Nemanja Radulovic. Photo: Nemanja Radulović’ private archive

Nemanja Radulovic. Photo: Nemanja Radulović’ private archive

Interviews “I was fascinated by the extent of occulture in a communist country like Yugoslavia of the 1970s”

A conversation with Nemanja Radulović on esotericism and New Age in communist Yugoslavia, and alternative and occult expressions and thinking.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 50-55
Published on on January 24, 2022

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A conversation with Nemanja Radulović on esotericism and New Age in communist Yugoslavia, and alternative and occult expressions and thinking.

Nemanja Radulović is Professor of Serbian Literature and South Slavic Literatures at the University of Belgrade. For many years, a sustained focus of his research has been the history of esotericism and biographies of personalities involved in secret societies in Yugoslavia. Nemanja Radulović is the author of many articles on these topics. In addition, he was the host of the second CEENASWE Conference on Esotericism, Literature, and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe in Belgrade in 2016. Radulović was also co-editor with Polish researcher Dr Karolina Maria Hess of the collected volume Studies on Western Esotericism in Central and Eastern Europe (2019)

Anna Tessmann: Nemanja, the first time we met was in 2013 at a huge academic conference at Margarita Rudomino Library for Foreign Literature that was dedicated to themes that in the academic study of religion and culture are usually designated as mysticism, occultism and, in its more or less modern expression, New Age spirituality. Why did you want to participate in it, taking a flight from Belgrade to Moscow?

Nemanja Radulović: The reason I came to Moscow was that, although I was familiar with current research in the West, I was less familiar with what was going on in Russia — individual papers on specific topics were known to me, depending on the topic I was occupied with at any one time, but I lacked a broader image of current affairs or the dominant paradigm. An annual conference of the Association for the Study of Esotericism and Mysticism (ASEM) seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn in a condensed way what Russian colleagues were working on and how. Needless to say, historical contacts between Russian and Serbian cultures also were an important reason to become familiar with the latest research (to give just one example, my research on esoteric motifs in Serbian romanticism was essentially helped by studies about Russian poetry of Martinist inspiration).

AT: How does your own biography correlate with the topic you study? Why did you choose this field? Who sparked your interest in it? Moreover: How do you explain or define for yourself what New Age or New Age spirituality is in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in your country?

NR: My interest started during my study of literature in the late 1990s. Although I had previously read esoteric authors, I was aware that it wasn’t an area included in “serious” academic discussion but something to be kept apart, as a private reading interest. Browsing through literary histories, I noted that on the margins of “real” study, there were mentions of esoteric influences on some writers, like Gérard de Nerval, so I was intrigued by this — our professors never talked about it — and I wanted to learn more. And upon finding studies and learning more about some of the essential European writers, I thought it would be interesting to do such research in Serbian literature. Is there any trace of esotericism at all? I had only a couple of (excellent but old) articles to rely on, such as two 1950s articles on Kabbalistic and Gnostic motifs in the poetry of Romantic poet Petar Petrović Njegoš. So, I embarked on finding out if there were any traces, and found more than I expected, and here I am today, still digging up new material.

To the last question, a short answer is that the conclusions reached about New Age as a global phenomenon apply here too, but with local modifications.

AT: Which New Age groups and personalities have you studied? For how long? Where did you find information about them?

NR: I initially focused on the older period, the 19th and early 20th centuries, and topics like Freemasonry, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Spiritism, the Roerich movement, and some interwar groups. As for New Age, I studied manifestations of New Age thinking in culture, both high (literature in the first place), and popular. I especially paid attention to channeled texts from the 1980s and 1990s. Then there is Živorad Mihajlović Slavinski (b. 1937), probably the most influential magus in ex-Yugoslavia, who moved from magic and the Gnostic church (areas he was involved with the 1970s—1990s) toward New Age workshops today. I interviewed him, but his books written in the last 50 years were perhaps even more crucial. Then there are contemporary healers who are a curious mixture of New Age concepts, folk medicine, and outright fraud; they rejected interviews, so I had to rely on media presentations. Finally, some other contemporary groups I studied (Slavic Neo-pagans) don’t fit into the New Age definition, albeit New Age elements permeate their concepts too.

AT: What is the most specific aspect of them compared to their Western (American and European) counterparts? Were the New Age practices and teachings autochthonous or just derivations, Western European-North American imports?

NR: Undoubtedly, New Age practices and teachings come from the West. But they acquire some new traits and often serve as articulation for some more profound questions. Speaking of New Age ideas in the 1980s and the post-communist era, one aspect is the question of national identity — for example, Nikola Tesla is a perfect New Age icon with the entire mythology developed around him, but in the Serbian New Age, he is also the icon of national culture. Because of the issue of identity, New Age thought here (and I believe elsewhere in Eastern Europe too) often merges with pseudohistory. It’s not only about ancient aliens or Atlantis, but about the mystified past of one’s nation, which becomes a source of all civilizations of the past ages. Such para-history can appear in a fully non-esoteric, pseudo-rational form, but it is often combined with New Age thinking. However, your question is essential not only for New Age thought, but for esotericism in Central Eastern Europe generally. I focus here on the Orthodox cultural area of Eastern Europe, for which names as Slavia orthodoxa or ‘Byzantine commonwealth’ or ‘Byzantium after Byzantium’ were used. As is known, this cultural area experienced a radical change in the 18th century when it abandoned the Byzantine cultural model to adopt a Western one, with the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Baroque, and so on. Now, the esotericism we have from the 18th century in this cultural area is transferred from the West. But instead of describing it as imported, we may reach another conclusion: It means that esotericism is not some residue of a pre-modern archaic mentality, superstitions, etc., as it was often seen in Western modernity. Quite the contrary, here it appears to be the trait of modernity itself. Just like Enlightenment or Romanticism, esotericism came via the same channel. A similar conclusion has been drawn regarding other milieus, but we have different historical and cultural circumstances here. This leads to another question I am not yet prepared to answer, and that is the very character of pre-modern esotericism in the Orthodox world and how modern definitions of Western esotericism apply to it; and consequently, whether there is any kind of continuity between pre-modern and modern esotericism in this area of Europe (the same question is raised for other forms of culture, like arts and literature).

AT: What were the features of the New Age landscape in socialist Yugoslavia? What currents were the most important ones?

NR: I’d say legitimization through science was one crucial trait. That is a feature of the New Age generally speaking and of Western occultism since the 19th century, of course, so it’s not something outstanding per se. But within the communist system, it had to carry an additional weight — the use of “scientific” or psychological vocabulary aimed to wash this suspicious phenomenon clean of “regressive tendencies.” Another aspect is its surprising link with arts and literature. Now, questions are raised such as whether the New Age movement is like Romanticism, or whether it lacks actual esthetic values and so on, but it seems that, regardless of whether the New Age is a field of its own, in 1945–1990, many artists in Yugoslavia found in New Age thinking a way to articulate their poetics or to include New Age elements in their creative worldviews, from those in the counterculture to those in more established positions. So New Age thought was not only a source of themes but a way for new artistic forms of expression, as opposed to dominant regime-backed esthetics. And that is an example of how the New Age entered Serbian/Yugoslavian culture, becoming one layer in the multilayered history of esotericism and culture and interacting with others. On another level, New Age concepts “trickle down” to folk magic practices, forming a kind of folk New Age (a term comparable to folk religion in my opinion and a justified one), merging New Age ideas with more traditional views of magic.

AT: Do you know any New Age transfers between the countries of the Eastern Bloc? Could you illustrate some of them?

NR: One would expect that, but the answer is not that straightforward. It should be remembered that Yugoslavia was excluded from the communist bloc in 1948 and that its popular culture was formed under Western influences. However, there are some examples: In the late 1980s, Russian healers like Džuna or Alan Čumak were famous in Yugoslavia. (In 1992 — although that is after the period we’re talking about — there was a huge, public, media-covered “experiment” of telepathic communication between Belgrade and Novosibirsk). The term “psychotronics” was adopted from Czech parapsychology but acquired new meanings, merging with ritual magic and neo-Gnosticism in the early 1970s. One parapsychology researcher in the 1970s, Momčilo Todorović, collaborated with Georgi Lozanov (1926—2012) in Bulgaria. Yugoslavia’s odd position between the blocks is reflected in this area too. Some similarities, however, are more typological or come from deeper sources common to different national cultures of the region (like late modernization or influence of Herderian ideas).

AT: When strictly, in your opinion, can we observe the appearance, the period of flourishing, and then the stagnation of New Age spiritualities in Yugoslavia? Is it possible to speak about a specific chronology of the New Age in Yugoslavia? Which models would you suggest?

NR: In the 1960s, there was quite a strong reception of the French occulture-fantastical realism of Powels and Bergier, their Le Matin des magiciens. Introduction au réalisme fantastique (1960) and themes from the editions of J’ai lu. It is not strictly speaking New Age thinking, but it does pave the way to it. Not only do the two share some topics, but in Yugoslavia, the same persons were involved in spreading both. Serbian culture was strongly French-orientated since the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that even on the plane of esotericism, French influence dominates (although the translations appeared only after 1990, the New Age actors were familiar with the original). (By the way, the international reception of fantastical realism calls for research. Just one example — Miguel Serrano, Chilean ambassador to Yugoslavia in the 1960s, wrote a letter to the Yugoslav minister of foreign affairs mentioning The Morning of Magicians). Then from the 1970s, there was the emergence of the New Age proper, becoming visible in popular culture and media. Important in that regard was a group of Serbian and Slovenian neo-avant-garde artists influenced by American counterculture, experimenting with communes at some time after 1971, and visiting Findhorn. That is the time of interest in parapsychology, of individual experiments in it, and discussions in official associations of psychologists. The Society of Psychotronics was formed, but its internal kernel was the neo-Gnostic church, occupied with channeling practice. The vogue of UFO contacts didn’t skip Yugoslavia either. In the 1980s, New Age ideas became more widespread, often emerging in alternative medicine, bioenergetics, and radiesthesia. Different forms of Neo-Hinduism in the 1970s and 1980, such as TM (Transcendental Meditation), Osho or Sai Baba, merged with New Age spirituality. In the 1980s, there was a rise of private, small publishers who published a lot on occultism (astrology especially enjoyed popularity); new editions of Rudolph Steiner appeared, and Crowley was published for the first time. There were public discussions about occultism. O.T.O. [Order of the Temple of the East or Order of Oriental Templars] started in 1982, and another Thelemite group in 1985. In 1985, there was the first Yugoslavian congress about liminal phenomena of science. And in the second half of the 1980s, different civil associations for alternative research were registered. In the 1990s, with more liberty and more commercial opportunities, an expanded media scene, and private practice, New Age became fully present. The feature of that period (the civil war period in Yugoslavia and the country’s dissolution; economic sanctions against Serbia) is propagandistic, political engagement of some New Age representatives, and use of New Age subjects in regime media for political purposes. The spread and commercialization of the New Age explain why in the last twenty years, some figures from occult milieus have moved increasingly toward the New Age — for example, Esotheria (sic), an esoteric publishing house from 1990, recognizable initially for its Thelemite profile, turned into typical New Age publisher.

AT: After 1945, with the establishment of the communist government and during Tito’s regime until 1980, the Yugoslavian federation was a place where any kind of religiosity was suspicious and suppressed because of its “hostility” against communist ideology’s visions of the future as well as its character that was depicted as “retrograde”. Could we agree that official ideology in Yugoslavia had a clear negative position towards alternative (including spiritual) lifestyles, or were there exceptions? What was the attitude of the Yugoslavian nomenklatura towards New Age ideas and practices?

NR: Many publications positioned themselves as alternative science or something similar. Individuals could self-publish their books (so it wasn’t samizdat; it was legal). The Theosophical Society was banned in 1947 but allowed to work again in 1966, even organizing summer camps. Anthroposophists gathered privately and traveled to Dornach. So, some first impressions suggest that the attitude was rather lax — and indeed today, some tend to describe the regime as liberal. Comparing it to some other communist countries, it may appear so, but it would be better to say that it was less repressive in some respects. Censorship was vigilant. Books and movies were banned up to the end of the regime and telling a joke about Tito could land one in jail for up to two years. However, toying with esotericism could pass, just as abstract art, jazz, or the theater of absurd were able to emerge after the 1950s, not because of the regime’s open-mindedness but because esotericism was perceived as harmless. Ideas perceived as a direct threat to the regime (like Tito’s leading role or the legitimacy of the communist government) were objects of persecution. But esotericism wasn’t seen as such —  and that is simply the variant idea of esotericism as rejected knowledge, in a somewhat twisted way! It also says something about the regime’s ideological (in)consistency: Holding power was of primary importance. I didn’t find any trace of officially supported experiments, as was the case with parapsychology in the USSR or Bulgaria — the first state-supported project about parapsychology comes only in 1988 (in Bosnia). Of course, it is possible that there is material in currently inaccessible archives of the intelligence services and political police. There were some people among the nomenklatura, however, who were interested in “alternative” ideas (in a sense somewhat broader than New Age), like writer Jara Ribnikar (1912—2007), who belonged to the top social level and who became an ardent supporter and propagator of the Maharishi and TM in the 1980s; she kept her nomenklatura role in the 1990s when she was in the leadership of the Yugoslav left, a party led by Slobodan Milošević’s wife, lobbying for TM among regime functionaries. The children of the nomenklatura in the 1970s and 1980s, the ‘golden youth’ (or red bourgeoisie), were those who developed a strong interest in Western pop culture and counterculture, occultism included, from Thelemite currents and Gurdjieff to New Age thinking. Marina Abramović and her brother Velimir, who has been one of the key figures in the national New Age for decades, stem from that milieu. In a strange way, Communism led new generations of those born in Communism toward esotericism: It separated them from Christianity and traditional forms of religion, and since the ideology was dull, expressed in ‘wooden’ language, they found an outlet in “alternative” ideas. As one of my informers said: “In our spiritual seeking, we were left to ourselves.” That explains the strange case of the popularity of O.T.O. in the 1980s in Yugoslavia.

AT: In your research, you deal with art and widespread manifestations of New Age, mystic or occult thinking in different settings. What was your most fascinating discovery about New Age spirituality in the socialist period?

NR: I was fascinated by the extent of occulture in a communist country like Yugoslavia of the 1970s — not that I didn’t know something, but there was more than I expected, for example, in youth magazines. The importance of the New Age and occulture for elite culture and the individual poetics of writers and artists was even more fascinating. I would just mention that from the 1970s to 1990s, many artists created their own Tarot decks. Actually, in some cases, the border between popular and high culture was obfuscated since the same people participated in both precisely through occulture. Some of them were in opposition toward the communist regime, or at least tacitly disliked it. Others were active party members — Vasko Popa, one of the most important Serbian poets of the 20th century, was a loyal party member and activist. At the same time, he was deeply interested in alchemy, from old texts up to Fulcanelli and Canseliet, as his poetry shows. The neo-avant-garde movement Signalism from 1970s was also inspired by New Age thinking. Spasoje Vlajić (1946—2020), author of many books about the New Age and parahistory, most famous for his ‘light formula’, first created it as part of a Signalist poetical experiment. Although he is nowadays recognizable as a figure of the New Age scene, his main concept appeared in this context. Poet Ljubiša Jocić (1910–1978) who started as a surrealist in the interwar period and joined Signalism in the 1970s, wrote in the 1970s about spirituality of electrons, a new era of consciousness, of the unused 90 percent of the brain, and holism, but in texts published as programmatic texts of this neo-avant-garde movement.

AT: Did the forms of New Age spirituality change after the breakup in Yugoslavia in the 1990s?

NR: More interest in national identities and more interest in para-history emerged. The New Age movement followed the general pattern of happenings.

AT: What do you think about the future of the study of New Age spiritualities in Central and Eastern Europe? Are there academic resources in Serbia and neighboring countries for that? What would you call the most crucial challenge for the scholars of the late socialist period studying the “invisible” New Age?

NR: I’d say the issues are the same as with any other research in humanities — the lack of funds, access to literature, etc. Areas that call for an investigation are archives, old journals, and (if possible) private diaries and letters — that is to say, fundamental work on sources. Since research on esotericism is still a new field, often met with raised eyebrows or, perhaps even worse, with interest unaccompanied with serious work, it is essential to avoid all pro and contra attitudes, whatever their source might be — situating esotericism in the broader framework of cultural history, instead of leaping to conclusions and passing value judgments. A practical tip: English is nowadays the lingua franca of academia, but it’ll be necessary to read in languages other than English. You asked about transfers among countries of Eastern Europe — having a network for exchanging information, comparing research, and so on is very important for a complete answer to the question.

Note: This article is part of Baltic Worlds 2021:4 Special section: New Age and alternative beliefs in socialist Eastern Europe.

Read all articles in the issue here>> 

  • by Anna Tessmann

    PhD in the Study of Religions and Postdoctoral researcher at Mainz University. Her research focus is in comparative study of religions; new religious movements; Soviet and post-Soviet esotericism and astrology; zoroastrianism; ancient and; contemporary Iranian religions, and didactics of Persian and Russian languages.

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