Skip to Main Content

The Return of Holy Russia

Apocalyptic History, Mystical Awakening, and the Struggle for the Soul of the World

A history of how mystical and spiritual influences have shaped Russia’s identity and politics and what it means for the future of world civilization

• Examines Russia’s spiritual history, from its pagan origins and Eastern Orthodox mysticism to secret societies, Rasputin, Roerich, Blavatsky, and Dostoyevsky

• Explains the visionary writings of the spiritual philosophers of Russia’s Silver Age, which greatly influence Putin today

• Explores what Russia’s unique identity and its history of messianic politics and apocalyptic thought mean for its future on the world stage

At the turn of the 20th century, a period known as the Silver Age, Russia was undergoing a powerful spiritual and cultural rebirth. It was a time of magic and mysticism that saw a vital resurgence of interest in the occult and a creative intensity not seen in the West since the Renaissance. This was the time of the God-Seekers, pilgrims of the soul and explorers of the spirit who sought the salvation of the world through art and ideas. These sages and their visions of Holy Russia are returning to prominence now through Russian president Vladimir Putin, who, inspired by their ideas, envisions a new “Eurasian” civilization with Russia as its leader.

Exploring Russia’s long history of mysticism and apocalyptic thought, Gary Lachman examines Russia’s unique position between East and West and its potential role in the future of the world. Lachman discusses Russia’s original Slavic paganism and its eager adoption of mystical and apocalyptic Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He explores the Silver Age and its “occult revival” with a look at Rasputin’s prophecies, Blavatsky’s Theosophy, Roerich’s “Red Shambhala,” and the philosophies of Berdyaev and Solovyov. He looks at Russian Rosicrucianism, the Illuminati Scare, Russian Freemasonry, and the rise of other secret societies in Russia. He explores the Russian character as that of the “holy fool,” as seen in the great Russian literature of the 19th century, especially Dostoyevsky. He also examines the psychic research performed by the Russian government throughout the 20th century and the influence of Evola and the esoteric right on the spiritual and political milieus in Russia.

Through in-depth exploration of the philosophies that inspire Putin’s political regime and a look at Russia’s unique cultural identity, Lachman ponders what they will mean for the future of Russia and the world. What drives the Russian soul to pursue the apocalypse? Will these philosophers lead Russia to dominate the world, or will they lead it into a new cultural epoch centered on spiritual power and mystical wisdom?

From the Introduction
Welcome to the Silver Age: A Time of Magic and Mysticism


Another idea that Putin is taking seriously is that of Russia as a nation of “traditional values.” It is along these lines that commentators are beginning to speak of a new cold war opening up between Russia and the West. Skirmishes here are not triggered by ideological clashes between capitalism and communism, but by different moral, ethical, and religious worldviews. To think of Russia, home of gangland politics and ostentatious oligarchs, as more morally sensitive than the West may seem counterintuitive. But in Putin’s Russia, the extreme liberalism and permissiveness that characterize Western society--its “anything goes” sensibility --smacks of little more than decadence, and our commercialization of practically everything reeks of selfishness and ego gratification. Nothing seems to resist the spread of the “me” economy, in which everything is yielding and negotiable, even reality. Compared to this, Putin’s Russia upholds more “traditional” standards, and its attitude toward sex, family, and gender roles seems to the “progressive” West highly conservative, if not repressive.

Putin finds his traditional values in his Orthodox belief, and it is in this role of defender of the true faith that, along with Eurasia and the thinkers of the Silver Age, the idea of Holy Russia seems to be making a comeback. This was an identity that Russia and her “God-bearing people” embraced practically from the start, from their earliest adoption of Orthodox Christianity, to the attempt at a theocratic rule during the Muscovite empire of the late Middle Ages, and to the idea of its being a “Third Rome,” after the downfall of the first one and the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. And it is here, perhaps, that we can find the roots of the notion that Russia has a “mission,” that special destiny that informs the different versions of the “Russian idea.”

Although many fine points of doctrine and dogma separate the Eastern Orthodox Church from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, one thing that does set Russian Orthodoxy apart from its Western counterparts is its attitude toward the end-time, the Apocalypse, and the Second Coming. While these are indeed part of the Western Church, it has generally damped down any millenarian zeal, and focused more on dealing with the crises and challenges of everyday life. “Repent ye sinner for the end is nigh,” is left to street-corner prophets and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Western Church has been more this-worldly, and its interest in worldly power is one of the criticisms that its eastern counterpart has made against it.

The end days, however, have always been of great importance to the Eastern Church, which has always been more open to mysticism and esoteric knowledge. Its focus has been more eschatological than the West, and this anticipation of the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth was something that the Russian people embraced wholeheartedly when they accepted Eastern Orthodoxy as their religion. They took the idea of rebirth very seriously; this is why Easter is a much more important holy day in the Orthodox calendar than Christmas. Resurrection was of the essence. They did not give lip service to the Apocalypse.

This belief that the world was moving toward some event after which everything would be different became a part of the Russian soul. As Berdyaev said, Russians are either “apocalyptists” or “nihilists,” that is, for them it is a case of everything or nothing, either the millennium and Heaven on Earth or the void.

But the mystical, spiritual character of the Russian soul seemed to be in place even before its contact with Orthodoxy and its embrace of the true faith. The Russian people had a rich pagan tradition full of gods and goddesses, elemental forces, and nature spirits. As with other pagan people converted to Christianity--of whom the Russians were one of the last--this tradition did not die out but was maintained alongside the new Christian belief, an arrangement known as dvoeverie, “double faith,” an example, perhaps, of the ability of the Russian soul to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously, and of the tensions at work in doing so.

With the aid of mystically potent icons--“windows on another world” as they were called by Father Pavel Florensky, an important figure of the Silver Age--this native paganism helped the spread of Orthodoxy within Russia. During the centuries of the “Mongol yoke,” the influence of shamanism and other magical practices reached the courts of the vassal Russian princes, and when that yoke had been broken, in the days of the Muscovite empire, alchemists, Hermeticists, Kabbalists, and other savants of the occult sciences were welcomed and their counsel sought.

Esoteric ideas even made their way to Tsar Alexander I, the savior of Europe in the Napoleonic wars and leader of the Holy Alliance, who was believed to have faked his own death in order to retire from power to spend his last days in spiritual contemplation. That the last days of the Romanovs were filled with mystical and apocalyptic expectation is well known. Rasputin is the most notorious figure here, but he was not the only mystical character giving advice to the doomed dynasty. And in the years of Soviet rule, ideas of an occult, mystical, and magical character continued to influence the commissars and comrades of the great Bolshevik experiment, with God-seekers becoming God-builders. More than one historian has noted that the millenarian trend in Russia thought made it more receptive to the Marxist vision of a coming classless utopia.

With Putin’s interest in notions such as Eurasia, in the philosophers of the Silver Age, and his gestures toward Holy Russia, this Russian interest in things mystical and apocalyptic seems to be continuing.

Gary Lachman is an author and lecturer on consciousness, counterculture, and the Western esoteric tradition. His works include Dark Star Rising, Beyond the Robot, and The Secret Teachers of the Western World. A founding member of the rock band Blondie, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. He lives in London.

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (June 11, 2020)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620558102

“Russia is neither the West nor the East. It is both. And it participates in deep Christian mystical, indigenous, esoteric, and occult currents that were mostly lost or forgotten in Western Christianity and actively suppressed in secular modernity. In his new book, Gary Lachman shows us why the return of these esoteric currents via the new (and old) claim of a ‘Holy Russia’ is so important, why such nationalist theologies cannot really be our answer, but also why particular Russian thinkers can point us in the right direction--toward a ‘third way’ beyond pure reason and past faith toward a new or future gnosis, or knowing-with, that ‘all is good.’ This sounds outrageous to many a modern ear, of course. Hence the importance of this book.”

– Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions

“Gary Lachman’s The Return of Holy Russia, gives us perspectives on Russia’s spiritual history we sorely need. It helps us understand why the Putin administration has trouble giving up its entanglements with Ukraine, why many Russians will match their claims of ‘exceptionalism’ against America’s, why Russian thinkers reject America’s claim to worldwide moral leadership, and why Transpersonal Psychology is flourishing to a greater degree in Russia than it is in American where it was born. Today, as Russia and the West sink into confrontations that threaten the world with accidental nuclear war, we need the rich understandings of Russia’s culture that Lachman’s book provides.”

– Michael Murphy, cofounder and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of the Esalen Institute

“Gary Lachman is a writer with an elegantly readable style, a passionate interest in aspects of the world that history normally neglects, and a profound understanding of psychology. In The Return of Holy Russia he has found his ideal subject. It’s an intoxicating examination of the intense and distinctive relationship between Russian culture and religious feeling, of the kind that flowered into exotic cults and occult beliefs in the late nineteenth century, seemed to go underground during the Soviet Union, and may now be emerging again in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. I read it with delight.”

– Philip Pullman, award-winning author of the trilogy His Dark Materials

“This book seeks to frame Putin’s own political philosophy within that of his self-declared mentors in Russia’s pre-Soviet Silver Age of the early twentieth century--and more broadly to the overarching spiritual history of Russia, neglected by mainstream historians but vital to an understanding of that country’s destiny in a post-Soviet world. The values of the Silver Age philosophers that Putin misapprehends and distorts, Lachman tells us, are the very ones the rest of the world might well adopt to ensure the future well-being of our planet.”

– Victoria Nelson, author of The Secret Life of Puppets

“In this unprecedented and gloriously learned book, Gary Lachman explores how Russia, the indestructible nation, is in many regards the historical repository for the mystical traditions of the East and West and, as such, harbors an unforeseen destiny in our world. The Return of Holy Russia is a startlingly brave and thrilling work of historicism and political-mystical philosophy. I found it absolutely enthralling.”

– Mitch Horowitz, PEN Award–winning author of Occult America and The Miracle Club

“This is Gary Lachman’s most profound work so far, and the most topical. Like his admired Colin Wilson, he can convey in one book the harvest from a hundred others. The overview of Russian history here is an example, leading up to the Silver Age when the perennial search for national identity included psychic awareness and spiritual aspiration. Major players, many of them familiar from Gary’s other works, are Blavatsky, Steiner, Ouspensky, Roerich, Rasputin, Papus, and the Christian philosophers Berdyaev and Solovyov. The surprise is that a century later, under Vladimir Putin, the philosophies and ideals of that age are being revived and actively promoted. While the leading thinkers of the West deny any meaning to the cosmos or to human history, Russia seems to have taken a philosophical turn well worthy of study and respect.”

– Joscelyn Godwin, author of The Greater and Lesser Worlds of Robert Fludd

“Gary Lachman has that rare ability of the best public intellectual, which is to redact and convey complex ideas without dumbing them down. In his new book, Lachman shows us again what he does best, pointing out the hidden significance of what most scholars have ignored. For nearly a century, Russia was largely cut-off from the rest of the Western world and consequently its spiritual heritage forms a blind spot in the minds of the reading public. What do Greek Orthodox Christianity, ideas of a Third Rome, medieval Russian paganism, 19th-century Russian Romanticism, the Silver Age at St. Petersburg’s Stray Dog Café, and Vladimir Putin have in common? Lachman not only tells us but also makes a strong case for why it’s important we should know.”

– Dana Sawyer, professor of religion and philosophy at the Maine College of Art and author of Aldous

“A clear, accurate, comprehensive, and enjoyable exploration of a civilization that many know only through clichés. This may be Gary Lachman’s best book yet.”

– Richard Smoley, author of A Theology of Love

"With the end of the USSR; interest in esoteric and non-orthodox spirituality can be expressed openly; and is found at all levels of intellectual and spiritual life. Writings of Silver Age writers published in Paris; or the USA are now being published in Russia. There is a strong interest in human potential techniques of meditation, yoga, and exploration of inner worlds. Garry Lachman has written a useful guide to these important intellectual currents; which also impact Russian stratigraphic policy – currents which merit being better known."

– Professor Rene Wadlow, president of the Association of World Citizens

More books from this author: Gary Lachman