From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, Richer Than Oligarchs, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
“Hold up your hand, either one will do, it doesn’t matter,” Soviet-era psychic healer Allan Chumak tells me as we sit drinking tea and munching high-quality biscuits in his spacious central Moscow apartment.
“What do you feel?” he asks, his arms making what he describes as “passes” in the air in front of me.
I recognize his trademark moves from grainy clips of his two-decade-old Kremlin-sanctioned TV appearances, and it seems odd to suddenly find myself the subject of the “healing energy” he says is pouring from his fingertips.
But, aside from this, I feel absolutely nothing at all.
“A kind of coldness?” I suggest, not wanting to disappoint my host. After all, it’s extremely bad form to offend someone whose expensive snacks you are busy demolishing.
My answer is the right one. The white-haired psychic nods knowingly, and leans back ever so slightly in his chair. His hands cease their frantic wandering.
“You see?” he says, smiling.
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. Old women openly sold magical charms against AIDS in city markets. State journalists transformed overnight into wild-eyed psychic healers. Pravda ran horoscopes.
As the old reality was consigned to the rubbish dump of history, the unbelievable became commonplace and things that would once have been unimaginable were now being broadcast live to millions on national TV.
Former state journalist Chumak and Ukrainian-born psychotherapist Anatoly Kashpirovsky were the most famous of the many psychic healers, sorcerers and wizards who emerged during this period. The two men’s televised appearances were like nothing the Soviet Union had even seen, their shows emptying streets and drawing audiences of up to 300 million throughout Eastern Europe.
Kashpirovsky, dubbed the Black Force for his dark hair, clothes and sinister gaze, compelled his viewers in stentorian tones to rid themselves of their ailments.
“For those of you have high blood pressure, your blood pressure will fall,” he intoned. “For those of you with hip pains, the suffering will cease.”
The mild and even slightly effeminate Chumak - the Morning Star - was his mirror image, his lips mouthing silent spells as his hands darted back and forth in mid-air, “charging” with healing powers the water that Soviet citizens had dutifully placed around their TV sets.
This public passion for the paranormal that they inspired shows no signs of diminishing. Estimates suggest there are anywhere between 100,000 and a staggering 800,000 professional occultists in Russia today, with the business worth anywhere up to $2 billion.
“There has always been a colossal interest in the unknown,” Chumak tells me after I have put my hand down.
“People here had always gone to see ‘wise women’ in the villages to be cured of their illnesses. When the Soviet Union split up, when all the controls weakened, then, naturally enough, this interest moved into the mainstream.”
“There was a collapse of the entire way of thinking,” he adds, “and things that were once forbidden were suddenly permitted.”
But how, I want to know, did he kick off his career as a psychic healer? After all, it wasn’t the kind of thing that you could study at, say, an evening course. Especially in the Soviet Union.
“I was researching an article to expose as conmen all these healers that appeared in the 1980s. And I met some people who made me reconsider my opinions. Some genuine healers. They turned my world completely upside down.”
“After that, a voice began speaking to me, telling me that I too could treat people,” he goes on.
A voice? Male or female?
“Male,” Chumak says, not missing a beat.
“It gave me lessons for a year and a half. They were quite formal. Sixty minutes in all – a 45-minute lecture, 10 minutes of question and answer, with a five-minute break. I bought a notepad especially.”
“After I’d finished my course, the voice told me ‘your first patient will arrive tomorrow at 11 am.’ ‘How?’ I thought, after all no one knew me. But, sure enough, at the appointed hour, there was a ring on the door and a woman in her mid-fifties was waiting outside. ‘Are you Allan Chumak?’ she asked. ‘They told me you could cure me. I have a diseased liver…”
I find myself trying to see the world through Chumak’s eyes. A difficult task. He is either completely insane, the genuine thing, or an extremely good liar. Even though my hand refused to fall under his spell, I can’t be entirely certain which.
Psychic healer or charlatan, Chumak is at any rate an extremely pleasant host, and, spotting that my cup is almost empty, he refills it. He then lights a cigarette, coughing as he does so.
“I can cure myself, of course,” he says, anticipating my next question. “But not of everything. There is a limit.”
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.