Spiritual Dissent, or, Giving the Finger Unseen

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 07.07.2020

On Marginal Spirituality in the Soviet and Post-soviet Space

Last March, Alexander Gabyshev (or rather ‘Sasha Shaman’, which is the name that both he and his followers prefer to use) ventured out on a roughly 8,000-kilometre walk from his native Yakutsk to Moscow with the aim of expelling  the "demon" Putin from Russia. Soon enough he caught the attention of the media, and in September, a third of the way into the journey, hauling his cart of possessions and an increasing band of supporters, the shaman was detained in a very dramatic way by the police. Accusing him of extremism, they subjected him to a forced psychiatric investigation. In December, as Gabyshev tried to resume his journey, after a few days he was detained again and sectioned in a psychiatric institution. As the shaman still hasn’t given up his intention, just recently, in May, he was arrested for the third time at his own home, with quarantine restrictions as justification.

This case may seem insignificant against a background of the many repressions practiced in Russia today against various ‘dissidents’, and such an overt show of force against a completely harmless and marginal fellow – who could perhaps even be called a ‘village idiot’ or ‘holy loner’ (a popular character in the Orthodox tradition) – seems ridiculous and absurd. Russian artist Nikolay Smirnov, currently studying the history of spiritual dissent in the post-Soviet space, and German professor Birgit Menzel, a researcher in Russian culture at the University of Mainz, however, see in this case the features of a much older and deeper process.

These are marginal spiritual practices that differ from the official religion and popular beliefs, and are rooted in both pre-Christian paganism and the folklore of the cultures of the indigenous peoples that became part of the Russian Empire over time, as well as in the new esoteric teachings that gained popularity with the 19th-century intellectual elite and even members of the court. There’s an enduring myth in Russia, linked to its self-identification, that its culture is particularly susceptible to these kinds of currents, so the state is very sensitive to them. Noticing and combating any kind of otherness is an equally long tradition.

In her introduction to the academic journal The New Age of Russia. Occult and Esoteric Dimensions (2012), co-author Birgit Menzel writes: ‘In Russia, the borders between science and religion and the occult have differed from those in the West for several reasons: Russian Orthodox Christianity, rooted in the Byzantine, i.e. Eastern tradition, has always been open to mystic experience and esoteric knowledge. Mystical, utopian and pagan roots in religious and intellectual belief systems, and more generally, in Russian folk culture were stronger than in modern Western societies and had a pervasive influence throughout the twentieth century. Asian philosophy and religions, including indigenous Shamanism and Sufism, have been part of the Empire, transferred by Siberian, Buriat, Caucasian and Central Asian traditions, and survived into the 20th century, offering alternatives to European Russians.’

In the Russian Empire, where the church was the cornerstone of identity and, in fact, was made an instrument of power and an institution of public administration, religious and intellectual currents different from official doctrine were already considered dissident. Nikolay Smirnov cites the Narodnik movement as an example, as it saw the revolutionary potential needed to overthrow the tsar in the ‘common people’, their folklore and semi-pagan traditions. The first anarchists and followers of Marx's ideas also found the experience of disobedience and the underground of the Old Believers and radical sects, the Skoptsy (скопцы) and Khlysty (хлысты), who had long been persecuted in the empire, to be very appealing. Menzel, on the other hand, explains the popularity of these new esoteric movements, like theosophy and anthroposophy, within educated circles, with disappointment and objections to the primacy of scientific and technical progress: ‘In early 20th-century Russia, ambivalence about the new world and the uncomfortable recognition of the ultimate uncertainty of all human knowledge, which neither scientific nor legal experts nor the churches could resolve, intensified the desire for wholeness, harmony and synthesis and led many people unhappy with modernity to embrace the new occult doctrines.’

In this way, even completely private spiritual pursuits and self-transformation practices become political acts with the potential for wider social influence. Therefore, even later, in the Soviet Union, Orthodox mysticism and interest in alternative religious currents and occult practices were both a form of intellectual opposition and escapism, and often an outright act of civil disobedience and ‘dissent’. This was especially true after Stalin's death, which saw the end of his repressions and the advent of the national ‘thaw’.

Pre-revolutionary mysticism and religious texts returned in the form of ‘samizdat’. Salvation from the uniformity of Soviet reality could be sought in academic studies of Indian, Chinese and Tibetan philosophical systems. For those who could read between the lines, ideas of spiritual content and the current winds of the capitalist world’s New Age came through fragments of canonical texts in completely official publications, like the Science and Religion journal, the aim of which was to polemicize and ‘expose’ the ideologies of the ‘rotting West’ in the spirit of scientific atheism. After the end of ‘the thaw’, during Brezhnev’s stagnation, many intellectuals who did not have the opportunity to emigrate (or were not forced to do so) became either religious or fans of yoga, mysticism, para-psychological experiments, and other non-normative practices (including ethnography-based nationalism), which for them was a kind of ‘internal migration’.

The aura of secrecy and exclusivity that came with gathering in closed circles around spiritual teachers, both living and long dead, and quite often charlatans, increased both the risk and the romance of underground daring.

According to Menzel, without an understanding of these underground practices in a repressive, totalitarian country, many phenomena of post-Soviet life will also be unclear. Like, for example, not only the boom of organized religion throughout the space of the collapsed empire, but an even wider wave of popularity of various cults, unconventional ideas and esoteric practices.

During Perestroika and the beginning of the nineties, those who did not receive the healing charge of Kaspirovsky the clairvoyant, or the predictions of Pavel Globa the astrologer – as transmitted with the help of the state broadcaster – could themselves be deemed as marginalized. If the political system is not repressive, then under the free market conditions of competition and democracy each new idea either quickly professionalizes and finds its niche and its consumers, or, it goes bankrupt and out of fashion and circulation. There, the healers, shamans, clairvoyants, ufologists and para-psychologists all find their place. Monopolistic power, on the other hand, is itself esoteric, so it doesn’t tolerate competition for ideas and opinions. It tries to nationalize popular movements and initiatives within society and make them an instrument of influence, but it sees acts of non-normative self-expression as a threat to its legitimacy.

The history of alternative spirituality within the former empire and the marginal spiritual practices of modern Russia are a good starting point for thinking about these phenomena throughout the post-Soviet space. Both researchers have built their RIBOCA2 Public Programme online dialogue around the socially transformative potential of such forms of opposition in the past, how they continue to influence political life now, and how non-conformism finds or breaks new gaps in places where everything seems to otherwise be ‘orderly’.

Birgit Menzel's reading took place on July 9, 2020 within the framework of the online lecture and discussion cycle organized by RIBOCA2

RIBOCA2 website

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