From Chapter One: Twilight
It is a curious feature of civilizations in crisis that they are often marked by a sudden flourishing of creativity and intellectual exploration. This was the case in France around the collapse of the Second Empire and in fin de siècle Vienna, and the same phenomenon was seen in Russia in the troubled years before the First World War and the revolution. The cultural and intellectual scene at this time included an upsurge of interest in the esoteric and the occult, which was reflected in the work of a remarkable constellation of writers, artists, and thinkers.
In Nevsky Prospect we might notice a square-faced young man with a pince-nez and a pensive expression, called Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky, later to become known as a leading exponent of the Gurdjieff teaching. He is strolling along thinking about the fourth dimension. Noticing a passing horse-drawn vehicle, he reflects that the horse is only an atom of some “great horse,” just as each human being is an atom of the “Great Man,” only visible in the fourth dimension.1 Ouspensky had come from Moscow and settled in St. Petersburg, attracted by the vibrant esoteric scene in the imperial capital. In Moscow he had worked as a newspaper journalist, but during office hours, bored by the work, he had devoured books like A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World and Eliphas Lévi’s classic, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie.2 In these books he found a new kind of truth. As he later wrote:
“I had been living in a desiccated and sterilized world, with an infinite number of taboos imposed on my thought. And suddenly these strange books broke down all the walls round me and made me think and dream about things of which for a long time I had feared to think and dream. Suddenly I began to find a strange meaning in old fairy-tales; woods, rivers, mountains, became living beings; mysterious life filled the night.”3
At the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Pushkin Street was an apartment that was one of three properties owned by Ouspensky’s guru, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, then in the early stages of building his remarkable career as a promoter of his idiosyncratic teaching, the essence of which was that most human beings are kept in a kind of sleep.4 The Gurdjieff system or “the Work,” as he called it, was designed to wake people up through a variety of mental and physical exercises and challenges. Gurdjieff was in fact Greco-Armenian rather than Russian, but he was an important part of the remarkable constellation of spiritual teachers and thinkers in Russia at that time. Later he was impelled by the revolution to leave the country and continue his work elsewhere.
A mile or so to the northwest of Nevsky Prospect there still stands a magnificent neoclassical apartment building on the corner of Tavrichesky and Tversky streets—all turrets, mansard roofs, pilasters, decorative stonework, and wrought iron balconies. At the corner, resembling an enormous hinge, is an imposing domed tower, which earned the building the name of the House with the Tower. In a flat on one of the upper floors lived the poet, dramatist, and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov who, in his magnum opus The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God (1904), ingeniously managed to combine a celebration of the ecstatic cult of Dionysus with a profound Christian faith.
Ivanov and his second wife Lydia ran a weekly salon from their airie in the House of the Tower, which became a favorite venue for the St. Petersburg intelligentsia. After Lydia’s death in 1907 the distraught Ivanov leaned increasingly in a mystical and occult direction. Consolation came in the form of Anna Rudolfovna Mintzlova, a formidable grande dame of the esoteric scene in St. Petersburg and later in Moscow, who became Ivanov’s mentor and possibly lover. This many-faceted, multilingual and highly educated woman had, among other things, made the first complete Russian translation of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Enthused by all things esoteric, she had attended the London Theosophical Conference of 1905 and a series of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures in Paris. She could hold forth on everything from Rosicrucianism to the mystical state of samadhi. In the words of her contemporary, the artist and poet Margarita Sabashnikova, she presented “a shapeless figure with an excessively large forehead . . . and bulging blue eyes, very short-sighted, which nevertheless always seemed to be looking into immense distances. Her reddish hair with a straight parting, curled in waves, was always in disarray. . . . Her most distinctive feature was her hands – white, soft, with long narrow fingers. When greeting someone she held their extended hand longer than usual, shaking it slightly . . . her voice lowered almost to a whisper, as if hiding strong excitement.”5
In 1910 Anna Mintzlova suddenly disappeared without trace. Whether she committed suicide or entered some enclosed mystical order remains to this day an unsolved mystery.6 As a transmitter of esoteric ideas she deserves more than a footnote in the history of Russia’s mystical quest.
Three years after her disappearance Ivanov married his stepdaughter Vera, who had already borne him a son. The gatherings in the House of the Tower continued, but in 1920 Vera tragically died at the age of thirty. Ivanov moved away from St. Petersburg and a few years later left Russia altogether.
Another popular haunt of literati, artists, and esotericists in St. Petersburg was the Stray Dog Café in Michaelovsky Square, a semi-basement hostelry (now reopened since 21). Ouspensky was one of its habitués, and another person who probably went there was the poet and novelist Andrei Biely, also a member of the Tower circle. He was best known for his extraordinary novel Petersburg, which vividly evokes the feverish atmosphere of anxiety and terrorist conspiracy that characterized Russia at that time. The main character is a young man called Nikolai Apollonovich Obleukhov, who becomes involved with a group of revolutionary terrorists. He is given a time bomb and the task of placing it in the study of a prominent Tsarist official, who happens to be his father. As the time bomb ticks away, he frantically seeks distraction in foolish ways such as by attending a masked ball dressed in a red domino mask and cape. The story moves relentlessly to an unexpected and slightly comical climax. A similarly feverish atmosphere pervades Biely’s novel The Silver Dove (1909) about a murder in a prerevolutionary Russian religious cult resembling the Khlysty.
Biely was a leading exponent of the symbolist school of literature, which had originated among French poets but soon spread to fiction, visual arts, and even music. Instead of simply portraying phenomena in a literal way, the symbolists sought to use the things they portrayed as metaphors or pointers to ideas, states of mind, metaphysical concepts, or perceptions of a reality beyond the mundane. In Russia, as elsewhere, the movement proved attractive to those of an esoteric turn of mind, and Biely was no exception. Biely combined the role of spiritual seeker with the persona of a character from one of his novels. Handsome, temperamental, elegantly dressed, and a womanizer, he led a restless life, traveling widely through Europe and North Africa, attracting attention everywhere by his eccentric behavior (dancing wildly in a Berlin nightclub like some whirling dervish), on account of which he gained the nickname Yurodivii (“Holy Fool”).
Much of Biely’s work is an attempt to give the written word a musical quality, since he believed that “the eternal is closest to us and most accessible in music.”7 As a boy in the 1890s he had come under the influence of the mystical philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, author of a visionary work called Short Story of the Antichrist, in which he predicted the Antichrist’s imminent coming. That figure would in due course be vanquished, the woman clothed with the sun would appear in the heavens, and Christ would descend, resurrect the dead, and reign with them for a thousand years, as predicted in the book of Revelation.8 Solovyov was therefore firmly in the Russian millenarian tradition. Biely’s belief in this prophecy is reflected in his work. Here for example is a quote from his complex “musical” novel The Dramatic Symphony, first published in 1901: “And the ascetic cried out along the nocturnal avenues: ‘Lo! We shall raise up against the beast the woman clothed with the sun as our sacred, snowy-silver banner!’”
Here again we have the ubiquitous “woman clothed with the sun” as in Gulbransson’s cartoon Melancholia, featuring a young woman riding on a bear against a rising sun, as mentioned in the Introduction.
There is something strikingly Russian in the fact that Biely was both a highly avant-garde writer and an apocalyptic visionary. Not surprisingly he became drawn to Theosophy and its offshoot, Anthroposophy.