From the Diary of Sina Lichtmann-Fosdick
Translated from the Russian by Vedran Bolfek
With an Afterword by Aida Tulskaya, Roerich Museum, NY
We at the Roerich House in Mongolia, formally known as the Nicholas Roerich Shambhala Museum and Art institute, are delighted to share a translation recently made from Russian into English by our friend, co-worker and Roerich House restoration artist Vedran Bolfek. The text is taken from the published Russian edition of the diary of Sina Lichtmann, who visited the Roerichs in Mongolia in 1927 with her husband Maurice Lichtmann.
In fact the Lichtmanns played a major role in the Roerich expedition of 1925-1928 from beginning to end. This expedition travelled from Ladakh in India through most of the seven great Mongolian kingdoms of the time, as well as through Tibet, finally coming back to India via Sikkim.
Working from their base in New York City, the Lichtmanns organized supplies for the exhibition, and also organized for the hundreds of paintings created by Nicholas Roerich during this expedition, as well as the Buddhist artifacts and other cultural items gathered by him, to be shipped to the newly established Roerich Museum in New York.
Maurice and Sina Lichtmann later divorced, and Sina remarried, taking the name of her new husband, Fosdick. The diary is therefore published under her second name, Sina Fosdick.
The original Roerich Museum at 103rd Street collapsed in the late 1930s because of the Great Depression, as well as from internal conflicts associated with its original chief patron. A smaller facility was acquired a decade later on 107th Street and Riverside, and Sina went on to become its director. As Aida points out in the Afterword to this article, Sina served in this capacity until her death.
We would like to thank Vedran for making the material available in English. If any readers are interested in supporting a project, they might consider funding Vedran to translate Sina’s complete diary, not just the account of the brief period that she spent in Ulaanbaatar in 1927. –
Glenn Mullin, blog editor
An Excerpt from Sina’s Diary: A Translation from the Russian Edition
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar at five o’clock. Getting here is extremely difficult, for the road is appallingly bumpy. We were liable for customs inspection, but the authorities just let us pass without even checking our baggage. The city is rather dirty, but it is also very interesting and quiet, with temples, yurts, and sanctuaries, and is rimmed by beautiful snowy mountains with remarkable contours and nuances of lilac, pink and gray.
We went to Consul Alley. There we beheld a lovely house. Its big doors opened before us, and we caught sight of Nicholas and George Roerich running out from the house to meet us. We were all very happy, and we greeted one another with kisses.
Helena Ivanovna stayed inside, sick and in bed. The group had been waiting for us for the past two days, and had driven out to the road several times in an open wagon. As a result, poor Helena had come down with a bad cold.
We were given a room in the house of their host, that shared the same courtyard where they lived. Our room was small and had no bed, so they offered us the use of their mattresses until our baggage arrived. We were so happy to be here with them. Doctor Ryabinin and Vladimir Nicholayevich (the brother of Nicholas) stayed at Vsyesvyatski’s place half a block away. We were so dirty that we looked like hobos, so we quickly washed up and returned. All of them had dressed up for the occasion. George looked handsome; Nicholas had aged a bit, but looked wonderful.
Poor Helena, however, looked unhealthy. She had been sickly throughout the winter, with influenza and other problems. The air here is terribly dusty, and the wind carries many germs. She has a frail constitution with which to meet these conditions.
The Roerichs had worked hard over the past months since I had last seen them. Nicholas had finished around 100 paintings. At the same time, Helena had prepared two books for publication.
Now I will describe how they lived.
They had been assigned a small but lovely house, with a low porch that had two steps leading to a big door. The first room upon entering is a dining room, with a wooden closet as well as two collapsible tables and chairs, and a big wood-fed stove. Off the dining room is a small foyer for hanging coats. The foyer also has a sink for washing hands when arriving; this is necessary because of the terrible dust.
George’s room lies off of this. It is smaller, with book shelves, a table and also a mattress.
After that you get to bigger room, with a small table in the middle, and with chairs. It also has shelves filled with all kinds of medicines and materials.
A most beautiful tangka hangs from the main wall in Nicholas’s painting room, making the place very picturesque. The room itself has two windows. Nicholas worked here during the winter months.
Helena’s room is situated to the right of this. It is rather small, with two windows and two mattresses, as well as a small table. Nicholas also slept here.
Their shrine room is the most wonderful, with an amazing tangka hanging on one of the walls. The sanctum is covered in purple velvet. The third window in this room was used specially for this purpose.
A wonderful Buddhist image has been set in the center of the altar, with khadags (prayer scarves) draped over it. A couple of smaller buddha statues are arranged around it, also with khadags hanging over them. The altar is decorated with copper butterlamps, beautiful pieces of crystal, sacred beads made from sandalwood, sacred figurines, and numerous drawings. All of this arouses a strong impression on visitors.
Two yurts stand in the courtyard. One is used as a toilette and bathroom (with a small tin bathtub). The other yurt is bigger, and serves as a home for their attendants, mostly Buryats and Tibetans.
A beautiful Russian girl by the name of Lyudmila serves as cook for the group, assisted by her fourteen years old sister. We had heard of Lyudmila while still in Urumqui.
Two Tibetan lamas are in the Roerich’s service and so is Konchok, who is traveling with them.
Also with them is a wonderful old Tibetan man by the name of Dedka. Nicholas likes to call him ”Half Man” because of his diminutive size. He has the responsibility of tidying up the rooms and feeding the furnaces. He is not going to travel with the Roerichs (when they leave Ulaanbaatar for Tibet). The other servants are Buryats. Altogether there are ten staff members. Most are unskilled; untrained raw material.
They also have a secretary and technical assistant by the name of Pavel Konstantinovich Portyaghin, a young man of twenty-four. He is not very friendly, but hopefully he will change and more use will become of him.
It is hard to express how happy we were to meet each other. Everyone was talking at the same time. We wanted to learn everything that had happened to them, and at the same time they wanted to hear all of our news.
From our side, our most important news concerned the construction of a twenty-four storey building dedicated to the Roerich vision. Work on it was scheduled to commence soon in New York. The prospect was very exciting.
The winter had been hard for them. Very little help had come from those who had promised it, and there were many obstacles and distractions.
For example, there was the silly advice that Nikiforov gave to them, to present a precious painting as a gift to the Mongolian government. Nikiforov insisted on this. Nicholas was reluctant to consent, but in the end was pressed to do so. The act of making such a gift had the adverse effect of making his place of residence more widely known.
In the end, however, it turned out well enough, and the Mongols were polite and seemed to appreciate his significance, as well as the significance of the gift. Nicholas referred to the painting as “The Great Rider,” and as “The Shambhala King.”
Some two days after our arrival we went to visit Dzhamtsarano, an advisor to the government. He is an educated man, and spoke of the possibility of cooperation with America. The day after meeting with Dzhamtsarano we went to see the painting that had been gifted to the Mongolian government. It was hanging in the Prime Minister’s parlor. On that occasion (when visiting the Prime Minister’s office) the government offered to send a man to guide the expedition to the border when it left. This was very useful. In the end they gave a lama as the expedition’s guide.
April 8, 1927
We got up early as usual and went to see the parents. Breakfast was at 8:20. After that Maurice and Nicholas went into the city to run some errands that had to be taken care of before our departure.
On their return they told us how they went to see the representative at the Trading Mission. He had assured them that everything would be ready for the departure as planned. He promised that he would have all cars ready at the earliest date possible, but added that some parts of the road were in poor condition, and that this might delay delivery of the vehicles. It was amazing how these words came after a talk with one man yesterday who had been sent by Blumkin, and who had insisted that the expedition must wait for Blumkin’s return.
We packed up books and other articles, to have them sent home. George and I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to obtain custom permits so that some of our belongings could be sent on an earlier flight. We could go on a different plane.
We worked all day long helping Helena to pack up. We also had to take constant notes of advice from Nicholas.
I had an impressive talk with Helena about the soul. As she explained in her book on Buddhism, every incarnation has a new ingredient.
That evening Helena spoke to us about Brothers, naming many names and also about Sisters. She spoke of how eleven Brothers and three Sisters are incarnated in physical bodies and others in astral ones. She described many of them specially Vogan who loves Sister Phon Po very much. They received long and serious Missive.
The next day early in the morning we went to parents, packing our baggage and then they went to the city center and I stayed with Helena and had a long talk about the new building in New York, and the planned and accommodation for its directors.
<<< Today we sent part of our baggage on the airplane. We will fly on Friday ourselves.
Later in the evening Dzamtsarano came and spoke wonderful words to Nicholas. He stated that one lame had many visions during August of 1926. In that vision all Mongols were praying, facing west. Then “The Great Rider” appeared. Everyone turned their heads toward the southeast.
Dzamtsarano concluded, “Then you came in September.“ It became clear that everybody is giving great meaning to the painting “The Great Rider, the Ruler of Shambhala,” that had been given by Nicholas Roerich.
Dzamtsarano also requested Roerich to consider a project for a temple/library where that painting would be exhibited, together with holy books and other things. The temple, he said, could be built from jasper and crimson.
<<< In the evening we were left alone. Helena told the doctor about her two dreams that she had while she was mourning for her mother.
In the first dream she saw herself walking on the astral plane, She arrived at a long corridor, and then she entered into a great hall with a large ladder. Many people dressed in red stood on either side of the ladder, with black spots on their bodies. The higher they were standing (on the ladder), the fewer black spots they had. Going higher and higher, the ladder and the beings emanated very beautiful pinkish-red lights.
Then (in Helena’s dream) she saw a gigantic figure dressed in red, with a black cloak on his back. He rushed down from top to bottom. He had an unusually beautiful face and long black hair. The figure rushed down directly to Helena and, without reaching the lowest bar of the ladder, he tipped over in lassitude but so graciously and pretty. It was Lucifer and he was gorgeous.
In her second dream she saw a sphere in bluish, silver and white tones, almost like sunlight. Again there was a great ladder, and people in white with blue nuances were standing on both sides of it. Then the great figure of Christ very slowly descended down the ladder. He was touching groups of people on both sides of the ladder. They started to emit golden sunlight. She began to worry that if he were to come to her and touch her, she will also start to glow. He came and touched her, and she did start glowing and feeling the great light.
Doctor suggested that perhaps the dream indicated that Helena had witnessed Lucifer’s fall.
April 10, 1927.
We started our work early in the morning and until ten we were packing up our baggage. Helena is amazingly energetic and brisk, she practically did everything by herself.
<<< During the day we continued with packing and helping Helena. Things are always very cheerful with them. One can always hear laughter and jokes. There is never anger or harsh words. At the same time, when necessary they are stern and rigorous.
In the evening we had guests. They were dear but boring people. After that B.K. and I did some paper work and then considered future responsibilities.
Helena noted how people who grow faster are sometimes obliged to consider themselves secluded and isolated from others, because other people can be envious and can not understand them. She said that we are obliged to keep serenity even in most critical moments. She stated that we would meet again after three year.
She was flattering me and hugging and kissing me, I was feeling as if some sunshine was warming me up from inside.
Two more days and they are leaving!
April 11, 1927
We went to them early in the morning for breakfast, and as soon as we arrived we started to plan our work The Tibetan assignee arrived. He is a nice man, and brought khadags (prayer scarves) and farewell gifts. Unfortunately Helena and I were alone; the others had all gone out to accomplish various tasks. Therefore we had to entertain him for three hours by ourselves, with only a house servant as our translator. In the end, for want of a better thing to do, I asked him to pronounce Tibetan names and words. In the end we had very good language class.
<<< In the morning Helena was given an injection of spermine (two grams). The pain was terrible, and she screamed and cried. Her whole organism was in state of shock. It seemed to be terribly painful, and she must have felt awful.
April 12, 1927
It was a hard day. We all had many things to do in the morning. Helena noticed that the cars were only carrying only one spare tire each, for such a difficult and dangerous journey. She demanded that the drivers go to the Trade Mission and obtain all the spare parts necessary. If it wasn’t for her intervention at that time, the expedition would have had many problems later down the line. It turned out that the chief trade representative had gone hunting rather than taking care of the plans for the expedition’s departure!
A lama came and gave khadags to everyone.
It was sad to see that Doctor and Portyaghin, two guests on the expedition (and paid for it too) who were supposed to work together with other, didn’t want to work. They seemed only to demand things from others, especially Doctor, rather than make themselves useful.
It is impossible to describe the amount of love and care I was shown by Nicholas and Helena during these days. Today Helena again was hugging and kissing me repeating. She commented on how sad she is that in all this haste she didn’t find the time to talk with me in peace, and to read a bit with me.
To experience their love again I would be happy to go around the world just to meet with them. Nicholas put his hand on my shoulder and spoke to me with care. What great souls! When we will see them again?
Today in evening we departed early. Helena had to lie down, because she felt tired and sick. She said that she had dreamed of me. In her dream I had brought her a book with my thoughts in it, and she kissed the book. Now she believes that the next time I come I will share with her my thoughts regarding the work that has been accomplished.
Tomorrow morning they are leaving!
April 13, 1927
At six in the morning we were at their home. Preparations for departure were already on the way, and the baggage is almost loaded on the cars. The mattresses are folded, and the sleeping bags belayed. I was helping with final the packing.
At seven Dzamtsarano came with an official to escort everyone through customs control. We had tea with him. He brought a lama with him, who will serve as guide for our expedition all the way to the border.
He said he had worked all night long to prepare the necessary permits and passes for that lama, so he could accompany us on the expedition. Such respect and attentiveness!
Around nine we came out from the house. Dzhamtsrano was asking about licenses and car numbers, pointing out that without them the authorities will not let us through. It was clear that the Trade Representative had been negligent, or even worse, and had not attended to this matter properly. It became rather chaotic. Nicholas and George had to run from one place to another in order to get the car number plates. Every official blamed the other, and tried to exonerate himself. The Mongols observing the scene broke into laughter over the manifestation of incompetence.
It is important to mention how much Dzamtsarano did on all instances to try and improve the situation. His helpfulness was outstanding.
The talk was that our departure would have to be adjourned, but then finally at three o’clock people returned with the number plates. Nicholas and George were exhausted with the effort. Helena laughed and quoted the saying on how the last of the leftovers are never the most tasty parts of the meal. It fit our situation. Our stay in Ulaanbaatar had been wonderful, but the “leftovers” of being stuck in the courtyard from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon was a bit of a worry.
<< Then the Trade Representative came, the man who had been out hunting all morning instead of supervising the arrangements for our departure. He was rather ashamed, and invited us to sit in his car. He also offered to accompany us for the first part of the journey, in order to show the route to the first post. I went in his car and V.K. went with Dzhamtsarano, who also had desire to escort the expedition.
<<< In this way we accompanied them for the first part of their journey. It was beautiful day. The sky was clear and azure. Avirakh had caught a cold, and so stayed at home. We traveled with them for twenty-one miles, all the way to Sengen, and from there parted ways.
There is little need to say how sad we all felt in saying goodbye, knowing where they were now going (i.e., across Mongolia, into Tibet and back to India). We knew that we would now be apart for a long time. Helena and Nicholas hugged and kissed me, asking me to tell about everything that I heard and seen when I got back home. They asked me to their give love and good wishes to everyone back in New York.
During last night together both Nicholas and Helena looked so wonderfully great, albeit somewhat weary. Ah, my beloved ones! Helena was smiling, wearing her soft gray cap which we brought with us from Moscow. She was hugging and kissing me, calling me “Sinochka.” (The word “sina” in Sanskrit means “urgency”).
<<< We will leave tomorrow at 4:30 in the morning to the airport, because the airplane will leave at 5:00. We are exhausted..
In the morning or perhaps I should say late that last night in Mongolia, we got up, washed our faces, had tea and left our dear little but now sad home. Dedka chanted a few bon voyage chants for us, and pointed out that auspicious signs were present in the sky, predicting good weather.
At 5:45, we said goodbye to Dedka and Dasha, the house maid, and took our seats on the airplane.
From Diary of Sina G. Fosdick
Afterword by Aida Tulskaya:
Sina Fosdick was one of the Roerichs’ closest and most trusted co-workers. She was born Zinaida Shafran in 1889 in Odessa, in the Russian Empire.
Even as a small child her musical talent was obvious, and her parents gave her the best possible education in the field: first, in Leipzig, then in Berlin where she studied under Leopold Godovsky. When Godovsky moved to Vienna to head the Piano School at the Royal Academy of Music, Sina followed him.
In 1912, after Sina’s father died, Sina and her husband Maurice Lichtmann (who also was a student of Godovsky) immigrated to America. They were accompanied by Sina’s mother. Here, they worked as piano teachers at the Godovsky Piano Institute, and later started their own piano school.
In 1921, after Sina and Maurice Lichtmanns had met with the Roerichs and become their followers, the Lichtmann Piano School became a part of the School of Arts founded by the Roerichs. After the School of Arts had grown and become the Institute of United Arts, Sina Lichtmann became its director.
Since 1949, when the Nicholas Roerich Museum was reinstated at West 107th Street, and until her death in 1983, Sina (now Fosdick by her second marriage) remained its director.
Sina was one of those rare souls who very quickly understood the scope of the cultural and spiritual mission of the Roerichs. She bacame a close and loyal co-worker until the end of her life. Through lectures, writings and correspondence she actively promoted and disseminated the Roerichs’ art and philosophy.
Sina participated in the Altai and Mongolia parts of the Roerich expedition of 1923 – 1928. She was with them in Moscow, India, and Mongolia. She left many diary notebooks about the most important events and experiences of her life, especially about her times with the Roerichs, their meetings and discussions, their teachings, their personalities.
Fragments of her diaries were published in Russian in 1998 by Sphera Publishing House.
The excerpts translated above about the Roerichs in Mongolia are taken from this publication.