Occult dissident culture: the case of Aleksandr Dugin – Part II

George Gurdjieff

By Mark Sedgwick
München–Berlin 2012 Anno Domini

Excerpt from The New Age of Russia
Occult and Esoteric Dimensions – Part I | Part II | Part III
Pgs. 277-284

Dugin’s despair: The Iuzhinskii Circle as a Soviet phenomenon

Dugin’s despair was of Soviet origin. Dugin was born in 1962, allegedly into the Soviet nomenklatura as the son of a general in the GRU (military intelligence).(19) At the age of 18, however, he encountered occult dissident culture in the form of the “Iuzhinskii Circle,” (20) so-called because it originally met in an apartment in Iuzhinskii Lane. The Iuzhinskii Circle was an informal group that had been established in the 1960s by the poet Evgenii Golovin (1938–2010), the novelist Iurii Mamleev (b. 1931), and a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Vladimir Stepanov. By 1980, when Dugin entered the circle, Mamleev had emigrated to America, and Golovin no longer attended much; leadership had passed to Stepanov. (21) It is not clear that it was still referred to as the Iuzhinskii Circle at this point, but the label is anyhow used in this article, since no better label is available.

The Iuzhinskii Circle had originally been established in search of all forms of occult knowledge, starting with yoga and Sufism, but had gradually come to concentrate on the work of Georgii Gurdjieff (1866 [?]–1949), (22) the Greek-Armenian who, after an early career in the Russian Empire, had emigrated to Paris and there established one of the most enigmatic and important alternative religious movements of the twentieth century. (23) The Iuzhinskii Circle was not, however, an “authentic” Gurdjieff group, which, as Arkady Rovner argues, would have been impossible in “the environment of cultural isolation of Soviet Russia.” It, like other such occult dissident groups, necessarily developed its understandings on the basis of the limited material its members could find (normally in the Lenin Library), (24) often developing this material in idiosyncratic ways. Its interpretation of the Gurdjieff “work” was somewhat different from that known at Gurdjieff’s own Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man outside Paris, for example, and included a strong emphasis on the use of “shock,” “tests” of obedience (such as going out for a week wearing one brown shoe and one black one), (25) and prolonged bouts of drunkenness— including, allegedly, a party for Golovin’s birthday that lasted for five months. (26)

Dugin’s first wife Evgeniia Debrianskaia, co-founder of the Association of Sexual Minorities, which became the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Union.

By the time that Dugin joined the circle, “excess in all forms” had become the norm, according to Dugin also a form of revolt. (27) As well as the consumption of significant quantities of alcohol, this excess included sexual experimentation. Dugin’s first wife, Evgeniia Debrianskaia (b. 1953), whom he met in the Iuzhinskii Circle, was later one of two co-founders of the Association of Sexual Minorities, (28) which became the Moscow Gay and Lesbian Union. Excess, however, was matched by serious discussion and by reading, carried out in a variety of languages, which members of the circle often taught themselves. (29) Dugin, for example, is an accomplished linguist, said to read nine or ten languages. (30)

Dugin’s encounter with occult dissident culture in the form of the Iuzhinskii Circle changed his life in several ways. Its immediate effect was to turn him into a dissident, one of those arrested by the KGB in 1983 after a party in a painter’s studio during which he had sung what he describes as “mystical anti-Communist songs.” As a result, he was expelled from the Institute of Aviation, where he had been studying. For some years after this he worked as a street sweeper. (31) Another effect was to introduce him to people with whom he would remain in contact until today, including Gaidar Dzhemal (b. 1947), with whom Dugin took his first political steps during the closing years of the Soviet Union, when both men joined Pamiat’, the first non-Party mass political organization in Soviet history, and one opposed to perestroika. (32) Dzhemal, like Golovin and Mamleev, lectured for Dugin’s “New University” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, (33) despite by then having adopted political positions that were different from Dugin’s. Dzhemal, for example, became one of Russia’s best known Islamists, and despite an early interest in Traditionalism, no longer describes himself as a Traditionalist. (34)

The most important effect on Dugin of the Iuzhinskii Circle, however, was to introduce him to a wide range of occult writers and thought. These, the origin of Dugin’s Traditionalist metaphysics, and thus of his political and public positions, will be considered below.

The Iuzhinskii Circle, the location of Dugin’s “ultimate despair” and of his discovery of the metaphysics that would remain central to the fundamental intellectual level of his later activity, was a phenomenon characteristic of late Soviet culture. Circles of friends exist everywhere, but late-Soviet circles such as the Iuzhinskii Circle differed from those found elsewhere in two important respects: the talent and intellectual quality of their members, and their compactness and thus their significance for their members. Systems such as the contemporary Western one afford talented and clever people many opportunities for a variety of activities, with the result that such people tend to be busy, and so meet only occasionally, and do not generally form significant circles of close friends, at least after they leave university. Post-university circles, then, have little impact on them. The late Soviet system, in contrast, rewarded only certain types of talent, leaving other types of talent unoccupied, and thus providing unusually talented recruits for circles such as the Iuzhinskii Circle. The late Soviet system also ensured, through the activities of the state security apparatus, that such circles were compact. The Iuzhinskii Circle is reported by Rovner not to have been too worried about informers because of a conviction that “informers do not read [Jakob] Böhme.” (35) This was probably true, but isolating the Circle from all those who did not read Böhme necessarily resulted in a high bar to entry. Circles of friends in systems without an intrusive security apparatus have lower bars to entry, and so are less compact. The late Soviet circle, then, was an instance of a very special social formation, similar to a religious sect. One characteristic of a sect is that it is of great significance for its members’ lives. Another is that the mental world within it tends to develop with little reference to society in general, (36) and so—unrestrained—can easily go in unusual and surprising directions.

Moscow’s Lenin Library.

The Iuzhinskii Circle was also a distinctly late-Soviet phenomenon because of its eclecticism—the very wide variety of occult and esoteric writings in which it was interested. Esoteric groups in the West, for example, commonly follow one particular line. Western followers of Gurdjieff generally read Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and other writers of the “Fourth Way.” They do not generally read the Traditionalist writers whom Dugin encountered via the Iuzhinskii Circle, as in the West the two movements do not overlap. To the extent that they do have any relations, those relations are generally hostile. In late Soviet Russia, however, only some of the works of the writers of the “Fourth Way” were available. The Lenin Library did not intentionally stock esoteric or occultist works in foreign languages, and had a somewhat random collection of them. Anything that could be found, then, was valuable, was read, and was discussed, not only in the Iuzhinskii Circle but also in the wider group of readers in the Lenin Library who were interested in the occult. Many of these knew each other, and met and talked there; Rovner describes such readers as almost living in the Lenin Library. (37) Dugin remains remarkably eclectic to this day, (38) and this eclecticism is a continuation of Soviet occult dissident culture.

One further way in which the Iuzhinskii Circle was a phenomenon characteristic of late Soviet culture was the prior intellectual formation of its members. Though all were clever and talented—Jakob Böhme is not easy reading, after all—few if any were trained in the rigorous application of critical and analytic skills. Dugin, for example, was almost entirely self-taught: he received no formal higher education in the humanities. The doctorate that later allowed him to become a professor of sociology was awarded in 2004 by the Rostov Institute of Law in Rostov-on-Don, (39) not one of Russia’s leading academic institutions. Although others in the Iuzhinskii Circle had received higher education, Soviet higher education did not encourage the questioning and critical analysis that are the marks of a good education in the humanities in the West.

There was also a difference between the scope of acceptable knowledge in the late Soviet Union and the West. One of the standard definitions of “esoteric” used by social scientists is, of course, “rejected knowledge.” (40) Such definitions are usually followed by examples that illustrate the rather narrow scope of rejected knowledge in the West: the study of flying saucers is often given. (41) The scope of rejected knowledge in the Soviet Union, however, was rather wider. Esoteric authors were not just in the same category as flying saucers, but in the same category as Adam Smith and Isaiah Berlin.

This is one explanation for a striking difference between the reception of occult and esoteric works in the Iuzhinskii Circle—and indeed in Russia as a whole—and in comparable environments in the West. In the West, esoteric and occultist writers are not taken seriously in mainstream intellectual life, while in Russia they may be. This is partly a question of fashion—it is hard otherwise to explain why René Guénon (discussed below) is not acceptable in the footnotes of Western academic papers, though Mircea Eliade and Frantz Fanon are—but it is also a question of Soviet circumstances: less training in intellectual rigor and critical skills, and a far wider scope of “rejected knowledge.”

Late Soviet circumstances, then, encouraged the formation of circles such as the Iuzhinskii Circle, and determined their nature. In contrast to Western norms, such circles collected more talent, were more compact (and so more sectarian) but also more eclectic. If they had much higher barriers to entry for individuals than the Western norm, they also had much lower barriers to entry for ideas, partly by necessity, and partly as a consequence of the prior intellectual preparation of their members and partly as a consequence of the wider scope of “rejected knowledge.”

René Guénon (1886–1951).

Dugin’s metaphysics: Traditionalism as a Western phenomenon

The single most important writer Dugin encountered through the Iuzhinskii Circle was René Guénon (1886–1951), whose work had been introduced to the Circle—along with that of another Traditionalist, Julius Evola (1897–1974)— by Stepanov. Guénon was, Dugin wrote in 2002, “the most important man of the twentieth century.” (42) Students at Moscow State University who took Dugin’s course on the sociology of Russian society in 2009 found five books by Guénon and four books by Evola on their readings lists, along with more standard titles by Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean Baudrillard. (43)

René Guénon is the founder of the Traditionalist movement. (44) His early career in Paris during the belle époque was typical of activities in the esoteric milieux of his time. As a young man, he joined the Martinist Order of “Papus,” Gérard Encausse (1865–1916). This was a quasi-Masonic order which derived ultimately from the Theosophical Society, and enjoyed considerable—if brief— success, mostly in France, but also in late-imperial Russia. (45) After the First World War, Guénon distanced himself from these milieux, became a severe critic of the occultism of the period, and attracted Roman Catholic patronage. He continued to develop various ideas of esoteric origin, notably perennialism (discussed below), and so lost Catholic patronage. He later dismissed contemporary Christianity as esoterically bankrupt. His mature philosophy was expressed in several books, many articles by him and his followers, and a long-running journal, Études traditionnelles.

There are three crucial elements in Traditionalism. Taken individually, none of these are unique to Traditionalism; what is unique is their combination. The first and most widespread element is perennialism, a belief in the existence of a single original Ur-religion known as the Tradition, from which Traditionalism takes its name. This perennial Tradition is a major theme in Western esotericism. It dates back to the work of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) and Agostino Steuco (1497–1548) at the time of the Renaissance, and is found thereafter not only in occultist and esoteric writings, but also in the more mainstream work of the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). (46) The second element is a conviction that progress is an illusion, and that the real dynamic of history is relentless decline. Modernity is the lowest stage of decline, when the Tradition has been almost entirely lost. Traditionalism, then, is fiercely anti-modernist. The third element is a conviction that something can and should be done about this, either by following a traditional esoteric path within a traditional exoteric framework—Guénon’s solution—or by spiritually motivated political activity—Evola’s solution. For Guénon, the model was the brahmin priest, and for Evola, the model was the kshatriya spiritual warrior. Evola is sometimes described as a fascist, but was never a member of the Fascist Party, which he saw as insufficiently radical, and with which he was sometimes in conflict.

By the start of the Second World War, Guénon had moved to Egypt and converted to Islam, the exoteric framework within which he pursued the esoteric, Sufism. His followers by then included French Freemasons, European Sufis, and Rightists in Italy and Romania, inspired also by Evola. After the end of the Second World War and Guénon’s death, these streams diverged. There is relatively little information about Traditionalist Freemasons. Several groups of Traditionalist Sufis came into being, none of which were large but some of which were influential, given that their members were often persons of importance in European and American cultural and intellectual life. Traditionalist Rightism developed most in Italy where, during the 1970s, the works of Evola became the chief inspiration for activists who were at one point responsible for an average of 80 terrorist incidents a month. (47)

As an anti-modernist philosophy, Traditionalism has most appeal to those with problematic experiences of modernity. In the West, it has generally appealed to intellectuals whose understanding of modernity has led them to disenchantment with it and alienation from it. In the Islamic world, it has more general appeal in Turkey and Iran, the two countries with the most problematic experiences of modernity: Turkey because Kemalist modernity is simultaneously nationalist and in opposition to Turkey’s cultural and historical past, and Iran both because the Shah’s modernity was similarly in opposition to Iran’s culture and recent history, and because of the problematic experience of the disappointing consequences of the Islamic Revolution. In the Arab world, where experience of modernity has been much more superficial, Traditionalism is popular only in limited circles, notably among the Moroccan Franco-phone elite—which, of course, has its own problematic experience of modernity. (48)

The Soviet Union in some ways defined modernity, and Russia’s experience of that modernity was certainly problematic. Guénon condemned modernity for its loss of the sacred, its cult of the technical sciences, and its illusory cult of progress. Nowhere was the loss of the sacred more dramatic than in the officially atheist Soviet Union, and nowhere else were the two substitute cults of science and progress more assiduously advanced, and nowhere else was the cult of progress more obviously illusory. Guénon condemned the materialism that underlay modern life; in the Soviet Union, materialism was not an underlying factor that was visible only to those who looked carefully, as it was in France, but rather a major and official part of the dominant world view. In one of his most important books, The Reign of Quantity, Guénon contrasted the “modern” emphasis on quantity, with its attendant atomization, and the “traditional” emphasis on quality, understood in a metaphysical sense. (49) Quantity (in this sense, not in the sense of abundance) rather than quality was characteristic of Soviet life, again perhaps more than anywhere else.

One of Traditionalism’s major points of appeal has always been its condemnation of modernity. Traditionalism has always had limited appeal in the West, because Guénon’s characterization of modernity corresponds so little to most Westerners’ experience of modernity that it can easily seem a caricature. For those with experience of Soviet modernity, however, Traditionalism could very easily seem to present an entirely accurate analysis.


19  “Doktor Dugin,” Literaturnaia Rossiia 15, no. 13 (April 2007), www.litrossia.ru/2007/15/ 01412.html. When I first interviewed him, Dugin identified his father simply as “an army offi- cer” (interview, Moscow, August 1999).

20  Ibid.

21  Arkady Rovner, “Gurdzhievskoe dvizhenie v Rossii 1960-kh i 1970-kh: Vospominaniia irefleksii uchastnika,” paper given at the conference on “The Occult in 20th Century Russia: Metaphysical Roots of Soviet Civilisation,” European Academy, Berlin, March 11–13, 2007.

22  Ibid.

23  Although much has been written on Gurdjieff, there is still no good scholarly history of this movement.

24  Rovner, “Gurdzhievskoe dvizhenie.”

25  Rovner, interview, Berlin, March 2007.

26  Vladislav Lebed’ko, Khroniki Rossiiskoi San’iyasy” (St. Petersburg: Tema, ND) vol. 2, ch. 3, sanyasa.narod.ru/chronicles/vol2/stepanov.htm. Accessed March 1, 2010.

27  Dugin, interview, Moscow, August 1999.

28  “Evgeniia Debrianskaia,” Proekt People’s History, www.peoples.ru/state/statesmen/evgeniia_debrianskaya/index.html, accessed March 1, 2010.

29  Dugin, interview, 1999.

30  Nine languages according to Dugin’s entry in the Russian Wikipedia (accessed March 7, 2010), and ten according to an earlier version of his biography, www.evrazia.org/modules. php?name=News&file=article&sid=1882 (accessed November 11, 2006). As well as Russian, he certainly knows French and English very well, and evidently also German, though I have not interviewed him in German.

31  Dugin, interview, 1999.

32 Ibid.

33  List of lectures at nu.evrazia.org/archives, accessed February 21, 2010.

34  Dzhemal, interview, Moscow, January 2006.

35  Rovner, “Gurdzhievskoe dvizhenie.”

36  For a recent successful application of the sociology of the sect to the analysis of the political, see Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

37  Rovner, interview.

38  He has also incorporated Herman Wirth (1885–1981) into his Traditionalism, which no Western Traditionalist has. Filosofiia traditsionalizma, 135–165. Wirth does not, however, seem to have had a major impact on Dugin’s final conceptions.

39  Dugin, “Transformatsiia politicheskikh institutov i struktur v protsesse modernizatsii tradit- sionnykh obshchestv (Unpublished dissertation: Rostov-on-Don, 2004), science.dugin.ru/ avto- disser-2.htm.

40  Deriving from Colin Campbell’s famous “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization,” A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (London: SCM Press, 1972), 119–136.

41  For example, by Michael Barkun, “Conspiracy Theories as Stigmatized Knowledge: The Basis for A New Age Racism?”, in Nation and Race: The Developing Euro-American Racist Subcul- ture, Jeffrey Kaplan, Tore Bjørgo, eds. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 62.

42  Dugin, Filosofiia traditsionalizma, 21

43  Reading list, konservatizm.org/konservatizm/sociology/060909141416.khhtml (accessed February 22, 2010).

44  This summary and subsequent summaries are drawn from the first chapters of Sedgwick, Against the Modern World.

45  Marie-Sophie André, Christophe Beaufils, Papus, biographie, la Belle époque de l’occultisme (Paris: Berg international, 1995), 171.

46  Charles B. Schmitt, “Perennial Philosophy: From Agostino Steuco to Leibniz,” Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966), 505–532.

47  There were some 2,000 incidents in 1977. It can be assumed that half of them were the work of Rightists.

48  These observations, like some of those following, are distilled from the relevant sections of Sedgwick, Against the Modern World.

49  René Guénon, Le règne de la quantité et les signes des temps (Paris: Gallimard, 2003).

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