Golden Fever in the 1920-1930s and the Soviet Reception of Medieval Alchemy
Published: 23 March 2023 - Sergei Zotov
At the very beginning of the twentieth century, alchemy became popular again, after long oblivion. Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937) received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for the “transmutation” of radioactive thorium into helium, which he conducted in 1901. After that, Rutherford wrote a book with the catchy title The Newer Alchemy. The law of radioactive decay, formulated by Rutherford, implied the gradual transformation of one substance into another. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the press these experiments were perceived as the return of alchemy. Many other scientists pursued the modern “philosopher’s stone” under the influence of new inventions and articles published by the Alchemical Dociety in London, formed in 1912 and including both occultists and many significant scientists, chemists and physicists, like John Ferguson (1837–1916), and Herbert Stanley Redgrove (1887–1943). The goal of the Alchemical Society was to search for alchemical wisdom in ancient texts to implement this knowledge to the modern areas of scientific research.
Alchemy in the USSR
In the time of global knowledge exchange, these experiments and endeavours were perceived in the USSR with the hope to end the era of capitalism with free gold and other metals, produced by modern science, or “atomic alchemy”. We can find texts with hopes for a revival of alchemy in the body of legends of the Order of Russian Templars, created by an anarchist Apollon Karelin together with a symbolist poet Andrei Bely in 1920. The legend called The Alchemist recounts the significance of spiritual alchemy, but not chrysopoeia, the artificial production of gold. In a defiant course of lectures titled Criticism of Materialism, delivered in the 1920s, the anarcho-mystic Alexei Solonovich (1887–1937), quoted the early modern alchemist Paracelsus, opposing him to the teachings of Karl Marx, one of the pillars of the socialism: “Man lives not only on bread, but on a whole series of thoughts, experiences; he is what he feeds on physically, mentally, and spiritually”. Entire works on alchemy were written by scientist, poet, and freemason Nikolai Morozov (1854–1946). In 1930, the Soviet Ispolkom (Executive Committee) closed his Russian Society of Lovers of the World, whose members, among other things, studied alchemy and astrology. The Russian Templars were also arrested in the autumn of 1930, during the USSR anti-religious campaign, which also affected the occultists.
Figure 1. Illustration with the green lion experiment from Vladimir Ryumin’s The Entertaining Chemistry: Experiments and Entertainment from the Field of Chemistry (Leningrad, 1936).
From this time on, alchemical allusions were found only deeply hidden in the non-fiction literature. In 1925, Vladimir Ryumin (1874–1937), a well-known engineer and a popular science communicator, published a popular science book called The Entertaining Chemistry. Many people who lived in Soviet or Post-Soviet countries still remember this book, as it was an important part of children’s literature up to the 2000s. The Entertaining Chemistry is devoted to chemical experiments that can be done at home and is devoid of any positive references to alchemy: in Stalin’s Russia they were unimaginable. However, one of the experiments is called “the Saturn tree of the ancient alchemists”, referring to the recipe of the so-called “Tree of Paracelsus”, and the other recipe is about “the transformation of a white rose into a red one”, which indicates the author’s knowledge of the alchemical symbolism, where white and red roses denoted stages of albedo and rubedo, the making of elixirs capable of transmutating metals into silver and gold respectively. Finally, one more experiment describes the creation of a green lion (Figure 1). This is a transformation of a yellow cardboard lion, dyed with potassium chromic acid, into a green one, due to the influence of sulphur. Ryumin jokes that the lion “will turn green from fear of suffocating gas”: after the WWI, such allusions to gas attacks were obvious to everyone. But the alchemical reference was clear only to ones who knew about the alchemical symbolism. In medieval and early modern alchemy. the Green Lion denoted the primordial matter of which all metals are composed, or the acid that purifies the noble metals (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The Green Lion from the alchemical treatise Rosary of Philosophers, eighteenth century (Glasgow, University Library, Ms. Ferguson 210, fol. 59r). Courtesy of University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections: MS Ferguson 210.
However, in his Entertaining Chemistry Ryumin criticized medieval alchemists and laughed at them. And yet, despite this, the author himself believed in “modern alchemy”: he mentions the experiments of the German chemist Adolf Miethe, who in 1922 published the results of an experiment on the extraction of gold from mercury irradiated with ultraviolet rays using a mercury lamp. He got the gold by accident while experimenting with colouring glass for a photograph and decided to analyse the mercury deposits that had formed inside the lamp. Having obtained a very small amount of the precious metal from 5 kg of mercury, Mite photographed it using macro photography, which was unusual for the public at that time, and presented colour photographs of large bars of gold at a lecture on his discovery. In 1926, Miethe’s opponent, the chemist Fritz Haber, established that there is always a small amount of gold in any mercury. Moreover, gold is present in micro doses literally everywhere, even in the air we breathe — and only highly sensitive equipment is needed to find it. Haber found that gold can also be found in any material if one touches it with the same hand as the gold frame of your glasses. Most likely, the precious metal got into Miethe’s samples from the cables and electrodes in the lamp. At the same time, having criticized Miethe’s method, Haber himself suggested extracting gold from ocean waters: after all, there were up to 10 mg of precious metal in 1 mᶟ of water. Having calculated how much it would cost to produce gold from water on steamships plying between Germany and America, the scientist finally abandoned his plans to transform water into gold.
Vladimir Ryumin, clearly following Haber’s theory, says that the alchemists who sought to transmute mercury into gold were ultimately right, but they were simply doing it wrong. For Ryumin, only the chemists of the USSR would be able to extract gold from sea water, making everyone in the USSR rich. However, in the Soviet utopia, metal “will cease to be a measure of price. In the future, when the capitalist system will be destroyed everywhere, gold will become the same technically useful metal as all the others”. So Ryumin, who defended the Soviet chemistry (“in our time, chemistry is not anymore an occult science”) and fought with medieval alchemists, shows that he himself was no stranger to “Soviet alchemy” with its desire to make gold available for of all mankind.