Velesova Kniga: Folklore? Faith? Fascism? or simply Faux?

Maria Carlson, University of Kansas, Lawrence

In late 1953, Aleksandr Kurenkov (A.A. Kur; 1891-1971) published excerpts from an “ancient” runic manuscript of mysterious provenance in San Francisco's limited-circulation émigré journal, Zhar-Ptitsa. The manuscript, etched onto small wooden boards, had been found at an unspecified estate near the Russian-Ukrainian border during the Civil War by Ali Izenbek, a Russified Turkish officer serving in the White Army. Izenbek emigrated (taking the boards) to Brussels, where he became a carpet designer. In Brussels he told his story to a Russian chemist-turned-journalist, Iurii Miroliubov (1892-1970), who asked permission to make a copy of the runes. Izenbek died in 1941, before Miroliubov could complete his laborious task. The boards mysteriously disappeared -- undocumented and unphotographed -- ostensibly taken by the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage Society of the Nazi SS). After the war, Miroliubov sent his precious transcriptions to a fellow émigré, Sergei Paramonov, in Australia. Paramonov, an entomologist-turned-amateur historian, pronounced the runes an “authentic” pre-ninth century Russian manuscript. Miroliubov's transcribed runes in modern Russian translation found their way to Kurenkov in San Francisco, then into a series of émigré publications in North America and Europe, and finally into Russia.

By 1960 Soviet linguists, historians, and anthropologists had discredited the manuscript as a forgery, most likely perpetrated by one of Russia's most famous fabricators, Aleksandr Sulakadzev (1771-1839). Sulakadzev listed several manuscripts on boards in his private library of forgeries. Dmitrii Likhachev, Boris Rybakov, Lidiia Zhukovskaia, Oleg Tvorogov, Anatolii Alekseev, and other leading linguistic, medieval, and early Slav specialists went on record stating that Miroliubov's manuscript was a forgery. But the Akademiia Nauk turned out to be no match for electrician-turned-pseudo-philologist Aleksandr Barashkov [Asov, Kresen'], one of the leaders of post-collapse Russia's New Paganism movement.

Today we know this manuscript as Velesova kniga (Vlesova kniga, Kniga Velesa). What was a tiny time bomb in 1953 exploded with a bang after 1990, when Velesova kniga quickly became the sacred text of the growing East Slavic neo-pagan movement (novoe iazychestvo). The rest is history -- but not in the West. American scholars know little about Velesova Kniga, what it is about, why it is important, or how it generated an enormous and ongoing religious, sectarian, academic, literary, and popular controversy.

This paper traces the history of Velesova kniga, discusses its valorizing (and eccentric) view of Slavic prehistory, and explores the culturological role that it has assumed in a collapsed empire with a serious identity problem. One of the two branches of novoe iazychestvo has used Velesova kniga as an opportunity to revive interest in East Slavic folklore and inspire new literary work; the other has used it to further a political, Aryan, and anti-Semitic agenda (cf. the German Das Völkische of the early 20th century). Velesova kniga has become an “empty vessel” that its poklonniki fill with their own views of Russian identity on the principle that, “if you do not like who you are, change who you were.”