Red Shambala

Nicholas Roerich is oft depicted as a spiritual seeker, peace visionary, author of numberless paintings, and a brave explorer of Central Asia. However, Andrei Znamenski in his 'Red Shambala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia' has him perform another role - that of geopolitical schemer.

The scheming did have at its heart a religious vision - of a coalition of Buddhist races in Central Asia that would establish a budding utopia - the Shambala of the title - from which the truths of Buddhism (and co-operative labour) would flow around the globe. This would require the usurpation of the 13th Dalai Lama to be replaced by the Panchen Lama guided by the heroic saviour (Roerich) who appears above dressed for the part.

In the achievement of these aims, the Roerichs (including his wife, Helena, who had a visionary connection with 'Mahatmas' whose cryptic messaging guided their steps) were willing to entertain strange bedfellows that at one time included the unlikely tacit support of the Soviet Union and the US Secretary of State for Agriculture! The Roerichs proved incompetent prophetic revolutionaries, transcendent guidance notwithstanding, and pursued by tax claims in the US and hesitant to be fully embraced by their erstwhile homeland in Russia, settled in India and for more painting (for which we should be grateful).

The Soviet Union in the 1920s was only too happy to seek to exploit local prophecy of a coming 'Buddhist' utopia to advance the causes of their own brand. This did have noticeable success amongst some of the indigenous groups of Siberia and in Mongolia until a tougher minded, more brutal Stalinist era took over and replaced power for the lure of prophecy. Helpfully the prophecy had the new Buddhist saviour coming from 'the North'.

The Dalai Lama skillfully avoided these siren like overtures, playing off Russia with the British (and the Chinese) to keep his country intact until a more strenuous Marxist wave engulfed Tibet in the 1950s.

Znamenski tale is an extraordinary one, though told in a pedestrian manner, and has an extraordinary cast of characters. Most of the Russian ones being swept away by Stalinist terror. Thus, you had the leading Soviet cryptographer, a member of the guiding council of the OGPU (a prior acronym for what would become the KGB) financing experiments in telepathy and an eccentric esoteric scholar's search for Shambala in the hope it would unlock the secrets of human development and the moulding of a higher calibre 'Socialist man'! He (Gleb Bokii) was a naturist to boot - to add yet more colour! Reality often is stranger than fiction.

Emerging from the book, I realised how fluid the first era of the Russian revolutionary period was and how in that fluidity, people both projected their own aspirations and sought to manipulate events in often quite remarkable ways and how in the second phase such diversity, occasional imagination and much fantasy was extinguished.

I, also, was reminded that in times of great uncertainty people are deeply vulnerable to ideological manipulation; and, as we appear to be in one of those phases of history, a radically unsettling one, sadly, we can expect the same to be true, no doubt in very different guises.


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