Nicholas Roerich or Nikolai Konstantinovitch Rerikh (Николай Константинович Рерих) was a Russian painter, traveler, and esoteric writer (1874-1947) who lived in New York City, and later in India's Kulu Valley. He and his wife Helena Roerich (Elena Ivanova Rerikh, 1879-1955) have become influential figures among Russian New Age spiritual seekers.
As a painter, Roerich is usually grouped with the Russian Symbolists. His best-known paintings (generally tempera on canvas or cardboard) feature old Russian churches, Himalayan landscapes, or religious scenes representing various Eastern religions. He also painted the backdrops for a number of operas, including the premier of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps, as well as the interiors of several Russian churches. Museums of his artwork exist in New York City, Moscow, and Naggar (Himanchal Pradesh, India), among other places.
The Roerichs joined the Theosophical Society in 1920, Nikolai having been exposed to Buddhism through working on a Tibeto-Mongolian temple in Saint Petersburg. As a worldwide schism developed among Theosophists over the claims of Annie Besant and the young Krishnamurti, the Roerichs began receiving their own revelations from the "Masters" (also known as Adepts or Mahatmas) from their Central Asian stronghold, including the Master "M" (for "Morya") of Theosophical lore. These revelations (in Russian) became the series of Agni Yoga books, also known as the Teaching of Living Ethics (Zhivaya etika, Живая этика). Later volumes claimed a cosmic significance for Helena, called the "Mother of Agni Yoga," as world savioress.
Between 1924 and 1928 Roerich led a U.S.-flagged expedition through various regions of Central Asia including Chinese Turkestan, Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet. The journey is described in Roerich's travelogue Altai-Himalaya (which incidentally reports an early UFO sighting, over Eastern Tibet in 1926). Also relevant is his essay Shambhala, describing a paradisial Buddhist kingdom which only the elect may find.
During a secret side-visit to Moscow, Roerich (ostensibly acting on the instructions of his Masters) approached the Soviet authorities with a proposal to establish a new Central Asian Buddhist state. His proposal was received coldly (as was the Masters' endorsement of V.I. Lenin as a Mahatma, equal to Jesus or Buddha), and the Roerichs soon felt it adviseable to flee Moscow.
During the 1930's Roerich visited Manchuria at the behest of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, to whom he reportedly suggested adding the Great Seal of the United States (the eye-in-pyramid symbol) to the obverse of U.S. currency. Exposure of Wallace's "guru letters" to Roerich (so named for their customary salutation, "Dear Guru...") derailed Wallace's 1948 presidential bid.
Roerich was instrumental in promoting the 1935 "Roerich Pact" among 21 American nations, which established the "Banner of Peace" symbol--three red dots surrounded by a red circle, on a white flag--as a protection for cultural sites such as museums and libraries. (I.e., the signatories undertook not to bomb sites displaying the symbol.) The symbol is now used primarily by Roerich groups.
Roerich's followers--called Rerikhovtsi ("Roerich-ites") in Russian--resurfaced during Perestroika, with Raisa Gorbachev said to have been a supporter. Today they are divided into a number of fractious lineages, often around competing gurus, and are known for their pilgrimages to Mount Belukha in Altai. Reports of persecution from Orthodox authorities regularly emerge.
The Roerichs were posthumously expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church in the year 2000, a half-century after their deaths. While the move raises thorny jurisdictional issues (the Roerichs ended their days not in Russia but in India, whose territory falls under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch), that they promoted a religious tradition distinct from Orthodoxy seems clear.
The Roerichs had two sons: George Roerich (Yuri Nikolaivitch Rerikh), a Tibetologist (1902-1960); and Svetolslav Roerich, an artist (1904-1993).
- Archer, Kenneth. Roerich East and West.England: Parkstone Press, 1999.
- Decter, Jacqueline. Messenger of Beauty: The Life and Visionary Art of Nicholas Roerich. Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1993.
- Drayer, Ruth Abrams. Wayfarers: The Spiritual Journeys of Nicholas and Helena Roerich. New Mexico: Bluewaters Press, 2004.