Report from Conference „New Age Cultures in Late and Post-Soviet Russia,” 16.-18.6.2022, Germersheim
Eleven international scholars presented their current research at the conference „New Age Cultures in Late and Post-Soviet Russia,” held in hybrid form. Two roundtable discussions addressed the global perspective of esotericism in late and post-Soviet Russia as well as healing, ESP, and alternative medicine in the Soviet-Russian New Age. Following a documentary screening by Evgenii Berg (2020) about the “collective,” a commune that was founded and headed by Viktor Stolbun in the 1970s, two former members of this so-called “sect” also participated in the conference as witnesses sharing their experience with the scholars present and online.
Anita Stasulane’s keynote speech focused on New Age in Soviet Latvia. In her presentation, she pointed out that different regions of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, even if overlapping by the central ideology and politics, developed different forms of New Age cultures. The poets Mirdza Kempe (1907–1974) and Imants Ziedonis (1933–2013) played a significant role in bringing Eastern spirituality, literature, teachings, and practices to Latvia.
Anna Ozhiganova, the anthropologist from Moscow (now in Bielefeld), introduced the practices of “aquaculture” and water birthing by Igor Charkovsky as a late-Soviet utopian project and discussed the controversial exchange with Western citizen diplomats, which led to a clash of both New Age cultures.
Maria Engström, a philologist from Uppsala, presented new material about the late-Soviet esoteric “Yuzhinski” circle, especially about Evgeny Golovin. She described the transfer of this eccentric intellectual underground occulture into the sphere of popular culture via rock- and avant-garde musicians (Kurekhin, Shumov, Letov), who directly inspired by the gurus of this circle.
Karen Nikiforov from Kyiv talked about esotericism in late-Soviet films, including TV series for children and adults, an understudied topic, which he extended from the field of religion to New Age. He identified two categories of films: children’s films with a high frequency of magical, mystical, and esoteric elements and fiction films generally characterized by a critical or ridiculed portrayal of these elements, while during the perestroika years, a large number of documentary films and TV series responded to a widespread desire for such topics.
In the second keynote speech, Alexei Golubev, a historian from Houston, Texas, introduced the thesis that New Age, or esotericism in the late Soviet period, was not so much a parallel sphere practiced in private circles and the underground cultural occulture, as Anita Stasulane had maintained before, but that it was much more present, albeit controversial, in the sphere of popular science. The popularization of science, a tradition tracing back to the early 1920s, led to a complex overlapping of science and what would be considered pseudoscience in the West.
Maria Alexandrova, a philologist from Austin, Texas, analyzed the post-perestroika revival of Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy. She directed attention to some prominent personalities, the organization of an esoteric movement, and publications in Late and Post-Soviet Russia. Introducing new material, Alexandrova discussed the problematic relationship between the Russian theosophists and the Western organization. Her contri-bution to a comparative study of New Age is of great value since in publications on theosophy, especially in more recent ones focusing on the global dimension of this esoteric movement, Russia and the ex-Soviet sphere have been absent.
The religious studies scholar from Rice University, Texas, Stanislav Panin, explored the unknown and the paranormal by the example of ufology in late- and post-Soviet Russia. He introduced the thesis of a connection between ufology and spirituality. UFOs, so-called unknown flying objects, share attributes with the sacred, and in a society of utopian techno-beliefs became secular placeholders for the sacred, especially in the cosmic era of the late 1950s and 1960s. This went along with Golubev’s thesis about the esoteric undercurrent of Soviet popular science. In his presentation, Panin offered many examples from his autobiographical experience in the 1990s and some case studies of overlapping spheres (for instance, he mentioned the director of the protestant church from Novosibirsk being a well-known ufologist). Ufology was extremely popular, albeit it was a controversial topic between the claim of science and its demonization as superstition.
Kaarina Aitamurto, a religious studies scholar from Helsinki, gave a survey of the cur-rent landscape of pagan groups and movements in post-Soviet Russia. A long-term expert in paganism in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia – without questioning the overall divide into Russocentric nationalist and anti-nationalist pagan groups –, Aitamurto nevertheless objects to the usual dichotomic approach in scholarly studies presuming a dichotomy between colonialism and nationalism. Instead, she follows the more complex diversity of paganism, giving for transnational communities, the migration of ideas, and hybrid identities in various groups. Asking if postcolonialism without methodological nationalism exists, Aitamurto maintains that the “construction of the East still goes on.” The discussion focused on terms and gender relations. Indeed, leaders of pagan groups are usually male, paying lip service to emancipation, while among the followers, which are often women, overall traditional gender roles prevail. Moreover, the debate about terms, including various languages and translations, showed a tension between inside- and outside perspectives and implicit and explicit evaluations (paganism, nature religion, rodnoverie, pantheism).
The historian Joseph Kellner (University of Georgia), the religious anthropologist Julia Andreeva (from St. Petersburg, now in Berlin), the cultural studies scholar Birgit Menzel (Mainz University/Germersheim), and Anna Sandermoen, a former member of Stolbun’s commune, together with Stolbun’s grandson Martin Danichev as personal witnesses, offered statements at the beginning of the two roundtable discussions. Kellner focused on the aspect of nostalgia and new conceptions of time, taking the Soviet Hare Krishna movement as an example for a comparative view; Menzel gave examples and stated that the academic study of esotericism, including the recent turn to global perspectives in the humanities, has mostly ignored the region of the ex-Soviet empire, which continues to be understudied. Yulia Andreeva discussed the Anastasia-movement with its genuinely Soviet origins as a meanwhile transnational movement lending itself to a comparative study of the East-West New Age. Furthermore, the religious anthropologist Svetlana Tambovtseva (St. Petersburg) presented theses for a theoretically and methodologically grounded analysis of the New Age in Russia.
Several presentations invited cross-pollinating discussions, and conclusive ideas also occurred during the two roundtables. A major topic of both discussions and roundtables was the impact of violence and trauma on the late and post-Soviet New Age. Similarities with Western phenomena and movements repeatedly challenged ideas about specific features of the Russian New Age. Applying a distinction between individual, national, and global features to all analyzed material offering itself for comparison led to theclaim that each country has its own demand for translation, and the cultural-historical context is most likely what constitutes the specificity of the Russian New Age. For instance, the tradition of utopian thought and the early Soviet ideas of a New Man were specific to comparable phenomena, such as Igor Charkovsky’s water birthing, Viktor Stolbun’s commune, and the creations of other charismatic leaders at the margins of Soviet science and popular culture. Other thematic threads in the discussions of this conference were the post-colonial experience throughout the regions of the former Soviet Union, i. e. the resistance against Russian dominance, individual theoretical constructions, unchallenged due to the atomization of society, and the lack of exchange and debate outside of small exclusive circles.
Cite this article as: “Report from Conference „New Age Cultures in Late and Post-Soviet Russia,” 16.-18.6.2022, Germersheim”, in New Age in Russia, 24/07/2022, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6590