Happenings (October 2011)
Professor Andrei Znamenski,
talks about his latest book,
with Professor Guiomar 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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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,
I haven´t brought a question about Bokii’s attempt to use the Buddhist tantra
Znamenski: Well, we are not going now
there because, it’s something that readers might learn from the book on
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?
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.
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.
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
Roman von Ungern Sternberg, a Baltic German baron, a descendant of Teutonic knights.
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?”
He was out of place.
Your primary sources are impressive. How and where did you find these
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.
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 amazon.com, 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
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
of Memphis. Among them are World Civilizations,
Russian history, and the History of Religions.
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).
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