were more closely supervised by Soviet ideological structures. In scientific circles, the fascination for New Age was even encouraged – it could be used for espionage, space exploration, or even the search for eternal life. Examples of outside influences on the formation of New Age in Russia include the arrival of the White Brotherhood of Petar Dynov from Bulgaria, as well as gaining knowledge from books, mostly American and Indian.

The workshop participants, October 23, 2021

Anna Ozhiganova shared her research on the late Soviet movement that emerged around the psychic healer Igor Charkovsky, the inventor of the “aquaculture” method in the early 1960s. Charkovsky’s followers take as their starting point the fact that Charkovsky’s daughter was born prematurely, and only through special sessions with her father in the water did she manage to survive. According to this method, children had to learn to swim before walking. Charkovsky believed that such children could have developed more physically and acquired versatile thinking and paranormal abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance. In 1979, he went further and began to study the possibilities of the child’s body in interaction with dolphins. His methods were viral in Russia and were approved by high-ranking scientific officials. In 1992, Charkovsky made several attempts to leave Russia to find followers in the West. However, his Western colleagues did not accept his teachings, and they gradually faded away.

Solveiga Krūmiņa-Koņkova devoted her report to the New Age in Soviet Latvia. Despite the prohibition of religious activity in post-war Latvia, there were Eastern spiritual movements and groups seeking spiritual truths. The New Age movement in pre-war Latvia was unorganized and existed primarily around certain charismatic leaders and spiritual seekers. Their communities lived in complete self-isolation.

Latvia’s preservation of esoteric ideas was greatly influenced by the esoteric literature of the 1920s and 1930s and the activities of mystical and esoteric groups of that time. These groups were supported by parascientific communities, such as the Latvian Association of Parapsychology and Esoterics, which simultaneously held spiritistic séances and lectures on hatha yoga. In post-war Latvia, esoteric communities were guided by what was going on in the USSR. In the 1960s, according to witnesses’ recollections, esoteric practices became popular, such as fortune-telling and table-turning during seances, without which not a single New Year’s celebration or summer solstice celebration could be done. In conclusion, Krumina-Konkova suggests that 20th-century Latvia had a Sovietized model of Western spiritualism that simultaneously incorporated some elements of pre-war times.

Joseph Kellner observed that previous scholarly research on New Age suggests that until the 1990s the term “New Age” had positive connotations. Today, however, it has taken on a negative connotation and is associated with uneducation and commercialization in popular culture. As for Kellner’s use of the term “New Age,” he does not use it in his works because it is too broadly interpreted in the American context. Instead, he prefers to use other terms such as “esotericism,” “occultism,” and “seeking milieu.” In his opinion, the notion of “seeking milieu” can be used incredibly successfully in the scientific toolkit.

Pavel Nosachev reflected on using the concept of “New Age” to study non-traditional religiosity. He criticizes this concept for the following reasons: (1) René Guénon’s teaching does not support Wouter Hanegraaff’s typology of the characteristic New Age idea of spiritual optimism and the concept “I am God”; the concept “New Age” is taken as a new religiosity, although its echoes can already be found in Theosophy in the late 19th century; (3) the economic basis of the concept, which has been called a “spiritual supermarket” is untenable. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Age represented an environment that promoted the coexistence of Orthodoxy and esotericism in a single religious space. This environment was characterized by “spiritual romanticism,” the absence of a commercial component, and almost unlimited freedom, albeit underground. With the advent of 1991, this unique environment disappeared. In this regard, Nosachev expressed his view that applying the “New Age” concept to the study of contemporary religiosity could easily be abandoned. At the same time, he believes that scientific research presupposes a concept and, for this reason, suggests referring to Colin Campbell’s notion of the “cultic milieu.“

According to Stanislav Panin, New Age as a concept carries a strong controversial charge, which can be found not only in the evaluation of “New Age” by outside observers but also in some esoteric groups. For example, the occult order of the Golden Dawn regarded New Age as a non-serious phenomenon. This polemic arose as a reaction to new forms of esoterism. New Age is a form of modern esoterism that emerged in the English-speaking world due to the intellectual-religious environment after World War II. John Gordon Melton identifies two main characteristics: a new wave of interest in Oriental spirituality and an increasing psychologization of spirituality. These characteristics are not unique to the 20th century; there are earlier examples. However, the most crucial feature of New Age in the second half of the 20th century is the shift toward experience and personal practices. The modern New Age can be characterized by the psychologization and secularization of the supernatural, an interest in Eastern spirituality, an expectation of the arrival of a new era, the absence of a metaphysical focus through a shift toward personal development, and the emergence of an optimistic view of history.

Marina Aleksandrova also touched on using the concept of “New Age” concerning religious and spiritual movements in late Soviet and Soviet Russia. Aleksandrova believes that the theory of the emergence of the Russian New Age with the collapse of the USSR is incorrect. Instead, New Age has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was developed in theosophical groups such as the White Sisterhood. Thus, New Age is not a sharp break between the past and the present, but rather a continuation of beliefs and practices that already existed in Theosophy.

Julia Andreeva spoke about the Anastasia movement as an example of the contemporary Russian New Age in her presentation. The movement originated among the readers of a series of books by Vladimir Megre about a girl Anastasia, who has supernatural abilities. Followers of this movement form generic estates of at least one hectare in size, and their main goal is to ennoble the plot of land on which their family will continue.

Anastasians try to find and discover themselves through contact with the earth and nature. Priority is given to intuition rather than to bookish knowledge. The movement separates itself from the system, renounces capitalist relations, and its participants proclaim themselves “elite” or “awakened,” who have realized the essence of the world and are able to recognize its imperfections.

Svetlana Tambovtseva’s final presentation was devoted to the occult in art and provoked a lively discussion among the seminar participants. In the post-war period, the occult and occult practices were associated with Nazism. Consequently, they were banned in the academic community. In 1986, Maurice Tuckman, curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, arranged an exhibition entitled “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” which included Wassily Kandinsky and the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, initiating a study of esoterism in art. In Russia, interest in esoteric art in the museum’s public space has only recently been revived in 2019 and 2020, with several exhibitions and theatrical productions (such as “How Estonian Hippies Destroyed the Soviet Union” at the Vs. Meyerhold Center). Some of these were, “We Keep Our White Dreams. The Other East and Supersensible Cognition in Russian Art. 1905-1969” (The exhibition was opened at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and was dedicated to people who connected their lives with mystical practices and spiritual rebirth); “Secrets: Digging into the Soviet Underground. 1966–1985” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Garage”; “Not Forever. 1968–1985” exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery; “Countdown. Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina” exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. Those mentioned above and many other unnamed exhibitions rehabilitate Soviet culture and promote the adaptation of esotericism in mass culture.

The final discussion of the seminar was devoted to the concept of “New Age” and its heuristic value. Vladimir Wiedemann said that the term “New Age” is ingrained in people’s minds and cannot be ignored. Wiedemann attributes the desire to define the term to the academic desire of scholars and researchers for clarity. Solveiga Krumina-Konkova considered the concept of “postliberal religiosity” more acceptable. Svetlana Tambovtseva advocated rejecting the term “new age” because of its negative connotations and lack of acceptance, especially among her fellow researchers. She believes it is wrong to classify people as New Age against their will. In this regard, she believes that various terms are justified; therefore, Tambovtseva has a positive attitude toward the term “seeking milieu,” as it implies a search for the new. In Pavel Nosachev’s opinion, established concepts and terms should not be discarded because this would inevitably lead to confusion. Besides, Nosachev favored the need to form precise terminology in the scientific approach, without which any research is impossible. Because of its neutrality, Anna Ozhiganova spoke in favor of using the term “esoterics.” Also, Ozhiganova talked about the significance of 1991 as an essential watershed in the development of esoteric culture. After 1991, the Russian new age environment is getting closer to Western ideas, putting “spiritual search” in the center was not observed before. Julia Andreeva was also in favor of using the concept of “New Age,” although she does not consider it optimal. According to Andreeva, this concept of New Age allows us to describe an area of practices and ideas that she has encountered. As a possible replacement for it, she suggests the idea of a “new religious movement,” since this term is considered less loaded but covers an insufficient number of practices and also does not allow us to distance ourselves from religion.

Cite this article as: “Report on the International Workshop on the study of New Age in Russia”, in New Age in Russia, 30/01/2022, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/6211.(opens in a new tab)

Read this blog post in Russian.


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