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First Petrograd Group: 1915-17

The encounter went well and after associating daily for one week, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky tacitly accepted the respective roles of teacher and pupil. Ouspensky, though elated, was professionally obliged to return to the capital Petrograd, where he worked and lived in a small room on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Liteynaia Street. Not until six months later was contact resumed during Gurdjieff’s three brief visits there in the autumn of 1915; indeed Ouspensky’s formal studies under Gurdjieff, commenced only in February 1916, when Gurdjieff although ill began to lecture in Petrograd fortnightly. From a circle assembled chiefly by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff gradually constituted his first Petrograd group, whose six members included Ouspensky and his romantic intimate Anna Ilinishna Butkovsky-Hewitt, the Finnish psychiatrist Dr Leonid Robertovich de Stjernvall, and Andrei Andreivitch Zaharoff. To this group during the five months between February and June 1916, Gurdjieff conveyed (in a systematic expository way, to which he never fully returned) virtually the entire apparatus of his cosmological and psychological ideas, which included the Law of Three, the Law of Seven, the Ray of Creation, the Table of Hydrogens, the Food Diagram, and the Cosmoses. With such unique acuity did Ouspensky register all this complex material that Gurdjieff confided to him the task of first outlining it to two highly significant new participants: the eminent classical composer Thomas Alexandrovitch de Hartmann and his young wife Olga Arcadievna.

During midsummer 1916 Gurdjieff came to live in Petrograd in an apartment close to Ouspensky at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Pushkinskaia; his groups, enlarged to thirty, met almost every evening, often in the house of Mme E. N. Maximovitch. In August, at the Maximovitch country dacha in Finland, Gurdjieff induced in Ouspensky an intense telepathic and mystical experience, which seems to mark the apogee of their rapport.


Through the autumn and winter of 1916 Ouspensky saw little of Gurdjieff (who had returned to Moscow to work there). Late in October Ouspensky was mobilised, commissioned in the Guards Sappers, and conveniently posted to regimental H.Q. in Petrograd, two miles from his new home on Troitskaia. Into this large apartment Ouspensky received the domineering divorcee Sophia Grigorievna Maximenko aged forty-two, with whom he entered into so-to-say a ‘marriage of inconvenience’. Possibly the unconventionality of this arrangement, as well as Ouspensky’s acute myopia, contributed to his premature and welcome demobilisation from the Guards in January 1917.

Diagram of Everything Living

Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg - 1917

(See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Credit_Lyonnais_Saint-Petersburg_1917.jpg)

Anna Butkovsky-Hewitt

Dr Leonid de Stjernvall

Thomas de Hartmann

Olga de Hartmann

At the beginning of February 1917, Gurdjieff made his last visit to Petrograd, lectured on the ‘Diagram of Everything Living’, and shortly returned to Moscow. Suddenly came civil disorder; the enforced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on 2 March 1917; and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. During the ensuing confusion of the provisional government (led by Prince Georgi Evgenievitch Lvov, later by Aleksander Feodorovitch Kerensky) Gurdjieff’s precise whereabouts were uncertain, and communication with him at first impossible, then inconclusive. Despite the seniority of Dr Stjernvall, it was Ouspensky who emerged in this vacuum as the de facto steward of the Petrograd group: energetic, paternalistic, and far-sightedly aware of the necessity of emigration.

Political demonstration at Petrograd, 18th June 1917

(By The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Library [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)