The Alien Artist


In Russia, history suffers from schizophrenia.

In Russia, history suffers from schizophrenia. You can get on at a Metro station named after the Tsar and get off at a station named after the commissar who put the bullet in his brain. I get off at Kropotkinskaya, named after the 19th century prince-turned-anarcho-communist. My destination The "Museum by name of Nicholas Roerich" as it is oddly translated into English is a slice of India just down the road from the Kremlin. Nicholas Roerich was one of the last great renaissance men, equal parts explorer, magician, painter, a revenant from an older, more terrible and beautiful age.

The museum is close to the Church of Christ the Saviour, demolished by Stalin in the 1930s to make a swimming pool. Peruse any document purporting to be a secret history of the world and Roerich's name swims up from the darkness. Here was a man who could slip between the Soviets and the Americans, the British and the Chinese, both the player and a piece in the Great Game. He was friendly with powers and potentates, scientists and writers from Nehru to HG Wells, Roosevelt to the Dalai Lama. His wife was from the Kalashnikov family and his son married Rabindranath Tagore's niece.

Roerich's interest in all matters East was triggered by hard-edged realpolitik. In 1905, Japan and Russia went to war. The contest was a disastrous debacle for the Bear. One of the outcomes was that Tsar Nicholas realised that he needed to pay greater attention to the millions of Buddhists who lived in the Russian far east. His advisers pondered the idea of a Mongolian-Buddhist alliance led by the Dalai Lama but controlled from the Kremlin as a counterweight to growing Japanese influence. As part of this rapprochement, through a charismatic Siberian lama called Agvan Dorzhiev, a Buddhist temple was constructed in St Petersburg. Roerich became involved in the project, designing the stained glass for the temple. Working closely with Dorzhiev, the young Roerich was enthralled by tales of Shambhala and was fired up by mystical Tibet, a lifelong flame as it would turn out.

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