THE TRANSNATIONAL INSTITUTE CONFERENCE ON RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, MOSCOW
Saturday, March 3, 1993
There were two main reasons I asked the Swedenborg Foundation to finance my
attendance at this conference. One is that glasnost has made it possible
for interest in Swedenborg to surface in Russia, and there is some pent-up
energy behind this interest. Given the overall confusion and fragile
economy in contemporary Russia, any moral or financial support we can offer
is most welcome. The other reason is that significant Russians in the
nineteenth century were interested in Swedenborg, and this offers two
possible benefits. We ourselves can learn about a fascinating chapter in
the history of Swedenborgianism, and we can increase awareness of this
subject in the scholarly community.
Anders Hallengren of Stockholm has done more than any other contemporary
scholar to trace this history, and I would refer you to a very useful
survey of his published in the Oct-Dec., 1990, issue of The New Philosophy
under the title, "Russia, Swedenborg, and the Eastern Mind." In brief,
Peter the Great (whose armies brought an end to the Swedish empire in
Swedenborg's young adulthood) brought Russia out of its isolation and into
contact with the much more "advanced" culture of Europe. The Russian
intelligentsia were at once fascinated and alarmed--fascinated by the power
and promise of scientific thought, and alarmed by the superficiality of the
materialistic philosophy which it seemed to assume.
The fascination was so potent that the family of Pushkin, Russia's classic
poet, spoke French in their home--Pushkin learned Russian from his
nursemaid. The "Russian count" who figures in nineteenth century operettas
was a regular feature of European high society. The alarm led these same
individuals to look particularly toward those thinkers in Europe who shared
a concern for the spiritual. These included the "metaphysicians" of
southern Germany, the Swabians who included Oetinger, Jung-Stilling, and
Schelling, all of whom were openly cordial to Swedenborg's thought.
Let me quote Hallengren.
Toward the close of the eighteenth century, many translations came from the
circle around Nikolai Ivanovitch Novokov. These were works of the Bavarian
mystic Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782), Emanuel Swedenborg's
well-known friend by letter and translator, who had a good deal to say
about Swedenborg in his works. This was equally true of Heinrich
Jung-Stilling (1740-1817), in whom Tsar Alexander I came to be particularly
interested, and whose output was considerable. As the author of Scenes from
the Spiritual World and Spiritual Teachings, Jung-Stilling was known for
his citation and documentation relating to Swedenborg's paranormal
abilities and his contacts with the other world.
By these routes, at first indirectly, Swedenborgian texts were introduced
and found interested individuals both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but
also outside Russia proper, in the Ukraine.<1>
He found attentive readers. To quote Hallengren again,
Other cultural contributors who served as channels of Western impulses were
Nikolai Strakhov, the philosophical mentor of Dostoevsky and Tolstoi, the
spiritualist Aleksandr Aksakov, who translated Swedenborg into Russian, and
the Ukraine's great philosopher, P. D. Yurkevitch, who ranked Boehme,
Leibniz, and Swedenborg as the West's last great philosophers.<2>
As part of this same search, there was a lively interest in theosophy.
Madame Blavatsky was herself a Russian and had some followers in her native
country, but does not seem to have made the impression there that she did
elsewhere. One reason was, we may suspect, that in her own country she was
not an exotic figure--a touch of "the prophet's own country syndrome."
More explicitly, though, Russian spirituality had strong roots in the
Orthodox Christian tradition. Madame Blavatsky drew heavily on Eastern
thought, and left herself open to the charge that her philosophy was
In this connection, it needs to be noted that if Russia felt her
spirituality threatened by Western materialism, there was also a
deep-seated suspicion of "the yellow peril" from the East. This stemmed in
part from memories of the centuries of Mongol domination, and reflects also
a perennial elusiveness of "the Russian identity." In any case, the
Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner, with its unorthodox but definite
affirmation of Christianity, met with a more favorable response. Both of
these movements, Theosophy and Anthroposophy, developed organizations in
Russia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and in both cases
Bolshevism eventually outlawed both the organizations and their literature.
It is worth particular mention that a certain Count Muraviov was a devoted
Swedenborgian and a leader in the abolition of serfdom. Hallengren is
currently exploring what seems to be a more extensive connection than had
been recognized between Swedenborgian thought and abolitionism. We have
known a little about Charles Wadstrom, Lydia Maria Child, James Glen,
Colonel Carter, and Count Muraviov, but no one seems to have dug very deep
or to have put the pieces together. Incidentally, the current issue of the
Swedish Swedenborgian periodical Väldarnas Möte has what appears to be a
translation of an essay by another nineteenth century Russian
"Swedenborgian," a Princess Kleopatra Mikhailovna Shakovskaya.
I mention all this to put Russian interest in Swedenborg in some context.
It lends significance, for example, to Princess Shakovskaya's affirmation
that Swedenborgianism was an ideal theology for the Russian Orthodox
Church, and for the apparent ease with which she affirmed both her
unquestioning loyalty to that church and her total acceptance of
Swedenborgian theology. It lends the same significance to the more formal
statement of metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867), "one of the most
important and influential prelates and theologians of the 19th-century
Russian Orthodox Church" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1971 ed., Vol. 17, p.
825b) that he found nothing in Swedenborg contrary to orthodoxy.
The end of the nineteenth century is regarded as the Silver Age of Russian
thought, and its leading figure is Vladimir Solovyov. In the current
Russian effort to develop distinctive values, given the abrupt rejection of
the last eighty years of their history, there is a noticeable Solovyov
revival. His familiarity with Swedenborgian theology and his evaluation of
it are accessible, since he wrote the article on Swedenborg in a major
encyclopedia of that era. His opening sentence characterizes Swedenborg as
****** ***********; ************* ********** * ***** ************* (*****
***** ****) ****** ****** *******--"learned naturalist, later spirit-seer,
and (after Jakob Böhme) most remarkable theosoph of the new era." The point
of my own paper, which outlined the science-spirituality issue in
Swedenborg's life story, was that the "naturalist" addressed the
fascination with Western science, the "spirit seer" the definite mystical
tendencies of Russian Spirituality, and the "theosoph" the demand for
With all this more or less in mind, I flew from Logan to JFK on Friday
morning, March twelfth, leaving enough time to deal with flight delay and a
lost luggage item (it had fallen off the carousel) and still make the
optional luncheon rendezvous at 1:00. Our flight to Helsinki was slightly
delayed, and I managed enough sleep on the plane to feel quite human at the
end of the first leg. The change to the Helsinki-Moscow leg was very easy.
It was cloudy, and I did not see Russian soil until we were on our approach
pattern. The main "non-American" features from that perspective were (a)
that only the major arteries were clear of snow, (b) in the villages, every
yard was fenced, and (c) in the villages, there were no signs of driveways,
garages, or cars.
Immigration and customs at Sheremetyevo Airport were medium slow, but
without hassle. I went through the "nothing to declare" line, and was not
asked any questions. Our tour guide, Marina, met us outside customs, and
had a bus waiting to take us to the hotel, where we arrived at about 2:30.
She checked us in while we ate lunch, after which we arranged for a porter
to take our luggage to our rooms. I was told very clearly that a dollar
would be much too big a tip, but that was the smallest bill I had.
I shared a room with a very pleasant and highly regarded German scholar
named Michael Hagemeister, who had already arrived and left his luggage.
The room was on the small side but comfortable, with a bay window
overlooking three churches with onion domes. It cost the Institute 3000
rubles a night (exchange rate to be disclosed later). I settled down to do
double crostics until dinner, and it gradually dawned on me that the noise
outside was an historic moment in progress--a demonstration/march in
support of Yeltsin. I just managed to get a picture of the last of the
procession before it turned the corner.
Our hotel, the Rossiya, is a massive block of a building. Our rooms were
all on the north side, mainly on the tenth floor, and there was a fair
amount of corridor between us and our dining room (second floor). This
latter faced west, with the northeast corner of the Kremlin wall in full
view and with an equally clear view of St. Basil's Cathedral.
As I was leaving my room to go to supper, I met Vladimir Maliavin, and we
were joined shortly by Durban Odhner and Göran Appelgren. After supper, we
met in Leonard and Nana Fox's room, learning among other things that
Vladimir had arranged for interviews concerning Swedenborg that will be
shown on Russian educational television. He is also arranging to have two
of the Foundations's films, Swedenborg: the Man Who Had to Know and Images
of Knowing, given Russian subtitles and shown on the same channel. I had
told him that thanks to Dr. Gretchen Frauenberger (of our Cambridge
church), I had a suitcase full of antibiotics and the like, which are
apparently in short supply. He seemed quite touched by this, and was to get
in touch with a state hospital that cares for neglected children. It seemed
symbolic that medicines which deluged Gretchen as free samples could
scarcely be bought in Moscow.
Sunday morning we had a leisurely breakfast at nine o'clock, and later I
went to the north lobby to join the rest of the Swedenborgian contingent
(those already named plus Olle Hjern). We were to meet a Mr. Roshcheen, who
is vitally interested in setting up some kind of Moscow Swedenborg
Association. He turned up promptly at eleven, and we adjourned to a rather
noisy lounge on the tenth floor. His English was not bad, but he felt
uncomfortable with it, so he spoke Russian with Nana translating.
After a good deal of background discussion, we arranged that Mr. Roshcheen
would try to set up a meeting of interested Russians (including Maliavin,
Dobrokhutov, and Necha'ev) before we left. Some members of the group felt
that it was our desire that he be in charge of the Association, since his
interest is obviously intense, but I urged that we leave that to the
Russians themselves and not send the message that we want things our way.
At lunch I exchanged two dollars for fourteen hundred rubles, knowing that
one could do a little better outside.
At supper at the Rossiya, I sat opposite Maria Carlson from Kansas
University, who has just come out with a book on the theosophical movement
in Russia in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I had a chance to
look at it and check out the five indexed references to Swedenborg, one of
which mentioned his "refined speculative mysticism." She was interested to
learn of Friedemann Horn's thesis on Schelling and Swedenborg, and I later
gave her a copy of my paper, which has a full bibliographical reference to
Monday morning we had our first encounter with the problematic state of the
Russian economy. We went to the appropriate lobby after breakfast, and were
informed that our Intourist bus could not make it because there was no gas
at the garage. Marina had put in a call for taxis and was hustling us into
them, but Michael guided me to the meeting hall via the subway. Tokens cost
six rubles, so I allowed him to treat me to the ride.
The first speaker of the program, Sergei Averintsev, covered a lot of
ground. To summarize as briefly as possible, he saw 20th century
secularization as a reaction against oppressive theocracies. Christianity,
for all its abuses, holds out the best hope of delivering us from the
tyranny of efficiency, especially because it will not let go of the paradox
of Christ being truly in the world and equally truly not of the world. The
strength of democracy lies precisely in what it has been criticized for,
namely that it holds no promise of a perfect, utopian society. Rather, it
is pledged to keep the debate alive. So while it cannot solve deep problems
it can [I'm guessing a bit here] provide a matrix in which Christianity can
work. As to the quality of the debate, he quoted Chesterton with approval:
"I hate the quarrel because it destroys the argument."
During the break, Göran Appelgren introduced me to a couple of young
representatives of a press that wants to publish Swedenborg. I asked Göran
(whose Russian is quite good) to check with them on the possibility of
setting up a revolving fund for the publication of Swedenborgiana. There
was no immediate answer; but it will be much healthier for Swedenborgianism
in Russia if it is not dependent on Western subsidies.
We had this first afternoon off, and I had opted for a tour of the Kremlin.
It turned out that I was the only one, in part because the footing was
either slushy or icy, so I wound up with a privately guided tour of what I
think was the southeast quarter. This included four "cathedrals" (they are
not so large as that sounds), two of which were open, and I had my first
exposure to the rather overwhelming richness of Russian iconography. We
also saw the largest cannon every made (it was never fired because they
couldn't figure out how to lift cannonballs into it and didn't think of
shrapnel until that particular war was over) and an even larger bell that
was never rung because it cracked when they tried to cool it too quickly.
As we were waiting for the bus back to the hotel, I learned that I could
get there quite simply by walking through Red Square, which I did. Lenin's
tomb was closed, but I got a closeup look at St. Basil's, the church we see
from our dining room. It is definitely in need of attention, exterior
stucco paintings are badly flaked.
For supper, Göran, Olle Hjern, and I went to the house of Lars Kleberg,
Sweden's "Cultural Counsellor" in Moscow, to meet with Leonid Petrick,
representing a press named Arbor Mundi. We had a very gracious dinner,
after which Leonid showed us galley proofs of the Heaven and Hell
translation. Our task was to negotiate a contract involving SPI. To his
eternal credit but temporal deficit, Leonid seems a better publisher than
capitalist, but I think we worked out a viable arrangement. I did manage to
have "Swedenborg Publishers International" substituted for "the Swedenborg
Foundation" in the contract. Leonid was to finish galleys of some
introductory material and revise the contract, and to meet with us later in
the week to sign the contract and transfer the funds we had brought in for
Tuesday morning, we Swedenborgians were segregated from the group for a
special session at the Institute of Philosophy. Leonard Fox presented his
paper on translation of Swedenborg into Russian, and Göran Appelgren
presented his on icons and the doctrine of correspondence. There were also
two presentations by Russians, one on a Swedenborgian/Masonic Society in
St. Petersburg in the 19th century, and one, quite brief, on Swedenborg and
Kant. The first was rather disorganized the second rather elusive--my notes
don't contain much of substance.
There were about twenty Russians in attendance, and after formal
adjournment, the other Swedenborgians opted to stay and continue the
discussion. I felt obliged to take our chartered bus back and rejoin the
The theme of the afternoon session was "The Russian Idea" (a main theme of
the Conference). Bernice Rosenthal, a delightful and down-to-earth scholar,
spoke on the perils of the Russian concept of sobornost--"conciliarity," or
in one political form, "collectivism." While it may seem a vast improvement
over the "transcendental egotism" of the United States, in practice it has
been disastrous. "Focusing exclusively on internal issues (spiritual,
psychological), [Vyacheslav Ivanov] ignored the external dimensions of
human existence (politics, economics), and never tried to work out the
connections between the spiritual and the temporal realms. As the
impossibility of combining unlimited self-affirmation and communitarianism
became obvious, Ivanov steadily abandoned his vision of a loosely knit `new
organic society,' redefined self-affirmation to mean self-definition, and
ended up regarding individualism itself as a sin."
In the evening, I went with a group to a performance of the Tchaikovsky
opera, The Queen of Spades, at the Bolshoi Theater. I had not planned to
go, but Durban Odhner had ordered a ticket and then changed his mind, which
would have stuck our tour guide with a $25.00 ticket. Our seats turned out
to be in the second row, and the whole evening was impressive. While the
rest of Moscow looks uniformly shabby, the Bolshoi gleams. I later learned
that this was the 260th performance of this particular staging of The Queen
of Spades. Two of our group had attended one of the first, in 1964, and
said that the art work and even the colors of the program were exactly the
same. Music, voices, orchestra, sets, and costumes were all superb.
The plenary session Wednesday morning featured James Scanlan and M. Gromov.
Scanlan addressed the question of Russian's need for "Russian philosophy,"
his main point being that the deliberate effort to be distinctively Russian
was likely to be counterproductive, since the essence of philosophy was the
search not for distinctiveness but for truth. He also expressed
reservations about the metaphysical/theological side of Russian philosophy,
suggesting that the urgent need is for "down-to-earth" examination of human
rights and government by law. In this he is in strong agreement with
Bernice Rosenthal, incidentally.
Gromov's topic was "Eternal Values in Russian Philosophy." He began by
noting that by comparison with the professional detachment of Western
philosophy, Russian philosophy was deliberately engaged with life. This
makes the philosopher a microcosm of the thought of the larger whole.
After a long history of expansion and strong central authority, Russian has
suffered a terrible defeat and has exhausted her resources. She must find
her own resources to rebuild with. Specifically, she must reject the "cult
of the hero," which is nothing less than despotism, and return to the ideal
of "holy Russia"--a rebirth of the sense of the sacred.
In the afternoon, we had our Swedenborg section. It looked for a while as
though we would be talking to each other, but a young Russian showed up, so
we went ahead. Durban talked about the doctrine of regeneration, Olle about
icons and correspondence, and I about the science-spirituality issue in
Swedenborg's life as it might parallel what I knew of the tension between
materialism and spirituality in Russian thought. A couple of other people
came in during the session, and it turned out the first young man was
researching "the psychology of angels," and will be digging further into
On Thursday morning, the locale of the conference shifted from the Kino
Center to the Philosophical Institute, and the whole character of the
proceedings changed. All of a sudden there were a hundred or so Russians at
the plenary session, and non-Russian-speakers were a somewhat neglected
The topic of the morning session was "Russian liberalism," which was
eventually defined as centering in the right to private property, the rule
of law, and a market economy. Andrey Walicki argued that this surfaced only
with the decline of philosophical posivitism. A. Pustakarnov took a very
different tack, arguing that the prime obstacle to liberalism was "true
religion," which implied theocracy. According to him, Nikolai Berdyaev and
Semyon Frank did conclude that a truly Christian view of human nature, of
the individual as ethically responsible, entailed a doctrine of individual
human rights. In Pustakarnov's own view, however, this linking of religion
and liberalism set liberalism back rather than advancing it, since it
distracted attention from practical politics. Here again there are echoes
of Scanlan and Rosenthal.
In the evening, the Swedenborgian contingent met with a group of Russians
interested in forming a Russian Swedenborg Association. Its purpose would
be to foster translation and publication of Swedenborg's works, to foster
publication of collateral literature, to hold seminars, to maintain a
library, and in general to be a focal point for Swedenborgian interests in
Russia. Several members of the Philosophical Institute were present, and
submitted a written request for financial support of the publication of the
papers delivered at Monday morning's session. Once there was general
agreement about the purposes of the Association, the group adjourned, and a
core group (Maliavin, Roshcheen, and Necha'ev, I think) met with Göran and
Durban to talk finances. Durban turned over some funds which he had brought
to help with the initial legal expenses. I also turned over the case of
medicines to Maliavin.
When we broke up, I found myself in conversation with Andrei Vashestov, a
rather diffident young Russian who has started translating Swedenborg from
Latin. We had a very cordial talk, and I will be sending him a copy of Hans
Helander's article on Swedenborg's Latin. I later spoke with Göran about
having a copy of Chadwick's Lexicon sent to him from London under the
auspices of SPI.
Later that evening, I met with Göran and Leonid Petrick of Arbor Mundi. He
had brought the promised galleys and revised contract. All appeared to be
in good order, so both Göran and Leonid signed it, and Göran turned over
$2500 from SPI.
Friday morning's session was divided in two. The first hour was given over
to Prof. Nina (I think) Matroshilova, who spoke on parallels between the
1890s and the 1990s. She developed in moderate detail the thesis that
Solovyov transcended the traditional dichotomies (particularly the
East/West one) and proposed a grand synthesis, and that this was precisely
our task at the close of the twentieth century. She explicitly presented
Solovyov as a prophet for our times, which represents the kind of Messianic
thinking that Scanlan and Rosenthal are warning against.
The balance of the morning was given over to four evaluations of the
conference. Caryl Emerson asked how much a culture could absorb from the
outside without losing its identity, and noted the risk that under the new
freedom, Russian philosophy might become fragmented and diffuse. Bernice
Rosenthal qualified the "East-West" dichotomy with the long overdue
observation that there is no monolithic West. Jim Scanlan noted that the
neighborhood in which we were meeting had housed the Slavophile I. Aksakov
and the Westernizer B. Chicherin at the same time, and that they had lived
in peace. George Kline spoke of his visits to the building during the
communist era, and of the radical improvement in the quality of
philosophical discourse since then.
After lunch, I did my souvenir shopping at a nearby, quite invisible, shop
that the Scanlans had pointed out to me, which made me a little late for
the afternoon session on "The Russian Mentality and Present-day Russian
Reform." For the first hour or so it was all untranslated Russian except
for a brief statement by Jim Scanlan, but eventually, someone remembered
the translator. Basically, we had a parade of Russians to the podium
apparently carrying on the Slavophile/Westernizer debate, and it struck me
that whatever one may think about the existence of a distinctive Russian
"idea" or "philosophy," there is certainly a distinctive style of
discourse. This often seems to include lively discussions in the audience
in the course of a speaker's remarks, and no one seems to mind.
The closing event was a farewell reception, including a presentation on a
current project of a complete, annotated edition of Solovyov's works.
After it was over, I volunteered to provide information for notes on
Solovyov's "Swedenborg" article in the 1900 Brockhaus-Ephron Encyclopedia.
All in all, it was a rewarding trip. I believe we gave a significant boost
to explicit Swedenborgian interests in Russia, and at least some of the
people we will be dealing with will be more than just names to me. The
Association should prove an invaluable clearing house for Russian
initiatives that we are in no position to evaluate.
On the scholarly side, I am convinced that any responsible investigation of
the nineteenth-century Swedenborg-Russia connection must include
familiarity with the theosophical movement in general, both in Germany
(Swabia in particular) and in Russia. As a specific project, a careful
examination of the Solovyov encyclopedia article might be illuminating and
might also get a hearing among Russian scholars--a preliminary reading
suggests a fascinating mixture of insight, detailed information, and
misinformation. Swedenborgian can quite rightly regard themselves as
holding a significant little piece of the intricate puzzle of Russian
history, and current interest suggests that the story is by no means ended.
In a more general vein, I am left with a predominant impression that
Russian thought is engaged with a kind of idealism that has been both a
blessing and a curse. There is some recognition that it could use an
injection of American pragmatism, but at the same time there is a
well-founded anxiety about the moral relativism this implies. I believe
also that Caryl Emerson put her finger on a very significant issue in
noting the fear of fragmentation. The effort to identify what is
"distinctively Russian" is surely fueled in part by the visible breakup of
the Soviet Union, against the background of a decisive rejection of the
communist identity that had been virtually unchallenged for the better part
of two generations. This identity itself, of course, involved an equally
decisive rejection of the mother Russia/third Rome/czarist identity which
had preceded it. There is a search for some kind of center that will hold.
It seems as though everything is in flux, leaving room for the hope that,
to paraphrase Swedenborg, when things are put back together, they will be
put back together in a better form.
<1>: Anders Hallengren, "Swedenborg i Östeuropa," in Väldarnas Möte No.
1,2, (1992), pp. 19f. (tr. GF Dole). Cf. also Hallengren's "Russia,
Swedenborg, and the Eastern Mind" in The New Philosophy Vol. XCIII No. 4
(Oct.-Dec. 1990), pp. 391-407.
<2>: ibid., p. 20.