John Patrick Deveney – USA
Lydia Paschkoff (Countess Lydia Alexandrovna de Pashkov)
One of the most intriguing keys to unlocking the murky history of H. P. Blavatsky in the years before she appeared in New York in 1873 is provided by those who knew her in the early years and then came forward to vouch for her, as Albert Leighton Rawson did, (1) or condemn her, as Emma Coulomb did. We can learn from both sides. Lydia Paschkoff is one of these witnesses who “knew H.P.B. when” and contributes several threads to the confused tapestry of the early history of H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. H.P.B. herself tells us (in Letter 78 to A. P. Sinnett) that Paschkoff was the kind soul who notified her that Agardi Metrovitch had fallen ill near Alexandria, Egypt, poisoned (as H.P.B. suspected) by villainous Catholic monks. (2) He died, as Master Hilarion had predicted, on April 19, 1872 (as H.P.B. believed) (3) —a date which, as we shall see, is almost certainly wrong.
Paschkoff re-entered H.P.B.’s life a few years later when she appeared in New York from Brazil in February 1878 and put up at the Fifth Avenue Hotel amidst a flurry of newspaper accounts, transforming her room there into an oriental splendor reminiscent of H.P.B.’s own rooms, flaunting her wealth and membership in the Geographic Society of Paris, and intimating her entitlement to the title “princess” or “countess. (4) Olcott’s diaries for the period record that H.P.B. found a place for Paschkoff at Mrs. Winchester’s house in Gramercy Park, and that he and the two Russians regularly exchanged visits. The entry for March 24th reads:
Evening. Paschkoff, Curtis & Sotheran to dine. After dinner Paschkoff told ghost stories for Curtis’s benefit & HSO interpreted them to him. Told wonderful adventures with H.P.B.in Cairo and the Libanus. (Evocations &c.)
The ghost stories, in turn, appeared a month later as “Ghost Stories Galore” in the New York World under Curtis’s byline. (5) Among the tales told by Paschkoff was the story of her meeting with H.P.B. in Syria:
I was once travelling between Baalbec and the river Orontes ...and in the desert I saw a caravan. It was Mme. Blavatsky’s. We camped together. There was a great monument standing there near the village of El Maroun. It was between Lebanus and the Anti-Lebanus. On the monument were inscriptions that no one could ever read. Mme. Blavatsky could do strange things with the ‘spirits,’ as I knew, and I asked her to find out what the monument was. We waited until night. She drew a circle and we went in it.(*) We built a fire and put much incense on it. Then she [rather he—Ed.] said many spells. Then we put no more incense. Then she pointed with her wand [something she never had—Ed.] at the monument and we saw a great ball of white flame on it. There was a sycamore tree nearby. We saw many little white flames on it. The jackals came and howled in the darkness a little way off. We put on more incense. Then Mme. Blavatsky commanded the spirit of the person to whom the monument was reared to appear.(**) Soon a cloud of vapour arose and obscured the little moonlight there was. We put on more incense. The cloud took the indistinct shape of an old man with a beard, and a voice came as it seemed from a great distance through the image. He said that the monument was once the altar of a temple that had long since disappeared. It was reared to a god that had long since gone to another world. ‘Who are you?’ said Mme. Blavatsky? ‘I am * * *,one of the priests of the temple,’ said the voice. Then Mme. Blavatsky commanded him to show us the place as it was when the temple stood. He bowed, and for one instant we had a glimpse of the temple and of a vast city filling the plain as far as the eye could reach. Then it was gone, and the image faded away. Then we built up big fires to keep off the jackals and went to sleep.
(*) Not so. It was the person—a Syrian who accompanied Mme. Blavatsky who drew the circle, not she, and the strange things he did do!—Ed.
(**) Mme. Blavatsky never did anything of the kind. It was the Syrian ascetic again, who produced these wonders, and far more extraordinary were the phenomena than given by the humorous writer.—Ed.
The version printed above is that given in The Theosophist in April 1884 to which H.P.B., as editor, carefully added the asterisked notes to reflect the very different view of practical magic obtaining in the T.S. after the removal from New York to India. Curtis’s version of events printed in The World, however, was based on Olcott’s simultaneous translation of Paschkoff’s French and there is no particular reason to doubt its general accuracy.
Paschkoff’s appearance in New York was providential and her testimony was called upon by Albert Leighton Rawson, in a letter printed in The Spiritualist on April 5,1878,to counter to claims that H.P.B. had never even been in the mysterious East and was the same as the otherwise unknown Russian traveler, “Nathalie Blavatsky,” who had apparently died in Aden:
Good fortune favors the diligent, and Madame Blavatsky is one of the most earnest workers in the literary world. The many columns of correspondence from her pen show that; and now there comes upon the scene, as if by magic, Madame Lydie de Paschkoff, a Russian countess, member of the Geographical Society in France, of a notable family, great fortune, and a traveler for many years. Madame Paschkoff fortunately knew the Madame Nathalie Blavatsky who died in Aden, and also knows, and has known, for many years, Madame H.P. Blavatsky, having met her in Syria, in Egypt, and elsewhere in the East. (6)
In May, when the “New York Circular” on the T.S. was ready, a bundle was given to Paschkoff to distribute in Japan, her next destination in her perpetual peregrinations. (7)Her last appearance in Theosophical history is the cryptic note in Olcott’s diaries for August 14, 1878: “Wrote HCC [Hurrychund C. Chintamon] to warn against Paschkoff, and H.P.B.!” The last two words, written in H.P.B.’s hand, seem to indicate that she also wrote to Chintamon for the same purpose. Some story must underlie this change of heart, but it is lost to us.
So, who was this Paschkoff? Despite the references to titles of nobility, she appears to have been simply a rich Russian woman, born in Moscow to a father whose landed holdings included 7,000 “souls” (a substantial number of serfs even in the Russia of those days), and a mother who had left the stage to marry the landed boyar. Lydia was married off, unhappily, then divorced and married again, to a man appointed as “Russian agent” in Cairo—which explains her presence there when she met H.P.B. By 1875 or 1876 she was in Paris, sans the second husband, where she published several novels on Russian upper-class life and, joined the Geographical Society of Paris. (8) She like other of the famous nineteenth-century women travelers, seems to have been a remittance woman, exiled or cut off from her roots and wandering the more romantic areas of the world in search of adventure or solitude—but doing so in the grand manner. Olcott in his diary entry for March 24, 1878, gives a telling portrait of the aristocratic Paschkoff:
This P is a curious creature. Her ordeal of society has not diminished her naturalness or innate honesty. She is helpless as a child, accustomed to be waited upon, cared for, & petted, in short to be helpless to the last degree. The society she depicts is something inexpressibly shocking, revolting to decency & a seething mire of moral pollution. She has herself been tainted but more a victim than the opposite. At 40 she seems a kitten in playfulness, a babe in helplessness, but withal a woman of truthfulness and sincerity of heart. (9)
To these fleeting and incomplete notes in the Theosophical literature we can add Paschkoff’s own account of her expedition to Syria. In 1877, before her appearance in New York, Paschkoff had published “Voyage à Palmyre” in Le Tour du Monde, complete with plates of her and her substantial entourage. (10) This expedition to Palmyra is undoubtedly the same as that recounted to Curtis and published in The World, but, curiously, the earlier version of the trip fails to mention H.P.B. even though Paschkoff carefully describes other persons, including Europeans, met along the way.
In her account in Tour du Monde, Paschkoff says she left Egypt on March 9, 1872, by sea, arrived in Damascus at the beginning of April, and then spent about a month making the circuit to Palmyra and then back through Keratein, Emèse (Homs), Baalbek and Beirut. It must then have been on the final legs of this trip, down the Bekaa Valley, probably in early May 1872, that Paschkoff met H.P.B.,“ between Baalbek and the river Orontes” as she says in the World account, and witnessed the evocation described to Curtis—though H.P.B. claimed to have made “a voyage to Palmyra and other ruins, whither she went with Russian
friends,” (11) so the two Russian women may have met somewhat earlier.
Paschkoff’s account certainly substantiates in part the story recounted by Curtis in The World. She, at
least, had been in the desert between Baalbek and the Orontes, and she had been there at approximately
the right time to fit into H.P.B.’s story of Metrovich’s death near Alexandria (though that must have occurred earlier than April 19th since Paschkoff had left Egypt in early March) and her return to Odessa by way of “Syria and Constantinople first and some other places.” (12) There remains to be explained, of course, why Paschkoff, diligent to mention the notables she met on her expedition, might have chosen to
omit H.P.B.—and there can be any number of explanations for the omission, not least the fact that H.P.B.’s presence in the wilderness does, after all, somewhat detract from Paschkoff’s priority as an intrepid, solitary European adventurer in the Syrian desert.
- See Deveney, “The Travels of H.P. Blavatsky and the Chronology of Albert Leighton Rawson: An Unsatisfying Investigation into H.P.B.’s Whereabouts in the Early 1850s,” Theosophical History 10, no. 1 (January 2004).
- T. Barker, transcriber and editor, The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1973), Letter LXXVIII, 189-90.
- “He [Metrovich] was a brave and daring man and could not bear it, so he went to Alexandria quand meme and I went after him with my monkeys, doing as Illarion told me, who said he saw death for him and that he had to die on April 19th (I think)” (The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, Letter LXXVIII). The year can be established from Letter LXI, in which H.P.B. told Sinnett that she stayed in Cairo from October or November 1871 to April 1872 and then returned to Odessa in July, visiting “Syria and Constantinople first and some other places.” In Letter XCV she says she returned to Odessa in May 1872.
- The Case of the Russian Princess,” March 1, 1878; “Adventures of a Woman. Mme. Lydie Paschkoff’s Strange Life and Experiences. From Russia to Brazil—What One Woman Has Seen,” New York Daily Graphic, Wednesday, March 13, 1878, p. 986;“Mme Paschkoff’s Views of New York,” New York World, April 21, 1878.
- “Ghost Stories Galore. A Night of Many Wonders. (At second hand in ‘the Eighth Avenue Lamasery.’) The Science of Apparitions Made Clear—Magic Rites In Far Off Eastern Deserts.” New York World, April 21, 1878, 9; reprinted in part in The Theosophist 5/7 (April 1884):167-68 (the version given here), and in part in Old Diary Leaves, 1:334-5. Also online at http://www.blavatskyarchives.com/ghoststoriesgalore.htm
- Rawson, “Two Madame Blavatskys.—The Acquaintance of Madame H.P. Blavatsky with Eastern Countries,” Spiritualist 12/14 (April 5,1878): 165-66, reprinted in Theosophical History 3/1 (January 1989).
- Josephine Ransom, compiler, A Short History of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, Wheaton and London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 104.
- “Adventures of a Woman,” New York Daily Graphic, March 13, 1878, 986. Paschkoff’s short novels Un Divorce en Russie, La Princesse Vera Glinsky, and La Niania Marpha were published in Moeurs Russes (Paris, 1876). She and her husband, the Russian agent, must be the same as the couple mentioned by H.P.B. in her letter to the Third Section:“ All the consuls came to visit me, but (probably because I was a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Pashkovskii and Mme. de Leks did not like them) all my efforts were in vain.” Marie Carlson, “To Spy or Not to Spy: ‘The Letter’ of H.P. Blavatsky to the Third Section,” Theosophical History 5/7 (July 1995): 225-231. Further details of Paschkoff’s life and of her later influence on other women infatuated with the East can be found in K. Paul Johnson’s The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).
- The age given in Olcott’s entry indicates Paschkoff was born about 1838. The bibliographical entry in the Bibliotheque Nationale says she was born in 1845.
- Lydie Paschkoff, “Voyage à Palmyre. 1872—Le Tour du Monde 33 (1877): 161-176. She traveled with more than 80 pack animals and horses, and was catered to by dragomans, soldiers, and servants, and enjoyed a carefully selected cellar of Burgundies to drink in lieu of the polluted water.
- P. Sinnett, Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky (London: Redway, 1886), 168. Sinnett mentions that H.P.B.’s adventures made the French and even the American newspapers, but I have not found the articles.
- T. Barker, transcriber and editor, The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1973), Letter LXI.
This article is published with the kind permission of Professor James Santucci, editor of Theosophical History. For more interesting articles and subscriptions follow this link: https://theohistory.org/
Note from the editor: John Patrick Deveney is the author of the highly-praised study Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), and frequent contributor to Theosophical History. He is the author of two Theosophical History Occasional Papers: Astral Projection or Liberation of the Double and the Work of the Early Theosophical Society (THOP VI), and Free Love, Universal Reform and Fraud: The Economics and Transformation of American Spiritualist Camp Meetings in the Nineteenth Century (THOP XIII).
Mr. Deveney was a lawyer who practiced in New York City until his retirement.