History Happenings (October 2011)


Totalitarian Temptations

Professor Andrei Znamenski, talks about his latest book,

Red Shambhala, with Professor Guiomar Dueñas-Vargas


Dueñas-Vargas: Professor Znamenski, What is Shambhala? Is it a prophecy? Is it a geographic place for Buddhism? Is it a land of plenty and spiritual enlightenment? Is it a violent and aggressive creed? Would you please tell us what is the Shambhala of your book?


Znamenski: To make a long story short, Shambhala was a Buddhist prophecy that had emerged in the Early Middle Ages. When Muslims had advanced into Afghanistan and Northern India, they dislodged the Buddhists from these areas, and they had to find a safe haven somewhere. So they came up with a spiritual resistance prophecy that was identified with a land, a utopian land, a kind of a Buddhist paradise, where the members of this faith would be free to live and worship without been harassed by the “barbarians” whom Sanskrit sources called “Mlecca people” or, in other words, the people of Mecca. The legend claimed that somewhere in the North there was a mysterious country, a land of plenty where people lived 900 years, where they were rich and had houses where roofs were clad in gold, and where nobody suffered, and of course, where the Buddhist religion existed in its pure form and so forth.


Dueñas-Vargas: But Shambhala involves, as well, a concept of holy war. Is that true?


Znamenski: By the way, in original Buddhism there was no concept of Paradise. This concept emerged as a result of encounters with the Muslim world. The prophecy also claimed that when the true faith (read Buddhism) would be in danger, the king of Shambhala named Rudra Chakrin would come with a huge army and crash the enemies of the faith. So, it is a concept of a holy war, pure and simple. Many people are not aware that such concept existed in Tibetan Buddhism. The Shambhala prophecy lingered on, and in modern time was sometimes engaged, when the Mongol-Tibetan world felt threatened by outsiders. At the same time, Shambhala was also understood as an internal war against one’s own inner demons. It was an aspiration for a spiritual perfection. In the course of time, the former, the holy war part, gradually disappeared and the latter one became more relevant. A nice example for some other religions to follow. Don’t you agree?


Dueñas-Vargas: Yes, in this case, Tibetan Buddhism might have served as a role model for other world religions. Yet, your book deals more with the former, the holy war part of the prophecy. Correct?


Znamenski: Yes, the time I am writing about, the 1920s and the 1930s, was a period of troubles and dramatic changes for the Tibetan-Mongol world. The Manchu Empire in China collapsed in 1911 following by the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. The entire political landscape of Eurasia became filled with ethnic, religious, and class conflicts. That was when Shambhala and various sister prophecies resurfaced in Inner Asia as apocalyptic legends that helped local populations to deal with reality.


Dueñas-Vargas: In your book you mention how Shambhala and other related Asian prophecies were used by outsiders, especially by the Bolsheviks of Red Russia. Tell us more about it.


Znamenski: It’s an excellent question. See, originally Bolsheviks, when they came to power in 1917, firmly expected that Communism would win first in the most advanced Western countries, where organized socialist movement had a long history. But, unfortunately for them, Western workers didn’t respond to the Bolshevik gospel of world-wide Communist revolution. The only success they had was among Asian people, where the Bolsheviks were able to plague themselves into local national liberation movements. That was how they became interested in latching on Mongol-Tibetan prophecies and linking them to Communism. The Communist International, an organization created in 1919 to promote the world-wide revolution, established a Mongol-Tibetan Section to draw the local nomads, peasants and junior lama monks to Communism. For example, in Mongolia, Bolshevik fellow-travellers explained to the populace that Communism was actually a fulfillment of legendary Shambhala.


Dueñas-Vargas: Yes, as well-explained in the book, they were extremely ambitious!


Znamenski: Yes, quite ambitious. You have to understand that at that time early Bolsheviks lived by a revolutionary romanticism. They expected the coming of the world-wide revolutionary fire would cleanse the whole world from oppression. Non-Western colonial nationalities were viewed as allies in this fight against imperialist West. At one point, Leon Trotsky, one of the chief leaders of the Russian revolution, even suggested that the Bolsheviks send a cavalry division to India, straight across Inner Asia, and liberate entire Asia. In my book I describe another curious episode when Red Russia sent an expedition that was disguised as a group of Buddhist pilgrims and that tried to sway the 13th Dalai Lama to the Bolshevik side.


Dueñas-Vargas: Well, in your book you profile a group of very strange characters that include not only people on the Left but also on the Right side. Can you elaborate?


Znamenski: Absolutely. My book actually represents a series of biographical essays that are linked together because all my characters were somehow connected with each other. Let’s start with the Bolsheviks and their fellow travellers.


Alexander Barchenko


The first one is Alexander Barchenko, an occult writer from St. Petersburg, and his Bolshevik secret police patron Gleb Bokii, the master of codes, who was actually one of the spearheads of the Communist Revolution 1917. At some point, Bokii decided to use Tibetan Buddhism and its spiritual techniques to change the minds of the people, in other words, to help engineer the new communist human being.


Dueñas-Vargas: To engineer?


Znamenski: Yes, he and some other Bolshevik intellectuals were upset that the revolution did not change the human nature, and they were playing with an idea of transforming the human beings in order to make them better. One of the chapters of the book carries a peculiar title “The Engineer of the Human Soul.” In fact, in the 1920s, unlike later times, there were lots of social experiments in Red Russia, crazy experiments. It was like the United States in 1960s. There were communes, different types of left groups, avant-garde artists, poets, and anarchists.


Gleb Bokii


Dueñas-Vargas: I haven´t brought a question about Bokii’s attempt to use the Buddhist tantra and naturism.


Znamenski: Well, we are not going now there because, it’s something that readers might learn from the book on their own.


Dueñas-Vargas: Another two major characters are a Russian American painter Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena. They were also interested in Shambhala. They wanted to go to Tibet and retrieve Tibetan wisdom. Was their goal purely spiritual?


Nicholas Roerich


Znamenski: Not really. This ambitious couple nourished a megalomaniac idea to build in the heart of Asia a Tibetan Buddhist utopia (they called it the Sacred Union of the East) that would throw light to the rest of the humankind. At one point, in 1926, they tried to flirt with Communism because Helena and Nicholas Roerich believed that since the Shambhala legend said salvation would come from the North, they wanted to use Red Russia in their grand scheme. In fact, Roerich went to Tibet, posing as reincarnated Dalai Lama and pretended to dislodge the existing 13th Dalai Lama. Red Russia refused to wholeheartedly support such a reckless project and the couple became frustrated with the Bolsheviks.


Dueñas-Vargas: They were living their own fantasy. Weren’t they?


Znamenski: Yes, pretty much. It was a geopolitical fantasy that, by the way, perfectly fit the context of the time, which historian Eric Hobsbawm called, the age of extremes. When they parted with the Bolsheviks, the Roeriches began courting American sponsors. Among them we find a rich currency speculator Louis Horch and future FDR’s vice president Henry Wallace, who in fact later sponsored the Roerich’s second expedition Asia.


Dueñas-Vargas: This is unbelievable. Now, let’s turn to another peculiar character, the “Bloody Baron,” a right-wing opponent of the Bolsheviks.


Roman von Ungern Sternberg


Znamenski: Roman von Ungern Sternberg, a Baltic German baron, a descendant of Teutonic knights.


Dueñas-Vargas: Yes, he was a very ruthless character.


Znamenski: Pretty much an evil character, and in fact one predecessors of the Nazis. This baron who acquired such notoriety in Inner Asia in 1920-1921 belonged to the elite of Old Russia. After the 1917 revolution, he became obsessed with a grand project of restoring monarchies from China and Russia to Germany and Austro-Hungary. Eventually he escaped from the Bolsheviks because they had a popular support and he didn’t and, while escaping southward, hijacked Mongolia. He milked for a while national sentiments of Mongols and helped them to liberate their country from the Chinese. And that is why he lost that country. The Mongols, who at first glorified him and declared him a reincarnation of Mahakala, a god-protector of Tibetan Buddhism, suddenly realized that the baron simply had his own agenda that was utterly strange to them. For example, trapped in the world of his European xenophobia, Ungern was talking to them about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, which sounded quite bizarre to the nomads who asked themselves a question, “What’s going on?”


Dueñas-Vargas: He was out of place.


Znamenski: Exactly.


Dueñas-Vargas: Your primary sources are impressive. How and where did you find these documents?


Znamenski: I became interested in the topic about seven years ago, and began reading relevant literature while, simultaneously gathering primary sources in archives of Moscow, New York, and St. Petersburg, but the actual writing took me two years, from 2008 to 2009. Quest Books, my publisher, gave me an advanced contact in 2008 and specified that the book should have no more than 80,000 words, which is about 300 pages; an editor explained to me that anything that goes beyond that will simply scare people away. This helped to discipline my mind.


Dueñas-Vargas: Thank you for sharing with us the information about your most recent book, and good luck with feature projects.


Znamenski: Thank you too. I wanted to add that the book is available on, where I also created my author’s page - a nice amazon feature that allows authors to profile their books like, for example, posting video clips that sample book chapters.


The Book – Videos – Interviews – Reviews:



Historian, anthropologist and translator, Andrei Znamenski was a resident scholar at the Library of Congress, and then a foreign visiting professor at Hokkaido University, Japan. He has taught various courses at The University of Toledo, Alabama State University, and the University of Memphis.  Among them are World Civilizations, Russian history, and the History of Religions. 


Znamenski’s major fields of interests include the history of  Western esotericism, Russian history as well as indigenous religions of  North America, Siberia, Inner Asia, particularly Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism.  Znamenski lived and traveled extensively in Alaska, Siberia, and Japan.  His field and archival research among Athabaskan Indians in Alaska and native people of the Altai (Southern Siberia) resulted in the book Shamanism and Christianity: Native Responses to Russian Missionaries (1999) and Through Orthodox Eyes: Russian Missionary Narratives of Travels to the Dena'ina and Ahtna (2003).


After this, Znamenski became interested in the cultural history of Shamanism.  Endeavoring to answer why shamanism became so popular with Western spiritual seekers since the 1960s, he wrote The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination (2007) and edited the three-volume anthology Shamanism: Critical Concepts (2004).  Simultaneously, he continued to explore shamanism of Siberian indigenous people, traveling to the Altai and surrounding areas, which led to the publication of Shamanism in Siberia (2003). Between 2003 and 2004, he resided in Japan, where along with his Japanese colleague, Professor Koichi Inoue, Znamenski worked with itako, blind female healers and mediums from the Amori prefecture. 




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