The Theosophical Society in America

The Russian Spirit of Place

By Cherry Gilchrist

Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Gilchrist, Cherry. "The Russian Spirit of Place." Quest  96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008):97-101.

Cherry GilchristTHE IDEA THAT THERE IS SUCH A THING as "spirit of place" is very much a central element of Russian culture. It seems this has always been the case and it is certainly still true today, as we find this concept embodied both in traditional art forms and the Russian way of life. A strong element of it is based on a sense of the relationship between earth and sky. It can be argued that its underlying roots are in shamanism, the animistic and indigenous cosmology which has now evolved into different forms, but can still be found in its old forms in Siberia.

My own experiences in Russia have shaped this perspective on the Russian spirit of place. I could not have assembled these reflections from books alone; it was the real life contact with the country itself and seeing firsthand what the spirit of place means in terms of creativity and culture that have given me real and genuine insights.

Shrines and Shaman

In the summer of 2004, I set out on my fifty-sixth visit to Russia. I had been travelling to and from Russia since 1992, studying traditional art and craft; however, I had never visited Siberia before. It had been a long-cherished wish and finally, all the variables came together and I was able to spend some time in Tuva and Khakassia, two provinces bordering Mongolia to the south and adjoining the Altai region to the west. It was August, and while England suffered from rain and storms, my group basked in temperatures of 25oC (77oF). The landscape was a striking mixture of open steppes broken up by round, rolling hills and jagged mountain ranges capped with coniferous forests. In between were green hillside meadows, carpeted with alpine flowers and graceful larch trees. Most people think of Siberia as either a snowy wasteland or a monotonous stretch of plain and tundra, and although temperatures in these southern areas plummet to forty degrees below zero during winter, the beauty during the other half of the year is breathtaking.

In much of Siberia, shamanism is the predominant religion. Although it was largely suppressed in Soviet times, it is now making a very strong comeback, and in Tuva and Khakassia, it is the primary belief system, along with resurgence in Buddhism. Shamanism is principally an animistic religion, in which spirit and spirits are known to inhabit the world around us. It is the opposite of the dead, mechanistic universe proposed by Newtonian physics; however, it is not a blissful, idyllic vision of life, as spirits of animals, mountains, and departed ancestors can be angry and vengeful, as well as wise and helpful. The shaman is an intermediary between humans and spirits acting as a channel for healing and an agent of empowerment. It is this model of Siberian shamanism that is thought to have been the blueprint for early Russian culture, and many of its elements are still present in Russia today.

Much of Siberian shamanism relates to the spirit of place, and a striking feature of southern Siberia is that there are shrines everywhere. Gaunt branches, thrust into small cairns of stones, garnished with colored ribbons and rags look like strange skeleton spirits themselves. Every significant place has its own shrine: hilltops, rivers, rocks, wells, as well as the visitors' yurt camp where we stayed. Siberian cosmology differentiates between places which are especially sacred and those that have less significance. Although animism means that the world in general is perceived as alive, not every single feature or object is important. In a mound of pebbles, for instance, only certain stones will be seen as embodying a powerful spirit. Therefore, the landscape's spiritual contours, peaks, and hot spots are often marked with shrines.

The ribbons and rags adorning the shrines represent prayers, offerings, and wishes, and opportunities to make wishes are plentiful in Siberia. At one shrine, near a cult stone, everyone in our small group was presented with a red ribbon and invited to tie it to a twig on the shrine's branches while making a wish. As I began to tie my ribbon, I realized that the making of a wish was not necessarily a simple affair. The shrine was acting as witness to my act, to my own integrity and my clear-sightedness or perhaps, my foolishness in defining what I wanted. What did I really want after allo The sharp shock as I considered the possible consequences of fixing my desire on a certain goal brought its own insights, that reverberated and remained with me for weeks to come. The shrine can test one's honesty and commitment.

Siberian cosmology is a three-fold system with our immediate, earthly world in the center, a world of spirits and sky above, and an underworld below, sometimes referred to as settlement, sanctuary, and cemetery respectively. These fundamental divisions are common to shamanic or animistic belief systems in other parts of the world, and have remained at the heart of Russian traditional culture. But the Siberian shamanic view builds on this basic concept to create a worldview of extraordinary complexity. According to the type of shamanism and the ritual that is being practiced, the perceived number of levels or divisions of the universe may increase to seven, nine, or as many as sixteen worlds. It is a fluid cosmology, and although highly structured, it can be viewed in different ways depending on place and purpose. Adding to this complexity, spatial dimensions are not fixed, and vertical and horizontal may be interchanged, so that the perceived sacred river of life may be seen as flowing from both east to west and above to below. Siberian cosmology is a disorientating experience, with dizzying perspectives that are, perhaps, the equivalent of modern attempts to understand the relativity of time and space.

This cosmology is also an intrinsic part of the landscape and thus contributes to the sense of a spirit of place. An entrance to the underworld may be a specific cave where the spirits of the deceased may congregate, having been led there by an elk or other significant animal spirit. Features of the landscape can be entry points to another world, and sometimes there is a mirroring of one world and another, this world and the other world reflecting each other, but in reverse. For example, a glass broken here appears whole and ready to drink from in the underworld.

But at the center of the shifting perspectives of Siberian cosmology is the axis of life, linking above and below. The axis running between the two poles of creation is a steady concept. Sometimes this is represented by a sacred mountain, or it may relate to a cult stone, such as the Starushka or "Old Lady" stone at the shrine where we tied our red ribbons. In Tuva and Khakassia, many of these shrines have been in common use since the Bronze Age. Women still commonly trek to the Starushka and make offerings to her, seeking her help particularly in cases of infertility. At another site known as the "White Stone," we tried out the local practice of walking three times sunwise around the stone and then holding it gently for a short time—being close to it for too long is said to be dangerous because the energy is powerful. Our guide told us that teams of scientists have measured the stone's unusually potent radioactive energy field on three separate occasions.

In the shamanic cosmology, the world axis is not found in a single permanent location, but can be present in different places or called into being for the occasion. One common representation of the axis is a "World Tree," a small birch tree or ladder that a shaman, in trance state, ascends to visit higher realms. He or she may be helped in this flight by a spirit guide that takes the form of a horse, eagle, or crow.

While in Siberia, I took the opportunity to have a private session with Herel, a Tuvan shaman. Nowadays, many of the shamans work in clinics, a designated room hung with animal heads and skins, bones, ribbons, whips, drums, patterned cloths, and other items of power. Herel offered healing and divination, and after drumming and chanting, gave me his prognostications for the year ahead and also a spirit pouch for good fortune in the form of a little cloth bag stuffed with grain, to be hung up high in my bedroom by its braided thong and requiring regular feeding with oil or melted butter.

He also advised me to make contact with the spirits of the hills and rivers where I live. "If you have them," he added. I was perfectly at ease with visiting shrines and sacred mountains and attending shamanic ceremonies in Siberia, but in Englando On the tame hills above Bath, could I possibly find the equivalent spirits of placeo I decided to be open to the possibilities. But where was this spirit of placeo Perhaps it had been overlaid by our so-called civilized outlook, and I suspected that this was not so much the rational, scientific viewpoint, but more the romanticized, eighteenth-century view of the countryside, that encourages us to see nature as a sympathetic medium in which to experience our own personal feelings, while marvelling at her beauty. The Siberian spirit of place, to me, was something more raw, vital, and powerful.

For several months after my return, I walked the hills above the city of Bath each morning and tried to pick out points in the landscape which might be powerful constellations of energy. Gradually, I realized that this was not a kind of sentimental endeavor, but that connecting with the spirit of place was about extending one's awareness and being receptive to other forms of intelligence and life. Even though we might always clothe such interpretations in our own cultural imagery, I discovered that it is still possible to find spirit of place near to home, not only in exotic, unfrequented Siberian landscapes.

The House as Microcosm

Much of the rich realm of Russian folk culture derives from the original animistic or shamanic belief system which is thought to have extended over the whole of northern and central Russia in ancient times. The tripartite cosmology of sky, earth, and underworld so prominent in Siberia is identified in many fairy tales and folk art motifs, and is also embodied in the plan on which Russian wooden houses are usually built. Traditionally, each house is seen as a microcosm of the cosmos, and although awareness of this symbolism may have waned, practically every village house is still built in a similar way today. The ground floor, which is often an open-plan heated living and sleeping area, represents the earth and the everyday world that we know. The cellar, usually reached through a trapdoor in the floor and used primarily to store food for winter, is the underworld where the spirits of the dead ancestors may reside. And the attic, unheated and therefore used largely in summer, is the place of the sky spirits. Horses, sun symbols, and peacocks may be carved on the gable ends to symbolize the protection of the celestial forces.

Other features play their cosmological role. The Red Corner, traditionally situated in the main living room opposite the doorway, is the holy place where the family icon is placed on a high shelf, draped with a white linen towel (a long band of cloth) embroidered in red. Red has the significance of beauty in Russia, with the words for red (krasni) and beautiful (krasivi) stemming from the same root. The icon, which is ideally painted under strictly prayerful conditions of Russian Orthodox belief, is considered a medium of divine grace. It receives the prayers of the family, watches over them, and blesses them. During the anxious wait for news of survivors from the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000, an old woman sobbed as she told a television reporter that their icon had just fallen from its shelf, a terrible omen for her grandson trapped onboard.

The Orthodox religion, adopted by Russia in the tenth century, has co-existed peacefully with the indigenous belief system that is an evolution of the earlier shamanic practices, and often described as a nature religion. Russia was known as the country of two faiths, and it is not surprising that we find this polarity of Christianity and paganism embodied in the cosmology of the home. While the Red Corner represents the Christian pole, the bathhouse, usually outside in the garden, is often considered as its opposite pole, the repository of earlier beliefs and customs. Here a bride might spend her wedding eve with girlfriends along with a koldun or local wizard conducting the preparatory rites. And here too, babies were born and then presented to the stars outside by the midwife.

In the center of the home stands the sizeable stove, that can perhaps be considered as the reconciling force between the two religions. It is known as "mother," and is the provider of warmth, cooking and drying facilities; its flat upper surface is often used as a bed for the night. Whatever the religion, no one can do without that basic comfort and sustenance from the welcoming, maternal stove.

External protection is provided by the carved wooden fretwork around the windows which is said to repel evil forces trying to enter the home. Another purpose is to frame young girls attractively as they sit and spin, thus increasing their chances of getting a husband.

Spirits are also present in the microcosm of the home. Every home in Russia is said to have its domavoy, or guardian spirit. However, like many of his kind, he is not entirely benevolent and is given to waking up at midnight and banging about the house. He lives behind the stove, perhaps representing another internal polarity in the cosmology of the home, as a male prankster contrasting with the stove's maternal warmth, and he has to be kept in good humor for the well-being of the family, often with gifts of porridge. Like many nature spirits, he is a shape-changer who may often be seen as an old man wearing a shaggy hat and a red sash, but who can just as easily appear as a horse, a snake, a hen, a magpie, goat, cow, or a fir tree within the territory of the homestead. Beliefs in nature spirits are now considered by some to be merely interesting folkloric data of a largely bygone era. But to say that they have vanished would be far from true. People still speak of encounters with nature spirits, they are painted with reverence by the lacquer miniature artists, and their presence is recounted in all kinds of tales and legends.

The Firebird: The Quest, Art, and the Spirit of Place

The Russian Firebird (always female) is the symbol of inspiration. As a sky spirit, she gives to the earth her revelation of blazing light, often initiates quests in fairy tales, and, in real life, is seen as the source of new artistic endeavor. She appears in many Russian tales which are known and loved by people of all ages. In Russia, fairy tales are taken seriously and are considered a profound element of the cultural heritage. As artist Nikolai Baburin told me in an interview, "They carry the wise thoughts of poor people." One of the finest examples of the Firebird quest is found in the well-known tale of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, in which the young prince sets out in search of the Firebird after he discovers her stealing the golden apples from the trees of his father's orchard one night. He manages to grasp one feather from her tail before she escapes, a feather whose light is so brilliant that he cannot rest until he sets out in pursuit of her. Ivan undergoes many ordeals. He even suffers death at the hands of his jealous brothers, but his trickster friend Grey Wolf despatches two ravens to the otherworld to fetch the Waters of Life and Death to bring him back to life again. After many adventures, Ivan captures the Firebird and returns to the palace with a new horse with a golden mane and tail and a beautiful princess for his bride. Although he has consistently disobeyed instructions and ignored good advice, he comes through it all, returning in the end to the place from whence he came, a wiser and wealthier man.

The Firebird can therefore inspire a quest involving a challenging journey that eventually takes the hero full circle back to the place of origin. But this place and the hero's relationship to it will never be the same again. After the trials and revelations of the journey, material rewards are gained, but love, wisdom, and enlightenment are often the real prizes.

The Firebird in Slavic Russia is also the inspiration for art. "Wherever a feather of the Firebird falls to earth, a new artistic tradition will spring up," goes the saying. Tradition also says that such a feather fell upon an area known as Khokhloma, inspiring the creation of lacquered and painted wooden-ware. The Firebird, it is believed, was directly responsible for giving local craftsmen the idea of decorating wooden platters and cups with stylish designs in black, red and gold, and then lacquering them over to produce a durable finish. With Khokhlomaware, the golden and red feathery, delicate swirls of the painted patterns may remind us of that initial Firebird's feather that drifted down to earth; though a closer look reveals that the motifs are often drawn from the natural world of berries, flowers, and ferns. The colors create a vibrant and even fiery effect, resulting in an art that springs from a combination of celestial inspiration and earthly beauty. As with the other craft forms, the mythic dimension and symbolic attributions are taken very seriously; the Khokhloma colors are interpreted as black for compassion and suffering, red for energy and beauty, and gold for hope and eternal life. Although they may have humble mundane uses, Russian crafts are created with consummate skill and artistry, and are imbued with rich symbolism, some of which dates back to ancient times.

When an artistic or craft tradition becomes established in a particular place, a strong sense of the spirit of that place builds up. The artists' love of their village merges with their pride in the art itself. The first time that I set eyes on a Russian lacquer miniature depicting a scene from the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, I felt that there was something of the soul of Russia embodied in it. Each of the four different villages where this art is practiced—Kholui, Palekh, Fedoskino and Mstiora—has its own style of art, its own character and atmosphere, as well as a workshop, training school, and museum with breathtaking displays of miniatures. My first visit to the villages had a sense of the mythic about it and I regarded my trip as something of a pilgrimage. I could not imagine who these semi-divine beings were who created such magical miniatures. Of course, as it turned out, they were simply people—warm-hearted, sensitive, intelligent artists whose magic was that they combined the practice of fine art with an earthy, traditional life, where planting the season's potatoes might be just as important as putting the finishing touches to delicate gold ornament on an exquisite miniature. Artists in all four lacquer miniature villages are immensely proud of their art and the place that gave birth to it. Each village vigorously affirms its own identity, the superiority of its own spirit of place, while paying respectful tribute to their colleagues in the other three villages. The character of each village becomes enshrined in the art too, since the graceful white church of Kholui appears in many of the miniatures' landscapes, as do the winding river of Fedoskino, the fair at Mstiora, and the scenes of mushroom and berry picking at Palekh. As well as being a symbol of artistic inspiration, the Firebird is present in the art in the miniatures and she is stamped as a trademark on boxes from Palekh and Kholui.

My visits to the villages were often idyllic, though as time went on, I learned that the compelling spirit of place is not just about picnics in the forest and parties in the snow. I discovered that Russians' merry-making, as well as their permanent quest for art and beauty, is often a counterbalance to the harsh life in a social climate where medical resources are poor, early death is a distinct possibility, and the vagaries of changing times create terrible financial pressures and lack of security. But I also recognized that the mixture of joy and tragedy with which their lives was so often marked, was also distilled into their work and it colored, too, the spirit of the place in which they lived.

Russia is an enigmatic and mysterious country, that has survived many harsh regimes and political upheavals. It cannot be understood simply by reading the history books or watching reports on the media. One can only touch on the enduring spirit of Russia by studying the relationship of its people to land and sky, and becoming absorbed in the culture that this generates, whether it is shamanism or the fine art of a lacquer miniature. The perception of this relationship can be responsible for fashioning the construction of the home, evoking a landscape inhabited by spirits, and producing a creative and colorful range of craftwork. It is this spirit, imbibed to some degree by practically every visitor to Russia, that leaves most foreign visitors feeling uplifted, enthused, and energized as they return home, despite the sometimes grim political and urban conditions they may encounter. The Russian spirit of place is perhaps the prime element that ensures the continuation of Russian culture, and the survival of Russian people during difficult times.


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Cherry Gilchrist has published widely on mythology, traditional culture, and inner traditions. Her books include The Elements of Alchemy, Stories from the Silk Road, and Divination. Cherry has visited Russia more than fifty times in search of beautiful lacquer miniatures and the rich folk heritage of Russian lore and craft. Cherry is also a lecturer, and teaches Life Story writing. Her latest book The Soul of Russia: Magical Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape is now available (Floris Books, UK) and will appear in the United States under the title Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape, (Quest Books 2009). The author's website is