Inetrnational Centre of the Roerichs

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Documents from Secret Intelligence archives prove that Nicholas Roerich never was an OGPU* agent

Alexander Shalnev

The 'Izvestia’ Newspaper, 22 October, 1993

(The article is included in the publication ‘Let’s Protect Names and Heritage of the Roerichs’ V. 1. (in Russian) International Centre of the Roerichs, Master-Bank, Moscow. – 2001 - pp.493-497)


Looking through these brown cardboard folders, I stumbled upon two documents, one of them marked by a very powerful ‘Top Secret’ signature stamp. They wouldn’t mean anything in particular if viewed separately, but taken together, they attain a high grade of interestingness.

These documents stem from the secret archives of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR, Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki). The SVR has recently declassified them in accordance with Article 8 of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Law.

For almost seven decades, these documents have been lying on the secret shelves. All of them pertaining to Nicholas Roerich, they provide no evidence that this outstanding Russian artist either was an OGPU agent or, not formally being an agent, performed single tasks for the secret agencies. However (and the Foreign Intelligence Service admits it rather willingly) the Service’s precursor, the OGPU Foreign department, did have ‘a certain interest for the expedition’ that Roerich launched in the late 1920s in Mongolia and Himalayas. ‘This region was important back then,’ as I was told.

The rumors about Nicholas Roerich being an agent or a secret informer have been circulating for a long time by now; they have appeared in our press, too. It was for example stated that Roerich even had an alias – ‘The Buddhist.’ This statement was accompanied by Chicherin's well-known judgment about Roerich: after meeting the artist, our high-ranking diplomat labeled him ‘half-communist, half-Buddhist’. It was only natural that from this ‘half-Buddhist’ Roerichturned ‘The Buddhist’ – with a capital initial letter and within quotation marks.

‘The Buddhist’ did actually exist. The OGPU had such an employee in its foreign intelligence department. This fact was confirmed to me in the Foreign Intelligence Service, only with a comment: ‘The Buddhist’ was working in the United States, i.e. miles and miles away from Mongolia and Himalayas. Why was he called ‘The Buddhist’ then? It is hard to answer this question right now. This alias is certainly surprising, especially considering that ‘The Buddhist’ was a Jewish national.

But I am rushing things. Let us come back to those two documents that caught my eye among the several dozens of pages I have looked through in the recent days.

One of them, namely the one with the ‘Top Secret’ stamp, is dated August 25, 1928. As far as I understand, it was prepared by the OGPU station in Ulan-Bator on the base of information gained from the source number ‘P/31,’ evaluated as ‘credible’.

In the cable sent to Moscow it was stated that Roerich was denied access to Lhasa and that some American officials were trying to ‘come in contact’ with the Tibet government, protesting against the ban on the expedition.

The second document is dated May 25, 1928, i.e. it was produced three months earlier than the first. It was not classified as secret: it is no surprise, since it is a translation of a report from the Reuters information agency. The agency reported… the same fact: the Roerich’s expedition was blocked off and hasn’t reached Lhasa.

Comparing these two documents, one can’t help admiring the ‘efficiency’ of the station workers in Ulan-Bator in this case and the proficiency of the British reporters. This is the first point. The second is that the hopelessly belated cableserves as, at least an indirect, evidence of the fact that Roerich couldn’t be an OGPU agent. If he were, his travels would have been traced much more attentively, actively and safely.

Actively and safely enough to know that the events described in the August cable and the Reuters' May report actually happened in the end of the previous year, 1927.

The Roerich’s expedition was stopped in the mountains in the very early October and held there in the harshest conditions up until March 1928.

The cable testifies that it was only in August that OGPU ‘woke up’, having apparently missed the information that was by then even reported by the media.

…There are some highly interesting materials to be found in the declassified archive on the Roerichs. One of them is worth citing fully.

This is a ‘claim’ against Mr. Roerich and his wife Helena Ivanovna. It was a libelous anonymous letter, written on October 16, 1926, in Ulan-Bator, where the Roerich’s expedition was expecting Lhasa’s permission to move on to Tibet. Original spelling of both letters preserved.

‘Comr. take note, - reads the letter, - this artist will cause a real mess. Roelich (sic! – A.S.) is – a sheer whitebandit. He welcomed 10 ppl. white guards at 1 o’clock on Wednesday, he is staying at Petrov’s, it is for this purpose that he is renting this flat far away from the kuren**, I know this white bandit long enough. Burdukovsky Vassily Petrovich supports him in every way, you should consider moving this Roelich away from the consular estate, otherwise he will create mess that you’ll never disentangle. His purpose is to entice the red soldiers. Some of them do visit him, I know it, take urgent measures…They are intending to blow up the Embassy, by God’s will, no one knows anything, and Burdukovsky is such a swine…this Roelich has a maid, she knows everything…’

There is one more anonymous letter written by the same hand. ‘Comrade Roelich, - it says, - goaway from the Consular estate or well move you oldman ourselves…’

These letters are accompanied by a comment, or a ‘reference’ (so is this document named) written by some of the Embassy workers with the surname Dubrovsky, or probably by someone from the OGPU station. Reporting that he had a visit from the Roerichs ‘on the account of the anonymous letter’, Dubrovsky notes: ‘…according to them, this is the Englishmen’s plotting, because the Englishmen know that they (the Roerichs – A.S.) are working in Tebet (sic!) and suspect them of some work concerning the Englishmen and…therefore they are trying to play all kinds of dirty tricks on them designed to prompt their departure.’

What is truly surprisingis that Nicholas Roerich was suspected by almost everyone. Englishmen, who had special interests in that region, were convinced that the aim of the expedition was to somehow sabotage these interests. Americans also had some doubts, and these doubts were only forced by Roerich’s several weeks’ visit to the USSR in 1926 – in discordance with the official plan of the expedition, according to which he was supposed to be in the north part of Central Asia. Finally, Moscow was also in doubt whether Roerich was possibly working for someone from the West.

This could be part of the reason for the interest for Roerich from the side of OGPU, that resulted in Nicholas Roerich's Moscow meeting with the head of the OGPU Foreign department, Mr. Trilisser. There is no evidence in the secret documents that this meeting ever actually occurred, but it was confirmed to me in the Foreign Intelligence Service.

It can be assumed that the course of the expedition was traced and that respective cables were sent to the Center. There, the messages were packed in a file. But at some point, there must have been a certain mess – or, citing the words of a high-ranking SVR official who closely dealt with the secret archives on the Roerichs, ‘negligence took place’: upon making an inventory, the OGPU archivist attached the materials on ‘The Buddhist’ to the folders containing reports from the stations in the Asian countries, including reports on Roerich.

But who is this ‘Buddhist’ and is there a chance to see his file? ‘No, unfortunately it is not possible yet, and we cannot reveal his name yet either’, - I was told in SVR.

Now, to the last point. Among other materials declassified by the intelligence there is a very short document, containing only a few sentences, but highly valuable in every possible way. It is the will written by Roerich on May 8, 1926 in Ürümqi, capital of the Xinjiangprovince. In this will, Roerich, who, according to the researchers, was uncertain whether he would return from this risky expedition, asked to transfer all his paintings, literary copyrights and shares in American companies to his wife, Helena, and ‘after her’ – to the Soviet state. ‘My only plead is that the items of art would be granted the appropriate place…,’- Roerich wrote to ‘Chicherin, Stalin, Bystrov or whoever will be appointed to oversee the execution of the will...'

Nine years later, Nicholas Roerich wrote another testament. This time, he didn’t mention the Soviet State at all…

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*OGPU – Ob'edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie - Joint State Political Directorate,

**Kuren - garrison of Zaporozhye Cossacks; also- house [-s ], hut