G. I. GURDJIEFF’S INFLUENCE IN RUSSIA IN THE 1960S−1970S
In the 1960s and 1970s Russia, the country which gave birth to Gurdjieff, seemed to be thrown several centuries back by the social and cultural catastrophe that happened in 1917 and has erased his name permanently from its memory.
However, was that really the case?
The political and cultural situation in Russia of the 1960s was gradually becoming less rigid, creating conditions for a “thaw” (the expression of a prominent Russian writer of that period Ilya Erenburg). Russian Orthodox Christianity, which had been suppressed for the several previous decades, started attracting numerous followers among the younger generation. Groups of yoga practitioners, adherents of Theosophy and Anthroposophy as well as individuals fascinated by the writings of Krishnamurti emerged on the scene.
At the same time the first “Fourth Way” groups had appeared, albeit the conditions of their existence differed greatly from those of similar groups in the West. In Russia these groups formed a singular underground which was not politically or ideologically engaged, at the same time it resisted the regime in its ideas and in its practice, by working with ideas and asserting values which were counter to the ideology imposed from above. While Gurdjieff’s famous disciple P.D. Ouspensky has been introducing in England elements of “conspiracy,” which for his British pupils seemed to be very exotic, in the Russian conditions of repressions, which had never ceased only changing their forms, conspiracy was indispensible and natural.
The influence of Gurdjieff and his ideas on the artistic milieu of the 1960s was enhanced by their prestige among the artists of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. In Russia these ideas exerted a great amount of influence, among others, on the artist and the theoretician of futurism, Mikhail Matyushin, as they did on the founder of suprematism Kazimir Malevich and the poet-futurist Alexei Kruchyonykh . In the 1960s and 1970s the interest towards the ideas of Gurdjieff was revived together with the names of the Russian futurist and suprematist artists. The ideas of Gurdjieff seminally influenced the overall cultural environment in the country, stimulated spiritual search and inspired philosophical and artistic strivings.
In the 1960s and 1970s all the work of Gurdjieff was studied in great detail. Books devoted to the “Fourth Way” published in the West were obtained in roundabout ways and translated into Russian. Individuals were found who knew Gurdjieff and who studied in his pre-revolutionary Moscow or Saint-Petersburg groups. Contacts were established with spiritual practitioners in Central Asia, Siberia, the Ukraine and the Baltics. Steadfast connections were established with the Western pupil of Gurdjieff, John Godolphin Bennett, and also with the writer Robert Graves, the composer Francis Ward and other well-known people, who at that time seemed to be close to the ideas of Gurdjieff.
One of the most enthusiastic adherents of the “Fourth Way” in the 1060s and 1970s was the Muscovite Vladimir Stepanov. Stepanov presented the ideas of Gurdjieff to a number of his friends, who had shared with him his previous interest in yoga, Theosophy and the arts. Later he and his friends shared a common fascination with Idris Shah’s version of Sufism. Presently Stepanov carries out his activities in several countries of Western Europe my means of a structure entitled “The Ship of Fools”.
Another Moscow group of the “Fourth Way” was led by Boris Kerdimun, who worked in pair with poet and graphic artist Vladimir Kovenatsky. Boris in his groups initiated a type of Work based on study of the artistic process carried out by his associate, Kovenatsky. One of their projects was a large symbolic drawing of a pendulum, based on Edgar Alan Poe’s short story “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Among his numerous activities, Kerdimun incited an expedition to Central Asia with the aim of establishing connections with possible Sufi orders, supposing that Sufism could be one of the sources of Gurdjieff’s teaching.
Kerdimun’s group included a translator and researcher of the medieval French Troubadour poetry, presently the professor of Strasbourg University, Mikhail Meilakh. Under the conditions of a deficit of information in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Meilakh practiced the following method of obtaining contacts with foreign followers of the “Fourth Way”: in hotels where foreigners stayed he penetrated into the restaurants, stood on his head and remained standing in this position while the guests had breakfast. After this he changed back into a normal position and asked them in fluent English or French whether there was among them anyone interested in Gurdjieff’s teaching. For this and for other activities, disturbing to the authorities, Mikhail Meilakh was arrested and sentenced to a lengthy confinement in concentration camps.
In the 1980s another pupil of Kerdimun, Victor Kholodkov together with Canadian diplomat James George discovered the grave of Gurdjieff’s father in the Armenian city of Gumri and set a tombstone on it. In this manner they fulfilled the request of Gurdjieff addressed to his “sons in flesh or in spirit” to find the grave of his father and to place a tombstone on it. The tombstone had the following words engraved on it: “Ivan Gurdjieff, 1834-1917. I am you, you are I, He is ours when we are His. Hence, let everything be for our neighbor”.
Another direction of the “Fourth Way,” called the “Island of Consciousness” headed by Anatoly Arlashin, had developed in a completely independent manner and is still functional in the Russian capital.
The question could be asked: what were the results of the spiritual efforts of those few who had discovered for themselves and for their friends the profound world of Gurdjieff’s ideas, who obtained and scrupulously translated the works of Gurdjieff and his followers into Russian, who were engaged in Gurdjieff’s spiritual practices and studied his philosophy meticulously? The following answer could be given to these questions: one of Gurdjieff’s most important ideas deals with everyone’s duty to “pay” for the good of life in the planetary world and to participate in the general work of maintaining the Universe. It is possible that the responsibility taken on themselves by the first post-war followers of Gurdjieff in Russia was in effect a form of such kind of “payment” and such responsibility. It is also possible to glance at these labors and efforts from a practical point of view. Then we shall see that the books that were found and translated during those years, the spiritual practice which these people were engaged in, were transformed into the works of art and into the ideas which were subsequently conveyed to readers, listeners, pupils and friends. As a result of this, in the present days there appeared an assortment of ideas, books, films, music and choreography, which grew out of the Work of the people of the 1960s and their fascination with the “Fourth Way”. Their labor had not been in vain and their hopes had not been futile.
This little text is an outline of a presentation delivered in Berlin Conference “The Russian Occultism” of 2008. It is based on research of an extended amount of material, including publications in print and on the Internet, however the main source was the presenter’s personal experience of participating in Gurdjieff’s Work in the conditions of the Russian underground of the 1960s and 1970s.