Last years media’s enthusiastic reports about various religious and spiritual missions into Russia unknowingly supported common view of Russia as being wild and spiritually sterile country. However, the truth is that Russia has an old and rich spiritual tradition.
Today’s Russian spirituality has two main roots or origins. First is the ancient Slavic paganism, including sorcery and healing arts. This culture existed on the territory of Russia in the first centuries of our era. The main feature of Slavic paganism was pantheism: earth, trees, rocks and rivers were considered to be alive conscious beings. People spoke with earth and trees, related to them with love and respect. It was well known, for example, that oaks and pines are energy-giving trees, so that if you experience fatigue or depression, you may embrace the tree or just sit leaning against the trunk and will eventually feel the influx of vigor and well-being. Aspins, from the other hand, are energy – “sucking” trees and they were used to drain the bad energy of fever or inflammation from the body. Prostrations on the earth were the usual practice since Mother – Earth was believed to have a power to transform as reflected in famous Russian tales. In general, early Slavic culture was a kind of child-like and carnival: there were a lot of holidays with funny games and dances around the trees. And of course, Slavic tribes had their own medicine men and women, who were called wizards or sorcerers. It’s necessary to emphasize, that we are speaking not about Siberian Shamanism, but genuine healing arts that flourished on the European part of the territory of Russia. The closest parallel would be practices of druids in Europe rather than shamanism. Slavic sorcerers, of course, applied herbs and prayers, but the most original were their refined techniques of using energies of earth, forest and rivers for healing and initiation.
In 10th century Russia was converted into Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Though Church, of course, was at enmity with paganism, it’s interesting enough that in everyday life of Russian people these two traditions friendly merged. For the next 9 centuries Russians would celebrate both Christian and pagan holidays, attend church and perform pagan rituals, decorate houses with authentic pagan art together with Orthodox icons, prefer to be healed by the sorcerer rather than physician, and generally continue to be much more in tune with nature than any European nation. Esoteric practices of Slavic sorcery were also kept alive up to our days, passed from mouth to mouth through the lineages of healers. And even today in almost every far away village in Russia we could find such a sorcerer, and some of them are pretty famous for miraculous cases of healing. It’s a usual story in Russia when somebody suffering chronic illness after going through all kinds of treatments in clinics and hospitals would become disappointed in conventional medicine and take off to some village to be healed by a wizard. Even the Communist Party leaders, who had the best doctors and special hospitals, secretly visited some of those famous healers.
Healing arts in this tradition were inseparable from refined techniques of using the energies of nature for the spiritual illumination. A practice, which has a parallel in American Indian shamanism, has to do with intentional use of the so-called power spots for healing and spiritual illumination. Certain places on the earth have specific influence on the state of consciousness and energy system of the body. The technique of locating such spots is similar to those described for approaching trees with one difference: attention is not only spread all over the body but also opened beneath like an umbrella scanning the surface of the earth as you walk. There exists an enormous variety in the types of influences power spots might have: cleansing, purifying the whole energy field or particular channels; opening particular energy center which leads to experiencing corresponding emotions: love, joy (heart) or stability, serene power (lower centers); inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness; sometimes catalyzing spontaneous mystical experiences.
Second origin of today’s Russian spirituality is undoubtedly Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and within Orthodoxy there is a mystical tradition called Hesychasm. The name originated from the Greek word “Hesychia” which means inner silence. There are quite a number of good books in English on Hesychasm; however, this tradition, sometimes called Christian Yoga, is still surprisingly little known on the West.
As we already mentioned, Russia was converted into Eastern Christianity in 10th century, and monastic Hesychasm also grew well on the Russian soil. After fall of the Byzantine empire under growing Turkish pressure in 14th-15th centuries Russia became the center of the Orthodox world. And for the last 5 centuries it was Russia who kept Hesychasm alive, even during the Communist regime. Hesychast adepts adopted different lifestyles: hermits in the woods, monks in the monasteries, wandering pilgrims, fools for the Christ’s sake. This latter tradition of holy madness or crazy wisdom was particularly characteristic for Russia. Among famous Hesychast saints who dwelled in the woods we should mention the names of Sergey of Radonezh (14th century) and Seraphim of Sarov (19th century).
Discussing Russian spirituality, we should say a few words about how Russian literature and philosophy were influenced by Christian mysticism. This influence is clearly seen, for example, in the works of such giants as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The main characters of their novels are passionately seeking Truth; in overwhelming intensity of this search they go through all kinds of suffering to finally break through into Love and Light. These examples reflect really existing feature of Russian soul: if somebody begins to seek meaning you may be sure that it will be intense, passionate and often dramatic search. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky also depicted holy, perfected men, such as Platon Karatayev in the “War and Peace” and Zosima in the “Brothers Karamazov”. Zosima is described as a typical Hesychast staretz (Elder) and it was known that Dostoyevsky himself had such spiritual Farther.
Then, there was the whole garland of original religious philosophers of 19th- beginning of 20th centuries, such as Soloviev, Berdyaev, Fyodorov, Florensky. Review of their vast works goes beyond the goal of this essay; oversimplifying, we might say that in an attempt to blend traditional Christian ethics with the Western humanist ideas they developed the metaphysics of Love. As mystical feelings are difficult to express in common language, many of these philosophers were also remarkable poets, or better to say, some of them loved more poetry than philosophy. Soloviev, Merezhkovsky, Belyi, Blok, Voloshin and others left an unearthly beautiful poems, where presentiment of God breathes in every line.
Ironically, the end of 19th- beginning of 20th century was characterized by not only Lenin’s and Bolshevik’s activities; it was the time when more and more people from noble families and intelligentsia became involved in mystical groups. H.P. Blavatsky came from these circles, and that’s where G. I. Gurdjieff found his first disciples.
As the Communist regime was becoming more and more oppressive, and with Stalin turned into one of the bloodiest dictatorships in history, there emerged very peculiar phenomena, almost unknown on the West: the 20th century Russian spiritual underground. Usually, for Westerners Soviet underground is associated with political opposition, fighters for human rights. However, there also existed the whole network of secret spiritual schools and groups. The Communist Party leaders and KGB were aware, of course, that spiritual seekers are the most difficult subjects for brainwashing. That’s why members and especially leaders of the mystical groups were severely persecuted. The fate of many grass-rooted spiritual teachers was to spend years in jail and Siberian concentration camps. Later, starting from the 60s, when political climate warmed up a little bit, another “favorite” tool of persecution was involuntary placement into mental hospital. Labeled with psychiatric diagnosis as dangerous for other people, the seekers of transcendence were kept in locked units for months and years, receiving injections of anti-psychotic drugs. The fact that people continued to practice mysticism under such conditions proves that the urge for spirituality is natural and can not be suppressed by society.
This information about persecution of spiritual schools may seem to be in apparent contradiction with the well-known fact that Soviets conducted official research in paranormal phenomena and extrasensory abilities. However, if we look closer, this is only confirmation of the truth spoken by many spiritual masters: siddhis (supernatural powers) are not the proof of proximity to God or Liberation and should be rather disregarded by the serious seeker. Paranormal abilities without ethics and commitment to spiritual growth may be turned evil. This statement makes understandable the fact that KGB sponsored research of extrasensory abilities while persecuting people with higher goals.
As we already mentioned, many of the Russian Hesychast adepts preferred the lifestyle of hermits in the woods or wandering pilgrims rather than institutionalized monks. No surprise that with the onset of the Communist oppression they simply disappeared in the vast forests of Russia and Siberia. During all the years of the Communist regime they lived alone or in the small communities in the wilderness with no contact with civilization, hundreds of miles away from any village, sometimes to be occasionally discovered by fur hunters or geologists. And who knows how many holy men still dwell in the woods ignorant of the recent changes in the country.
The full text here , and my special thanks to Terry!