Like most readers of supernatural fiction, I first heard the name Roerich in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, in which the Gentleman from Providence references the
“strange and disturbing paintings of Nicholas Roerich”
I would meet this unusual character much later, as I started collecting books and stories about the Silk Road, the mysteries of Central Asia, and the Himalayas.
Born into a well to do Russian family in 1874, Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich had been a painter and a theatrical set and costume designer, before the Revolution, working on many Russian operas and ballets.
He married Helena Shaposhnikova, the niece of Mussorgsky. Helena claimed to be a descendant of Genghiz Khan, and had been the Russian translator of Madame Blavatski’s The Secret Doctrine. Through her influence, Roerich got an interest in Eastern philosophies and Theosophy.
With the 1917 Revolution, Roerich – that was recognized as a powerful force in the field of arts and culture – finally abandoned Russia, probably because he did not see eye to eye with the Bolsheviks.
The Roerichs traveled in Europe, and in the US.
In New York in 1921 he founded the Master Institute of United Art, the first of many such initiatives.
It is probably during Roerich’s first stay in New York that HPL had the opportunity to see some of his paintings, that so much impressed him.
Finally, in 1925, Nicholas was able to get under way the “Roerich Asian Expedition”, that would
“start(ed) from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet”.
Supposedly the Roerichs were on the road on a mystical quest (inspired by mysterious “secret masters”), searching for the sacred city of Shambhala, and waiting for a new era to begin – but their activities set alarm bells going in the offices of most secret services: USSR, Japan, USA and Britain were all convinced that the expedition was a ruse, a smokescreen for some more political agenda. The only problem, each secret service thought the Roerichs worked for somebody else.
Indeed, Roerich’s talk of a coming Buddhist superpower in central Asia, and his rambling route and erratic schedules only confirmed the suspicions of those that were keeping an eye on him; and when in 1926 he took a sudden detour to Moscow through Siberia, things only got more complicated. The expedition, which was not a model of efficiency to start with, was delayed along the road as visas and permissions were denied. Roerich claim, that he wanted to bring a sample of sacred soil from Shambhala to Lenin’s tomb, did not help.
The expedition also disappeared from the maps between 1927 and 1928, for almost a whole year – but it turned out the Roerichs had been blocked on the border of Tibet.
During his expedition, Roerich met mystics and holy men, wizards, the yeti and also sighted a UFO in the Himalayas, that later turned out to be a weather balloon launched by the Sven Hedin expedition1.
Back to the US in 1929, Roerich was later asked to be part of a scientific expedition in 1934-35, sponsored by the US Dept. of Agriculture, with the purpose of collecting samples of flora from Inner Mongolia, Manchuria (at the time, occupied by the increasingly aggressive Japanese) and China.
Again the word espionage was never openly used, a lot of people had a lot of suspicions. Especially the Japanese.
Roerich was a proponent of the so-called Sacred Union of the East – and had somewhat found an ally in Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture and later VP. Both Roerich and Wallace were convinced that a change was coming (the same idea at the root of the 1920s expedition) and that a vast Buddhist theocracy, the Sacred Union of the East, was about to emerge in the East and lead humanity to a bright future.
Which was good, because Armageddon was coming.
Roerich could even have imagined himself as the future leader of the Sacred Union.
And Wallace was so convinced of this, that actually his deals with Roerich would sink his bid for the White House in 1948.
And as we know, the Secret Masters of Shambhala did not show up for the main event, and later the world sank into global war.
And it is curious, and disquieting, to think how many Theosophy-influenced, Armageddon-anticipating politicians were there at the start of the war, on both sides.
One wonders …
Roerich spent the war years in India, where he met and became friendly with both Gandhi and Nehru.
He died there in 1947.
- aren’t they all always weather baloons? ↩