The history of Russian Theosophical Movement
by E.F. Pisareva
About the author
Nina Gernet deserves to be considered the first pioneer of Theosophy in Russia. She traveled abroad annually, attended most European Theosophical congresses, became acquainted with Annie Besant, and at great personal risk smuggled forbidden Theosophical literature into Russia. The main repository for this literature was in St. Petersburg, in the residence of a childhood friend, Anna Kamensky, who had attended secondary school with Nina in Geneva.
Anna Kamensky was born on August 25, 1867, near St. Petersburg. Until the age of fifteen, she enjoyed a very happy childhood, first in Germany and then in Geneva, where she finished her secondary education. Her dream was to attend a university, but at that time her mother’s financial situation had become desperate, so they were forced to return to their homeland. After Anna and Nina had finished school, both families, the Kamenskys and Gernets, returned to Russia.
Anna was deeply involved in the Enlightenment movement, begun in Russia on the initiative of progressive groups with the intention of liberally informing the Russian people. The initial stimulus for the rise of Theosophy in Russia was an unexpected event in Anna’s life. As mentioned above, Nina Gernet had left a collection of Theosophical literature at Anna Kamensky’s residence and repeatedly urged her to become acquainted with these works, insisting, “This is just right for you.”
But Anna had to spend all day giving lessons in French in order to support her family: a mother, an aunt, and two younger sisters. She devoted all her free time between lessons to her social enlightenment activities. Owing to this unending task, she was not able to follow her friend’s wishes until an unfortunate event resulted in involuntary leisure. In 1899, while hurrying to a lesson, Anna Kamensky slipped on the street, fell, and broke a leg. This accident forced her to stay in bed for an entire month. She remembered the collection of Theosophical literature and asked for whichever book was at the top of the trunk holding Nina Gernet’s Theosophical volumes. That book turned out to be Annie Besant’s In the Outer Court. From the first page, Anna was so captivated that she read the whole book straight through during the night. When she had finished, it seemed to her that “before her a veil had been torn and she beheld the entire path of humanity and the entire meaning of suffering.”
I now return to a chronological account to the early history of Theosophy in Russia.
After reading Annie Besant's book In the Outer Court, Anna Kamensky immediately became a member of the English Section of the Theosophical Society, and in 1902 set off for London, where she met Annie Besant, who had come there to preside at the convention. Shortly afterwards, Anna Kamensky wrote Besant a letter in which she described her soul's current state of development and her wish to pursue enlightenment through Theosophical work. In reply to this letter, Annie Besant invited her for a visit and after a prolonged conversation declared that she would accept Anna Kamensky as her personal pupil.
At almost the same time, I, too, the writer of this account, came to theosophy. In my inner life a serious crisis had come about; I had lost faith in God, and all life had ceased to have meaning for me. My outer life was entirely satisfactory: I had a family, a good income, a good social position, everything that makes earthly life valuable, but I had lost the main thing, and life had become unbearable for me, I mention this personal experience to illustrate my characterization of the Russian soul. I started to pray to the ''unseen world" — if it existed — to give me a sign. The books that I read, such as Annie Besant's Ancient Wisdom, were the answer to my prayer.
In 1901 I happened upon — or more accurately, was taken to —Veldes [now Bled, Slovenia], a picturesque little spa near Laibach in what was then Austria [now Ljubljana, Slovenia]. There, on the shore of a small Alpine lake, was the sanatorium of Doctor Arnold Rikli [1823-1906, a Swiss hydropath who founded the Institute for Natural Healing in 1895]. Several theosophists, including the General Secretary of the Dutch Section, W. B. Fricke [1842-1931], were there. I was presented to Dr. Rikli, and he first introduced me to the field of theosophy and supplied me with basic theosophical literature. This literature offered answers to the eternal questions, and so I immediately decided to join the Theosophical Society.
Upon returning to Russia, I received a letter from Nina Gernet, whom I did not know at that time. In her letter, she expressed a wish to become acquainted with me. She then lived in Revel [now Tallinn, Estonia], and I in central Russia, slightly south of Moscow. I mention this in order to demonstrate how actively and with what self-sacrifice she fulfilled her role as "soul scout" for Theosophy and the "Theosophical letter carrier," as we jokingly called her.
She wrote that in London she had heard about my interest in spiritual questions, mentioning in this regard names I had never heard of, and she indicated that she was prepared to come to visit me if I wished. This stunned me, since the journey from Reval to my home in Kaluga would take at least two whole days and would cost a great deal — all for someone she did not even know! I answered that I would be happy to make her acquaintance. She arrived and worked very hard to convince me of the need to propagate Theosophy throughout Russia, supplied me with theosophical literature in the original, and persuaded me to accompany her in September to Berlin, where Annie Besant was expected. A seemingly insurmountable obstacle stood in the way of such a trip, but it unexpectedly resolved itself, and I was able to go with her.
Annie Besant was staying at the headquarters of the German Theosophical Section. At that time its General Secretary was Rudolf Steiner, and his active assistant was Maria Yakovlevna Sievers, the daughter of a retired Russian general and a very interesting and talented young woman. (She was also enrolled by Nina Gernet, and it was Nina who introduced her to Dr. Steiner, and the doctor himself — to theosophy).
In order to clarify what the relations were at that time between Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner and the whole German Section, I shall mention an incident that occurred when Besant left after closing a Theosophical Lodge meeting. Steiner, who had been requested to translate her speech into German, did not confine himself to a translation of her lecture, but added a lengthy discourse of his own. All the senior members of the Section, with Maria Sievers in the forefront, turned on him with reproaches and complaints that, after a talented Speech by Annie Besant, he had had the temerity to impose his own thoughts. He was extraordinarily embarrassed and muttered something or other as justification for what he had done.
On that same day, I was presented to Annie Besant, and from the first minute I felt such a strong sense of her greatness that for the rest of my life I remained her devoted servant. During the same stay in Berlin, thanks to Maria Sievers, I became acquainted with others in the German Section and became close friends with Rudolf Steiner, who was keenly interested in Russia and highly valued the Russian members of his Section.
On the return journey, going through St. Petersburg, I became acquainted with Anna Kamensky, for whom I had a message from Nina Gernet, On that first day of our acquaintance, we decided that as soon as possible we would have to start propagating theosophy throughout Russia, and so I put together a short article about Annie Besant's public lecture, and also about the origins of the Theosophical Society. Anna Kamensky placed my article in one of the major St. Petersburg newspapers, and we then agreed to collaborate in our work.
I invited Anna to spend her summer vacations at our country estate. In the following summer of 1903 she visited me, and from then on, our close friendship grew. She spent all her summer vacations, as well as Christmas and Easter holidays, with me. Together we set a plan for collaboration in the interests of Theosophy, selected Theosophical books for translation and publication, established lectures for the first presentation of Theosophy to the Russian public, and so on. In that same year, 1903, she in St. Petersburg and I in Moscow began to acquaint the Russian public with Theosophy.
In 1904 Anna Kamensky and I went to London for a Theosophical convention, where we attended the public presentations of Annie Besant and heard a series of her lectures on "The Science of Peace," and afterwards went to the first international congress in Amsterdam.
From there Anna Kamensky went to Veldes, to Doctor Rikli's sanatorium, where I was first drawn into Theosophy. The purpose of her stay in Veldes was to strengthen her health for the strenuous work that lay ahead. From there she came to visit me in Podborki and almost at once fell ill with such a bad case of typhoid fever that the doctors gave little hope for her recovery. I was certain that she would not survive this illness, and on the day of its crisis I saw the shadow of death on her face. But during the night something corrected itself, and in the morning I saw an entirely different person. She recognized me, smiled, and asked for something to eat. I was constantly near her, as was her associate, who had recently arrived — Cecilia Ludvigovna Helmboldt [d. 1936].
I recorded Anna's delirium, since it seemed to be a translation into symbols of the very essence of her soul. She imagined that she was sailing to be with Annie Besant in India and was always sending me into her cabin on errands. She asked for paper and pen and while lying down wrote letters in incomprehensible hieroglyphics. In her delirium she saw a young Catholic monk or priest in a forest beside the spring of a transparent stream, which he was continuously covering over with pine boughs. He was holding a chalice, which be filled from the spring and look out to the people who were walking and riding past the forest, and from which they thirstily drank the fresh water. And then the priest was praying, and she felt that he was she, that her soul had merged with his soul and that she was remembering herself in some other distant life. This vision returned to her again and again.
When she had regained consciousness, she wrote down another vision at my request. "Again a transparent mountain stream, and above it a marble female statue in a bending pose with a vessel full of water. The water is brimming over the edge and people walk up to her and drink. I look at her and merge with her, I know that she is I, that such a one I should he, and I feel myself strangely locked in place and at the same time arrows pierce my heart. I hear a quiet voice above me: ‘Mater dolorosa’ [Sorrowing Mother, a title of Christ's mother at his crucifixion], and I know that I should not let myself shake, I must hold the vessel with water, although arrows are striking my heart and blood streams from it. An infinite tenderness fills me, sorrow and joy merge into one." For that whole year she was very feeble, but already in the next year, 1905, she was able to travel to the second international congress in London, to which I was unable to accompany her.
Before legalization of the Society in Russia, no public presentations of Theosophy were allowed, so our colloquia had to be carried out in various salons, hosted by people interested in spiritual questions who had invited us for that purpose. One of these salons in St. Petersburg belonged to Anna Pavlovna Filosofova [1837-1912], whom the entire enlightened segment of Russia knew and respected. Her active role in all the liberal undertakings for enlightenment in the era of Alexander II was so great and so directly connected with the Russian women's liberation movement that her name will enter Russian history as one of the country's brightest luminaries. Thanks to the high position of her husband, one of the czar's favorite confidants, as well as to the charm of her brilliant personality and her outward and inner beauty, she managed to obtain from even the most reactionary ministers and counselors permission for the most progressive enterprises.
But during the period of our private meetings in 1905, I happened to get into a Spiritualist meeting in Moscow and to acquaint the Spiritualists with Theosophy. Their interest was quite keen, but this success frightened Pavel Chistyakov, who was editor of the Spiritualist journal Rebus and also head of the Spiritualist movement in Moscow. He consequently denied me further access to spiritualist meetings.
As a result of our quiet preliminary work and our presentations in private homes, when in 1906 we managed to publish Light on the Path with its supplementary article on Karma, the edition was immediately reprinted by Posrednik, the most popular publishing firm of that time. This proves that interest in Theosophy among intellectuals in Russian society was already awakening in the early days of our secret preparatory work.
At the end of 1906, my husband, Nikolai V. Pisarev, after joining the Theosophical Society, founded in Kaluga the publishing firm Logos and began to publish Russian Theosophical literature. The first book he published was The Esoteric Philosophy of India by the Brahmin J.C. Chatterji. The Logos publishing house prospered. My husband invested his wealth, his labor, and his love in this business. He established relations with the leading bookstores of the major cities, arranged for the books to be widely distributed at low prices, and soon began to receive from everywhere orders for Theosophical literature. Before the October Revolution, Logos had issued twenty-one publications, but afterwards our entire stock of books was confiscated.
In the following year, 1907, Anna Kamensky and I, along with a group of other Russian Theosophists, attended the fourth European Theosophical congress in Munich. We left this congress feeling heavily depressed. The entire German Section, with Rudolf Steiner at the head, had completely changed its attitude toward Annie Besant. Maria Sievers, and after her all the rest, had become Steiner's fanatical disciples, who thought that he should become the head Theosophist, displacing Annie Besant. Since I remained true to Annie Besant, they sharply broke off all friendly relations with me.
In that same year, 1907, Anna Kamensky decided to publish our own theosophical journal, Vestnik Teosofii [the TheosophicalHerald]. This decision was made because a person completely unknown to us had begun to publish a journal with the title Teosoficheskoye Obozrenie [Theosophical Review]. Anna Kamensky went to sec hint and was convinced that the publisher of this journal had no connection with the Theosophical Society and had tome up with the idea of publishing it solely because of the growing interest in Theosophy. Anna Kamensky's decision was very brave, since we had no money for publishing, but so much material had accumulated that we decided to publish it in a format and size (of 110 pages) comparable with that of Adyar's Theosophist.
We managed to gather from among ourselves money for the first number, and then we received major assistance from the former Spiritualist Konstantin Dmitrievich Kudriavtsev, who had joined the Theosophical Society (later he left the Society, and the end of his life was tragic: he was executed). He was manager of the St. Petersburg Municipal Typography and obtained for us favorable payment conditions for the paper. Everyone worked on the journal without pay, and every time we had financial difficulties somehow, from somewhere, help appeared, so our Herald continued prosperously for more than ten years.
The year 1907 was generally eventful for Theosophy in Russia. It had already grown to the point at which it became necessary to consider seeking legal recognition. With this aim in mind, Anna Kamensky decided to call conferences in the most important centers of Russia: St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. The first conference was to be held in Moscow.
Work in Russia presented difficulties unknown in the West. It was very difficult to obtain legalization. Although Pobedonostsev had died and the revolutionary movement of 1905 had brought some changes and moderation, still the government looked askance at all social and private initiatives that had not come from above. This was one of the hindrances that Anna Kamensky had to struggle with.
Even in the highest intellectual levels of society, certain psychological tendencies presented great obstacles for organized theosophical work. Thus in Moscow, within the circle where I was giving papers on Theosophy, in the salon of Nina Valentinovna Pshenetsky [d. 1933] (one of the first Russian theosophists, who had joined the French Section, with which Colonel Olcott had established very friendly relations), there were a number of very learned members. One was the poet and future writer Andrei Belyi [pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, 1880-1934; later joined the Anthroposophical movement]. Another was the clairvoyant Anna Rudolfovna Mintslova [1865?-1910?], who had a great influence on voting people. A third was the erudite linguist Pavel Nikolaevich Batiushkov [1864-1930?], a member of the French Theosophical Section. They were all brilliant, but very difficult to work with.
Because of personality difficulties, the Moscow conference turned out to be an obstacle, instead of the help we had expected. Anna Kamensky had to contend strenuously with the anarchical tendencies of the Muscovites. They were against any and all organization, demanding an equal vote for all and an informal consensual resolution of all problems. Among other attacks, they reproached Anna Kamensky for deciding to publish the Theosophical Herald without having sought their approval and the approval of all others affiliated with Theosophy across the entire territory of Russia.
In this atmosphere of anarchy there were so many power-hungry voices that they upset several of Anna Kamensky's closest associates, and instead of a calm discussion of die main question — namely, the organization of the Russian Theosophical Society — a real battle ensued, resulting in two opposing camps. Only Anna Kamensky's enormous self-control and great tact prevailed, and the raging elements were calmed. In order to satisfy them, we adopted a rather strange formula that they proposed: "to unite around the Theosophical Herald." When someone made the reasonable objection that to unite around an inanimate object did not make any evident sense, the Muscovites changed the formula: "to unite around the Theosophical Herald and Anna Alexeevna Kamensky." Everyone accepted this formula. Anna had obtained a victory, but it had cost her dearly. She fell ill and lay in bed with a terrible migraine the entire next day.
The second organizational conference look place in Kiev under the chairmanship of Nikolai Pisarev. Here Anna Kamensky encountered a new obstacle in the form of Orthodox fanaticism, but at the same time she managed to persuade and pacify everyone and to restore the broken harmony. As a result, the Kiev conference unanimously agreed on the necessity of legalization and authorized Anna to call a third conference and to enter into negotiations with the authorities. In St. Petersburg itself, the center of Russian Theosophy, work continued successfully and harmoniously, and at the third St. Petersburg organizational conference there was no friction. By consensus it was agreed to obtain legalization immediately, and Anna Alexeevna Kamensky was unanimously elected General Secretary of the Russian Theosophical Society.
Following the three decisive conferences of 1907, in the autumn of that same year, Anna Kamensky took advantage of the new atmosphere that temporarily ensued after the unsuccessful Russo-Japanese War [1904-1905], when a decree came from on high, establishing "freedom of speech, of religion, of social gatherings and assembly for purposes other than political action." Our Society happened to be the first to request legalization under the new arrangement. The representatives of the Theosophical Society, in the persons of the chairwoman Anna Kamensky and the secretary Konstantin Kudriavtsev, were invited to the Municipal Headquarters, where the commission met that supervised permissions and regulations. The hearing proceeded under the chairmanship of the Municial Govemor himself, Major General Nikolai V. Kleigels.
Anna Kamensky was asked a series of questions concerning the goals of the Russian Theosophical Society, and its regulations were subjected to harsh criticism. The members of the commission were especially vicious in their attacks on a word in the first paragraph of the regulations: "to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity." They demanded to know what we had in mind by the word "nucleus" [in Russian it is used mostly for a nucleus of an atom and also for a cannonball]. It was obvious that this word deeply troubled the leadership, so Anna proposed that it be replaced by the word "union." This change pacified them, and "union" was adopted. Another paragraph that caused suspicion concerned the summons to an annual convention of delegates from all Theosophical Society branches. The word "delegates" was not in favor, since it was associated with representation in a republican system. After long debate, Anna Kamensky proposed to substitute the more innocent "branch representatives."
Anna Kamensky and Kudriavtsev were already thinking that our petition had won, but the Governor unexpectedly and very severely posed another question: "Why is it precisely now that you wish to open such a society? If your goals actually coincide with the precepts of religion, then is not the Church sufficient for the spiritual guidance of our citizens?" Then Anna Kamensky delivered a passionate speech, pointing to the searching by young people and to a series of suicides that had resulted from loss of faith. She expressed certainty that, with the aid of Theosophy, religion would occupy not only a moral but also a scientific position and would make it possible for spiritual seekers to find support and renewal for their humanitarian ideals. This speech enthralled the commission, and permission was granted.
After legalization, which came on September 30, 1908, we designated November 17 as the birthday of the Russian Theosophical Society [that being the date of the whole Society's founding in 1875]. We joyfully and triumphantly celebrated this day in St. Petersburg at the beautiful Headquarters of the Women's Society, the vice president of which was Anna Filosofova.
When Anna Kamensky had finally obtained legalization for the Society, Anna Filosofova immediately wished to become a member, and Anna Kamensky proposed that she should accept the post of vice chairman of the Russian Theosophical Society. Although Anna Filosofova at the time had lost much of her physical strength and refrained from all public appearances, she willingly agreed to Anna Kamensky's request, saying that Theosophy provided her so much light, that she wanted to serve as much as her strength would allow.
Part of Anna Kamensky's organizational skill was the care she took in the external appearance and beauty of our theosophical meetings. She was able to install in us a great love for the work we did together, and all the members put considerable effort and energy into decorating our main center. There were many fine pictures on the wall, and all the flowers and color added a majestic, festive atmosphere to our gatherings. "How lovely your place is! Just like in a temple!" This was a common impression on the part of all who came into the central headquarters. In the days of the revolution, when everyone lost their heads and lived as if in a dream, those who frequently visited the headquarters of the Theosophical Society were not only theosophists but also outsiders, looking to refresh their souls and find peace. After spending a little time, they would leave, calmed and with new strength.
Another feature of her organizational skill was the careful selection of those accepted for membership in the Society. She viewed the success of the Society not in the quantity but in the quality of those entering. The rules of admission required recommendations from two theosophists who were responsible for the person they recommended. In addition, the aspirant was given a kind of examination. The candidate was asked four questions: (1) Did the candidate acknowledge the brotherhood of all people? (2) Did the candidate recognize the necessity of tolerance? (3) What did the candidate expect from Theosophy? (4) What could the candidate contribute to the Theosophical Society?
No exceptions were made to the requirement for this examination. When our Society received a request for admission from S.E. Evdokimova, one of the famous grande dames and a St. Petersburg philanthropist whose salon was frequented by ministers, deputies, and other influential individuals possessing great fortunes, she too was subjected to the same examination. She humbly submitted to it, and Cecilia Helmboldt, who was assigned to conduct these examinations, experienced considerable embarrassment on this occasion, after seeing what a high degree of spiritual development the candidate had brought to the examination.
After legalization, Theosophical work grew to such a degree that, even with her exceptional capacity for work, Anna Kamensky would not have been able to manage it if she had continued to spend the whole day teaching in two schools. Learning that she was working nights, Anna Filosofova gathered several St. Petersburg members of the Society and informed them of the chairwoman's night job. Then, after determining the size of Anna Kamensky's salary at one of the schools, the assembled members decided as a group to contribute a corresponding sum to the Society's treasury to free the chairwoman from her unbearable work load. Thanks to this stipend, Anna Kamensky was granted the opportunity to devote the greater pact of her energy to Theosophical work.
In connection with the beginning of our legitimized Theosophical Society, it is necessary to mention Anna Kamensky's closest associates, who worked with her in the St. Petersburg center in the Members' Council, chosen every three years at the general convention of the Society. One of the Council's most active participants was the Russian Theosophical Society's vice chairman, Pavel Ilyich Timofeyevsky, who was appointed to that post in 1912, after the death of Anna Filosofova.
Pavel Timofeyevsky, a medical doctor who was one of the first St. Petersburg physicians to adopt electrical healing in his medical practice, was irreplaceable as a representative of the Russian Theosophical Society. A young, energetic exponent of academic science, and in this regard a splendid orator, he commanded public respect and was able to respond with skill and wit to attacks on Theosophy. By chance dropping into one of our open meetings, he took an immediate interest in what were to him at that time new teachings, and he continued to visit and listen attentively. During the time set aside for debate he was often skeptical, at times even ironical in his comments on our tenets.
Timofeyevsky readily accepted the theosophical teaching about evolution, but the ideas he found most attractive were those of the existence of the Elder Brothers or Masters and of superhuman evolution. When he joined our Society, Anna Kamensky took great interest in him, sensing the complete seriousness and depth of his spiritual searchings. So when the-post of vice chairman fell open, she surprised him by offering him the position.
Anna Kamensky possessed a gift valuable in leaders, namely, of divining and unerringly appraising the true qualities and worth of the people with whom she worked. Among those drawn to the Theosophical Society were people with brilliant gifts, and sometimes one wondered why she did not choose them for responsible posts as her closest assistants. But every time it turned out that one such leading member or another either parted with the ideas of Theosophy and left the Society or, due to unrequited vanity, even crossed over to the opposition ranks.
When Anna Kamensky offered Pavel Timofeyevsky the post of vice chairman, he was stunned and starred to point out his limitations. To his doubts, she replied that his limitations would pass, but that the abiding qualities she observed in him would be of great service in the task of spiritual enlightenment in contemporary society and would be of enormous help to her.
This "unearned" trust, as he later confided to me, overcame his vacillation and so impressed him that he decided to earn it. And he truly earned it because, as a man of strong will, he at once changed his entire manner of life, became a strict vegetarian, and to the end remained a profoundly committed, active, and devoted servant of the Elder Brothers.
The members of the Council in the St, Petersburg Center, in addition to Pavel Timofeyevsky, included Cecilia Helmboldt, distinguished by her tireless capacity for work and exceptional devotion to Anna Kamensky, with whom she had long been friends. She had a remarkable ability to win the trust of a group of people, and a striking sense of humor that brought a breath of fresh air into any social setting and more than once helped in difficult situations. Despite her foreign name (her ancestors on her father's side being Swedes), she more than any of us knew and loved the Russian people, their language, songs, and humorous slang. She belonged to a group of populists and for three summers conducted rural fieldwork in Professor Engelgart's colony.
When Anna Kamensky, captivated by theosophical teachings, joined the Theosopliical Society and decided to devote all her energies to it, Cecilia Helmboldt became her devoted colleague, tirelessly assisted her in all undertakings. When it became dangerous for Anna Kamensky to remain in Russia, Cecilia Helmboldt without hesitation decided to accompany her and share with her all the dangers and inconveniences of refugee life.
Nikolai Ivanovich Erassi [d. 1930], a mining engineer, was a professor of the Marine Corps. He brought to theosophical work much enthusiasm and in difficult moments inspired everyone else with his sunny optimism. During a scientific surveying project in the Pskov district, while the revolution was going on, he was cut off from any possibility of returning to his home. That is how he wound up abroad, where he founded theosophical lodges in Revel, Berlin, and Brussels and continued to work for Theosophy until his death in Tunis in 1930.
Varvara Pushkina was always ready to serve the Theosophical Society with her musical talent, and she worked with great energy and devotion for the benefit of the Theosophical Society.
Margarita Alexeyevna Kamensky [d. 1929, Anna's sister] was the first of any of us to get to Adyar and was one of a number of devoted servants of Annie Besant. After returning to St. Petersburg from Adyar, she delivered a series of public lectures with color pictures, illustrating the natural scenery, the everyday life, and the temples of India. After Rudolf Steiner left the German Theosophical Section, a new German Section loyal to Adyar was organized, and Margarita Kamensky was for a time General Secretary of that Section.
L.P. Strasbader was a member of the Council who devoted much service to the Theosophical Society, and thanks to her the Society received the right to hold its own public lectures in the great hall of the Tenishevsky School. When Anna Kamensky and Cecilia Helmboldt fled Russia, they found L.P. Strasbader in Brussels. She, by her participation in the Belgian Section of the Theosophical Society helped them in many ways.
Emma Dimitrievna Pantenius was one of the most dedicated members of the Theosophical Society and performed many useful services on its behalf.
In St. Petersburg, where under the influence of Anna Kamensky the work proceeded most energetically, seven circles had eventually formed: five Russian, one French, and one German. Pavel Timofeyevsky led the H.P. Blavatsky Circle; Anna Kamensky led the Comparative Study of Religions Circle; Cecilia Helmboldt led the Annie Besant Circle; Alexandra Unkovsky led the Orpheus Circle; Anna Viktorova led the Ethics Circle; L.P. Strasbader led the French Hypatia Circle; and Emma Pantenius led the German Maria Strauch Circle.
Each of various other branches also had two or three circles. The chairs of those branches were as follows:
In Moscow: U. N. Kirpichnikova, later Princess S.V. Urusova, and after 1915 Sofia Vladimirovna Gerye.
In Kiev: Elizaveta Vilgelmovna Rodzevich, and later Evgeny Mikhailovich Kuzmin.
In Kharkov: Vera Alexeyevna Molokina,
In Kaluga: Elena Feodorovna Pisareva,
In Yalta: S. V. Tatarinova,
In Rostov on Don: M.G. Feodorova.
[Later, in 1921, the Zhitomir, Ukraine, branch of the Russian Theosophical Society was organized and its chairman was Dr. Viktor Viktorovich Gintze. Information about this branch can be found in the journal Alba, numbers 3 and 4. —N. Reinke]
Lev [Leo] Nikolaevich Tolstoy, although not directly connected with the history of the Theosophical Society in Russia, had a sympathetic attitude toward Theosophy. He took a course in Theosophy and read our Theosophical Herald thanks to being constantly in touch with his daughter-in-law Sofia Tolstoy, who was one of the first to join the Russian Theosophical Society and was an active member of the Kaluga branch. She and I were brought together both by our common work and by our personal friendship. She made it her usual practice to go to Yasnaya Polyana, where Tolstoy lived, with the final proofs of my articles for the Theosophical Herald which he read carefully. On one of them were such notations in his hand as "true," "good," and "very good." From these notations it was clear that he accepted the entire ethical side of theosophical teaching and shared it.
In the summer of 1908 Anna Kamensky, Alexandra Unkovsky, and I visited Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula district, which ajoined our Kaluga district. During the whole afternoon we were there, Tolstoy did not leave for his own rooms, as he usually did, but spent it in conversation with us, paying careful attention to everything that concerned Theosophy. He look a special interest in my story about how I got into Theosophy;
I gave him an account of my first encounter with Theosophy in the park of the Rikli sanatorium, where all the patients spent the time from morning to dinner in direct oneness with nature, barefoot, in just their smocks. Among the nearly thirty ladies who were spending the morning hours in this park, I noticed a small group who stood out from the rest. It consisted of six individuals who were all behaving with such good will attentiveness to others and showing such obvious signs of delicate spiritual refinement that I decided they all surely belonged to the same spiritual society. When I made their acquaintance, I learned to my great surprise that they were all from different countries and had first met here at the Rikli sanatorium. Noticing my astonishment, one of them, an English woman, Miss Hamilton, replied smiling: "This similarity is natural, we are all members of the Theosophical Society." This imprint of nobility on the human soul was what drew me toward Theosophy.
After listening to my story, Tolstoy repeated several times with great animation, "That's how I understand it! That's how it really is! Not just words, it's a person that causes change, that's the main thing!"
Afterwards, Sofia Tolstoy told me that, when we had left and over the nest several days, her father-in-law kept repeating my story to new visitors, and each time he would conclude, "That's how it really is! That's the main thing!"
We all loved him. He awakened our conscience, and toward the end of his life he was interested in and gave significance to only one thing: our spiritual foundation and connection with God. He recognized karma and reincarnation, but to all the arguments in favor of Theosophy, he would declare, "None of that is important, only one thing matters: love one another, and all the rest will follow."
In 1920, when the activities of all societies were curtailed, including those of the Theosophical Society, one night the government conducted a search of the Theosophical Center. The investigator had an order for the arrest of Anna Kamensky, but at the time she happened to be out of the city, at the Lesny sanatorium, where her mother had just been buried and she herself lay ill. During the search, the editorial secretary, Tsetselia Gelmboldt, demonstrated remarkable self-control and presence of mind, thanks to which she managed to save Annie Besant’s letters to Anna. The portraits of the Masters also, by some miracle, remained and were not seized. The search did not uncover anything dangerous; nevertheless the agents of the Secret Police took away many papers, manuscripts, and letters that were stored there.
On the next day after the search of the headquarters of the Theosophical Society, a soldier appeared with a warrant to arrest Anna Kamensky and take her to the Secret Police. Tsetselia began to explain to the soldier that Anna was out of the city, lying ill, and could not appear. The soldier turned out to be goodhearted and advised her to go herself and personally explain the reason for the absence of the chairwoman.
Tsetselia went immediately to the Secret Police but had not even finished her explanations when the official started to shout at her and threaten that, if they were to go into hiding, he would send both of them to exile in Tmutarakan! To this, Tsetselia replied that they would not think of going into hiding, that Anna was just lying sick at Lesny. “I’ll give you my word that in a week, when she is better, she herself will come to you.” In answer to this, the policeman began to shout that such promises would not work on him, that Anna Kamensky had to appear at once, otherwise “both of you are going to Tmutarakan!” To this Tsetsilia calmly answered, “Well, so what! Even in Tmutarakan it may be all right if a person does not do wrong. A person carries light inside and shines it everywhere.”
The policeman screwed up his eyes at her, and she continued, “We are not thinking of going into hiding. You can rely on our promise. If you were acquainted with our teachings, you would know that we cannot lie. And why are you shouting so? It’s hard for me to listen, and you are wasting your energy; in order to understand one another, it’s much better to speak in a normal voice, without straining.” After these words the policeman started combing the back of his head and said in an entirely different tone of voice, “It’s true, this is just a habit we have. You can go, just so Anna Kamensky shows up here in a week!” When Tsetsilia was walking away, he got up and stopped her: “Wait! I’ll give you a pass!” Later she found out that without this piece of paper they would not have let her out.
After a week passed, Anna had just managed to return from the sanatorium when she was sent a notice to appear at the Secret Police in person. She at once set off, and her devoted friend Tsetselia decided to go with her as well. This was very risky, since those who entered the doors of the Secret Police for the most part never came out again.
They were led into the office of the investigator, and then separated. Tsetselia was taken into an adjacent room, and each of them was given a printed questionnaire to which detailed answers were required. One of the questions was “How do you regard the commune?” They were both interrogated; although they were in different rooms, they both answered in the same way, word for word, saying that for Theosophists a spiritual community was one of the ideals of the future.
The investigator tried to trap them and to upset them with shouts and crude insults. He called them “enemies of the people,” accusing them of underground intrigues, and threatened them with prison and exile if they did not sincerely confess all their crimes. In passing he questioned them about friends and colleagues, trying to obtain their names and addresses. When they did not answer these questions, the investigator grew more abusive.
He began to accuse them of sabotage and parasitism, to which they responded that they wanted to work but they were persecuted everywhere and prevented in every way possible from laboring for the benefit of the people. On hearing this, the investigator stunned them. He proposed that Anna become head of a New Spiritual Academy, where she would be free to propagate Theosophy, but only on one condition: she must convince people that there was no God and that every religion was a false doctrine.
Tsetsilia, in her turn, was offered the post of nothing more or less than the Commissar of Public Enlightenment. When she declined, the investigator gave her a penetrating look and asked why she had refused. “Because,” she replied, “I do not consider myself qualified for such an important and responsible job. I do not have enough knowledge for it.” “Nonsense!” shouted the investigator. “We pull a peasant away from his plow and put him in a responsible post, and he does not refuse!” “Because he does not realize,” declared Tsetsilia, “that he does not have the knowledge and does not have a sense of responsibility, but I have enough of both to understand how much one needs to know in order to be a good Commissar of Public Enlightenment.”
Anna also refused the honor offered, and they continued to interrogate her for five more hours. Finally Anna changed her tone and sharply and energetically expressed her exasperation that innocent citizens had to undergo such an inquisition. After that the investigator changed his tone, stopped shouting, and let them go.
Anna and Tsetselia managed to flee at the beginning of June 1921 through the forests and swamps of Finland.
At that time in St. Petersburg, several secret organizations conducted refugees across the border. Anna and Tsetselia were able to make contact with one of them. The plan of escape was as follows. One of the Finnish milkmaids who brought milk into St. Petersburg from a village by the border volunteered to ride with Anna and Tsetsilia as far as the next railway station and then lead them through the forest to her house in the village. There they would rest, and at dawn two Finnish smugglers were supposed to come for them and lead them over a nearby river that separated Russia and Finland.
On the day set for departure, Anna and Tsetsilia dressed in proletarian clothes and covered their heads with kerchiefs like those worn by peasant women. Shouldering knapsacks that contained all necessary toilet articles, one change of underwear, the Gospels, and the Bhagavad Gita, they set off on their perilous journey.
All went well as the fugitives traveled by rail and then walked through the forest, following the milkmaid and pretending that she was walking by herself and that they did not know her. But just when they were getting close to her village, the milkmaid suddenly noticed on a tree some kind of sign indicating that a Red Army patrol was in the vicinity.
She left the fugitives in the forest and ran ahead by herself into the village. This happened just as it was starting to get dark, and soon night had completely fallen. Anna and Tsetsilia started to feel creepy, waiting there in a strange forest. When the milkmaid returned, they learned from her that Red Army troops had indeed entered the village, and to go there would be dangerous. They would need to take a new route through forests and swamps and avoid the road for ten miles northward. The milkmaid led them down a ravine, where the smugglers, two healthy young Finns, were waiting for them; then she went off alone to the village.
All night until dawn, the refugees walked through the woods and swamps but not once did they experience fear or doubt. The warm June night, the starry sky, spreading out over them, and the forest thickets all seemed like an enchanted kingdom. They felt that an angel was guiding them and that, without a doubt, everything would turn out well. Both of them experienced a profound sense of peace.
And indeed everything did go well right to the end, and their peaceful mood was broken on only two occasions. Just before they left the forest, the smugglers took out revolvers and demanded immediate payment, excusing their demand by pointing out the possibility of meeting up with the patrol that was threatening them all with death. They wanted to be paid, no matter what. But Anna, considering the situation, calmly and firmly reminded them that by their mutual agreement payment was to be made after crossing the border, and not before; then the guides relented.
They experienced a second alarming moment when they began to go down toward the river. No one could be seen, there was complete silence, but dawn had already started to break. Going down to the very edge of the river and considering themselves safe, the smugglers began to take off their shoes to ford the river barefoot. At that moment, Tsetselia grew frightened, thinking it would take too long to get her shoes off, and she worried that Red Army troops might suddenly appear at the last second, So she plunged into the river, not waiting for the smugglers to take off their shoes or show her where the ford was. Anna followed after her, and both came up onto the far shore completely soaked, while the guides crossed the dry way. When they stepped up onto Finnish soil, Anna crossed herself and said, “Thank God! We are on free land!” And Tsetselia stretched out her arms toward the shore they had left and in tears declared, “All our brothers and sisters are still left there.”
Transl. by G. Young with some corrections by K.Z.
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