An’ It Harm (None), Do What Ye Will: Russian Wiccan and Theosophical Communities Reacting to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Author: Margarita Meshkova
As it may suggest, the occult landscape of Russia is heterogeneous, and occult communities are not monolithic. So, the perception of the Russian invasion of Ukraine varies from group to group. Moreover, it differs from one practice to another. Since February 2022, I have been observing several organizations that somehow related themselves to the mystical-occult milieu (in the Theosophical lodges and the Wiccan circle) and also monitored the activities of informants on the Internet, mainly social networks. More than two hundred days after Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that he was launching a “special military operation” or a “preemptive military operation,” there is no consensus. To protect the informant’s confidentiality, I decided to anonymize the information received in those cases when they were not willing to reveal their identities and when they found that what they told me was potentially dangerous under the authoritarian Russian regime.
I have been taking interviews from the members of the outer and inner circle of the biggest known Wiccan organization in Saint Petersburg (I do not state the name on confidentiality grounds) for a year. Many of my informants are interconnected not only with other Wiccan covens in Russia but also with various occult organizations (e.g., Inari, the priestess, serves in one of the Thelemic temples as well). The inner circle consists of approximately twelve or fifteen people. They participate in all conducted rituals – public and private ones – and have established relationships with priests. The outer circle can hardly be described. The outer circle can hardly be described; it can include both people who came (those who were invited to the public ritual or who wanted to come themselves, having learned about the ritual from an announcement on social networks) and those who just started their way in the group. I have interviewed several members of the outer circle. In other words, I was getting information not only about what was occurring within the organization but about the entire occult landscape.
In general, the Russian “special military operation” splits the occult communities in Russia just as it splits Russian society. Some people are in a state of shock and horror. In contrast, others feel inspired by what they claim is Ukraine’s “denationalization” and “denazification.” Still, the silent majority is trying to remain neutral and keep its own “tradition” of all political and ideological disputes.
One of the Wiccan priests in St. Petersburg has a definite and plausible position. He argues that is nothing about “special operation” – what is happening now can only be described as a horrible crime against not only the Ukrainian people but all of humanity. Moreover, he believes that Wiccans should not tolerate current circumstances. The priest finds ritual-poetic ways of expressing his rejection and anger. One of his anti-war actions is a metaphorical “prayer to Apollo the Destroyer,” containing allusions to today’s situation as a fierce struggle against a mysterious “emperor.” The author’s comment under the post leaves no doubt about interpreting this figure. Many Wiccans in St. Petersburg share priests’ thoughts and express their support through social media. On the contrary, the Northern Capital Wiccan Community, the roof organization of many Wiccan societies and groups in St. Petersburg, preferring to remain silent, has not voiced its position on the war.
My interlocutors shared their concerns with me as they had reasons for being afraid. Some of them have relatives in Ukraine dying and suffering from the actions of the Russian army. Others do not believe that the Russian government can stop the “denazification” of Ukraine, continuing with a full-scale European conflict with Poland or the Baltic countries. Some Wiccans even performed magic rituals to stop the “special operation.” In addition, they confessed that they were forced to violate the Wiccan ethic, which forbids actions that harm others. Despite the strong impulse to express their opinions, Wiccans are forced to keep them secret. Otherwise, like other Russians, they risk being arrested and convicted for “spreading false information and disrespecting the Russian military forces.” However, in the early spring of 2022, many Wiccans held positive thinking. They had retained the belief that the war, although begun, would have ended quickly, but with the announcement of “partial mobilization” in September, hope was lost. The Wiccans I have had the opportunity to talk to expressed concern about a possible nuclear catastrophe and shared with me plans to cross the Russian border in case it could be closed.
My second case study is Russian theosophical groups in which the reaction to the current situation seems to be somewhat different. There is no single Theosophical Society in Russia that Adyar International Headquarters endorsed as an equal organization. Therefore, the majority of theosophically influenced associations, organizations, and groups represented are the results of personal initiatives of passionate Russian followers of Theosophy. On the other hand, Adyar has its own representative office in Moscow, so-called The Theosophical Society in Russia. Its membership can be obtained only after a successful interview with the acting President’s secretary of the Society. However, many Theosophical organizations are not affiliated with Theosophical Societies, although people who share theosophical views rarely join such organizations, preferring to remain free Theosophists, especially since the process of joining seems somewhat tricky. The applicant needs the endorsement of at least two Theosophists who are active members of the Society.
I have been interviewing theosophists from several theosophical lodges and groups (Adamant lodge, White Lotus lodge, and the shrine of the Temple of the People in Saint Petersburg). Moreover, I had a chance to work with some of the free Theosophists in Russia – with those who expressed their views via social media and those with whom I was acquainted through my previous work. However, it is hardly possible to speak of a single ideological line in them. It is impracticable to interview all theosophists in Russia. First, it raises the question of the self-identification of informants. Are, for example, the Roerichs, who venerate Blavatsky and use classical theosophical works, also theosophists? What if they do not consider themselves as such, but still find themselves connected with the Theosophical lodges? Second, the specificity of theosophy, expressed, among other things, in the objectives of theosophical societies, implies a certain detachment from the politicization of societies. Therefore, there is not and cannot be a firm and unanimous opinion on the war in Ukraine.
Leonid Volodarsky, former vice-president of the Russian Theosophical Society, not recognized by Adyar, and currently a member of the Theosophical Society Adyar, opposes Russian propaganda by publishing poems describing his internal opposition to the “special military operation.” He writes that the true theosophical view is pacifistic at heart and that there are more appropriate and justified ways of solving modern world problems than war.
And yet there are parts of theosophists who are convinced that the Russian invasion is dictated by the need to “denazify” and “denationalize” Ukraine. Explaining their points of view, they use monotonous arguments widely presented in Russian government propaganda (“Where were you all those eight years when the children died in Donbass?”, “This is not a war, but a “special military operation,” “Nobody in the Russian army is killing civilians,” “All published news and videos from Ukraine are fake,” et cetera). In general, there is no commonly accepted position regarding what is happening in Russian theosophical circles, just as there is none in Wiccan communities. Interestingly, what I have heard and read is similar to the information I received while closely observing Orthodox informants. It seems that specifically, theosophical worldviews and religious attitudes have little in common with the reactions of Theosophists, who now support the autocratic regime. Their response remembers the psychological syndrome of learned helplessness, a habit of denying agency to themselves and, accordingly, to those around them. Under these conditions, no one can doubt or mistrust the authorities, and a critical understanding of what is happening is impossible. Moreover, its support turns out to be the only possible safe form of political activity, which, with due diligence, can become a platform for developing their interests, if not agreeing with the regime, then at least tolerating it to extract personal gain. This is part of the picture of the political reality of today’s Russia, where the dominant Putin elite is fighting to maintain the status quo, and the rest can either submit to it or seek support from the opposition (Gel’man, 2015, 187f).
The Theosophy Foundation, which grew out of Vladimir Bakanov’s lodge in Kemerovo and was headed by Evgenia Shaburnikova and Vladimir Yarim, both students of the Russian Esoteric School of Theosophy of the same lodge, at the end of September 2022 expressed support, not only for the “special military operation,” but also for the ideas of the so-called “Russian world,” that is, the idea of Russia as the last stronghold of the “correct,” “holy,” “divine” and “blessed” civilization, which is struggling with the “other,” “wrong,” “evil” world:
‘Here are the words of one of the free theosophists of Russia, a non-member of the Lodge, who, having passed all this history through his heart, wrote in his resignation from the TO: «Blavatsky Elena Petrovna was born on our Earth, and no Adyar, will never understand Her Soul! Her Great Heart! Let us remember how Our Teacher was wounded in the Russo-Turkish War, let us remember how Elena Petrovna smashed all the furniture of an English lord, only because he said bad things about Russia! I leave Adyar, I put my diploma to you without regret. Because I know you have lost everything! And we, who love our native Elena Petrovna, are finally with Her forever. 
‘I cannot accept your position on the special operation in Donbass, which has turned into a bloodbath because of the rude interference of America and Western countries using Ukraine as a tool against Russia. You have not stood the test and betrayed the founders of the TO, the Gurus of the East, the Divine Essence. Without these Great Devotees and carriers of True Knowledge, your society is dead. Under your “sensitive” leadership, the TO has become a society of traitors and to be a member of it means to be a traitor. Fire me!’
They also announced the withdrawal of forty-six Theosophists from the Theosophical Society Adyar. The announcement was a reaction to the deprivation of Adamant, another theosophical center based on which the Foundation was founded, of its lodge status. According to a published letter from Tim Boyd, President of the Adyar T.O., this happened due to “a serious pattern of divisive and unbrotherly activity in [the] group’s online posting and conduct within the TS in Russia. While freedom of thought is the basis for all TS activity, this does not permit abusive behavior.” The blunt response of the Russian Theosophists is also linked to another figure in the theosophical movement in Russia, Alexander Besputin, Adyar’s representative secretary in Russia. Some members of the former Adamant Lodge indirectly accused him of corruption and abuse of his position. It is striking to see that the representatives of the Theosophical Society in Russia, on their part, have had no comments neither on the “special military operation” nor on internal discord. At the same time, however, the group has been conducting peace meditations since the spring of 2022.
Leonid Volodarsky and those who can share his point of view belong to theosophical pacifists and his fellow opponents – to theosophical utopians. The first denies war in any of its manifestations, while the latter sees in it an evolutionary and mystical necessity (Elwood, 2003, 164ff).
Reflecting on the future this spring, my Wiccan informants expected a hardening of Russian religious politics. They argued that the hour when each of them would be in danger because of their faith, belief, and identity was near. And if then it was hard to be a Wiccan, over time in Russia, it would be almost impossible. My interlocutors tried to keep in touch with their friends and colleagues in Ukraine. However, many Ukrainian Wiccans separated from their Russian brothers and sisters in faith. Now those of my interlocutors who stayed in Russia and refused to relocate say that only faith serves as their salvation, a source of strength and balance in moments when they don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Therefore, they try to hold on to it at all costs. Even if it means political persecution.
A possible explanation for the reactions presented is ambivalent. It may seem that the cultural and social background of the Wiccans and Theosophists mentioned here determines their views. Many of them have higher education and can be described as middle class. They have stable jobs, families, and business projects. They did not allow themselves to display any interest in politics, following the new type of social contract established in Russia – the population, drowning in political apathy, enables the authorities to do what they see as pleasing. They, in turn, conserve society through repetitive social rituals (Zhelnina, 2020, 359ff). They create an atmosphere of apparent stability where Russians can feel secure. However, Wiccans and Theosophists who criticize the “special military operation” refuse to fulfill the terms of this contract, arguing that it gives nothing but a constant feeling of anxiety. They believe civic passivity leads nowhere, and it is a dangerous mistake to consider its operational effectiveness. In the end, it turns out that this is an individual choice – not to submit to Russian reality, to reject it; some of my informants have a lot to lose, but they still protest as hard as they can.
However, such a refusal cannot have reasons and consequences. The very fact of expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the existing regime, not in a behind-the-scenes conversation can already be considered an act of heroism. What makes them do this? Fatigue? Tragedy? Faith and/or ethical principles? After all, it is incredibly dangerous. The risk of being recognized, captured, and convicted is always terribly great. For Aitvaras Narrenturm and Leonid Volodarsky, protesting against war is above all a duty formulated by inner ethics. For many of my other informants, too. But it is also the exhaustion of inadequate social and political conditions, in which independent self-identification and the subsequent expression of faith are among the most radical acts of resistance.
- «Приведем слова одного из свободных теософов России, не члена Лож, который, пропустив всю эту историю через сердце, написал в своем заявлении о выходе из ТО: ‘Блаватская Елена Петровна родилась на нашей Земле, и никакой Адьяр, никогда не поймет Её Души! Её Великого Сердца! Вспомним, как Наш Учитель имел ранение в Русско-турецкой войне, вспомним, как Елена Петровна разгромила всю мебель английскому лорду, только за то, что он плохо сказал о России! Я выхожу из Адьяра, я кладу вам свой диплом без сожаления. Потому что знаю, Вы проиграли всё! А мы, любящие нашу родную Елену Петровну, наконец-то с Ней навсегда!’».
- «Я не могу принять вашу позицию по отношению к спец. операции на Донбассе, превратившуюся из-за грубого вмешательства Америки и западных стран, использующих Украину, как орудие против России, в кровавую бойню. Вы не выдержали испытаний и предали основателей ТО, Учителей Востока, Божественную Сущность. Без этих Великих Подвижников и носителей Истинных Знаний, ваше общество мертво. Под вашим “чутким” руководством ТО превратилось в общество предателей и быть его членом, значит быть предателем. Увольте!».
Ellwood, Robert S. “Theosophy on War and Peace.” Quest 91.5 (September – October 2003):164–170.
Gel’man, Vladimir. “Political Opposition in Russia: A Troubled Transformation.” Europe-Asia Studies 67(2) (2015): 177–191.
Zhelnina, Anna. “The Apathy Syndrome: How We Are Trained Not to Care About Politics.” Social Problems 67(2) (2020): 358–378.
Cite this article as: Margarita Meshkova, “An’ It Harm (None), Do What Ye Will: Russian Wiccan and Theosophical Communities Reacting to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” in New Age in Russia, 16/01/2023, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/6652.
Cite this blog post
Romina Heim (2023, January 16). An’ It Harm (None), Do What Ye Will: Russian Wiccan and Theosophical Communities Reacting to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. New Age in Russia. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sbls