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Assessment of thesis by V.A. Rosov ‘Russian-American Expedition of Nicholas Roerich to Central Asia in 1920s-1930s’ submitted for the academic degree of Doctor of Historical Sciences


The versatile activities of Nicholas Roerich, an eminent Russian artist, traveler and thinker, have traditionally gained much attention from the side of Russian researchers. This topic has been studied for a long time and is therefore thoroughly described in multiple scientific and popular works. However, according to V.A. Rosov, the researchers have missed an important aspect of Roerich’s activities, namely his political views and practical moves to implement them. One must concede that Roerich’s cultural and philosophical views have not yet been analyzed from the point of geopolitics and international politics of 1920s-1930s. The candidate means that the information provided by certain sources and his own analysis of Roerich’s expeditions to Central Asia allow one to look at Nicholas Roerich not only as an eminent cultural figure, but also as a henchman of ‘The Great Plan’ to build ‘The New Country’ in that region. The material rendered in the thesis is intended to function as a confirmation and basis for such an interpretation.

The essence of the research method used by the candidate is apparently revealed by a phrase in the middle of the thesis: “The Roerichs never dropped unnecessary words, as studies of their biography prove’ (p. 207 of the thesis). Basing on this method, the author searches for, and finds, the hints on some global plan looming through the fragmentary phrases from the diaries, letters and articles of different periods. And the ‘deciphering’ of these hints leads him to utterly disputable conclusions.

Among these, there is, for example, the interpretation of Roerich’s statements about the oncoming arrival of Buddha Maitreya to the world as a sensible political program. The candidate also states several times that Roerich had ‘The Great (or Global) Plan,’ the implementation of which was allegedly related to his hopes for help from the Bolsheviks, or from the Tibetan Buddhists, or maybe from the Americans… Very confidently does the thesis postulate Roerich’s endeavor to found a Mongol-Siberian state with its capital in Zvenigorod on Altai; the Tibetan and Manchurian expeditions that the thesis is dedicated to, are thereafter viewed as stages of this path.

However, the information set forth by V.A. Rosov does not provide sufficient ground to agree with such an interpretation of the expeditions and their heads’ active work on establishing ties with various politicians, writing books, articles and lectures, creating pieces of art etc. The articles and letters by Nicholas Roerich do contain notions ‘The New Land’ and ‘The Global Plan.’ But the candidate seems to have taken these statements too literally, identifying the ideal ‘land’ with a state which allegedly was to appear on the map. Thus he attributed to his ‘characters’ the intentions alien to them.

One can get the impression that the author often finishes Roerich’s plans and prognoses for him. Thus he sees the rousing idea of 'The New Land' in two short phrases from Roerich’s diary written in the beginning of the 1920s (namely ‘Who will understand the Great Plan?’ and ‘The Union of the Eastern Nations is coming’). Since there is no other information available on this ‘Roerich’s’ idea, V.A. Rosov pursues his speculations by rendering the political schemes of other politicians connected with Central Asia, such as Badmaev, Ungern and Krasnov (pp. 33-38).

Possessed by the idea of ‘uniting the Western and Eastern Buddhists,’ Roerich allegedly ‘bet on Panchen Lama’ (p. 47). To prove this, V.A. Rosov again uses the lapidary periods about Panchen from the road diary, containing no hint either on the ‘bet' on him or on the Buddhist union. Having no confirmation, even indirect, of this point, the author, however, at first confidently claims the existence of such a plan in Roerich’s mind, and then goes on by its laboratory revelation, ‘restoring the ties that Nicholas Roerich had with the representatives of the Soviet trade mission in Urga, the MFR (Mongolian Folk Republic – tr.) government and the Lamas of Mongolia’ (p. 48). In my humble opinion, V.A. Rosov didn’t succeed in this ‘restoration’ of the alleged use of the Chief Priest of Tibet to unite the Buddhist.

Not less unsubstantiated is the claim that Roerich had his ‘own plan’ ‘to use the name and authority of Panchen Lama in the Buddhist religious war’ for the sake of creating a new state (p. 53).

Roerich’s ties with the Soviet Russia are a separate story. The meetings and correspondence with various Bolshevik heads certainly influenced his worldview in a way, with the dreams of some future union of nations (‘The New Land’ and ‘The United Asia’ under the rule of the USSR) appearing occasionally (vide pp. 79, 80, 97, 110). But again, these were only random mentions that did not at all reflect the main activities of the artist.

Having set forth the details of the artists’ cooperation with the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, the candidate then writes quite the opposite, namely that already in 1921, the Roerichs’ allegedly had a rousing idea of an anti-soviet crusade to liberate Russia, its route going through Central Asia. Possessing no arguments on this matter, V.A. Rosov makes a comment: ‘There was no specific plan, only the main direction’ (p. 216) – thus claiming that such was ‘the main direction’ of Roerich’s thoughts and actions (!).

It should be noted that, in spite of the announced abundant use of new sources from the American archives, the candidate did not manage to not only provide any evidence of Roerich's endeavor to actually found ‘The New Land,’ but also to prove the existence of Roerich’s own clear idea of it. The candidate’s relatively extensive reasoning on this topic is based not on the texts by Nicholas, but on his wife’s notes instead (vide pp. 110, 129, 130, 173–175, 218, 301, 302 etc.). This applies, for example, to the claim that the Altai expedition of 1926 served as a stage in planning the future ‘Mongol-Siberian state’ (pp. 25, 173).

Farfetched and unsubstantiated seems also the idea of the ties between Roerich’s expedition plans on one hand, and the insurgent peasant movement in Siberia in 1933 supported by the Russian emigrants (pp. 184, 185) on the other.

One can agree that ‘The New Land’ did occupy a certain place in Roerich’s ideological searches. But it was by no means a practical guide, the same applying to the American stage of Roerich’s expeditionary activities. Again, the author claims that it was with the help from high-ranking Americans (up to president Roosevelt) that Roerich wanted to found the new state. At least here, the author managed to provide not only brief diary entries and his own speculations, but also an excerpt from a Kharbin newspaper denouncing Roerich for the intention to create ‘a Masonic state’ (pp. 276, 295). By the way, the artist’s connections with the masons remained outside the candidate’s scope, though this topic provides a good ground for creating a no less ‘breathtaking’ version of his biography.

As for the title of the thesis, it does not fully comply with its contents. V.A. Rosov has almost not touched upon the scientific and cultural component of Roerich’s travels to Tibet and Manchuria, groundlessly setting forth the speculatively reconstructed political background instead. The candidate’s main point is that ‘both expeditions… were directly initiated by the idea of founding a Mongol-Siberian state’ (p. 364), but it is not strengthened by any evidence from reliable sources. It is possible that, if the author had used more of Roerich’s own work and the multiple studies by the Roerich scholars (such as, for example, the fundamental works by L.V. Shaposhnikova), he could have understood the actual position occupied by ‘The Great Plan’ in the ideological searches of the eminent artist and thinker. ‘The New Land’ must be viewed rather as a liberal category than as a geopolitical concept.

Neither the announced task, nor its implementation in the assessed thesis makes any contribution to the Russian historiography. The issues debated in it seem artificial, speculative and groundless. In my opinion, such a research cannot be a sufficient ground for conferment of the academic degree of Doctor of Historical Sciences in the specialty No.07.00.02 – History of the Homeland.

Chief Researcher, Institute for Russian History RAS
Head, Centre for History of Russian Folks
and Interethnic Relations
Doctor of Historical Sciences
V.V. Trepavlov