Russians Seem to Be One of the Easiest Peoples to Con
RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published an unusual Special Report on the mysterious "Russian soul". Fifteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine this concept, which has been used by Russia watchers for some 150 years, from a contemporary perspective. The following article is part of this collection.
Russian scientists have stunned the world for years. Last March Grigori Perelman, Russia’s ascetic math maverick, cracked a puzzle that had baffled mathematicians for a century—and then mystified the world’s laymen when he spurned the $ 1 million prize. But behind Russia’s reputation for scientific genius, the specter of pseudoscience looms large.
Today there are a good handful of celebrity fraudsters in Russia who style themselves as Jesus reborn, or mystics endowed with supernatural healing powers that they will generously share for the right money. Worse still, they get away with it. Be it Russia’s very own television shaman “psychotherapist” Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who magically heals those who pay to see him, or Grigori Grabovoi, who angled for the presidency pledging to ban death, these mystic con artists have their fair share of disciples. But the question is—why? Are Russians happy-go-lucky fatalists with a penchant for mysticism, ready to entrust their savings to healers with spurious remedies? Or are the conditions simply right for wily scam-spinning predators to emotionally blackmail Russia’s most vulnerable layer of society—the uneducated peasant heroes eulogized by Soviet writer Vasily Shukshin?
A brief history of rogues
As the Soviet Union crumbled two decades ago, mysticism and pseudoscience began to thrive, but not for the first time. At the turn of the 19th century, mysticism in Russia flourished alongside general disillusionment with the epoch’s spiking rationalist philosophies. The reactionary mood of the time is borne out by the deeply spiritual “Silver Age” of Russian thought, which was most memorably recorded by thinkers Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Merezhkovsky. Meanwhile Dmitry Mendeleyev, the Russian chemist best known for devising the periodic table, castigated the Russian state and science for not fighting the threat of mysticism, which was infiltrating the highest levels of authority.
Nonetheless, mysticism would become even more prevalent as Grigory Rasputin, Russia’s “Mad Monk,” in 1905 wriggled his way into the inner circle of Tsar Nicholas II. At first the mysterious pilgrim was lauded as a “genuine” mystic, after he appeared to cure Prince Alexei’s hemophilia. But as his lifestyle became more debauched and the First World War rolled on, he made ever more high-profile enemies. When the fraudster finally got caught up in a power struggle in 1916, he paid with his life. To this day, the legend of Rasputin is well known even beyond Russia’s borders, and the intrigue and mystery surrounding his murder is testament to the myth that the depraved “healer” constructed around himself. Rumors that Rasputin managed to break free from his chains after he had been handcuffed, poisoned, shot in the head, and then hurled to the bottom of St. Petersburg’s Neva River—all this speaks volumes about his success at duping people with mysterious tittle-tattle.
The mad monk and his disciples
Today, however, it seems the spirit of the Mad Monk is once again at large. “Now we have a new Rasputin—that’s how Grigori Grabovoi came about,” said Eduard Kruglyakov, the head of the Pseudoscience Commission at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Grabovoi stormed into headlines across the world in 2005, when he promised bereaved relatives that he could resurrect the victims of the Beslan school siege in return for money. Three hundred and thirty-one died, over half of them children, when Russian special forces recaptured the school in the North Caucasus from terrorists in a tragedy that has etched itself onto the national consciousness.
But Grabovoi has fared rather less well than his hocus pocus predecessor. In 2008 Grabovoi was sentenced to 11 years in prison after Moscow journalist Vladimir Vorsobin pretended to enlist the healer’s “services” and caught him in a sting operation. Vorsobin asked Grabovoi to resurrect a relative in return for $ 1,500—after receiving the money, Grabovoi told Vorsobin that his relative was now alive and well in St. Petersburg, and Grabovoi was subsequently arrested.
But despite being convicted on 11 charges, the self-styled messiah has now been released with less than half of his term served. The day before his release Grabovoi brazenly offered his services at the Raspadskaya coalmine in Siberia, where a series of explosions killed scores of miners in May. His wife then placated angry observers with an announcement that her husband would not be flitting from tragedy to tragedy preying on the bereaved with pledges to bring the dead back to life as soon as he was released. And so far no misdemeanor has been reported. But Kruglyakov was skeptical that Grabovoi would be out of jail for long. “I think he’ll end up serving again. It’s absolutely impermissible to free these kinds of charlatans. It’s also a signal to the other ones in the country—go to jail and you’ll get out quickly.”
Far better known in Russia’s shaman sector is Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who kept the entire nation spell-bound with his prime time “mass healing” television slots as the Soviet Union disintegrated. As a voodoo television quack, Kashpirovsky would appeal to viewers to place pots and pans full of water by their television sets during his show, so that their contents would be charged with healing properties by being exposed to his waves of telepathic energy. At the time, Kashpirovsky and his rival Allan Chumak hypnotized the entire nation with wild and groundless mysticism, and held their gaze for years. Asked in 1990 whether they thought that Kashpirovsky-style “psychotherapy” can help cure illness, a staggering 52.3 of respondents said “yes,” according to a poll by the Levada Center.
“The Kashpirovsky phenomenon was mainly to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, although there are people like him in many countries. Still, I would say that their concentration in Russia is higher than in other countries. It was linked to the dismay and confusion of the population,” said Kruglyakov.
Kashpirovsky himself fled Russia in 1995 and missed out on an unbridled boom of spurious medication and healer services, which took advantage of a nation in chaos undergoing headlong social transformation with only fledgling checks and balances. “The salaries and general outlook were low in the Soviet Union, but at least everyone was ultimately looked after. When the new state formed, there were a huge number of people who were abandoned and left completely helpless. They had no work, no means of existing. Before, the state had given them a place to live for free. True, they had to wait in a queue etc., but they could get somewhere to live. Now you are able to buy an apartment, but you have no money, and you never will have any, and this is the case for the majority of people. That’s why I think there was a mood of total abandonment among a huge amount of people. In such a situation, these fraudsters are like soothing balm for the soul,” said Kruglyakov.
A taste for conspiracy
Alongside the relative popularity of mystic, informal figures of authority such as Kashpirovsky, Russians are often suspicious of formal figures of authority, such as politicians and bankers. Westerners often scoff at Russians who keep their money under the bed in a shoe box rather than in banks—a habit which has stuck fast ever since whole generations found themselves on the street when their money in banks became worthless.
Meanwhile, the Russian taste for a good conspiracy theory is underpinned by their suspicion of political authority, stemming in turn from centuries of autocratic rule. Writing in the Moscow Times earlier this month, a distinguished Russian professor said he was amazed that the majority of his politics students are convinced that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were an “inside job.” And back on home soil, 14 percent of Russians told Levada that they thought the FSB, the Russian secret services, had actually heard about the March 29 metro bombings beforehand, but didn’t do anything about them.
Stacking up lies
But it was the vulnerability and confusion of people after the Soviet Union’s collapse that provided favorable conditions for confidence tricksters. It is hardly a coincidence that one of the world’s largest ever pyramid schemes was executed in Russia in the early 1990s. The 1994 Ponzi scheme carried out by the MMM company made some $ 10 billion by convincing between five and 40 million unassuming Russians that money invested in the company would make returns of no less than 1,000 percent. The scam relied on aggressive advertising and was immediately copied by a host of other companies, all promising absurdly high returns citing Russia’s very real hyperinflation.
Eventually, then-President Boris Yeltsin made it illegal to publish “projected” profits, which brought the scam under control by knocking out its advertizing lifeline. But the scams have simply evolved, even if they are now less profitable. Forty members of a gang were arrested this month for duping World War II veterans into paying them 18 percent in “tax” for medals that the gang was pretending to award them on May 9, Victory Day in Russia. The scam netted some $ 47,000 a day, but the gang would make even more from pedaling fake medication.
But pseudoscience and fake medicine are tough adversaries to beat because slicker-salesmen can simply pay any of Russia’s hundreds of thousands of scientific “experts” to vouch for the quality of dubious herbal remedies. This never presented a problem in the Soviet times, when there were only mainstream scientific bodies. But with the Soviet Union’s collapse came the first “social” academies of sciences. These academies now number in the 200s, greatly expanding the number of “authoritative” sources which can vouch for certain types or courses of medicine. “Now you can simply buy these titles of ‘academics’,” said Kruglyakov. Laws have since been changed to render certain institutions only partially recognized, but ordinary
Russians are not aware of these distinctions, meaning that they remain vulnerable to unscrupulous advertizing.
In 2003 the Russian Academy of Sciences met with the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences to discuss the alarming impact of pseudoscience in Russia. The result was a draft law submitted to the State Duma which sought to address the root of the problem—advertizing. But when it was passed, the punishment for crooked advertizing only amounted to fines—little worse than a slap on the wrist for those turning large profit margins. Kruglyakov said that offenders really should be threatened with serious jail terms.
But a big part of the problem is also the play that self-styled psychics and healers get in the mass media. “There is a lot of credulity. There is trust in the written word, trust in what is said on television. Educated people know that it’s all a lie—that people are being systematically tricked. These people just trust in and buy whatever they are recommended. And not everyone understands that there are people like this. I’ve talked to people who work in television and they just say that everything that boosts their ratings has to be done. And what boosts ratings? Every type of stupidity and sensationalism,” said Kruglyakov.
Filtering the truth
Rasputin-style infiltration into the upper echelons of power remains a problem even in post-Soviet Russia. “In the Kremlin there were whole groups of—I’m scared of calling them charlatans—but mystics, astrologists. These were prominent people—generals. The 1990s were an analogue of Rasputin’s time,” said Kruglyakov. Several appointments made by Boris Yeltsin suggested that he sought advice from odd sources. For instance, Yeltsin made General Georgi Rogozin, an ex-KGB officer and star-gazer, the deputy head of his Presidential Security Service. Rogozin led a team of 12 astrologers who would draw on their expertise to counsel the president.
Even to this day there are clear connections between pseudo-scientists and the authorities. In March, Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov rushed to the defense of Russian inventor Viktor Petrik, who claimed to have devised a filter that makes radioactively contaminated water drinkable. Petrik has used the logo of Russia’s ruling party United Russia on his inventions to boost their credibility, but elsewhere his contraptions have been slammed as pure pseudoscience by venerable scientists.
Last month Kashpirovsky launched his comeback to Russia and kicked off with a packed calendar of psychic healer sessions. And the spirit of the Mad Monk is once again at large with Grabovoi out from behind bars. The rise of pseudoscience is far from just a Russian problem. But what started as a soothing balm for the troubled souls in the chaotic 1990s could well bring Russia’s reputation for scientific genius to its knees, if it is allowed to continue unchecked.
By Tom Balmforth