Developing a reliable account of Blavatsky's life has proved difficult for biographers because in later life she deliberately provided contradictory accounts and falsifications about her own past. Further, very few of her own writings authored prior to 1873 survive, meaning that biographers must rely heavily on these unreliable later accounts. The accounts of her early life provided by her family members have also been considered dubious by biographers.
Birth and family background
An illustration of Yekaterinoslav—Blavatsky's birthplace—as it appeared in the early 19th century
Blavatsky was born as Helena Petrovna von Hahn in the Ukrainian town of Yekaterinoslav, then part of the Russian Empire. Her birth date was 12 August 1831, although according to the Julian calendar used in 19th-century Russia it was 31 July. Immediately after her birth, she was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. At the time, Yekaterinoslav was undergoing a cholera epidemic, and her mother contracted the disease shortly after childbirth; despite the expectations of their doctor, both mother and child survived the epidemic.
Blavatsky's family was aristocratic. Her mother was Helena Andreyevna von Hahn (Russian: Елена Андреевна Ган, 1814–1842; née Fadeyeva), a self-educated 17-year-old who herself was the daughter of Princess Yelena Pavlovna Dolgorukaya, a similarly self-educated aristocrat. Blavatsky's father was Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn (Russian: Пётр Алексеевич Ган, 1798–1873), a descendant of the German von Hahn aristocratic family, who served as a captain in the Russian Royal Horse Artillery, and would later rise to the rank of colonel. Pyotr had not been present at his daughter's birth, having been in Poland fighting to suppress the November Uprising against Russian rule, and first saw her when she was six months old. As well as her Russian and German ancestry, Blavatsky could also claim French heritage, for a great-great grandfather had been a French Huguenot nobleman who had fled to Russia to escape persecution, there serving in the court of Catherine the Great.
As a result of Pyotr's career, the family frequently moved to different parts of the Empire, accompanied by their servants, a mobile childhood that may have influenced Blavatsky's largely nomadic lifestyle in later life. A year after Pyotr's arrival in Yekaterinoslav, the family relocated to the nearby army town of Romankovo. When Blavatsky was two years old, her younger brother, Sasha, died in another army town when no medical help could be found. In 1835, mother and daughter moved to Odessa, where Blavatsky's maternal grandfather Andrei Fadeyev, a civil administrator for the imperial authorities, had recently been posted. It was in this city that Blavatsky's sister Vera Petrovna was born.
St. Petersburg, Poltava, and Saratov
After a return to rural Ukraine, Pyotr was posted to Saint Petersburg, where the family moved in 1836. Blavatsky's mother liked the city, there establishing her own literary career, penning novels under the pseudonym of "Zenaida R-va" and translating the works of the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton for Russian publication. When Pyotr returned to Ukraine circa 1837, she remained in the city. After Fadeyev was assigned to become a trustee for the Kalmyk people of Central Asia, Blavatsky and her mother accompanied him to Astrakhan, where they befriended a Kalmyk leader, Tumen. The Kalmyks were practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, and it was here that Blavatsky gained her first experience with the religion.
A painting of Blavatsky and her mother, titled "Two Helens (Helena Hahn and Helena Blavatsky)" 1844–1845
In 1838, Blavatsky's mother moved with her daughters to be with her husband at Poltava, where she taught Blavatsky how to play the piano and organised for her to take dance lessons. As a result of her poor health, Blavatsky's mother returned to Odessa, where Blavatsky learned English from a British governess. They next moved to Saratov, where a brother, Leonid, was born in June 1840. The family proceeded to Poland and then back to Odessa, where Blavatsky's mother died of tuberculosis in June 1842, aged 28.
The three surviving children were sent to live with their maternal grandparents in Saratov, where their grandfather Andrei had been appointed Governor of Saratov Governorate. The historian Richard Davenport-Hines described the young Blavatsky as "a petted, wayward, invalid child" who was a "beguiling story-teller". Accounts provided by relatives reveal that she socialized largely with lower-class children and that she enjoyed playing pranks and reading. She was educated in French, art, and music, all subjects designed to enable her to find a husband. With her grandparents she holidayed in Tumen's Kalmyk summer camp, where she learned horse riding and some Tibetan.
She later claimed that in Saratov she discovered the personal library of her maternal great-grandfather, Prince Pavel Vasilevich Dolgorukov (d. 1838); it contained a variety of books on esoteric subjects, encouraging her burgeoning interest in it. Dolgorukov had been initiated into Freemasonry in the late 1770s and had belonged to the Rite of Strict Observance; there were rumors that he had met both Alessandro Cagliostro and the Count of St. Germain. She also later stated that at this time of life she began to experience visions in which she encountered a "Mysterious Indian" man, and that in later life she would meet this man in the flesh. Many biographers have considered this to be the first appearance of the "Masters" in her life story.
According to some of her later accounts, in 1844–45 Blavatsky was taken by her father to England, where she visited London and Bath. According to this story, in London she received piano lessons from the Bohemian composer Ignaz Moscheles, and performed with Clara Schumann. However, some Blavatsky biographers believe that this visit to Britain never took place, particularly as no mention of it is made in her sister's memoirs. After a year spent living with her aunt, Yekaterina Andreyevna Witte, she moved to Tiflis, Georgia, where grandfather Andrei had been appointed director of state lands in Transcaucasia. Blavatsky claimed that here she established a friendship with Alexander Vladimirovich Golitsyn, a Russian Freemason and member of the Golitsyn family who encouraged her interest in esoteric matters. She would also claim that at this period she had further paranormal experiences, astral traveling and again encountering her "mysterious Indian" in visions.
World travels: 1849–69
Blavatsky's drawing of a boat scene, produced in England in 1851
Aged 17, she agreed to marry Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky, a man in his forties who worked as Vice Governor of Erivan Province. Her reasons for doing so were unclear, although she later claimed that she was attracted by his belief in magic. Although she tried to back out shortly before the wedding ceremony, the marriage took place on 7 July 1849. Moving with him to the Sardar Palace, she made repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape and return to her family in Tiflis, to which he eventually relented. The family sent her, accompanied by a servant and maid, to Odessa to meet her father, who planned to return to Saint Petersburg with her. The escorts accompanied her to Poti and then Kerch, intending to continue with her to Odessa. Blavatsky claimed that, fleeing her escorts and bribing the captain of the ship that had taken her to Kerch, she reached Constantinople. This marked the start of nine years spent traveling the world, possibly financed by her father.
She did not keep a diary at the time, and was not accompanied by relatives who could verify her activities. Thus, historian of esotericism Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke noted that public knowledge of these travels rests upon "her own largely uncorroborated accounts", which are marred by being "occasionally conflicting in their chronology". For religious studies scholar Bruce F. Campbell, there was "no reliable account" for the next 25 years of her life. According to biographer Peter Washington, at this point "myth and reality begin to merge seamlessly in Blavatsky's biography".
She later claimed that in Constantinople she developed a friendship with a Hungarian opera singer named Agardi Metrovitch, whom she first encountered when saving him from being murdered. It was also in Constantinople that she met the Countess Sofia Kiselyova, who she would accompany on a tour of Egypt, Greece, and Eastern Europe. In Cairo, she met the American art student Albert Rawson, who later wrote extensively about the Middle East, and together they allegedly visited a Coptic magician, Paulos Metamon. In 1851, she proceeded to Paris, where she encountered the Mesmerist
Victor Michal, who impressed her. From there, she visited England, and would claim that it was here that she met the "mysterious Indian" who had appeared in her childhood visions, a Hindu whom she referred to as the Master Morya. While she provided various conflicting accounts of how they met, locating it in both London and Ramsgate according to separate stories, she maintained that he claimed that he had a special mission for her, and that she must travel to Tibet.
Helena Blavatsky, c. 1850
She made her way to Asia via the Americas, heading to Canada in autumn 1851. Inspired by the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, she sought out the Native American communities of Quebec in the hope of meeting their magico-religious specialists, but was instead robbed, later attributing these Natives' behavior to the corrupting influence of Christian missionaries. She then headed south, visiting New Orleans, Texas, Mexico, and the Andes, before transport via ship from the West Indies to Ceylon and then Bombay. She spent two years in India, allegedly following the instructions found in letters that Morya had sent to her. She attempted to enter Tibet, but was prevented from doing so by the British administration.
She later claimed that she then headed back to Europe by ship, surviving a shipwreck near to the Cape of Good Hope before arriving in England in 1854, where she faced hostility as a Russian citizen due to the ongoing Crimean War between Britain and Russia. It was here, she claimed, that she worked as a concert musician for the Royal Philharmonic Society. Sailing to the U.S., she visited New York City, where she met up with Rawson, before touring Chicago, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, and then sailing back to India via Japan. There, she spent time in Kashmir, Ladakh, and Burma, before making a second attempt to enter Tibet. She claimed that this time she was successful, entering Tibet in 1856 through Kashmir, accompanied by a Tartar shaman who was attempting to reach Siberia and who thought that as a Russian citizen, Blavatsky would be able to aid him in doing so. According to this account, they reached Leh before becoming lost, eventually joining a traveling Tartar group before she headed back to India. She returned to Europe via Madras and Java.
After spending time in France and Germany, in 1858 she returned to her family, then based in Pskov. She later claimed that there she began to exhibit further paranormal abilities, with rapping and creaking accompanying her around the house and furniture moving of its own volition. In 1860 she and her sister visited their maternal grandmother in Tiflis. It was there that she met up with Metrovitch, and where she reconciled with Nikifor in 1862. Together they adopted a child named Yuri, who would die aged five in 1867, when he was buried under Metrovitch's surname. In 1864, while riding in Mingrelia, Blavatsky fell from her horse and was in a coma for several months with a spinal fracture. Recovering in Tiflis, she claimed that upon awaking she gained full control of her paranormal abilities. She then proceeded to Italy, Transylvania, and Serbia, possibly studying the Cabalah with a rabbi at this point. In 1867 she proceeded to the Balkans, Hungary, and then Italy, where she spent time in Venice, Florence, and Mentana, claiming that in the latter she had been injured fighting for Giuseppe Garibaldi at the Battle of Mentana.
Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, the place that Blavatsky claimed held the Senzar texts she translated
She claimed to have then received a message from Morya to travel to Constantinople, where he met her, and together they traveled overland to Tibet, going through Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and then into India, entering Tibet via Kashmir. There, they allegedly stayed in the home of Morya's friend and colleague, Master Koot Hoomi, which was near to Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse. According to Blavatsky, both Morya and Koot Hoomi were Kashmiris of Punjabi origin, and it was at his home that Koot Hoomi taught students of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Koot Hoomi was described as having spent time in London and Leipzig, being fluent in both English and French, and like Morya was a vegetarian.
She claimed that in Tibet, she was taught an ancient, unknown language known as Senzar, and translated a number of ancient texts written in this language that were preserved by the monks of a monastery; she stated that she was, however, not permitted entry into the monastery itself. She also claimed that while in Tibet, Morya and Koot Hoomi helped her develop and control her psychic powers. Among the abilities that she ascribed to these "Masters" were clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy, the ability to control another's consciousness, to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and to project their astral bodies, thus giving the appearance of being in two places at once. She claimed to have remained on this spiritual retreat from late 1868 until late 1870. Blavatsky never claimed in print to have visited Lhasa, although this is a claim that would be made for her in various later sources, including the account provided by her sister.
Many critics and biographers have expressed doubts regarding the veracity of Blavatsky's claims regarding her visits to Tibet, which rely entirely on her own claims, lacking any credible independent testimony. It has been highlighted that during the nineteenth century, Tibet was closed to Europeans, and visitors faced the perils of bandits and a harsh terrain; the latter would have been even more problematic if Blavatsky had been as stout and un-athletic as she would be in later life. However, as several biographers have noted, traders and pilgrims from neighboring lands were able to access Tibet freely, suggesting the possibility that she would have been allowed to enter accompanied by Morya, particularly if she had been mistaken for an Asian. Blavatsky's eyewitness account of Shigatse was unprecedented in the West, and one scholar of Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, suggested that she later exhibited an advanced knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism consistent with her having studied in a Tibetan monastery. Lachman noted that had Blavatsky spent time in Tibet, then she would be "one of the greatest travelers of the nineteenth century", although he added - "in all honesty I do not know" if Blavatsky spent time in Tibet or not. Conversely, biographer Marion Meade commented on Blavatsky's tales of Tibet and various other adventures by stating that: "hardly a word of this appears to be true".