George Gurdjieff

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George Gurdjieff : biography

13 January 1866 – 29 October 1949

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution, he set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then in Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils.

In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own right. The two men were to have a very ambivalent relationship for decades to come.

Four months later, Gurdjieff’s eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, informing him that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May. As Essentuki became more and more threatened by civil war, Gurdjieff fabricated a newspaper story announcing his forthcoming "scientific expedition" to "Mount Induc". Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with fourteen companions (excluding Gurdjieff’s family and Ouspensky). They traveled by train to Maikop, where hostilities delayed them for three weeks. In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his Sacred Dances (Movements at the Tbilisi Opera House, 22 June).

In Georgia and Turkey

In the autumn of 1919, Gurdjieff and his closest pupils moved to Tbilisi, formerly known as Tiflis. There Gurdjieff’s wife, Julia Ostrowska, Mr and Mrs Stjoernval, Mr and Mrs de Hartmann and Mr and Mrs de Salzmann, gathered the fundamentals of his teaching. Gurdjieff concentrated on his still unstaged ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians; Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut years ago, before Czar Nicholas II of Russia) worked on the music for the ballet; and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later wed the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled by foot to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra, and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower., Gurdjieff Movements, March 2003. The apartment is near the kha’neqa’h (monastery) of the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of The Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:

It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength

Prieuré at Fontainebleau

In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, such as Berlin and London. He attracted the allegiance of Ouspensky’s many prominent pupils (notably the editor A. R. Orage). After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. This once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion, set in extensive grounds, housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees.