Alexander Barchenko was a “dropout medical student and popular mystery writer.” He believed that “by introducing the elite of Red Russia to Tibetan Buddhism and to the knowledge of Shambhala … he [would] be able to make the communist project in Russia less violent.”
Ja-Lama was “a spiritual drifter and adventurer who … pose[d] as a reincarnation of Mahakala (an avenging Buddhist deity) and as the grandson of Prince Amursana (18th-century ruler who fought against Chinese domination) to stir nationalist feeling among Mongol nomads and draw them together.”
Nicholas Roerich was an “emigre Russian painter and Theosophist … who venture[d] to Tibet, Mongolia, and the Altai to establish a Buddhist-communist theocracy, posing as a reincarnation of the fifth Dalai Lama, who came to cleanse Tibetan Buddhism from modern evils.”
The above are only three out of the eleven figures historian Andrei Znamenski introduces at the beginning of “Red Shambhala,” and in their oddness and ambition — and the oddness of their ambitions — they are representative of the eccentric would-be messiahs (sincere and otherwise) who populate Znamenski’s lively account of the ways traditional beliefs common in Tibet, Mongolia, and surrounding areas came into play in the competition between Russia and England for dominance in that region.
To say that these characters are odd is not necessarily to say they are interesting: Oddballs are, in every historical epoch, commonplace. What sets these oddballs apart from the guy mumbling into his beard on the subway is that they were, in the early years of the last century, able to get powerful people to support their efforts to realize their visions.
The core vision in which many of them believed, or affected to believe, or were willing to use in attempting to achieve their ends, was derived from the Tibetan legend of Shambhala, a kingdom that is “shielded from the outside world by mountain peaks as high as the heavens and sharp as the teeth of a tiger,” It has all the usual utopian trappings: “palaces … made of pure gold, silver, turquoise coral, pearl … and other precious stones,” and residents who “never become sick or old” and who are “blessed with handsome and beautiful bodies,” “never go hungry,” and are “good, virtuous, and intelligent.” All are watched over by a benign ruling elite.
It may be surprising that such mystical claptrap could be of interest to Marxist-Leninists who were avowedly (if not always actually) materialistic, scientific, and rational. The leaders of Red Russia were, however, practical. Thus, even though it’s doubtful, for example, that the medical school dropout, Barchenko, convinced many top officials that his (extremely sketchy) knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and his tales of Shambhala, could benefit newly communist Russia, they were willing to humor him, not least because of the power the legends he drew on had for the region’s people. Coupled with growing nationalist sentiments the legends could, perhaps, be used to bring the region’s peoples into the communist fold.
The communists used the proto-New-Agers for their own ends, but the New-Agers did their share of using, too. Nicholas Roerich, for example, was able to get support from the Russian government for his journey through Mongolia to Tibet, a trip inspired by his wife’s “divine headaches,” as Znamenski calls the fits during which she received communiques from, among others, “two spiritual masters … hidden in the Himalayas.”
These hidden masters were soon chatting with Nicholas, too, and — given the size of his ego this is no surprise — it wasn’t long before he was suggesting that, “people from Shambhala sometimes emerge into the world,” and that he was one of those people.
The Roerichs saw other people, Znamenski writes, “as just pawns in their schemes,” and they were skilled at moving them about. Nicholas was able, for example, to manipulate the Russian ambassador to Germany into supporting his mission through Mongolia to Tibet, ostensibly to instigate an uprising of the “hundreds of thousands of Hindu mahatmas and Buddhist lamas,” whom, he convinced the Ambassador, “looked with hope to Red Russia.” Of course Nicholas’ real purpose was to set up a regional theocracy in which he — a reincarnation of the fifth Dalai Lama after all — would be the supreme theocrat. A wily British spy saw to it that neither of these ends, the ostensible or the real, was achieved.
Znamenski’s account of all this is an entertaining read. The speculation he engages in — the text is littered with “might haves,” “may haves,” and “it is possibles” — is often plausible, and does help his narrative to hum along, but one imagines raised eyebrows among his fellow historians.
Readers with a non-professional interest in The Great Game of Anglo-Russian rivalry, however, will enjoy the tales Znamenski tells.