Entangled Late Soviet Sufism

The complex esoteric milieu in Soviet society, although centered around influential figures and groups in major cities of the European part of the USSR, was not homogenous. Less noticeable peripheral areas in the eastern parts of the Soviet Union also contributed to the esoteric milieu, often introducing unique teachings and practices. The dynamic interplay between these central and peripheral regions informed a multifaceted esoteric underground that developed despite the still oppressive late Soviet political climate. My focus lies on the Sufi current within this milieu, which evolved from the reciprocal entanglement process between center-periphery dynamics, encompassing Western esoteric currents, parascience, and popular Sufism in the Muslim-majority regions of the USSR.

The Center: The Sufi Dimension of the Late Soviet Gurdjieffism

In this blog post, I address entangled Sufism in the USSR primarily from the perspective of the “center,” paving the way for further discussion of the reciprocal dynamics involving popular Sufism in Central Asia. Entangled Sufism in the late Soviet esoteric milieu emerged largely from Gurdjieffism, a movement that also significantly influenced the development of Western Sufism (Sedgwick 2016).

Sergey Pakhomov claims that Gurdjieffism, along with other esoteric influences, formed a ‘patchwork syncretism’ representing a protest within the Soviet counterculture (Pakhomov 2021). Fedor Verevin (1901–1968), a key member of Gurdjieff’s pre-war Moscow group led by Vladimir Shmakov (1887–1929), conveyed Gurdjieff’s teachings to Vladimir Stepanov (1941–2011), Boris Kerdimun (1937–2023), Anatolii Arlashin and other prominent figures in the Soviet esoteric underground (Rovner 2006).

Vladimir Stepanov in the 1970s. Source: Timofei Reshetov, 2022

Stepanov became a part of the ‘Iuzhin Lane Circle’ initially led by writer Iurii Mamleev (1931–2016) and included other notable members, such as Evgenii Golovin (1938–2010), Geidar Dzhemal (1947–2016) and Aleksandr Dugin (b. 1962), to mention a few. They practiced Gurdjieff’s ‘self-remembering’ and ‘stop’ exercises and other ‘shock’ practices to overcome mechanistic human nature (Pakhomov 2021; Menzel 2012). However, Gurdjieffism was mixed with other esoteric traditions due to constraints and isolation from mainstream currents over a long period (Pakhomov 2021). All of them were considered as different revelations of the same truth. According to Mark Sedgwick, the Circle’s interest in traditionalism, especially in the Evolian interpretation, significantly shaped its direction (Sedgwick 2004).

Michael Tamm in his late years. A scan from his book Theory-Hypothesis-Null (Boston, 1988). Source: Rama Tam Om Ashrama

One of the first encounters with Western Sufism in Soviet times occurred through Vladimir Stepanov, who became involved with groups close to Idries Shah (1924–1996) and later invited Robert Graves (1895–1985) to the Soviet Union (Lebed’ko 2000). In the early 1970s, Stepanov worked on a Ph.D. dissertation on Martin Buber at the Institute of Philosophy of the USSR Academy of Sciences but soon lost his academic position (Sbitnev 2016). Evgenii Golovin referred to him as the ‘Head Sufi of the Republic’ (Rovner 2010), and Estonian esotericist Michael Tamm (Sri Rama Michael Tamm, (1911–2002, a member of the Ramakrishna Order, called him a ‘Sufi-Mason’ (Videmann School 2005, 2019). While Vladimir Videmann also referred to Dzhemal as a Khwajagan or Naqsbandi Shaykh (Videmann 2005, 2019), there is no evidence to suggest that Iuzhinskist’s engagement with Sufism extended beyond bookish interest to include any practical applications.

In 1965, two disciples of Verevin, Aleksandr Kalitenko (tragically died in 1979) and Nikolai Korshakov, met with Anatolii Arlashin at the newly established laboratory in the Bioinformation section in the A.S. Popov Scientific and Technical Society of Radio Electronics and Telecommunications[1], and he ‘converted’ to Gurdjieffism (Arlashin Biography). When Verevin passed away in 1968, the Gurdjieffian group led by Arlashin continued to operate covertly in the Laboratory of Bioinformation Problems. The laboratory was engaged in research on extrasensory perception (ESP), and the group prepared individuals for telepathic experiments. In 1972, this Gurdjieffian group left the laboratory.

Arkadii Rovner in the 1990s. Source: Arkadii Rovner’s website

Arkadii Rovner (1940–2019), representing ‘orthodox’ Gurdjieffism (Pakhomov 2021), was the first to establish connections with the Western Gurdjieff Movement. Rovner met (with) Arlashin in the Laboratory of Bioinformation Problems in 1967. He also admits that Stepanov presented Sufism to him, using parables for teaching, presumably inspired by Idries Shah (Rovner 2010).

After moving to the U.S., Rovner established contacts with the New York Gurdjieff Foundation and Bennet’s followers. He also attended Sufi gatherings at the khanqah (Sufi center) in New York associated with Iranian Shi’a Sufi Maleknia Naser Ali Shah, a Shaykh of the Kawthari branch of the Nimatullahi tariqa (order) (Baran, 2004). However, he was never formally initiated and felt somewhat estranged there (Rovner 2010) remarkably, though he used to take ritual ablutions and pray obligatory collective prayers (namaz) with other dervishes while attending gatherings in the khanqah.

Rovner also mentions a community established in Greenwich Village by Lex Hixon (aka Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi, 1941–1995),[2] claiming that he tried to avoid it because the atmosphere of this place with elements of magical coercion and compulsion seemed threatening to him (ibid.). Hixon was associated with Turkish Shaykh of Halveti-Jerrahi tariqa Muzaffer Ozak al-Jerrahi (1916–1985) and, after his master’s death, founded his own American branch known as The Sufi Lodge Nur Ashki Jerrahi (Dressler 2010).

Viktor Olsufiev. Source: Nikolai Podosokorskii, 2017

Rovner later presented Gurdjieffism to Igor Kalinauskas, a Russian-Lithuanian psychologist, philosopher, theatre director, and musician. Kalinauskas later created his own spiritual teaching and practice called the ‘Fiery Flower,’ blending Roerich’s Agni Yoga, bioenergetics, and Castaneda’s teachings (Menzel 2012). He also joined a Sufi group in Soviet Uzbekistan led by Mirzabai Kymbatbaev (1935–2007) and Abai Borubaev (1952–1988), which will be addressed later.

Another Gurdjieffian group in Moscow was led by Boris Kerdimun and Vladimir Kovenatskii (1938–1986), who also had strong ties with the Iuzhinists. Kovenatskii, a talented artist and poet whose lyrics were popular among non-conformist circles, introduced Stepanov and Golovin to the Iuzhin Lane Circle (Reshetov 2022).

Boris Kerdimun was well-versed in the works of Gurdjieff and Idries Shah. He initiated a trip to Central Asia to establish connections with local Sufis, which was unsuccessful (Vasiltsov 2023, 351). Viktor Olsufiev (aka Kholodkov, 1948–2015), who later developed Idries Shah’s tradition, was also associated with this circle (Olsufiev). In 1982, this group mixed with Arlashin’s group (Arlashin History). Later, it fell apart after internal conflicts (Rovner 2006).

Khalyand Udam. Source: Gallery Strana Vostoka

According to Olsufiev, ‘Kerdimun’s method’ was based on two fundamental ideas:

“The first idea, borrowed from Sufi literature, was the idea of friendship. It advocated for friendly, selfless relationships, love, loyalty, self-sacrifice, etc.; the second idea, borrowed from the Gurdjieff system, was working on oneself. It was applied as follows: if you dislike something, consider yourself at fault and work on your reactions. Battle with yourself.”

Further, Arlashin developed this school, ‘Island of Consciousness,’ with his wife, Tatiana Orbu. According to Olsufiev, in the 1990s, he became associated with the Russian-born Shaykh of the Munawwar Ali Shahi branch of the Nimatullahi tariqa Leonid Tiraspolskii, who has led the Russian-speaking group of Nimatullahi followers since the 1990s. Earlier in Moscow, Tiraspolskii was a yoga practitioner. Later, he became acquainted with the Nimatullahi tariqa in the USA, where he migrated. The Nimatullahi centers were established in Moscow, Sankt-Petersburg, Minsk, Kyiv, and Baku.

Vladimir Videmann. Source: Wikipedia, 2020

Khalyand Udam (1936–2005), an Estonian Orientalist and follower of Sri Rama Michael Tamm, also disseminated the Sufi tradition within the esoteric circles. Another member of Tamm’s group, Vladimir Videmann, was introduced to Sufism through his readings of Ouspensky, Pauwel, and Bergier, as well as Rudolf von Sebottendorf, the founder of the Thule Society. Videmann assumed that Sebottendorf was a Gurdjieffian (Videmann School 2005). Both Khalyand and Videmann were well-connected with the Iuzhintsy. It also should be noted that Videmann and Dzhemal were pioneers in facilitating interactions between the center and the periphery in the late Soviet esoteric milieus, particularly with Central Asia.

Overall, the late Soviet esoteric milieu was influenced by Western Sufism, particularly a tradition rooted in the teachings of Gurdjieff, Bennet, and Idries Shah. Stepanov, Rovner, and Arlashin played significant roles in its dissemination. All of this laid the ground for further encounters of the late Soviet esoteric milieu with Sufi traditions from the Muslim regions of the USSR.


[1] The Bioinformation section was initially headed by Ippolit Kogan (1921–2007) and later by the prominent Soviet philosopher Aleksandr Spirkin (1918–2004). The Laboratory of Bioinformation Problems, led by Eduard Naumov (1936–1997), focused on studying the biofield, telepathy, and telekinesis phenomena, among other subjects.

[2] Lex Hixon earned an MA in philosophy from Yale University in 1963 and a PhD in comparative religion from Columbia University in 1976. Deeply interested in Vedanta, he navigated through various spiritual currents associated with the New Age movement. In his later years, his primary discipleship was with Shaykh Muzaffer.


Featured image: Igor Kalinauskas. Smart Painting (Umnaia kartina) 4, 2016. Source: Igor Kalinauskas’s official website


References

[Arlashin Biography] Анатолий Арлашин. “Биография” [Biography]. No date. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://gurdjieffclub.com/anatolii-arlashin/.

[Arlashin History] Анатолий Арлашин. “История школы Четвёртого пути ‘Остров сознания’” [History of the Fourth Way School “Island of Consciousness”]. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://xn--80aaaki9bac4a9j.xn--p1ai/%D0%BE-%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%81/.

Baran, Zeyno, ed. Understanding Sufism and its Potential Role in U.S. Policy. The Nixon Center, 2004.

Dressler, Marcus. “Between Legalist Exclusivism and Mysticist Universalism: Contested Sufi Muslim Identities in New York.” Muslim World 100 (2010): 431–451.

Menzel, Birgit. “Occult and Esoteric Movements in Russia from the 1960s to the 1980s.” In The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions, edited by Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister, and Bernice Rosenthal. Verlag Otto Sagner, 2012, 151–185.

[Olsufiev] Виктор Олсуфьев. “Владимир Ковенацкий” [Vladimir Kovenatskii]. Accessed May 5, 2024. http://www.olsufiev.com/4W/VladimirKovenatsky.htm.

Pakhomov, Sergei. “The Gurdjieff Movement in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Past and Present I.” Accessed May 5, 2024. https://newageru.hypotheses.org/6120.

[Reshetov] Тимофей Решетов. “Мистический фронт Южинского переулка” [Mystical Front of Yuzhin Lane]. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://dzen.ru/a/Y6GAkmzWWBFY_6qu.

[Rovner] Аркадий Ровнер. “Гурджиевское движение в России 1960-х и 1970-х – Воспоминания и рефлексии участника” [Gurdjieff Movement in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s – Memories and Reflections of a Participant]. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://vk.com/doc526932823_503238424?hash=VsOOZhZAcJfbd1GcPonqExhHHy9FUzQYgTUzfsDZDqL.

[Rovner] Аркадий Ровнер. Вспоминая себя. Мемуары [Remembering Myself. Memoirs]. Пенза: Золотое сечение, 2010.

[Sbitnev]  Сергей Сбитнев. “Капитан Джи и его Корабль дураков” [Captain G and His Ship of Fools]. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://sbitnevsv.livejournal.com/1351516.html.

Sedgwick, Mark. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sedgwick, Mark. Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[Vasiltsov]  Константин Васильцов. “’Южинский кружок’ и современные суфийские движения в России” [“Yuzhin Lane Circle” and the Modern Sufi Movements in Russia]. In Международная конференция «Университет. Образование. Общество. (к 300-летию Санкт-Петербургского государственного университета)», ред. Н. В. Кузнецова и А. Н. Сунами, ООО «Сборка», 2023, 349–355.

[Videmann] Владимир Видеманн. Тропой Священного Козерога, или В поисках абсолютного центра [Along the Path of the Sacred Capricorn, or In Search of the Absolute Center]. Москва: Амфора, 2005.

[Videmann] Владимир Видеманн. “Школа магов. Фрагменты мистического движения в СССР в 70–80 гг. ХХ века” [School of Magicians. Fragments of the Mystical Movement in the USSR in the 1970s–1980s]. Accessed May 5, 2024. https://www.koob.ru/wiedemann/shkola_magov.

[Videmann] Владимир Видеманн. Запрещенный Союз. Хиппи, мистики, диссиденты [The Forbidden Union. Hippies, Mystics, and Dissidents]. Москва: РИПОЛ Классик, 2019.



OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Oleg Yarosh (July 10, 2024). Entangled Late Soviet Sufism. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/1203q


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