This is a book which overturns many common perceptions about the world and politics, it is a revelation of a topsy-turvey world in which Tibetan Buddhist jihadists meet mystical Communists and Russo-American mystics in the pursuit of the dream of a perfect society peopled by new model human beings.
The picture of Tibetan Buddhism presented here is a very different one from the one currently presented in the west, it is a much more aggressive, violent and millenarian creed. Znamenski shows that the myth of Shambhala arose at around the time of the first millennium of the common era, as Tibetan Buddhism was under growing pressure from the spread of Islam. Under these conditions the myth arose of a powerful nation far to the north, whose people lived in a utopian realm, and whose armies would come to liberate the Buddhist lands from the foreigner, amid much putting to the fire and the sword.
Znamenski examines how these ideas played out in Mongolia after the collapse of the Chinese and Russian empires and the rise of the Bolshevik regime in Russia. Here we meet the mad White Russian proto-Nazi Baron Ungern-Sternberg who bemused the Mongols with his tirades against the Jews (when it was the Chinese they wanted to hate), the wild adventurer Ja-Lama and his free lance totalitarian utopia, and a wide range of Mongols and Russians.
The former included at least some of the founders of the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party (the local version of the Communist Party) who saw the Bolshevik revolution as fulfilment of the Shambhala prophecy, while the latter included such characters as the mystical pseudo-scientist Alexander Barchenko and his protector the secret police chief Gleb Bokii, who imagined that the secrets of Shambhala could be used to humanise communism and speed the coming utopia. There was to be no utopia, only the terror states created by Stalin and his Mongolian puppet Choibalsan in which nearly all the participants in this drama were murdered after the usual ludicrous show trials.
Others dreamed more free lance dreams of Shambhala, most notably the Russo-American artist Nicolai Roerich, who imagined that he almost single-handily created a great Asian Buddhist state and posed as a sort of reincarnated lama. Though not mentioned in this book, it was on one of these expeditions that Roerich encountered a strange silver grey oval object in the sky, which he interpreted as a message from Shambhala and writers such as Aime Michel hailed as an early appearance of a flying saucer, while the more sceptical suggested it was one of the body eating vultures encountered in those parts. A more apt sign from Shambhala one could not imagine.
This book vividly demonstrates the power of the irrational in politics, and the subterranean forces which can operate below the surface rationality of the world. It makes one wonder who may still be playing some version of the great game with dreams and visions. Nor can we assume that the vision of the Shambhala jihad is forever now safely spiritualised. Who knows what some post-Dalai Lama Tibetan resistance movement might evoke in their liberation struggle against China. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.