Madame Blavatsky’s Forbears
Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1932
Through her grandmother, Princess Dolgoruki, Madame Blavatsky was descended from Prince Yuri Dolgoruki, that is, Yuri the Long-armed, who founded the city of Moscow in the year 1147, and was its first Tsar. Yuri Dolgoruki claimed descent from the Varangian Viking Rurik, who was invited by the Slavs to come to Russia with his kindred in the ninth century, and who, accepting this invitation, established in Russia law and order and a strong line of rulers. For centuries after the founding of Moscow the Dolgorukis played a great part in Russian history. Under that furious reformer, Peter the Great, a Prince Dolgoruki was the leader of those who opposed the Western innovations which the Emperor imposed on his subjects; this Dolgoruki was exiled for his recalcitrancy, and particularly because he refused to shave his patriarchal beard in conformity with Peter’s fashion. Another Prince Dolgoruki held the rank of Major-General under Katherine the Great; another of the line, also a direct ancestor of Madame Blavatsky, was Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
Madame Blavatsky’s grandmother, Princess Dolgoruki, was the last descendant of the elder line. She was a remarkable woman, tall, and with a magnificently formed head. She was a student of natural science, and especially of geology and botany. When the famous English naturalist and traveller, Sir Roderick Murchison, travelled in Russia and the Caucasus, he was her guest, and, if the memory of the writer be not at fault, Sir Roderick named in her honour a fossil shell which he discovered in the deposits of the Perm district, which gave its name to the Permian period of geology. Princess Dolgoruki married General Andrei Fadeyev, for many years Governor of the Saratov district on the lower Volga. This frontier territory was largely inhabited by sectarians who refused to acknowledge the Russian Orthodox Church, and by Kalmyks, who were dependents of Buddhist Tibet. The sectarians refused to accept the potato, then something of a novelty in eastern Russia, alleging that the “accursed root” must be evil because it is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Wishing to introduce the heretical but useful tuber, General Fadeyev had recourse to guile. He had potatoes planted in an enclosed garden and proclaimed the sternest penalties for whoever should touch even one potato. As with their first ancestor, the lure of forbidden fruit was not to be resisted by the sectaries, and potatoes were soon spread far and wide through southeastern Russia. The former Princess Dolgoruki lived to a great age. In her later years she suffered a stroke of paralysis which deprived her of the use of her right arm. She was in the midst of a series of botanical studies and, undeterred, she learned not only to write with her left hand, but also drew and painted admirable studies of botanical specimens. A few years ago, several volumes of this manuscript botany were still extant. The future Madame Blavatsky, while she was still Helena Petrovna Hahn, paid childhood visits to the majestic grandfather and the benign, learned grandmother, with her parents and her younger sister, Vera Petrovna, who has recorded these visits in her charming book for children, When I was Little.
General Fadeyev and his wife had four children. A son, Rostyaslav Andreivitch, won fame in the wars of the Caucasus, gaining the rank of General, and later earned renown as a distinguished military writer. He was for some years military adviser to the Khedive Ismail of Egypt. There were three daughters, Helena Andreyevna, Ekaterina Andreyevna and Nadyejda Andreyevna, to give the Russian style of patronymic following the Christian name, the latter being almost invariably the name of a saint. It was the custom to celebrate the saint’s day of translation with ceremonies and gifts, as a more important birthday for the child. Helena Andreyevna Fadeyev and her daughter were thus named in honour of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine. According to Eusebius, Helena visited Palestine after her conversion, building a church at the traditional site of the Ascension, and another at Bethlehem; she was later said to have recovered the True Cross, whose authenticity was vindicated by a miracle of healing.
Helena Andreyevna Fadeyev married Colonel Peter Hahn, a distinguished artillery officer, and had three children. The eldest, Helena Petrovna—once more to give the Christian name and patronymic—was later to become Madame Blavatsky. The second daughter, Vera Petrovna, became a popular Russian author, one of whose many books has already been mentioned. The third child, several years younger than the two sisters, was Leonid Petrovitch.
Helena Andreyevna Hahn was a distinguished writer of stories, so that the great Russian critic Belinski called her the “George Sand of Russia.” She died in her twenty-ninth year, in the summer of 1842. She was, therefore, only twenty-six when, in 1840, she wrote two stories, The World’s Verdict, and The Judgment of God, from which are taken the two following passages which describe the life of the inner self, and the golden threads of Karma running through human lives. When these passages were written, the future author of The Secret Doctrine was a child of nine, but it is not difficult to see that she was profoundly influenced by the thought and character of her gifted mother.
In The World’s Verdict, the hero of the story, after a great moral upheaval, thus records his experience:
“. . . The fog which, up to that time, had lain heavy on my intelligence, was dispersed. . . . Like one who had been blind, and from whose eyes a great physician had removed a cataract, I was beginning to see. The world gradually opened before me, new, unexpected: the world, not of phantasies, but of beautiful truths, of exalted fervour, of refinement, of poetry, of all that makes the soul of man nobler and happier. How reverently I entered into its mysteries. How proudly I rose from the oppression of my own insignificance, until at last, like a man reborn, I looked on the world of God. Everything within me and around me was transformed. For the first time I became conscious of the beneficent and active intelligence within me, of the power of my will and the sense of beauty, and, in my rapture, I bowed down in the dust before the Almighty, having come to understand the wonderful perfection of our creation, the problem of our being, and the supreme destiny of man . . . It almost seemed as if my soul, freshly born into being, illumined the whole world with the beauty of its own rays, and the world, warmed by the warmth of my soul, answered to the touch of its first ray by heavenly harmonies, like Memnon’s statue.
“Formerly, I had been ignorant of the just pride of the consciousness of self, and, in spite of my self-love, and of what I called my independent ways, I was a perfect slave to what men thought of me. Many a time I acted against my own conviction, from a pitiful rivalry with my comrades. . . . Formerly, I had not even suspected the existence of that comfort which the Lord grants to us in our inner, ever wakeful self;—not in that self which is the vain caterer to man’s desires, the restless glorifier of his achievements, real and imaginary, which, in its everlasting discord with conscience, has no existence except on the tongue, deafening the ears of everyone with stories in which it alone can find delight; but in the stern Argus and judge which is subject neither to the rule of the world nor to the decrees of fate; in the unswerving, incorruptible guardian of the seed from heaven, God’s parting gift as we enter life, which, if not smothered by tares, or devoured by birds of the air, is to grow and ripen in the heart of man until it becomes his support in depression, his peace and contentment in the midst of bitterest calamity. . . .”
The World’s Verdict is not connected in plot or construction with The Judgment of God, nor were they, as their titles might suggest; designed as complementary to each other. Their unity comes from the inner spirit of the author, and both describe the mighty, invisible things of the interior life in the same sincere and inspiring way, because both truly record the author’s spiritual experience. Here is a brief passage from The Judgment of God:
“Certain events impressing themselves on my mind when I was but a little child, left in me a leaning toward the supernatural. I do not mean the supernatural of concrete, material nature, but the inner feeling of our spiritual existence. It is not that I have superstitious beliefs; it is more correct to say that I believe in realities that can only be felt. A visitor from beyond the tomb could not frighten me, and I do not think that I should grow pale at mysterious groans or laughter in the small hours of the night. But I do believe in the secret Providence which binds together the lives of. human beings and guides their perceptions; I believe in the stirring of unaccountable loves and hatreds, as the invisible threads which stretch and stretch, sometimes winding themselves into wonderful network, but always leading man to the inevitable goal marked for him by supreme predestination. And if the Lord said that not a hair of our heads should fall without His will, are we to suppose that the activities of our spirits, strong and potent as they are, were not calculated, distributed and directed toward something our weak intellects cannot foresee?”
It may well be that there is, in these passages, an echo of the philosophical mysticism of France, for tradition records that among the forbears of Madame Blavatsky’s family there were French ancestors also, of the ancient and distinguished house of Duplessis. Belinski may have been right in suggesting a French element in Helena Hahn’s writings. Madame Blavatsky’s younger sister has given, in the book already mentioned, a very attractive picture of their gifted mother:
“I can no longer remember how we left our grandmother [the former Princess Dolgoruki] and made the return journey. I can only recall that we were in a different place, where my grandmother and our other relations were no longer with us. Officers were always coming, whom I did not know. One of them, very tall and with a red, pointed moustache, claimed to be my father. But I was unwilling to recognize him as my father, and rebuffed him. . . .
“I remember also that my mother was a great sufferer, but that she spent long hours writing, behind a partition covered with green cloth. The little nook behind this green barrier was called mother’s work room, and never did either my elder sister Lyolya [diminutive of Helena], nor I, venture to touch anything in that room, which only a curtain separated from our own. At that time, we did not in the least understand what our mother could be occupied with, in this retreat in which she passed whole days. We only knew that she was writing at her table, but we did not in the least suspect that she was working there to earn money to pay our tutors and governesses. . . .
“When the weather was bad, I took my station near a window, and happily gazed out at the great square on which were taking place the military exercises which my father directed, with several officers under his orders. I immensely enjoyed watching the soldiers maneuvering to the sound of drum and trumpets, and seeing the big guns hurried about on wheels which thundered as they moved, while my father galloped on his fine horse, giving orders, with animated gestures. . . .
“During the following winter our mother suffered still more. The doctor forbade her to give much time to her writing, and she spent her evenings with us. She seated herself at the piano, and my young governess, Antonia, undertook to teach my sister to dance. . . .
“Then, suddenly, I do not remember how, we went to a large and beautiful city. . . . I learned later that this city was called Odessa, and that my mother had gone there for medical care. . . .
“My elder sister, four years older than I, was already studying industriously under the guidance of two governesses, and was also studying music with our mother. But that poor mother was daily losing strength, though she still worked as hard as before. At last she had to yield to the insistence of our grandmother, who invited us to come to her, to Saratov, to seek a more thorough treatment. The expectation of this journey caused my sister Lyolya and me the greatest delight.
“It was night. Our closed coach swung gently from side to side. Worn out by the long journey and weary of looking for a city which never appeared, we were all half asleep. My sister and I were lulled to sleep by our smooth progress over the snow, by the whistling of the wind, and by the monotonous cries of the coachman encouraging his horses. My mother alone was not asleep. She held me on her knee, her well-beloved little one, with one hand holding my head pressed against her breast, seeking to protect me against the jolting of the coach. . . .
“All at once I was wakened by a more vigorous jolt, and an intense ray of light, shining in my face, made me blink my eyes. . . .
“Our coach passed through a great stone gateway, and stopped before the brilliantly lit steps. . . . A lady, tall and stately, with an expression of kindness and sweetness, clasped my mother in her arms; only later did I recognize her as my grandmother. . . . The tall, thin gentleman in the gray frock-coat came toward me, took me in his arms, and, kissing me several times, put me into my grandmother’s arms. It was only then that I knew he was our grandfather. . . . With intense enjoyment I drank my hot tea and attentively studied the big portraits of gentlemen and ladies that hung on the wall opposite me . . .”—portraits of the forbears of Madame Blavatsky.