Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia

Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia

Andrei Znamenski
Wheaton: Quest, 2011, xix + 257 pp., paper, $16.95.

Thanks in large measure to H.P. Blavatsky, James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon, and any number of more recent New Age authors, a prevalent image of Shambhala in the West today is of a legendary kingdom, pure and harmonious, located in an ideal mountain valley somewhere psychogeographically to the north of India, where spiritually advanced people enjoy long, blissful lives, and from whence benevolent god-men periodically emerge to guide the rest of the world’s spiritual development.

In Red Shambhala, Andrei Znamenski discovers a less familiar side to this Buddhist legend, in which cruelty, depravity, and murderous political machinations form potholes on the eightfold path to enlightenment.

With a strong scholarly background, both Russian and American, in Siberian and Central Asian shamanism, Znamenski provides a valuable historical analysis of the concept of Shambhala from its Tibetan Buddhist origins through its analogues with Mongol and Buryat legends to the uses, both spiritual and political, made of it by a bizarre group of twentieth-century Russians and Soviet Central Asians. In presenting this story for the first time in English, Znamenski draws upon a growing body of Russian archival data, scholarship, analysis, and sometimes sensationalistic speculation that has emerged since perestroika.

According to Znamenski, a double nature—otherworldly and thisworldly, blissful and bloodthirsty—has been inherent in the concept of Shambhala from the beginning, but we in the West have long preferred to idealize the one side and ignore the other. While acknowledging the power of the bright Shambhala, for the purpose of this study Znamenski emphasizes the dark aspect and introduces a cast of characters attracted to it.

Three of these characters—the artist Nicholas Roerich, his wife, Helena, and their son George—will already be familiar to many readers, though perhaps not in the conspiratorial roles Znamenski assigns to them. The rest comprise a fascinating coterie of occultists, eccentric schemers, heterodox adventurers, and crazed warlords who usually appear as mere footnotes in standard histories of the period. These include Alexander Barchenko, an obscure esotericist and mystery writer who tried to convince high Soviet officials that Shambhala held the key to future Russian communist world domination. There was also Gleb Bokii, an early Bolshevik, head of a special section of the Soviet secret police practicing encryption and investigating the paranormal. Bokii, an ascetic, was at the same time a torturer, womanizer, and host of orgies for high party officials, as well as an expert in dialectical materialism and oriental occultism who ate dog meat as treatment for tuberculosis. Ja-Lama, a Kalmyk drifter, adventurer, and Asian rabble-rouser, claimed to be the reincarnation of an avenging Buddhist deity and grandson of a heroic Mongol prince. Boris Shumatsky, a Russian-Jewish, Buryat-speaking Bolshevik, headed the campaign to convert Central Asia to communism by exploiting Buddhist legends. Sergei Borisov, an Asian Bolshevik intellectual from the Altai region, active in the same movement to convert Mongolia, posed as a Buddhist pilgrim to Lhasa in an attempt to bolshevize the Dalai Lama. There was also Elbek-Dorji Rinchino, the Petersburg-educated first dictator of Soviet Mongolia, devoted to the pan-Mongol cause of uniting inner Asia by fusing communism and Tibetan Buddhist culture. Agvan Dorzhiev, a Siberian monk, tutor to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and Tibetan ambassador to Russia, introduced Buddhism to Petersburg intellectuals, then joined the Bolsheviks in hopes of establishing a pan-Mongol Buddhist kingdom. The most contradictory of the lot was Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a crazed, bloodthirsty Baltic Russian aristocrat who launched an anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic crusade with a ragtag army of vicious White guardsmen, Cossacks, and Buryat warriors to free Mongolia from both the Chinese and the Russians in order to establish a pure Buddhist kingdom from the Pacific to the Baltic and replace a rotten Western civilization with Shambhala.

The heyday for these doomed adventurers was the quarter-century from 1905 to 1930—years of revolution, civil war, and nation building, when various heterodox versions of socialism had not yet been hammered into orthodoxy. Occultism, mysticism, weird science, alternative lifestyles—for a short time, just about anything that appeared revolutionary and a repudiation of the past—could be tolerated, even promoted, within the Soviet system. But not for long. Of the characters treated in the book, only the Roerichs, by then American citizens, lived past 1938, the worst year of Stalin’s Great Terror.

By telling this story in readable, sometimes even colorful English, Andrei Znamenski has presented important material to a potentially wide international public. We can, however, still question certain points, particularly some of the more sensational, torture-induced testimony obtained as incriminating trial evidence. In Znamenski’s analysis, based in part on such testimony, the main thing about Shambhala is its role in the twentieth-century continuation of the “Great Game” for political domination over inner Asia.

Znamenski’s approach is in part a worthy attempt to correct a previous overemphasis on the unworldly dimensions of Shambhala. But he may go a bit far toward overcorrection. The visions and ambitions of the characters discussed certainly included Shambhala fever, but perhaps not to the degree claimed by Znamenski. This is especially true, I think, of the Roerichs. Artists, dreamers, mythmakers, utopians, yes, but not the budding Lenins with paintbrushes that Znamenski portrays. He writes: “Nicholas and Helena never thought in terms of emotions and friendship. The world was strictly divided into those who were useful and those who were useless. The people who surrounded them were just pawns in their schemes.” Really? A pervasive theme in Roerich’s work as painter, writer, scholar, and humanitarian is that spiritual culture trumps politics. Znamenski tries, perhaps too strenuously, to prove the opposite.

The Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol once had a character say during an overenthusiastic debate: “Gentlemen, Alexander the Macedonian was indeed a great hero, but why smash the chairs?” Red Shambhala is a valuable book, but in places Gogol’s wisdom might be applicable.

George M. Young

The reviewer, a specialist in Russian literature and thought, is a fellow of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England.