Nicholas and Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists and Peacemakers

Nicholas and Helena Roerich: The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists and Peacemakers

Ruth A. Drayer
Quest Books, 367 pages, Softcover, $23.95, 367 pages.

The great Russian mystic Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) is today more known in America for his art than his other many accomplishments. A great philosopher, explorer, archeologist, adventurer, Theosophist, and man of peace, he was the first Russian to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Even less is known in most American households of his wife Helena (1879-1955), who matched him in intellectual and spiritual intensity. Ruth Drayer's book on the travels, writings, lectures, and teachings of this extraordinary couple provides a great service in bringing them into the spotlight.

Although Russian by birth, Nicholas and Helena were also relatively unknown in their homeland because of the ban placed on them by the KGB in the 1930s, a ban that lasted until the fall of Communism in 1989. Almost immediately thereafter, all things Roerich became the rage in Moscow. With Russia's newly rich entering the international art market, the price of a Roerich painting soon increased from five or ten thousand dollars to well over a million. During his lifetime, he is thought to have created almost seven thousand paintings, making him one of the most prolific artists in human history, and the collective value of his work valued in the hundreds of millions.

Fleeing from the Communists, the Roerichs traveled widely through Asia, Europe and the Americas. In 1923 they established the Master School of United Artists in New York and in their early years in America took the country by storm. Nicholas's lectures around the country met with universal acclaim. His Roerich Peace Pact, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt and two dozen world leaders, became a cornerstone of the American peace movement, and won him the public praise of Albert Einstein.

It might seem that this early success in America would have placed him high in the American consciousness. However, like so many foreigners of his generation, the fear of Socialism—of which he himself was in fact a victim—saw him banned from re-entering the United States. He settled down in the Kulu Valley of Himalayan India, and spent the reminder of his life writing and painting in his mountain hermitage at Nagar. Americans, with the short attention spans of the forties and fifties, soon forgot his name.

In 1907 amongst their many other activities, Nicholas and Helena also met and studied with the great Buriatia lama Agvan Dorzhiev. Known in British literature as Tsenzhab Dorjiev, this great master was a guru to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and also became a spiritual advisor to Tsar Nicholas II. When the Tsar was unable to conceive a male heir, Lama Agvan Dorzhiev suggested that His Majesty send an offering to the Great Thirteenth and request a healing and fertility rite. This indeed came to pass. The Great Thirteenth performed the ritual from Lhasa, and soon thereafter the Tsarina gave birth to a prince. The Tsar instructed Lama Agvan Dorzhiev to build a Kalachakra temple in St. Petersburg, and the young Nicholas Roerich was commissioned to create the stained glass windows on the second flow.

Lama Agvan Dorzhiev was an adherent of the Kalachakra School of Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on the mystical land of Shambhala, and it is from this time that Roerich became fascinated with the Shambhala legends. The theme appears repeatedly in his art and writings. Dorzhiev believed that if the young prince who was born from the blessings of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama would survive to maturity, he would become a great world leader and usher in a thousand years of a golden age. This, alas, was not to be; World War I saw the depletion of great stores of the good karma on the planet. In 1917 the barbaric Communists overran Russia, and the entire royal family was murdered. Russia was plunged into the depths of darkness under Lenin and then Stalin and the rest of the world entered a century of mass warfare, economic chaos, and social unrest. This in turn produced a culture of fear and greed, from which we still have not emerged.

Nicholas and Roerich were strong believers in the powers of beauty and vision, in the ideal that these two forces can unite mankind, end conflict, and usher in a golden age. They probably were right.

This being so, their message is as relevant today as it was three generations ago. In fact, it is perhaps even more desperately needed today, when mankind seems poised for another world conflict, when greed has surpassed even the instinct of basic survival in its obsessive rape and pillage of the earth, threatening the very life of the very planet on which we live, and when humans have become even more polarized and insulated from one another than ever before.

Ruth Drayer's book is a timely infusion of enlightened thinking into a world desperately in need of simple solutions to complex world problems.

Glenn Mullin

This reviewer is author and translator of over a dozen books on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. He lectures internationally and in May 2007, he led the Theosophical Society's pilgrimage to Blavatsky's Tibet and Mongolia.