Anything is Possible.
A Historical Commentary to Russian New Sects.*

by Valery  Shubinsky (St.-Petersburg)


Perhaps the simplest solution would have been to inform the reader humbly: the book before you is nothing but a mystification; the sects described in this book do not and never did exist; the Moscow Institute of Atheism did not study them and never published such a reference manual “for official use only” (that is, not for sale and available only in “special archives,” access to which depended on special permission: such was the Soviet practice). The entire text, first published in Russia in 1994 and now available to an American audience, was written by Mikhail Epstein, the well-known Russian culturologist, now a professor at Emory University.*

 Nothing could have simpler than to have presented the book in such terms. However, it is not only that such an introduction would have been tedious and in part deleterious to the reading experience. It is that the assertions made in the preceding paragraph, although factually accurate, are methodologically deficient. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s widely-read novel The Master and Margarita the following episode occurs: The Devil, disguised as a foreign magician, arrives in Moscow to present “an evening of black magic.” He is permitted to do so under one condition: the presentation must be accompanied by its own “unmasking.” The condition is accepted: however, what is unmasked is not the illusionist’s magical manipulations but the audience itself. And we, in “unmasking” Mikhail Epstein’s mystification, run the same risk. Although the various organizations described by the group of authors under the direction of R. O. Gibaydulina — Blood Brothers, Thingwrights, Arkists, Domesticans, Khazarists, Red Hordes — do not and have never existed, the very nature of such organizations requires neither strict structure nor fixed borders. In acknowledging this, we must pose the following question: do not we ourselves belong to one of the above-described associations, or to one not described here but which is to appear in a second, unpublished volume?

 The “sect” has become a key concept for describing contemporary models of being, thinking, and living. (Why R. O. Gibaydulina and her comrades chose such a method will be treated below.) What we are interested in now is why such a method of describing reality “works,” why such a picture of the world proves convincing.

 Perhaps this question cannot be answered outside the context of Russian (or more precisely: Soviet-Russian) culture.


The very concept of “sect,” as understood in Russia, differs from the American concept of “cult.” In America, religious pluralism, with its competition and coexistence among variously-sized religious groups, is considered the norm. In Russia, membership in the Russian Orthodox Church has historically been considered a necessary part of membership in the Russian nation (just as membership in the Anglican Church has in England been part of being a good Englishman). This assumption has created a profoundly ambiguous situation for those ethnic Russians belonging to religious minorities. Dubbed “schismatics,” they were separated and cut off from Russian communal life. Their status under the Russian Empire was considerably lower than that of “non-Russians” (Polish Catholics, German Lutherans, Tatar Muslims) “pagans” (for the most part Buddhists, especially the Kalmyk and Buryat peoples), and even Jews.  The schismatics were regularly subject to persecution, in particular exile to Siberia and to even more far distant lands. Nevertheless, these “sectarians” remained numerous — in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

 Each century has given rise to new “heresies,” new “sects,” new “associations.” In the 15th and 16th centuries, under the influence of the Reformation, sects that rejected church ritual and hierarchy (for instance, the “Strigolniki”) arose. At this same period the very important “Judaizer” heresy appeared, nearly managing to become the official religion during the reign of Ivan III (1462-1505). Ultimately, however, the traditional church prevailed and the Judaizers were burned at the stake in December 1504. Nevertheless, heresies of a Jewish cast arose again and again over the centuries. Scholars have estimated that, by the 19th century, there were at least twenty thousand of these sectarians. Some of them, in fact, such as the “Ilins,” converted to Judaism and began to consider themselves Jews. Others, such as the “Subbotniki,” occupied a middle ground between Christianity and Judaism. It would not seem overly bold to see a connection between these odd tendencies in Russian culture and the legacy of the Khazars — a Turkic people, converted to Judaism, who ruled parts of the Lower Volga from the seventh to tenth centuries. Epstein’s book describes an the association of “Khazarists” that considers the legacy of this disappeared people as the basis of Russian civilization itself. One thing is certain: the Russians, beginning no later than the early Middle Ages, that is in 1050 with Hilarion’s “Sermon on Law and Grace,” considered themselves, more than any other Christian people (or at least those of the Old World), the “New Jerusalem” (one product of which were excesses of both anti- and philo-semitism, often difficult to distinguish between in the Russian context).

 In the 17th century the rejection of the reform of the Orthodox liturgy by a large number of Russians led to the emergence of the Old Believers’ movement. Paradoxically, the Old Believers saw themselves as extremely conservative, keepers of the spirit of the Middle Ages. However, in the course of their an unprecedentedly resolute, century-long struggle with church and state, they developed a social structure and ethic that was in many ways reminiscent of Protestantism. The Old Believers divided into a plethora of sects, “persuasions,” closed communities and mini-Churches. Frequently they functioned without a priesthood, using unofficial preachers and “guides” instead (moreover, women could be found among them). Their doctrine was marked by a belief in the imminent end of the world and rejection of contemporary civilization, combined with a stress on hard work, asceticism, honesty and cleanliness. In the 19th century real Protestantism began to spread throughout Russia, both in native (the “Milk Drinkers” and “Spirit Wrestlers”) and Western forms, although Russified in the latter case: for instance, the very Russian “Pashkovtsy” and “Shtunditsy” sects ultimately derived from Pietism and Baptism respectively. However, given the situation in Russia, it was more often the fundamentalist and maximalist forms that prospered, not the rationalist.

 It is in this light that the contemporary scholar A. M. Etkind links the appearance of the castrator sect to the Protestant condemnation and repression of sexuality. This sect resolved the “problem” of sexuality in a most radical manner: its adherents subjected themselves to sexual castration. The leader of this sect, Kondraty Selivanov, who proclaimed himself both an incarnation of Christ and of the overthrown and murdered emperor Peter III, cut off his own sexual organs in 1774. His followers believed that castration conferred corporeal immortality. Yet when castrators began to die just like everyone else, the sect did not collapse.

 The name of one Russian sect, the Khlysts (from the Russian word ‘khlestat’ ­ to lash or whip), is often translated as “Flagellants,” which produces a somewhat inaccurate association between it and the West European movement of the 12th century. The Khlysts emerged in Russia in the 17th century. Scholars have assumed that this sect has an historical connection with the Balkan Bogomils and, through them, the Cathars. These Russian sectarians in fact called themselves not “Khlysts” but “Khrists” (from the Russian word for Christ). Believing in metempsychosis, they asserted that Christ was incarnated in the leader of each Khlyst “ship” (community). Moreover, each  “ship” had its Mother of God,  its David who composed sacred hymns, etc. Nevertheless, the transformation of Khrist to Khlyst, by the sect’s opponents, was not completely arbitrary. The Khlysts indeed practiced self-flagellation. In their hatred of the material world they condemned sexual relations between spouses but tolerated extra-marital sex. Their opponents, probably overstating the case, asserted that the Khlysts’ ecstatic collective prayer sessions ended in group orgies.

The sheer oddity and amazing variety of Russian sectarian religious practice is in some way reminiscent of the religious schism that took place in the eastern Mediterranean during the first centuries of the Christian era. Russian culture, like all the others that fell under Byzantine influence, bore the stamp of this schism, of which Gnosticism was one manifestation. In particular, its apophatic tendencies were inherited by Russian culture and, just as with the Gnostics, it produced rather paradoxical results. The Russian critic and philosopher Vasily Rozanov observed, in some despair, that in the teachings of the Khlysts and Castrators there “is something apocalyptic, colossal, something that doesn’t fit into the ‘civil’ or ‘political’ history of humanity.” These Gnostic tendencies are clearly present among the Khylsts. A kind of “elemental Gnosticism” can be observed in the now almost kitch historical figure of Gregory Rasputin, who is known to have been associated with the Khlysts. There is something undoubtedly “Gnostic” in the ethic of the “Sinnerist” sect described by Doctor Gibaydulina. Moreover, it is worth noting that the metaphysical aspect of Gnosticism, with its ramified hierarchies of worlds, had little impact on popular Russian sectarianism but instead influenced Russian mystical intellectuals — from the late 19th century theosophy of Madame Blavatsky to the visionary writings of D. L. Andreev in the 1940s and 50s.

 This leads to an important topic: what was the relationship between the spiritual inquiries of the intellectual elite and the world of popular sects?

 Contacts between these two worlds always existed. For example, when Kondraty Selivanov preached in the capital at the beginning of the 19th century, many aristocrats attended. In 1809  the chamberlain Elensky, who had become a castrator, addressed a letter to the Czar in which he called on him to make castrator doctrine the official state ideology and that only members of this sect, having undergone castration, be allowed to occupy the highest government positions. In 1817 in Saint Petersburg  a Khlyst community, all of whose members were from the highest strata of Russian society, was formed. Paradoxically, its doctrines combined popular sectarianism with elements of Masonry and Pietism. But it was at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries, when the spiritual searchings of the Russian intelligentsia reached its height, that interest in popular sectarianism exploded. The phenomenon of Rasputin was only the most scandalous, not the most objectively significant, of its manifestations.

 During this period sects with roots in the intelligentsia appeared, one of the most famous being the Tolstoyans — that is, the followers of the religious teachings of Leo Tolstoy. No less historically significant, and quite close in organization to our concept of sect, were the followers of Nikolai Fedorov (1828-1903) — a Russian philosopher who saw the purpose of world history as the literal physical resurrection of all the world’s dead. According to him, the life of human society ought to be completely devoted to this task. (The totalitarian forms in which he envisioned the future now have a somewhat Soviet ring.)  Elements of sectarian psychology are also characteristic of the followers of the unorthodox eschatology of a third giant of Russian intellectual history, Vladimir Solovyov, “the Russian Origen.” This influence was especially felt in Symbolist circles.

 The history of the “Dobroliubovtsy” is especially interesting in this regard. In the 1890s in Saint Petersburg the Symbolist poet Alexander Dobroliubov, who was then a student, found himself at the center of a group to whom he preached such fashionable contemporary ideas as Nietzscheanism. However, when one of his followers committed suicide, Dobroliubov was thrown into crisis and experienced a moral rebirth. Abandoning home and career, he set off for “the people.” He worse crude peasant dress and worked as a carpenter and stove repairer. However, he retained his prophet’s ardor; organizing his own mystical sect, he composed “teachings” and hymns (whose poetic quality was greater than in his early poetry) for his followers. The “Dobroliubovtsy” continued to exist during the Soviet period, right up to the death of their leader in 1945. This sect, which had initially maintained a connection to Christianity, later rejected the existence of “a spiritual substance higher than the human person.” We have here the prototype for the sect that Doctor Gibaydulina calls “Atheans.” However, theirs is not the atheism of Fuerbach or Camus. Rather, in going beyond the Judeo-Christian paradigm, they reject not only the idea of the Absolute, with its personalist foundation, but the entire Aristotelian ontology. The traditional opposition between “being” and “non-being,” “existence” and “non-existence” no longer applies.


All these offshoots and apparent “dead-ends” of Russian civilization from the 15th through 19th centuries had either a direct or indirect influence on the theory and practice of Soviet society. It is not difficult to find individual facts illustrating this connection. Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, mentioned in Epstein’s book as an historian of heresies and sects, was a Bolshevik who, after 1917, was the first director of the Counsel of Peoples’ Commissars. Moreover, his scholarly interests intersected with his political activity; as early as the 1860s he tried to make use of the sectarians for the revolutionary cause. The Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Georgy Chicherin, was born into a family of Pashkovtsy. Leonid Krasin, Railways’ Commissar and later ambassador to England and France, was a follower of Fedorov; according to one version, the idea of embalming Lenin’s body was his and was designed to facilitate the Leader’s resurrection.

Obviously, Marx’s dialectical materialism is only superficially rational.  Transferred to Russian soil at the end of the 19th century, at the height of a kind of mystical hysteria, Marxism was able to fulfill its irrational and even mystical potential. Toward 1910 a group of Russian social-democrats (the so-called “God-builders”) set out to create an authentic religion on the basis of Marxism. Among its members was the future Peoples’ Commissar of Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky; Maxim Gorky himself was a sympathizer. Lenin’s unwillingness to accept this movement was not so much ideological as dictated by his respect for formal historical continuity. As an ideologue and practical politician, Lenin considered it important to preserve the presumed genetic connection between the revolution and the 19th century Russian intelligentsia’s scientistic materialism and, beyond them, with the Enlightenment.

 Nevetheless, these “heresies,” repudiated by the party hierarchy because of their non-standard, quasi-religious, riskily utopian or downright mystical  interpretations of the new state ideology, found their most adequate expression in literature. For example, in his 1923 poem “About This,” (1923) Mayakovsky describes the future ‘workshop of human resurrection,’ which is a clear reference to Fedorov. In “Mystery Bouffe” (1918) liberated humanity, having attained the Communist paradise, meets the first inhabitants of this ideal space: liberated objects. Another remarkable poet, Nikolai Zabolotsky, considered socialism as but a means to repay an ancient human debt: that of awakening animals, and ultimately plants, to rational life. Finally there is Andrey Platonov (1899-1951), one of Russia’s greatest 20th century writers and a great enthusiast of Fedorov, whose works brilliantly describe the Communist revolution as a tortured attempt to overcome the existential orphanhood of humanity, its solitude in the material world.

It is not particularly surprising that such unorthodox ideas, as distant from the old social mainstream as the new one — not to speak of modern European rationalism and positivism — should be expressed in art; what is more interesting is their relationship to scientific creativity and technological progress. Konstantine Tsiolkovsky, inventor of the jet engine and a leading theoretician of space travel, used his ‘spare time’ to write mystical-utopian treatises about the future of humanity; the above-mentioned poet Zabolotsky in fact corresponded with him. Andrey Platonov started out as an engineer and irrigationist, and this professional experience is palpable in his art. It is difficult to say how many of the millions of people engaged in the total industrialization and technological modernization of Russia were conscious of the fundamental change in relations that was taking place between nature and man. Art perhaps expressed what many dimly felt but could not express.

I have focused special attention on this dimension of the problem because of the parallel that can be drawn here — in spite of obvious differences — between American and Russian civilizations. Only in America (from the beginning of its history) and Russia (in the 20th century) has technological progress been linked with a religious (or parareligious) consciousness. Is it not this that accounts for the surprising fact that the U.S.S.R., a nation with a low standard of living, an ineffective economic system, and having experienced more than one historical cataclysm, including an almost total annihilation of its intellectuals, managed for several decades to compete with the United States in the area of advanced technologies? There is another similarity, which also became apparent only in the 20th century. In 1831 de Tocqueville wrote:

"If their social condition, their present circumstances, and their laws did not confine the minds of the Americans so closely to the pursuit of worldly welfare, it is probable that they would display more reserve and more experience whenever their attention is turned to things immaterial, and that they would check themselves without difficulty. But they feel imprisoned within bounds, which they will apparently never be allowed to pass. As soon as they have passed these bounds, their minds do not know where to fix themselves and they often rush unrestrained beyond the range of common sense."

Obviously, this perception of America as profoundly materialistic is somewhat overstated, since the actual foundation of America was in the highly spiritual Puritan movement. But Tocqueville is right about something else: Americans had no “experience” with immaterial things: having crossed the Atlantic Ocean, they were cut off from the full complexity and variety of traditions of the Old World. They could not verify their mystical longings in light of these traditions to find a compromise between religion and common sense.

Russia too crossed its ocean, in 1917, and it is clear that the “bounds” described by Toqueville were no less real than those in Andrew Jackson’s America. When they weakened, “traditional” religions (including Russian Orthodoxy) found themselves for a time (a short time!) almost equal partners with a dizzying array of sects. It should not be forgotten that, over the course two generations, the Gospels were not read and very few people could even be said to have had a clear idea of what was in them.

 The spiritual history of 20th century Russia might be described in the following way: first to be actualized were the dead-ends, the side roads, the eccentricities and extravagances of Russian thought and faith, which destroyed the extant mainstream and created a new one, based on a pseudo-materialist utopia. Then this new mainstream began to break down, and its restoration took a long time (but in the end it did occur).  A situation arose in which, to quote Auden, “private rites of magic send the temple prostitute to sleep.” There occurred, so to speak, a “privatization of utopia.”


The current wave of sectarianism surfaced in Russia at the beginning of the 1990s; that is, later than Gibaydulina’s putated work and earlier than the publication of Epstein’s real one. As with earlier sectarian explosions in Russia, this one saw the coexistence of foreign (followers of Sun Young Moon, Scientology, Aum Sinrike, an others) and native sects (such as The White Brotherhood and The Church of the Mother of God). By contrast, the 1970s and 80s had not so much seen actual sectarianism as informal, alternative forms of spirituality, consciousness, and worldview. By describing them as sects, Epstein was able to sharpen, to the point of caricature, their characteristics but at that same time to structure ham more clearly. For example, there really was a kind of Pushkin cult amonst the intelligentsia; it was even tolerated by the government as an innocent alternative to the official cult of Lenin. As for the “Red Horde,” it is only a slightly exaggerated form of native “Eurasianism,” which first arose in the 1920s and has been influential, to varying degrees, to this day. Finally, the “Blood Brothers” can be seen as growing out of an admiration for, and ecstatic insistence on, the huge historical sacrifices borne by Russia and its people.

Just how “postmodern” these sects are, is open to question: clearly these are not self-sufficient, enclosed and narrowly defined discourses but models aspiring to totality. Moreover, all these conceptions are undoubtedly post-Christian. In them all the basic principles of the Christian — and more broadly, the monotheistic — worldview are rejected. Man is not depicted as standing before  a personal God but a vague and uncertain Something or No-thing. Nevertheless, the very behavior of these “sectarians” in the face of this Something reflects the two thousand year experience of Christian civilization. This can be most clearly seen in the insistence on an historical telos and in the eschatological consciousness of many of the “sects.”

One final question, which we have come up against before, remains to be answered: what is the proper attitude to take in regard to such “sectarian” types of consciousness and behavior? It is not hard to imagine how a contemporary scholar, whose field of research might lie somewhere between “religious studies” and “scientific atheism,” would approach this material. Indeed the original form of this book could have suggested just such an interpretation. However, the appended “Atheism as a Spiritual Calling: From the Archive of Professor R.O. Gibaydulina” casts an altogether new light on the person of R. O. Gibaydulina.

 “Raisa Omarovna Gibaydulina,” writes the publisher of these materials, “belonged to the generation of the Soviet intelligentsia that was born and raised under the Communist regime and took its collapse as a tragedy.” One might add — based on the texts she produced — that Gibaydulina embodied the primordial Marxist-Leninst outlook characteristic of the 1920s ­ internationalist, anti-traditionalist, uncompromising. Furthermore, one could speculate that she inherited this outlook from her parents — participants in the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Her father might have been a leader of the Tartar Autonomous Republic, later executed during the Great Terror of 1937. It is clear, in spite of the revisionist games played by official thinkers in the 1960s-1980s, and by the ritual kow-towing to official dogma engaged in by less official thinkers, that there in fact existed clear lines of demarcation between official and free philosophy in the U.S.S.R. It is equally clear on which side of this dividing line Gibaydulina stood. Along with what we can see in the excerpts from her work, there are hints of a type of thinking that never in fact materialized in Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia— an independent and original post-Marxist philosophy. This is why someone like our Soviet Professor Gibaydulina (let us not forget: she was a contemporary of Foucault) involuntarily found herself part of the international context.

 One object of her creative revision is Marxian atheism. For her, non-belief in anything, rejection of a religious attitude toward any and everything, has become — after the fall of Communism, which she experienced well before 1991 — a spiritual mission. This is why she defines as “cults” the entire complex of spiritualized and/or idealized attitudes toward cultural, social, and human realities that she observed around her. In being deemed a “sect,” such ill-defined spiritual associations become psychologically alienating, something with which one must not associate. By deeming their ideas “sectarian dogma,” she legitimizes her caricature of them. However, this also affects the attitude that should be taken toward “sects” such as the “Atheans,” with whom Gibaydulina would seem to be in agreement. Perhaps she would object to the “hypocrisy” of this type of consciousness: the Atheans speak too openly and crudely of the religious meaning of their lack of faith — of its feigned, fictive character.

The concept of a sect includes the presumption of an orthodoxy. However, in Gibaydulina’s case only total agnosticism — concealed in Marxist-Leninst rhetoric, for the sake of decency — can aspire to this status. Gibaydulina dreams of reaching an absolute neutrality, sobriety and purity of consciousness. In this sense, the term “postmodernism” has applicability in this book only in relation to her.

Or perhaps in relation to Mikhail Epstein? In such a case, this book is one of his ongoing series of works on the virtual intellectual history of Russia.  The second volume envisioned here, “Contemporary Thinkers. An Anthology.” is devoted to philosophers whose names and ideas are, unfortunately, known to Epstein alone. And as these two works constitute a kind of “Inferno” and “Purgatoria” of “The Comedy of Ideas” (the hell of natural impersonality followed by the purgatory of personal being), then we might reasonably anticipate the appearance of a third volume, the contents of which we cannot even guess at.


When entering Russia from Finland by bus one is greeted by a road sign billboard. Whether it advertises stockings, yogurt, condoms, or chocolate, I can’t remember — but it doesn’t really matter. What is important is the text, which reads: “Anything is possible!” Russians returning find this very funny. Indeed returning home we are back where “anything is possible,” both practically and spiritually. However, it would be incorrect to assume that the varieties of spiritual experience described in this book apply only to Russia. “Anything is possible” is possible everywhere; the difference is that in Russia you are warned about it at the door. From what we outsiders know of the spiritual life of contemporary America  (it too, in essence, post-Christian) the following intriguing but, alas, idle question begs to be asked: how would Professor Gibaydulina have described it?

Translated from the Russian and edited by Thomas Epstein

* Cries in the New Wilderness: From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism. Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp. (hardcover and paperback)