The Heyday of Esoteric Movements in Pre-Revolutionary Russia
Sociologists noted some time ago that the deepest social and economic crises in human history tend to be accompanied by the blossoming of culture and science. Human consciousness appears to assume that the changes in daily life are irreversible and redirects its energy toward unconstrained imagining and free exploration of various cultural and spiritual phenomena. This rule can easily be applied to the crises of modern history and specifically to the fin de siècle, when the premonition of a major disaster (the First World War followed by the Russian Revolution) pushed artists, writers, and intellectuals to intensify their spiritual explorations. In Russia, the turn of the twentieth century saw a huge wave of interest in alternative ways of thinking and interpreting the world: the romantic model of the rebel rising up against the old world, with its outdated religion, culture, and politics, became an ideal for many of the young people who gathered in countless groups, clubs, and orders. Moscow and St. Petersburg had their own active Masonic lodges, Rosicrucian and Solomon’s Temple Orders as well as groups such as the anarcho-mystics. Young people like the film director Sergei Eisenstein, who was briefly a member of the Rosicrucian Society, would sometimes be part of several groups simultaneously. A special place on the map of the spiritual pursuits of the Russian intelligentsia was occupied by anthroposophy, a philosophical system established by the thinker and researcher and expert in the legacy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophy became widely popular among Russian intellectuals due to the work of Steiner’s devoted followers, including Andrei Bely, his first wife Anna (Asya) Turgeneva, and the first wife of Maximilian Voloshin, Margarita Sabashnikova. Bely continued his anthroposophist work in Soviet Russia, while Turgeneva spent the rest of her life in Dornach and was the chief artist of two anthroposophist temples, the First Goetheanum and the Second. Almost all of the artists featured in the exhibition had some connection to anthroposophical societies. Anthroposophy should not be confused with the still popular theosophy, the syncretic religious and mystical movement founded by Helena Blavatsky (the Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875), which remained active and became increasingly popular (including among artists) throughout the Soviet period.
Involvement in alternative theories, teachings, rituals, and practices became almost commonplace in the Russian culture of the turn of the century: spiritualists, anthroposophists, theosophists, Freemasons and Templars, anarcho-mystics, healers, shamans, herbalists, and Tarot readers exerted great influence on the country’s cultural agenda (and mass culture was no exception, a good example being the double-page spread from the magazine Uranus featuring ads for all kinds of mystical services). However, these pages in the history of Russian art and culture have been forgotten, obscured by the achievements and successes of the radical Russian avant-garde, which was endorsed (briefly) by the new Soviet government and celebrated by Western art criticism.