Vol 8: Reflections of a Roerich House Mongolia Volunteer

Introductory Note: When Prof Bira invited me to assist him in his efforts to save the Roerich House in Mongolia from developers, the house was in a state of complete devastation. Floors and walls were destroyed, most windows were broken, and the place looked like an image from a war zone. It had largely been used by drunks and derelicts for well over a decade, and was in terrible condition. Finding money to repair it was one thing; finding people with skills at restoration was another.

            It was at this time that I received an email from a young Croatian restoration artist, Vedran Bolfek. “I love Roerich and his work” he wrote me, “and would love to visit Mongolia. If you wish, I can come for a few months in the spring and summer, and help with the restoration work.”

            Naturally I was excited. “Come as soon as you can,” I replied. “We want to be up and running by July 6th, the Dalai Lama’s birthday.”

            He arrived in mid spring, and worked a solid twelve hours a day, seven days a week, from then until our opening. Without him, we could never have made the deadline. Of course it was a partial opening, for we did not yet have running water, electricity or toilets. These things all take time, requiring paperwork and permission from the municipal government; and governments usually operate at a more relaxed schedule than we were on. But we nonetheless managed to be up and running for the summer, so that we could host visiting groups of foreign visitors to Mongolia, and have a lecture and art program for local Mongols.

            Vedran, like Roerich, demonstrated that, in practical reality, the efforts of one individual can make a huge difference With him we succeeded. Without him, we would not have done so.

Glenn Mullin, Blog Editor


Mongolia is the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky or Monkh Khokh Tenger. It is a land little known in Europe today, much the same as it was when Nicholas Roerich visited with his wife Helena and son George in the 1920s. It is an ancient land with an ancient legacy, much of which is surrounded in mystery.

Such were my feelings when I arrived in Ulaanbaatar two years ago. I am a professional building restorationist by trade, and I had come to Mongolia as a volunteer worker to help restore the house in which Nicholas Roerich had lived and painted during his sojourn of 1926 and 1927.

As I walked onto the dilapidated property where he had resided those many decades ago, I imagined that he probably experienced many of the same feelings of excitement, wonder and awe that I was now feeling myself. Like him, I had been fascinated with the history of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet itself, in regions such as Mongolia. From the mid-thirteenth century on, the Mongolian khans had played a profound role in the transformation of Tibetan Buddhism into an international spiritual tradition. Tens of thousands of Mongolians had travelled to Tibet to study and practice, and the cross-fertilization had worked both ways. Tibetan Buddhism benefitted from the Mongolian genius, and the Mongols had benefitted from the Buddhist legacy of India that the Tibetans had worked so diligently to preserve in its purity. In later centuries, when the Dalai Lama emerged as the principal spiritual and temporal leader of the Land of Snows, the Mongol khans continued to play a major role in the un foldment of this unique institution. Indeed, I strongly recommend to everyone with an interest in Central Asian history that they look deeply into the connections between the Dalai Lamas of Tibet and the khans of Mongolia, It is a fascinating and often overlooked aspect of history.

I first learned about the house in Ulaanbaatar where the Roerichs had lived through a blog posted by the illustrious Don Croner, on his site “Don Croner’s Wide World of Wanders.” I did not know much about Nicholas Roerich at that time, and Don’s blog inspired me to undertake a private research. I am proud to say that after my arrival in Mongolia I had the honor of meeting Don in person. In fact, as documented in an erlier edition “The Roerich Mongolia Blog, Don became strongly involved in the effort to restore the Roerich House, and published several Roerich books in honor of the occasion, including Roerich’s book on Shambhala, as well as his “The Heart of Asia.”.

I should say from the beginning that it would be dishonest of me to set myself forward as a person who has a deep background or interest in art. However, Roerich’s paintings struck a strong chord in me. Immediately on seeing them I fell in love with his vision of the world, and of the soul of man. He seemed to bring a kind of adventurism into his paintings, an almost palpable historical energy. Ant there was a positive sense about them that seemed to reveal all the greatness of times past, while at the same time pointing to how this greatness or positive quality of spirit could be drawn upon to inspire humanity to evolve in creative directions.

When I learned that Roerich was not only a painter and traveler, but also was scholar of Buddhism, a philosopher, a social thinker and activist, and an avid researcher into the subject of Shambhala, my interest in him grew even stronger.

I remember what I was told in Ulaanbaatar by a couple of Russian visitors. They were wonderful people from Siberia. They said, “Russia has never produced a greater man than Nicholas Roerich. Perhaps it will never produce one equal to him again.”

I spent six months or so a year for the next two years in Mongolia, working on the Roerich House. There were many memorable events, too many to recount here. I could safely say, though, that what was most impressive for me was meeting with so many people from all over the world who had such great respect for Roerich and his work.

The ideas of some social thinkers quickly become obsolete. The opposite is true with Nicholas Roerich. Rather than becoming obsolete or old fashioned, it seems to me that his social philosophy is becoming more and more relevant with the passage of time. For that reason I greatly admire those people around the world who are working with passion and determination to keep the memory of his legacy alive. It is a great honor for me that I was able to make a small contribution in this respect by helping restore his residence in Ulaanbaatar, and transform it into a museum and art institute. It was truly a priceless experience for me.

As I write these words my eyes occasionally move from my computer screen to the night sky, and I look eastward. Thoughts of that house where Nicholas, Helena and George lived in 1926 and 1927 arise within me, and I feel a warm emotion swelling up within my chest. It is clear to me that they have affected my life in a beautiful way. It is perhaps too soon now to fully understand this effect at this point in time, but I can clearly sense its presence, like a keystone in the architecture of my future.

Of course my time in Mongolia was not all spent inside the Roerich House walls. It was not all carpenter’s dust, hammer and nails. While there I took the time to visit many parts of Mongolia that were of historical relevance to Buddhism.

These included Amarbayasgalant Monastery, where the holy body of the First Jetsun Dampa, Zanabazar, was interned after his death in 1724; the great temple complex of Erdeni Zuu in Kharakhorum, where Altai San Khaan built a temple complex in the 1580s in honor of the visit of the Third Dalai Lama to the Mongol lands; and Khamar Khiid, where the Fifth Noyon Lama, Danzan Rabja, that illustrious mystic, poet and lama rebel, built a meditation center and temple complex in the early 1800s. I strongly believe people in the West with an interest in Buddhism should make every effort to visit such places, to walk where these great beings have walked, breath the air and dust of the holy places associated with their lives and deeds. In my case, perhaps my strongest spiritual experience came when I meditated in Amarbayasgalant Monastery, inside the temple that served as the resting place for the mummified body of First Jetsun Dampa, the Bogd Gegen Zanabazar. I know that this was one of those experiences that will take many years to fully comprehend.

But I digress. Let’s return to the story of the Roerich House restoration project.

I arrived in Mongolia as a volunteer on this project in the spring of 2009, and remained into the early winter. I then returned to Croatia for some months, but came back to Mongolia again in the spring of 2010. In total I donated thirteen months of my life to this project.

Earlier I mentioned how I learned of the Roerich House in Ulaan Baatar through “The Worldwide Wanders of Don Croner.” Shortly after that I contacted Glenn Mullin, a Canadian writer living in Mongolia who was working as the project coordinator and fundraiser in the restoration of the house. I mentioned to Glenn that I am not a wealthy person, so could not donate funds, but that I am a professional restoration worker, and could donate some time. That is to say, I could travel to Mongolia and work on the house with my hands.

Glenn was very enthusiastic. He commented that the Mongolians are good builders, but that they do not have much experience with restoration work. My skills, he said, would be very useful. He immediately arranged for my stay, and requested Mrs. Shuree Nyam of the Foreign Ministry to facilitate a residence visa for me. I would like to thank both of them for their kindness.

As I mentioned above, I arrived in the spring of 2009. Basic restoration work had commenced in March, and I came slightly after that.

Glenn was determined that we should have a “soft” opening on July 6th, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, so that we could have the museum open for visitors through the summer. Therefore the pace was very intense from the moment I arrived. It was hard and somewhat dirty work at that stage of the project: sawing wood, hammering, plastering boards, and painting.

There were moments of elation as well. Glenn had wanted us to create an arced doorway between the two rooms that would be used as the museum cafe and art gallery. Amazingly, as we slowly took down the wall separating these two rooms, we were amazed to discover that in reality the arch already was there, just covered up by plaster. Sometime in the house’s past history the two rooms had been separated and rented out as individual dwellings, and the arch had been covered over. things like our discovery of old wooden arch that was hidden inside wall dividing two rooms. We removed the boards, polished and painted the arch and it is there today right in front of you as you enter the Roerich House.

There were also times when our most simple intentions turned almost into science fiction. I could go on about brick deliveries that never came, cutting logs with a1.8 meter handsaw that our dearest worker and friend Puntsok brought from his home on a bus! Or the efforts of transporting building materials like long wooden boards in a taxi car. These things were all part of the amazing everyday life in Ulaanbaatar.

Because Glenn is a Buddhist writer with books in numerous languages, over the summer of 2009 he was able to get Buddhist friends from various countries who were travelling in Mongolia for the summer to bring their groups to the museum. Perhaps once a week or so we would host a group of this nature. It was always exciting to meet these people, and witness their enthusiasm for the Roerich House restoration. Glenn was also able to organize for great lamas to come to the house and speak. The first of these was the great Telopa Hugatht, who visited and spoke at the museum shortly after the opening. Mongols came in large numbers to see him, because his former incarnation was one of the three greatest lamas in Mongolia. This incarnation was born of Mongol blood, but in Philadelphia. He presently serves as the head lama in the Kalmuk Republic, Russia, and visits Mongolia every summer. The great Green Tara Emanation also taught in the Museum; a lady in her mid sixties, she is said to be the chief of the 108 Mongolian emanations of Tara. Her monastery is in Hovst Amaig, Southwest Mongolia, but she visits Ulaanbaatar from time to time. The British writer and meditation teacher Keith Dowman also visited and taught on another occasion, also to a full house.

As a Croatian, I learned some Russian while a schoolboy. The Roerich House is in what is referred to as “The Russian Quarter.” In early Soviet times the Russian Embassy had been located there, and the golden roves of the Russian Orthodox Church, located across the street from Roerich House, are a dominate feature of the local skyline. While working in the house I managed to meet many of the local Russian (or rather Russio-Mongolian) inhabitants. Most of them had been born in Mongolia, after their forefathers settled in Mongolia back the first half of the twentieth century. The Russian Quarter must have been a fascinating time in those days, when Nicholas Roerich visited with his family. Many of those original Russian settlers were traders and craftsmen. It must have been an Ortodox Christian parish, as evidenced by the church that still stands there.

One of my “local Russian” friends, Andrey, whose family came to Mongolia before the Revolution of 1921, told me that there were numerous Cossack settlements in rural Mongolia in those early days, mostly engaged in herding and animal husbandry. Most of those Cossack Russians disappeared in the early 1920s, killed either by the “Mad” Baron von Sternberg of the White Russian Army, or subsequently by the Red Bolsheviks, who saw them as an obstacle in the class struggle, since all these settlers had wealth. Eventually those original Cossack Russians in Mongolia almost completely disappeared, and were replaced by the new arrivals, the Russian Bolsheviks. This kind of unhappy history, that followed Communism wherever it went, is still the subject of conversation with many of the peoples whom I met during those summers of 2009 and 2010. Such is my observation, based not only on my conversations with Mongols and Russians in Mongolia, but also based on the example of my own country, Croatia, which similarly suffered under Soviet domination.

We all worked very hard during the spring and early summer of 2009 to get the house ready for the already announced July 9th opening and somehow we succeeded. The opening was scheduled for 4:00 pm, and at two in the afternoon Glenn forcefully asked us to put down hammers and saws, and get things ready. Yes, we hammered almost up to the last minute.

People started arriving at around 3:30. More than two hundred people came, and it seemed like a grand success.

Thus it was that the Nicholas Roerich House Museum and Shambhala Art Institute became partially functional on July 6th, 2009.

As I mentioned earlier, over the summer and autumn months to follow we had a steady flow of distinguished guest speakers. Of particular interest to me was the Telopa Tulku, the Shadjin Lama of Kalmykia. In his lecture he spoke on Shambhala. We had dedicated one of the larger rooms in the museum to the theme of Shambhala, a subject on which Roerich had written extensively. We had made this room into a teaching and meditation hall, with low wooden benches on which people could sit with legs crossed in the meditation posture.

Telopa Rinpochey’s teaching on that occasion is carved deeply into my mind.  I have always loved the mythology of Shambhala, which in traditional literature is presented in a multidimensional way. As Telopa Rinpochey´s pointed out, on a personal level, a practice level, it is important to find Shambhala within one’s own heart, one’s own soul. That said, the the legends of “portals” to or geographical locations associated with Shambhala are equally fascinating. Mongolia has always been associated with these portals in Indian, Tibetan and Mongolian literature. Many Shambhalists today believe that the Gobii s one of the places in the world where these multidimensional portals exist, power sites where meditators can connect the two realms of existence: this ordinary world, and the World of Shambhala.

I cannot say much about these Shambhala portals from personal experience. However, anyone visiting Mongolia will notice the unique energy of the land. The steppes, hills, valleys and rocks are almost radiant with a special energy. That power is largely invisible to Mongols today, perhaps because of the cruel and unimaginative nature of the seventy years of Soviet domination, but it is there nonetheless, perhaps more obvios to visitors, who look with fresh eyes, than to the Mongols themselves.

As romantic as Mongolia might look through lenses of memories of pleasant times, as a Croatian I cannot think of Mongolia during Roerich’s time without remembering the nightmare into which the country fell a decade after his visit, with the Communist Cultural Holocaust. Roerich’s dream of a new era of peace and prosperity, symbolized by the coming of Shambhala, of times of knowledge, culture and prosperity, were swept away in a sea of blood and destruction created by the Mongolian and Soviet Communists. The optimism that was radiating from Roerich’s art and social philosophy had to be put on hold for few generations.

The fall of Communism in 1989 and 1990 was perhaps a sign of the return of the optimism and creative vision embodied by Roerich and his work. This is true not only in Mongolia, but in numerous countries where people had been oppressed by the Soviet regime for decades.

Unfortunately healing and recuperation are not easy or instant. In most countries where Communism had dominated for so many years, one unwholesome mindset was simply replaced by another. In many formerly Soviet-bloc countries, brutal Communist dictatorships were replaced by an almost equally destructive obsession with materialism and instant profits. The newly discovered freedom that so many people acquired in 1989 and 1990 was much too often used to pursue selfish interests, at the expense of others in society, as well as at the expense of the environment. This is as true in Mongolia as it is in Russia today, and many of the East Europe countries that achieved freedom two decades ago. Freedom has the potential of being a good thing, but of course people must know how to use it.

Let’s hope that the worldview and social philosophy advocated by Roerich, and so inspiringly embodied in his art, will find its application within our lifetime, and will not have to wait for some next generation even farther away in the future.

by Vedran Bolfek

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3 Responses to Vol 8: Reflections of a Roerich House Mongolia Volunteer

  1. Michele Miley says:

    Great article Vedran. Congratulations on a job very well done!

  2. Kerry Schwartz says:

    Dear Mr. Bolfek,
    Thanks so much for your blog. I am an American living near San Francisco who just last week visited the Roerich Museum in New York City for the first time. I, like you, was deeply moved by his art and vision. I am also a student of Tibetan Buddhism and a teacher in the Shambhala tradition (my teacher was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who understood much about Shambhala as both a spiritual state of being, and as a current, powerful path to create enlightened society.) I am also an artist. So you can imagine my excitement to find such a human being as Nicholas Roerich, who embodied a love of all of these things. Keep up the good work and thank you for your contibutions! There is much merit and benefit for the world in what you are doing.

  3. Ruth Drayer says:

    Hi Glenn and Vedran,
    I so enjoyed this blog. I worked on my “NIcholas & Helena Roerich, The Spiritual Journey of Two Great Artists and Peacemakers” for 15 years before it was finally ready for publication. The project changed my life as it has yours…and among all the wonderful things I am left with is a deep love for Mongolia. I carry it in my heart. Thank you so very much for your contribution to the legacy of the Roerichs. We are attempting right now to get my little DVD that tells a summarized version of my book converted for Youtube. Hope it will be available soon. Blessings to all, Ruth

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