Illustration for cover of issue: Karin Z. Sunvisson

Illustration for cover of issue: Karin Z. Sunvisson

Essays Okategoriserade Special section: New Age and alternative beliefs in socialist Eastern Europe Introduction. New Age spiritualities of (post-) socialism

Baltic Worlds has in this special section “New Age and alternative beliefs in socialist Eastern Europe” invited scholars from different disciplines to address topics relating to the diversity of new religious beliefs in Eastern Europe during the socialist era and beyond. The authors, five scholars studying the multiple expressions of New Age spirituality on their own material, propose to view New Age from various angles.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 27-30
Published on on January 24, 2022

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The religious dimension of atheistic envisaged socialist societies has been a major issue in the Western history of religion and sociological studies during the 20th century. What was implied by religion was earlier established confessions and institutions and scholars studied internal changes and the survival strategies for such beliefs in the face of ideological suspicion towards religious matters and through the endorsed active destruction of religion by socialist states. Research on religion in the socialist countries themselves has not been particularly straightforward. It resulted in the elimination of research interest in religion as a whole and the total abolition of religion. It also took place in other constellations. So, for example, the socialist countries of Eastern Europe promoted the history of atheism with a Marxist-Leninist critique on religion which, in its paradigmatic stance, constructed and controlled religious discourse. Many in-depth studies on religious topics were also placed in the margins of humanities. Both Western and Eastern European research on religion in socialist societies was differently imposed on Cold War politics; even the organization and development of studies on religion within the particular disciplines of each country varied significantly.

Academic interest in contemporary religion around the globe increased in the second half of the 20th century. Remarkably, Western Euro-American, and Eastern European studies did not address the non-institutionalized forms of religion in the Eastern bloc — which had been well observed in Western countries and increasingly discussed in the scholarly literature by the start of the 1970s by Western European and American sociologists. Most studies on socialist countries aimed at so-called monotheistic (mainly Christian or Christianity-inspired “sects”) religions, their history, as well as their “gradual decline” within Socialism, as well as oriental religions such as Buddhism and Islam, have been studied from historical and ethnographical perspectives. Socialist scholarship (some literature can be found, particularly in the USSR) had been quite aware of the newest wave of religious movements or so-called mass mysticism/occultism in the “Western countries”, as well as in the East (for example, in South Asia) that emerged after WWII. Scholars of religion regularly produced special digests about these contemporary religions or cults based on the foreign periodicals of the “capitalist West.” Nevertheless, the underground groups and practices amidst that the “developed socialism” were hardly considered — it was as if they had never existed. This research distortion led to many misunderstandings and re-inventions in the public sphere after the failure of Eastern European regimes. The mass media of the crisis in the 1990s started to appropriate the discourse of a “religious boom” after a “spiritual vacuum” during the socialist era. In addition, several regional scholars used these metaphors while noting that Eastern European and Soviet trends had a secondary character compared to their Western counterparts and were therefore just late in arriving.

Primarily it has established a connection to new religious tendencies, namely, the rapidly spreading, gradually institutionalizing, and commercializing of neoesoteric and parascientific practices on a global scale, which became known under the (in many ways, still problematic) designation of New Age spirituality. This (mainly note used as self-description) term goes back to an expectation of a qualitatively different epoch in human history and is related to those holistic teachings and self-realization practices that became increasingly popular in Western European and North American religious or spiritual seeking milieus that have emerged since the late 1960s. In their understanding of New Age, they were referring to both the esoteric and the scholarly (also millenarist) visions of the 20th century, for example, Alice Bailey’s theosophical Age of Aquarius, including New Age (1951), or Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift (1962) (both specifically articulated decades later in one of the acknowledged “bibles” of the New Age movement, Marylin Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980)). According to scholar of religion Olav Hammer, New Age “no longer refers to a specific movement that expects the coming of a new age,“ it describes at the highest level a “wide array of ideas and practices, largely united by historical links, a shared discourse and an air de famille.” Moreover, today’s New Age spiritualities can be understood as a firm constituent of global mass culture that diffuses through all spheres of public and private life.

From a historical point of view, Eastern Europe can be seen as one of the most central regions of global New Age (think, for example, of such prominent transnational movements inspired by the teachings of the Bulgarian Petar Danov or by the Russian Roerich family which, for a long time, went beyond the frontiers of their own cultures, or even psychotronics/parapsychology or UFO groups). However, the dramatic political ups and downs of Eastern European history in the 20th century is why the other traces of New Age remain poorly documented, scarce, and incomplete. Thus, we cannot easily identify the continuities or clearly imagine even Eastern European intercultural exchanges. Yet, there has been sufficient material to deny the previous hypotheses of total dependency on the Western New Age in late Socialism — the entire picture is more complex than previously imagined. In fact, some recent studies have argued that the socialist era is characterized by a New Age underground, and that there are individual dynamics, including through international contacts, initially via print media. In current studies of the late socialist era, scholars of the New Age and alternative movements in Eastern Europe participate in processes that decolonize the established scientific modes of interpretation. The future responses of scholars to the following questions will undoubtedly impact theories of New Age spirituality and regional interdisciplinary studies, commuting between two analytical perspectives — global influences and local adaptive practices and innovations. As much as we would like to accelerate research processes, scientific understanding of the New Age spiritualities and their effects on the public sphere during the late socialist era, with its miscellany of cultural, political, and economic characteristics, is still insufficient because this period is only just beginning to be scrutinized. Without doubt, the late 1980s and the early 1990s in Eastern Europe represent a particular “breaking line” between the underground, “invisible” New Age spiritualities and their later public manifestations within the publishing “tornado” of esoteric literature, which contributed to the emergence of new discourses on esotericism, as well as new groups, courses, centers and organizations. Some practices of New Age spirituality that were formed in the socialist era have been extended following the change of regimes.

Baltic Worlds has in this special section “New Age and alternative beliefs in socialist Eastern Europe” invited scholars from different disciplines to address topics relating to the diversity of new religious beliefs in Eastern Europe during the socialist era and beyond. The authors, five scholars studying the multiple expressions of New Age spirituality on their own material, propose to view New Age from various angles.

The sociologists Andreas Anton and Ina Schmied-Knittel open the collection of articles with their contribution on the beliefs and paranormal practices in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The dominant “scientific worldview” did not presuppose the existence of mystic experiences. Consequently, the fight against everything “irrational” in the GDR was more successful compared to many other socialist countries, even in the Soviet Union, which had an immense impact on the Eastern German population. Investigating what GDR citizens thought about occult topics, namely, “telepathy, psychic dreams, premonitions, hauntings and spirits, parapsychology, astrology, alternative medicine, or UFOs,” the authors note that “towards the end of the GDR, only a few people were still secretly dealing with relevant topics. Overall, the findings show a largely successful marginalization of deviant practices and belief systems in a society with a stringent order of social reality.” Moreover, paranormal beliefs became more resistant than the teachings and practices of the mainstream Christian denominations, which gradually declined through the state’s secularization politics.

The anthropologist Anna Ozhiganova addresses how the unofficial late-Soviet alternatives of homebirth were linked to the utopic thinking in Russian culture. Nourished by the modernist utopia of creating a “new man”, and Soviet futurist space exploration projects, the Soviet waterbirth movement underwent many transformations to become part of the Soviet, and after the dissolution of the USSR, post-Soviet. New Age mythology brought a range of new identities into play. One of them, referred to as a “dolphinist sub-culture” by scholar of religion Mikael Rothstein, started to flourish as early as the 1960s. Ozhiganova describes the attempts by Igor Charkovskii, a guru and pioneer of the Aquaculture method in the Soviet waterbirth movement, to adapt humans through mediations of aquatic mammals, particularly dolphins, to water. Similarly, the vision to expand human power to the oceans was a continuation of the ideas of the Russian cosmists who strived to conquer the universe. Being less of an intellectual but more of an influential guru, Charkovskii, helped by his followers and powerful benefactors in medicine, conducted experiments on pregnant women, babies and dolphins, at the boundaries of societal norms. He was inspired by prominent Western figures from the Western New Age, such as American John Lilly, Frenchman Jacques Mayol and New Zealander Estelle Myers. These figures were also interested in the dolphin experiments in the USSR. Ozhiganova concludes that apart from the underdevelopment of scientific research in human-dolphin connections at the global level in the 1970s–1980s, “it is obvious that they should be viewed as a part of New Age, with its ability to combine mystery and advanced science, spiritual search and social experiment.” Born in the late decades of the Soviet Union, Charkovskii’s movement was transformed over a long period from a local grassroots utopic project to being part of a global New Age scene, particularly in the Russian-speaking diaspora.

Approaching the religious-historical perspective that refers to the concept of esotericism, which goes back to its earlier forms in the early 20th century, scholar of religion Victoria Vitanova-Kerber presents a panorama of New Age spiritualities in socialist Bulgaria. According to Vitanova-Kerber, esotericism in a broader sense means elitist esoteric practices and other forms of “occult and New Age spirituality, including non-institutionalized practices like clairvoyance, telepathy, and fortune-telling, […] referred to as popular esotericism. Claiming the contextual closeness between esotericism and New Age spirituality, she defines the New Age spirituality in the socialist era as not a new phenomenon but belonging to a traditional Bulgaria milieu, from a longue dureé perspective. In Vitanova-Kerber’s view, what is essential in the late and post-socialist eras are the processes of “becoming visible for all these esoteric groups and practices that emerged at the turn of the 20th century and survived in the religious underground of the socialist era to become part of the 1970s’ New Age spirituality in Bulgaria.” She discusses the many types of esotericism that emerged since the start of the 20th century, beginning with masonic lodges, theosophical, anthroposophical and White Brotherhood communities, to the female seers, the best known in the world being Vangelia Gushterova (Baba Vanga). A noteworthy fact is that in Petar Danov’s teaching that developed before WWII, an idea of New Age was already acknowledged. In addition, there were established state-promoted research institutes such as Georgi Lozanov’s Institute of Suggestology or Alexander Fol’s Institute of Thracology. Special attention is paid to the figure of Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942—1981), daughter of the Communist leader Todor Zhivkov and later president of the Committee for Art and Culture. Zhivkova was a patron of the Bulgarian esoteric circles of the 1970s and, as we know, a spiritual seeker in her own right. Zhivkova’s prominent position in the Communist nomenclature allowed her to sponsor many esoteric projects, such as Rerikh’s family programs in the framework of Bulgarian culture politics.

The historian Adrien Nonjon addresses the notion of geopoetics by the contemporary Scottish nomade intellectual, poet and writer Kenneth White in relation to the history of the Ukrainian Ridna Vira (literary “native faith”), several Neo-pagan groups that emerged out of the Ukrainian diaspora in the US and Canada after WWII and which became active in Ukraine from the 1990s. The Ridnoviry constructed a specific mythological ecological teaching, a type of religion of nature. They were re-imaging the distant past in terms of the linguistic theories of the Indo-Aryan areal. According to them, they had seen in the Ukrainian folk descendants of the Aryans, Vedic ancestors. Nonjon clarifies that Neo-paganism is close to New Age spirituality and shares many ideas with it (for example, the notion of a sacred environment and the “energies” of the Earth). However, both movements differ. One of the significant differences is that “New Age claims to be universal in seeking ‘self-realization’ through a set of invented mythologies involving different religions and spiritualities such as Buddhism or witchcraft, which are often mixed with scientific or pseudo-scientific works tinged with esotericism and occult elucubrations.” In addition, Ridna Vira has elaborated “national valorization through the aesthetics of the territory” and contributed to an imaginary reconstruction of the own “homeland” in exile and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The interview with scholar of Serbian literature Nemanja Radulović investigates the literal and artistic trajectories of esoteric and occult figures in Yugoslavia that he has studied. In Radulović’s view, the research on New Age spirituality as a global phenomenon can be applied to Yugoslavian settings with its “local modifications.” His previous and ongoing studies cover (apart from his intense attraction to a certain esoteric intellectualism) diverse fields such as magic specialists, for example, Živorad Slavinski or other healers, and Neo-pagan groups, giving us an idea about the different degrees of involvement in New Age. Radulović aptly points out that the New Age spirituality in Eastern Europe “mystified the past of one’s nation, which becomes a source of all civilizations of past ages. Such para-history can appear in a fully non-esoteric, pseudo-rational form, but is often combined with New Age.” He also formulates a paradox that can be confirmed by Soviet sources: Despite the bitter fight against alternative thinking and conventional religious communities, the interest in mysticism was not classified as dangerous for the authorities. Radulović summarizes: “In a strange way, Communism led new generations of those born into 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 an “alternative.”

The above-mentioned contributions would in no way exhaust the topic of alternative, “unseen” New Age communities in socialist countries. This field offers many ways of studying late -socialist spirituality: From research on the undiscovered charismatics of the esoteric underground to well-established personalities within mainstream sciences interested in parascientific experiments; Eastern European New Age networks and transfers; the creation and distribution of popular esoteric and parascientific samizdat literature; manifestations of  New Age in political and social life; Eastern European New Age historiography; sacred geography, also invented by the mass media and in fiction; New Age spiritual market and consumption in Socialism, and so on.

We are all hopeful that new data from religious-historical research with free access to documents in the archives of the socialist era will identify more of the people involved, bring clarity to the processes of that age, and new hypotheses. The editors and authors of this thematic section gratefully thank the eight peer reviewers who provided us with valuable suggestions and did a great job sharing their exceptional knowledge of this complex field of research. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to Editor-in-chief Ninna Mörner for her encouragement and the enjoyable collaboration during this year.

Read all articles in the issue here>> 


  1. See Iva Doležalová, Luther H. Martin, and Dalibor Papoušek eds., The Academic Study of Religion during the Cold War: East and West (New York: Peter Lang, 2001).
  2. Compare, for example, James R. Lewis, and John Gordon Melton eds., Perspectives on the New Age (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992).
  3. See Olav Hammer, “New Age Movement,” 855—861 in Wouter Hanegraaff ed., Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism. In collaboration with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek and Jean-Pierre Brach (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 855. Hammer relates to the studies by another prominent historian of religion Wouter Hanegraaff New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1996, 97) and his view on New Age religion as having two stages of development as a sensu stricto (an original millenarist movement in the 1960s) and sensu lato (the New Age in a wider sense since the 1980s).
  4. See Patrick Lally Michelson, “Foreword,” 8—14 in Alexandra Coțofană, and James M. Nyce, Religion and Magic in Socialist and Post-Socialist Contexts I. Historic and Ethnographic Case Studies of Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and Alternative Spirituality (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2017), 11.
  • 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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