Elena Pisareva:
A Biographical Sketch

(Based on works in the references and private communications from Leonid Danilov, Gvido Trepsha, and Konstantin Zaitzev)

Elena Fedorovna Pisareva was an early member of and worker for the Theosophical Society in Russia. She was born in 1855 into an upper-class Russian family, not far from Moscow, and died in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 4, 1944, in her ninetieth year.

At the age of seventeen, she went to Germany, where she studied pedagogy at Heidelberg University and formed a close attachment to German culture, which influenced her later Theosophical work. When she returned to Russia, she married Nikolai Pisarev, a member of the landed gentry who was active in social work.

In 1901, Pisareva contacted Theosophy, joined the Theosophical Society by the following year, and at once became active in propagating Theosophy in Russia. She was acquainted with many of the leading Theosophists of Europe, but was associated particularly with the German Theosophical Society, being an admirer of Rudolf Steiner and a promoter of his work in Russia. Steiner, however, had personal ambitions to form a separate organization and seems early to have been moving in that direction. His formal break with the Theosophical Society came when he refused to let members of the German Theosophical Society be members also of the Order of the Star in the East (which was promoting J. Krishnamurti). Therefore, he was expelled from the Society for violating its policy of freedom of thought and membership, after which he founded the Anthroposophical Society. Pisareva, however, remained with the Theosophical Society. The leading figure in Russian Theosophy at this time was Anna Alekseyevna Kamensky (see Zaitzev and Duguay), with whom Pisareva was linked for the rest of her life and whom she admired deeply.

The Pisarevs’ country estate, some thirty miles from the city of Kaluga on the Oka River about a hundred miles southwest of Moscow, became a center of Theosophical life during the summers. The rest of the year, meetings were held at the Pisarevs’ house in Kaluga, where Elena founded and led a Lodge, which, although small in membership, was the second most influential one in Russia, after St. Petersburg. Her husband, Nikolai, was the Secretary of the Lodge and the first Theosophical publisher through his press, the Logos Publishing Company, which operated for a dozen years, from 1905 to 1917, after which it was closed by the Communist government. Elena Pisareva had contact with various Russians of intellectual and spiritual distinction, including Leo Tolstoy, whom she and Anna Kamensky visited in 1908, and also with Nicholas Roerich, the artist.

Pisareva produced a respectable volume of literary writings. She became an energetic translator of Theosophical literature into Russian. She also wrote a Russian biography of H.P. Blavatsky (Elena Petrovna Blavatskaya: Biograficheskii Ocherk), two chapters of which were published in English translation in the Theosophist magazine. She wrote many pamphlets in Russian, some of which were collected and published as a book, O Skrytom Smyslie Zhizni (On the Hidden Meaning of Life), for which she was awarded the Subba Rao Medal in 1934. She was also author of a number of articles in English.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in October/November of 1917, life in Russia became increasingly difficult for Pisareva. In 1922, she fled to Italy, where some other Russian expatriates had also settled. She continued her literary Theosophical work and her Esoteric School activities there. She and Anna Kamensky were the most prominent figures in the Russian Theosophical Society outside Russia. Her last published translation into Russian was George Arundale’s book Mount Everest: its Spiritual Attainment, of which copies are rare. Her last original work was a manuscript history of the Theosophical Society in Russia, published here for the first time.

The fullest and most detailed history of Theosophy in pre-Communist Russia is “No Religion Higher than Truth”: A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia, 1875–1922, by Maria Carlson. That book has many, albeit mostly minor, errors of fact. It also engages in a fair amount of editorializing, some explicit, much subliminal, typical of the academic style of scholars who treat a subject from which they need to distance themselves professionally. Despite those weaknesses, Carlson’s volume has no peer.

Pisareva’s history is of another kind altogether. It is a first-hand account by a principal actor in the history. It gives an insider’s view of how Theosophy came to Russia and developed there. Much of it is focused admiringly on the role of Anna Alexeyevna Kamensky, a leading figure in Russian Theosophy, and also on that of Anna’s colleague Cecile Helmboldt (Tsetselia Gelmboldt). Because of the sudden disruption in the growth of the Russian Theosophical Society after the Revolution, the story is in some respects a sad one. Yet is it infused with Elena Pisareva’s enthusiasm, dedication, and personal insights.


John Algeo

Athens, Georgia
October 2007

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