The Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation Archives
Sophie (Sophia) Grigorievna Ouspensky (1878–1961)1
Sophie Grigorievna Volochine was born in Kharkoff, Ukraine. When 16 she married a student with whom she had a son who was killed at a comparatively young age, and a daughter, Lenotchka Savitsky. She divorced the student and then married a mining engineer. Mme Maximenko, as she was then known, was introduced to Gurdjieff in 1916–17 by P. D. Ouspensky. Thereafter known as "Mme Ouspensky," it is not clear whether she and P. D. Ouspensky ever married. An early member of the St. Petersburg group, she became a lifelong and loyal pupil. She was one of six people Gurdjieff appointed to act as Assistant Instructors at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré; he later sent her to assist Ouspensky in England, where she became a teacher in her own right. She developed Parkinson's disease in the summer of 1939. In 1941 she left for America where she taught, despite being bedridden, at Franklin Farms, Mendham, New Jersey, until her death December 30, 1961.
When Gurdjieff went to Essentuki in February 1918 Mme Ouspensky joined him there, along with some 40 fellow students. When Gurdjieff left for Tiflis, Georgia, the following year, she and her daughter stayed in Essentuki with P. D. Ouspensky; they later went to Constantinople in February 1920. When Gurdjieff and his students arrived there in June a struggle for her allegiance developed between Ouspensky and Gurdjieff.2 But she was very clear as to who was the teacher and who the pupil. "I do not pretend to understand Georgy Ivanovitch. For me he is X. All that I know is that he is my teacher and it is not right for me to judge him, nor is it necessary for me to understand him. No one knows who is the real Georgy Ivanovitch, for he hides himself from all of us. It is useless for us to try to know him, and I refuse to enter into any discussions about him."3 When Ouspensky left for London in August 1921 she stayed with Gurdjieff, later accompanying him to Germany and then to Avon, France, where in October 1922 he established his Institute at the Prieuré.
In 1924 or 1925 Gurdjieff told Mme Ouspensky to go to England, that her husband needed her. She never liked England, and "refusing point blank to place the Channel between herself and Gurdjieff"4 she took an apartment in Asnieres, near Paris. Gurdjieff sent her to visit and support Ouspensky in the summer of 1928. She returned to study further with Gurdjieff. She finally moved to England in 1931 and taught at Lyne Place in Surrey. During the 1930s she and Ouspensky had separate quarters in various country houses. "These houses were Mme Ouspensky's contributions to the Work in England, and gradually she drew in her hands the reins of a communal activity of the sort that Gurdjieff had created at Fontainebleau."5
In 1941 the Ouspenskys established a working school at Franklin Farms in Mendham, New Jersey. P. D. Ouspensky spent much of his time in New York lecturing and writing, while Mme Ouspensky supervised the community in Mendham. By late 1942 she had become so crippled that she spent most of her time in bed, but still directed activities and taught her students about fundamental principles for doing practical work. Unlike her husband, Mme Ouspensky placed much value on the Movements and saw that they were taught both at Lyne Place and at Franklin Farms.
When P. D. Ouspensky died in 1947, Mme Ouspensky advised not only his students (there were about 1,000 in London alone) but also her own to go to Gurdjieff in Paris. Many, because of the war and the ban Ouspensky had placed on speaking of Gurdjieff, were not even aware he was alive or feared he had become mad or senile. Among those she told were Lord John Pentland and Christopher Fremantle.
When Gurdjieff visited New York in the winter of 1948–49 he went to see Mme Ouspensky at Franklin Farms. Later, she sent Gurdjieff a chapter of P. D. Ouspensky's drafted book, then called "Fragments of An Unknown Teaching," asking if it should be published. Upon reading it, Gurdjieff said, "Very exact is. Good Memory. Truth was so."6 He instructed her to publish it, but to wait until after his own book Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson came out. She published the book in America under the title In Search of the Miraculous.
Although Mme Ouspensky was a respected teacher of the Fourth Way, she did not author any books herself. She did supervise the publication of P. D. Ouspensky's The Fourth Way, which came out in 1957.7
J. G. Bennett said of Mme Ouspensky, "Of all the many remarkable people I have met in my life, Madame Ouspensky stands out uniquely for her singleness of purpose and her unwavering pursuit of her aim.... She would never undertake anything beyond her own understanding and powers.... She said of herself: 'Madame is not a teacher. She always looks upon herself as a nursery governess who prepares children for school.'"8
Said Kenneth Walker, "Madame Ouspensky, who took a more and more prominent part in her husband's work after the year 1924, possessed a special gift for seeing below the surface and revealing to us what she had discovered there. She sometimes likened our personalities to large hot-air pies which we were carrying about with us very carefully in the hope that they would be duly admired. Her allegory was a particularly appropriate one, for the crust of a hot-air pie is so thin that the slightest knock from someone else will cause it to crumble, and thus reveal to the world the emptiness within."9
Robert de Ropp recalled conversations with Mme Ouspensky in which she said:
"All work is based on watchfulness. The man who works realizes he is a machine and fears his machine. Therefore he watches.... Study yourself as a machine in which different processes are taking place."
"For consciousness, collection of attention is necessary. Attention is as oil in the lamp. Consciousness is the light. Where there is consciousness things are illuminated."
"Asked what is the chief characteristic of self-remembering, Madame said a sense of two. You look at an object and see yourself as if looking back from the object. One who remembers himself receives into himself impressions from his surroundings. But man in sleep is constantly dragged here and there and loses the materiality of his attention."10
1. Gurdjieff International Review, His Pupils: "Madame Ouspensky," http://www.gurdjieff.org/. Varying dates are reported for her birth and death. James Webb in The Harmonious Circle states her birth date as 1874, and Sophia Wellbeloved in Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts claims she lived from 1874–1963, and James Moore in Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth cites her death was in 1963 as well.
2. Moore, 151.
3. John G. Bennett, Witness (Charles Town, WV: Claymont Communications, 1983), 128.
4. Moore, 210.
5. James Webb, The Harmonious Circle (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1980), 390.
6. Patterson, 220.
7. Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts (New York: Routledge, 2003), 234
8. Bennett, 323.
9. Kenneth Walker, A Study of Gurdjieff's Teaching (London: Jonathan Cape Paperback, 1965), 93.
10. Robert de Ropp, Conversations with Madame Ouspensky 1939–40 at Lyne (Far West Press, 1974).