The rundown commercial building in southeast Moscow was an odd place to search for a sorceress. Its entranceway daubed in graffiti extolling the virtues of CSKA Moscow FC, there was little indication that I had stepped out of the world of everyday reality and into the realm of the occult. That is, of course, if you didn’t count the Potteresque — that’s Harry, not Dennis — “Don’t open this door, the owl will fly out!” sign that was pinned to a wall. There were around a dozen middle-aged women queuing to see Marina, a 30-something “psychic sorceress” whose services I had found advertised online. (“Paranormal powers are a true gift — don’t be afraid to ask for help!”). They stared at me as I walked in. It was obvious that they were all wondering what problem I needed fixing. Maybe they suspected I was looking to give some business venture a magical boost? Or perhaps I was simply after some love charms? I would have enquired what problems had brought the women to Marina’s office, but another sign read “No speaking! Talking disturbs the specialists!”
I had made an appointment to see Marina as part of my research into Russia’s obsession with the occult and the paranormal. Behind the facade of modern Russia is a bizarre place that few outsiders get to see: Although it’s hard to get exact figures, there are thought to be around 100,000 self-proclaimed psychics, sorcerers, wizards, and witches operating in the country today. Overall, Russia’s flourishing occult business is worth an estimated $30bn a year. A quick online search for “magical services” reveals countless businesses offering to resolve a bewildering range of personal, business, health and even legal problems. Unhappy with your salary? Ensure a wage increase by hiring a sorcerer to bewitch your company’s entire bookkeeping department. Other occultists promise to make sure that loan applications are approved. “Casting spells on banks is more expensive, however,” I was told by the owner of one such business, when I called to enquire further. “It involves black magic.”
Another popular service is the casting of spells to ward off the “evil eye”. Others target the lovelorn. Has your husband or wife left you? No problem. For a reasonable sum, your neighbourhood witch or wizard will cast a “returning” spell that will soon have your spouse begging for forgiveness. Alcohol and drug problems are likewise no match for the might of Russia’s magi — putting wayward family members back on the straight and narrow is a standard occultist service. “I usually see around 20 clients a day,” Marina told me, after introducing me to her two-year-old owl, Sofia. “Sometimes more.”
All glittery jewellery, make-up and intensity, Marina reminded me of a Slavic, younger version of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from the film version of The Wizard of Oz. Her room was full of crystal balls, testimonies to her powers from “satisfied” customers and pungent, burning incense. “Most of the people who come to see me are experiencing personal, business, health, or career problems,” she told me. “I can help a person get promoted, to make his or her way up the career ladder. Of course, my powers only work for six years in this case, so I if they haven’t cemented their position in that time, there’s nothing more I can do.” I had no intention of judging whether Marina’s powers were genuine or not. I was far more interested in discovering why she and her occult competitors were so incredibly popular. Why exactly have magical traditions gained such a foothold in modern Russia? Why are its people so eager to seek solutions to their problems in the spells and charms of sorcerers, witches, and wizards?
Modern-day Russia’s passion for the supernatural dates back to the final days of the Soviet Union, when a centuries-old belief in magic and the occult re-emerged to replace the ideological certainties once offered by Marx and Lenin. Despite its staid reputation, the “evil empire” was crawling with all manner of witches, healers and clairvoyants. Every village or small town had a “wise woman” who could cure or curse you with a spell or two. For obvious reasons though, ranging from the Gulag to a midnight visit by the KGB, the whole magical industry was underground, the occultists’ work as hush-hush and as risky as that of the samizdat publishers who translated and distributed “subversive” western literature.
“The average Russian is completely confused and disorientated by modern life ... To find his solutions, his truth, he heads to witches and wizards”
When the Soviet Union began to collapse under its own weight, these beliefs flooded into the mainstream, turning society on its head. Previously forbidden books on magic and mysticism were suddenly everywhere. Town halls that had hosted Communist Party meetings now saw sorcerers armed with ouija boards attempting to conjure up Lenin’s spirit. Old women sold magical charms in city markets. State television replaced tractor production reports with “psychic healing” sessions. In the twinkling of a red star, Russia went mad for magic. “The Soviet Union taught its citizens not take responsibility for themselves,” said Nikolai Naritsyn, a psychoanalyst who has written extensively on Russia’s occult obsession, when I visited him at his south Moscow apartment. “Someone always took care of us, provided free healthcare and education, and, basically, decided everything for us. Where we should live, what we should eat, what we should wear, and were we should or should not go. When this system collapsed, lots of people felt like little children lost on the street. The occultists, the psychics, the sorcerers, and so on appeared all of a sudden and said, ‘Come and see us! Pay us, and we will solve all your problems!’ That was a very tempting proposal.”
The most famous of the Soviet psychics was Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who achieved immediate national fame during a televised broadcast of a healing session in October 1989. At the height of his celebrity, the former weightlifter and qualified psychiatrist regularly topped polls of the most popular public figure, easily beating the still-sober Boris Yeltsin into second place. His live appearances at venues from Moscow to Vladivostok saw crowds sobbing and writhing to his command, a mass casting out of demons, Soviet-style. “They idolise me,” Kashpirovsky said of his countrymen at a 1989 joint news conference with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson. “I can reverse what was once thought irreversible. I tap the inner resources of the body.” Clad all in black, his piercing eyes staring into apartments across the Soviet Union, Kashpirovsky “treated” millions every week, his sonorous voice both reassuring and oddly threatening. “For those of you with high blood pressure, your blood pressure will lower…whoever has hip injuries, they will heal…” he droned, his litany of the suffering and the saved a lullaby that plunged the nation into a communal trance.
Kashpirovsky’s great rival was Alan Chumak, a white-haired figure for whom the word eccentric could have been invented. During his morning show, after a brief matter-of-fact introduction, Chumak would silently and slowly, like some Soviet Zen master, move his hands for half an hour or so, “charging” with healing energy the jars and saucepans full of water that his millions of viewers had placed around their apartments. “On Fridays, Chumak will help viewers overcome their allergies,” a helpful announcement for one of his shows stated. “People with stomach problems should tune in later.”
After the Soviet collapse, Russia’s mania for magic continued unabated. Yeltsin was reportedly one of millions captivated by the paranormal. During his eight years in the Kremlin, he gave the green light to a number of bizarre projects, including one that saw state funds pumped into a scheme to “extract energy from stones.” In 1999, the last year of Yeltsin’s reign, Eduard Kruglyakov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stated that, “there are psychics working in every security agency in the Russian Federation”. In a scathing article in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, he wrote: “In December 1995, 127 psychics in the pay of the Ministry of Emergency Services spent two weeks searching for a passenger plane that had disappeared off Khabarovsk [in Russia’s Far East]. The wreckage of the plane was only eventually located, and in a matter of hours, when the ministry decided to make use of air defence radar systems.”
“There is very little difference between revolution and magic. Both cause a massive and lasting change to the nature of reality”
This willingness to believe in the supernatural often has tragic results. In 2004, a self-proclaimed psychic healer named Grigory Grabovoi scandalised Russia when he offered to resurrect the victims of the Beslan school siege — for $1,500 a corpse. Out of their minds with grief, a number of bereaved mothers from the traumatised North Caucasus town began to attend Grabovoi’s “resurrection sessions” in Moscow. Conveniently for the Kremlin, Grabovoi’s teachings split the Beslan Mothers grassroots pressure group, which had rattled the authorities with its inconvenient and insistent search for the truth about the siege. (Some experts alleged Russia’s heavy-handed “rescue operation” claimed the lives of 80% of the Beslan siege victims.) Amid allegations that he was a Kremlin plant designed to discredit the Beslan Mothers, Grabovoi announced his intention to run for president. “My first act will be to ban death,” he declared. Nevertheless, in 2006 Grabovoi was arrested and subsequently jailed for 11 years on fraud charges. However, his sentence was cut to eight on appeal, and he served just half that before being released in 2010 to howls of public outrage. His whereabouts are currently unknown.
High-profile “psychics” such as Kashpirovsky, Chumak and Grabovoi are just the most visible signs of a desperate need to believe in the irrational, to hope against hope for otherworldly solutions to very real problems. “The average Russian is completely confused and disorientated by modern life,” said Naritsyn, the expert on Russia’s occult mania. “Where do financial crises come from? What do the laws they pass in parliament mean? Why has my salary been halved? To find his solutions, his truth, he heads to witches and wizards. Maybe they know what is going on and can help him?”
Paul Stonehill, the Soviet-born author of a number of books on Russia and the paranormal, suggested to me in an email that the popularity of “magical services” was rooted in “spiritual void and despair; the need to seek answers and ways to cope in a bleak reality”. A grim outlook, except that perhaps, there was something to it. I thought about the widespread belief in the evil eye. During the Stalin era, millions of Soviet citizens had cast their “evil eyes” on one another, condemning neighbours, workmates, lovers and family members to the Gulag with a word in the right ear. Judging by the evidence, Russians were right to be suspicious of each other. Was a belief in magic an attempt to ward off the worst the country and their countrymen had to offer?
Back in Marina’s office, I asked her if she had an answer. Why did so many people beat their way to her door? “Russia is a country in a constant state of flux,” she said, after considering my question. “Russians always choose the most radical, the most out-of-the-ordinary solution to their problems. These revolutions, these social upheavals we keep experiencing, that’s all a part of this.” After a slight pause, as if the idea had just come to her, she added, “In fact, there is very little difference between revolution and magic. Both cause a massive and lasting change to the nature of reality.” She smiled, and swept back a lock of blonde hair from her face. There were still many questions left unanswered, but one thing was clear, at least. Russia and the occult are inseparable. Even if the exact causes behind the phenomenon could be pinpointed, this would do nothing to break the bond. That I had already come to realise, would require a very powerful spell indeed.
For more on this subject by the same author, read Resurrections for Roubles: Adventures with Modern Russia’s Psychics, Sects and Sorcerers (2014)