Books Instead of Lineage: Mystic Underground in the USSR (1960s–1980s)
Author: Boris Falikov
The re-enchantment that started in the USSR after many years of forced secularization was unique as the continuity from pre-revolutionary Russia was mainly broken, and the iron curtain separated the country from the rest of the world. Emerging Soviet mystics looked for teachers, but studying mystic books was the most reliable way to get initiated. Without traditional spiritual guidance, most Soviet mystics became autodidacts who combined different sources from science, Oriental and Orthodox Christian mysticism, and Western esoteric traditions. The characteristics of their teachings were manifold and polar, from paranoid and conspiratorial, driven by the constant fear of the evil threat (Geidar Dzhemal, Alexander Dugin, Evgeny Shiffers), to another, open to the future and hoping for the imminent victory of Good (Vladimir Stepanov).
My research is primarily based on various texts by the leaders of the mystic underground in the late USSR. Some were authors by profession who wrote fictionalized accounts of this epoch (Yuri Mamleev’s Moscow Gambit (1993), Arkady Rovner’s Kalalatsy (1980)). Other prominent gurus left their teachings in written form (Michael (Mihkel) “Ram” Tamm’s Theory Hypothesis Null (THN) (1988), Evgeny Golovin’s Approaching the Snow Queen (2003) and Mythomania (2021), Geidar Dzhemal’s Orientation: North (2019)). In contrast, many leaders did not leave any texts: They relied on oral teaching (for instance, Vladimir Stepanov). However, the adepts described in their memoirs their activity often in a fictionalized form (Konstantin Serebrov’s Mystic Underground. Hermetic Tradition (2002)). Sometimes the authors of memoirs try to keep to the facts, but these facts are then mythologized (Vladimir Videman’s The School of Mages. Fragments of the Mystic Movement in the USSR in the 70s–80s of the 20th century (2008)). Despite the differences in genre, all texts have one feature in common – they are products of a mystic worldview. It presupposes the existence of a ‘higher’ world that influences human lives. Therefore, the events in the ‘lower’ world should be read as symbols of the ‘higher’ one. That is how the underground mystics saw the Soviet reality around them.
Furthermore, this peculiar vision is reflected in their lives and their texts. For example, the itinerant guru Vladimir Stepanov remembered in one of his interviews that he acquired this vision in his childhood when he began to read Russian fairy tales. When he grew up, he did not stop looking at the world around him as if an enchanted world of fairy tales was behind it and tried to pass this vision on to his adepts (Lebed’ko 2001).
I am also using material from collected interviews with Soviet mystics. One of the best sources is the book of interviews collected by Vladislav Lebed’ko (born 1966). He belongs to the younger generation of mystics and became active only in the post-Soviet decade. In addition, some interviews were taken by journalists interested in this phenomenon (Alexander Krugly, Alexey Krizhevsky, and so on). Although the interviewees continue to mythologize themselves and the events of their lives, a certain retrospective introspection makes some of them appear more objective (e. g., Geidar Dzhemal, Igor Dudinsky). Scholarly research has started in this emerging field about a decade ago (Birgit Menzel, Pavel Nosachev, Stanislav Panin, Sergey Elagin, Nikolai Mitrokhin, Marlène Laruelle, and Maria Engström). My survey follows the steps of this scholarly research and attempts to develop it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Weber introduced the notion of secularization, which he interpreted as a “disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung). However, in the 60s of the last century, some signs of a reverse process of re-enchantment started to appear in different forms (new religions of counterculture, New Age). Paradoxically, they had shown up even a bit earlier (the end of the 50s) in one of the most secularized countries in the world – the USSR. Maybe it happened because, in this country, secularization was forced by the atheistic communist ideology of the state. When this ideology was somewhat shattered by the denunciation of the Stalinist personality cult at the 20th Party Congress (1956), some young people bored with official atheism started their spiritual search for the enchanted world.
Among them were Vladimir Stepanov (Master Dzhi, 1941–2011) and a few trailblazers of kindred souls and minds. In Moscow, they used to meet in the Lenin State Library. One could not find overt anti-communist books there, but mystic and occult literature of pre-revolutionary Russia was available, as well as thematically related in foreign languages. Curious encounters happened in this library, eventually giving birth to the Yuzhinski kruzhok.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, kruzhki were informal, loose circles of people that enabled a free exchange of ideas and books. This phenomenon was mainly caused by the Russian empire’s lack of political freedom. Now the KGB, whose vigilance was much stronger than that of the tsarist okhranka, kept a watchful eye, and any sort of more disciplined organizations than kruzhok did not have a chance to survive.
The “Schizoid” Underground
The Yuzhinski kruzhok was formed at the end of the 1950s around the mystic writer Yuri Mamleev (1939–2015), who occupied two tiny rooms in a communal apartment in Yuzhinsky side street in downtown Moscow (Krugly 2019). He read to his friends his bizarre novels, such as Shatuny (The Sublimes), about the adventures of metaphysically obsessed heroes. The participants discussed all kinds of crazy ideas, and eccentric behavior was encouraged; vodka was consumed in huge amounts. People dropped out of windows and returned through doors as if nothing extraordinary had happened, and some preferred to climb to a high cupboard and lie there. The participants had enough self-irony to describe their gatherings as “schizoid underground” but debated how to achieve salvation with no less eagerness than the medieval monks.
Mamleev depicted this mystic boozing in his autobiographic novel Moscow Gambit. The plot is simple: Bohemian drunkards are waiting to be initiated by an “oriental man” who will share with them the final mystery of the world, but this man fails to materialize, and they find consolation with a “Russian brahman” who is said to have received initiation in India. He promises to reveal the secrets of yoga and Vedanta, which could be easily reconciled with Orthodox mysticism. They are two wings of the same bird, he says. Introducing this neo-Hindu synthesis, Mamleev gives his novel a happy ending, in which heroes dream of healing Soviet people with a mixture of Vedanta and Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, unfortunately, the Russian people suffer because they have lost their great faith and cannot live without it. “Atheism is harmful to the Russian soul; it is an equivalent of suicide for it” (Mamleev 2016, 270).
However, not all members of the Yuzhinsky kruzhok shared this pre-revolutionary Russian religious populism. Evgeny Golovin (1938–2010), nicknamed Admiral (a rumor went that there was a real tsarist admiral Feodor Golovin among his ancestors), relied on different spiritual sources. A linguistically gifted university dropout, Golovin preferred to read traditionalist Rene Guénon in French and medieval alchemical tracts in Latin. Esoteric Traditionalism attracted him by its elitism. He despised not only the communist regime but also the Soviet people, who accepted it with servile obedience. Once hired as a consultant by the publishing house Progress, he was supposed to recommend books for translation. However, he permanently chose the worst books possible. When Vladimir Videman asked why he quipped: “I do not want these Soviet idiots to read good books” (Videman 2008).
Traditionalism opposes Enlightenment, which allegedly converted the modern world into the “kingdom of quantity.” It follows the belief that the real knowledge (Sophia Perennis) hidden in the depth of religious traditions is accessible only to a chosen few after they have received a proper initiation. This anti-Enlightenment impulse made some traditionalists like Julius Evola search for allies among such far-right movements as Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Golovin borrowed some ideas from Evola, and in 1974, he created the “Black Order SS.” However, it was primarily done in the spirit of carnival boozing and was not taken seriously even by the KGB.
Golovin introduced to Traditionalism the younger university dropout Geidar Dzhemal (1947–2016), who once was photographed in an SS-officer uniform and kept this photo on the wall of his room. This gesture started a wave of rumors as intended (Krugly 2019).
Intellectual provocations of this kind were very popular among underground mystics. Their purpose was to undermine the dull everyday reality of Soviet philistines and open the eyes of a chosen few to a higher world of occult knowledge. However, carnivals might have consequences. In the post-Soviet period, Geidar Dzhemal invented a bizarre hybrid of Islamic and leftist radicalism, and his younger friend Alexander Dugin (born 1962), whom he introduced to Golovin’s brand of Traditionalism, went from National Bolshevism to radical Eurasian nationalism and became a spiritual leader of Donbas separatism, calling on to kill “Ukrainian Nazis” (Shinkarenko 2014).
Continuity of Tradition?
Other participants of the Yuzhinsky kruzhok preferred different brands of occultism and mysticism. Vladimir Stepanov (1941–2011) chose the “Fourth Way” of the late Caucasian mystic Georgy Gurdjieff (Pakhomov 2022(II)). Some of Stepanov’s adepts said that he was Gurdjieff’s reincarnation. He went to the Soviet Asian republics to look for hidden Sufi masters. During his youth, he went to the Lenin State library like his friends and read books by Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and their followers. Few of them, like John G. Bennet (1897–1974), were still alive, and he tried to connect with them by mail. Stepanov also read books by the Western Sufi Idries Shah (1924–1996) and made friends with the well-known British writer Robert von Ranke Graves, an admirer of Sufism and occultism. The latter even visited Moscow and met with Stepanov, who, staying true to Gurdjieffism, made him dig up his garden. It looks like Stepanov preferred human contacts to books and managed to make them even in the library.
Once, he was approached there by a respectable old gentleman who discovered Stepanov’s name on the library receipts for occult literature, which he also used to read. Stepanov calls him a member of the Order of Russian Templars exiled to Siberia by the Bolsheviks in the early 1930-s who had returned to Moscow after the denunciation of the Stalinist personality cult. Stepanov never mentions his name, but I guess he might be Fedor Petrovich Verevin (1901–1968). Usually, Gurdjievian connections are considered in his case, but he was also a Templar who later joined the Rosicrucians’ Order Orion-Khermorion in the 1920s (Burmistrov 2012, 67–68). Some of his friends shared the same tragic fate. Stepanov was introduced to these occult martyrs; in his words, the continuity of tradition was restored. In the interview with Lebed’ko, he said “they” gave him the task of establishing centers of occult knowledge in different cities of the USSR.
Conspirology vs. Love
According to a subtle observation of the Russian researcher Pavel Nosachev, the hatred of Evgeny Golovin towards a modern technical world, which destroyed the fairy tales of his childhood, made his escape into the imaginary world of Traditionalism Possible (Nosachev 2011, 41–49). It seems that Stepanov also retreated to his inner world. However, the results of their inner journeys were utterly opposite. Golovin’s imagination created a gnostic universe where Evil was winning over Good. He imposed it on everyday reality where he had to fight rear-guard battles with numerous enemies. Later, this worldview was further developed by Dzhemal and especially Dugin and reached a high level of conspirative nightmares. With Stepanov, it was different. His imagination made him attempt to transfigure the awful Soviet reality into a happy fairy tale, in which Ivanushka the Fool punished evil characters and got the feather of the Firebird. Thus, two opposite types of the Soviet mystic underground came into being – one of a dark conspiracy and the other waiting for the coming age of love.
The Novel of Initiations
Stepanov was a well-educated person. He defended a Ph.D. thesis on the philosophy of Martin Buber at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
Nevertheless, he was fired from the Institute and became an itinerant guru who preferred not to write texts but to teach orally. One of his adepts, Konstantin Serebrov, wrote the autobiographical novel Mystic Underground. Hermetic Tradition, describing his adventures with the eccentric teacher. Stepanov used to call them “trips in a Ship of fools.” At the beginning of the 1980s, he worked as an electrical lighting technician in the Moscow jazz group Arsenal, headed by the famous saxophone player Alexey Kozlov, to make his travels in the USSR easier. The loyal adept and his friend (Cassian and Guryi in the novel) accompanied him to numerous Soviet cities helping their guru carry the jazz band’s heavy equipment (in the novel, it is called Kadarsis). Though Stepanov wanted to convert Soviet reality into a fairy tale, his methods seemed ruthless. Like his own teacher Gurdjieff, he put the adepts in all kinds of awkward situations, supposedly breaking their psychological defenses, which blocked the growth of their authentic Self (in Gurdjievian terms cutting the kundabuffers) and taking their consciousness to a higher level.
In Moscow, Cassian had to pass through the Negredo stage (alchemist terminology was used lavishly) with guys who practiced “the way of a robber” and behaved very much like ordinary criminals mutilating themselves and eating vodka glasses in a show of bravery.
The Admiral carried on the final initiation in the novel. It was a binge drinking of many days and nights accompanied by Golovin’s songs and his reflections on alchemy: “All the earthly elements should burn in you, and only then a precious Moon Pearl will glisten in your souls” (Serebrov 2002).
Psychedelic Orientalism in Estonia
In his memoir The School of Magicians. Fragments of the Mystic Movement in the USSR in the 1970s–1980s, the author Vladimir Videman (Dzha Guzman) remembers how he heard about Michael Tamm. “He is Estonian, practices yoga, and has the Hindu spiritual name Ram. He lives in Langermaa, not far from Piarnu” (Videman 2008).
Vladimir and his friend immediately departed to the lonely Estonian steading, where they found an old yogi with a long white beard. His story proved very dramatic: Young Michael “Ram” Tamm (1911–2002), who originated from an Estonian Orthodox family, had left for Germany before the Second World War and studied at Berlin Technical University. When the Russians conquered the German capital, he moved to the western zone of occupation and worked at an American building company. At the end of the 1940s, he was fascinated by Vedanta philosophy and yoga and joined the neo-Hindu Ramakrishna Mission in Germany. In 1955, he decided to make a pilgrimage to a Hindu ashram and asked for the Soviets’ permission to visit the grave of his mother on the way there. The Soviet authorities let him in but never let him out. He did not have a German passport and was interned in Estonia. He was not only a yogin but also a parapsychologist and occultist who created an original philosophy, the Theory Hypothesis Null (THN). He exchanged letters with like-minded people worldwide: the Tibetan lama of German origin Anagarika Govinda, the founder of parapsychology J. B. Rhine, and the Estonian Buddhist Karl Tonisson in Burma (Brother Vahindra) were among his correspondents. As a result, Baltic spiritual seekers got not only a real guru but also access to the world at large. Underground mystics from Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev also visited and admired Ram Tamm, or simply Ram as he liked to call himself.
Vladimir Videman belonged to a hippy subculture that began to develop in the Baltic Soviet republics earlier than in the rest of the USSR. Like their Western counterparts, the Balts turned East and were attracted to different kinds of Indian spiritual teachings. Moreover, like them, they started to experiment with hallucinogens. Since LSD or mescaline was unavailable, they found a Soviet replacement for it in a Latvian chemical liquid for removing stains, “Sopals,” which was based on ether. It facilitated psychedelic trips of no lesser scale than the ones experienced by Castaneda’s heroes. The Baltic hippies also smoked cannabis in large amounts from Buryatia and Tajikistan. It was their mysterious ‘Orient’ where they contacted Buddhist and Sufi masters. Videman remembers his first trip with his friend to Ulan-Ude in 1972, where they met the followers of the great Buryat lama Bidia Dandaron, who was imprisoned in a Soviet camp where he died two years later. They also went to Ivolginski datsan, a lamaist monastery, but first stopped in cannabis thickets and filled their backpacks with grass. On the monastery’s gates, they saw the slogan “Long live the indestructible friendship of the people of the USSR” and made fun of it but were duly impressed by the interior of the dastan with Buddhist tankas on the walls.
Hare Krishnas, Russian Hippies, and the KGB
The Baltic republics became one of the centers of the Hare Krishna movement in the USSR. The founder of ISCON, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, made the American hippie movement a significant base of his missionary activity. When he first visited Moscow in 1971, he met a young Muscovite, Anatoly Pinyaev (1949–2013), who was interested in Hinduism and in 1973 initiated him by mail, conferring upon him the name of Ananta Shanti Das. Following the example of his guru, Pinyaev developed a missionary activity in the hippie subculture of the USSR. Significant clusters of it were in the Soviet Baltic states, and in 1976, Ananta Shanti Das visited Tallinn, where he had tremendous success.
Videman also remembers that in the spring of 1979, two gurus were sent by the diksha guru of ISCON Harikesha Swami (Robert Campagnola) from Stockholm to Leningrad. They arrived in a red Russian car and were met by Pinyaev and an author from Tallinn. A significant Mahakirtan ritual was held in a private apartment. Then the party moved to Tallinn and Moscow, where exotic rituals took place. However, the situation soon turned serious, and in the following year, the KGB began to persecute Soviet Hare Krishnas openly. In September 1980, the visiting Harikesha Swami, his deputy Kirtiraja Prabhu, and Pinyaev were detained in Riga, where they had organized a missionary event in the local Palace of Culture. The foreigners were deported, but Pinyaev was held in a psychiatric ward for weeks. After this, repressions increased: In 1983, Pinyaev was again committed to a psychiatric hospital in Smolensk and released only on the eve of the Washington summit of Reagan and Gorbachev. That same year, the KGB crushed the whole Hare Krishna movement in the USSR and imprisoned or institutionalized dozens of its followers. In one of his speeches, the Deputy Chairman of the KGB Semion Tsvigun was rumored to say: “There are three great threats to the Soviet way of life – Western culture, rock’n’roll, and Hare Krishnas.” I suspect two factors played a major role in this crackdown. Firstly, Krishnaites openly contacted foreigners, and de facto recognized them as leaders. Secondly, they attempted to pass from the informal kruzhok format tolerated by the authorities to formal organizations, for which they requested the Committee of Religious Affairs.
Parascience vs. Science
Ram Tamm was not only a yogin but also a parapsychologist, which greatly increased his popularity. In his tiny house, the photos of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda on the walls were supplemented by magnetic and electric devices used in psychic experiments. Parapsychology was part and parcel of the Soviet mystic underground. Occultism represents a secularized form of the Western esoteric tradition and is characterized by a strong interest in science. Parapsychology is a hybrid of science and transpersonal experience. As such, it perfectly fits into the occult worldview. Russian scientists were bored with the dictate of materialist science and more open to borderline parapsychological experiments than their Western counterparts. For many, it was not a discredited branch of knowledge but rather seen as the frontier of future science. People with psychic perception (yogis and magicians among them) were studied in diverse institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The KGB secretly encouraged these experiments, hoping they would enable scientists to invent new psychotronic weapons. Some of those magicians were in significant demand as healers. For example, Dzhuna Davidoshvilli was said to treat the head of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev. Thus, occult beliefs connected the mystic underground with the high echelons of Soviet bureaucracy.
One of the major features of the Soviet mystic underground was its limitless syncretism. It was based on the inclusive nature of occultism which could incorporate shamanism, esoterism, science, and mysticism from various sources and make it all work in its way.
One of the best examples of occult synthesis in the USSR was the teaching of Evgeny Shiffers (1934–1997). A professional theater and film director, he started his spiritual quest at the shooting of his debut film Pervorossiane (First Russians) (1967), about the first agricultural commune in the Siberian Altai inspired by Communist teachings after the revolution. As a result of the director’s quest, the Bolshevik heroes on the screen turned into Christian martyrs. This was no surprise, as Shiffers remembered that he had read the New Testament while working on the film. Eventually, it was forbidden by Soviet censors, and a talented director was de facto blacklisted.
Nevertheless, Shiffers’ spiritual search went on, and he had a strong mystic experience with visions of the Mother of God surrounded by white piercing light. Being an avid reader, he started to read all kinds of Orthodox mystic literature but also Hindu and Buddhist texts. He was not trained in Oriental languages, but his friends, who were Sanskrit scholars, translated the Upanishads for him. In addition, he read plenty of occult literature published in Samizdat, mostly theosophical and anthroposophical texts. Finally, interpreting his visionary experience in the light of all this literature, he created his original synthesis (Shiffers 2005; Landolt 2021).
One of his points was that Orthodox hierarchies’ lineage was interrupted by the Bolshevik revolution. So, he had to restore it through direct mystic experience outside the official church.
The framework of his teaching was occultist since he freely connected mythologems from all available sources (the only exception seemed to be Judaism) and added scientific concepts to it. His oeuvre could be compared to the Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky, but with one significant difference: Blavatsky’s opus was cosmopolitan in spirit and proclaimed the creation of a Universal Brotherhood. On the opposite, Shiffers’s mystic historiosophy insisted on the leading role of Russia and was extremely anti-Western and Judeophobic. In Shiffers’s occult imagination, the Good was presented by the mystic union of Orthodoxy and Tibetan Buddhism (“the Saint Shambala”) and the Evil by a Judaic conspiracy which he called “Massad.” This neologism was possibly based on the names of the Israeli secret service Mossad and the ancient Jewish fortress Masada. Unfortunately, the evil forces were more substantial, and the “Saint Shambala” had to fight rear-guard battles. This paranoid and conspiratorial streak brought his mystic worldview somewhat close to the one shared by members of the Yuzhinsky kruzhok, who also feared the triumph of Evil over Good. It is not accidental that in post-Soviet times, Shiffers began to offer his projects of magic defense of the Kremlin to the notorious chief of Boris Yeltsin’s security service Alexander Korzhakov. Moreover, after his early death from a heart attack in 1997, Alexander Dugin picked up Shiffers’ “Eurasian” baton at the Russian Academy of the General Staff.
The re-enchantment that started in the USSR after many years of forced secularization was unique as it had to take place in a particular ‘spiritual vacuum.’ The continuity from pre-revolutionary Russia was mainly broken, and the iron curtain separated the country from the rest of the world. Emerging Soviet mystics looked for teachers, but there were few around. The fact that Vladimir Stepanov met some “old Russian Templars” who survived in Stalin’s camps was almost a miracle. That he established mail contact with Gurdjieffism and Sufi teachers in the West was a stroke of luck. Others were less lucky: they went to look for shamans and Sufis in Siberia and Tajikistan, but those were often fake.
The Russian Orthodox church discredited itself by forced coexistence with the Communist regime and lost credibility among young spiritual seekers. There were some hopes to meet authentic startsy or survived members of the Catacomb Church, but often they were futile. Mystics like Shiffers had to rely on their visions to restore continuity. The same with other official religions, when seekers like Videman made a pilgrimage to a Buddhist datsan in Buryatia, they found Soviet slogans on its gate. Authentic Buddhist masters were quite rare or imprisoned like Bidia Dandaron.
Initiated Hindu gurus in the USSR like Ram Tamm were practically non-existent, and those who came from abroad were deported (like Harikeshi Swami). Their adepts were committed to psychiatric wards and camps (Pinyaev and other Krishnaites). One of the reasons Gurdjieff was popular in the Soviet underground was his approach to finding masters among ordinary people. Likewise, Yuri Mamleev sometimes saw a teacher in a drunk man who shared a bottle of vodka in a beer bar. One of the reasons for Castaneda’s popularity was his lesson of finding a teacher on a hallucinogenic trip (Soviet adepts tried to repeat the experience either with vodka in Moscow or with the spot remover “Sopals” in Tallinn). The virtual absence of authentic teachers created a situation where the most reliable way to get initiated in the USSR was through studying mystic books. However, they were hard to acquire through Samizdat reprints or translations.
Without teachers, most Soviet mystics were autodidacts who created their teachings individually, relying only on their spiritual imagination. That is why they preferred an occult framework to combine different sources from science, Oriental and Orthodox Christian mysticism, and Western esoteric traditions. In this way, the syncretistic teachings of Golovin, Shiffers, and the like were kept in the process of permanent formation.
There were two poles in the worldview of the late-Soviet underground mystics. One was paranoid and conspiratorial, driven by the constant fear of the evil threat (Dzhemal, Dugin, Shiffers), and another was open to the future and hoping for the imminent victory of Good (Vladimir Stepanov). Typologically the latter could be compared to an “open conspiracy of Aquarius.” The director of the Esalen Institute, Michael Murphy, made this comparison when he visited Moscow’s underground circles in the early 1980s and was surprised by the similarities (Falikov 1989, 480).
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Cite this article as: Boris Falikov, “Books Instead of Lineage: Mystic Underground in the USSR (1960s–1980s)”, in New Age in Russia, 24/07/2022, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6614