Buddhists, Occultists and Secret Societies in Early Bolshevik Russia: an interview with Andrei Znamenski
Andrei Znamenski is the author of Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia, published by Quest Books. Shambhala, a mythical, heaven-type land in Tibetan Buddhism, was created during a period of conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, and appears to have been partly modeled on Islamic doctrine. As Znamenski himself points out, the Buddhists had no conception of a paradise before this. Shambhala, which originally had both spiritual and martial qualities, may also have been modeled on the Islamic idea of the inner and outer Jihad. With Shambhala, though, the martial side eventually disappeared, and the myth entered the Western imagination with a number of later nineteenth and early twentieth century occult and mystical movements. In 1933, British author James Hilton popularized the notion of Shambhala, which he renamed Shangri-La. In Red Shambhala — the first and only authoritative book on the subject – Znamenski explores the origins of the Shambhala myth, as well its appropriation by Western occult movements, spiritualists, Bolsheviks, and the “bloody baron” Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.
AZ: Let me first give you a few ideas about how Red Shambhala came about. When I was writing my previous book, The Beauty of the Primitive, about shamanism and the Western imagination, I stumbled upon some interesting information that in the Soviet Union of the 1920s there was a secret lab where Soviet secret police was conducting experiments with Buddhist lamas, shamans, hypnotists, and all kinds of spiritual experts. The goal was to use this knowledge to spearhead the cause of communism.
Then I found information that this lab was part of so-called Special Section of the Soviet secret police. The head of the Special Section was Gleb Bokii. This hereditary aristocrat, whose ancestor had been granted nobility by the Ivan the Terrible, was an interesting man. First of all, Bokii was one of the spearheads of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and afterwards became one of the leaders of the secret police in Red Russia. An active member of the Marxist underground, he spent much of his life before 1917 in czarist prisons and exile. At the same time, he dabbled in occult knowledge and mysticism. In the early 1920s, he stumbled upon a writer and occultist named Alexander Barchenko and became close friends with him. Eventually, Bokii put Barchenko in charge of that secret lab.
Barchenko was very much interested in the Agartha legend – a Western occult myth about a legendary country that exists underground and preserves high knowledge. French occult writer Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, who popularized this legend and whom Barchenko held in a high esteem, argued that this mystic country was located somewhere in Inner Asia. Later, when in 1918 Barchenko learned from Mongol and Tibetan visitors to Bolshevik Russia about the Shambhala legend – a story about the Tibetan-Buddhist spiritual paradise and abode of high wisdom – he came to conclusion that the legendary underground land and the mythological country from the Tibetan-Buddhist tradition, is the same thing. In fact, in his talks he frequently used expression Shambhala-Agartha. Bokii with whom Barchenko shared this knowledge became very much excited and together they began planning an expedition to Tibet to access this country and to use its “ancient science” to help the cause of Communism. This emphasis on science was not an accidental remark. Both Barchenko and Bokii thought about their occult quest as an attempt to locate some hard scientific knowledge (mind-bending techniques, mental waves, the sound effect of mantras and so on) that was hidden in the heart of Asia and needed to be unlocked.
PoS: You mentioned Shambhala. This is a Tibetan Buddhist legend, but it entered into Western culture with Theosophy and other New Age and esoteric movements. Can you tell me a bit about it?
AZ: To make a long story short, Shambhala was a Buddhist prophecy that had emerged in the Early Middle Ages. When Muslims had advanced into Afghanistan and Northern India, they dislodged the Buddhists from these areas, and they had to find a safe haven somewhere. So they came up with a spiritual resistance prophecy that was identified with a land, a utopian land, a kind of a Buddhist paradise, where the members of this faith would be free to live and worship without been harassed by the “barbarians” whom Sanskrit sources called “Mlecca people” or, in other words, the people of Mecca. The legend claimed that somewhere in the North there was a mysterious country, a land of plenty where people lived 900 years, where they were rich and had houses where roofs were clad in gold, and where nobody suffered, and of course, where the Buddhist religion existed in its pure form and so forth.
In original Buddhism there was no concept of Paradise. This concept emerged as a result of encounters with the Muslim world. The prophecy also claimed that when the true faith (read Buddhism) would be in danger, the king of Shambhala named Rudra Chakrin would come with a huge army and crash the enemies of the faith. So, it is a concept of a holy war, pure and simple. Many people are not aware that such concept existed in Tibetan Buddhism. The Shambhala prophecy lingered on, and in modern time was sometimes engaged, when the Mongol-Tibetan world felt threatened by outsiders. At the same time, Shambhala was also understood as an internal war against one’s own inner demons. It was an aspiration for a spiritual perfection. In the course of time, the former, the holy war part, gradually disappeared and the latter one became more relevant.
Let’s go back to Bokii and Barchenko. The 1920s in Soviet Russia was a very interesting time, when some Bolsheviks and their fellow-travelers were involved in a lot of social and cultural experiments. The Red dictatorship hadn’t established itself firmly yet, so there still remained some outlets where people could express themselves artistically and culturally: Avant-garde art, nudism, naturism, feminism, some spirituality practices and communes. Barchenko himself set up a society called the United Labor Brotherhood, modeled after George Gurdjieff’s brotherhood. The goal was to use sacred knowledge to promote communal lifestyle based on high moral standards and spirituality and eventually make people nobler.
When I was learning all this information, I completed my first book. Then I decided to dig in further to find out what it was all about. Eventually I discovered that some other Russian writers had written about it. One St. Petersburg writer, Alexandre Andreyev, had written about the Bolshevik quest for Shambhala. So I read his book, and I also went to the archives in Moscow. I also found some interesting documents in the Moscow Archive of Socio-Political History about how some Buddhist communities in the early Soviet Union, in the 1920s, tried to find a common language with the Bolsheviks, and how the Bolsheviks had tried to use the Buddhists to spearhead the communist cause in Mongolia, Tibet, and Western China.
Incidentally, the Communist International (or Comintern), which was an organization created by the Bolsheviks to promote the gospel of Communism all over the earth, established a special Mongol-Tibetan Section that was assigned to channel the Marxist secular prophecy to the masses of Inner Asia by using indigenous prophecies and traditional culture.
One of the interesting figures here was Agvan Dorzhiev, a tutor for the thirteenth Dalai Lama – the predecessor of the present day Dalai Lama. Dorzhiev became a Tibetan ambassador in Soviet Russia. He tried to build bridges between Red Russia and Tibet. The assumption was that Soviet Russia would be able to guarantee the independence of Tibet. And the theological justification for this was the Shambhala legend, which said that in a time of trouble salvation would come from the north.
Then I found information about this crazy, bloody White baron, who tried to hijack Mongolia in 1920 – Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. There are some interesting documents, showing that he also wanted to use the Shambhala prophesy to spearhead his own cause. For example, when the Bolsheviks seized the papers of his Asian Cavalry Division, they found a detailed translation of the Shambhala prophecy into Russian. Obviously, the baron might have been toying somehow with as an idea that he could act as that Rudra Chakrin, the legendary king of Shambhala, who was coming to save the Buddhist world from infidels.
And of course I found out that Russian painter and émigré in the USA Nicholas Roerich was also attracted to this legend, in the same way. In fact, Roerich, who was well familiar with Dorzhiev and Ungern activities, was afraid to come too late to use this potent prophecy. Hence, he rushed to Inner Asia in 1923.
PoS: Why do you think so many people were interested in this legend at that time? Was there something that had sparked this internationally?
AZ: The more I think about it the more I realize that it was about the time itself – the 1920s and the 1930s. Remember that German word zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. That is what it was all about. At first, there was such horrible disaster as the First World War. Then the Great Depression came. People had this feeling that the whole world was coming to an end. In such times, both the populace and the elites naturally rush to entrust their fate to various ideological and political saviors (for example, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt), who promise welfare and security for everybody. That is why we have all those dictatorships growing all over the world at that time. If you look at a map of the world from the 1920s to the 1940s, you may count on your fingers those few countries that remained more or less democratic: England, Sweden, and the United States. By the way, even the United States under FDR clearly moved toward centralized state. If it had not been for those checks and balances in the US Government, FDR, a power-hungry Machiavellian, would have taken advantage of the crisis situation and with all his prices and wages regulations and back-to-land philosophy would have produced something resembling Italian fascism.
So I think longing for the “great father” was a way to resolve the crisis. Among the people of that time there was an expectation that a savior should come – a Stalin-type figure, or a Hitler-like prophet, or FDR-type person – benevolent and wise enlightened master. The people wanted to find a sort of master key – the ultimate solution to resolve all the problems in the world. So these dominant sentiments certainly affected the fringe figures we are talking about here: Roerich, Dorzhiev, Bokii and Barchenko, and Ungern. Prophesies from the world of Tibetan Buddhism responded to their spiritual and ideological expectations. After all, they were people of their time.
PoS: I thought that after the October Revolution that the Bolsheviks pretty much had their way, but it was a lot freer and they weren’t able to regulate people as much, then?
AZ: Yes and no. See, some writers and scholars who peddled the 1920s as some sort of humane period in the history of Bolshevism were to some extent driven by the idea to save the idea of Socialism that was crumbling in the 1970s and the 1980s. Some of these writers even hinted that the 1920s was a lost alternative – a trajectory that, if followed, could have led to “socialism with a human face” and all that stuff. But the real reason why there was a temporary liberalization was because the Bolsheviks at first had tried to impose so-called “war communism” – they had tried a cavalier attack by canceling money, destroying the banking system, trade, and putting the entire society in barracks. And it ruined the entire economy. So Lenin made it clear to his comrades: we might lose the entire country. He literally begged his comrades to temporarily make a strategic retreat. So the Bolsheviks willy-nilly stopped confiscating grain from peasants and restored some market at least for peasants to work freely on their homesteads, which eventually helped to feed the starving country. They also opened limited outlets to private enterprise. But when you release some of these forces of course it brings up certain cultural liberalization.
So that is why there was some limited cultural liberalization. And there were also some independent groups. Of course the secret police controlled all of them. Their members informed on each other. By the way, that is when this practice was introduced on a nationwide basis in Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks knew that they had to allow partial liberalization, but they were afraid they might lose the country ideologically, so they started to encourage people to inform on each other.
From documents that I read I have this hint that Barchenko was actually recruited as an informer, to inform on the other people who were in the occult, New Age-type spirituality. He delivered reports about other people. He wasn’t actually trusted by many spiritual seekers in the St. Petersburg esoteric circles, because they suspected him of being a secret police snitch. But he was not the only one. A lot of people were encouraged to do this. It was part of the game.
PoS: So the Bolsheviks as a whole didn’t look very favorably on this New Age spiritual movement.
AZ: No, no. In fact in 1929 they started to crack down on this. It was allowed during the 1920s because the dictatorship did not have yet a total grip on the country and because there were still some pre-1917 cosmopolitan Bolshevik types like Bokii, who played with this or tolerated it. There was another person, Anatoly Lunacharski, the commissar of Enlightenment – it’s like the Secretary of Education. He promoted the idea that Communism should be treated as a new religion. He and those who agreed with him called themselves “God-builders.” And if you look closely, Communism is indeed a secular prophesy. Lenin, Stalin and the rest of the gang never wanted people to think this way. For them Communism was high science through and through – the science that harnessed the laws of history. But Lunacharski actually wanted to promote this idea that Communism was a new religion of the oppressed masses and to tell the populace that instead of God we have Karl Marx, and instead of the Ten Commandments we have certain communist commandments. There were some others who wanted to link Communism to spirituality. But Stalin shut all this down in 1929.
PoS: So what happened to the spiritual practitioners? Were they just told to not do it? Or were they sent to the gulags? Or?
AZ: Well many of them were sent to concentration camps. It’s clear from documents I am familiar with that in the late 1920s, they were informing on each other. Doing these esoteric things, the occult, but informing on each other at the same time. In 1929 they were sent to labor camps for three or five years. Many of them were released in the early 1930s. But during the period of the Great Terror, 1937-1938, they were thrown into prison again. And many of them were either executed or died in labor camps from hunger, disease, and hard labor.
But the secret police – who were issued quotas about how many people they should arrest – they even tried to manufacturer some occult groups, so that they could report to their bosses that they had uncovered an occult, anti-Soviet group. Because if one didn’t catch enough anti-Soviet elements, he could not be promoted or, worse, one could become a victim himself. A large set of declassified secret police documents that I recently read – it is about so-called Asian Brothers, the last (1940-1941) Freemason police case in Red Russia – is a pathetic and surreal story. In the 1920s and the early 1930s, manufacturing their cases, Soviet secret police at least dealt with real practicing occultists and intellectuals interested in mysticism. This particular case under the name of “Obscurantists” was manufactured out of a thin air from the beginning to the end and involved four persons who completely stopped toying with occult at the end of the 1920s, and three of whom, on top of this, were paid secret police informers.
I guess by that time the regime ran out of occultists to be arrested. Officers wrote the scripts of testimonies for the four accused persons and tried to force them to endorse these documents. Interestingly, one of them, certain Eugene Tager, a former anarchist who toyed with Freemasonry in the 1920s, was delivered from a Kolyma labor camp where he was doing his time for his esoteric “sins” to play a role in this new case. Yet the man firmly stood his ground. He was repeatedly beaten by his investigator but never testified against himself or other people and completely refused to cooperate. Moreover, the guy had a nerve to file a complaint against his investigators. So they gave up on him and sent him back to Siberia to finish his sentence.
The other two, Boris Astromov and Sergei Polisadov, very active Freemasons in the 1920s and simultaneously seasoned police informers who earlier gave to the police a lot of “human material” to work with, now realized that their turn had come and refused to cooperate too. Essentially, the entire case was based on testimonies of Vsevolod Belustin, a former head of the Rosicrucian order in Russia and also a police informer, the only one who cracked and agreed to testify against himself and others. The investigators contemplated to construct a case about a secret anti-Soviet Freemason organization “Asian Brothers” that spied for England and that involved those four along with a dozen of Orientalists from Soviet Academy of Sciences. Although Belustin cooperated, coauthoring his testimonies with his investigators, to his credit, many of the names of “Freemasons” he mentioned belonged to long-deceased people, including Sergei Oldenburg, a famous Russian student of Hinduism and Buddhism. Although the three former Freemasons/informers were sentenced to several years of labor camps, secret police fiction writers could not produce a sound case and had to archive the file.
In fact, Bokii, who was arrested and executed in 1937, became a victim of a similar case that was totally made up by his former colleagues who sought to destroy him on the orders from Stalin. Bokii’s interest in occult and mysticism and participation in Barchenko’s United Labor Brotherhood in the 1920s were used as a jump start to invent a more sinister plot. The plot involved a tale about the anti-Soviet secret society called Shambhala, with branches allegedly all over the world. This society planned to murder comrade Stalin. It was totally bizarre. Stalin hated Bokii anyway. As one of the bosses of the secret police, Bokii supervised phone wiretappings and radio surveillance and had files on all Bolshevik elite. Stalin knew he had all this information and wanted to eliminate the chief of the Special Section. So the occult games that Bokii had played during the 1920s were used against him in 1937. It was just an excuse to eliminate him.
Barchenko was the last one to be shot. There was a whole group of them, who were supposedly part of this secret society of Shambhala. And Barchenko was the only one who was fighting for his life to the end. He tried to intrigue his investigators by presenting himself as a valuable scientist – an asset that could very useful to the Bolshevik state. When the “investigation” was nearing its end, Barchenko suddenly started claiming to have discovered a mysterious biological weapon. This delayed the execution, but eventually he couldn’t avoid it. He was executed too. Of course, Hitler did the similar things in Germany with former occultists. When he was still maturing, during the 1920s, he dabbled a bit into these esoteric groups. But when he came to power, he outlawed all of them. Because in a totalitarian dictatorship there can be only one master, only one cult.
PoS: Do you think communism and these spiritual interests were compatible?
AZ: Well, Bokii’s interest in the Shambhala myth was coming partly from the fact that his communist idealism had begun to crack. He was an idealist. He expected that when in 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power, a golden age would arrive. People would be all brothers and sisters. They would stop stealing. They would love each other. The beasts and their prey would embrace each other. But it didn’t happen. Then in 1921, when the Red sailors at Leningrad – who had been the backbone of the Revolution – revolted against the Bolshevik regime, and the revolt was suppressed, he had a nervous breakdown. He might have started saying to himself: “my goodness, we killed so many people in the civil war; half of the nation was destroyed to build a new society.” And it was justified on the basis that you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs, but now there was no omelet. I assume that this is when he became interested in Barchenko.
People are sometimes surprised that Bokii, a die-hard Bolshevik, suddenly turned toward the occult. But part of the reason is because he thought maybe if they go to Tibet they might uncover some secret knowledge, some techniques that could show Bolsheviks how to sway the minds of the people toward Communism and make people better. In case of Bokii and Barchenko it is all about the mind-bending. The Bolsheviks had taken power and they were building socialism. This was all right. But the two friends were disturbed by the fact that the minds of the people were still infested with old prejudices. So they were posing a question for themselves, “How can we transform the minds of the populace?” That is how they eventually became interested in the Shambhala legend. In their view, it could contain some high knowledge that they can bring back to Red Russia and use to spearhead Communism. In other words, unlike people like Ungern or Bolshevik fellow-travelers in Mongolia, who were more interested in using martial sides of the Shambhala prophecy, Bokii and Barchenko were eager to use the inner spiritual aspects of that legend. Barchenko claimed to have known Tibet, and so they tried to organize an expedition. Readers can find out what happened later by reading my book.