Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mongolia | Early Life of Nicholas Roerich

Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich was born in St Petersburg, Russia, on October 9, 1874. His father Konstantin was a notary serving the city’s courts, a fairly important position at the time. The family was well-to-do and lived in a comfortable apartment on the embankment of the Neva River, in close proximity to the homes of the Russian nobility. The Winter Palace of the Czar, on the other side of the Neva, was visible from the windows of the Roerich residence. Later in life Roerich would assert that his own family, the Roerichs, could trace their roots back to Vikings from Scandinavia. He also asserted, perhaps playing on the similarity of their names, that his family were descendants, or at least had some connection with, Rurik, the Scandinavian chieftain who in the year 862 was invited to Novgorod, in Russia, where he founded the Rurik Dynasty, which ruled what was known as Kievan Rus, centered first on what is now Ukraine and later Russia, until the beginning of the seventeenth century (the last member of the Rurik Dynasty  Vasiliy IV, ruled as Czar until 1612). 


Years later, after he had been admitted to the Russian Academy of Arts  and held the prestigious post of director of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Roerich was still harping on the Rurik connection. Prince Sergei Aleksandrovitch Stcherbatov, a painter and patron of the arts who came into contact with Roerich around this time, noted, “He was of northern—Norwegian type and he rather clearly alluded that his family name Roerich was connected with the name Rurik. It was not quite clear though in what way . . .”  One of Roerich’s hagiographers asserts, on the other hand, that Roerich means “rich in glory,” although no one else seems to agree with her. A Latvian researcher and linguist maintains, however, that the name Roerich is derived from either the German word das Röhricht (reed scrub) or the family name Roderich and has no connection whatsoever to the Scandinavian Rurik.


Roerich also liked to point to his family’s coat-of-arms, which included palm leaves, often an indication that members of the family had been involved in diplomacy, and a turban, a symbol often found on the coat-of-arms of Crusaders who had fought against Muslims in the Middle East. All this spoke to a long and distinguished family, a theme often repeated in the voluminous semi-hagiographical literature about the Roerichs. According to one such account:

Wealthy and politically influential, Nikolai’s father, Konstantin Fedorovitch Roerich, was a prominent notary and attorney born in Riga, Latvia. Throughout the centuries, many of the Roerich men had devoted their lives to service as political leaders, military figures, and members of secret societies like the Knights Templar and the Masons.

Most of this is not true. The first Roerich we know about is Nicholas’s great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich Röerich (1763–1820), who was born in Vetzieskate, a small town in the the Duchy of Courland, probably in what is now Latvia.  By profession he was a shoe-maker. Nicholas grandfather Friedrich (1806–1905) moved up a bit in the world and served as the steward on the estate of the Baron Johann von der Ropp and his wife Laura. Friedrich Roerich was an employee of aristocrats and not, of course, an aristocrat himself. Nicholas’s father Konstantin (1837–1900) was the illegitimate son of Eduard von der Ropp, scion of the von der Ropp family, and Charlotte Constantia Schuhschel, a house-maid attached to the family estate. Eduard von der Ropp was a captain in the Engineer Corps in St. Petersburg and he had apparently seduced the young maid while on vacation at his family’s estate. Nicholas Roerich’s later rhapsodizing about the illustrious Roerich family was completely beside the point. By blood he was not a Roerich at all. 


Nicholas’s father Konstantin was entered into the parish records under the family name of the house maid, but his baptismal records gave his name as  Konstantin Christoph Traugott Glaubert. It is not quite clear who Glaubert was. In any case, both names were an attempt by von der Ropp family to hide the child’s true paternity. Eduard von der Ropp did eventually take some interest on the child, however, and when Konstantin was twelve years old his father brought him to St. Petersburg and had him enrolled in the Technological Institute. There was a catch, however. On his admission papers the boy’s father’s name as listed Friedrich Roerich and his own name as Konstantin Roerich. A Latvian researcher has concluded that by this point Friedrich Roerich had adopted the boy and gave him the Roerich family name “‘to cover Edward’s [Eduard von der Ropp’s] sin.’” Friedrich Roerich may not have taken the boy under his wing solely out of the goodness of his heart. Anxious to be rid of the illegitimate child, a stain on the illustrious family’s honor, the von der Ropps apparently gave Friedrich Roerich a considerable sum of money to take the boy off their hands and make him a member of the Roerich family. 


Around this time, Friedrich Roerich, formerly a steward on the von der Ropp estate, rented two estates of his own, peerhaps with the payoff money he had received from the von der Ropps. This branching out into the management of rental properties perhaps marks the beginning of the rise to social prominence of the Roerich family, hitherto a rather undistinguished group, and not at all the descendants of the Rurik Dynasty and other distinguished figures as Roerich was wont to claim. Ironically, Nicholas Roerich’s actual paternal line, the aristocratic von der Ropps, were illustrious. The lineage had been founded by in the thirteen-century by Theodoricus de Raupena, whose brother Albert founded the city of Riga, current-day capital of Latvia in 1201, and in 1202 organized the Livonian Order of Warriors of Christ (Fratres militiae Christi Livoniae), a Christian crusading order dedicated to battling pagans in what is now Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. This was just the kind of prestigious background Nicholas would have liked to claim for himself, but of course he couldn’t. Indeed, he probably did not even know that his father had been an illegitimate child and a von der Ropp by blood. The whole matter had been kept very hush-hush.


For someone who began life as an an illegitimate child from the countryside Konstantin Roerich did quite well for himself in St. Petersburg. Eduard von der Ropp, although he had refused to give the boy his name, worked behind the scenes as his sponsor in the capital. Konstantin was employed first as an accountant in a military uniform factor and then in the Directorate of the Russian Railways. In 1867 he became a notary for the city courts. A 25,000 ruble security was required to take the post, 10,000 of which had to be paid up front.  His sponsors in St. Petersburg helped him come up with the money.  Serving as a notary in Russia at the time was a well-paying and prestigious job, and by 1872, two years before Nicholas was born, Konstantin was able to buy a 3,780 acre estate, complete with house, fifty miles southwest St. Petersburg (the house on the property is now a museum dedicated to the Roerichs). The country estate was known as Isvara. According to one account, the previous owner of the estate, the Russian diplomat Semyon Vorontsov, had given the estate its name after traveling through India, where he had apparently learned the Sanskrit word isvara. Later in life, when he came into contact with Indians from the sub-continent, Nicholas Roerich was told that Isvara was a corruption of the Sanskrit word Ishvara, the Lord. One of Roerich‘s hagiographers, on the other hand, maintains that Isvara means “sacred dwelling” or “ashram” in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit story is repeated in various Roerich biographies, for example:

During the winter holidays, or when mosquitoes and cholera began to cloud the stifling hot, long “white nights” of summer, the family happily moved to their country estate . . . Its name, given by the previous owner, was Isvara, Sanskrit for “Lord” or “sacred spirit.”

Russian linguists have claimed, however, that isvara is a word from the language of the indigenous people who originally lived in the area. It means simply “big hill” and refers to a conspicuous promontory in the area, and has nothing to do with the Sanskrit isvara


Nicholas spent considerable time at Isvara while growing up. Early on he took and interest in archeology and at the age of nine took undertook the excavation of burial mounds on the estate under the guidance of a professional archeologist. Another archeologist, A.A. Spitsyn, a member of the Imperial Archeological Committee, got Nicholas permission to conduct further archeological research on the property. Nicholas’s findings were the beginning of what would become a near-museum quality collection of artifacts. While at Isvara he also learned the finer points of horse-back riding and spent a considerable amount of his time hunting wildlife. Essays about his hunting adventures, accompanied by his own pencil drawings, may have been among his first literary productions. 


Nicholas Roerich as a young man

In 1893, at the age of nineteen, Nicholas graduated from an exclusive private secondary school ran by progressive educator Karl Ivanovich Mai, the motto of which was “First love, then teach”. The liberal atmosphere at the school, unusual for the  time and place, made it very popular with the intelligentsia of St. Petersburg. Attending the school at the same time as Roerich was Alexander Benois (1870–1960), the artist and set designer who, like Nicholas himself, would later collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev, the celebrated director of the dance troupe Ballets Russes. Benois would remember Nicholas as “. . . a pretty boy with pink cheeks, very affectionate, a little shy with his older schoolmates. By no means was he influenced by our group, as well as after graduation he remained an outsider for many years.”


After secondary school Nicholas’s father, hoping that one day his son would became pursue a career in law himself,  insisted that he enroll in the law department of St. Petersburg University. Nicholas agreed, but also somehow convinced his father to allow him to also audit classes at the Imperial Academy Arts at the same time. Roerich wanted to study under the realist painter Ilia Repin (1844–1930), the most highly regarded painter at the Academy, but his classes were already full and Nicholas was turned away. Instead he joined the landscape studio of Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (1841–1910). It was a fateful decision. In a chapter entitled “Guru—The Master” in his book Shambhala the Resplendent Roerich would write:

I recall the most uplifting memories of my teacher, Professor Kuinjy [Kuindzhi], the famous Russian artist. His life story could fill the most inspiring pages of a biography for the young generation. He was a simple shepherd boy in the Crimea [actually he was born near Mariupol, in the Donetsk District to the northeast of Crimea in what is now Ukraine]. Only by incessant, ardent effort towards art, was he able to conquer all obstacles and finally become not only a highly esteemed artist and a man of great means, but also a real Guru for his pupils in the high Hindu conception.

Kuindzhi became Roerich’s guru, at least in the artistic field.  He certainly seemed to have focused Nicholas’s attention on painting and perhaps provided the inspiration he needed to pursue a career as an artist. (In March of 2022 the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was destroyed by the Russian military during the invasion of Ukraine. His paintings in the museum may have been removed beforehand, but their fate remains unclear.) Nicholas’ final painting  submitted to the  Academy to fulfill his graduation requirements, “The Messenger: Tribe Has Risen against Tribe”, was heavily influenced by Kuindzhi’s style. The painting was immediately bought by Pavel Mikchailovich Tretyakov (1832–1898), one of the leading art collectors of the day. Overnight Nicholas was catapulted into the ranks of up-and-coming young artists in Russia. 


In 1898 Nicholas Roerich finished law school, having successfully defending his thesis “Legal Rights of Artists in Ancient Russ,” and also completed his courses at the Art Academy. By then it had become clear that he was not going to pursue a career in law. One of the leading art critics of the day, Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824–1906), took the promising young artist Roerich under his wing and helped him obtain the position of assistant secretary for the prestigious Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. The Society enjoyed the patronage of Csar Nicholas II and his wife, and its honorary President was Princess Eugenia Maksimilianovna Oldenburgskaya, wife of Prince Alexandre Petrovich Oldenburgsky. Nicholas was soon hobnobbing with the very highest levels of Russian society. 


Nicholas also had other irons in the fire. He was still interested in archeology and in 1899 the Imperial Archaeological Society engaged him to investigate various sites in the provinces of Pskov, Tversk, and Novgorod. While traveling to the sites he stopped for the night at the house of one Prince Putyatin, a fellow archaeologist. It so happened that Prince Putyatin’s wife’s sister, Ekaterina Vassilievna Shaposhnikova, was also visiting the family at the time. The sister had a daughter, Elena Ivanovna, who was five years younger than Nicholas. Nicholas and Elena hit it off, and after a sometimes tempestuous courtship the couple would get married. She would accompany him on the 1925–28 khora through Inner Asia.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Burkhan Khaldun Khora

In 1997 I did a ten-day horse trip to the beginning of the Onon River and the Onon Hot Springs in Khentii Aimag, northeast of Ulaanbaatar, as described in my book Wanders in Northern Mongolia. On the return leg of the trip I ascended 8,040-foot Burkhan Khaldun, also known as Khentii Khan Uul, arguably the most sacred mountain in Mongolia. The mountain is mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols, a thirteenth-century account of the rise of the Mongols under Chingis Khan, and it was here, many believe, that Temüjin—the future Chingis Khan—hid from the Merkit tribesmen who had kidnapped his wife and wanted to capture him.  According to legend, Chingis Khan also came here to pray before embarking on his military campaigns. Later the mountain would be inextricably bound up in the cult of Chingis Khan and also become a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Still later some would claim that Chingis Khan was born near Burkhan Khaldun and was buried on its summit.


Not long after my trip two Mongolian historians, D. Bazargür and D. Enkhbayar, published a book entitled Chinggis Khaan Atlas. The Atlas contained thirty-seven maps (including insets) depicting in great detail the locations of many of the places and events mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols. After I had studied the Atlas in detail and interviewed Bazargür and Enkhbayar I decided that I would return to the Burkhan Khaldun area and investigate the places shown on the maps. 


In the meantime, however, I had made a pilgrimage to 21,778' Mount Kailash, the sacred mountain in Tibet worshipped by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Bönpos (followers of the Bön religion), shamans, and others,  and by then also a favorite destination for adventure tourism. No one is allow to climb to the summit of Mount Kailash, but thousands of people a year circumambulate the mountain via a thirty-two mile-long path. A pilgrimage circuit of a sacred place like Kailash is known as a khora. Khoras are always done clockwise around the sacred place or object, unless of course you are a contrarian Bönpo, who do khoras counter-clockwise (I encountered several Bönpos walking counter-clockwise around Mount Kailash). The Kailash Khora, the high point of which is the 18,200-foot Drölma Pass, is a strenuous endeavor. The week I was in the Kailash area at least ten people perished while circumambulating the mountain. Several, reportedly, were elderly Hindus from India who may have come here, consciously or unconsciously, to transmigrate at this sacred place. Some hardy Tibetans, however, do the khora in one day. Most people take two or three days (I made it in two and a half days). 

Mount Kailash in Tibet (click on photos for enlargements)

After returning from Kailash I got the idea of doing a khora around Burkhan Khaldun, which could be considered Mongolia’s equivalent of Mount Kailash . . . Continued.


Approaching the Black Crown of Burkhan Khaldun