The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture

The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture

The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture

The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture


A pioneering, richly interdisciplinary volume, this is the first work in any language on a subject that has long attracted interest in the West and is now of consuming interest in Russia itself. The cultural ferment unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union reawakened interest in the study of Russian religion and spirituality. This book provides a comprehensive account of the influence of occult beliefs and doctrines on intellectual and cultural life in twentieth-century Russia.

Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal's introduction delineates the characteristics of occult cosmology which distinguish it from mysticism and theology, and situates Russian occultism in historical and pan-European contexts. Contributors explore the varieties of occult thinking characteristic of prerevolutionary Russia, including Kabbala, theosophy, anthroposophy, and the fascination with Satanism. Other contributors document occultism in the cultural life of the early Soviet period, examine the surprising traces of the occult in the culture of the high Stalin era, and describe the occult revival in contemporary Russia. The volume includes bibliographical essays on Russian occult materials available outside Russia.

Contributors: Mikhail Agursky, Hebrew University; Valentina Brougher, Georgetown University; Maria Carlson, University of Kansas; Robert Davis, New York Public Library; Mikhail Epstein, Emory University; Kristi Groberg, North Dakota State University; Irina Gutkin, UCLA; Michael Hagemeister, Ruhr University, Bochum; Linda Ivanits, Pennsylvania State University; Edward Kasinec, New York Public Library; Judith Deutsch Kornblatt, University of Wisconsin; Hakan Lövgren, Independent Scholar; Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, Fordham University; William F. Ryan, Warburg Institute, London; Holly Denio Stephens, University of Kansas; Anthony Vanchu, University of Texas, Austin; Renata Von Maydell, Munich University; George Young, Independent Scholar


Linda J. Ivanits

The ancient folk apprehension of the universe as alive and seething with a multitude of harmful powers has provided Russian literature with a seemingly inexhaustible source of occult lore. Coming from the Westernized upper classes and intelligentsia, most nineteenth- century writers lived in a cultural atmosphere light-years away from that of the peasants, whose worldview retained a strong pagan stamp. Yet the peasants' age-old storehouse of beliefs about harmful spirits, corpses, and sorcerers--in the folk idiom "the unclean force" (nechistaia sila)--percolated upward and entered the fictions of writers of the most diverse literary and political tendencies. Nor does the use of the folk occult seem to require a particular religious stamp: it occurs in writers known to be agnostic or indifferent to religion (Pushkin, Turgenev) as well as in those considered apologists for Christianity (Gogol, Dostoevsky).

Clearly the folk occult serves multiple functions in literature. Here I shall discuss its artistic use as a vehicle for exploring relations between the educated elite and the masses. I shall examine three works that are built on the pattern of an encounter between the intelligentsia and the peasantry: Ivan Turgenev sketch "Bezhin lug" (Bezhin meadow, 1851), Andrei Bely novel Serebrianyi golub' (The Silver Dove, 1909), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn story Matrenin dvor (Matrena's home, 1963). These works fall into three distinct eras in Russian cultural history: the pre-emancipation period, when the burning issue among the intelligentsia was serfdom; the years of upheaval and apocalyptic expectations at the turn of the century; and the immediate post-Stalin period. In each of these works so widely separated in time, notions about the unclean force function to obscure, at least temporarily, the educated narrator's or hero's understanding of the folk. My primary concern is to explore the way . . .

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