Everyone knows about Grigory Rasputin, the mysterious monk whose malign influence over Tsar Nicholas II led indirectly to the Bolshevik Revolution. But the wild-eyed former peasant was not only – as Boney M put it -“Russia’s greatest love machine,” he was also rumoured to have links to the Khlysty sect, a bunch of self-flagellating nutters who tried to whip themselves closer to God.
That kind of thing was actually pretty par for the course in Rasputin’s Russia, which boasted hundreds of other bizarre cults (special shout out to castration freaks the Skoptsy) and more faith healers than doctors.
Still, upon my arrival in Russia in 1997, I was startled to find that over seven decades of communist rule had failed to dampen this occult fervour. Rasputin not only had heirs - they were thriving. Although it’s obviously hard to get exact figures, there are an estimated 400,000 plus professional occultists in Russia, with the business worth, according to some reports, up to $2 billion a year. That’s a lot of spells and a lot of cash floating around, whichever way you look at it.
Over a beer, my new friends would tell me of love spells cast on acquaintances, while in more formal settings businesspeople would confess that they made use of clairvoyants or psychics to aid them in decision-making. On top of all this, there were the Kremlin-backed psychic healers whose shows had drawn audiences of millions, the dozens of sects scattered across the country’s vast wilderness, and the media savvy shamans who never seemed to be out of the news. Not to mention, if the police were to be believed, a rapidly growing Satanic underground.
Walking home at night through forests of concrete tower blocks, I would picture the occupants of the flats carrying out magical rituals in their bedrooms or casting spells in their living rooms. Flickering shadows behind curtains invariably took on sinister qualities as my imagination, fuelled by my longtime love of horror films, ran wild. Were the old women I saw on the metro with plastic bags full of market produce on their way home to knock up potions in their tiny kitchens? Was that old guy with the beard and the intense eyes a master of the dark arts? After all, if the statistics were right, some of the people I saw every day had to be witches or wizards. Or, at the very least, psychics.
Obviously, though, I tried hard not to stare too much.
How did Russia transform in the twinkling of a red star into a land mad for magic? Was its sudden public enthusiasm for the occult simply a reaction to the often-bleak reality of post-Soviet life? An attempt to replace Marxism-Leninism with another set of belief systems? Or does the explanation lie deeper in the national character and traditions?
As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin polices of openness and reform took hold in the late 1980s, every day brought new shocks (Stalin was a nasty piece of work!) and startling revelations (the Soviet way of life wasn’t the envy of the world!) to the people of the world’s first socialist state. At times, it seemed like Gorbachev had gone too far, that his perestroika and glasnost had driven the entire nation out of its collective mind. The country was gripped by a frenzy of visions and hallucinations, alien sightings and mystic revelations.
In late 1989, the official state news agency Tass, once notorious for its unreadable reports on the routine work of Kremlin officials, ran a piece on how Soviet scientists had “confirmed the landing of an alien spacecraft in the old Russian city of Voronezh.”
"The aliens were three or even four meters tall, but with very small heads," the news agency reported.
''It was not an optical illusion,'' Lieutenant Sergei A. Matveyev of the Voronezh district police station was quoted as saying. “I rubbed my eyes and it didn't go away. Then, I figured, in this day and age, anything is possible.''
The lieutenant was right. Strange days indeed had come to the Soviet Union. Besides the dramatic increase in alien sightings, belief in magic and mysticism was rocketing. Town halls that had once hosted Communist Party meetings now saw sorcerers armed with ouija boards attempting to conjure up Lenin’s spirit. Old women openly sold magical charms against AIDS in city markets. State journalists transformed overnight into wild-eyed psychic healers. Pravda ran horoscopes. Two decades on, this willingness to seek out new beliefs is as strong as ever. I have spent the last year or so investigating this occult scene, meeting with just a few of Russia’s countless witches, wizards, and, as well as their clients.
Last summer, I paid a visit to a successful Moscow psychic, Marina. My journey to her office took me to the southeast of the capital, through a grimy residential area and a street market selling dried fish, beer and pirate DVDs. Her office was on the second floor of a rundown commercial building, the entranceway daubed in graffiti extolling the respective glories of CSKA Moscow FC and the 1980s Russian New Wave band, Kino. The interior, with its ratty furniture, nicotine stained wallpaper and barely decipherable compulsory fire evacuation plan, resembled what I imagined a cheap brothel would look like.
I felt cheated. The only sign that I had stepped out of the world of everyday reality into the realm of the occult was the “Do not open this door, the owl will fly out!” notice pinned to Marina’s office. That was kind of Harry Potteresque, I thought. But how self-conscious was it? Was it a deliberate echo of J.K.Rowling’s work, or had the sign been there even before the single mother had put pen to paper in that now legendary Edinburgh café?
There were about 10 women, mostly middle-aged, overweight and harassed-looking, in the tiny waiting room. They looked at me as I walked in, and I stared back. It was obvious that they were all wondering what problem I needed fixing. Maybe they suspected I was looking to give my business a magical boost? Or perhaps I was just unlucky in love? Who knows? I hadn’t had time to wash my hair that morning; could it be they figured I wanted Marina to provide some supernatural solution to the age-old problem of the bad-hair day? It was difficult to say. Were it not for the “No speaking! Talking disturbs the specialists!” sign, I would have tried to find out.
It was too easy to laugh, though. The women looked desperate, and I could only imagine what problems they faced, what family or health difficulties they were up against. Somehow, the suspicion born of more than a decade in the country, I couldn’t help that feel that a combination of alcohol and male family members was at the heart of most of their woes.
Although everyone knows about Russia’s alcohol problem, the scale of the catastrophe is hard to comprehend. The figures are both breathtaking and frightening. As President Dmitry Medvedev pointed out in the summer of 2009, for every single Russian man, woman and child, some 18 liters of pure alcohol are drunk a year. This is, as the incredulous Russian leader went on, twice the amount at which human genes begins to deteriorate. Russia is, quite literally, drinking its future away.
How many of these women had been driven to seek help in this shabby psychic’s office by alcoholic husbands, sons or fathers - men who could no longer fuck, fight or function?
I went through a door marked “reception”, and introduced myself to the young, brown hair-haired secretary. She looked up at me over a pile of occult-themed magazines, and called through to her boss. Marina came out, all glittery jewelry, make-up and intensity. She reminded me of nothing so much as a Slavic, younger version of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from the film version of the Wizard of Oz.
“I’m very, very busy,” Marina said, not blinking. “Could you wait for an hour more? I have all these people to see.”
I went back into the waiting room. The women, as curious as before, looked at me again. I patted my hair down.
“I usually see around 20 clients a day,” Marina told me, after apologising for what had turned out to be an almost two-hour delay and introducing me to her two-year-old owl, Sofia. “Sometimes more.”
Were all her clients exclusively women?
“No, I get a lot of men as well,” she said, staring at me intently. “In fact, you know, right now in Russia we are seeing the moral degradation of a large chunk of the male population. Men have become emasculated, through drink or whatever, and they feel that they can’t solve problems on their own. So they turn to occult services like mine.”
Marina had a lullaby-style way of speaking, a tuneful drone that, coupled with the pungent incense and candle smoke, was making me feel oddly drowsy. Was she perhaps trying to hypnotise me?
“What are the main things people come to you about?” I asked, getting in a question of my own to break up the flow of Marina’s patter. That was a trick I recalled the heroes of Dennis Wheatley novels employing in such situations.
“Personal lives, business, health, and career issues.”
“I can help a person get promoted, to make his or her way up the career ladder.”
But what about the concept of meritocracy? Theoretically, a person who got an important job solely because he or she had turned to a witch or a wizard may not be as suited for the position as a more talented, yet less cunning, rival. Surely this was bad for Russia’s development? After all, the country already had a big enough problem with ingrained nepotism as it was.
“My powers come with a maximum six-year guarantee,” Marina told me. “After that period is over, if the person hasn’t cemented their position, there is nothing I can do.”
I wasn’t quite satisfied with her answer, but I pressed on. Although I wasn’t convinced by her claims, I had decided that non-confrontation was the best approach, and asked her to outline her powers to me.
“They are a mixture of psychic and magical abilities as yet unknown to science,” she said, smiling. “I can mould reality. I can see the past, present and future and change events to the advantage of my clients.”
“There is however only one thing that I cannot alter, and that is death. All I can do is give a person a little bit more time on the planet. But even if they manage to avoid death on the appointed day, it will claim them in the near future.”
A bit like the plot of the Final Destination films, then?
Since 2008, the snappily named Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing has been issuing permits (for around $500 – officially at least) to practitioners of what it calls “traditional medicine” – an extremely broad definition that includes folk medicine and psychic healers.
“In a way,” nodded Marina, obviously a fellow horror fan. “You know, films and books, especially horror and sci-fi, often tap into the true nature of things, even if the writer isn’t aware how near he is to the truth.”
“Another film that is close to the way things really are is Minority Report with Tom Cruise. The movie where the authorities employ psychics.”
Based, I pointed out, on the short story by legendary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. However, Marina, obviously no Dickhead, shrugged. “I haven’t read it,” she said.
Marina advertised herself as a psychic, but the services she offered were exactly the same as those listed on thousands of websites that offered “magical services.” So I posed the big question; given that she admitted to using magical powers, was she also a witch?
“Good question,” said Marina. “I guess we all have a witch or a wizard inside us.”
It was only later that I found out that Marina’s decision to advertise her powers as “paranormal,” rather than “magical” had its roots in Russia’s complex legal code.
“We don’t have the right, legally, to use the word magic in our adverts,” Mikhail Pashin, the moustached owner of an occult centre in the centre of Moscow told me. “I took the word magic off our advert and got a license.”
Yes, a license.
Since 2008, the snappily named Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing has been issuing permits (for around $500 – officially at least) to practitioners of what it calls “traditional medicine” – an extremely broad definition that includes folk medicine and psychic healers. Unsurprisingly, critics of the scheme suggest the licensing process is open to abuse. After all, a government document certifying your otherworldly powers does tend to make your business stand out from the crowd. In a handy loophole, “verified” practitioners would also be exempt from the proposed bill banning occult ads.
I still didn’t understand though. Why did the word “magic” cause so much offence when, say, the word “clairvoyant”, was fine?
“Ah, you know,” Mikhail explained. “Those officials. There was a weird period a while back, let’s call it a witch-hunt,” he said, laughing at the pun, “when the authorities started cracking down on the whole occult thing. We came to a compromise, and the word magic got banned.”
“They had to ban something,” he shrugged. “You know what it’s like here. It’s not the laws themselves that are important, but the interpretation of them.”
Mikhail was an ex-Soviet air force pilot who, like many people in Russia around the time of the break-up of the USSR, had got interested in the occult. He differed though from most in that he set up his own business, hiring “people with special gifts” to work for him. When I asked him if he had any paranormal or magical abilities himself, he smiled, and said, “Let’s just say I don’t practice them.”
New girl Olya had her own theory as to the popularity of magical services in Russia over psychotherapy. “When you go and see a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst,” she told me, “you have to tell him your problems. When you come and see us, we tell you your problems. That’s far, far better, you have to agree.”
Back in Marina’s office, we had, via Tom Cruise’s Minority Report, got onto the topic of politics and the paranormal.
After all, Russia’s last tsar and his entire family ended up full of bullet holes in an Urals pit largely thanks to their friendship with the wild-eyed Rasputin.
“The Russian authorities use psychics in their relations with other states,” Marina stated. “Whenever there are big negotiations going on, Russia always brings a psychic or witch along. To influence things.”
Was this something she knew, I asked, or just a hunch?
“It’s something I know,” she said, her eyes locked onto me.
“Russian history is full of psychics, of witches and wizards. Look at Rasputin, he was the greatest magician we have ever seen. Russian leaders have always employed occultists. This is our country’s great secret.”
I wasn’t about to argue with her. There were though, I pointed out, obviously dangers in using the services of psychics and the like. After all, Russia’s last tsar and his entire family ended up full of bullet holes in an Urals pit largely thanks to their friendship with the wild-eyed Rasputin.
“Of course,” Marina agreed. “The Russian authorities are also afraid of us. We are a double-edged sword.”
The sounds of the market drifted in from the street. The price of fish, haggling, a swearword or two. It was good to hear those sounds, to be reminded that there still existed a much simpler world out there.
“I get people from all walks of life coming to me. Even priests,” Marina suddenly revealed, changing the subject. I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t really know how she expected me to react, but I figured I was supposed to act shocked. I hoped that would do.
“They usually come and see me when they need some money for their church. Or sometimes just for themselves.” She smiled. “You may find this odd, Marc, but, you know, not all servants of the Lord are with the Lord.”
Quite unexpectedly, Marina then began to ask me about myself, about my future plans in Russia. I resisted the temptation to point out that, as a self-proclaimed psychic, she really should have known the answers to some of her questions better then me.
Despite this and other doubts, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Marina was a fraud. In fact, I had no interest in either exposing her or proving her powers. I was more interested finding out why she and her competitors were so incredibly popular. Why exactly have magical traditions taken root so in Russia? Why are its people so eager to seek solutions to their problems in the spells and charms of sorcerers, witches and wizards?
“Russia is a country in a constant state of flux,” Marina said. “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.”
“In fact,” she added after a slight pause, as if the idea had just come to her, “there is very little difference between revolution and magic. Both cause a massive and lasting change to the nature of reality.”
I’m not yet ready to offer any answers as to Russia’s obsession with this world of magic and the paranormal. But one thing is clear, at least - Russia and the occult are inseparable. Even if the exact cause behind the phenomenon could be pinpointed, this would do nothing to break the bond. That, I have already come to realise, would require a very powerful spell indeed.