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By Natasha Lvovich


The Montréal Review, January 2018


Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich (Nicholas Roerich Museum)


But I had never moved abroad… I’ve been away traveling. Leaving Russia for good—this idea has never occurred to me.1

Nicholas Roerich


You can’t approach the tree of life by shortcut.

Eva Hoffman, The New Nomads


Moscow-New York

That Nicholas Roerich (Николай Константинович Рерих), a celebrated Russian artist, was an émigré and that he had lived in New York came to me as a surprise when I discovered a limestone-trimmed row house in a leafy side street of Upper West Side—Nicholas Roerich Museum. The cozy residential street with azalea bushes on the bottom of the stoops struck a dissonance with my memory of a deserted dusty street of my Moscow childhood and The Museum of Oriental Art, equally quiet and deserted, where Roerich’s paintings were exhibited. I must have been six or seven when I was first taken there; I liked gliding on polished parquet floor of the museum, a shadow of an adult presence behind me, breathing in the fresh floor wax mixed with the pungent scent of oil, wafting from the paintings—the scent of Art.

There were mythical Vikings’ boats, onion domed Orthodox churches, shepherds and pilgrims ascending blossoming hills and steppes, and bright scarlet, yellow, or indigo mountains wrapped in weightless rosy clouds--Roerich’s images of Russia and of the Orient. These same mountains were in the backdrop of a portrait of an old man in a black cape and a little cap resembling the Uzbek tubeteyka, with a pointy white beard and a sharp penetrating gaze. He looked like an Oriental sage and a little like ‘dedushka Lenin’ (grand-father Lenin), an imposing charismatic presence, with narrowed (but not Asiatic) eyes. Sometimes mountain peaks on his paintings were inhabited by small decentered figures of hooded, equestrian, or cross-legged personages from some Oriental imaginaire. On some other canvases, amidst mountains, nested monasteries, as if placed there by a child’s hand, in asymmetric mounts of cubes, with the invisible sun rising or setting as if inside or behind the paintings. Monks and lamas, shamans, wanderers, and maidens looking like Persian princesses from my picture books, Buddha, Madonna, and even Jesus Christ incongruously appeared amidst these giant mountains or in the caves, usually dreamy, with their heads tilted—the posture of intense inner life and spiritual awakening. Then there were just mountains as the only protagonists, with their twins, the clouds—majestic, snowy, omnipotent.

There were familiar Russian churches and crosses and recognizable Nordic Russian landscapes, green plains and rivers, rolling hills and lakes, usually populated with Russian monks in black robes or Pagan folk characters, like Lel’ and Snegurochka, shabby izbas and Scandinavian huts from familiar fairytales (of which I was a voracious reader). Strangely, I was never puzzled then by the stretch and mix of ethos, characters, and plots painted by the man with the white beard: Russia on the crossroads with the East; Northern Russia, Pagan Russia, Asian Russia, and Tibet and Himalayas at its borders. The “Russian Ark,”2 which for the last two centuries has been heading West, was actually looking East.

It seems to me now that, as a child, I had a vague premonition that decades later the dignified man on the picture would reveal further his fantastical images to me, but I could not possibly imagine then that this encounter would happen in the land of our common exile, that I myself would live in New York, spell his Russian name in Latin letters, and write about him in my stepmother tongue. It turns out that Nicholas Roerich, a national Russian artist and a household name in Russia—paradoxically--had not lived in Russia since 1918. Yet he did not call any other place on earth his home.

It is with this puzzling initial discovery that I entered the museum on 107th street—and began my inquiry. A modest brass plaque announces Nicholas Roerich Museum and an unusual flag is hanging over its entrance, white with three red spheres surrounded by a red circle, which, I find out later, is called Roerich’s Banner of Peace, symbolizing religion, art, and science encompassed by the circle of culture. The flag stands for the international treaty for safeguarding cultural monuments during war time, supported by some forty nations and signed into law in 1935 by President Roosevelt. For this international pact Roerich was nominated for Nobel Prize for Peace.

The wooden stairs are squeaky and the spacious rooms upstairs are light and calm. Only a few visitors are usually there, but on Sunday nights, the space fills with a small crowd busily nesting on a few rows of folding chairs, (mostly Russian) whisper invading the quiet of the room. Chamber music concerts, free of charge and featuring young and emerging musicians, are organized in the spirit of Roerich’s cultural mission of fusion of arts; paintings inhabit the space, like in a real house, above the fireplace, around the grand piano, along the stairs, and a few Buddhist artifacts and statues placed here and there allude to the artist’s spiritual calling.

Roerich’s artistic legacy is commensurate with his other accomplishments and honors: in addition to estimated 7000 paintings produced in his lifetime (1874-1947), he designed sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and conceived and designed Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. He wrote poetry, plays, travel journals, and philosophical treatises (nearly thirty books, all in Russian), and together with his wife, Helena, they translated Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine into Russian. They founded a movement called Agni Yoga and along with his wife and his two talented sons (Georgiy, a linguist and orientalist, and Svetoslav, a painter) went to two expeditions in Tibet and Himalayas. During his lifetime his admirers were Einstein, Ghandi, Tagore, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, among many others.

And yet, curiously, Roerich’s name and Roerich Museum draw a blank among New Yorkers and most Americans. Like the mythical Great Gatsby, Roerich made a stormy appearance on the American art and public scene and quickly disappeared from its collective memory. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Roerichs, who had become stateless after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, arrived to the U.S. in 1920 by invitation of the Chicago Art Institute and came to New York for the painter’s first large exhibition, which caused a sensation. Although the museum in Upper West Side has deceptive ‘homey’ looks, Roerich had never lived in the cozy mansion on 107th street, which was acquired after his death by his disciples. Instead, he resided first in an apartment building owned by his wealthy patron Louis Horch and then in a 27-story skyscraper in the same prestigious New York City neighborhood, built in 1929 on 310 Riverside Drive at 103th street, now a co-op called Master Apartments, declared a NYC historic landmark. Few New Yorkers know that the building got its name after Master Institute of United Arts, where ‘Master’ stands for both its former owner, Nicholas Roerich, and a non-corporeal spiritual guide Mahatma (Master) Morya, whose ‘telepathic messages’ (via Helena Roerich) purportedly guided the family on its spiritual quest. Master Institute housed Roerich’s family residence, personal art gallery, occupying one floor of the building, and an arts school, where all arts were taught, from dance to painting, music, and sculpture, fulfilling Roerich’s grand vision of fusion and harmony of arts.

Roerich traveled all over the United States, from Maine to Arizona, studied Native American culture, painted American landscapes (see for ex., Strength, 1922, The Miracle, 1923), gave public lectures, and exhibited his paintings. But more important than his art--and together with his art--his popular New Age message quickly spread among ‘spiritually famished‘ Americans: to counteract pervasive Western materialism with a spiritual commune to be built in Himalayas, the home of the ‘mahatmas,’ which would spread all over Asia and the whole world. The ‘world salvation’ began by establishing in the U.S. the base of spiritual followers, politicians, and financiers who were attracted to this prophetic vision by his “message art” merging Pantheist Buddhist and Theosophical iconography (His Country series, 1924) with Christianity (see St. Francis of Assisi, 1931; Issa and the Giant’s Head, 1932; Mother of the World, 1937). In one of his letters, instructing his followers to nominate him for Nobel Peace Prize, Roerich wrote in his accented English, “The paintings sort of illustrate the big book of the beauty of peaceful spiritual life.”

Guru-Guri Dhar, 1933, Tempera on canvas (Nicholas Roerich Museum)

The Quest for Shambhala: Wanderer from the Resplendent City (1933)  

Surrounded by mountains, the kingdom of Shambhala has a shape of a giant lotus, with lakes, meadows, and groves, and beautiful golden palaces with crystal ceilings, a Tibetan legend goes. The kings who rule Shambhala have achieved wealth but strive to help others reach enlightenment and liberation. Nobody is ever sick or hungry; Buddhism exists there in its purest form and provides resistance against its spiritual enemies. This Nirvana, the kingdom of Shambhala, can be reached through Buddhist practices and virtuous behavior.

The first Westerner who popularized and adapted this utopia to her doctrine was the founding mother of Theosophy, Mme Blavatsky, who attributed Shambhala to the ‘Great White Brotherhood,’ which would guide humanity away from materialism toward high spirituality and would eventually give birth to a superior human race in the ‘promised land.’

‘Received’ telepathically by Helena Roerich directly from one of Blavatsky’s mahatmas, Master Morya, this utopian ideology, nothing less than the salvation of humanity, occupied Roerich’s mind, guided his creativity, and propelled him on his quest for Shambhala, “the beauty of peaceful spiritual life,”  to be built in inner Asia—and not just conceived in people’s hearts. As a “true believer and dreamer” and a “practical idealist,” so characterized by the historian Andrei Znamenski, the kind of character often bordering on fanaticism and megalomania, Roerich was a charismatic persona who was able to cultivate the right connections, get people under his flag, gain admiration and money--all to pursue his utopian projects. His wife Helena was certainly a dominant force and a locomotive in Roerich’s spiritual breakthrough into Theosophy and Shambhala reenactment.

As books were written and published, paintings proliferated, an art school in New York enrolled students, and cultural societies opened (Corona Mundi, Pan-Cosmos), the Roerichs promoted their new theosophical doctrine Agni Yoga, destined to be injected into Buddhism and to cleanse Asia—and then the rest of the world. They worked on their ‘Great Plan’ from 1921 to 1929 and then from 1933 to 1935.  

Thus, in 1923 the Roerichs set out on their first “exploratory” Asian expedition, while the financier Louis Horch was appointed trustee of Roerich’s funds, paintings, and cultural institutions. During that physically and psychologically enduring venture, the Roerichs engaged in political schemes trying to plug the expanded Shambhala prophecy into local consciousness in disorderly post-war Asia, which included presenting Nicholas as the reincarnated fifth Dalai Lama in possession of the magic Chintamani stone (‘Lapis Exilis’), plotting with local lamas and tribes, conspiring with Siberian ‘autonomists,’ and maneuvering between the Reds and the Whites—all of which triggered major suspicions of British intelligence in India and made local authorities in Lhasa block the expedition for months.3

Then, in the 1930s, working to increase his political and financial sponsorships, Roerich gained an important admirer--Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture and future Vice President of the United States, who helped spread his fame, promoted his Peace Pact, and sent him on his second expedition to Asia (1933-1935), a botanical study of drought-resistant plants to be transplanted from Tibet to the Great Plains to remedy the Dust Bowl. During this expedition sponsored by the FDR government, likely more interested in geopolitical rather than botanical objectives, Roerich predictably got caught in the cross-fire of the U.S., British, Chinese, Soviet, and Japanese imperial ambitions in inner Asia, where he maneuvered to advance his own ‘Great Plan.’ When politics and money merged, the earth trembled under Roerich’s feet: in 1935 Horch took legal control of his paintings, museum, and property; Roerich was accused of tax fraud and tax evasion; Wallace canceled the expedition funding, and the U.S. Ambassador to India denied any relationship between Roerich and the U.S. government, publicly calling him “one of the most consummate charlatans.”

Discredited, ruined, suspected of spying and declared thief and impostor, Roerich couldn’t return to the U.S. and had no choice but to stay in India. He made numerous requests to return to the Soviet Union, but his letters remained unanswered. He died in Kulu, India, in 1947, tirelessly painting the Garden of Eden, the kingdom of peace and justice.

Wanderer from the Resplendent City (1933) shows an archetypal figure of a Russian monk, called palomnik or strannik, with a walking stick and a sack on his back.These pilgrims were hermits traveling from shrine to shrine to distant holy places on a spiritual quest. The figure is positioned on the forefront in the left corner of the canvas and looks miniscule in the vast landscape, the lake, the mountains, the clouds, and a monastery on the lake’s shore. The meaning of the painting is made clear by the composition which placed the walking human figure on one end of the painting and the destination on the other end, with the boundless water, sky, mountains, and earth, in spring colors of blue and green. The monastery is an echo of previously painted by Roerich old Russian towns, with a chapel as a white cube, crowned with a cross, Roerich’s iconic symbol of Russia (see Holy Lake, 1917, Old Pskov, 1922; Saint Sergius, 1922, And We open the Gates, 1922, St. Sergius Chapel, 1936).

Albeit distant, the town beckons the traveler, whose head is tilted to the clouds, which, at close inspection, are painted as heavenly castles in the sky. This celestial vision is illuminated by a flash of moonlight appearing in a cloud as a reflection. And yet the viewer is not immediately aware of the contradiction between what is on the painting--the pilgrim’s destination, the Russian town and monastery--and its title, emphasizing the place he is traveling FROM: the resplendent city, which is not on the picture. What is the resplendent city? And how does it relate to the pilgrim’s destination?

Many archetypal Russian pilgrims were Old Believers (starovery), a religious group excommunicated in the 17th century from mainstream Orthodoxy, who settled in Altai mountains in Siberia, where they have been living ever since, in complete isolation in the woods. During his Central Asia expedition in 1926, Roerich visited the Old Believers’ community, studied their way of life, and described it in his travel journal, Altai-Himalaya (1930). The central part of Old Believers’ folklore is a mythical place called Belovodye (White Waters), depicted as a “resplendent city of happiness and justice, where supreme knowledge and wisdom flourish for the salvation of all humankind.”4  If that sounds familiar, it is because it is almost word for word similar to the description of Shambhala.

Old Believers located that land somewhere in Mongolian mountains, Tibet or the Himalayas, and told legends about the ‘promised land’ where scores of travelers ventured but they never returned. During the stay with starovery in Altai on their first Asian expedition, the Roerichs became legendary figures, who had supposedly reached Belovodye, “the resplendent city,” and came back to tell about it. The figure of the wanderer on Roerich’s painting closely resembles Roerich himself (the strategy repeatedly used by the artist), his profile of a sage with a pointy beard, who ‘wandered’ in search of an elusive “resplendent city,” not only as a “pilgrim way of life,” but also literally, during his journey out of Russia, from Western Europe and North America to inner Asia.

The monk’s destination, the iconic Russian monastery, a place completely unrelated to the ‘socialist paradise’ that Roerich was fortunate to never experience, was a symbol of Russia that Roerich had left behind. Whether called Belovod’ye or Kitezh or Shangri-La or Shambhala, the invisible resplendent city that the pilgrim is coming from, and his destination, the symbolic return to Russia, converged in his exilic imagination into a Russian chapel painted in the form of a cube of Tibetan monasteries (see Tibet-Himalayas, 1933, Shekar Dzong, 1933). This convergence—of geometric forms, symbols, disciplines, arts, East and West civilizations, philosophies, religions and religious figures (Issa/Christ, St Francis, Prophet Mohammed)—has long been Roerich’s intellectual and creative credo and was finally set free.

Fiction and nonfiction blurred when, during his second Asian expedition, Roerich plotted with Mongolian lamas for the Shambhala holy war and envisioned himself a leader of Asiatic theocracy, painting St. Sergius5 as a portrait of himself, holding a tiny cube of the Russian chapel in his hands. Jesus Christ is at his feet and Mahatma Morya is overlooking the scene of triumphant humanity salvation, as Mother Russia is transformed into a Buddhist paradise, with Zvenigirod6 as a capiral (see Zvenigorod, 1933; St. Sergius of Radonezh, 1932).

The Source and the Context: Mysticism in Russia

Russian mysticism is rooted in 19th century Europe-wide trends of occultism, black magic, and Spiritualism which found reflection in art and poetry. The occult idea of correspondences and the magic power of the Word was proclaimed by French symbolist poets, such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and artists, like Kazimir Malevich and Wasiliy Kandinsky, who believed that “…everything fits together—one’s own small life with the cosmos.” The philosophical support for the movement was found in irrational epistemologies by Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson. One of the most popular esoteric trends of the time was Theosophy, a doctrine founded by Elena Blavatsky, which incorporated elements of Christianity, medieval mysticism, and Buddhism. Her main opus Secret Doctrine (2009), later translated by the Roerichs into Russian, detailed its precepts ‘passed on’ to her by the ‘mahatmas’ (teachers) from the Himalayas as spiritual guidance against materialism which was rotting the world. The doctrine suggested a form of spiritual Darwinism toward selected humanity (“Great White Brotherhood”), which would propel evolution to a better race focused on spiritual—and not material--aspirations.

Notwithstanding Mme Blavatsky’s Russian origins, Russia was especially susceptible to Theosophy and to occult neo-Buddhism elements it contained, combining these doctrines with its own religious (Orthodox) and cultural heritage promoted by Slavophiles, intellectuals who believed that Western scientific rationalism engendered by the Enlightenment was not suited to Russia, which had its own historical path. Russian theosophy therefore acquired its own strong messianic streak and social utopianism. Blavatsky’s statement “As God creates, so can man create” appealed to Silver Age Russian artists and writers at the turn of the century during the resurgence of arts, humanities, and esoterism, who hoped to create a new reality in their words and images: for instance, Sergei Eisenstein, the great film director, had special interest in shamanism, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lev Tolstoy, Vladimir Soloviev, Maxim Gorky, and Vladimir Mayakovsky were attracted to the philosophy of Nicolai Fedorov, who maintained that the humanity was to resurrect its dead fathers from the cosmic dust using science. The famous Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev’s book The Meaning of Creative Act (1916) included chapters on creativity and mysticism.

These and other esoteric doctrines and movements pervaded art and thought and were popularized to revitalize Russian culture on the high tide of Revolution. Russian Symbolist poets and writers, such as Konstantin Balmont, Andrei Bely, and Aleksandr Blok, combined European Symbolism and Russian Orthodoxy and regarded Word as a palpable entity destined to change the world. Astrological, masonic, and Theosophical symbols decorated the journals, such as the popular art magazine Mir Iskusstva, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, the future impresario of Ballets Russes, with whom Nicholas Roerich collaborated.

In the 1900s at the approach of Bolshevik Revolution and during the early Soviet period, the occult took several new forms in art and literature, like Acmeism and Futurism in poetry (e.g. Velimir Khlebnikov’s zaum) and Supremacism in visual art founded by Kazimir Malevich, who sought to represent the structure of the visible world in geometric forms (e.g. the cube). Among esoteric trends of the time, there was special interest in nomadic peoples of the East, China, Tibet, and India, whose religions and ritual practices were incorporated into philosophy. Popular philosophers George Gurdjieff and Piotr Uspenski, for example, used Islamic mysticism (Sufism), yoga and Buddhist philosophy as a foundation of their systems of self-development.

Although eventually banned, the occult was taken seriously by red commissars during the early Soviet period, who believed they could find a relationship between Communism and esoteric movements and prophecies, like Kabbala, neo-Buddhism, Theosophy and others, to serve their ideology and geopolitics. Among them, the Asian prophecy of Shambhala took hold of the imagination of a ‘special section’ of OGPU (KGB) who set out to exploit the legend to conquer inner Asia (and became interested in Roerich’s activities).

This was the source, the context, and the arena for the emergence of Roerich’s beliefs in the wake of the Russian Revolution, which defined a sharp turn in his thought and art in exile and generated a spiritual mission, a prolific art production, and a plan of action—“The Great Plan.” A utopia was born.

And We Are Opening the Gates, 1922. Canvas, tempera (Nicholas Roerich Museum)

Living in/Leaving Russia: And We Are Opening the Gates (1922)

The viewer is inside the monastery courtyard watching the gates pushed open by a monk, as an invitation to a landscape of rolling hills with a miniature chapel in the distance. This chapel in simple cubic shape, reminiscent of Kazimir Malevich’s white cube, a primary geometric form with a transcendental value, will become part of Roerich’s iconography--a nostalgic symbol of paradise on earth, of lubok Russia from fairy tales, “the land of milk rivers and kissel banks.”7 The same or similar shape of Russian chapels and churches appears in his other paintings and architectural designs, along with other recognizable attributes: the figure of the monk, the winding river, the hills and valleys of Northern Russian landscape, the icon-like frescos of Madonna and Child and the flat figures of two saints on the monastery walls. The colors of the walls and of the sky, dark blue and violet turning into pink, indicate the transition of light from night to day, the nascent dawn. But outside the gates, the valley and the winding river are already illuminated by the sunlight, calling to explore the beautiful world beyond the walls: And we wake up (spiritually), and we open the gates (mentally), and we walk toward light, spirit, and beauty (symbolically)...

The painting is part of the series called The Sancta (1922), featuring hermitic Russian monks. All six titles in the series begin with ‘And We’ (And We Labor, And We do Not Fear, etc.) evoking persistence, continuity, consistency, community. Beginning the sentence with ‘and’ for the gates opening into an idyllic (Russian) landscape is a repetitive habitual daily ritual, ad infinitum. The inner yard is separated from the outer world, yet connected to it by the daily act of opening, of looking out and of projecting oneself onto the lubok Russian picture book. The viewer (along with the artist) is placed therefore in the double perspective of ‘inside’/‘outside’ time/space, where “me-here” and “me-there” are interchangeable: in Russia, in exile, now and in the past, in mind and in reality.

Hence Russia is not space but time: it is Roerich’s past successful career and happy childhood in an aristocratic prosperous Russian family whose royal Scandinavian name dates back to the Vikings. His environment was intellectually rich and stimulating; like many children of such families, he was first educated by private tutors and then at one of the best gymnasiums in St. Petersburg, where he learned Greek and Latin, French, German, and English. From early age, Roerich’s interests were diverse, ranging from archeology, arts, and architecture to science and literature, and the inter-relatedness and convergence of disciplines was always key in his intellectual making. As a young man, he conducted his own research in archeological sites around Isvara, his family estate north of St. Petersburgh, and wrote poems and plays on historical Russian subjects. As a compromise with his parents who wanted him to study law, he enrolled in St. Petersburg University as a law student and simultaneously studied in the Academy of Arts with the famous Russian landscape painter Arkhip Kuinji and under the mentorship of the famous erudite Slavophile critic Vladimir Stasov.

Historical Russian topics, especially of medieval pagan Russia and of early Christianity were his first pictorial subjects. In 1900 he traveled to ancient Russian cities Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver’, to study ancient Russian architecture and then went to Paris to study art for a year. Paul Gaguin and the symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavanne were his role models. In 1901 he married Helena Shaposhnikova, the daughter of a famous Russian architect, a woman with many talents, who became his soul mate, co-author, and a great influence. Among his many artistic endeavors was the design and construction of the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, demonstrating his Orientalist inclinations. In 1906 he was appointed director of the famous School of the Society of Encouragement of Arts, whose innovative curriculum included applied arts, trades, and music and whose enrollment was opened to young people of all classes. One of the students who benefited from this open enrollment was young Marc Chagall. Under Roerich’s directorship, the school became one of the most innovative and the largest art schools in the country, counting among its faculty the most renowned artists.

Roerich had tremendous creative and physical energy and excelled working on several projects at the same time: the school directorship, painting, participating in major artistic activities and debates of the time, and becoming a celebrated theater designer, with a unique approach to Russian history (see for ex., his designs of the operas Prince Igor, 1909, Snegurochka, 1912, Peer Gynt, 1912, Khovanshina, 1919, Boris Godunov, 1920).

Opinions differ about Roerich’s immediate response to the Bolshevik Revolution, but the fact is that after an unsuccessful attempt to preserve his school in the chaos of  the Revolution, in 1918 he returned to Sortavala, Karelia, the area bordering with Finland, where he had been living for the last few years. He took the last train there from St. Petersburg before the border between Finland and Russia closed. Symbolically, he never left but ‘stayed’ in his own house in Sortavala, now belonging to Finland as a result of Russian-Finnish war. In this ambiguous symbolic move, both leaving and staying, Roerich started a new life and a new path. His play Mercy (Miloserdiye), written in November 1917 in the style of medieval mystery describing the destruction and chaos of a city and the obliteration of books and art is considered his artistic statement toward the Revolution. Mercy ends with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, in which the author’s eyes turn to the East, to the “teachers in India…who brought “spiritual joy and a fruitful silence into the chaos of our life.”8

As Soviet Russia is left behind his horizon, Roerich begins his nomadic exile: first in the Old World (Sweden, England) and then in the New World, which he decides must be a springboard for his spiritual mission. He was not going to embrace the West, as most Russian émigrés, but turned his spiritual and artistic interests to the philosophies and religions of the East, merging Theosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, Christian Orthodoxy and Slavophilia. During their first Asian expedition, the Roerichs settled near Darjeeling, India, in a house with breathtaking views of the sacred mountain peak Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas that Roerich had admired as a child and dreamed of visiting and of painting. The gravure of Kanchenjunga hanging at his family house in Isvara finally came alive.

There Roerich painted the series called His Country (1924), an ambiguous title for an exile, referring to his revered teachers, mahatmas, who ‘lived’ in the Himalayas. One of the paintings in the series is Remember! (1924). The exclamation sign appears to be added to the English translation of the Russian title, Pomni, perhaps supplementing the English form of command with a stronger emotional emphasis contained in original Russian. As many Roerich’s landscapes, the canvas embodies the depth of the boundless mountain space created by larger than human life forces of nature. A man on a white horse is leaving his house overlooking the great Kanchenjunga and, even though his figure is small and his face is impossible to read, his body language is clear: he is saying good bye to his native home situated on the opposite end of the painting, where two women are standing with water jugs. Looking more closely, one notices that the female figures are transparent: the walls of the well can be seen through them.

Just like Roerich himself left his home country and embarked on a spiritual quest, the departing mahatma is set to travel away from home. The traveler’s head is tilted back to a nostalgic view of his past and his beloved childhood home with the ghostly figures of his mother and sister left behind in Russia. “Pomni, remember!” he tells himself, echoing the words of Vladimir Nabokov’s mother evoked in his memoir Speak Memory “Vot, zapomni!” when a young son was encouraged to observe and cherish the beauty of their estate, as if trained to endure the coming losses. Overlaying his memories onto a picture of a mythic saga of a spiritual quest in the Himalayas, Roerich creates a visual and mental construction of personal and collective, real and imaginary, past and future, where fiction and nonfiction become undistinguishable. For thirty years of his life, until his death in 1947, he would pursue this idyllic vision, becoming a nomad who never settles and never arrives because it is not possible to arrive to an imaginary land.

A Shortcut to Promised Land

The pompous inauguration ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi featured a video which presented the Russian alphabet as a way to illustrate and glorify Russian Federation’s contributions to the international community. For the letter N (Cyrillic H), Vladimir Nabokov was chosen, and for Ш (CH), Marc Chagall, a writer and an artist who had been crossed out of public existence for at least half a century in Russia. Both of them fled Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and were declared traitors, as scores of other writers and artists, whose works never appeared until recently on Soviet art and literary scene. Now classics, Nabokov’s Lolita (1989) and Chagall’s celebrated Fiddler (1912-13) certainly belong to the international ‘wall of fame,’ which makes the choice of ‘Russianness’ even more shocking since both Nabokov and Chagall lived and worked for more than half of their lives abroad and divided their loyalties between their two languages and cultures--but never between nationalities.

The multilingual writer Vladimir Nabokov is perhaps the most well-known and well researched case of a ‘translingual’ writer in exile. His upbringing is strikingly similar to Roerich’s, as they both grew up in aristocratic cosmopolitan Russian families, excelled in several fields, possessed multiple talents, and, as it was customary in that milieu, learned early on several languages. While continuing his complex relationship with Russian language in exile, Nabokov famously switched to English to write the novels which brought him international fame (e.g. Lolita, 1989, Pnin, 1989) and which capture the author’s conflicting identity expressed in his stepmother tongue.

Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall, who settled in France and became a proud French citizen, enjoyed an unprecedented celebrity as a French national artist, exhibiting his work at Louvre, painting the ceiling of Paris-Opera, and even inaugurating a national museum of his art in Nice. Chagall was forever marked by nostalgia of his home town Vitebsk, by love-hate relationship with Mother Russia, and at the same time by gratitude to his adopted land, France. His creative expression was conceptualized (just like Nabokov’s texts) through his “bifocal mental lens“9 and translingual compositions10, often channeling his double Janus face via visual code-switching, literalizations of Yiddish and Russian idioms, or mixed alphabets as art text, as well as other visual forms of ambivalence and hybridity (e.g. Paris through the Window, 1912-13, Le Cantique des Cantiques, 1960).

Focusing on various aspects of the relationship between identity, creativity, and exile, writers and scholars point to the impact of psychic split on creative process for exiled ‘translingual’ writers and artists. In Eva Hoffman’s words, as painful as it could be, the adversity of immigration and the resulting identity fragmentation appear to be a “bonus” for artists’ and writers’ creativity. Acknowledging the split and working through it with creative means may be considered a healthy solution to exile.

My research of Roerich as an artist in exile and a multilingual individual shows a different pattern. According to witnesses, Roerich, his wife and his sons spoke English fluently and used it for communication and for conducting business. Roerich’s letters addressed to his (mostly American) followers and friends demonstrate fluent yet ‘accented’ writing, with frequent interference of Russian syntax and vocabulary, for example: “All those papers write not on stationary, but on ordinary blanks.” During his time in New York and during his travels, Roerich used English instrumentally and showed no indication that he ever intended to share his emotional (and linguistic) loyalties with America or to become the U.S. citizen. His life continued to be dominated by Russian, and his books (diaries and philosophical treatises) were written in Russian and then collectively ‘rendered’ into English for publication by a group of his disciples (Sina Fosdik and Frances Grant) or in tandem with his secretary Vladimir Shibayev who says that Roerich dictated the content and reworked the translation “to insert certain expressions characteristic of his own style” to make his English sound like his Russian: slightly archaic, poetic, pastiche Slavic. Roerich’s travel books (e.g. Altai-Himalayas, 1930, Shambhala, 1990) are written as the retelling of legends, myths, and parables, with his comments and notes. Here is a sample:

“On the shores of the Ganges, a gray-bearded man, cupping his palms like a chalice, offers his entire possessions to the rising sun. A woman quickly telling her rhythms performs her morning Pranayama on the shore. In the evening she may again be there, sending upon the stream of the sacred river a garland of lights as prayers for the welfare of her children. And these fireflights of the woman’s soul, prayer-inspired, travel long upon the dark watery surface.” (Altai-Himalayas, 1930, 8)

Although the Roerichs traveled all over Asia, studied its cultures and history, and built alliances with local peoples and tribes, they never spoke Tibetan, Mandarin, Hindi or other Asian languages or dialects and relied on their son Georgiy, specialist in Oriental languages and cultures, and other interpreters for translation and communication.

Allegedly the ‘telepathic messages’ that Mme Roerich was receiving from Mahatma Morya had a linguistic form, Russian (!), which became a ‘secret language’ of the Roerichs’ spiritual community, used for inclusion of their followers, many of whom were fellow Russian émigrés (Sina Fosdik, Georgiy Grebentcshikoff, and others) and for exclusion of others (English speakers).

Curiously, Roerich never considered himself an émigré although he obviously was one by all definitions. Instead he called himself   “a traveling Russian,” refusing to accept the finality of his departure from Russia and consequently any geographic destination, except for ‘the spiritual kingdom.’ A nomad like this, lacking all grounding, would be called in today’s mobile world ‘transnational,’ yet Russia was off limits for Roerich, who, like many others in the wake of the revolution, had to choose between escape and commitment to the Soviet regime. His nostalgic loyalty to the homeland remained well and alive to the end of his days, whether it morphed into a lubok chapel on his landscapes, fed his fantasy of a utopian state, or affected his alleged decision to collaborate with Soviet intelligence.

In her essay, The New Nomads (1998), Eva Hoffman discusses the idea of lost homeland and its transformation in exile, exemplifying the collective Jewish Diaspora’s need to preserve the vision of lost paradise—such was the shtetl—mythologizing the “exilic posture” as the perpetual ‘Imaginaire,’ a habitual sense of detachment that she calls a “neurotic solution” to exile. She further cites the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, who hypothesizes that hundreds of years of settling in various places yet avoiding Palestine, avoiding to turn mythical Israel into ordinary Israel, has turned Jews into perpetual Other. This century-old outsider position and the ensuing historical drama had profound psychological and social implications for Jewish identity and has become a “pre-existing condition” for the development of multilingual creativity.

Whether or not the “neurotic solution” to exile is a historically or psychologically plausible representation of the Jewish diasporic psyche, it reflects the ambivalence of the ‘exilic posture,’ which becomes transparent in Hoffman’s retelling of a Hasidic parable about Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who agreed to be led from Poland to Palestine by a couple of thieves through some underground tunnels. When they are half-way through, Baal Shem Tov has a prophetic vision and decides to turn back, reluctant to “take a shortcut to paradise.” 

There are two lessons to this parable: one is the persistent human need to create and hold on to a paradise myth. Another one, most relevant to my analysis of Nicholas Roerich’s exilic identity, is about reenacting that myth and arriving to ‘promised lands’ by questionable means, via shortcuts.

During his first Asian expedition, in 1926, after persistent attempts, Roerich finally obtained the Soviet visa that he needed to cross into Altai Mountains and briefly visited Moscow, a visit which later prompted many to think that he was recruited as a spy for the Bolsheviks. During this trip, he visited family and friends but also major Soviet leaders, such as Lunacharsky and Chicherin, and donated his paintings to the Soviet government. Leaving aside the issue of spying, for which there is no evidence, the question that begs asking is: Once in Russia, why didn’t he stay there? According to witnesses, his explanation was: “We wanted to remain in our homeland, helping its construction. But we had to go on with our Tibetan expedition.”  

Indeed, Roerich did not envision himself as a returning expatriate who would have to deal with nuts and bolts of repatriation. He saw himself as a visionary of a grand Pan-Asian state, which was supposed to unite Mongolia, Altai, and part of Tibet into the ‘promised land’ of his creation with Zvenigorod as a capital and himself as its leader, just like he pictured on his paintings, Zvenigorod, 1933, and  St. Sergius of Radonezh, 1932.

Idealization or demonization of the country of origin (or of an adopted country) is a fairly common phenomenon among immigrants, says Salman Akhtar, a psychoanalyst who studied immigrant identity, himself a writer and a poet. But if the lost object is not duly acknowledged and mourned, the lack of mourning during the “loss-separation-restoration process” may lead to hypercathexis11, the over-charging of ideas causing excessive libidinal investment and exaggerated narcissism, observed in delusions. Three nomadic decades after the loss of his beloved mother/Russia, without cultural, linguistic, and emotional mooring, may have resulted in hypercathecized “neurotic solution” to exile. Roerich’s lost desired object was idealized and creatively sublimated into lubok Russia, simultaneously reduced to a simple visual form of a cube and conceptually amplified to transcend reality and time. Holding “Russia” in his hands, Roerich stepped into his own paintings and utopias.

Russian Village

On the highway, a violent thunderstorm almost entirely blinds me, and the armored sky transforms into the titans’ battle of good and evil, like on Roerich’s famous Battle in the Heavens (1912). I am heading to Russian Village in Southbury, Connecticut, feeling small and insignificant in my car under the torrential flood, rushing to take cover in one of the tiny huts in the bottom right corner of the painting. Colored by a piercing white light, the clouds are beige, lilac, and purple, the improbable colors of tumultuous war, symbolizing the artist’s prophetic vision of the coming events in Europe. In Roerich’s pantheist vision of the universe, mountains, clouds and skies are often protagonists in symbolic plots, while humans are often secondary (see The Herald, 1914, The Command, 1917, Warrior of Light, 1933). Visionaries, revolutionaries, and dreamers are usually ‘big picture’ persons, and Roerich is not an exception.

Russian Village, a utopian artistic Russian colony founded in 1925 in Southbury, CT, also known as Churaevka, was named after a mythical Siberian village, the place of birth of its founder, George Grebenstchikoff. I am expecting to see something similar to Colonial Williamsburg à la Russe, with authentic muddy streets and a few crooked izbas on chicken legs, selling colorful matryoshkas and khokhloma spoons from their windows. But Southbury is nothing but the regular antiseptic middle class American suburbia: a plaza with a diner, a mini-shopping mall, a gas station, the usual ghost town. A tarnished sign points to a narrow road into the woods, where the asphalt abruptly ends. A couple of wooden cottages are hidden in the overgrown thicket of trees and bushes, surrounded by un-mowed un-American lawns. Definitely not on chicken legs, they remind me of forsaken romantic dachas outside Moscow, where poetry was written and vodka was pouring. A bicycle is rusting in the grass, a wooden bench is molding green, a shed is just a pile of rotting logs, and a cluster of oversized Asiatic orange lilies grows on this ruin of civilization, where a gravel path is winding in the woods, full of poisonous mushrooms and trolls.

The silence is complete, except for birds chirping, and I know I have arrived when I can finally spot among the trees and bushes a stone structure which I first confuse for a barn, until I can distinguish a darkened gilded onion dome and a double Russian Orthodox cross. Above the door, a triangle icon represents the Trinity in fading autumn colors, in dramatic dissonance with the Protestant austerity of grey stone walls. It is the iconic Roerich’s cube chapel of lubok Russia transplanted on American soil: a graft, a symbol, an idea.

The chapel, with crumbling stone benches set around it in amphitheater, was originally designed by Nicholas Roerich as a gathering place for the ‘colonists,’ Russian émigré artists and writers who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution and would live and work as a collective in the utopian self-sustaining artistic commune, built in 1925 by George Grebenstchikoff with the financial help of Ilya Tolstoy, Igor Sikorsky, and a few others. The land was bought and cottages (dachas) were built; Roerich’s chapel—that same one, transposed from his pictures--was dedicated to St. Sergius, painted by Roerich with his own face. Grebenstchikoff was Roerich’s associate who, on his special invitation, came from Europe to join his Pan-Asian project, as an expert on autonomous Siberia.

Following Grebenstchikoff’s dream, a few eminent Russian families had indeed moved to Churaevka, and Grebenstchikoff himself worked hard (turning himself into a skillful carpenter) to maintain its purpose and significance. Over the years, Russian families who had been moving there, albeit not necessarily artists, kept their cultural roots and common social life in the kibbutz-like community, but after World War II, the colony became unsustainable, others started to move in, and the land was sold. Russian Village became history. George Grebenstchikoff, Roerich’s admirer and disciple, broke off from his circle and publicly expressed his disappointment in the painter’s megalomania following his political schemes. At the end, Grebenstchikoff felt that utopias are better off left in novels and on canvas and settled in the U.S. as a professor and writer. The “shortcut to paradise” faded away in Connecticut fog.

Roerich and Pop-Roerich

One of the most effective definitions of culture is that it is history in the present. Cultural insiders inherit common history and share psychological schemata, belief systems, and ethos, passing them on to next generation. Albeit unspoken and unquestioned, the metaphysical view of the world, discussed earlier in the context of Nicholas Roerich’s rise as a mystic, is shared to an extent by all Russians (living in Russia or abroad).

At some point of their lives and regardless of the educational level, most Russians, susceptible to mysticism in popular forms, have seen an extrasense (extrasensitive/psychic) for a physical or psychological problem, attended a séance of spiritualism, healing or of shamanism, or turned to some form of magic or witchcraft. Various makeshift forms of Buddhism and Oriental creeds have long been added to the popular mix (however, this was not due to recent advances in neuroscience promoting yoga and meditation for mental and physical health).

During and immediately post-Stalin, occult societies and theosophists were persecuted by Soviet authorities and most members emigrated. However, the occult and esoteric thought found its way to other forms of social and cultural existence, i.e. to literature, the traditional Russian porte-parole, which used cultural complicity with the public on matters of the occult to implicitly criticize the regime and raise forbidden theological and philosophical issues. In that respect, Mikhail Bulgakov’s surrealistic black magic plots, combining the tradition of Gogol’s satire and avant-guard burlesque with Christian and Pagan themes, like Master and Margarita, earned special popularity on the literary pedestal and finally resurged in literary magazine serialization in 1970s after a long prohibition. During long Brezhnev ‘stagnation era’ brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky wrote humorous philosophical science fiction novels, blending witchcraft, agnosticism, and futurism with Orthodox fatalism and redemption, and enjoyed fame as quint-essential Russian writers, earning recognition as cultural oracles.

For eight decades of the Soviet regime, popular mysticism filled the spiritual vacuum created by forced atheism and destroyed churches and temples (buildings as well as the institutions). The surviving idea of dukhovnost’, understood in this climate as some secular semi-elitist semi-literary creed, derived from the cultural and linguistic popularization of the key Christian concept dusha, which made the ubiquitous ‘Russian soul’ common parlance--and every Russian ‘special’ in his/her historical suffering and antagonism to the ‘soul-less’ consumer-driven rational West. Infused by shortages and by romantic Russian literature, dusha has become an agnostic mystical entity separated from the physical body, as a lyrical, poetic, traditionally feminine attribute of emotional openness, truth, and warmth. This ethos had served Russia well in response to its history of deprivations, hardships, and suffering and helped sustain moral survival during war and terror. Yet at the time of rising nationalism, this vague metaphysical discourse may be nurtured and perpetuated in public discourse by media and the authorities (one and the same in Russia) as a form of defense (usually against fabricated external threats) to preserve national dignity, reinvigorate imperial nostalgia, and promote the unique ‘mysterious’ texture of Russian national identity, destined to follow a ‘special path’ in the historical process.

Already well-known as an esoteric ‘message artist,’ Nicholas Roerich was officially recognized in Russia during the post-Stalinist ‘thaw’ after Nikita Khrushev’s visit to India in 1955. In 1957 Roerich’s older son, Georgiy, was finally allowed to return to Russia, with 400 of his father’s paintings as a gift to the ‘homeland’ and was appointed head of Hinduism department in the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. Svetoslav Roerich stayed in India but his art was popularized and even exhibited at the Hermitage. Roerich the father gained folksy popularity as a mystic after the fall of the Soviet regime, when Gorbachev’s perestroika opened the gates to a torrent of liberated esoterica. Gorbachev himself publicly endorsed the “Roerich idea,” which he called “spiritual Communism” and helped establish a center for Roerich studies, as well as organize exhibits of his paintings in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Siberia, and Karelia.

Pop-mysticism and Pop-Roerich go hand in hand in Russia today: there are about 500 Roerich societies, and esoteric publications of all kinds abound, claiming healing powers of his paintings and citing his messianic pronouncements. Roerich’s Agni Yoga, ‘received’ psychically by Helena Roerich ‘directly’ from Mahatma Morya and written into a ten-volume treatise, is an international society which promotes health, education, and a spiritual way of life.

In this ironic twist, via the final shortcut, ‘reincarnated’ Roerich returned to Russia.


Natasha Lvovich, Professor of English at CUNY, is a writer and scholar of multilingualism and ‘translingual’ literature. She divides her loyalties between academic and creative writing: among her publications is The Multilingual Self, a book of autobiographical narratives, followed by scholarly articles and experimental essays, among which a hybrid piece on multilingual life and art of Marc Chagall (Critical Multilingualism Studies). Her creative nonfiction appeared in academic journals (Life Writing, New Writing), anthologies (Lifewriting Annual, Anthology of Imagination & Place) and literary magazines (Post Road, Nashville Review, Two Bridges, bioStories, NDQ, Epiphany, New England Review, Hippocampus Magazine). One of her essays has been nominated for Pushcart Prize. She served as guest editor of several academic journals and is senior reader for Hippocampus Magazine.


1 Quoted in Larichev, Vitali. 1993. Roerich I Sotovarischi” [Roerich and his Fellows] in Roerich i Sibir’

[Roerich and Siberia] edited by V.E Larichev & E.P. Matochkin. Novosibirsk: Novosibirskoye Knizhnoye Izdatel’stvo. Translation is mine.

2 Russian Ark is a film directed by Alexander Sokurov, shot in the Winter Palace/The Hermitage, which evokes Russian history on the crossroads of East and West.

3 For picturesque details of Roerich’s moves during this trip see Znamenski, Andrei. 2011. Red Shambhala. Illinois: Quest Books.

4 This description is from Old Believers folklore referred to by Vitali Larichev, 1993. Roerich I Sotovarischi” [Roerich and his Fellows] in Roerich i Sibir’ [Roerich and Siberia] edited by V.E Larichev & E.P. Matochkin. Novosibirsk: Novosibirskoye Knizhnoye Izdatel’stvo. Translation is mine.

5 St. Sergius of Radonezh, Russian Christian patron of the military, who spiritually mobilized Russia in 14th century in its fight against Mongol invasion.

6 Zvenigorod: literal translation is the City of Bells.

7 Common expression coming from Russian folk tales symbolizing the land of the plenty.

8 Quoted in Jacqueline Decter, 1989. Nicholas Roerich:  The Art and Life of a Russian Master. Maine: Park Street Press, p. 111.

9 Expression used by Chagall scholar Harshav, Benjamin. 2006. Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World. New York: Rizzoli.

10 See my analysis of Marc Chagall’s translingual identity in “Translingual Identity and Art: Marc Chagall’s Stride through the Gates of Janus.” Critical Multilingual Studies 3 (2): 113-134.

11 In Freudian terms, cathexis is understood as mental or emotional energy invested in a person, an object, or an idea.


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