Castaneda and the Soviet Union
In January 2018 a video appeared on YouTube in a series called Three minutes with Vladimir Yakovlev. The video featured Yakovlev, a creator of two prominent Russian media outlets – a business newspaper Kommersant and a magazine Snob – telling an unusual story about his travel to California during the 1990s to become a student of an American spiritual teacher Carlos Castaneda. A story about then an editor-in-chief of a successful business newspaper from Russia who travels to the other side of the globe in order to learn what presumably was secret teachings of a Yaqui tribe might sound unusual – but only for those who are unfamiliar with situation in Russia during the 1990s and the role of Castaneda’s books in Russian underground culture of the 1980s and 1990s.
As soon as we take a look at Russian esoteric literature, it immediately becomes evident that the influence of Castaneda is omnipresent. For example, a doctrine of one of the most successful esoteric schools created in Russia during the 1990s called the School of Atlantean Magic borrows from Castaneda his core concept of assemblage point which, for Castaneda, was an element of metaphysical anatomy of human beings located on a level of shoulder bones and accounted for perception of reality. In the School of Atlantean Magic it was reinterpreted and mixed with a concept of chakras in such a way that an assemblage point, according to the teachings of the school, moves from the lowest to the highest chakras thus reflecting a spiritual progress of an individual (Monosov, 2007, p. 13). Another movement influenced by Castaneda that emerged in Russia – this time in mid-2000s – was so-called Dream Hackers who relied on Castaneda’s ideas about lucid dreams, albeit they too redefined those ideas in an original manner. Even movements that strive to represent themselves as authentic expressions of traditional Russian spirituality sometimes make references or implicitly rely on Cataneda’s writings – for an example of Russian bare-knuckle boxing see how in Skogarev, 2003, p. 61ff. a description of subtle bodies is clearly based on Castaneda and for Siberian shamanism see Dikson, 2006, p. 313ff.
Why Castaneda became so popular in Russia? The roots of his popularity go way back to the Soviet period. Although, naturally, no official translation of Castaneda was published during that time, Soviet underground spiritual seekers familiarized themselves with his doctrines through unofficial translations shared privately, so-called samizdat. We know about that both because of the role that Castaneda played immediately after the weakening of Soviet ideological pressure in the 1980s and thanks to recently published memoirs of people involved in Soviet esotericism. For instance, Castaneda plays a prominent role in writings of Konstantin Serebrov, a student of a Soviet esoteric teacher Vladimir Stepanov, in which Serebrov tells about the first half of the 1980s. There we see an abundance of Catanedan terminology such as references to certain people as “benefactors” in a particular Castanedan sense or mentions of practice derived from books of Castaneda and his students such as “recapitulation.” And, of course, there were direct references to Castaneda as well.
One of such references can shed light on the reasons of Castaneda’s importance. In a Serebrov’s book Mystical Underground, Serbrov tells about his journeys through the mystical circles of the Soviet Union. Among people whom he met was Vyacheslav who argued for the necessity of stalking – yet another concept from Castaneda’s books that referred to an ability to adapt oneself to different social circumstances without losing internal spiritual freedom or taking such adaptations as serious and permanent. As Vyacheslav explained it, If you want to become a stalker, it is not enough to read Castaneda – you should remain a Warrior in your social life (Serebrov, 2002, p. 235). This particular mode of a spiritual practice – a practice in disguise that allows a person to integrate themselves into any social circumstances remaining under the radar of unwanted attention by erasing personal history, was probably one of the most valuable aspects of Castaneda’s teachings for those who, like Soviet mystics, had to live in a hostile environment of a totalitarian atheistic regime that was wary of all sorts of unconventional spirituality.
However, it was not an attempt to faithfully and literally follow Castaneda. In the Soviet context he was just one of a set of sources that also included Gurdjieff, Russian religious philosophers, Gnosticism, Theosophical and Anthroposophical writings, as well as Eastern authors like Swami Shivananda. All of that was mixed into a melting pot of Soviet esoteric circles that unofficially met at kitchens of private apartments all over the USSR. These underground communities became a place that connected Soviet readers with the life outside the USSR; they also acted as centers of resistance – even if on spiritual rather than political level – to totalitarian control of an individual’s mind imposed by the Soviet authorities.
Means for opposition to the Soviet social reality were quite naturally looked for outside of the power structure of Soviet society. That meant one of two things – either to look in the past, in Russia before the 1917 Socialist revolution, or to look outside, primarily at the non-communist West. The latter was a natural decision in a Cold War situation, and I must add that it worked in both ways; the left opposition at the West got its inspiration from Socialist countries, e.g. Maoist ideas became an inspiration for French students during the riots of the 1960s. However, in the Soviet Union the Western model of organization of society – embodied primarily by the United States – was definitely perceived as an alternative by those who were dissatisfied with the Soviet reality.
Castaneda, born of a spirit of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll of the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s (even though the phrase itself was coined only in the late 1970s), was a perfect fit in a somewhat chaotic situation of Perestroika and Russian 1990s that valued personal freedom above anything else.
- Dikson, Olard (2006). Entsiklopedia Sibirskogo Znakharja (in Russian). Moscow: RIPOL-klassik.
- Monosov, Boris (2007). Magija dlja Magov (in Russian). Saint Petersburg: Nevskii Prospekt, Vektor.
- Serebrov, Konstantin (2002). Misticheskii Andegraund (in Russian). Moscow: Amrita-Rus’.
- Skogorev, Dmitry (2003). Vzaimodejstvie s Siloj (in Russian). Novosibirsk: Sibirskoe Universitetskoe Izdatel’stvo.
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