Posted on Wednesday, 20 July, 2011 | 11 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker
Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich (10/9/1874-12/13/1947) was one of the most colorful, mysterious, and ambiguous figures of the entire twentieth century. Born to a prominent family in St. Petersburg, Russia, he graduated in 1897 from the Petersburg Academy of Arts and pursued a career as an artist, writer, and amateur archaeologist. In 1901 he married (for life) Helena, Ivanovna Shaposhnikova. A mystic, Roerich believed in something called “Living Ethics” and believed that, while civilization is material (cities, industry, etc.) culture is spiritual in origin. He was the author of Roerich’s Pact to protect cultural values, an agreement signed by FDR and the representatives of thirty five other nations. Roerich studied Hinduism and Eastern mysticism and philosophy, and translated The Secret Doctrine, the work of the rather ambiguous, even sinister Russian mystic “Madame” Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. He searched for the legendary Shambhalla in Asia.
He was a prolific painter, and, although famed mainly for his landscapes, many depicting the Himalayas and other Central Asian areas, he also painted many Russian historical scenes, and was quite capable of depicting buildings, cities, and the human form as well as the natural landscape. Roerich believed that, long ago, the Slavs and the people of India might have had a common origin, and this was one reason why he travelled to India, arriving there the first time on 12/2/1923. Many of his paintings depict historical or legendary figures from the remote past in Asia; here his interests in history, archaeology, mysticism and art come together.
He made expeditions to Central Asia from 1924-1928, traveling in Tibet, China, Mongolia, and parts of Asiatic Russia at a time when such travels involved extreme hardship and physical effort, crossing roadless mountain passes on foot or on horseback, camping and sleeping on the ground night after night or staying in primitive inns, and enduring desert heat and the bitter winters of Tibet and Mongolia. In those days, there was real danger from heavily armed bandits, and, in Russia, the Soviet government. Like the Andean Altiplano and a few other regions, Central Asia has always seemed to most Westerners to be a remote and mysterious realm where almost anything might be possible, and this was more true in Roerich’s time than today. Only a relative few people from outside had even gone to Tibet. On one of his expeditions he reported seeing what today would be called a UFO, a daytime sighting of what looked like a machine, with an appearance and performance beyond that of any aircraft of the time.
In 1934-35 he made another expedition to the region, arranged and financed by the US Department of Agriculture and its Secretary, Henry Wallace. In addition to collecting manuscripts and doing archaeological research, Roerich collected plants and seeds, and warned that deforestation of the region would ultimately lead to desertification…a fate now befalling much of Western China in particular.
A number of writers have claimed that Roerich was an actual member of the Theosophist movement, and he certainly studied it and translated Blavatsky’s book. But I have been unable to unearth any proof that Roerich actually joined the movement. This is important due to the somewhat sinister nature of “Madame” Blavatsky and the cult she founded, arguably the very beginning of today’s New Age movement. She was a somewhat promiscuous and unconventional woman who left her husband and traveled widely, claiming to have gone to Tibet (this is rather dubious). At least one of her successors in the movement, Alice Bailey, was a truly evil woman. Alice Bailey wrote that God was a tyrant and that she worshipped a fallen angel called “Lucifer.” She hated all Jews, and admired Napoleon, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Blavatsky’s ideas had a direct influence on Hitler, and also an indirect influence via Austrian occultists like Guido Karl Anton List (10/5/1848-5/17/1919) and Lanz von Liebefels (7/19/1874-4/22/1954). Liebenfels published the anti-Semitic magazine Ostara and founded the Ordo Novi Templi (Order of the New Templars) in 1907. This morphed into the German Order and then the Thule Society, and it was they who founded the Nazi Party and recruited Hitler to lead it. Interestingly, Liebenfels was a former Cistercian monk, and St. Bernard, founder of that Catholic order, was closely connected to the original Knights Templar. But an interest in Theosophy, or even membership in the organization, does not mean that Roerich was a Satanist or a Nazi.
Roerich was for many years a friend of Henry Agard Wallace (10/7/1888-11/18/1965). Wallace, who arranged one of Roerich’s expeditions, was Secretary of Agriculture (from 1933 to 1940) under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and later was FDR’s next to last Vice President, from 1941 to 1945. He was America’s thirty third Vice President, and thirty three is a very important number to Freemasons. Wallace himself was a thirty second degree Scottish Rite Freemason, and he was the 1948 nominee of the Progressive Party. During the Depression, it was Wallace who ordered the cruel and wasteful destruction of cotton fields and the slaughter and disposal of thousands of pigs when people were actually starving, supposedly to maintain higher prices for farmers. He was pro-Soviet during Stalin’s mass murders, and advocated national health insurance. To anyone who is to the right of the political center, at least, Wallace seems to be a rather unpleasant figure, but he also was involved in agricultural experimentation, an apparently honest attempt to improve production and better the lives of millions. In his many letters he addressed Roerich as “Dear Guru,” and signed them “G,” for “Galahad,” a sort of code name Roerich had given him. Wallace wrote longingly of his desire for a new age which he hoped would be brought about by the people of “Northern Shambhalla.” When he was criticized for his mystical beliefs and for associating with Roerich, hurting his chances for election, he disavowed their friendship, even going so far as to claim that his letters to Roerich were forgeries…not a very credible story. But, again, Roerich’s association with an ambiguous (like Roerich himself) and controversial figure does not make Roerich a villain, or even prove that he shared Wallace’s political principles.
Although Roerich had left Russia before the Communist Revolution, he never renounced his Russian citizenship or became a citizen of any other nation. During WWII he contributed to the Soviet Red Cross. But patriotism and a love of his homeland does not make him a communist, and trying to help his fellow Russians in their hour of need does not make him a henchman of Stalin.
So in the end we are left with a man of mystery. Was he a saint or a sinner, or, like most of us, somewhere in between? The one thing we do know with absolute certainty is that he left us with hundreds of paintings which many of us who love art and appreciate his use of color and are fascinated by his landscapes and historical themes consider to be a true gift to humanity.Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.