As Above, So Below: Astrology and the Fate of Soviet Scientism.
The astrologer Mikhail Borisovich Levin was among the last in the Soviet Union to hear of the August 1991 coup. As that committee of hard-liners clung desperately to the center in Moscow, Levin was thousands of miles away from the capital and several miles above it, hiking in the Pamir Mountains of Uzbekistan with a small group of acolytes. The news reached him via a forester with a shortwave radio. Although Levin does not claim to have foreseen the coup, he recalls locating it on the astronomical tables he carried in his bag and assuring his companions that it would quickly collapse: "Everything was fairly clear at that point. I would put it this way: the beginning of the 1990s, from the cosmic perspective, was a point of great cultural rupture ... it's predictable. It's a particular cycle. Practically the entire 72 years from revolution to dissolution could be calculated." (1)
At this great cultural rupture, Levin found his cosmic perspective in high demand. Parallel to his respectable scientific career, he had pursued astrology in underground circles since the early 1970s. Now he was working full-time as rector of the Moscow Academy of Astrology, where thousands of astrologers would train through the 1990s and up to the present day. He was also a fixture in the newspapers, on the radio, and on the television, confidently sharing his astrological insights with an eager public.
Before 1988, the Soviet public was granted practically no access to astrological texts or horoscopes. Yet one study of belief in Russia, conducted in 1990, showed that 49 percent of respondents believed that the stars influenced their lives, including 32 percent of self-identifying atheists. (2) Another study, conducted a year later, found a majority of Russians with some belief in astrology (far fewer believed in God) and, moreover, that this belief correlated to higher levels of education (although this trend reversed among those holding advanced degrees). Among college graduates, 57 percent believed. (3) These levels persisted through the 1990s: a study conducted in 1999 showed that 42 percent believed astrologers' predictions. (4)
By 1992 syndicated astrology prognoses appeared on the major Soviet television channels, and by 1993 syndicated horoscopes were run even in Kommersant, Russia's premier business newspaper. (5) Less esteemed newspapers--that is, those with far greater readership--had been running astrology columns since the press was liberalized in 1990. (6) In addition to printed and televised horoscopes, professional astrologers offered private consultations, though only some of these professionals had been trained and certified at formal astrology schools like Levin's. They competed with a cottage industry of dilettantes, at least some of whom read disaster in every natal chart and charged liberally for deliverance. (7)
This article locates Soviet astrology's cultural origins and explains its extraordinary visibility in that country's last years, during which it became shorthand for a much larger cultural transformation. On the one hand, astrology's utility in a time of crisis is self-evident. The promises and plans on which Soviet people had built their lives had rapidly eroded, and astrology, claiming knowledge of both the present and the future, would naturally provide succor to some. The discipline was a map and a compass for those who were disoriented. (8) On the other hand, all variety of orientations were on offer. Yet astrology stands out as a true mass phenomenon, ubiquitous in the press and attracting high levels of interest from broad segments of the population. (9) Moreover, its origins seem obscure. There was only a fragmented domestic tradition in pre-Soviet Russia and none to speak of in the USSR, and no foreign or international groups were invested in its success at the time of the collapse. (10) When it did appear in media outlets across the country, it appeared as a supernova, sudden and brilliant, from a patch of sky long assumed to be empty.
There is, however, a deeper current in modern Russian culture, in which astrology finds a natural place. Although this article centers on later periods, imperial Russia at the turn of the last century was exceptional for what I will call "speculative science," which in turn left its mark on Soviet and post-Soviet culture. (11) Speculative science was a confluence of many currents. In one sense, it was part of a broader European fashion, which saw the blending of occult practices like tarot and seances with flashy science experiments and demonstrations. (12) Yet in Russia, it was paired with popular science fiction literature, which imagined technical-scientific paths to transcendence. It echoed in Russian Cosmism, a maximalist philosophical movement that sought immortality and spiritual evolution in space and spaceflight. (13) And it inspired the thinkers, Konstantin Tsiolkovskii greatest among them, who would be the progenitors of the coming space age.
When assessing the 20th century as a whole, the binary of rationalism and transcendent spirituality obscures more than it reveals in the Russian case. Speculative science was the merger of technological progress to a search for spiritual liberation and for a modernity without attendant disenchantment. (14) Popular science, science fiction, and spiritual seeking were bound together in Russian journals and eagerly consumed by the intelligentsia-scientists, engineers, philosophers, and policy makers. (15) Several scholars have observed this culture's reexpression in the triumphant age of Soviet space travel, when popular science journals of the 1960s sought to link hard science and the spirit in much the same way. (16) Astrology was a continuation of this cultural genealogy.
One media outlet--the clearest carrier of this tradition in the Soviet era-went on to play an outsized role in astrology's public debut at the time of the collapse. Founded in 1959 as the Communist Party's soap box for atheist and rationalist enlightenment, the magazine Nauka i religiia (Science and Religion) was also intended to provide spiritual inspiration to readers and was never perfectly clear in its intellectual boundaries. The reforms of the Gorbachev era saw the speculative, esoteric, and occult currents in the magazine--a muted presence since the 1960s--reemerge and quickly subsume all other themes. (17) The editors gave astrology its first and most serious treatment in the Soviet press in 1989, and by the end of 1990, more articles in the magazine discussed astrology than any other single topic. Although some long-time readers bemoaned the magazine's shift, the public rewarded it with vastly increased readership.
The magazine's curious evolution, and the enthusiastic public response, provides an answer to the central question of this article: why did the country take to astrology so readily? In Nauka i religiia's pages, we see a transfer of spiritual authority from editors to readers, and a reader-led reconsideration of the purpose and meaning of science, along the lines described above. Although the embrace of astrology might appear to be a rejection of Soviet answers to these questions, speculative science was part and parcel of Soviet epistemology. Told alongside Levin's biography, the magazine's history and transformation constitute this article's second thread. In Levin's life we locate astrology's intellectual origins in the USSR and, in Nauka i religiia, its emergence into the cultural mainstream.
The third and final thread is another biography. During the tumult of 1991, Ol'ga Galankina--by then a student at Levin's academy--also oriented herself to the stars. Although new to astrology, this had been her long-standing instinct--it was instilled when she was a child spotting satellites at night in her grandmother's village, honed in her formal education in astronomy in the Soviet Union's premier university, and essential to her training at Levin's degree-granting school.
Galankina was largely unaware of astrology until 1987 and would have seemed an unlikely candidate to adopt it. In this way, her life story tacks closely to the trajectory of Nauka i religiia, so it is no surprise that she was an avid reader by the time of the magazine's astrological turn. It is from the perspective of the reader, ultimately, that we best understand the draw of astrology when it appeared. Galankina is not meant to stand in for Soviet society at large but for its members who, following Soviet paths to the country's end, would navigate their way out by the stars.
Her life was a thoroughly Soviet one, as envisioned by the state in the spacefaring decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Although she absorbed elements of Orthodox spirituality via her grandmother, her deepest feelings were for the stars, in her youth already glittering with Soviet satellites and the occasional passing cosmonaut. In pursuit of this passion, she read widely in popular science and science fiction--genres elevated by a state that sought to inspire her, even as they pushed at that state's ideological boundaries. Though neither of her parents were of the intelligentsia, she dreamed of a place among the Soviet experts who were then shocking the world with their triumphs. Given the country's upward trajectory, she had no reason to doubt the possibility. More broadly, she felt that there was a link between science and human life, between the stars and her world, a correspondence that could provide meaning without recourse to "superstition," to use the catch-all term of Soviet derision. (18) Yet when the state that nurtured these ideals proved incapable of realizing them, it was astrology that saw her through: for her, as for millions of her compatriots, astrology required no renunciation and no daring leap of faith; it simply made sense.
Although Mikhail Levin's intellectual world and its late 1980s embrace by Nauka i religiia constitute most of the article's text, its findings are in the deepest sense about Ol 'ga Galankina--child of the Soviet space age, trained scientist, self-described ordinary woman, and, from 1990 on, professional astrologer.
The Sputnik Generation, 1957-87
Sputnik 1 was a small and humble apparatus, a polished sphere two feet in diameter, equipped only with a transmitter to broadcast its own existence. But as it streaked around the globe in the autumn of 1957, it threw a magnificent comet's tail of dazzled and dumbstruck human beings, hundreds of millions, whose past experience of the world could not accommodate this tiny new companion with its radio pulse. They could only look up in awe and with fear or pride, depending on their geographic and political station. In the USSR, pride in Sputnik became hope for the future.
What was the Soviet Union to hope for? In the broadest sense, the rising Sputnik generation hoped for the fruits of their parents' endless travails. This was a hope that the Communist Party had kept alive through decades of setbacks, wrong turns, and failures, through terror and war, and that the vision survived at all spoke to its singular beauty. After Stalin's death, the Party's relaxing of censorship and public reconciliation with (most of) its victims pointed it toward the future, and robust economic growth suggested it knew the way. (19)
The most pressing task facing the Soviet government in this period was to demonstrate a link between the people's economy and the daily life of the people. (20) Such correspondence was communism's long-deferred promise, and Khrushchev's primary strategy toward fulfilling it was through vast housing projects--the heavy industrial production of a comfortable and predictable modern lifestyle. (21) Economic growth and material well-being, though, were both means to an end, and when Khrushchev foretold communism's realization by 1980, he was describing something more. He was renewing a promise that the arcane math of economic planning would reveal a Utopia in which liberation from necessity allowed humanity to pursue a higher purpose, however vaguely conceived. How literally one believed varied widely, but at the very least, the suggestion was inoffensive, remote as it was from immediate concerns and preferable to the nightmarish pragmatism of the previous decades. Especially in light of those decades, the state faced even greater expectations. While Marxist economics fixated on the hands and the stomach, its essence--and Soviet practice--would need to elevate the spirit. (22)
It was here that popular science, science fiction, and spirituality reunited, now in the service of the coming socialist Utopia. The launch of Sputnik was followed, over the course of some ten years, by a flurry of new publications, each in its way proclaiming that "fairy tales had come true." (23) In their pages, readers--and the scientific-technical intelligentsia in particular--were encouraged to fanciful imaginings about the future that at times recalled or even reproduced the speculative science of the prerevolutionary era. As before, science fiction proliferated, often serialized in these popular journals. (24) As before, it coexisted with scientific speculation along occult lines, reflecting a broad optimism that the gap between science and magic was closing. (25) Articles explored esoteric and extraterrestrial meaning in religious icons, psychic energies, auras, telepathy and "remote viewing," and, naturally, an abundance of theories about space and the cosmos--theories of ancient aliens, of aliens and the Tunguska event, of earth as an "alien ant farm," of the extraterrestrial origins of the Yeti, and of solar cycles and gravitational waves influencing human society. (26) It was also at this time that the Cosmist thinkers of the previous generation gained devotees among the scientific intelligentsia, and in the case of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, gained permanent and official status as a great Russian luminary. (27)
Prominent among these new publications, each elevating science in its many contested forms, was Nauka i religiia, billed as the official magazine of "atheist enlightenment." Alhough intended as a weapon in the fight against the state's religious rivals, the magazine was fundamentally hopeful and positive in tone, a guide to the present and future wonders of Soviet power. The inside cover of the first issue, in September 1959, previewed Moscow's Monument to the Conquerors of Space--a gleaming rocket, screaming toward the stars, perched atop its towering titanium contrail (Fig. 1). (28) The monument was completed five years later, in 1964, and a statue of Tsiolkovskii stands at its base.
Between the magazine's preview and the monument's completion (1959-64), Nauka i religiia's circulation grew from 70,000 to 200,000. (29) Over roughly the same period, its strictly science-themed counterpart Nauka i zhizn ' grew from 150,000 to 1,750,000 copies, and Tekhnika molodezhi from 250,000 to 1.2 million. (30) These numbers reflect a resonance between editors' goals and readers' demands and actually belie much higher readership--though precise numbers elude us, subscriptions often belonged to libraries, reading clubs, factories, or apartment blocks, to be shared by all members. (31)
At the magazine's inception, Nauka i religiia at times lapsed into hamfisted debunking ("we've been to space, and there's no God"). (32) But by the middle of the 1960s, it was promoting a coherent Soviet spirituality-collective-minded morality, celebration of art and culture, appeals to self-improvement over the perceived crutch of religion, and most of all, awe before humanity's power and achievements. (33) Within this context, space and cosmonautics articles were not only the best evidence of the promise of their worldview but also a means of drawing subscribers. (34) The magazine (and the newspapers, and the television) documented every launch, orbit, spacewalk, docking, and extraterrestrial landing, and cosmonauts themselves penned articles averring a fulfilling and atheistic worldview. (35)
Yet the magazine also reveled in speculation and science fiction and occasionally--particularly in its early enthusiasm--in the parascientific, including a distinct fascination with telepathy. (36) In one instance, Vladimir Mezentsev, the magazine's editor in chief from 1964 to 1968, chose to publish the autobiography of the Polish clairvoyant Wolf Messing. Separately, the Moscow State University (MGU) historian Valentina Pazilova, a secret adept of the prerevolutionary Cosmist and transhumanist Nikolai Fedorov, published several thorough critiques of Fedorov's ideas in Nauka i religiia and elsewhere with the explicit intent of propagating them. (37)
In 1988, incidentally, readers at Nauka i religiia would demand a reprint of this same piece by Wolf Messing, and in the 1990s, Pazilova would become an editor at the magazine. (38) This, in a sense, can be attributed to Sputnik's long tail, the cultural impact of space age triumphs. Those triumphs served to link the USSR's scientific prowess with its spiritual promise, providing hard evidence of the nation's upward trajectory. They also lent credence to speculative science, whether or not the Soviet state had this intention.
Mikhail Levin was born in 1949 to parents who were Jewish but by that time identified primarily as scientists. (39) Although they would not conceal their Jewishness, they raised their son with neither religion nor politics, instead providing for him the privileged life of the Soviet scientific elite. This privilege was not reflected in material conditions (Levin recalls those, in the 1950s, as "miserable," though his parents might have disagreed) but in his education, on which his family and the state placed great emphasis. He read from a young age, and at six--two years before Sputnik--he discovered astronomy. He arrived at it as any six-year-old might: a schoolmate claimed that the sun was not as small as it looked but rather, incredibly large. The skeptical young Mikhail went off to research, and there found his calling. "I opened a book, read some, and unexpectedly ... [it] grabbed me. I lost myself, in childhood, reading books on astronomy, I read fantastical stories about flights into space and was terribly taken with astronomy, it captivated me. I felt something exceptionally lofty in that science. It was breathtaking."
Still inspired in 2015, Levin may be projecting slightly onto his six-year-old self. Regardless, he had found his passion at the right time. The launch of Sputnik in 1957, in Levin's words, "evoked in us a fantastical enthusiasm and a flurry of interest in astronomy." It was enthusiasm that the state was keen to harness. Astronomy clubs sprung up at local Pioneer organizations (the Party's equivalent of Western scouting), and at 13 Levin eagerly joined, attending lectures on the history and practice of the science, working with telescopes, recording observations, traveling, and making friends with other children of the scientific elite.
Alongside these friends and in these clubs, the teenage Levin grew equally enchanted by mathematics and chose to make that his career and astronomy his avocation. In the late 1960s, as he looked toward university, he believed in the world heralded by Sputnik and its successors, where science could satisfy both mind and spirit. In fact, these ideals would stay with him for life, but to preserve them would require a different life from the one being advertised. Embarking on the state's path, Levin found that he couldn't gaze upward for long: there were obstacles in his way. Although his intellectual passions had always been dearer than his Jewish heritage, he found that the choice was not his to make. "Persecutions had started. They replaced the rector; they arrested the secretary of MGU's party committee ... An active antisemitic struggle in the sciences. Just everywhere they were tightening the screws. It was at our university, it was practically everywhere. After university, we came to understand that, if you're a Jew, you've got nowhere to work."
Levin here is overstating his case: he did find work in his chosen field after university, though he says such luck escaped his friends. Levin worked as a researcher in a computing lab, employing his skills in mathematics but reserving his passions for his life underground.
Ol'ga Aleksandrovna Galankina was born in 1963. She grew up in the Moscow suburb of Vidnoe, and her parents were both workers in the broad Soviet definition--her father was a taxi driver, and her mother worked in the personnel department of a factory. (40) She describes her young self as introverted but driven, having spent the better part of her youth among the books at the library, reading widely in classical literature, history, and in particular, popular science and science fiction. In the summers, she would travel to her grandparents' dacha in the countryside, trips that would prove formative for both her inner world and her career.
Like many of her generation, Galankina's most substantial exposure to religion came from her grandmother, whose belief antedated the atheist state, and who, in the mornings at the dacha, would cross herself and mutter in quiet meditation. The image stayed with Galankina, though it was secondary in what she would (much later) see as her spiritual awakening. In the summer of 1974, still in the countryside, something else inspired her:
it was in August, a very clear night, and late that evening I walked outside, and I remember looking consciously, for the first time, at the sky. And I saw just the most phenomenal beauty, the vast and open sky, a tremendous number of stars. And I remember, it was this first internal realignment toward this idea, to the sky, to the stars, and from that moment I was captivated, you know, this pure and lofty internal feeling, of exaltation, of rapture, of flight. I wanted to know the what, the how, and the why. And I began reading the literature of popular astronomy.
That literature would address the "what" and "how" of the cosmos, but also the more elusive "why"; it sustained her intellectual curiosity and her passion alike. Galankina describes her youthful interest in space as strictly "scientific," although her language is clearly emotional. Was this not the ideal of "scientific enlightenment" that Nauka i religiia and its counterparts celebrated--science with spiritual meaning? To Galankina, this correspondence was a given, and it would remain so for life.
Soviet children like Galankina had a clear path to space. Children's books took them on fanciful voyages to space stations and lunar colonies, and when old enough to socialize with the neighbors, they could board rocketship jungle gyms in the courtyards behind their homes. (41) Cosmonauts on posters proclaimed that fairy tales were coming true, and the believers collected pins, coins, and insignias from the latest missions. (42) Space clubs like Levin's, under the auspices of the Pioneer organizations, were commonplace. There was abundant literature about the engineers and cosmonauts who peopled the Soviet pantheon and in popular science and science fiction. (43) Back at school, math and science enjoyed prestige and state support, and a straight track led from excellence in grammar school to intensive college programs in math, physics, astronomy, and engineering at Moscow's most esteemed universities and institutes. For those serious and talented enough to climb the ladder, the top of the Soviet scientific apparatus possessed an authority that the Party itself was loathe to dispute. (44)
As a child, Galankina read countless books about space, and in her telling, by the age of 15 nothing else interested her. Her sole purpose was to enter a top-tier university program in astronomy. Her single-minded determination (which she would later attribute to "a strong Jupiter" in her natal chart) pointed her toward the Physics Department at MGU, and she focused all subsequent schoolwork on gaining admittance. In 1979, at age 16, she enrolled in correspondence courses in astronomy to bolster her chances and applied two years later.
By the early 1970s, promises that the Sputnik-state would eventually lift the masses had failed to materialize, and even the state's symbolic promissory notes--victories in the space race--were now rarely issued. Mikhail Levin had generally withdrawn his investment in official life and lost hope of "finding self-expression in science." (45) He describes the position of the intelligentsia with a poem that circulated at the time--a play on the 19th-century Romantic poet Fedor Tiutchev: (46)
Russia you can't understand with the mind, Proton accelerators and bast shoes in one, She is of a peculiar kind, From her you can only turn tail and run. (47)
Turning tail and running, in truth, was one of many options for the disenchanted. A second option was to cast one's lot with the internal dissidents, at that time a largely symbolic struggle with decidedly material consequences. There among the dissidents, in a curious echo of their 19th-century forebears, one could side with either Westernizers or with nationalists of various stripes. Levin chose a third path, internal emigration, in a form that eschewed both: "[Others] moved to create something for themselves, some other understanding of life, and interest in alternative worldviews emerged. Alternative to communism.... It was easier [for us] to look toward India."
Here Levin intended India as shorthand for his seeking milieu: the community of spiritual seekers, mostly of the technical-scientific intelligentsia, that he would join in the 1970s, and from which he would emerge into the public eye in the late 1980s. (48) The culture of the Soviet collapse was incubated by milieus like Levin's, which was one among countless others across the Soviet Union. They were united by seeking itself, and by the kitchen kruzhok--informal gatherings of alternative-minded discontents, made possible by the vast housing projects of the state whose alternative they were seeking. Kruzhki were not illegal, nor even officially discouraged, not least because the state was powerless to influence them. This is not to say they were sanctioned. To borrow an aphorism recalled by Levin, in the Soviet Union, "what was permitted was forbidden all the same." (49)
Nearly all members of Levin's milieu maintained normal careers and a studied distance from political affairs, which to them were a patina on the enormous body of reality. (50) Although esotericism is not easily defined, this broad and nonoppositional outlook is among its hallmarks, derived as it is from the general rejection of disciplinary and intellectual categories. (51) This same quality drew a diverse cast of characters. Levin's recollections are quite typical: "[In] the first esoteric circle ... we didn't have significant differentiation. There were Buddhists, there were parapsychologists, there were young Christians, some studied Agni-Yoga (52) ... and when you grasp another understanding of the world, beyond [Soviet] boundaries, we didn't concern ourselves with the nuances.... Whether somebody was, say, a Hare Krishna, wasn't important ... we all felt spiritually kindred." Differentiation came only later, when Gorbachev's reforms allowed these various disciplines to develop freely, publicly, and outside the kitchens where they once mingled. By that time, Levin had long ago chosen a second life as an astrologer.
Or perhaps astrology chose him: although Levin believes it was destiny from birth, his story points just as much to happenstance. By Levin's estimate, his esoteric circles in Moscow could claim a few hundred participants in the city, all of whom knew one another and, critically, shared and circulated the same small body of literature. Of those in Moscow sharing these materials, Levin was the one best qualified to interpret the more technical astrological texts; he had been studying since the age of six, after all. By 1973, on the strength of his lifelong interest and his later education, he became their resident astrologer. Several other astrologers, who would become famous at the time of the collapse, were similarly building their expertise. (53)
This pursuit entailed attentive study, but that was not the primary challenge: to learn astrology, would-be astrologers had to locate it in a country that had relegated it to the dustbin of history. Maneuvering through Soviet strictures was a discipline unto itself, and one that united Levin with his fellow seekers as much as any philosophical kinship.
The first method they employed was to exploit channels to the outside world. Levin and his ilk, connected as they were with the scientific and intellectual elite, implored their friends with international passports to import new literature. (54) But concerning astrology, this was not a simple task: his couriers did not know where to look, but even more fundamentally, Levin did not know what was out there. For this he turned inward, to Soviet sources. Looking closer at his own country's libraries and media, he would find a surprising wealth of information, however hidden. What was forbidden was permitted all the same.
One key discovery was that censorship operated largely in Russian. Moscow's Lenin Library, the national library of the USSR, often relegated Russian astrological texts to the spetskhran (special, limited-access collections not listed in the catalogue) but allowed public access to foreign-language translations of the same texts. Levin was not fluent in any other languages, but he endeavored to learn. He borrowed foreign astrological texts along with English, French, and German dictionaries, translating line by line and, in time, learning the requisite grammar and vocabulary. (55)
These texts were patchy, however, and the organized bulk of the world's astrological knowledge remained hidden, if not technically off-limits. Levin had friends in research institutes who could access the library's spetskhran, but the central problem remained: Levin didn't know where to direct them. In time, and with the benefit of his newly acquired competence in English, he located the catalogue of the US Library of Congress. Reasoning that the Lenin Library's collection, competitive as it was with the world's other national research libraries, would overlap significantly with the US library, he then directed his accomplices with special access to seek titles invisible in the open Russian catalogue. In this way he located yet more foundational texts of 20th-century astrology, which he would copy and add to his growing library. (56) It is worth noting that this sort of detective work, common to the intellectual underground writ large, served a secondary purpose: the names signed on the circulation slips became a hidden directory of the disillusioned.
Finally, Levin and his ilk explored the outer boundaries of the Soviet scientific press. Newspapers and magazines like Nauka i religiia, for instance, dedicated a certain amount of ink to critiquing the state's religious and spiritual competitors. In describing this resource, Levin again uses India as shorthand: "There were people who traveled to India, worked there, and we got to know them.... Individuals who traveled to the East on business or for their intellectual work ... They were little trickles of water, they came home and reported back to us. And at that, of course, they tried to push through Soviet prohibitions. Some magazines went there, like Nauka i religiia, without a doubt. They had access there." The editors of the magazine, incidentally, were aware of its dual purpose. They knew, for instance, that religious readers were taking scissors to its pages, collecting quotations from the scriptures. (57) Seekers made use of the expertise required of any editor in a state magazine and turned it to their advantage.
Importantly, they also read widely in speculative science, as that genre was particularly rife with hidden meaning. (58) Levin recalls, for instance, the engineer and science fiction writer Eremei Parnov, who appeared to have unique access to Western occult and spiritual texts, and who published in Nauka i religiia as well as in Izvestiia and other major outlets. (59) It was in these outlets that Levin and his ilk became familiar with Tsiolkovskii, Chizhevskii, and others of the speculative-scientific pantheon, who would thereafter be celebrated in his milieu.
Mikhail Levin had spent the 1970s developing his networks and his expertise, and in 1979 he began teaching and drawing acolytes. (60) At first he was asked to read a course of lectures on astrology by a mystical group in Moscow, and there he discovered his latent passion for pedagogy. Word spread, and he eventually accrued students for whom astrology was a major or even primary interest. In this way, he became one of the city's first teachers of astrology. Through word of mouth, those who knew the occult came to know Levin. He taught in apartments across Moscow, lectures now rather than discussions, still with no sense of the discipline's potential. By 1990, many of his students would become teachers at his astrological academy. But until then, the state's collapse remained unthinkable, and Levin's spiritual and intellectual pursuits were an end in themselves.
In 1979, the year Levin taught his first astrology class, Ol'ga Galankina was still in school, and taking additional correspondence courses to buttress her application to MGU. (61) In 1981, she applied to the program in astrophysics. She had followed her passion from her grandmother's village to the gates of the USSR's premier institution of higher learning and began her formal study in 1982. For five years she lived a student's life, gaining expertise in her field and eventually specializing in globular clusters, dense groupings of stars that orbit close to galactic centers. Nearing the end of her studies, she would also take a course in astronomy's history, during which she would become enchanted by its mystical origins.
Galankina's course on the history of astronomy was in 1987, her last year of study. For the lectures, she had to travel far from the main campus of the university to the stately Krasnopresnenskaia Observatory, seated atop a hill on the Moscow River's left bank. The observatory was built in 1831, a vestige of an era when Moscow's light did not yet obscure the stars. At one lecture, a particularly mischievous professor opened class with a curiosity--he had been digging in the special collections of the state library and had located a popular astrology book of pre-Soviet origin (one wonders if Levin's name was on the circulation slip). Glancing inside its tattered binding, Galankina was immediately drawn in:
When it fell into my hands, I opened it, and it literally shook me, just shook me. I had this feeling that, wow, ... we can make predictions; that there are objective laws, that there is something in the cosmos, that the stars don't simply shine--that we needn't only study their luminosity, the spectra that they radiate, and so forth--but that behind them there is meaning, that they act upon people.
To fully explain Galankina's revelation is beyond the historian's ken, and not only for the possible exaggerations of memory. Were there not objective laws in her universe before? Did the stars not already have meaning, and had they not acted upon her since the age of eleven? What is clear is that astrology settled quite naturally atop the existing structures of her mind, which had never incorporated admonitions against it. Countless other Soviet citizens would soon find the same, but not yet.
That same year, Ol'ga Galankina finished her studies. She soon married and adopted the life of a homemaker, never working in her field, though this was not on account of astrology. Astronomy and its ancient forebear continued in parallel. Much of her time was spent, as before, reading in popular science and science fiction. Above all others, by 1989 she remembers reading the wildly popular Nauka i religiia. Although a wide array of its subject matter interested her, she would naturally turn first to the astrology columns.
What Is Astrology?
Before turning to astrology's rise in the late USSR, it serves to define astrology itself--what is this discipline, as taught by Levin, and as eagerly adopted by Galankina and so many other Soviets? On the one hand, it is a system of divination, whose underlying theory is historically rich, technically complex, and endlessly contentious, compiled as it is from accumulated centuries (indeed, millennia) of arcane literature. Yet astrology as we know it is also a distinctly modern phenomenon, substantially shaped by criticisms from the natural sciences and newly self-conscious about its own empiricism. In this sense, it shares with its forebears only its visual-aesthetic aspects and broadest intellectual premises. (62)
Those premises can be summarized succinctly. The first, present in all esoteric thought, posits a deep and enduring correspondence between the planes, invisible ties linking the temporal with the spiritual and, here, the earthly with the celestial. Thus "as above, so below," a credo dating from at least the second century ad and repeated by astrologers since. (63) The planets and stars are emissaries from a higher plane, observable manifestations of laws otherwise obscure to humanity. The second premise, derived from the first, is that the moment and location of one's birth--that is, the arrangement of planets and stars at that moment and location--describe the life to come. This is not a description of ineluctable fate, a concept that troubles astrologers and historians alike. Rather, astrologers understand the natal chart as a map of limits and possibilities, on which the informed can plot their course. (64)
Modern popular astrology preserves these assumptions but emerged only in the 19th century--this is when popular horoscopes first appeared in the United States and spread to Europe, then to Russia by century's end. Astrology at that time found a home in a broader esoteric revival--also spreading and transforming in the late 19th century--and, in addition, sought legitimacy in the forms of the natural sciences. (65) In Levin's view, for instance, both the production and the interpretation of the chart are scientific endeavors, intellectual tasks based in study and expertise. His processes--and those of other major Soviet astrologers--are devoid of rituals or mystical flourish, and in astrology's technical aspects lies its potency. They consider its truth verifiable. "When somebody delves into the technical side of astrology" explains Levin, "... they begin to see its effectiveness. This, of course, is why it's significantly more compelling than something we might take on faith." (66)
As seen by the casual Soviet consumer, Soviet astrology hardly differed from the forms familiar in the West (though it did prominently feature political forecasting). (67) Horoscopes by birth sign, descriptions of the coming weeks and months, and tips for everyday life--in relationships, careers, spiritual development--competed with the more nuanced products of the experts. Those who expressed "belief in astrology" (again, at least by one measure a majority of Russians in 1992) necessarily fall somewhere on a spectrum from pausing to reflect on their daily horoscope to viewing life in astrological terms and seeing in astrology a perfect fusion of science and the transcendent.
Soviet Astrology, 1987-91
In 1986, after shuffling the cadres to secure his influence, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a new party program, replacing the 1961 version full of Khrushchev's soaring promises. No longer claiming to know the future, the Party was to focus on reforming socialism, which was stalling in the present. Knowing the future might have served it better. Within two months, the government's halting and unprincipled response to the explosion at Chernobyl undermined Gorbachev's efforts at transparency (glasnost'), and soon he was forced to pursue a more public and desperate course, pressed on all sides by those rivals who remained in power. In 1987, Gorbachev sought an external jolt to the Party by means of a liberalized media, replacing the old guard with reformers in powerful positions atop print, radio, and television outlets. From this point on, news of the country's troubles and its changes would reach the public and the Politburo simultaneously.
As with other publications now encouraged to liberalize and reform, the editors of Nauka i religiia, in collaboration with their increasingly assertive readers, began a wholesale and public reappraisal of their ideology. Already by 1987, the magazine had become a major forum on the country's spiritual direction. Subscriptions to the magazine spiked as curious readers watched its spiritual evolution and, in time, took an increasingly active role in guiding it. (68) By the end of 1990, the magazine had slipped its collar entirely, eliminating the goal of "atheist enlightenment" from its inside cover to the satisfaction of its growing audience. (69)
In the mid-1960s, the spirit of speculation faded from Nauka i religiia s pages, in line with the broader chilling that marked the Brezhnev era. Thus in 1987, on the cusp of Gorbachev s reforms, over 60 percent of the magazine's articles were still dedicated to promoting atheism, Marxism, and patriotism along Communist Party lines, while the vast majority of other articles covered either the politics of reform or the nation's traditional faiths (mostly Orthodoxy and Islam). (70) Less than 10 percent covered Eastern or esoteric traditions--the stuff of Levin's kruzhki--and astrology appeared only once every few years, in the form of a forceful (though always well-informed) debunking. (71) Circulation at this time was 200,000 per issue. By the time of the magazine's privatization in 1992, the Eastern and esoteric accounted for over 40 percent--without question the biggest theme in the magazine. (72) The intervening period saw circulation more than triple to 700,000 issues printed per month, but as before, this statistic only hints at a vastly higher readership. Incentives to share were no doubt strengthened by inflation and dwindling purchasing power.
Alongside these changes, readers became an ever-greater presence in the magazine, and their letters arrived to the editorial offices in record numbers. The magazine received around 30 each day at the beginning of 1987, and that figure doubled over the course of that year. (73) Every letter was read. Each morning during this period, the editor in chief, V. E Pravotorov, would read a selection of letters, and he insisted that other editors do the same. After a while, this no longer sufficed, and the magazine established a "letters department," two new employees tasked entirely with reading and responding to letters and communicating the readers' desires upward. (74)
By 1989, the editors had adopted the role of tour guide rather than teacher in spiritual matters; in the words of Pravotorov, the "and" in Nauka i religiia would no longer connote opposition, and the distinction itself would be open to readers' interpretation. (75) At the beginning of that year, for instance, a flurry of readers (including 40 in a single petition) demanded the unabridged works of the 19th-century theosophist Helena Blavatsky, and the editors printed them without commentary. (76) This was the start of a visible return to esotericism and speculative science of the prerevolutionary type. Russian Cosmism and its leading lights were particularly prominent--in the span of three years, the magazine would profile all the major Cosmists at least once, and Konstantin Tsiolkovskii at least three times. (77) In the years that followed, readers new and old would also learn yoga and meditative breathing and the cultural traditions that spawned them, read the classics of the Western New Age, and contemplate the calendars and chronologies of the Hindus and the Mayans. But among these diverse currents, astrology reigned supreme. (78) By 1991, there were often multiple astrology articles in a single issue.
Mirroring glasnost itself, the magazine's transformation unfolded as a chain of increasingly foundational questions, here turning on the meaning of science--the precise location of its boundaries, its role in society, and crucially, on whose authority such questions could be answered. It was in simply raising these questions that the magazine became astrology's unlikely midwife. As the editors began once more to play at the edges of science, each new foray was now met with readers' demands for more, to which the editors--embracing the ethos of glasnost--now acceded. Eventually the editors stepped into the background, devolving their epistemic authority altogether. In this way astrology won the day, although informed criticism--much of it recalling the magazine's prereform period--never disappeared entirely from Nauka i religiia's pages.
As a point of contrast, the magazine's last prereform article on astrology ran in January 1986. While the article is engaging and erudite and dense with information--precisely the sort of article that Levin might have sought out-it takes as a given that Soviet culture had successfully united hard science with the spirit. The author's ire is not directed at astrology per se but at the West, depicted as a technological society without spiritual purpose, where modern computers are employed to buttress ancient superstitions. Soviet people are presumed immune to astrology's deceptions.
September 1987 marked a significant break for the magazine, if an unintended one. The issue was dedicated to mysticism and the occult; a melting candle burned on that month's cover, wax dripping over its ornate bronze holder and toward a pile of tarot cards, all framed by a spiraling wheel of the zodiac. This was not in itself a departure--even after the 1960s, these ideas were never excised from Soviet popular science entirely. Inside, articles explored mysticism (broadly defined), telepathic healing, Atlantis, Agni-yoga, and more, though the official line had not changed. The break that this represented became clear only later, in the March 1988 issue, when the unusual volume of reader mail on the "mysticism" issue prompted a response from editors.
A freestanding article, compiled mostly from readers' letters with minimal editorial input, could be seen as beginning the magazine's "mystical turn" and as marking a shift in the relationship between the magazine and its readers. In it, readers thank the editors for entertaining mystical ideas, press them for further exploration, and air their own views and definitions of the phenomena in question. At the article's conclusion, the editors feel no need to reassert themselves: "Readers, asking us about much, do not limit themselves to the passive acceptance of facts and information; they seek to participate in the search for answers." (79)
As the readers' response suggests, the magazine's shift was not happening in a vacuum. By 1988, esoteric material, much of it focused on or reprinted from the prerevolutionary period, was spreading widely in Soviet cities. Many of the earliest texts were divinatory dream books--a genre with a long lineage in Russia--and translations of foreign astrological guides, each printed in extraordinarily large runs for the time. (80) Nauka i religiia, in this sense, was following a trend, but never far behind--its reprint of the autobiography of the Polish clairvoyant Wolf Messing, for instance, was in February 1988.
The first serious treatment of astrology in years, an expansive piece in two parts by the philosopher and writer Iurii Bondarenko, came in February and March 1989. (81) It was titled "Astrology: For and Against," with the first installment addressing astrology's deep history, and the second, its 20th-century resurgence (or perhaps, reinvention). Its form is an intellectual history of the discipline, peopled with a vast array of historical luminaries from ancient Mesopotamia through the early modern period in Europe, and with bibliographical citations for readers who sought more. A provocative introduction asks, rhetorically, if astrology is "finally becoming a science."
The article is of exceptional eloquence and insight, eschewing a prereform reflex to place modern astrology in either the gullible West or the mystical East. (82) Instead, it dedicates a long opening to a sympathetic portrait of our ancient forebears, or even early modern forebears, and the vicissitudes of fate that dominated their lives, as a means of explaining the deep allure of the stars' regularity. While the argument lends astrology a certain historical and spiritual legitimacy, it is perfectly Marxist: "Rigid and at times almost insurmountable were the walls dividing professional groups, classes, and estates," the writer sympathizes. "The son of a helot, even one possessed of the courage of ten lions, could never aspire to the martial glory of a Spartan." One's fate was not one's own to decide back then.
But a continuation followed the next month, an equally substantial analysis, this time comparing astrology with the "hard science" of the 20th century, described in distinctly un-Soviet terms. (83) In an era when nuclear weapons, pollution, and overpopulation "hang over heads like a sword of Damocles," in which "apocalyptic views of the future are deepened by the fruitless emptiness of the present," when "a rushed handshake and a cursory smile replace human interaction, and the computer, taking on the dimensions of a god, determines your future," can anybody doubt the appeal of astrology? What in today's world offers such a connection to the cosmos and assurance of its ultimate logic? To be sure, the author is here playing devil's advocate; his point is not to endorse astrology. Still, without doubting modern science's veracity, the atheist magazine had grown agnostic on its merits.
The author acknowledges astrology's historical and intellectual depth as well as its satisfaction of spiritual needs, high praise from a magazine that always sought to provide both. The author's ultimate conclusion, while again not an endorsement, is sympathetic to the reader's spiritual plight and understands astrology's potential to remedy it. The essay ends as it began, with our forebears, hapless victims of fate, and their need for astrology. The essential difference, the author contends, is that in a bygone era, "the chains that bound you to your social station were entirely unlike the present day." A Soviet reader in 1989 could be forgiven for reading that sentence twice. And judging from the magazine's further development, many did just that.
Five months would pass before the next astrology feature, but when it arrived, readers found a direct astrological text rather than an analysis--an excerpt from the American astrologer Linda Goodman's Star Signs, specifically her chapter on the sign of Virgo. (84) It was an original printing, the first translation to appear in Russian. This first installment (another would follow for each of the twelve zodiac signs, spread over an entire year) came with three separate commentaries. The first and most substantial is skeptical (ironically titled "Let the Stars Look Favorably upon Us") but deferential ("the reader is almost always right"). The second is by a homegrown Soviet astrologer--an explanation of ancient "cosmobiology" and the effects of cosmic rhythms on our lives, along with a lunar chart for planning purposes. The third comes at the end of Goodman's piece, explains that more installments are to come, and adds famous Russian Virgos to Goodman's list of Western ones. These commentaries, even more than Goodman's text itself, demonstrate the magazine's shift. Long sympathetic to their readers' spiritual needs, the editors of the magazine now refused to restrict their access to ideas, even ones they themselves found dubious. Without ever abandoning its long-standing esteem for science, the magazine had deferred to the reader to define it. By May 1990, chapters of Star Signs began appearing with no commentary at all.
Nauka i religiia had become a reliable source for those serious about astrology. In its pages, readers would find excerpts from sympathetic books appraising its scientific validity; articles on its relation to health and the human body; explorations of various Eastern astrological traditions; cyclical, astrology-ringed theories of history; roundtables with scientists and astrologers; and by 1992, a long-term rubric called "School of Astrology," which taught methods and terminology. (85) All this accompanied more traditional prognoses and horoscopes.
When laced with financial crisis and looming privatization, many of the magazine's earliest advertisements were for astrologers and astrological schools. The first such advertisement, in May 1991, was for correspondence classes at Mikhail Levin's Moscow Academy of Astrology. Avid reader that she was, Ol'ga Galankina would have seen this advertisement in Nauka i religiia, but probably paid it little notice--in May 1991 she was already enrolled in Levin's academy. At any rate, it was nothing unusual to see Levin in print, as he was already something of a media fixture, giving interviews and prognoses in newspapers, on the radio, and on television and promoting his nascent school all the while. (86)
The academy was an immediate success, "something fantastical" in Levin's words (hence the need for correspondence classes). On the first day of registration, Levin and his teachers were overwhelmed with would-be students. (87) The students--among them Ol'ga Galankina--would be taught by Levin himself and by teachers drawn from his once-underground kruzhok. They would learn what Levin had learned, but unfiltered by Soviet strictures--a hard science to describe present and future, of demonstrable and inspiring correspondence between the stars and their lives.
The vast majority of the academy's first instructors (80 percent by Levin's count) came to the school with a higher education in the sciences, and most continued their official scientific work in parallel careers. At the academy they found much that was familiar. The program was a set course of lectures, assignments, and exams--three years in all, before the conferral of a degree. Their discipline is one of graphs and charts; of dates, times, and angles; of arcane symbols learned through rote memorization. The technical language of the textbooks and class discussions would be familiar to astronomers but not to the untrained public. Once in class, students would make and test hypotheses, with their peers and teachers assessing the results. Yet the goals of these experiments would be distinctly personal: for instance, employing their science to choose a time for a medical procedure or to adjust the relationship between a parent and child. It is in this realm that astrological theory is tested.
In my interviews, alumni of the early years rested astrology's spiritual edifice on its objective and verifiable foundation. (88) One teacher I spoke with arrived at Levin's academy from more mystical circles--extrasense healing, in particular. He felt he had good intuition, but he sought "theoretical depth" and found it in astrology. In addition to enrolling in Levin's school, he also signed up for Aleksandr Zaraev's, a competitor to Levin, whose astrology has a distinctly mathematical-statistical bent. The school's vice-rector, who trained in the astrology of child rearing, also stressed astrology's scientific rigor, as compared to extrasense healing and other more mystical trends that had caught the nation's attention: "[Astrology] turns on scientific facts, on the concrete movement of the planets and their influence. And that can be affirmed scientifically ... What is an extrasense? He looks at you, says something, a diagnosis or something about a past life. But how does one prove that? ... Only astrology can be verified. If you study it yourself, you can verify that it is what it seems."
Ol'ga Galankina, in describing astrology, moves seamlessly between astrology's scientific means and its personal ends: "It helps one understand the world. Sure, it helps you understand cause and effect: that is, when somebody ends up in a difficult situation, some sort of loss, they can ask why it happened. And astrology helps understand these things. But it's a science all the same."
To her, this correspondence is self-evident; she has known it all her life. As a child, awestruck by the vast open sky and the tremendous number of stars, she sought to learn "the what, the how, and the why": that is, to read and make intellectual sense of the rapture that the night sky inspired in her. Moreover, having achieved that goal through her studies, her awe was undiminished many decades later:
The same planets that are now in the sky, they're moving around the chart, and they're in some configuration. And you see this same planet, which is in your natal chart--that is, it was there in the sky 50 years ago--and now, another planet is passing it, and you see a configuration that is clearly described by those same coordinates. And you understand, truly, how regular the world is, how beautifully everything is arranged.
Stars Don't Lie
When the young Ol'ga Galankina put down her science magazines and looked up at the night sky, what did she see? She saw a cosmos both orderly and beautiful, inspiring her intellect and her spirit. She knew the universe could be understood, and that its hidden laws were being mastered by Soviet experts whose ranks she might someday join. She also believed she knew her future, if only in outline--that a stable and improving society would permit her to direct her life toward this purpose. To her, this future was never something so mundane as a career; it was a purpose in life, self-realization through science. These ideas were ubiquitous in the culture of her youth, bright stars in the Soviet firmament, about which Galankina had drawn a constellation of her own design. This constellation would serve to orient her throughout her life.
In his youth, Mikhail Levin oriented himself in much the same way. Born into the scientific elite, he had every reason to believe that his path was clear, only to find it obstructed by irrational prejudice. Because he took the promise of the Sputnik state quite literally, his disillusion was all the more intolerable, though he never abandoned that state's loftier promise. He simply set out to realize it on his own. He developed his discipline in spite of the state, but it came to bear the stamp of his childhood.
Most others of Levin's and Galankina's generation surely looked to the stars at one point, but most of them only in passing, and by adulthood they were focused on the earthbound realities of late Soviet life. This entailed a kind of compromise, in which they would overlook the shortcomings of the science state in favor of its apparent regularity and, within that, its satisfaction of basic needs. Only when the state could no longer guarantee stability did the readers of Nauka i religiia, and countless more, seek a larger meaning, and at that moment they took to astrology's familiar form. As any astrologer would attest, this story is cyclical.
In the disorientation of the collapse, when these Soviet people could look up from more pressing matters, what did they see? On television and in the newspapers and magazines, they saw an objective science of the stars with personal implications, calculating the future for their benefit; in short, the same fixed and bright stars of their youth, outlined now by the hands of their astrologer peers. It should not surprise us that many recognized something like a constellation and, from that, found some direction in the dark. A rule-governed universe requires no leap of faith and need not be disenchanted.
Of course, not everybody oriented themselves in this way, and arguments over the legitimacy of astrology continued in the pages of Nauka i religiia, the editors having recused themselves with the issue unresolved. Some of the previous era's experts embraced it, while others insisted that some essential truth was under threat. In a collection of essays published in December 1990, for instance, the Soviet philosopher of science Boris Pruzhinin penned an article titled "Stars Don't Lie--People Make Mistakes." (89) It followed a defense of astrology by Vlail' Kaznacheev, a doctor and member of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences who had publicly embraced the occult. (90) Pruzhinin's piece was measured and respectful but ultimately cast doubt on the new discipline's validity. Although he saw much familiar in astrology's "highly mathematized constructions, bearing all the external markers of rational knowledge," he ultimately concluded that, in the hands of the astrologer, "the rational form of astrology's ideas becomes nothing more than a way to influence the client." In other words, astrology's statistical means are necessarily subordinate to its ends--guiding the behavior of irrational human beings.
This is all true, of course. People across the Soviet Union were embracing a paradoxical idea, which claimed both to reflect objective reality and to serve human needs, including spiritual ones. But why should we assume they did not know this and chose to read their horoscope all the same? There is nothing new under the sun.
Dept. of History
3229 Dwinelle Hall
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-2550 USA
Research for this article was supported in part by a fellowship from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), with funds provided by the US Department of State through the Title VIII Program. The research and writing were also assisted by a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship from ACLS. Neither of these organizations is responsible for the views expressed herein. I would also like to thank my two anonymous reviewers at Kritika, who took to my manuscript with outstanding care and attention, and Andrew Jenks, who provided both editorial feedback and guidance through the publishing process.
(1) Interviews with Mikhail Borisovich Levin, astrologer, December 2014 and October 2015. All biographical information is derived from interviews unless otherwise noted and, following the first citation, include only the name. I am particularly grateful to Mikhail Levin, Ol'ga Galankina, and Ol'ga Brushlinskaia for sharing their lives and insights and to their respective institutions, the Moscow Academy of Astrology and Nauka i religiia.
(2) Irena Borowik, "Between Orthodoxy and Eclecticism: On the Religious Transformations of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine," Social Compass 49, 4 (2002): 499.
(3) Sergei Filatov and Dmitrii E. Furman, "Religiia i politika v massovom soznanii," Sotsiologicheskie issledovaniia, no. 7 (1992): 6. On education, see Furman and Kimmo Kaariainen in Matti Kotiranta, eds., Religious Transition in Russia (Helsinki: Kikimora Publications, 2000), 35; B. F. Dubin, "Pravoslavie, magiia i ideologiia v soznanii rossiian (90-e gody)," published under the auspices of the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (Vserossiiskii tsentr izucheniia obshchestvennogo mneniia, VTsIOM) (1998): 361. Dubin places belief in astrology closer to 30 percent.
(4) Kimmo Kaariainen and Dmitrii E. Furman, eds., Starye tserkvi, novye veruiushchie: Religiia v massovom soznanii postsovetskoi Rossii (Moscow: Letnii sad, 2000), 17.
(5) On television syndication, I draw on Natal'ia Rostova's unpublished interview with Irena Lesnevskaia.
(6) See Trud, Sem ' dnei, Megapolis-Ekspress, and Tvoe zdorov 'e.
(7) Interview with Tat'iana Mitiaeva, astrologer, December 2014.
(8) Ibid. I refer to astrology as a "discipline," which I define broadly as a text-based and theoretically elaborate system of knowledge, transmitted primarily from teacher to pupil.
(9) Extrasense healing may rival astrology in these particular metrics but lacks its universal scope. See Anna Geltzer, "Surrogate Epistemology: The Transition from Soviet to Russian Biomedicine" (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2012).
(10) The most exhaustive survey of astrological sources in Russia is W. F. Ryan's The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). There he locates Byzantine, Jewish, and Eastern and Western European astrological sources, necessarily in fragments and with unclear local influence, beginning in the medieval period. By the early modern period, sources suggest a presence in court society, and only by the late 19th is there popular astrology in the simplified, mass-printed forms familiar in the West. Faith Wigzell, in Reading Russian Fortunes: Print Culture, Gender, and Divination in Russia from 1765 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), shows vaguely astrological divination as part of the more popular culture of dream books from the 18th century through the early 20th. Anna Tessmann provides a different summary of our fragmentary knowledge of astrology in medieval Russia in "Astrologicheskie prognozy v mass-mediinoi prostranstve sovremennoi Rossii," paper presented at the symposium "Puti gnosisa: Mistiko-ezotericheskoe traditsii i gnosticheskoe mirovozzrenie ot drevnosti do nashikh dnei" (Moscow, 2013), 106 n. 1. Pre-Soviet astrology in a court setting is also examined in Ernest A. Zitser and Robert Collis, "On the Cusp: Astrology, Politics, and Life-Writing in Early Imperial Russia," American Historical Review 120, 5 (2015): 1619-52. For Russia's broader occult tradition, see Julia Mannherz, Modern Occultism in Late Imperial Russia (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012); Birgit Menzel, Michael Hagemeister, and Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, eds., The New Age of Russia: Occult and Esoteric Dimensions (Munich: Otto Sagner, 2012); Rosenthal, The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and I. Iu. Vinitsky, Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).
(11) This article examines a world of fluid intellectual boundaries, made even harder to navigate by the inconsistent, undertheorized, and often contradictory use of terms by all historical actors involved. I attempt in notes to define its terms as I use them and apologize for those instances where my subjects contradict me. Concerning science, the term most contested by my subjects, I shy from any definition, as the contest over the term is in many ways the central narrative of this history. To a Soviet ideologue, science is a post-Enlightenment, rational, verifiable, and repeatable mode of knowing the natural world, but its boundaries, as we will see, are in practice fictitious. In my hesitance to define science and my elimination of "pseudoscience" as a concept, I have drawn most directly from the work (and generous help) of Michael Gordin. Speculative science refers to the peculiarly Russian tradition described in this paragraph. For the concept, though not the term, I am indebted to Anindita Banerjee, and its reflection in Cosmism and other space-oriented thought is best captured in the work of George Young and James Andrews.
(12) Antoine Faivre, Western Esotericism: A Concise History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010). Wigzell (ReadingRussian Fortunes, 17) shows an uptick in divination, dream reading, and astrology from 1890 to 1917. For involvement of the intelligentsia, see Vinitsky, Ghostly Paradoxes.
(13) George M. Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
(14) Anindita Banerjee's analysis of the era's science fiction, We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012), informs much of this article.
(15) Ibid., 6.
(16) On the cultural roots of Soviet spaceflight itself, see Asif A. Siddiqi, "Imagining the Cosmos: Utopians, Mystics, and the Popular Culture of Spaceflight in Revolutionary Russia," Osiris 23, 1 (2008): 260-88; and Siddiqi, The Red Rockets' Glare: Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). For a more strictly science-historical take, see Michael G. Smith, Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014). Despite some astrologers' claims, the space program was not essentially rooted in the occult (or in Russian Cosmism in particular). On Cosmism, see Young, Russian Cosmists; Michael Hagemeister, "Russian Cosmism in the 1920s and Today," in Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, 185--202; and Hagemeister, "Totalitarian Utopia, the Occult, and Technological Modernity in Russia: The Intellectual Experience of Cosmism," in New Age of Russia, 238-58.
(17) Esotericism, in the historical sense, is a scholarly construct of the 18th century rather than a bounded tradition. It is a broad array of long-running intellectual tendencies in European culture that became a coherent group after the Enlightenment, by virtue of falling outside rationalist science (narrowly understood) and religious orthodoxy, and thus being marginalized in dominant political and religious discourse. However, esotericism is understood quite differently by those who pursue it, which is what ultimately matters for this study--to modern esotericists, it is a way of knowing rooted in primordial, eternal, and hidden traditions, which take as their goal a deeper and more direct understanding of nature or of the divine. This definition is a synthesis of the work of Frances Yates, Antoine Faivre, and Wouter Hanegraaf, though closest to the last in its form. I place astrology in this tradition, but more specifically within the category of the occult. The occult, also a term of early modern origin, here describes clearly defined disciplines within broader esoteric thought, which engage in systematic investigation of nature but assume the existence of occult qualities: that is, hidden properties of nature or properties that, to date, have no rational explanation.
(18) See Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), for a dissection of such terms.
(19) Donald J. Raleigh, ed., Russia's Sputnik Generation: Soviet Baby Boomers Talk about Their Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 16.
(21) Ibid. Between 1956 and 1965, 108 million Soviets moved from communal flats into private apartments.
(22) Victoria Smolkin, "The Ticket to the Soviet Soul: Science, Religion, and the Spiritual Crisis of Late Soviet Atheism," Russian Review 73, 2 (2014): 171-97.
(23) This was the slogan of a particularly famous space-age poster. Major new publications included Znanie--sila (Knowledge Is Power), Nauka i zhizn '(Science and Life), and Tekhnika molodezki (Technology for the Youth); add to these the far older Vokrug sveta (Around the World). From Matthias Schwartz, "A Dream Come True," in Soviet Space Culture: Cosmic Enthusiasm in Socialist Societies, ed. Eva Maurer et al. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), n. 41.
(24) The most complete study is Matthias Schwartz, Die Erfindung des Kosmos: Zur sowjetischen Science Fiction und populdrwissenschaftlichen Publizistik vom Sputnikflug bis zum Ende der Tauwetterzeit (New York: Peter Lang, 2003). For science fiction as a mythology for the intelligentsia, see Yvonne Howell, Apocalyptic Realism: The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).
(25) Nauka i religiia, no. 2 (1988): 19.
(26) This list is derived from Schwartz, "Dream Come True," 238-40 and n. 41, and from Aleksandr Panchenko, "Dvadtsatyi vek: Novoe religioznoe voobrazhenie," Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, no. 17 (2012), http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2012/117/p14.html. Solar influence on human civilization was the life's work of the scientist Aleksandr Chizhevskii (1897-1964), himself strongly associated with the Cosmists, whose work reappeared in the Space Age as well as at the time of the collapse.
(27) Panchenko, "Dvadtsatyi vek." The literature on K. E. Tsiolkovskii's science and philosophy is vast. James T. Andrews, Red Cosmos: K. E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2009), is a complete biography. Alexei Kojevnikov ("The Cultural Spaces of the Soviet Cosmos," in Into the Cosmos, ed. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011], 15-27) emphasizes Tsiolkovskii's millenarian beliefs. Banerjee (We Modem People, 55-56) suggests Tsiolkovskii's conflation of the technical and metaphysical; and Michael Holquist ("Toward an Exact Aesthetics: Pavel Florensky and the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences," in Laboratory of Dreams: The Russian Avant-Garde and Cultural Experiment, ed. John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996], 100-17) frames him as an avant-garde artist. Schwartz, Die Erfindung des Kosmos, describes Tsiolkovskii as a prophet of the Space Age, in both its technical and Utopian aspects. Alongside Tsiolkovskii in this pantheon were, most commonly, V. I. Vernadskii, A. L. Chizhevskii, and V. F. Kuprevich (Young, Russian Cosmists, chap. 9).
(28) Smolkin, 'Ticket to the Soviet Soul," 174.
(29) Smolkin, 'Ticket to the Soviet Soul," 183 n. 46.
(30) Schwartz, "Dream Come True," 236.
(31) Interview with Ol'ga Brushlinskaia, executive secretary of Nauka i religiia during the reform era and editor in chief from 2007, April 2015.
(32) Victoria Smolkin, "Cosmic Enlightenment: Scientific Atheism and the Soviet Conquest of Space," in Into the Cosmos, 166; Smolkin, "Ticket to the Soviet Soul," 191.
(33) Sonja Luehrmann, "The Spirit of Late Socialism and the Value of Transformation: Brezhnevism through the Lens of Post-Soviet Religious Revival," Cahiers du monde russe 54, 3-4 (2013): 16-18.
(34) Smolkin, "Cosmic Enlightenment," 183.
(35) GermanTitov, "Vstretil li ia boga?" Nauka i religiia, no. 1 (1962): 10; Konstantin Feoktistov, "Neskol'ko slov o bessmertii," Nauka i religiia, no. 4 (1966). For a more general statement of the magazine's interpretation of the space race, see "Piat' let shturmu kosmosa," Nauka i religiia, no. 10 (1962): 3-8. Citations from Victoria Smolkin, "Cosmic Enlightenment."
(36) In Nauka i religiia in just 1966, see E. Parnov, "Neitrino? A pochemu net," no. 3; and I. Asimov, "Telepatiia--protiv i za," no. 3. For equivalents in other contemporary pop science magazines, see E. Fadeev, "Tak chto zhe takoe telepatiia?," Nauka i zhizn ', no. 1 (1961): 60; G. Anfilov, F. Astratian, et al., "Peredacha myslei--vozmozhna li ona? (Chto dumaiut ob etom sovetskie uchenye)," Znanie--sila, no. 12 (1960): 23-29; [no initial] Tugarinov, "Eshche raz o peredache myslei," Znanie--sila, no. 2 (1961): 22; P. Guliaev, M. Airapetiiants, et al., "Chitateli sprashivaiiut nas: Sushchestvuet li peredacha mysli na rasstoianii? Na etot vopros otvechaiut matematiki, fiziologi, biofiziki, psikhiatry, inzhenery," Tekhnika molodezhi, no. 1 (1961): 30-33. This second list is from Schwartz, "Dream Come True," n. 41.
(37) Birgit Menzel, "Occult and Esoteric Movements in Russia from the 1960s to the 1980s," in New Age of Russia, 55 n. 12.
(38) The demand for Messing's autobiography was in Nauka i religiia, no. 2 (1988).
(39) Interview with M. B. Levin.
(40) Interview with Ol'ga Aleksandrovna Galankina, astrologer, December 2014.
(41) John Sisson, a science librarian at the University of California, Irvine, has assembled an outstanding collection of Soviet and American children's space literature at http:// dreamsofspace.blogspot.co.uk/. For rocketship playgrounds, visit http://calvertjournal.com/ features/show/4656.
(42) Slava Gerovitch, "The Human inside a Propaganda Machine: The Public Image and Professional Identity of Soviet Cosmonauts," in Into the Cosmos, 77-106; Smolkin, "Cosmic Enlightenment," 159-94.
(43) It was a particularly hopeful time for young girls. See Roshanna P. Sylvester, "She Orbits over the Sex Barrier: Soviet Girls and the Tereshkova Moment," in Into the Cosmos, 195-213.
(44) Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 163.
(45) Matthew D. Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) suggests an American parallel to the story I tell--he documents the collapse of enthusiasm for Apollo after 1969, and places it within a broader rejection of rationalism in American culture.
(46) The term "intelligentsia" can be said to have two different, and perhaps opposed, meanings. Levin was of the scientific-technical intelligentsia, essentially the "official" intelligentsia produced by the USSR's universities. Members of the cultural-artistic intelligentsia, who tended to be more rebellious in their posture, would not have seen people like Levin as necessarily of their caste. As Levin's story makes clear, however, these categories are fluid.
(47) "Umom Rossiiu ne poniat'/To sinkhrofazotron, to lapot'./U nee osobennaia stat',/Otsiuda mozhno tol'ko drapat'" (my translation).
(48) In this era's "seeking milieu"--a much larger subculture, in which astrologers were only one current--India represented an immense store of wisdom and spiritual possibility. Transcendental meditation and Krishna Consciousness, as well as the philosophy of Nikolai and Elena Roerich (which in substantial ways attempts a synthesis of Orthodox and Indian spiritualities), left a major impact on their world of ideas. This seeking milieu is the subject of my forthcoming book, which includes a chapter centered on India and Krishna Consciousness, and another that examines the Eastern mysticism of the Roerichs in the context of an apocalyptic sect.
(49) Larisa Honey, "Pluralizing Practices in Soviet Moscow: Russian Alternative Practitioners Reclaim Individualism," in Soviet Society in the Era of Late Socialism, 1964-1985, ed. Kate Brown et al. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012). Honey's is something of a case study of Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006) and, as such, a rebuttal to those who might claim these practices are inherently oppositional or pursued in part for political ends.
(50) This from interviews with five seekers, whom I reached via Levin's networks, but not all of whom took to astrology.
(51) Banerjee, We Modern People, 5. Like Yurchak, Banerjee rejects the "propaganda versus protest" interpretation of prerevolutionary speculative science, on grounds quite similar to these.
(52) Agni-Yoga is the philosophy of the Russian esotericists Nikolai and Elena Roerich.
(53) Anna Tessmann, "Zvezdnye otrazheniia: Popytka opisaniia sovremennoi astrologii," Gosudarstvo, religiia, tserkov '4, 31 (2013): 179. The most prominent astrologers of the collapse all came from similar milieus. This includes Pavel and Tamara Globa, whose neo-Zoroastrian astrology stood apart for its mysticism (see Tessmann, "On the Good Faith: A Fourfold Discursive Construction of Zoroastrianism in Contemporary Russia" [PhD diss., Sodertorn University, 2012]); Sergei Vronskii, who adapted a German astrological system into a distinctly Russian "cosmobiology"; Aleksandr Zaraev, whose astrology had a hard-statistical framing; and Levin, whose fame was perhaps second only to the Globas'.
(54) The Bulgarian spiritual community was of particular help in this regard. For a suggestion as to why, see Galia Valtchinova, "State Management of the Seer Vanga: Power, Medicine, and the 'Remaking' of Religion in Socialist Bulgaria," in Christianity and Modernity in Eastern Europe, ed. Bruce R. Berglund and Brian Porter (New York: Central European University Press, 2010).
(55) The largest set of occult and esoteric texts were in German, having been seized and brought to Moscow after the war. Levin recalls stamps from German libraries inside many of his books.
(56) Levin's catalogue was necessarily unsystematic, as is his memory of specific titles. He did recall the works of Alfred Fankhauser, in the original German, and the Vedic astrology and numerology of Ashtakavarga. Making photocopies, incidentally, was the only part of Levin's process that was forbidden outright.
(57) Mark Smirnov and Pavel Krug, "V zashchitu svobodomysliia," Nezavisimaia gazeta, 27 October 2009.
(58) Major science fiction writers whose work appeared in pop science journals and who reveled in politically ambiguous themes include Eremei Parnov, Mikhail Emtsev, Evgenii Voiskunskii and Isai Lukod'ianov, Genrikh Al'tov (pseudonym of Genrikh Al'tshuller) and Valentina Zhuravleva (1933-2004), Anatolii Dneprov, Il'inia Varshavskii, and the brothers Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii. This list and interpretation come from Schwartz, Soviet Space Culture, 242. See also Menzel, "Occult and Esoteric Movements," 153-55.
(59) Levin recalls explicit writing by Parnov on astrology, occultism, yoga and spirituality. Parnov also published in Nauka i religiia.
(60) Interview with M. B. Levin.
(61) Interview with O. A. Galankina.
(62) This particular interpretation, particularly concerning modern forms, is from Tessmann, "Zvezdnye otrazheniia," 170, which in turns draws largely on the German social scientist Edgar Wunders definitions.
(63) Or so they choose to believe. Most likely this phrase, though ancient, came into common use in the early modern period.
(64) Interview with Tat'iana Mitiaeva.
(65) On esotericism in 19th-century Europe, I recommend Faivre, Western Esotericism, chap. 4.
(66) Interview with M. B. Levin.
(67) Tessmann, "Astrologicheskie prognozy," 115, identifies this as a distinctive and pronounced feature of Soviet astrology, but I attribute it to political circumstances not (yet) experienced in the West, rather than a theoretical or philosophical difference.
(68) The editor in chief, V. F. Pravotorov, retained ultimate authority over content decisions, although he took input from writers, editors, outside experts, and the reader base (see below). As for his role in the magazines direction, two of Pravotorov's close associates described him to me as erudite but domineering and party-minded, with personal beliefs that were not open for discussion in the office.
(69) Nauka i religiia, no. 1 (1991).
(70) All these figures are my own, based on a survey of the magazine's contents between 1983 and 1993. I classified each article by topic and organized these into larger categories: "official atheism," for instance, included methodological pieces for lecturers, philosophical articles, histories of rationalism, or hard science articles (among others). These data are available on request to any interested scholar who wants to be spared the effort.
(71) For a general prereform debunking of the occult, see Nauka i religiia, no. 4 (1984): 54. For astrology specifically, see no. 1 (1986): 56. "Eastern and esoteric," in my statistics, included articles on yoga and meditation, Buddhism, Hinduism and the Hare Krishnas, numerology, auras, ESP, and astrology.
(72) Soviet themes, as one would imagine, were essentially eliminated, although essays in defense of atheism still appeared. Traditional faiths, now covered with far greater sympathy, were the next largest topic in the reinvented magazine, and UFOs and other "anomalous phenomena" gradually gained ground.
(73) Nauka i religiia, no. 2 (1988): 19.
(74) Interview with O. T. Brushlinskaia.
(75) Aleksandr Petrov, "Ot Feierbakha do Apostola Pavla," Nezavisimaia gazeta, 6 June 2004.
(76) Nauka i religiia, no. 1 (1989): 42.
(77) V. I. Vernadskii in Nauka i religiia, no. 3 (1989): 50, and no. 11 (1989): 8; Tsiolkovskii in no. 10 (1988), no. 1 (1989), and no. 5 (1989); A. L. Chizhevskii in no. 10 (1991)--this is not an exhaustive list.
(78) Among Eastern/esoteric topics, around 20 percent were dedicated to astrology and related topics (astrological calendars, for instance) until 1988. After that, the number rises steadily to about 60 percent in 1992, which was 20 percent of the magazine's content overall. These numbers are approximations, of course, but do paint a coherent picture.
(79) Nauka i religiia, no. 3 (1988): 129. An anonymous reader writes: "I want to decide for myself, verify for myself, in my own life. This seems the only way a person can determine what they will call truth." The editors assure the reader: "in this, we are your allies. The truth comes from labor of the heart and mind. Do not take it on faith, but weigh it on the precise scales of science and practice" (Nauka i religiia, no. 2 : 19). From the same issue: "We respect the readers, and are certain in their capacity to compare the perspective of science and religion and make the correct conclusions."
(80) Wigzell, Reading Russian Fortunes, 175-80. Wigzell cites print runs in the mid-100,000s for dream books from 1912.
(81) Nauka i religiia, no. 2-3 (1989).
(82) Nauka i religiia, no. 2 (1989): 59.
(83) Nauka i religiia, no. 3 (1989): 27.
(84) Linda Goodman, StarSigns: The Secret Codes of the Universe (New York: St. Martin's, 1987). Nauka i religiia's printing is no. 8 (1989): 40. "Why Virgo?" asked one of my reviewers: the installments coincided with the zodiac calendar itself, and the magazine began publishing the series in August 1989. The sun transits Virgo beginning on August 22 (per tradition, although no longer in fact).
(85) See Nauka i religiia, no. 6 (1990): 57; no. 8 (1990): 34; no. 12 (1990): 52; no. 1 (1991): 37; and no. 10 (1991): 10, respectively.
The "School of Astrology" opened in 1992, no. 1. The roundtable included Mikhail Levin.
(86) Interview with M. B. Levin.
(87) Vice-Rector Tat'iana Mitiaeva, who kept the books that day, placed the number at 2,000, only 850 of whom could be accommodated.
(88) Of those first-generation astrologers I interviewed from Levins academy, all but one had a degree in science or engineering. Their areas of expertise include materials science, optical engineering, hydraulics engineering, mathematics, and physics.
(89) Nauka i religiia, no. 12 (1991): 34.
(90) As a final point of reflection, Kaznacheev's turn, and this article generally, evoke debates over the thesis of Paul Forman, who argued in 1971 that quantum mechanics emerged in post-World War I Germany precisely because of the chaos of the time and intellectuals' hostility toward determinism and materialism.
Caption: Figure 1. Moscow's Monument to the Conquerors of Space. Photograph by the author. Reproduced with permission
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
|Previous Article:||"The Right to Be Wrong": Science Fiction, Gaming, and the Cybernetic Imaginary in Kon-Tiki:A Path to the Earth (1985-86).|
|Next Article:||The History of Science and Technology, or How to Grasp Heterogeneity.|