Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences



Here JR Colombo reviews an astonishing Russian television program which spins many tales about Gurdjieff, with links to Stalin who features strongly, see photo, and others, some may give a lead to future research, others valuable for collectors of growing myths about Gurdjieff …

In the past there were times when I wished that I could speak the Russian language, and among them were the two state-sponsored trips that I took there. Yet guides and interpreters were plentiful and knowledgeable, so there was really no need to speak the language. Besides, many things may be known without the use of words. For instance, it has been said that each country in the world possesses two identities, its official identity and its secret identity. England is “John Bull,” but it is also King Arthur. France is “Marianne,” but it is also “the Spirit of Enlightenment and of Civilized Values.” Russia’s official identity has much to do with “the Russian Bear,”
Alexander Nevsky, the Last Tsar, and perhaps Lermontov’s “living relic,” but its secret identity is, I believe, not a single personification or one person but two cities. Simply put, scratch a Russian and you will find someone who longs for the former glory of St. Petersburg and yearns for Moscow to be recognized as “the Third Rome.” Russians still feel that the capital of their country is the inheritor of a spiritual message to share with the rest of the world, in the same way that French citizens still feel that their country has a “civilizing” mission, the rayonnement of French culture.

One does not have to speak or read the Russian language to appreciate such yearnings. These concepts animate Russian theosophical texts and its imaginative literature. Remember that Soloviev, Berdyaev, and Blavatsky were Russians, and so was Ouspensky. Hence Moscow and St. Petersburg may be remembered as the “pressure-cookers” of occult and artistic thought at the turn of the 20th century, except that these capital cities are better regarded as “autoclaves” rather than pressure-cookers, so intense and concentrated have been the pressures that they have brought to bear on their citizenry.

An artist who fits this pattern (even to the extent that he lived most of his life abroad) was the artist and explorer Nicholas Roerich. Three museums (in New York City, Kerala, and Moscow) are dedicated to displaying his inspirational, semi-abstract paintings. On trips to New York, I visited that Slav-style museum on a number of occasions, as well as the one in Moscow following its inauguration by President Mikhail Gorbachev at the time that he was awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. For some reason or other, those Russian scholars and writers whom I respect regard Roerich as “a reactionary”; I find him and his work to be progressive and prospective (when not a little portentous).

You might ask how Gurdjieff fits into all of this. Students of the Caucasian Greek are familiar with his Russian connections, so well described by Ouspensky and then by the two Jameses (Webb and Moore), so I am not going to connect the dots, a task I will leave to cultural historians who speak the language. Instead, I will add to the fund of general knowledge by offering a lopsided review of an hour-long documentary television program produced and telecast by the Russian state network earlier this year. If I am short on details (the names of producer and director, the date of the broadcast, etc.) it is because I am on the receiving end of two artifacts: a DVD of “Gurdjieff,” the telecast of the Russian-language program, with its credits in Cyrillic script; a dozen-page transcript and translation of the statements that were made by interviewees during the course of the forty-seven-minute documentary. The script was prepared by students of the Work in Toronto, a number of whom years ago had a hand in typesetting and publishing the Russian-text version of Beelzebub’s Tales. Given these limitations, I will be sympathetic should the reader of this review decide to read no further. But if the reader persists, here is what emerges: a jot of rumour and a tittle of speculation. As for facts, these are few and far between.

The style of the documentary is the “production house style” that will be familiar to television watchers in Britain and North America. (If I read the Cyrillic correctly, the production house is “RTR Planeta.”
The rest of the credits were scrolled too fast to be transcribed.) Everything is slickly packaged, as if by a group of smart producers who had streamlined their bits and pieces of research. Yet a happy feature of their work is the fact that the interviewees are permitted to express their views at some length, without being subjected to needless interruptions. Striking images flash by: the cosmos appears, then the enneagram, then behind it the full face of the Moon, then behind it the moon-face photograph of Gurdjieff. At relevant points, there are still photographs and sequences from “home movies” (some in faded colour, perhaps colorized) of Gurdjieff, Madame de Saltzmann, disciples, workers at the Priory, sequences of movements, whirling dervishes, etc. The stills and clips show a heavy, well-dressed, moustachioed, elder sage, usually smoking. Some of these clips are new to me, others not. There is also news footage of wars and revolutions, as well as a number of dramatic enactments of the casting of death-masks. The musical score sets the mood of menace and occasionally echoes the piano music of the movements. In terms of mainstream television, these effects are well handled and fit the overall tone of the production: moody and mysterious; at times, ominous, with a sense of close-to-cosmic foreboding. The producers court the notion that the theory and practice of the Work are the kith and kin of totalitarianism, rather than its antithesis.

The subject of the documentary is inevitably the Russian connection of George Gurdjieff: mostly the man, but mainly the myth. There is an off-camera narrator and there are eight, on-camera “talking heads.”
The narrator is given to making statements like this one: “He has been compared to Count Cagliostro and to Grigori Rasputin, and even with Madame Blavatsky herself.” (Each name is illustrated with a familiar
portrait.) Well …. All the “talking heads” are those of men (no women are among them) and their ages range from (I would say) mid-forties to early eighties. Not one of them is identified as a disciple, but all of them appear well informed about the man and the message.

Alexander Pyatigorsky, philosopher; almost-bald, energetic man with a fund of knowledge, quite intense and expressive, the wearer of a blue sweater.

Vladimir Mikushevich, writer; a white-bearded man, bright red cheeks, wearing a bright red sweater, sitting in the midst of a personal library of books.

Medik Sarkisyan, historian; the wearer of a white shirt, a sensitive-looking man, a professional scholar.

Arshak Manukyan, director, Merkurov Museum, Gumri; thoughtful man casually dressed, at the museum of which he seems to be curator.

Arkady Rovner, specialist in gnosticism; scholarly, careful; white hair, red sweater.

Joel Bastenaire, cultural attaché, French Embassy, Moscow; a diplomat, fully suited, bland necktie, careful with his words.

Sergei Moskalev, researcher; doleful, stolid, dressed all in black.

Andrei Suhomlinov, police colonel; heavy-set, rather porcine, direct in manner.

Collectively they establish the following timeline and storyline: Gurdjieff is a perplexing figure of a man who may or may not have possessed paranormal powers. He appeared out of the Caucasus, may have personally known the young Joseph Stalin, travelled in the East, taught what he had learned to pupils in Moscow and St. Petersburg, left Russia during the war, may have engaged in espionage with Beria, turned up in Constantinople, opened an institute in Fontainebleau, and died in Paris. He and his teaching seem to have unexpected connections with Stalin and Adolf Hitler and their totalitarian regimes. The truth will never, ever be known.

Each interviewee offers a fact or a fiction, an opinion or an option.
Here, for each contributor, is a collation of such remarks, probably duplicating the order in which each was questioned by the unseen interrogator.

Pyatigorsky: “He was a man from another plane of consciousness.” He had “spiritual intutition.” “The only other person I would put on this level is Krishnamurti. Perhaps no one else.” All his life “he mixed with God knows who,” that is, people of all classes, races, religions, politics, etc. References to “Sarmoung” are references to “a place of sacred knowledge and we can call it a symbolic reality.” What did Gurdjieff use or take? What did he originate? “He took something from Buddhism, something from Gnostic Christianity, but most of all he took from the personal philosophy of Georgi Ivanovitch. Ninety percent is from Gurdjieff himself.” Pyatigorsky goes on to say that during his stay in Germany, Gurdjieff had students, and “among them were future members of the SS. Gurdjieff generally did not discriminate among men.” One of his students it seems was Karl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, in later years a German general.

Mikushevich: “We are saying Gurdjieff, but we have Stalin in mind – or vice-versa.” “Gurdjieff was able to influence politicians because he was outside politics.” Gurdjieff and Stalin and even Hitler have features in common. “Stalin began his career as a poet, and Hitler as a painter. They took from Gurdjieff a method that appeared to be irresistible and flawless: the way to build a New Man.” The name “Sarmoung” comes from ancient Iranian and refers to “the king of the birds worshiped in ancient Iran as a superior being.” The original word was “simurg” and it means either “one bird” or “thirty birds” associated with the mountain of Kaf, “where he acquired secret knowledge in one of the dervish retreats – a monastery hidden in the mountains.” Telepathy, hypnosis, and clairvoyance are some of the “mighty powers of this world.” Mikushevich refers to the early life of Stalin who studied at the same seminary as Gurdjieff. “He was expelled for participation in some kind of esoteric secret, maybe a kind of sect of Yezidis. The idea was the same as Gurdjieff’s. Stalin came to his main aim in life under the influence of Gurdjieff. The main idea was that in the world everything is predetermined and evil is overcome by evil.” Mikushevich equates the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man with “the features of the Sarmoung brotherhood” and refers to Gurdjieff in terms of “the staretz tradition” in Orthodox Christianity. At the Priory, Gurdjieff recreated the traditions he knew: “Gurdjieff forces people to spy on other people and to tell on each other. Essentially he creates the birth-place, the model, of the totalitarian state which flourished in the Twentieth Century.” He added, “The main doctrine of Stalin emerged either under the influence of or in interaction with Gurdjieff. This is the famous idea of ‘multiple personalities’ and ‘man is a machine.’” Mikushevich says, with respect to Gurdjieff’s views on the role of the Moon in human affairs, “There are rumours that Hitler was acquainted with this doctrine of Gurdjieff. Essentially this idea of a man as a machine is the foundation of any totalitarian regime. Gurdjieff is the inspiration of totalitarianism. He is a guru of totalitarianism, despite the fact that he himself was not interested in politics.”
Mikushevich talks about Karl Haushofer and his geopolitical views because “he was acquainted with the experiences of Gurdjieff in Tibet. They tried to discover the ‘true Aryan race’ in Tibet, and in the faces of Tibetans to find features of Nordic people.” Mikushevich refers to Haushofer, who was a member of the Thule Society, as “a student of Gurdjieff.”

Sarkisyan: The young Gurdjieff had experiences that led him “to believe that there are somewhere guardians of secret forbidden knowledge that can give unbelievable power over a man and humanity.”
He relates the story that in “the ancient Armenian capital, Ani, Gurdjieff found an ancient manuscript in which there was mention of a mysterious brotherhood of Sarmoung residing far to the East.”
Sarkisyan tells a peculiar story about “a train with money … it entered a tunnel but did not come out – it is said that Gurdjieff caused to appear some kind of mirage.” He then refers to Gurdjieff’s cousin, the sculptor Sergei Merkurov, whose specialty was the preparation of death-masks. Sarkisyan says that what Gurdjieff offered was “harmonic philosophical thinking” and “the understanding of life.” “Why are we here. Who are we? This is a cosmic understanding of the world.” Sarkisyan goes on to discuss the relationship between Gurdjieff and Stalin. “In Tbilisi, they studied in the same seminary, and lived in the same house that belonged to an uncle of Gurdjieff. Later on, Stalin quit the seminary and skipped out without paying the rent. The relationship between them is a fact.”

Manukyan: Merkurov was academically trained, was received in Russian Orthodox circles, was commissioned by wealthy Russians, including the Communist Party, and was able to move with ease in Masonry. Among the Masons was Prince Bebutov, founder of the Astreya Lodge, whose house on Rozhdestvenskyy Boulevard, replete with symbols hidden in its ornamented façade, was familiar to Gurdjieff. Merkurov equates members of Bebutov’s circle with the “Seekers of Truth.” “Bebutov practised magic and spiritualistic séances. Politics and mysticism were to him two branches of the same tree. Maybe because of this, the returning traveller from Asia, Gurdjieff, evoked his sympathy. He made another trip to the East with Bebutov. This time to Istanbul.” There, about 1908, he apparently met with Turkish Masons who had overthrown the Turkish Sultan. “Among the European guests of the Turkish revolutionaries was a German, Rudolf von Sebottendorf.” He was a dervish and Gurdjieff studied with him. Ten years later, in Germany, Sebottendorf created the Thule Society, about which much is written, especially its influence on future founders of the Nazi Party. One of its symbols was the swastika. “Maybe this is where the legend originates that Georgi Ivanovich showed the Nazi founders this very important symbol of the future tyranny. However, the origin of this symbol has more to do with Helena Blavatsky – she put the swastika on the emblem of the Theosophical Society which she founded. Later on it was copied on the standards of the Nazis.” [It is apparent that Manukyan has never heard about the Canadian connection with the Nazi symbol: It came from the mining community of Swastika, Ontario, now part of Kirkland Lake, and was conveyed to Hitler personally by the Unity Mitford – email the reviewer for further particulars.] Manukyan, an authority on death-masks, describes the story of Merkurov’s mask of Lenin and also his proposal for a 150-metre-high statue of Lenin. He adds, “Soon thereafter, some of Gurdjieff’s colleagues from the United Work Friendship founded another secret society, United Work Brotherhood. Its members included highly placed agents of OGPU/NKVD and in particular the omnipotent and omniscient head of this organization, Gleb Bokiy, member of the Central Committee and employee of the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Perhaps they wanted the guru to return to the USSR. When Gregori Ivanovich was on a lecture tour around the United States, he was offered the chance to visit the Soviet Union and to start working on studies of longevity in the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine. At the last moment Gurdjieff changed his mind. The visit was cancelled. The correspondence with his cousin suddenly ended.” It seems there is some evidence for this assertion and it is to be found in documents about the United Work Brotherhood in the archives of the Central Committee in which Alexander Barchenko, “professor of experimental medicine, parapsychologist,” wrote: “Gurdjieff, like myself, studied ancient science.” Apparently Barchenko tried to arrange an expedition with the help of the OGPU to “the secret country of Shambhala. He counted on discovering there ancient knowledge on telepathy and parapsychology. The expedition never took place. [Much scholarship has been expended on the German expeditions that really did take place.] All the members of United Work Brotherhood were executed.” Manukyan waxes eloquent about the role in man’s life played by the present Moon – there being three previous lunar bodies – according to the theories of Hanns Hörbiger, accepted or at least countenanced to some extent by the SS and the Nazi Party.

Rovner: This interviewee is knowledgeable about the enneagram. “This is a totally new figure, a symbol revealed or brought from an unknown source by Gurdjieff.” Rovner is also knowledgeable about Karl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel, future German general, who is said to be a student of Gurdjieff in Germany. Later, apparently, he headed the German occupation of Paris, and still later he took part in Staufenberg’s attempted assassination of Hitler. In a remarkable incident, if it took place, Rovner describes Gurdjieff, “a short fat bald man,”
standing outside the SS building “on Felishate” in Paris. Rovner and Pyatigorsky jointly set the scene and tell the tale:

Gurdjieff kicks Stulpnagel, who is emerging from the SS building with his phalanx of bodyguards, and yells, “Remember! Remember!”

Stulpnagel cries in a wild voice: “Teacher! Teacher!”

They hug and kiss. “Teacher! How wonderful! I am delighted! We will talk, day and night!”

Pyatigorsky refers to this as “a well-known yogic technique: immediate self-remembrance.” Pyatigorsky concludes, “Gurdjieff considered this the basis of his system.” [Reassuringly, the Russian word heard for “remember” is “recollection,” an interesting instance of universal expression!]

Rovner is bothered by Gurdjieff’s automobile accident of 1948, but Pyatigorsky is not for the reason that Gurdjieff was known to the French police as a “speeder,” and concluded, “I am an ordinary man. He was absolutely extraordinary.”

Bastenaire: Dervish schools are mentioned. “These are people who have always lived isolated from the historical process. This is how they preserved methods that have ancient historical roots, by my estimation five or six thousand years old. They are peaceful people, people who dance, people who perform heroic deeds. A heroic deed is something that can be accomplished by a person who goes ‘beyond himself.’”
Bastenaire concludes, “The Gurdjieff teaching can be useful in the contemporary world because Gurdjieff could be a mediator between Islamic and Christian worlds, which at present cannot understand each other. Gurdjieff is a bridge.”

Moskalev: In formulating his system, Gurdjieff took some components from mysticism (including notions about the nature of the divine, about harmony, about psychology, about the physical body) but he focused his attention on psychology. “How are you able to be with yourself, and be with others? This was very much needed. So he started his work here.” Moskalev is surprisingly specific: “He developed certain instruments with which a man can deal with his own psychology. Simple things like not expressing negative emotions so that they do not take root, observing one’s own internal state, self-remembering was what it was called. These instruments turned out to be very effective.”

Suhomlinov: The police officer discusses the political and military situations in Baku in early 1918. “It is quite a complicated question who seized power.” It seems that Stalin was preoccupied with the situation in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus generally, and so was intelligence agent Laventri Beria.

So much for the “talking heads.” The voice of the faceless narrator supplies the continuity and adds a few inflections of his own. Here, accumulatively, is what the narrator has to say, presumably courtesy of the unidentified scriptwriter:

“People have maintained that Gurdjieff held a secret power over the leaders of political dictatorships. Some have said that he helped Hitler in selecting the swastika as a symbol for the Nazi Party. Gurdjieff left behind a trial of unexpected tales connected to Stalin and Beria.” [This is statement, conjecture, and speculation for which there exists no evidence that would satisfy a jury.] “Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff was not an ordinary person.” One instance of this is the fact, as stated, that his cousin Sergei Merkurov was led to create Gurdjieff’s death-mask despite the fact that “Merkurov had no idea that at this time Gurdjieff had been in an accident that nearly cost him his life.” The narrator describes the subject’s ancestry but states that “Gurdjieff did not mention that his family’s roots dated back to the Byzantine Emperor Palaeologus (Manuel II Palaeologus).” He refers to formative influences with a “garnak,” as an “evil spirit” is known in Azerbaijan. He went on his search for knowledge and when he returned “he wanted to become head of some movement which he regarded as originating in Afghanistan …. In this period of his life, Gurdjieff hinted that he was a student of dervishes, Muslim mystics who have developed tremendous will and power of body and spirit.” Gurdjieff was a remarkable teacher, but a few points are made that sound silly: “Impressions of meeting Gurdjieff were so powerful that many students, even just after a few lessons, considered themselves to be in continuous telepathic contact with the teacher. This was a hypnosis of tremendous force and tremendous personal power.” [Perhaps the root of this generalization is Ouspensky’s experience recorded in In Search.] An attempt is made to focus on a passage in Laventi Beria’s history of the Bolsheviks in the Trans-Caucasus concerning Stalin’s false passport made out in the name of “Prince Gaioz Nizharadze,” a name mentioned in Meetings with Remarkable Men. “Gurdjieff and Stalin began together in the Tiflis seminary. Both would-be priests were enamoured with one aim: revolution.” According to the narrator, “Gurdjieff in dervish clothes escorted Stalin in crossing through Armenian villages from Azerbaijan into Georgia. There was an operation under way that required the participation of Stalin and Gurdjieff. The dervish and the future leader tried to thwart these plans. Among the people ensuring the success of the mission was an agent of counter-intelligence … Lavrenti Beria.” Much is made of the Azerbaijan party Musavat, subsequently deemed counter-revolutionary, and Gurdjieff’s damaging knowledge of Beria’s involvement with it. The narrator states that Gurdjieff formed the United World Friendship Party in the Caucasus and then left for Constantinople and ultimately for France. “His followers included not just Russian emigrés but numerous Englishmen who sought in his occult teaching their own spiritual way in a world shattered by the war and social upheavals.”

Apparently Gurdjieff continued to correspond with Merkurov, despite his favoured status as a Soviet sculptor, until 1935. “Gurdjieff persistently refused to name those who together with him founded the Society of Seekers of Truth. However, one of his associates is known. He is Karl Haushofer. He is the founder of Geopolitics and one of the prominent ideologues of the Third Reich. There were articles in the press about his trips with Gurdjieff to Tibet in 1903-08.” Gurdjieff was as mysterious in Paris as he was everywhere else. The narrator says, “The liberation of Paris and the end of the war did not bring peace to Gurdjieff. Students who surrounded him still noticed strange things in his manners and behaviour. He still hid something and did not tell the whole truth. It is a general opinion that he did not disclose everything to his students.” There were reasons for this.
“Unfortunately he inherited a very troublesome and gigantic household. The work of Gurdjieff was not a secret to Stalin. Intelligence agents informed Stalin of the publication of the book All and Everything.” What follows is the most remarkable incident described during the course of the documentary:

“One of the personages in that book was the allegorical ‘Lentrohamsanin,’ the chief cause of the destruction of the most sacred works. Stalin read in the book that the soul of Lentrohamsanin is now residing on the planet ‘Eternal Retribution,’ where the main torture is suffering remorse of conscience, accompanied by understanding that it will never end. Stalin quickly deciphered the first part of the word ‘Lentrohamsanin.’ Lenin-Trotsky … but who is Hamsanin? The master of the Kremlin quickly lifted the telephone receiver. ‘Find Georgi Gurdjieff!’ The invisible signals and orders flew ahead. A telephone rang in Stalin’s office. A familiar voice slavishly said, ‘Be at ease, Koba. Gurdjieff died last year in France in the American Hospital in Neuilly.’ ‘Did he say anything before he died?’ asked Stalin grimly. ‘Yes. He said, “I leave you in a difficult situation.”’

The narrator concluded, enigmatically: “On his death bed he convinced his students that he will always be with them, that he will never leave them. They wanted to believe in the immortality of the sage, but the physical flesh obeyed the laws of nature …. So finally, who was Georgi Gurdjieff? A chosen one, member of the esoteric circle of secret rules of the world? A teacher of dances? A hypnotist? Or an inventor of a technology for the remarking of man, which in the hands of despots and tyrants became an instrument to control the mass consciousness. Maybe only Gurdjieff himself understood the true aim and purpose of his work. For us, Gurdjieff will remain a mystery which we will not be able to solve, ever.”

It is true that the mystery, enigma, or puzzle will long remain one that will continue to haunt those men and women who are concerned with “the psychology of man’s possible evolution.” The documentary does, uniquely, suggest that members of the Society of Seekers of Truth may be known and identified, for they are historical figures. It suggests that a number of them distinguished themselves as Monarchists, Fascists, Communists, and Traditionalists.

The thesis of the documentary – to the extent that it has a consistent one – is that Gurdjieff was something of an agent-provocateur whose life and work, if understandable at all, may be viewed in light of the political philosophies, the psychological theories, and the intrigues of his day in the context of Eastern Europe.

John Robert Colombo is known as the Master Gatherer in Canada for his innumerable anthologies of lore and literature. He has published three book-length studies of the life and work of the metaphysical writer Denis Saurat. Earlier this year, he hosted a six-part, thirty-minute, television series titled Unexplained Canada which is currently in reruns on the Space Channel.



October 18, 2007 at 7:50 pm

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