Sunday, November 13, 2011

Andrei Znamenski's "Red Shambhala": Book Review

Why did early Bolsheviks sponsor expeditions for occultists obsessed with a Shangri-La? A Russian historian of shamanism answers this in his engaging study of characters caught up in an unlikely pairing. It matched Marxist communal ideology with New Age-tinged notions of totalitarian theocracy. It conquered, if briefly, the steppes of Mongolia as a vanguard for a pan-Buddhist takeover of Central Asia. Even before the October Revolution, plans to spark uprisings in the inner Asian fastnesses grew. Secret plans by geopolitical instigators circulated that the fulfillment of apocalyptic promises loomed, so the communist conspiracy to sign on fellow travelers here recruited strange companions.

Careful manipulation of shamanic myths and Buddhist prophecies crafted by self-made scholars and savvy spies sought, after the 1917 Revolution and during the Red-White Civil War, to advance the Communist cause. Convincing natives in the Siberian and Himalayan regions, a few adventurers reasoned this call to unity could challenge the British rule of India, weaken the Whites, and totter the Chinese warlords. Adventurers seduced by Orientalism told their Soviet overlords that native peoples across the East would rally towards liberation, and as ancient predictions came true, the nations that the U.S.S.R, inherited would take one giant leap closer to the Soviet-sponsored global triumph of the poor over the pampered. Professor Znamenski combines his expertise in shamanism and Central Asian teachings with Western esotericism, and the results, enriched by newly opened Soviet-era archives, provide an accessible entry into a fascinating saga. 

He prefaces his narrative with essential cautions. Rather than try to argue how one version of the famously puzzling tantric and hidden teachings of Buddhism combined with native lore do or do not align with the true version of Shambhala's myth, he regards each version as fitting whatever time and place created it. Znamenski regards every religious or spiritual manifestation as fluid, and this open-minded quality allows him to remain detached from the notoriously convoluted applications of difficult texts to simplistic political solutions. Even if the characters themselves appear less than logical about how Buddhist teachings can square with Marxist materialism and Leninist class warfare, the author here wisely keeps his distance from such fruitless attempts to make sense out of nonsense. However, as an aside, this book appears under the aegis of a Theosophical press, so I note that when it comes close to assessing the veracity of Madame Blavatsky's own inventions, Znamenski chooses to remain guarded or nearly reticent. 

Certainly, a century ago many looked to the East via Theosophy, magic, spiritualism, and the New Age to answer their doubts and dreams about the potential chaos and coherence of the modern era. The counterculture then romanticized, as did the Beats, hippies, and backpackers later, the appeal of an Eastern teaching. Both conservative and radical misfits reasoned that Eastern promises could redeem Western corruption and bring about equality, order, and the restoration of goodness over wealth. Many self-taught adepts wished or claimed to harness the inner powers latent in those who had forgotten arcane doctrines and magical methods. The repository for such solutions lay waiting in remote Shambhala, and the forces unleashed from its Central Asian or Himalayan hideaways could be harnessed to the Marxist goal of liberating the oppressed to fight for a golden era once the proles destroyed the aristocrats.

This tale opens--after some lucid and at times lurid introductory material on Tibetan and Mongolian teachings, cultures, and doctrine--with Alexander Barchenko. His occult pursuits influenced his idea for social reform. Discouraged by the Red Terror that obliterated the White resistance to communism after the October Revolution, Barchenko sought a peaceful method by which equal rights could be established and Marxism implemented without bloodshed. As a "Red Merlin" he wished to build a communist theocracy "controlled by peaceful and spiritually charged high priests of Marxism".

His boss became the chief cryptographer of the most secret of the Soviet intelligence agencies. This agency experimented with telepathy at a distance, re-engineering of mental powers, electronic surveillance, and what we would label parapsychology. Its chief, Gleb Bokii, agreed with Barchenko that Marxism possessed an appeal for Asians as a surrogate religion, if a transitional stage that could be manipulated among the peasants and nomads to convince them to join the Leninist banner and to bring about the victory of the downtrodden. 

Many appealing details enliven this stage of the story, as a few visionary Soviets support this strange plan. Whispers of mind control, nudism, orgies, mummified penises, a talismanic meteorite, and black magic circulated, while Znamenski neatly relates how eccentric and bold many early Soviet intellectuals might dare to be in a time of cultural disruption and erotic innovation. Watching over this scheme, the secret police amassed careful files which would later weigh against Barchenko and Bokii, as Stalin's paranoid executioners extracted confessions interspersed with salacious details from the brief heyday of 1920s radical indulgence. These reports were edited by the secret police to condemn a decade-and-a-half later culprits who flouted convention in the first flush of triumphant Red fervor. 

One who escaped the purges, Nicholas Roerich, takes on the role of a lifetime. Already well-versed in an odd mix of New Age and messianic ambitions, he and his wife had left tsarist Russia. This charismatic if manipulative pair of artists and occultists used whomever they could to further their hopes of a "Great Plan" that would unite Tibetan Buddhists across all of Inner Asia under the Panchen Lama. They even convinced a future vice president under FDR, Henry Wallace, to support their ideals, and the Roeriches erected a "Master Building" as a world headquarters which still stands on Riverside Drive today in Manhattan. The Roeriches dreamed of converting the planet to their scheme of transformed equality via enchanted transports of visions.

For a while, after the revolution, the determined couple returned to Red Russia to reconcile their ambitions with those of Marxism. They calculated that they could advance their plan better by aligning it with communist ideals of communal equality. They convinced a coterie to join them, financially or in person, to hasten their takeover of Central Asia, the epicenter for what they saw as an inspirational revolt of the peasants and monks against their lamas and warlords. The Roerichs donned costumes and roles as if natives. Nicholas posed as a reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama so as to convince the local people of his mission. 

He and his entourage plotted with the Soviets and indigenous sympathizers carefully, but their plans to enter Tibet to make it a Marxist-Buddhist realm akin to the region of Mongolia--that region had recently been swayed by prophetic revisions to accept a materialist-millenarian combination of mystical overlords and enforced communism--rapidly failed. The party nearly froze before they were allowed to enter the suspicious and firm jurisdiction of the British representative over the Himalayas in Sikkim. There ironically their claims that the Soviet mission had for its success to overthrow British dominion in India were proven, if indirectly. 

The narrator comments how Roerich wore a face like a mask, one that it appeared he could remove at will. The couple, as with the other protagonists in this dramatic episode from early Soviet history, appear often as if to act with disguised motives. Znamenski uncovers in the archives of the secret police and recent studies from Russian-language sources the hidden facts unknown to the players then or until very recently scholars at large.

The early Bolsheviks boasted: "We are born to make a fairy tale into reality." For a few years, they tried to do this, in an unbelievable and rather cynical fashion. They chose to distort shamanistic teachings to play into mass resentment against imperialism and to upset the poor who would then presumably wish to seize wealth. While the juxtaposition of Buddhism with its teaching on non-attachment and Marxism with its materialist class warfare clash, this disparity escapes any comment by those participating in its proclamation in these pages. 

The Soviets in hindsight tolerated the games of the Buddhist role-players as useful to their own strategies. For instance, they had the Roerich party travel under the Stars and Stripes so if their mission met with unwelcome attention, it could be disowned by the communists; if successful, it could undermine the White Russian refugees fomenting trouble, while it strengthened the power of native nationalists, who would be employed by Soviet interests to counter Japanese imperialism edging by the 1930s into Inner Asia. 

By the time of the Japanese takeover of Manchuria, the U.S.S.R. tolerated less imaginative methods of exporting Marxism. The failure of world revolution to spread westward and Stalin's fears of rebellion caused the Soviets to contract their power inward. The fascist Japanese and the wary British were both feared. The Great Terror caught up those who had provided the vanguard of Soviet rebellion back in 1917. Even those who tortured and murdered Barchenko, Bokii, and thousands of loyal communists from the days of Lenin were themselves put to death a couple of years later. Stalin eliminated the cadre of any rivals to his regime, imagined or actual. 

Near the end of this history, Znamenski tells of a representative vignette in this sorry saga. A former junior lama took over Mongolia as a communist fanatic. He vowed to make the feudal system into a more equitable one. He killed resisting monks and lamas and drafted the compliant remnants into the army or concentration camps. By 1940, the Mongol Buddhist clergy was wiped out. The lamas were sent off to Siberian prison camps. But many thought they were headed to northern Shambhala, the predicted land of bliss.

Those lacking specialized knowledge of arcana have not learned much of this story, for until the fall of the Soviet empire, many records have been sequestered or linger in Russian-language academic journals. A few very minor slips in English usage reflect the author's Russian origins, but these occasions are far outweighed by the valuable contributions he provides so the rest of us can learn about these events and their scholarly sources. The transcripts forced out of doomed prisoners about their role in this Red Shambhala project make for poignant reading. 

They remind us of the fragile nature of idealism, and the moral costs of suppressing those who tried to temper the fury of the Red victory with some sensitivity to the cravings of the spirit and the capabilities of the mind. While the practical experiments of laboratories bent on superhuman creations failed as surely as did the subversive aims to spark revolt on the Mongol plains or in the Tibetan monasteries, the lesson of this unbelievable plot lingers in this thoughtful, instructive, and sad testament of grand hopes and puny fates.
(Featured at PopMatters 8-12-11; debate over this title ensues at Amazon US, but I stay reticent, although I posted this as my 1300th review there 8-16-11.)

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