The Real Time The USSR Tried To Visit A Magical City

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The Real Time The USSR Tried To Visit A Magical City

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This week on Cracked, we'll be looking at some made-up places that screwed up real people's lives. Welcome to Cracked's Actual Guide To Fake Cities!

In the 1920s, top officials of the Soviet secret police built a secret lab where they sought to telepathically commune with ancient masters in a hidden Tibetan valley. In the 1880s, a circus acrobat, driven mad by the death of his wife, set out to walk across the Kalahari desert. In 1976, the American astronaut Neil Armstrong descended into an Ecuadorian cave in search of mysterious gold tablets. And in 1561, an army of emaciated madmen emerged from the Amazon rainforest and rampaged across Venezuela, seeking to overthrow the entire Spanish empire. What bound these people together?

They were all searching for a fabulous lost city. And this week, Cracked will be telling their stories. Starting with…The Soviet Search For Shambhala! 

Part 1- From Hyperborea To The Hollow Earth

In 1921, the Soviet government sent a researcher named Alexander Barchenko to investigate mysterious outbreaks of mass hysteria among the Saami people, who lived within the Arctic Circle on the Kola peninsula. The Soviets had taken power four years earlier, promising to initiate a new era of scientific rationalism, but for Barchenko the expedition was a profoundly magical experience. In Barchenko’s telling, the windswept peninsula was littered with mysterious pyramids and toppled stone columns. Ancient roads meandered aimlessly through the landscape, while towering stone figures could be glimpsed carved into distant hillsides. Most intriguing of all was a strange gorge that seemed to lead deep into the Earth, guarded by an invisible force that no one could penetrate. 

Later visitors felt that Barchenko was actually describing a bunch of completely natural rock formations, rather than the setting for a mid-tier Hellboy comic. But for Barchenko the conclusion was obvious: these were the remains of Hyperborea, a legendary civilization said to have flourished in the far north in ancient times. In Barchenko’s view, the Hyperboreans had been a highly advanced society until a climate shift forced them to flee south to the Indian subcontinent, leaving only scattered remnants of their once proud civilization. He later decided that Hyperborea had been an outpost of Agharti, a vast underground kingdom located deep within the Earth. Fortunately, he knew exactly where to find the remaining entrance to Agharti: far to the south, in the mystical Tibetan city of Shambhala.

Although based on actual Buddhist teachings about a spiritual kingdom, the western perception of Shambhala had been shaped by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian mystic who founded the cult of Theosophy in the late 19th century. Supposedly based on the teachings of a mysterious group of “Ascended Masters,” the Theosophical society went from strength to strength until 1929, when it was badly damaged by the defection of the World Teacher. (This was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who had been kidnapped by the society as a child after the strength of his aura convinced them he was fated to be the vessel for Lord Maitreya, a powerful spirit who would incarnate on Earth to usher in a new era. They were quite surprised when he grew up and declared he wanted nothing to do with them, causing a massive drop in membership.)

The Theosophists came to believe that Shambhala was the wondrous city of the Ancient Masters, located deep within the Earth, which could only be reached through a hidden valley in Tibet. It was this version of Shambhala that Barchenko became obsessed with reaching. But 1920s Tibet was a wild and dangerous place, so Barchenko knew that he would need powerful backers if any expedition was to be a success. Fortunately, he knew just where to find them -- at the headquarters of the Soviet secret police. 

Part 2- Mind Control Drum Circles And The Men Who Stared At Pugs

On December 31, 1924 -- an auspicious day for new beginnings -- the top-ranking officials of the USSR’s OGPU secret police gathered in Moscow to hear Barchenko speak. They were led by none other than Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s feared security chief, who had just overseen the executions of around 100,000 people during the first Red Terror. Now, Dzerzhinsky listened patiently as Barcheko outlined the incredible spiritual powers possessed by the sages of Tibet. Barchenko believed that these abilities, which included telepathy and mind control, could be used to shape the Russian people into the “new man” promised by Communism. 

Surprising as it may seem, Barchenko was in fertile territory here. From 1917 to 1937, the Bolsheviks oversaw a golden age of esoteric research. In Moscow, for example, Soviet researchers teamed up with a former circus clown in an attempt to teach telepathy to dogs. After roughly 1,300 experiments, they reported successfully sending mental commands to the dogs slightly more than 50 percent of the time, which was felt to be statistically significant. Although they actually had a 100 percent success rate in their one attempt to send similar commands to a human, suggesting that we have significantly lower psychic defenses than the average schnauzer. 

In Leningrad, the promisingly-named Brain Institute conducted similar studies, while Barchenko himself had been working on thought transfer for years, although his early attempts involving aluminum helmets strung together with copper wire were only slightly more sophisticated than what the average six-year-old could cobble together from two colanders and some ribbon.  

According to Andrei Znamenski’s authoritative Red Shambhala, Dzerzhinsky was impressed enough with Barchenko’s presentation to back further research, to be overseen by his lieutenant Gleb Bokii, the Soviet Union’s top cryptographer. Like many code experts, Bokii was both highly interested in the paranormal and a deranged sex loon, who held regular orgies for his staff and drove at least two subordinates to suicide by persistently sleeping with their wives. It was Bokii who had arranged for Barchenko to address the secret police in the first place and armed with Dzerzhinky’s approval the pair were about to get real weird with it. 

As discovered by Znamenski, Bokii and Barchenko established a secret lab where they experimented with various mystical techniques in order to master the secrets of telepathy and astral projection, which Bokii believed could be “the crucial weapon in the great proletarian struggle for control of the planet.” They even went so far as to confiscate ancient shamanic drums from Russian museums after becoming convinced the drums could be used to generate hypnotic sound waves, allowing them to control the mind of any unwary listeners sucked in by the groove. Which sounds like a reach, although we would pay quite a lot of money to see a version of X-Men where Charles Xavier has to freak out on the bongos to use his powers. 

Part 3- Soviet Bureaucracy Vs Morya, The Ancient One

But Bokii and Barchenko knew they could only do so much in the lab. To truly master the mystic arts, they would have to make contact with the Ancient Masters in the lost city of Shambhala. As Barchenko wrote “The key to the solution of problems was in Shambhala-Agartha, the oasis of secret Eastern wisdom, which maintains the remnants of ancient knowledge and stands higher in its social and economic development than modern humankind. This means one needs to find a path to Shambhala and establish connections with this country.” And with the astral projection experiments failing to pay off, their only option was to stage a physical expedition to Tibet, discover the hidden valley of the masters, and journey deep within the Hollow Earth to Shambhala itself.

Now, we need to emphasize again that this depended on a rather literal interpretation of the Buddhist story of Shambhala. It was basically the equivalent of building a really big ladder to climb into heaven and make friends with God. But Barchenko and Bokii were deadly serious. Unfortunately, this was where they ran into a force even more mighty than the unseen world -- bureaucratic infighting! As a different country, Tibet was technically the jurisdiction of the Foreign Affairs minister and he hated the idea, either because he was annoyed at having to share office space with Bokii’s cryptographers, or because he wasn’t insane (sources vary). A highly sarcastic memo from the foreign ministry essentially vetoed the psy-namic duo’s expedition. Fortunately, a second option was about to fall right into their laps. 

Nicholas Roerich was a poet, painter, and philosopher of considerable note. He could almost be considered a renaissance man, if the renaissance had been about reintroducing superstition rather than overturning it -- Roerich was a devout Theosophist and eventual founder of his own sect, the Agni Yoga. His wife Helena was a spirit medium who claimed to be in contact with Mahatma Morya, one of Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters. Originally from Russia, the couple had emigrated to America to escape the chaos of the Revolution. However, in the early 1920s, Helena received a message from Morya instructing them to journey to the hidden city of Shambhala, promising "The snows of Himalaya that hide Us are not obstacles for true seekers...I will lead thee on the path of success.”

This was the perfect opportunity for Bokii and Barchenko, who may have been acquainted with Roerich before the Revolution. As an American citizen, Roerich could travel without suspicion, but as a profoundly apolitical mystic he was happy to share his findings with the Soviets in return for funding. At Bokii’s prompting, the USSR agreed to back Roerich’s expedition to the hidden underground city of the Ascended Masters. Which is probably not entirely what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,” although his first draft did follow that up with “unless it gives you levitation powers, in which case go nuts.” In 1926, Roerich actually visited Moscow, where he met with Bokii and hammered out the final deal. He was also supposed to meet Dzerzhinskiy, but the secret police boss dropped dead in his office while Roerich sat patiently in the waiting room.   

Part 4- The King In The Mountain And The Fascinating Grasses Of Old Manchuria

Unfortunately for the Soviets, the Roerichs had their own agenda. They had become obsessed with an old Tibetan prophecy claiming that in a time of great strife the King of Shambhala would emerge from his hidden valley to defeat the forces of chaos and usher in a new age of enlightenment. They believed it was their duty to herald the coming of this new messiah, who they called Rigden Jyepo. To this end, the Roerichs brought with them a fragment of the Chintamani Stone, a mysterious jewel that fell from the heart of Orion in ancient times, when it was discovered by King Tazlavoo of Atlantis. The Roerichs believed that the remainder of the stone was in Shambhala and it was their duty to reunite the pieces on behalf of the Ancient Masters. 

As they journeyed into Tibet, the Roerichs’ journals became increasingly bizarre. Metallic spheres flew through the mountains, while strange birds circled overhead. Shadowy figures could be glimpsed in the distance, while odd perfumes filled the air without warning. There were confused skirmishes with Tibetan border guards, but the expedition was guarded by the Chintamani Stone, which darkened when a storm was coming and grew heavy when bloodshed was imminent. The party’s other talisman was an American flag tied to a spear which they carried before them, but they were a long way from the States and now being tracked by the soldiers of the Dalai Lama (and probably Thanos, from the sounds of that stone).

The Roerich expedition had caused considerable concern in the region, and they were being monitored by British, Chinese and Soviet spies. But for most of 1927, the party completely vanished and no one could say where they were. They also failed to keep detailed diaries for this period, with Nicholas’s travel journal descending into cryptic riddles for much of the time. They eventually turned up in a Tibetan prison camp, where they had been detained for at least five months, but what they did for the rest of the time remains unclear. In any case, they did not find Shambhala. The closest they came was when a mysterious “old believer” showed them a walled-up cave he said had once been a passage into the mountain. And we can’t speak for anyone else, but if it had been us in that situation the Ascended Master Morya would have been getting sued. 

With the failure of the Roerich expedition, the party was over for Bokii and Barchenko, who never got any closer to their mystical city in the mountains. The Roerichs themselves returned to America, where they found a new patron in US Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, who agreed to fund an expedition to Manchuria in 1934. This was supposed to be to study grasses, but once in Asia Roerich yet again went rogue, galloping about with an armed troop of horsemen amid wild talk of overthrowing the Soviet Union. Wallace promptly dropped his support, but his letters to his “guru” emerged to cause considerable embarrassment when he became FDR’s running mate in 1940.

Meanwhile, Bokii and Barchenko continued their efforts to contact the Ancient Masters via astral projection, to no avail. In 1937, they were both arrested as part of Stalin’s Great Purge, which eliminated most of the Soviet occult researchers (serious esoteric research did not restart until after Stalin’s death). Bokii made a number of unlikely confessions under torture, including the claim that he and Roerich had been part of a secret society dedicated to Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. In the end, he and Barchenko were both shot, as were several surviving members of Barchenko’s Kola expedition and Roerich’s Tibet expedition. We’re guessing the Chintamani stone got very heavy that day.

The lost wisdom of Hyperborea may be found exclusively on Alex’s Twitter account.

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