Mikhail Katkov and H.P.B.'s Political Loyalties

K. Paul Johnson

In late 1872, Madame Blavatsky offered her services to the Director of the Third Section, the intelligence agency of the Russian government, saying that she would be useful as a secret agent because of her familiarity with European politics as well as her skills as a medium and actress:

"During these twenty years I have become well acquainted with all of Western Europe. I zealously followed current politics not with any goal in mind, but because of an innate passion; in order better to follow events and to divine them in advance, I always had the habit of entering into the smallest details of any affair, for which reason I strove to acquaint myself with all the leading personalities, politicians of various nations, both of the government factions and of the far Left...I, writing this letter with the aim of offering my services to Your Excellency and to my native land, am obligated to tell you the entire truth without concealment. And thus I must confess that three-quarters of the time the spirits spoke and answered in my words and out of my own considerations, for the success of my own plans. Rarely, very rarely, did I fail, by means of this little trap, to discover people's hopes, plans and secrets...I have played every role, I am able to represent myself as any person you may wish."(1)

But researcher Maria Carlson, who discovered the above letter, found no indication that Blavatsky's offer was accepted, and within a year HPB had arrived in America. The unwillingness of the Third Section to employ HPB is understandable in light of her long association with leftist and revolutionary movements in Europe. In 1877, as she was planning a move from New York to India, she asked her aunt Nadyezhda for help in securing journalistic employment:

"Could you find some magazines in Russia where I could send my articles from America, England, and India? In India there is no one Russian correspondent. I could also write something about politics-being always able to catch some news of it-and describe the country in a quite interesting way, even for an archaeological or geographical magazine. Do try, my dear."(2)

By the time she was en route to India, Mikhail Katkov had agreed to publish her travel narratives in serial form in his Moscow newspaper. But in an interview with an American reporter prior to her departure, she made it clear that she sympathized with leftist Russian revolutionaries at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Katkov:

"You ask why I have renounced my allegiance to my country? I answer because I love liberty. There is but little liberty in Russia to-day. Here it is the reverse. There I have been subjected to great annoyances and have been fined so often that I can safely compute the sum of $10,000, and for trivial offences too, I assure you...In my country affairs look gloomy. England has completely hoodwinked the Czar's statesmen, and it would seem that a revolution is imminent...I am not in favor of kings and emperors., They are the curse of the world. A revolution may accomplish much good."(3)

The annoyances and fines described above have not been detailed elsewhere in the Theosophical literature, but perhaps records in Russia will one day emerge to reveal the factual basis of these remarks. In an interview with another reporter, she explained her decision to acquire American citizenship as due to the need for diplomatic protection in her travels. She also described her Russian writing assignments, making it clear that she was obliged to present political views in keeping with those of her editor:

The reporter...asked Mme. Blavatsky: "How with your dislike for America, did you come to abandon your Russian citizenship and become a resident of New York?"

"Ah, you have liberty. I had none. I could not be protected by Russian consuls and so I will be protected by American consuls. It has cost me much...but I have still other property in Russia which I shall also lose. Still I shall live. I correspond for three papers in Russia, at Moscow and Novnj-Novgorod, and I shall soon have one in St. Petersburg. They pay me liberally. One of them gives me 120 roubles a month, but, of course, I have to be careful what I say."(4)

By the time Richard Hodgson came to India to investigate the Theosophical Society, the Coulombs had accused HPB of seeking to undermine British rule. Hodgson initially rejected this claim, but changed his mind after hearing Blavatsky express her excitement at the prospect of Russian invasion:

"At last a casual conversation opened my eyes. I had taken no interest in Central Asian perplexities, was entirely unaware of the alleged capacities of Russian intrigue, and had put aside as unworthy of consideration the idea-which for some time had currency in India-that the objects of the Theosophical Society were political, and that Madame Blavatsky was a `Russian spy.' But a conversation with Madame Blavatsky, which arose out of her sudden and curious excitement at the news of the recent Russian mvoement upon the Afghan frontier, compelled me to ask myself seriously whether it was not possible that the task which she had set herself to perform in India was to foster and foment as widely as possible among the natives a disaffection towards British rule. Madame Blavatsky's momentary emotional betrayal of her sympathies in the onset of her excitement was not rendered less significant by the too strongly-impressed `afterstroke' of a quite uncalled for vituperation of the Russians, who, she said, `would be the deathblow of the Society if they got into India.'...[H]er ultimate object has been the furtherance of Russian interests."(5)

After HPB left India permanently, she began to cooperate with Sinnett on her memoirs, Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky. When the book was published, it included some remarks critical of Russia, which were noticed in HPB's homeland:

"Yesterday I received from my sister three columns cut out of the Novoye Vremya about those accursed Memoirs, a review of your book by Moltchenoff, the London Correspondent of that paper. Prominent among other chaff is the sentence in my letter you framed yourself (for the Times that would not have it) and published in the pamphlet, that "bad as the Anglo-Indian Govt. was the Russian would be a 1000 times worse." Against its appearance in the pamphlet, I did not protest. No one read it except Theosophists; but its publication in the `Incidents' is a public slap on the face of Russia, of all Russian patriots-of which my sister and nieces are foremost. She is indignant and ready to repudiate me. She says she read the proofs and never saw that-I suppose not since you added it later on!

Well any how, it is my fault, the fault of my cowardice before the cowardly art of Hodgson & Co. and of his accusation. If I have left or made to leave his attack on the phenomena unnoticed I ought to have left this beastly, vile lie and calumny untouched. Had I been hung by your Govt. in India on false suspicions I would have left at least good feeling for my memory in Russia; as it is now, I stand a spy, a beast in the eyes of England and a heartless, unpatriotic wretch in those of every Russian I honour and love, including my own sister-and Gaboriau including the translation of that same letter in his French Occult World! Now every Russian will read it. And it is a LIE; a horrid, disgusting cowardly lie of mine for which I will blush to the end of my days. For, however bad the Govt. in Russia, however intolerant and autocratic for its own subjects it is not in our Colonies like Caucasus that any Englishwoman or Englishman would receive such insults as I have in India, or would be taken for a spy, surely not. Those ninnies and good natured fools of Russians can never shown enough hospitality and their authorities sufficient courtesy to foreigners, including the English, who hate them as the Devil does holy water. Well, I have to make mea culpa before Katkoff who is capable of refusing my articles after this, and leaving me on the tight Rs 200 from Adyar and chiefly before Russia and my relations."(6)

Another factor also affected HPB's relationship with Katkov around this time. In March 1886 HPB wrote Sinnett that Vsevelod Solovyov had become her enemy because she had rejected his proposition that she become a Russian agent. (Solovyov later claimed that it was the other way around, that HPB had asked him to help her obtain such employment and he refused.) She wrote: "He knows Katkov; he is a writer; and I expect to lose through his kind offices my position on the Russian Vyestnik and as a consequence a few thousand rubles a year."(7) This publication had since 1883 been reprinting Caves and Jungles which had initially appeared in the Moscow Chronicle between 1879 and 1882. From January through July 1883 the entirety of Part One was reprinted. Part II began in August 1883 but the second installment did not appear until November 1885. Part II continued in February and March 1886, with no further installments until the final one appeared in August. HPB's editor Boris de Zirkoff speculates that Solovyov's enmity had indeed turned Katkov against her.(8)

In A Modern Priestess of Isis, Solovyov claimed that HPB had asked him to convey this message to the proper authorities in Russia:

"My influence on the Hindus is enormous...At a sign from me, millions of Hindus would follow me, I can easily organize a gigantic rebellion. I will guarantee that in a year's time the whole of India would be in Russian hands...I will bring about one of the greatest events in history...I proposed the same thing some years ago when Timasheff was still minister; but I did not receive any answer. But now, now it is much easier for me; I can arrange the whole thing in a year. Help me in such a patriotic cause."(9)

But Solovyov is obviously deceptive about the depth of his own interest in Theosophy and HPB during the time he describes, making his account questionable. He, like the Coulombs and HPB, is a witness whose reliability is in doubt. In this particular instance of he said/she said, there is no inherent reason to believe one account over the other. But given what we know of HPB's relationship with Katkov, Solovyov's account becomes more plausible. HPB, already deeply involved in Katkov's schemes, would not likely have indignantly rejected Solovyov's suggestion that she become a Russian agent, as she claimed. On the other hand, Katkov would not have been likely to reject HPB on the basis of the message she allegedly asked Solovyov to carry to Russia. More plausible is that Solovyov's negative judgment of HPB as a fraudulent psychic (and the Hodgson report which might have become known to Katkov at the time) influenced Katkov to drop her. This is a instance, like the Clinton/Jones case, in which both conflicting stories may be lies. Both HPB and Solovyov were concerned with saving face in the situation.

Her own letters to Sinnett make it seem that near the end of her working relationship with Katkov, HPB felt no freer to express an independent political viewpoint than she had at the beginning. Within a few months she was writing to Sinnett that she had been warned of an imminent uprising in India and felt obliged to warn the British authorities:

"I am ready to become an infamous informer of your English Govt. WHICH I HATE, for their sake, for the sake of my Society and of my beloved Hindus...For I feel, that however great the harm that will be done, it will end in the English having the best...your Govt. here and in India, is so stupidly short sighted as not to see that not only I am not, nor ever was a Russian spy-but that the very prosperity, progress and welfare of the T.S. depends on everything in India being quiet for years to come... I would stick for the Hindus against Russia even. I love my country men and country dearly-but I love India and Masters still more, and my contempt for the stupidity of Russian Govt. and diplomacy knows no bounds."(10)

But while HPB felt contempt for the Russian government and diplomacy, she continued to love Katkov, who himself shared the same contempt. Yet he had apparently cut her off financially by this point. She wrote to her sister:

"I simply adore Katkoff for his patriotism. I do not mind his not sending me any money again, God bless his soul. I deeply respect him, because he is a patriot and a brave man speaking the truth at whatever cost! Such articles as his are a credit to Russia. I am sure that if darling uncle were still living he would find an echo of his own thoughts in them."(11)

And it seems that when speaking to an Irishman, Charles Johnston, she shared Katkov's attitudes about the desirability and feasibility of a Russian invasion of India. Johnston quotes this conversation between HPB and G.R.S. Mead that he witnessed in early 1887:

"`I don't understand how these Englishmen can be so very sure of their superiority, and at the same time in such terror of our invading India.'

`We could easily hold our own if you did, H.P.B.,' ventured the patriotic secretary, pulling himself together, but evidently shaky yet, and avoiding her eye. She was down on him in an instant: `Why!' she cried, `what could you do with your poor little army? I tell you, my dear, when the Russians do meet the English on the Afghan frontier, we shall crush you like fleas!'

I never saw anything so overwhelming. She rose up in her wrath like the whole Russian army on a war footing and descended on the poor Briton's devoted head, with terrific weight. "(12)

The passionate patriotism expressed to Johnston seems to have been intertwined with her passionate admiration for Katkov, expressed later that year in an obituary notice:

"For four days I have been in a daze...He is no Russian and no patriot, who in these trying days does not recognize this death as an irreparable loss for our long-suffering fatherland; and that no other similar true sentinel of its national interests lives now...forever shut is the watchful eye which safeguarded both the honor and the interests of Russia." (13)

But Katkov, like HPB, had far greater admiration for the Russian military than for the government and its diplomats. And to whatever extent she had acted on behalf of Russian interests during her time in India, those Russian interests were defined for her by Katkov and his allies in the military, not the Czar or his diplomats who decisively rejected Katkov's schemes. When an American novelist implied that HPB had been an agent of the Russian government, HPB defiantly said that all three viceroys stationed in India during her time there would vouch for her:

"Let the Press inquire, from itself or its secretaries, whether it has ever been proven by any of their respective Governments that I was a political agent, whatever may be the malicious society gossip of my enemies...truth can be known with one simple word from these three witnesses-a yea or a nay."(14)

What can be made of all these conflicting statements? The first and most obvious point to be made is that HPB presents herself in whatever political light is suitable for the moment and the person she is addressing. Thus to her family she is a Russian patriot, to Sinnett she is a supporter of British rule in India, and to a New York reporter she is a revolutionary sympathizer. But it is not quite fair to treat all her political comments about Russia as nothing more than opportunistic and chameleon-like. After all, she had chosen to associate herself with radical causes in Europe, and later to emigrate to the US. So her misgivings about Russian autocracy have a ring of sincerity. On the other hand, in India she acted and wrote in ways that caused widespread suspicion of subversive intentions, so her denunciations of British rule seem equally sincere. The conclusion I reached after years of research was that HPB was deeply ambivalent, part of a conspiracy without fully understanding its ramifications, having love/hate relationships with both Russia and Britain. The new research reported by Christy Campbell in his book The Maharajah’s Box has unearthed fascinating material that I hope receives the attention it deserves. From the standpoint of my own books, this new material makes some of my hypotheses more plausible, but undermines another.

Most relevant from the standpoint of Theosophical involvement in the Dalip Singh affair is the information that in 1884 "Mohini Mohun was in the habit of seeing a great deal of Dalip Singh" which Colonel Henderson received from England.(14a) This was also the year that Thakar Singh visited Dalip in England and successfully persuaded him to reconvert to Sikhism and try to reclaim his lost revenues. In Initiates of Theosophical Masters I examined some evidence suggesting that Mohini and other Indian chelas were motivated by patriotic (and anti-British) concerns. The secret society of which Henderson writes, the "Aryan League of Honor," was allegedly founded in 1882 or 1883 and involved in sending information to Russia. This brings to mind the "Aryan Patriotic Association" whose leaders visited Jammu in 1883 for an audience with Maharaja Ranbir Singh and his sons and prime minister; one of the participants in this visit was "Dharbagiri Nath" aka "Babaji" or "Bowaji," whose real name seems to have been Krishnaswami or Krishnamachari and who later accompanied HPB to Europe. The similarity of names and time frame, and the parallel Theosophical association, suggests some link between these groups.

The Georgevitch statement implicates General Dondakov-Korsakov, corps commander at Pendjeh, in the anti-British plots of the period. Campbell notes that he was "an enthusiastic backer of Maharajah Dalip Singh in Russia."(14b) Since this general was involved in extensive correspondence with HPB during the early 1880s, we see here another intriguing link between the TS and the Dalip Singh affair.

The Notovitch report names the Maharajah of Kashmir as a secret sympathizer with Dalip and Russia, which refers to Pratap Singh, son and successor of Ranbir. This supports parallel information in the Dalip Singh Correspondence. So there is now new evidence supporting the idea that Theosophical chelas were secretly working for political goals involving Dalip, that Kashmir was secretly supporting the Dalip plot, and that HPB's correspondent Dondakov-Korsakov was a major supporter of Dalip in Russia. While this does not provide conclusive proof of HPB's direct involvement, it tends to make me question the extent to which Cyon's memoirs allow us to exonerate her from having helped ensnare Dalip in anti-British schemes.

In The Masters Revealed, I wrote "In March 1887, a leader of the Irish nationalists who had previously told Cyon of the maharaja's troubles introduced him to Dalip. After being refused entry to India and finding refuge in Paris, Dalip had decided to seek Russian support and asked Cyon to interest Katkov in his plight. If Cyon is to be trusted, this makes completely coincidental Katkov's previous acquaintance with Dalip Singh as a character portrayed in HPB's writings...If HPB had worked in India as an agent of Katkov and his Russian military friends, thus would suggest that she recruited Thakar Singh to work against British rule, making her partly responsible for the Dalip Singh plot. But Cyon's testimony reveals that it was Dalip who sought out Katkov in 1887, not vice versa. This may have been due to the recommendation of Thakar Singh, who would know of Katkov through HPB." There is considerable question about the reliability of Cyon's account, since by his own admission he is concealing all information embarrassing to the French government. The new information reported by Campbell tends to reduce the plausibility of HPB's ignorance of the plot prior to her 1887 letter to Sinnett in which she claims to have just recently learned through French sources of an impending anti-British uprising.

Here is a summary of evidence that HPB was acting in some kind of collusion with Katkov and his allies in the Russian military from her arrival in India, and was somehow instrumental in the radicalizing of some Punjabi Sikhs and the recruitment of Dalip Singh in an anti-British conspiracy:

Her uncle, Rostislav de Fadeev, was a leading writer on pan-Slav themes and a prominent member of the military faction with which Katkov was allied. It was through his sister Nadyezhda, HPB's aunt, that she began writing for Katkov, an arrangement that was established prior to her arrival in India.

Before departing from New York, HPB wrote to Moolji Thackersey inquiring about the TS "establishing relations with some Sikhs" with particular attention to the possibility of his personal acquaintance "with any descendant of Runjeet Singh," or his knowledge of anyone who might be so acquainted.

In her writings for Katkov, she describes both Ranbir Singh and several Sikh leaders in a context that makes the British appear ridiculous and incompetent. The overall effect of her serial reports from India was to strengthen Russian sympathy for India and antipathy for Britain. Passages involving Dalip in her writings made it clear that she disdained his conversion to Christianity and his acceptance of British rule of India.

Her chela Babaji was involved in 1883 in discussing "patriotic schemes tending toward the re-establishment of Aryavarta's ancient glory" with Ranbir Singh, the Kashmiri princes, and the prime minister; Mahatma letters to him and other Indian chelas are replete with appeals to patriotic motives (and harsh denunciations of British rule.)

To these four items, Campbell’s book has added crucial information:

The only other Indian Theosophical chela who was honored by being sent to Europe, Mohini Chatterji, was in 1884 "in the habit of seeing a great deal of Dalip Singh," the same year in which Thakar Singh traveled to England to see Dalip and try to change his political and religious loyalties.

Mohini was involved in an "Aryan League of Honor" suspected of political intrigue, just as Babaji was involved in an "Aryan Patriotic Association" with apparently similar objectives.

The only Russian official with whom HPB is known to have engaged in lengthy correspondence, Dondukov-Korsakov, was "an enthusiastic backer of Dalip Singh" in Russia.

This in essence doubles the circumstantial evidence in two distinct categories: Theosophical chelas who traveled with HPB to Europe, and prominent Russian correspondents of HPB. Adding Mohini and Dondukov-Korsakov to Babaji and Katkov as figures involved in the anti-British plots that enmeshed Dalip further strengthens the plausibility of HPB's in-depth knowledge and involvement.

HPB's correspondence with Katkov would likely reveal far more than we now know about the nature of their relationship and how it influenced her agenda in India. But in the absence of such evidence, one can only speculate based on available sources. Judging from the evidence cited above, it would appear that before writing to Nadyezhda about her desire to write for Russian periodicals, HPB had little knowledge of or interest in Katkov. And before leaving for India, she was frankly anti-monarchical and felt that she would have to conceal her radical political leanings in order to stay on good terms with her new employer. But soon after being hired by him as a correspondent, she was expressing a desire to recruit rajas and maharajas to the TS, being particularly interested in finding a descendant of Ranjit Singh. Katkov's agenda was a major (but not necessarily the primary) factor determining HPB's own activities from 1878 through 1886, in ways that she deliberately obscured in her Theosophical writings. Her interest, expressed in 1878, in the royal families of Indore, Gwalior, and Lahore eerily foreshadows the involvement of those same monarchies joining forces in the Dalip Singh conspiracy 8 years later. That HPB was Katkov's employee throughout her years in India has never been given adequate weight in assessment of her motives. Caves and Jungles of Hindustan and The Durbar in Lahore can be seen as intelligence reports on India edited for public consumption by Katkov. Caves and Jungles has relatively little political content, although that which does appear is revealing. In the very first letter of the series, HPB goes on at some length about the vulnerability of Bombay harbor to enemy attack:

"Is it possible that what happened to the Portuguese at the hands of the Mogul admiral Yakub Khan Sidi, who in 1690 took the fortress of Bombay in a few hours, could be repeated in 1880? Can this great, unconquerable nation, with more than a thousand cannons...fear an invasion?" (15) She goes on to jeer at British fears, writing "But the English are still afraid. It is true that here there are but 60,000 of them, while the native population numbers 245 million. And their system, which they took over from successful animal tamers, is good only until the animal senses that his tamer is fearful in his turn....Then his hour has come! "(16) In letter VIII, HPB comments that the Rajput adept Gulab-Singh refers to the British rulers with "a ring of something both threatening and derisive."(17) Letter XIV includes long passages in which native Indians lament the British rule. The first letter of the second series discusses the controversy surrounding the 1882 Ilbert Bill, and HPB expresses pleasure at the Bengali uprising then occurring while at the same time doubting that it will have any serious effect. In the second letter, HPB describes a public confrontation with two Englishmen in Jaipur, in which she gets the last word: "while your Messrs. Englishmen are afraid of Russians in your own colonies, the Russians are not afraid of you. It is a mere trifle, not worth talking about."(18) But these few passages pale beside The Durbar in Lahore, which is frankly political in tone throughout. It, too, ridicules British fears of Russian intrigue involving Maharaja Ranbir Singh. The editor was probably also receiving private intelligence from HPB, whose networking with Indian royalty enabled her to gauge their readiness for Russian-assisted revolution against the British. For years she saw no conflict between her loyalty to Katkov and his Russian military friends and her loyalty to India. Only after returning to Europe did she begin to realize that what was best for India was not the fantasies of Katkov and his allies.

The open question, of course, is precisely what role she played as an intermediary in communications betrween Indian royal families and Russian military friends of Katkov. It is extremely likely that secret letters among HPB, Katkov, and Indian rulers existed; whether or not any still survive is unknown. The most certain thing one can say about the puzzle is that HPB's shadowy role as an intermediary between Indian rulers and the Russian military faction allied with Katkov was over in the summer of 1887 with the deaths of Thakar Singh and Katkov. Although it cannot be said just what role HPB played vis--vis Katkov, it is safe to say that the "excluded middle" approach of most extant literature about her no longer is viable. That is, questions like "Was HPB a Russian spy, or was she not?" and "Was HPB motivated by Russian interests, or not?" and "Was HPB's mission in India a spiritual or political one?" serve simply to obscure the complexity of her situation in India. She both was and was not a Russian spy; that is, she had no official status as a government agent, but she was supplying intelligence to Katkov which he fed to his military friends. She was motivated primarily by what she saw as Indian rather than Russian interests, but was quite unrealistic in assuming that the two were entirely compatible. She saw her ends primarily as spiritual ones, but she was quite willing to use political means to reach them. Her ambivalence and complexity defy all simplistic explanations. Campbell's research adds to our understanding of Katkov's ambivalence and complexity as well. Although a right-winger and militarist who proclaimed his devotion to the Czar, he was also a revolutionary coup plotter with an international network of conspirators that included figures from the French Left. All HPB's quotes about him indicate that he had the upper hand in their relationship and that she eagerly served his interests. But only their correspondence would allow us to judge the true nature of their collaboration, and the amount of information each shared with the other.


  1. Carlson, Maria, No Religion Higher Than Truth, p. 316. [back]
  2. Blavatsky, H.P., H.P.B. Speaks, p. 191. [back]
  3. "Citizen Helen P. Blavatsky," Daily Graphic (New York), July 9, 1878, p. 54. [back]
  4. "H.P. Blavatsky's Adieu," Daily Graphic (New York), December 10, 1878, p. 266. [back]
  5. Maroney, Tim, ed., The Book of Dzyan, pp. 244-46. [back]
  6. Blavatsky, H.P., Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, online edition, letter 108. [back]
  7. Ibid., letter LXXX. [back]
  8. Blavatsky, H.P., Caves and Jungles of Hindustan, p. XXXII. [back]
  9. Hastings, Beatrice, Solovyoff's Fraud, p. 64. [back]
  10. Ibid., print edition, pp. 206-7. [back]
  11. Blavatsky, H.P., "Letters," The Path, September 1895, p. 174. [back]
  12. Johnston, Charles, "Helena Petrovna Blavatsky," Collected Writings of H.P. Blavatsky, Vol. VIII, p. 396. [back]
  13. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, Vol. XIII, pp. 359-60. [back]
  14. Ibid., Vol. X, p. 294. [back]
    1. Campbell, Christy, The Maharajah’s Box, p. 254.[back]
    2. Ibid., p. 165.[back]
  15. Blavatsky, Caves and Jungles, p. 11. [back]
  16. Ibid., p. 14. [back]
  17. Ibid., p. 101. [back]
  18. Ibid., p. 519. [back]