by Thomas Welsford, London

Summer 1907 was a torrid time in Turkestan. The previous autumn the tsarist government, faced with a rising tide of Social Democratic agitation, had cracked down on political activism in the region, and the post-1905 revolution had gone underground. The terrorist Social Revolutionaries now came to the fore, and in the summer months of 1907 Turkestan was shaken by a series of political assassinations in Ashkhabad, Samarkand, Kizil Arvat and Tashkent. 1907 saw an upsurge also of Armenian Dashnak violence in the region. In mid-February an Armenian journalist who had recently had the temerity to criticise Dashnak activists was murdered in Krasnovodsk, and in May and June Dashnaks made two attempts with bomb and bullet on the life of the Merv police chief. Among the native Muslim population, too, there were ominous signs of fraying loyalty. In early June the tsarist authorities learned that Namaz Bay, a notorious bandit who for the last few years had been terrorising the districts of Samarkand and Jizzakh as well as the territories of the Bukharan emirate, had finally been killed: even once his corpse had been formally identified, however, rumours circulated among the native population that Namaz was still alive, and would avenge himself on anyone who had assisted in his pursuit. For many native villagers, it seemed, the concerted resources of the tsarist state commanded less respect or awe than did a dead criminal.

As if the situation were not bad enough, there were also widespread worries about alcoholism. Concerns about the iniquitous effects of alcohol were nothing new. From the time of the conquest, the Russian authorities in Turkestan had worried that excessive alcohol consumption would sap the vigour of the Russian settler population, and undermine the Russians’ moral standing in the eyes of native Muslims. The authorities had accordingly

attempted to keep tight control over alcohol consumption, permitting only designated licence-holders – many of them Jewish, Indian, Armenian or Georgian – to produce and sell alcoholic drinks. But by 1907 this licensing system seemed to have broken down, and observers in Samarkand, Tashkent and elsewhere reported an explosion in the number of drinking establishments. ‘It seems’, wrote a contributor to Novyi Samarkand in September 1906, ‘that there is not a single street in Samarkand where there are no drinking dens – and indeed there are streets that are completely filled with such places. If these charming establishments are to continue multiplying in this way, then Samarkand threatens in the near future to turn into a single mass drinking den.’ What was particularly concerning, the contributor continued, was that the clientele of these institutions largely comprised members of the native population: if this state of affairs were to carry on, the entire population of the region might succumb to drunken fecklessness and criminality.

In the face of these worries, the authorities in Samarkand were doubtless delighted when a Greek-Armenian psychologist from Aleksandropol, or modern-day Gyumri, arrived in town promising to cure people of their alcoholic habits. I chanced upon an account of this man’s activities when going through the contents of Turkestanskii Sbornik, a remarkable 594-volume scrapbook of excerpted newspaper articles and other publications about tsarist-era Central Asia. The original of this collection is confined to the Alisher Navoi National Library of Uzbekistan, but following its digitisation a decade or so ago it has become an invaluable source of reference for historians around the world: and there will doubtless be many graduate students and early-career scholars, in particular, who have found themselves indebted to Turkestanskii Sbornik as an electronic resource this last year, when access to libraries and archives has been so severely curtailed. Despite the fascinating riches it contains, however, the collection is presently not quite as useful as it might be, in large part because of its skeletal indexing of materials: the collection’s holdings are indexed by title, rather than by contents, with little indication of the people, places and topics described therein. The indexing is also substantially incomplete, with large numbers of materials omitted. Some of these omissions may have been deliberate: it was perhaps a conscious decision, for instance, to omit from the indices references to a number of unpleasantly anti-Semitic texts that reflect well on nobody. Other, less obviously noxious items appear to have slipped through the indexers’ net by accident; the article about this Aleksandropol psychologist, appearing on p. 7 of volume 442, seems to have been one of these. My coming across the article was a happy accident.

In the absence of an index entry, there is no explicit indication of when the article was published, nor of what publication it appeared in, but contextual evidence allows us to make an informed guess as to both of these points. Judging from a date given in the article and the attested dates of other, indexed items that appear both before and after it in the volume, it was probably published in late August or early September 1907, and typographic comparison suggests that it most likely appeared in the pages of Tashkentskii Kur’er, an oppositional newspaper that was founded in March 1905 under the editorship of Abram Kirsner, a Tashkenti bookseller and rabbi, and continued publication until September 1908, when it was renamed Turkestanskii Kur’er and thereafter carried on until November 1917. (Unfortunately, the Navoi Library’s holdings of Tashkentskii Kur’er are incomplete, and I have thus been unable to confirm this identification. Readers with access to the Russian State Library’s newspaper department at Khimki, outside Moscow, may have better luck.)

The article in question reads as follows:

For some time in our city, the psychologist Giurdzhiev has been carrying out ‘treatment for alcohol, rheumatism and other bad habits by means of hypnotism and electricity’. According to rumours, this ‘famous psychologist’ has enjoyed rich pickings. Our city is not renowned for its sobriety, and so there are a lot of drunkards – a huge number. We are unclear what the results are of Mr Giurdzhiev’s treatment, but if we are to judge from two acquaintances who made use of his services (one paying 40 roubles and the other paying 20), the results have been miserable for the patients, and delightful for the ‘healer’. Patients have not been cured of alcoholism, but have in vain, and the healer has set off on further travels, to Tashkent in the meanwhile, with a pocket full of cash and a pile of letters of thanks from ‘people who have been healed’. Concluding his account of the treatment he received from Mr Giurdzhiev, one of our acquaintances added: ‘In holy Russia there are still many fools and gullible souls who can easily be deceived by anyone like Giurdzhiev.’

Readers will almost certainly recognise the name of this rogue psychologist. Georgii Gurdjieff (?1866-1949) was one of the most influential mystical thinkers of the early twentieth century, whose cobbled-together amalgam of Bergson, Blavatsky and Eastern esotericism proved remarkably popular in a career that took him from a provincial town in Russian Armenia to wartime Moscow and Petrograd and then, in the early 1920s, to Avon, a small town near Fontainebleau to the south of Paris, where he established a cranky ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ under whose auspices he and his well-heeled acolytes spent their time engaged in metaphysical speculation, rhythmic dancing and failing to provide adequate medical care for Katherine Mansfield, who died there of consumption in January 1923, within three months of arrival for treatment. (This latter detail chimes with what we read in the 1907 newspaper article: as a healthcare professional, Gurdjieff evidently left much to be desired from the very outset of his career.)

It has long been known that Gurdjieff spent some time as a young man in Central Asia. In his self-mythologising memoir Meetings with Remarkable Men, first published in English in 1963, he describes his Central Asian travels at length, recounting his stays in Bukhara, where he tells of communing with a Sufi master named Bogga-Eddin, and in Samarkand where, short of money, he apparently made ends meet by selling paper flowers and brightly-hued birds which he touted to locals as ‘American canaries’, but were in fact ordinary sparrows that he had dipped in garish dye. (Throughout the book there is a disconcerting tonal balance, with rapturous accounts of spiritual insight sitting alongside gleeful boastings of trickery; with its combination of divine revelation and barefaced one-upmanship, the cumulative effect is rather like reading a particularly colourful Sufi hagiography.) For the rest of his life he would speak with reverence of his Central Asian experiences, suggesting that the transcendent insights afforded him in Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv outshone even his findings in Tibet, Upper Egypt and the various other far-flung parts of the world that he supposedly visited in pursuit of enlightenment. Once established at Fontainebleau, furthermore, he contrived there too to evoke a Central Asian atmosphere, so adorning one of the Institute’s rooms with oriental carpets that, as Mansfield drily observed in late November 1922, some six weeks before her death, it ‘look[ed] more like Bokhara than Avon’.

Despite the formative importance of Gurdjieff’s time in Central Asia, however, it has frequently been observed that our knowledge of what he was actually doing there is almost non-existent. The numerous biographies of Gurdjieff written by his admirers all relate with an impressively straight face his purported adventures in Central Asia as a member of a shadowy grouping called the Seekers of Truth, but even these sympathetic accounts acknowledge that any attempt to establish a precise timeline of his activities is likely to be doomed to failure. ‘[I]t seems unlikely’, writes Colin Wilson (a writer who, as Stefan Collini has recently shown, himself knew a thing or two about fraudulent mysticism) in his 1986 biography G.I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep, ‘that we shall ever know precisely what Gurdjieff did between 1891, when he set out on his adventures […] until about 1910, when he first appears in Moscow and St Petersburg as a teacher of self-knowledge’. In Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff recounts how one of his associates, a man called Soloviev who prior to joining his spiritual quest had been planning to make a career for himself as a forger of three-rouble banknotes, died from a wild camel bite when travelling with him in the Gobi Desert in 1898; aside from this single detail, however, Gurdjieff’s picaresque narrative is largely bereft of chronological detail, and the reader is frequently left uncertain even what decade events are supposed to have taken place in. And certainly none of his biographers give any impression of having tried to establish a timeframe for Gurdjieff’s activities in Central Asia by juxtaposing his first-person account against what can be gleaned from other contemporary sources: perhaps unsurprisingly, people who write biographies of Gurdjieff seem not to have much interest in empiricist historical method. Until such time as there emerges a biographer willing to engage in a non-mystical slog through the archives, this brief report in Tashkentskii Kur’er will perhaps remain one of the few sources to pinpoint the elusive Gurdjieff in time and space.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the report’s sceptical tone. One often thinks of the turn of the twentieth century as a high-water point of mysticism and spiritualism, when such figures as W.B. Yeats, William James, Tolstoy and Valerii Briusov explored the limits of human consciousness and the possibility of domains of existence hitherto unglimpsed, and when hard-bitten crime writers believed in fairies at the end of the garden. In Russian Central Asia, too, from the 1890s there was a growth in interest in magic and hypnotism, with numerous articles devoted to the subject particularly in the liberal Russian-language newspaper Okraina. But the report in Tashkentskii Kur’er offers a tart rejoinder to this picture of a post-fin-de-siècle phantasmagoria. Whatever Gurdjieff may claim in Meetings with Remarkable Men, the article suggests that there were at least some people who were not taken in by his performance. The only pity is that poor Katherine Mansfield, who had been teaching herself Russian and in the last months of her life was becoming quite adept in the language, did not happen upon this article before she fatefully took herself off to Fontainebleau for treatment at this charlatan’s hands.