New Age Pilgrimage in Southern Russia
Andrei Tiukhtiaev takes a close look at the practice of pilgrimage in New Age spirituality, focusing on the issues of sociality and performance. In the following article, Andrei shares his personal experience and observations from conducting fieldwork among pilgrims in Southern Russia, all of them setting off for a journey of spiritual significance.
Author: Andrei Tiukhtiaev
My current research project examines sociality in New Age pilgrimage, relying on the case of Krasnodar Krai in Russia. It allows to discuss the role of New Age spirituality in the process of secularization as well as in other political processes. New Age spirituality is often described as a highly individualized form of religious life with Thomas Luckmann’s concept of “private” or “invisible” religion (Luckmann 1967), and Luckmann himself described New Age spirituality in this way (Luckmann 1990). Even Jose Casanova, the author of the counter-thesis concerning the public role of contemporary religious groups and movements, did not consider New Age and many other spiritual movements, which stemmed from the counterculture of the 1960–1970s, as examples of public religion (Casanova 1994). As a result, the tendency to define New Age spirituality as private religion is still relevant for current social theory. Such notions as “do-it-yourself religion” or “pick-and-mix religion,” referring to the individualized nature of New Age followers and the syncretism of their beliefs, are applied in writings of scholars from various disciplines.
Some sociologists and anthropologists challenge such notion of New Age spirituality, stressing the fact that despite a certain syncretism of esoteric beliefs and practices, the options for religious creativity are limited and learned through the process of socialization (Aupers and Houtman 2006; Wood 2010; Altglas 2014). From such perspective, the purpose of ethnographic research of New Age spirituality must be to find out what kind of social and power relations, hierarchies, and expert knowledge we can observe in New Age practices.
New Age pilgrimage seems to be an interesting example. People consider pilgrimage as space where one can perform and embody utopian ideals. This utopia is based on the image of a simple agricultural community as opposed to the industrialized world. Different countercultural and esoteric trends such as ecovillages, alternative ways of farming based on the ideas of permaculture, vegetarianism and raw food diet, yoga, and various spiritually interpreted physical activities, alternative science and medicine take place in the social life of pilgrims. Living in small communities in harmony with nature and the environment seems perfect and healthy for pilgrims who often live in cities and can implement their ideals into their lives only in the context of pilgrimage. Following such ideas becomes the mean of socialization in pilgrimage when pilgrims motivate each other to undertake various spiritual practices and cultivate specific subjectivity based on the ideals of New Age spirituality.
An important part of pilgrimage is the narrative behind it. The narrative is something that splits pilgrims into two parts. According to my research, there are two regimes of sociality that characterize social life in pilgrimage. The first implies a unified morality, subjectivity, and cosmology based on natural symbols (Douglas 2002) as well as disciplinary practices. In other words, any pilgrim attempts to distance him- or herself from urban life considered as polluted and profane, and to cultivate a sacred and pure self through various diets and physical activities. The second regime of sociality presents the same ideas and practices but legitimized by perennialist narratives and symbols. By perennialism, I mean the critical principle of Western esotericism according to which history is described as the process of degradation from an idealized, total, and pure state of society to the differentiation and superficiality of modern society (Hammer 2003, 35; Hanegraaff 2012, 7–12). Perennialist narratives underlie the activities of pilgrimage organizers, who create the infrastructure, an industry of expert knowledge, i.e. create a space where they can realize their vision of society and their ideas.
The esoteric writer Vladimir Megre made the most significant contribution to the development of pilgrimage to dolmens. He wrote a series of books entitled The Ringing Cedars of Russia in the second half of the 1990s that had given rise to the new religious movement Anastasia – one of the most popular New Age movements in the post-Soviet space. In his books, he tells the story of his encounter with Anastasia, who turned out to be a wise representative of the Golden Age civilization. By contrast, Megre presents himself as a naive and ignorant man of the technocratic world who tries to record and spread the message of wise ancestors. The message of Anastasia consists in the need to create ecovillages, follow vegetarianism, return to the traditional view of gender roles and reject institutionalized education, science, and medicine. In one of the books, he describes the dolmens in Krasnodar region considered as the storage of ancestors’ knowledge, which made them a popular pilgrimage site for readers of The Ringing Cedars of Russia.
Readers of Megre’s books were the first to pilgrim to the Krasnodar dolmens, but today the followers of the Anastasia movement do not prevail among pilgrims. Many pilgrims do not even belong to a particular community. However, the perennialist vision of society and nationalistic interpretation of dolmens as sacred sites characterize the motivations of the people who organize these pilgrimages. Today we can find the recreational and commercial place called “Voskhozhdenie” near one of the most famous dolmens in the region of the Zhane river valley, where I conducted the main part of my fieldwork. I have also been at a farm called “Dolmen” or “Dolmen farm of Bambakov”, which is not literally a farm but rather a destination for tourist excursions and a commercial place with a vegetarian cafe and an esoteric bookshop. The village Mezmai in Apsheronsk district is one of today’s famous power places in Russia, which attracts many followers of the back-to-the-land movement. Shapsugskaia village is a place where many dolmens are located and frequented by travel companies as a popular destination. Shapsugskaia has become a popular place for various esoteric activities in recent years, including yoga retreats, psychological seminars, and so on. Moreover, my fieldwork also included participant observation for a week during the excursion to the dolmens of Bolshoi Sochi organized by the community of Anastasians as well as by close friends of a famous channeler and esoteric writer, living in one of the biggest ecovillages of Southern Russia. Finally, I participated in tours organized by travel companies of Gelendzhik as well as by non-official New Age entrepreneurs. Almost all lecturers (with one exception) were based on perennialist narratives. All these so-called ‘power places’ were created by adherents of New Age spirituality who were influenced by books of Vladimir Megre and other esoteric writers. Both initiators of such power places and pilgrims produce and perform an alternative vision of society in public space.
Altglas, Véronique. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Aupers, Stef, and Dick Houtman. “Beyond the spiritual supermarket: The social and public significance of new age spirituality.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 21, no. 2 (2006): 201–222.
Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. Explorations in Cosmology. London / New York: Routledge, 2002.
Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. London: Macmillan, 1967.
Luckmann, Thomas. “Shrinking transcendence, expanding religion?” Sociological analysis 51, no. 2 (1990): 127–138.
Wood, Matthew. “W(h)ither New Age studies? The uses of ethnography in a contested field of scholarship.” Religion and Society 1, no.1 (2010): 76–88.
This blog post in Russian
Cite this article as: Andrei Tiukhtiaev, “New Age Pilgrimage in Southern Russia”, in New Age in Russia, 30/06/2019, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/995