The Return of Holy Russia: Apocalyptic History, Mystical Awakening, and the Struggle for the Soul of the World
Gary Lachman | May 2020 | Inner Traditions | 448 pages | ISBN: 978-1620558102 | $32.00
Occult histories can be interesting, provided that we don’t take them over-seriously. It is a rare occurrence when occultism takes the wheel and steers history toward mystical ends, though it is less rare to find powers and potentates making use of occultism to drive their policy goals. For Gary Lachman, however, occultism is the secret stream of knowledge animating all of world history. His last book, Dark Star Rising, tried to envision Donald Trump as a literal chaos magician harnessing supernatural forces to enact an evil agenda. Continuing to mistake incompetence and arrogance for supernatural genius, Lachman’s new book, The Return of Holy Russia, casts the whole of Russian history as a centuries-long conversation with occultism about Russia’s supposedly unique place in the world as the embodiment of Christian virtue (hence, holy) and occult power.
The tone for the book is established early on, when Lachman opens with Theosophy and its spinoffs before declaring that Russian nationalistic belief in the country’s “special ‘mission’ in history” must be taken seriously. He lavishly praises nationalistic Russian philosophers, claiming that they have solved the riddle of the “evolution” of consciousness, and he speaks tirelessly—seriously, over and over again—about the “Russian soul,” which he treats not as a metaphor for Russian cultural beliefs and practices but as some quasi-mystical entity embodied in a group of people, many of whom, as best I can tell, have only been “Russian” occasionally as borders shifted around Eurasia over the past five centuries. Since “Russia” began in Kievan Rus’, centered on Kyiv, it’s not even clear that the mystics of Moscow would be direct lineal heirs to this holy heritage that began in what is now Ukraine. Politics, genetics, and culture make it hard to give mysticism an eternal national heritage when populations and borders move and mix so promiscuously.
This difficulty persists throughout the book, where Russian culture is taken not as something fungible and defined by circumstances but rather as an innate occult force incarnated in whatever people happen to be under the Russian government at the time. Lachman relies heavily on Western nationalistic writings that cast Russia as an alien other to support his views, and it’s not entirely clear that he has examined what he means by the “Russian man” and the “Russian soul” in detail, swapping between cultural Russians and those under the political domination of the Russian central government without clear distinction. The book’s production design reinforces the challenge, for it uses Soviet iconography—the hammer and sickle—as a repeated motif to stand for Russia. But the Soviets chose that iconography specifically not to be Russian. They imagined it as universal, and they applied it across the Soviet Union, for all its subject peoples, only some of whom were Russian. The same problem applies to the tsarist era, and more so, when an even broader array of peoples made up one empire. Even after centuries of Russification, not all the people in Russia are the same brand of “Russian.”
I did, however, find it hilarious that Lachman apologizes to readers who are offended by him describing the Russian “soul” as lazy and sedentary by justifying his conclusions as the result of reading “multiple sources.” I was offended for a different reason—there is no such thing as a “national soul,” nor inherent characteristics of a national man or national woman. This is lazy Victorian nationalist essentialism masquerading as occult insight. There is danger here, too: To argue that different ethnic groups have different essential traits is to implicitly argue that some are superior to others, more evolved, better adapted, etc. Seeing ethnicities or nations as genetically, morally, or cosmically separate is a path whose ends we have seen in fascist and communist death camps. And lest you think that I am exaggerating Lachman’s position or ignoring some symbolic level, he claims on p. 27 that this heritage is passed in the blood: “If Russian inertia can be attributed to its Asian past, can the sudden outbursts of anarchy and chaos traditionally recognized as part of the Russian character have their roots in the old Nordic blood, which carried memories of their berserker ancestors?” No, that is not how culture or genetics work. If it did, then all of us of European descent should possess the dignity and ruthlessness of Charlemagne, the collective (and just as recent) ancestor of most European males. According to Lachman, however, I am simply and inherently biased against his book because I am half Polish and therefore filled with ancestral “enmity” toward the Russians.
All of it, though, seems to be designed as an elaborate defense of Helena Blavatsky, the ethnically Russian psychic fraud who was born in what is today Ukraine but was then part of Tsarist Russia—a pet subject of Lachman’s. She keeps popping up in the book even though she left the Russian Empire for America and elsewhere.
I could go on about the biases and flaws in his examination of Russian spiritual and occult history, but it would make for exceptionally boring reading. For the majority of the book, Lachman presents a superficial but straightforward popular “great man” history of Russia interspersed with occasional commentary on the religious and spiritual developments in the territories that eventually fell to the tsars. Some of it is conventional spirituality, some of it is occultism, and some is just philosophy. A lot of it has nothing to do with the stated topic of the book except through a vague connection to religiosity and spirituality in the broadest sense.
To be entirely honest, I’m not sure what the purpose of the long middle of the book is supposed to be. It is a history of Russia through the lens of Christianity and the occult, but its history is too focused on the lives and times of princes and kings to offer much insight into Russian life, its historiography is decidedly Victorian in tenor and scope, and its religious discussion is too colored by the author’s beliefs in magic and occult power to have any value as an explanatory theory of Russian history. The text also has a certain old-fashioned bias toward seeing the late Victorian period—Russia’s so-called “Silver Age”—as the yardstick against which past and future are measured, with the future a departure from it and the past an anticipation of it. There is also enormous repetition of ideas—trust me, you will hear that the Russians considered themselves the heirs of Rome and Byzantium, many times, and then a few more. The majority of the middle chapters flesh out claims already made in the introduction, adding only extraneous detail that contributes little to the overall argument. It is, frankly, dry reading, even by my tolerant standards for weighty histories. The book could be cut in half without losing anything of value. And don’t get me started on the heavy use of a very few, often older, popular sources in place of thorough scholarly research.
The book becomes a bit strange in its latter parts. The major chapter on the Soviet Union is framed around ESP, for example, and it is in this part of the book that Lachman’s interest seems to drift from Russian history to the paranormal and occult, and the story abruptly breaks from an endless litany of kings and clerics to a series of vignettes about occult and esoteric speculators, science fiction writers, and believers in all manner of paranormal claims. The rapid change from the political to the paranormal doesn’t entirely make sense, except insofar as it reinforces Lachman’s overarching—but wrong—theme that the dissenting forms of spirituality offer the most effective path for individual and collective freedom. This is why he sees the fraudulent Blavatsky as a hero, for example. But he never once makes the case that any occult ideas percolated below the thin crust of cosmopolitan elites to have any real impact on the supposed “Russian soul” in the cities and towns outside of the St. Petersburg-Moscow axis. Was Vladivostok also overtaken with desire for an occult utopia? Siberia? Lachman never tells us.
The only thing I found interesting in this section was Lachman’s discussion of the influence on Russian occultism of Morning of the Magicians—co-authored, though he doesn’t mention it, by a Russian émigré. Here there was a missed opportunity, since Lachman fails to mention that Morning is itself influenced by Soviet paranormal and ancient astronaut ideas (the authors literally quote Soviet sources), creating a feedback loop that reinforced these ideas in Europe and the Soviet Union. My cutting out this part of the story, Lachman tries to separate the Soviet occult opposition from the official promotion of UFOs and ancient astronauts as part of Soviet propaganda aimed at undermining Western religions and confidence in science. Instead, he only briefly and largely uncritically alludes to Soviet research into ESP and “psychic warfare.”
Lachman minimizes the Soviet Union’s propaganda use of paranormal claims—seeding them into Western media through the dubious imprimatur of Soviet “science”—because he wishes to create a greater contrast between the Soviet past, which he views as anti-spiritual, and Putin’s Russia, which he wishes to see as restoring the tsarist fusion of Christianity and the occult. I find Lachman somewhat naïve in assuming that Putin has broken dramatically from Soviet practice, or that his official promotion of Orthodoxy and pseudoscience can be divorced from his utilitarian pursuit of power at the expense of truth. In sum: Lachman seems to argue that Putin acts because he believes in occult nationalist myths about Russia, but the evidence might better support the idea that Putin uses occult nationalist myths about Russia to legitimize and institutionalize his own assumption of tsar-like powers. (In the epilogue, Lachman very briefly admits this could be a possibility.) In the end, Lachman concludes that Putinism is not the answer to life’s mysteries, but nineteenth-century Russian philosophy is. This latter point is, to say the least, a debatable proposition, and one he never quite manages to justify.
Ultimately, Lachman’s book builds to nothing because he is so consumed with listing nearly every pro-Putin or anti-Putin occult and paranormal speculator that the chapter has no overarching purpose or point. It is an info-dump masquerading as an argument. He concludes the book by suggesting that Putin is creating a “third way” that fulfills a Theosophy-inspired occult prophecy about the fusion of “feminine” East (!) and “masculine” West. His argument is superficial and ill-conceived, not least because he accepts the Romantic notion of the “nation” and its deep historical essence, even though the concept of a “nation” is modern in origin, not primeval.
By framing his argument around nineteenth-century fictions about the unity of ethnicity, nation, and state, Lachman ends up justifying the kind of historical fantasies that led to the instability that ended the Gilded Age and troubled the interwar years. It bothers me that after writing a book about Russian exceptionalism, Lachman admits that he never considered whether other countries and peoples experienced similar developments. Instead, he condemns the West for ignoring Hermetic and occult gnosis, unlike the great Russians, who apparently are driven by secret esoteric connections to “true” knowledge, which he defines as seamlessly uniting a rational understanding of the material world with a deep inner spirituality. Like most books I have reviewed in these pages, this one turns out to be another cri de coeur calling out for God to save us all from scientific materialism. It’s starting to get boring.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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