(RIA Novosti continues its six-part investigation into Russian sects and fringe beliefs with a look at the popularity of so-called magical services.)
MOSCOW, July 13 (Marc Bennetts for RIA Novosti) - The popular image of the Soviet Union is of a grey, monolithic state where belief in anything that failed to correspond to the teachings of Marx and Lenin was stamped out by brutal KGB agents.
However, beneath the secular surface, thousands of healers and sorcerers went about their age-old professions, practising ancient traditions that date back to pre-Christian Rus. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw these widespread beliefs in the magical and the paranormal rise rapidly to the surface.
From their humble beginnings of whispered recommendations, “magical services” have made the crossover into the mainstream. Estimates suggest there are over 100,000 occult practitioners in Russia, with the business worth some $10 million in Moscow alone.
The Tainaya Vlast (The Secret Power) semimonthly, with a print run of 250,000, is Russia’s most popular paper devoted to all things supernatural. However, if in the West, a similar newspaper would most likely be filled with adverts for New Age self-development courses and the like, Tainaya Vlast’s classifieds are of a much more down-to-earth nature, featuring ads offering to, among other things, “magically cure alcoholism and resolve family problems.”
“Ancient magical and mystical traditions of the Russian north. Business problems resolved!” reads another ad, in a breathtaking mixture of the magical and the mundane.
In a nod to the realities of 21st-century urban life, the vast majority of Russia’s professional occultists have their own Internet sites. The simply-named Magicheskie Uslugi (Magical Services) website is just one of them. “Curses - 100 euros, success in court - 20 euros,” offers the oddly flesh-coloured site, its pricelist stating that “all services will be fulfilled only after 100% pre-payment.”
The economic downturn that hit Russia hard towards the end of 2008 has also had an effect on the marketing techniques of modern occult gurus, with many proudly advertising “new anti-financial crisis magic!” Apart from the usual curses and love spells, many witches and wizards claim to be able to magically protect their clients against getting the sack by using their powers on unpleasant bosses, maintain pre-crisis salaries by bewitching the entire bookkeeping department, and even 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.”
“We don’t have the right, legally, to use the word magic in our adverts,” Mikhail, owner of an occult centre in the centre of Moscow told me. “I took the word magic off our advert and got a license.”
But why did the word “magic” cause so much offence when, say, the word “clairvoyant”, was fine?
“Ah, you know,” Mikhail went on. “Those officials. Around five years ago, there was a weird period, let’s call it a witch-hunt, 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.
Mikhail is an ex-Soviet air force pilot who, like many people in Russia around the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, got interested in the occult. However, he differed from most in that he set up his own business, hiring “people with special gifts” to work for him.
He was obviously doing well. His premises were plush, in one of Moscow’s most exclusive areas, and he seemed to have no shortage of clients.
“People in Russia are far more drawn to magical services than to psychiatrists or psychoanalysts,” Mikhail said. “They believe more in miracles than people in the West. And they really love a show.”
Mikhail introduced me to new employee, psychic healer Olga who had applied for a position after seeing the center’s program on a satellite TV channel.
“I came in for an interview, had a test, and they took me on,” she told me.
What exactly was a psychic healer, I asked. What did her powers consist of?
“I can see people’s illness, diagnose them, and cure them. It usually takes about five sessions.”
I had no interest in exposing Olga as a fraud, and, to be honest, I was not even sure that she was. She certainly seemed to believe in her abilities.
“My powers were discovered when I went on holiday with my school, back in the Soviet era,” Olga told me. “This was the era of Anatoliy Kashpirovsky, and that lot, and every sanitarium had its very own bio-energy therapist.”
As the Soviet Union entered its death throes, Kashpirovsky and his great rival, Alan Chumak, were state-approved psychics who appeared on national television, curing the nation of various illnesses through the power of the mind. Able at their height of their fame to fill stadiums all over the country, their individual weekly TV shows had the entire country captivated.
Kashpirovsky, clad all in black, his piercing eyes staring into flats across the USSR, “healed” millions, 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.
Chumak, a white-haired figure for whom the word eccentric could have been invented, was entirely the opposite. After a brief matter-of-fact introduction, he 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 flats.
“Anyway,” Olga continued, “I started to feel ill when I went to one of the bio-energy sessions, and afterwards the psychic told me that I should never attend again as I had my own powers.”
Had she been frightened, I wondered, by this sudden discovery of her gift?
“I remember feeling extremely interested,” she smiled. “My friends didn’t know that much about it, but my parents did. I used to take my mother’s headaches away.”
Olga also had her own theory as to the popularity of magical services in Russia.
“It’s much more interesting,” she said. “When you go to a psychoanalyst, you have to tell him your problems. Here, psychics and clairvoyants tell you your problems. That’s far, far better.”
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.