From the Latin word “occultus,” hidden or secret, applying therefore to the study of the Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, and all arcane sciences.” The occult always comprises both a certain theoretical or philosophical concept and a number of practices, which are supposed to lead the person involved to an experience of higher, ultimately divine knowledge and consciousness. According to esoteric thinking, this is considered ultimately a path to elevate and realize the divine essence within human life. However, sometimes it is not used to achieve higher consciousness or divine knowledge, but to deliberately make effective use of dark “evil forces.” The occult has always been used for different ends, for purposes that range from benignly spiritual to totalitarian or fascist.
As “concealed wisdom” the occult is linked to, but not identical with, mysticism as “secret experience.” It is also linked to the term esoteric, which, from the Greek esotericos, that is, secret teaching, can be traced to Greek philosophy of the third-century before Christ, and can be applied to all cultures. But today, in a semantic context shaped since the late nineteenth-century, “esoteric” is used in two different senses: (1) as a general term for occult practices, teachings and communities, and (2) as an “inner path” to certain spiritual experiences that goes beyond following dogmas and ideas in an external or formal manner, and which is connected with tradition, secrecy and initiation. “Nothing is naturally esoteric. Esotericism is a designation of the historical role of certain ideas and methods within a culture rather than a description of their intrinsic characteristics. As an adjective, esoteric describes a culture’s attitude towards ideas rather than the ideas themselves.” All three terms, occult, mystic and esoteric, are often used synonymously, although they refer to different historical and ideological contexts. For a scholarly analysis, however, the use of the terms should, therefore, be specified and the context in which they are used should be spelled out.
The prevalence of occult and esoteric ideas and topics in post-Soviet culture is a fact that many Western scholars of contemporary Russia have encountered either through the vast literature or simply by visiting bookstores and street vendors in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, as well as other cities, like Kazan, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk. It is almost impossible to understand contemporary Russian literature without being equipped with an encyclopedia of the occult. In the 1990s no less than thirty-nine percent of all non-fiction publications in the humanities dealt with occult-esoteric topics. Some former Soviet thick journals, for example, ‘Literaturnoe obozrenie and Nauka I Religiia,’ have adopted a whole new profile with publications on aspects of the occult. This revival has been described by some Western scholars, for instance, Eliot Borenstein, Valentina Brougher and Holly DeNio Stephens, as a phenomenon of popular culture, and one might be quick to assume that it represents a primarily one-way import of New Age ideas and publications flooding into commercialized Russia from the West.
I will argue that the occult revival in Russia is by no means simply a question of popular culture. The fascination with esoteric, supernatural and non-orthodox spirituality, with popular utopian and pagan folk traditions in post-Soviet Russia, can be found on all levels of intellectual and artistic life, including the sciences and politics. One can discern a considerable impact of esoteric ideas and ideologies not only on the humanities but also on the sciences: newly established organizations based on the ideology of cosmism, such as the Association for a Complex Survey of the Russian Nation (Assotsiatsiia kompleksnomu izucheniiu russkoi natsii), which has ties with several Pan-Slavist circles, closely collaborates with the Slavic International Union of Aviation and Aeronautics (Slaviakosmos), with the Mir Station and with the Museum of the History of Aviation and Aeronautics. The sheer number of conferences and research projects, university course offerings and college textbooks on supernatural powers, from bioenergy theories, the so-called “torsionic” fields to UFO’s and cosmic consciousness, produced by scientists at the highest academic ranks has been so disturbing that in 2002 a commission within the Russian Academy of Science was founded to warn and propagate against the spread of “obscure pseudoscience.”
The occult is also connected to the healing sciences. Shamanism as an alternative medicine has entered scientific discourses in Russia and in the West. In July 2005, the International Congress of Transpersonal Psychology was held for the first time in Moscow. Transpersonal psychology, a branch of professional psychology, was founded by the American psychologist Ken Wilber and is based on an esoteric approach and worldview. A considerable number of practising Russian psychologists and psychiatrists participated in this congress.
I will show that today’s occult revival should be seen, first of all, as the result of seven decades of the forceful suppression of metaphysical thought in Russia. The spiritual vacuum caused by the downfall of Communism helps to explain the strong impact of belief systems outside of established religions. As Mikhail Naumovich Epstein writes, “many more people now exit atheism than enter the churches. They exit atheism without arriving, they stay somewhere at the crossroads.” The Russian people have a desire for wisdom, unity and a holistic being, which reaches out beyond the dogmas and traditionally confined systems of the established religions.
For Mikhail Naumovich Epstein, this particular search for spiritual reorientation, which he calls “poor religion” or “religious modernism,” is a uniquely post-atheist phenomenon, and thus inseparably linked with the Soviet past. While all believers had formerly been equal in relation to the monolithic atheist state, the negative sign has now been turned into a positive one in the same totalizing undistinguished way. This uniqueness, however, is open to question, if the religious renaissance is seen in a broader international context. Wouter Jacobus Hanegraaff, Professor of the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam, argues that “the emergence of modernity itself is intertwined with the history of esotericism.” However, “surviving examples […] of western esoteric currents are not recognized as an integral part of our collective cultural heritage and are insufficiently documented, studied and preserved.”
What we see in Russia today is a merging of different traditions: a popularization of the occult counterculture of the post-Stalinist period, various permutations of the Russian occult in early twentieth-century Russian culture and a remigration of occult ideas processed through Western New Age.
We must not lose sight of the specific historical conditions at play since mystical, utopian and pagan roots in religious and intellectual belief systems and more generally in Russian folk culture were stronger than what was found in modern Western societies and had a pervasive influence throughout the twentieth-century. Historical conditions also include different uses of the occult by the Soviet state and by the people, in both the official and unofficial cultures. Uses of the occult by the state range from trading in the life and works of the theosophical Buddhist mystic Nicholas Roerich in exchange for United States of America currency and Soviet propaganda abroad to experiments with mind control and psychic warfare for political and military reasons, which was also practised in the United States of America.
In spite of its claim to “scientific atheism,” Soviet civilization was from the very beginning influenced by religion. It defined itself as a purely rational ideocratic society, based on science and empirical knowledge, but its cult of the rational was taken to such an extreme that one could talk in terms of a “rationalistic religion.” In the 1920s and again in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when science merged with utopian thinking, when during the proclaimed “cosmic era” borders shifted between science and fantastic fiction, certain disciplines, for example, telepathy, hypnosis and parapsychology, to choose three topics traditionally connected with spiritual and occult thought, all experienced a boom. Commissions at the Academy of Science explored the phenomena of alien intelligence, intergalactic UFO’s, the Tungus meteorite in Siberia and anthropoids (the Abominable Snowman and Yeti) in the Tibetan Himalaya. All these projects evoked strong popular interest and were accompanied by extended discussions in popular scientific journals.
In order to bring attention to the wide range of uses of the occult and to help open up a new perspective of cultural history, I will approach the topic here as broadly as possible. I will sketch some contexts of the occult in Soviet unofficial culture, and then suggest a typology of approaches to the occult, each of which can be applied to contemporary contexts. To illustrate the impact on current Russian literature, I will then discuss three literary texts, all written after 1990: Olesya Nikolaeva’s story ‘A Cripple from Childhood’ (Invalid detstva), Yury Mamleev’s novel ‘Flickering Time’ (Bluzhdaiushchee vremia) and Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin’s novels ‘Ice’ (Led) and ‘Bro’s Path’ (Put’ Bro). In conclusion, I will address the role and function of the occult in Russia today in further articles.